Ray Richmond contributes to Deadline’s TV coverage.
Farhad Safinia has done quite well for a guy testing the rocky waters of series television for the first time. With only one other previous gig (co-writing the 2006 feature Apocalypto with star-producer-director Mel Gibson), the Iranian-born Safinia was not only able to persuade Kelsey Grammer to transform himself into a dramatic lead, he also talked Starz president and CEO Chris Albrecht into giving his political drama Boss a series order. And the rewards didn’t stop there. Boss earned a pair of Golden Globe nominations — for top drama and for Grammer as lead drama series actor — and a win for Grammer. Boss also snared a second season pickup last September, nearly a month before it even premiered (it returns to Starz for its second season on August 17). Safinia spoke with Awardsline about what it’s been like to create and run the show, and how he was able to convince the world that Grammer was no longer Dr. Frasier Crane but tough, corrupt Chicago Mayor Tom Kane.
AWARDSLINE: Tell us how Boss came to be.
FARHAD SAFINIA: I was introduced to Kelsey Grammer about two years ago and we sat down for coffee in a Beverly Hills hotel. Within five minutes of meeting him, it struck me that the persona the man projects is very different from the sort of comedic, slightly effete intellectual everyone knew him as. So I shared with him this idea I had to do a modern day takeoff on King Lear, with the same kind of dilemmas and themes that permeate that play. So I happened to mention to Kelsey, ‘Do you like King Lear?’ And he starts quoting the play back to me from memory. I was in shock. That’s how it started.
AWARDSLINE: So you literally were sold on Kelsey right there?
SAFINIA: Yes! Honestly. The man has this incredible dexterity and ease of instantaneous connection to the core emotion of what he’s saying. He’s not one of these guys who needs to research and ponder and work himself up to do something. Whether it’s a funny moment or a sad and tragic moment, you can see that boiling up in Kelsey’s face and his eyes. He’s just such a gifted communicator and actor.
AWARDSLINE: Even so, the show couldn’t have been a simple gestation.
SAFINIA: Oh no. It never is. But the thing I’m most proud of is the way this thing moved through the studio (Lionsgate Television produces the show) and the other players and producers in such an unadulterated fashion. Everyone clicked in immediately to what we were trying to do. That’s hugely rare.
AWARDSLINE: But everyone had to worry a little bit about typecasting. No one in TV history is more associated with a character than Grammer is with Frasier Crane.
SAFINIA: No question. We couldn’t ignore that. You can’t just say, well, this man’s an actor, people will forget. But ultimately, we all came to the conclusion that the baggage Kelsey came in with, as it were, didn’t affect the perception of the role. And in fact we were able to use his baggage as a positive. It made this character’s dastardly behavior all the more chilling.
AWARDSLINE: Boss has naturally been compared to The West Wing by critics. It’s even been called The Worst Wing. How do you think your show is different?
SAFINIA: I’m actually an enormous fan of West Wing. But it was much more a show about the effect of policy and ideology and how those play in a political context. But on our show, policy hardly matters at all. We’re far more interested in the mechanics and politics of the machine. Our agenda is to look at how these people interact and behave, and how they achieve their ends.
AWARDSLINE: Speaking of the mechanics of the machine, what’s it been like filming in Chicago?
SAFINIA: Logistically, it’s been astonishingly good. We have the best crew. They’re hugely experienced and extremely hard-working. And the people in the city are just fantastic. When we tell them this is a show about a corrupt mayor of Chicago, they just give you a sort of cynical shrug. I think we may be pushing too far, and they just slough it off. Been there, done that.
AWARDSLINE: What criticisms of Boss have you heard?
SAFINIA: Even as they embrace it, some people have been confused by what we’re trying to do with the show and they let us know. They want it to be the next The Wire or the next Sopranos. But those phenomenons have already happened and we’re trying to forge new territory here.
AWARDSLINE: Do you find that being on Starz has made it more difficult for Boss to be taken seriously? Certainly not by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.
SAFINIA: As far as the perception of the network is concerned, I don’t sense any negatives in being at Starz. Quite the contrary, Chris Albrecht is hoping to use our show to build the network and find an identity. And I think that’s more exciting than it is to go somewhere that has a hugely established reputation, because then you’re constantly playing against that reputation. Here, we have an opportunity to completely open the book.