Nearly at the mid-season mark, the Fall 2011 TV season has been a mixed bag of dead-to-rights clunkers and undeniable successes. On the negative front, hyped, eye candy programs Playboy Club and Charlie’s Angels drove home the point that sexy women can’t make up for bland scripts and shoddy characters—seriously, not even Amber Heard in skintight bunny costumes. Currently straddling the fine line between “good” and “red alert” are Terra Nova and Pan Am, a pair of intriguing shows marred by inconsistent quality; basically, they need to be more like Homeland and American Horror Story, two of the season’s brightest spots.
Joining those two triumphs in positive lane is Grimm, NBC’s cop procedural with a genre twist. Airing Friday nights at 9pm EST, Grimm follows detective Nick Burkhardt, played by first-time leading man David Giuntoli, as he comes to terms with his family’s lineage as “Grimms,” a secret order of heroes tasked with ridding the world of Brothers’ Grimm-inspired supernatural creatures in human disguises.
With its freaky villains, often hardcore gore, and splashes of dark comedy, Grimm flips TV’s traditional “case of the week” format into an immensely entertaining monster mash. Leading the charge is Giuntoli, a St. Louis native whose charming performance grounds the show’s craziness in character-driven reality. If Giuntoli looks familiar, it might be from his 2003 stint on MTV’s Road Rules: South Pacific, but Grimm’s strong ratings (the show, only three episodes deep, was recently included in NBC’s mid-season schedule) promise that his reality show past will soon become an afterthought.
Complex recently chatted with Giuntoli about his life before Grimm, why television executives can’t enough of procedural dramas, why Grimm is so unique, and the benefits of airing on an otherwise TV-light night.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
Even though Grimm is only in its beginning stages of Season One, you’re still filming the season’s latter episodes. How’s the story progressing so far?
It’s getting pretty wild, man. Basically, the way I see it is that the biggest aspects of the show are these two worlds that my character, Nick Burkhardt, is living in: this monster fighter by night, and cop by day. And he likes keeping those two worlds separate; he’d rather not have them at all. He just wants his normal life, but since they’re there he wants to keep them separate.
As the series goes on, obviously life doesn’t go that neatly, so the two worlds start to blend together, and it makes me very uncomfortable. [Laughs.] And my loved ones start to get threatened. The monsters aren’t going after perpetrators anymore—they’re going after me, and I’m always near my loved ones. So it’s like, How long can I keep this lie about my true background going?
So does the show transition into more of a central story and less of a weekly procedural format?
No, I wouldn’t say that. The show remains a procedural. I’d like to say that it’s getting weighted a little more now, at the end of our season order, toward the mythology of it. I’d say the beginning was largely procedural, but it’s still a procedural show; a crime does get solved every week. But some of the most fun of it is the mythology, and the story—who’s coming back for me, and which monsters work together? Who’s good? Who’s bad? Who’s reformed? And who’s reforming? All of that gray area is a really nice playground for us.
And it seems like NBC is on the verge of granting Grimm a full season and more of that playground. It must be especially gratifying for you, being that Grimm is your first shot as a leading man. Prior to landing the show, had you been plugging along on the pilot circuit for years?
Yeah, I was plugging along. I moved out to LA in 2005, from St. Louis, and that’s when I really started pursuing everything. I studied for a couple of years, and then I got an agent. After that, throughout the first three pilot seasons, I actually booked pilots, really great projects that just didn’t go for some reason. There’s no real math behind that or anything—some TV pilots make it and some don’t. That’s just how it is.
This is my first lead that I’ve ever booked; I’ve booked a lot of “series regular” roles, but never the main guy. This is the one where the magic happened, really. It’s a genre show with some great people behind it, and it’s all been miraculous for me, really. Everything that happens in Hollywood is miraculous—it’s so hard to get anything done.
During those years where you started making a name for yourself, were there any difficulties associated with coming from your time on MTV’s Road Rules
It really didn’t play a factor. No one really knew who I was. [Laughs.] No one really remembers me from that show. I think the only reason anyone remembers me, in fact, is because now people are looking at my resume and talking about me a little bit. But it wasn’t hard, no.
Some casting directors knew me—I’d say one out of ten recognized me from MTV. It had been four or five years since I’d done the show that I actually started auditioning. I did the show when I was 21, and I started auditioning when I was 26, so it had been a lot of time.
When you went on Road Rules, did you already know that you wanted to be an actor?
No, actually. It was funny, I was in a bar in Bloomington, Indiana, which is where I went to school, and they were auditioning people for something. I went up and was like, “What’s this about?” And the person said, “Do you want to audition for this thing? You’d get to travel in the South Pacific?” I did, and then I got it. It was pretty cool, but it was kind of a lark. So then I finished my degree in college, took some years off and figured out what I wanted to do.
The Road Rules experience was fun, though. I’d encourage any 21-year-old who’s not sure what they want to do with their life to do that, to benefit from traveling around—you learn quite a bit about yourself.
So what made you want to become an actor then?
It was kind of in me for a long time. My family knew what I wanted to do with my life before I did. [Laughs.] I just didn’t know it was a career path; I didn’t know that it was a viable thing. My family all works in corporate America in one way or another, just not in the arts. In college I started meeting people who were in the arts; they have a wonderful theater school and music school in Indiana University. So I started hanging around those people and I found my way. Then, it was all about taking a leap. I didn’t know anybody, I just went out to LA on a whim and hoped that it’d all sort itself out.
I went to school for finance and international business, so it couldn’t have been further removed from acting. [Laughs.]
When you first came across Grimm’s pilot script during the pilot hustle, what were your initial thoughts?
I thought it was really cool, man. I really liked the humor, I really liked the procedural elements, and I really liked the guys behind it. I was never a big genre fan, or a big genre guy, and I’ve played lawyers, boyfriends, and those types of characters in the past. So Grimm is so exciting; it’s me playing pretend with monsters. I go to work with ogres, and the guy behind me in the lunch line has four hours’ worth of troll prosthetics on while he’s talking about sports. [Laughs.]
TV certainly doesn’t have a shortage of procedural shows—it seems like every pilot season is filled with at least five or six new ones. Aside from Grimm, which adds a cool genre twist to the format, were you reading a ton of routine procedural scripts?
Yeah, and I think that those are out there so much because they work so well—they’re so palatable for the audience. Every season, shows try to stray from the procedural thing, and they’ll make it to air; look at Playboy Club, and Pan Am. Tons of serials make it to the air and want to be the next Lost or the next Mad Men. Unfortunately, it’s harder for audiences to get gripped and tune in every night for one of those shows, which makes it harder for those shows to become successes.
I think the reason why there are so many procedurals on the air is that it’s a matter of survival; those are the ones that have been surviving, so that’s what’s dominating our TV sets. The beauty of Grimm, obviously, is that it can satisfy that procedural desire but we also get to play around with it. That’s what Buffy The Vampire Slayer did, and that’s what Angel, and The X-Files did. It’s a really wonderful genre to be a part of.
The genre approach to TV shows seems more prevalent than ever these days, thanks to last year’s huge debut success of The Walking Dead. Do you get the sense that networks are more comfortable with taking chances of stranger genre shows than in years past?
Every pilot season there’s a couple of zeitgeist-y themes going on; this year, there was some fairy tale stuff, and also period pieces and comedies about guys being idiots. [Laughs.] There’s always something, and I don’t know what it is; obviously, right now fairy tales are one of them. I’ve heard people make guesses as to why that is, with some people saying that the times are tough and people like to escape into these fairy tale worlds. But I think people say that about every genre. [Laughs.] Because TV is generally a form of escapism.
There might be something to it, though. People like seeing the monster getting slain; they like seeing the bad guys go down. And what easier way in story-form to see that then when the bad guy looks like a monster? It’s so black-and-white.
You didn’t have any interest in trying out for any of those “guys being idiots” sitcoms?
[Laughs.] Well, there are various degrees of quality in “guys acting dumb” TV shows, and there’s nothing wrong with them. yeah, I love a great comedy, certainly, but that’s just one of those things that was hitting at the time. There were all of these scripts that basically said, in more words or less, “Men are idiots.” I don’t know, men are idiots.
At least your Grimm character isn’t. What is it about Nick Burkhardt that’s most interesting to you? In the episodes that have aired so far, he has this wide-eyed, still-in-shock quality to him—he’s yet to fully understand and accept the monsters he’s seeing on a daily basis.
Exactly. I love the idea of coming into a story with a character where the exciting incident happens about five pages into the series’ first episode. My life changes right away; you barely see me prior to his revelation. That really, really excited me, because it goes from “Am I insane?” to utter disbelief: “What is going on? This is horrifying—am I losing my mind?” And as the series progresses he goes through the grieving process, where he first denies it, he doesn’t accept it, he gets angry, and then he kind of succumbs to it and embody the role. That’s what so fun about my character. By the way, I’m sure I just maimed the stages of grieving process. [Laughs.]
That sounded pretty astute to me, so don’t sweat it. When you first landed the role, did you go back to the old Brothers Grimm tales and familiarize yourself with their monsters and sensibilities?
You know what? I did a little bit, but I didn’t do it that much. I wanted to discover everything as the show goes on. What I did acquaint myself with, though, was the thing that’s most foreign to me: working in a precinct. I did a ride-along, I read Homicide, and I tried getting into that world a little bit.
So how’d you prepare to arrest werewolves, trolls, and other bizarre monsters, then?
[Laughs.] Thankfully, that’s all in the scripts. What’s funny is that I don’t see anything a lot of the time; when the faces morph into monsters, it’s CGI, and I just see a person with little black dots on their faces for matching technology. But when it comes to extended scenes, they are in fact in full-on prosthetics, and those are always more fun.
And, dude, every crime scene in Grimm is more gruesome than the next. I swear to you, it’s worth watching just for that, in and of itself. In one of the episodes we’ve shot, at one point somebody’s body is completely eaten through by rats, and there are rats pouring out of his mouth. It’s totally disgusting. [Laughs.]
That’s the kind of thing we usually only see on the cable network shows, not NBC.
Yeah, man. I think we’re going to end up being the scariest thing on network television. Or, the most shocking, at least. I just think that people are drawn to suspense and fantasy, and our show marries those two genres so well, with that little sardonic humor that comes from our writers. I think just think that Grimm the perfect Friday night getaway.
In terms of TV shows, Friday night has this stigma where it’s looked upon as a tough night to corral viewers, yet Grimm has been performing quite well in its Friday time slot. Why do you think Friday night works for the show?
Friday is great, because you don’t have to have 20 million viewers. That makes us all feel very relaxed; we can have fun with it as actors. I can’t speak for the writers and creators, I know they’re churning away as hard as they possibly can, but I think you can take more risks on a Friday night. You don’t need to get those giant numbers, so you can go to places that other shows can’t or won’t go, and so far we couldn’t be happier.