When this writer was growing up in Middletown, New York, a group of neighborhood kids would get together and play tag, basketball and various other games that would result in skinned knees and sweaty shirts. We would take over backyards and the street (remember, this was before smartphones and video game consoles weren't all consuming) as the group fluctuated in size.
Eventually, as it is life, people fall out of contact thanks to age, proximity and other factors…until you walk into a hotel conference room to interview one of them. Aaron Tveit, the star of CBS's BrainDead, the new drama from The Good Wife creators Robert and Michelle King, was in my brother's year in school and once had a place in that summer game clan. Fast forward 20 years, he's now an accomplished actor and sitting on the other side of the table, answers to my questions at the ready.
In the new series, which is about alien bugs that eat the brains of politicians in Washington, DC (yup!), Tveit, who's fresh off starring as Danny Zucko in Grease: Live, plays Gareth Ritter, the Legislative Director to Senator Red Wheatus (Tony Shalhoub). It's a character that jumped off the page to him, particularly the character's work ethic.
"I think he's just a guy who kind of believes in these old school Republican ideals of you work hard in this country, you should be allowed to have your version of the American dream. That is his core belief, which is a very Teddy Roosevelt Republican view that doesn't really exist anymore in our climate. [Mary Elizabeth Winstead's] character is from this political family and she chooses to go elsewhere and comes back. This guy is not from a political family. He's from a small town in the Midwest, his parents struggled, and so he's somebody who's had to work really hard to get where he is," he said. "He kind of has this work ethic that's just lying underneath everything. And that's something I really relate to and totally key in on, that he doesn't like to leave anything to chance. He likes to work as hard as he can to make sure he's in position for whatever happens. That's definitely something I can relate to and admire about him. I admire his idealism in that way."
It's a work ethic that took him from the stages of Middletown High School to Broadway with roles in Catch Me If You Can and Next to Normal, the big screen in Howl and Les Misérables, to guest roles on quintessential New York dramas Law & Order: SVU and Gossip Girl and eventually to a role on The Good Wife, where he worked with the Kings. All this before starring roles on Graceland and Fox's Grease: Live.
"I guess I'm always kind of just looking for interesting characters. I was familiar with the Kings because I did an episode of The Good Wife a long time ago, so I knew them and knew the casting director really well. Again, it's a show they're doing of this kind of caliber on CBS, it had all those things going for it. I just thought this guy was really interesting, even though he's a Republican, he's kind of an old school Republican in the way we don't see anymore. Coming off a show, even though I was playing a really smart whatever, he was kind of the new guy. What appealed to me about this was this guy was kind of already at the height of what he's doing, in the middle of it. I really liked that, how good he was at his job and then of course the way that they were able to kind of comment on what's happening in the world through the guise of these bugs. We can kind of get away with a lot. I thought there was a long way to go, which is always good for television. You need places for all the characters to go and the story to go."
BrainDead is certainly saying something about today's political circus, the first episode features a government shutdown with the Republican and Democratic parties at war, but at the same time it's an outlet for audiences, Tveit said.
"I think it's a bit of escapism. Anything that's kind of heightened or larger than life can be a way to kind of look at what's actually happening and laugh at it," he said. "And just separate yourself from it. That's what's great about these summer series, to just go on this little ride and see how it goes. With this, the reality is so kind of tough and depressing that if you can find anyway to laugh at it is good, so hopefully people can use this to laugh at it."
There is no pro-Republican or pro-Democrat message here, he said. "I think if there is a political statement it's about what extremism can do to basically prohibit things happening in government," Tveit said. And yes, this message is delivered through alien bugs who eat people's brains.
"Just keep an open mind because it's so off-the-wall. Also, it's not a typical broadcast network television show. They're really pushing the boundary of what they typically do on the primetime networks. It's much more of a cable show that they happen to be doing on CBS," he said when asked what fans should know before tuning in. "So many people, I think, tune in to shows that are limited on cable because they assume that most broadcast primetime things are just procedurals. This is not like that. It's much more like a show you'd see on a smaller network, I guess."
BrainDead premieres Monday, June 13 at 10 p.m. on CBS.