In Part 2 of our exclusive interview with actor Stephen Tobolowsky, he talks more about his role as Dr. Leslie Berkowitz on Pop TV’s ONE DAY AT A TIME – the normally live-action comedy that is airing a new animated episode on Tuesday, June 16 – as well as his podcast, THE TOBOLOWSKY FILES. This update of ONE DAY AT A TIME is developed by Gloria Calderon-Kellett & Mike Royce, and has original 1975-1984 ONE DAY AT A TIME co-creator Norman Lear as one of its executive producers.
ASSIGNMENT X: Can you say how the relationship between your character and Rita Moreno’s Lydia has changed over the course of ONE DAY AT A TIME?
STEPHEN TOBOLOWSKY: I would say that between Lydia and Dr. Berkowitz, my character, there’s a lot more truth-telling. There’s not so much positional politeness, there’s not so much courtesy, there’s not so much “Let me take you out, because you’re unattached and I’m unattached.” There’s real sharing that’s in a way intimate about my life. And Rita, who always talks about her life on the show, often tells things to be the grande dame holding court. This season, she tells me some things for my benefit specifically, and to me that shows a growing intimacy.
AX: Does more knowledge of Lydia affect Dr. Berkowitz’s dealings with Justina Machado’s character Penelope, Lydia’s daughter?
TOBOLOWSKY: Yes. It affects everything, because for example, I know Lydia loves the opera, and I love the opera, I’m going to want to take Rita’s character to the opera all the time, and whenever the kids mention the slightest interest, I’m thinking, “If I get the kids interested in opera, it’s going to bring Lydia to be with the grandkids more, and want to be there and be with me more.” So it affects my motivations on everything. The pull with Penelope is a little different, because I’m also her boss, so there’s a connection there. But the love connection I have goes through Penelope, because Penelope is the head of that household, and I know that to be a more frequent visitor in that household to be with Lydia, Penelope is the boss, so it’s a role reversal.
AX: Is Leslie Berkowitz concerned that Lydia’s going to break his heart?
TOBOLOWSKY: I’m always concerned that me as Berkowitz with that, because that’s kind of been what I’ve gone through in my life as Berkowitz, and my relationship with her. I have not a lot of positive reinforcement.
AX: Even though Norman Lear is not a writer on this ONE DAY AT A TIME, although he is an executive producer, the show has that Norman Lear quality of taking tough topics and making them something that a viewing audience can absorb easily, without feeling like they’re being schooled …
TOBOLOWSKY: And he does it with humor, and he always does it with heart, and he never lectures. He never pretends like he’s on a pulpit. He just throws it out with a joke, and it changes your heart. I was telling Norman before, he changed my entire life. When I was a kid watching his shows, I got a whole different view of the world and humanism through watching his shows, but through laughing. And I shared with Norman how, whenever I see him, I think of my mother in the living room, wiping tears of laughter from her eyes, watching Norman’s shows, and I thought about how much joy he gave my mother. And I got, “Well, screw the message. I’d rather my mother have tears of joy laughing.” And it just so happens, I think Norman’s shows have beautiful, humanistic messages. Thank goodness he’s not a Satanist, or we’d all be wearing devil horns now [laughs]. But he has a beautiful spirit, and a wisdom that he passes on through comedy. So we just have to keep people laughing, and it will work, it all works.
AX: The Latinx community does not get to see itself prominently in many television shows. Do you have a sense with ONE DAY AT A TIME that you’re servicing an under-serviced audience?
TOBOLOWSKY: Maybe, but I have to say, ONE DAY AT A TIME dealing with topical things, that’s been the history of entertainment. Moliere did it – he talked about abuses in the medical industry, he talked about hypocrisy in the Church in TARTUFFE. Aristophanes did it with his antiwar LYSISTRATA. It’s the history of showbiz. So this is no different. It’s not breaking any new ground that way. The thing is, it is such a funny show, and it is so true and heartbreaking. It’s a beautiful show. So we can say whatever we want [laughs], but as soon as we stop being funny, and being truthful, and being heartbreaking, no one’s going to care about any message that we have. Because then it becomes a TED talk.
What’s so beautiful is, I was at the theater, seeing a completely different play. A woman comes up to me and says, “I love ONE DAY AT A TIME. It’s my favorite show I’ve ever seen.” She says, “Justina Machado is the hero I wish I could be in my life.” And she says, “I love Isabella Gomez [as Penelope’s daughter Elena], because she is so brave.” You do that, you make a difference. You do that, you show courage, which is very difficult to show without doing it stupidly, like in some kind of Bruce Willis movie, where you shoot down airplanes. If you do it in little ways, like being brave at the grocery store, brave when you’re shopping, at the school, or buying shoes – everybody deals with loneliness in the show, which is a mofo. Everybody knows, dealing with loneliness, it chomps us, it chomps at our soul. This show takes on loneliness.
AX: When you shoot out of order, do you at least have all the scripts?
TOBOLOWSKY: No. And this is what’s amazing. On SILICON VALLEY, they would tell you what’s going to happen at the beginning of the season. You knew where the whole thing was going. ONE DAY AT A TIME, not only are we shooting out of order, but we have no idea where anything’s going. I’ve been on shows where they do that, and there is a value to it. I’ve been on more shows than not that don’t tell you where it’s going, because they don’t want the actors to [give out spoilers] in any way – loose lips sink ships, they tip their hand or whatever – and on SILICON VALLEY, we were told under no uncertain terms, you do not reveal any plot points of what’s going to happen in any script. And I’m just certain if you violated that, especially a show like that operates on surprises in the script, you would be hung from the highest mast. ONE DAY AT A TIME operates on more of an emotional through-line.
AX: So it’s not extremely serialized …
TOBOLOWSKY: No, except there are plot points.
AX: For the first three seasons, the new ONE DAY AT A TIME was on Netflix, where the season dropped all at once. Now you’re on Pop TV, so new episodes come out once a week …
TOBOLOWSKY: [When ONE DAY AT A TIME was on Netflix], dropping the whole series at once made the writers write as if their show is a novel. Because people are seeing the whole thing in sequence, all at once. Norman likes shows that come out once a week, he said, because having [the show as] an event is a special thing that every night, this is what’s going to happen. We’re going to see ONE DAY AT A TIME this night, ALL IN THE FAMILY this night. Everyone gathers around the water cooler the next day. So there is a definite emotional through-line that’s developing with the characters.
AX: Do you have any favorite ONE DAY AT A TIME scenes or episodes from what we’ve seen so far?
TOBOLOWSKY: I love the scenes where, I think it’s the school bazaar, I tell Rita I don’t care that she doesn’t love me, that I’m going to continue to love her, because we only have this one time spinning on this little Earth of ours, and I would rather be in love with her and get nothing in return than to live a different kind of life. I love that scene. I loved the scene where I make the speech about being a coward – it’s always good to be a coward, we’re alive and report on what the dead heroes did. We survive, we continue. It was a great speech they wrote for me, and I loved doing that.
AX: Are you working on writing any more books now?
TOBOLOWSKY: I write all the time. Kindle Shorts was doing a special series where they just wanted short stories, so I did one for them that was just electronic. I’ve been doing is writing for the podcast, THE TOBOLOWSKY FILES. We’re on iTunes, I believe we’re on Spotify. I think NPR has us on their list of podcasts. In fact, in 2018, it was voted by NPR as one of the top five podcasts.
TOBOLOWSKY: Thank you. Especially since I didn’t know anyone knew about it. But, and you know this, too, as a writer, Vince said, “I don’t want you to worry about editing now. I want you just to write, and get to the end, and then go back and cut out everything. Get to the end before you start pulling it back.” And so that was a great lesson to learn.
AX: THE TOBOLOWSKY FILES is nonfiction?
TOBOLOWSKY: Yes. I was affected a lot by Charles Dickens and Maxim Gorky. Charles Dickens wrote these books in which he has miniature stories within a large story. And I like that style. And Maxim Gorky, in writing MY CHILD, he doesn’t write in sequence. So he has the middle first, the beginning later, the end in the middle, and it’s fascinating the way that works out. So I’m writing true stories from my life, how I became an actor, and the people I know, but at the same time, it brings in all sorts of different [stories] that happened in my life, and what I learned from it, but all without a border.
AX: Do you have any other projects going on that we should know about?
TOBOLOWSKY: I keep doing THE GOLDBERGS, I’ve played the same part for them for six years. It’s like being in a war, show after show after show, and so I’m looking forward to resting up, getting my wits together. Here’s something interesting that Rita said – when you do sitcom, you are learning how to forget lines, not how to remember them. I did a play, A SPANISH PRAYER BOOK [in 2019]. It was a brilliant Jewish play, and I got to play a rabbi in the 1940s in Germany, who was trying to save a prayer book from the Nazis burning it, and ended up realizing that the librarian is pregnant, and I end up having to save her. The play completely started reconfiguring my brain. Because when you do a show like ours, you have to learn it, then forget it. And the forgetting holds more strongly with you. And as you do it for a long period of time, it is harder to remember your lines. So doing a play really helped.
AX: And what would you most like people to know about this season of ONE DAY AT A TIME?
TOBOLOWSKY: Full of surprises. Even surprises me when we read the scripts [laughs]. And amazingly – when you do sitcoms, everybody loves Act 1 of the stories. They’re the easiest thing to write. Act 2s are very difficult. Season 2 of ONE DAY AT A TIME had the energy and the courage to take all the groundwork that was set in Season 1 and continue the story in a real way, without necessarily saying, “Let’s start all over again.” If you take a look at Seasons 1 and 2 as like an Act 1, where we laid out the ground rules of who these people are – we know Elena is gay, we know what it’s like at Alex’s [Penelope’s son, played by Marcel Ruiz] school, and what Penelope’s goals are of becoming a nurse practitioner, and Schneider [played by Todd Grinnell] and Lydia and Dr. Berkowitz. This season is so much taking the consequence of the decisions of their lives to the next level. Are those decisions going to be shared? Are they going to create new problems? How are people going to live with the way they’ve chosen to live their lives?
So far, this season I think is pretty big on comedy, and there are some moments that will grab at your heart. We’re sitting there watching the shows, and the audience is just gigantic extended laughter. The first two seasons, we filled the audience with people who were wanting to see a show. Now, the gates open, and the ONE DAY AT A TIME fans come and fill the theater, so we have this audience now that knows everything about the show. They are fan boys and girls, they love the show, they shout, scream, and holler. It’s like going to STAR WARS. As actors, we love it, but Gloria told me that in some of the shows, they’ve had to cut out the audience response [from the soundtack], because there’s too much laughter, too much “Ohs” and “Ahs,” and shocks and screams, too much audience response.
This interview was conducted during Pop TV’s portion of the Winter 2020 Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour.
Article Source: Assignment X
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