Playing a homeless veteran who is fraught with post-traumatic stress syndrome is not what Steven Weber would ever have expected of a Hallmark Movie Channel acting assignment. However, that’s just the role the “Brothers & Sisters” and “Wings” star wound up with in his April 28 drama “Duke.”
“It’s not the standard Hallmark fare. It was a deeper, darker Hallmark – but still appeals, I think, to their core audience,” Weber says. Taken from real life, “Duke” is the story of the troubled veteran and his faithful companion of 10 years, a Border Collie named Duke – and the unexpected chain of events set in motion when the dog falls ill.
“I’d been playing mostly bad guys in suits in recent years, so it was a chance to go deeper,” notes the actor. “It was a great role full of amazing opportunities, selfishly speaking, to chew the scenery a little bit, and share scenes with an amazing dog.”
Unfazed by the old axiom that actors should avoid scenes with kids or dogs, Weber found himself working with two canines in the title role. “Zeek was the dog that played Duke 90 per cent of the time. He performed beautifully, a true professional,” Weber reports. “His trainers were invariably running off-screen and prompting him. It was interesting. Of course, he is a dog, and you have to be very patient; he didn’t hit the target all the time. But thankfully there were a few instances when the camera was running and caught some genuine connection between him and I, which was really nice.”
Weber considers himself “a dog lover, but indirectly. I have two children, nine and 11, who are beginning to bug my wife and me for a dog. But the lifestyle – our work has had us going all over the country, and it wouldn’t be fair to leave a dog.” Right now, the boys are apparently making do with “the frog we bought at the Sharper Image that stays under water for two years” – which sounds like a real dud as a pet, if you ask us. “No, it’s not,” Weber insists, dead-pan. “They feed him and he has a nice view and it’s a lovely deal.”
But he admits his sons are gaining ground in their dog lobbying. The fact they heard all about “Duke” and Zeek during production — but couldn’t join Weber on location because of school — “is something they’re really using against me.”
With ABC’s new “Happy Town” wreaking its own brand of havoc on Minnesota’s friendly image, Steven Weber makes it clear he knows that the real Land of 10,000 Lakes is “a lovely place. I don’t think they’ll take the show personally,” he adds, smiling. “Certainly people could ascribe all sorts of meaning to it as a metaphor – as the dark underbelly of the United States, for instance.”
Actually, more people are likening the moody mystery series to “Twin Peaks.” The show turns on a series of unsolved kidnappings in an outwardly serene Minnesota hamlet. “I’ve worked on several Steven King projects and I’ve had, I guess, a taste for this kind of stuff since I was a kid — spooky stuff,” says Weber, who starred in the TV miniseries version of “The Shining,” and did a turn on “Nightmares and Dreamscapes.” That is, of course, in addition to his eclectic collection of Broadway, film and TV credits ranging from “The Producers” to “Wings.”
The 48-year-old actor notes, “I was looking for a role that interested me rather than a show. At my advanced age I want things that I can sink my teeth into. Not the affable womanizing guy, I’ve done that. I’ve done a lot of pricks in suits as I call them. I think I think the fact that this guy has a genuinely tragic core — even though the show has a kind of a supernatural cast to it — there’s something very basic and terrifying in a real sense about him. He’s suffering through the loss of a child. He’s obsessed by the vacuum created by the child’s disappearance. Especially being a father myself, it’s a terrifying thought for me.”
He was also attracted to the “Happy Town” cast including Sam Neill and Frances Conroy. “I’m very interested in collaboration, in a communal creative process, especially with guys who’ve had such varied and successful careers.”
A GOOD VINTAGE OF FANS: Fred Willard got a surprise last week when he answered his door and found a group of visitors from France there waiting for him. “They’d hunted me up somehow and brought me a bottle of wine, and asked for my autograph. There were four men and a woman. They said they were big fans. One of them said to me, ‘It is a pleasure to you.’ And his friend corrected him and said, ‘It is a pleasure to MEET you.’ It was very nice but I wouldn’t want things like that to happen too often,” admits the funnyman.
Well, no, but Willard’s getting another jolt of TV exposure the next two weeks, including turning up as Ty Burrell’s character’s father on “Modern Family” this week. “I’m a little cornier than Ty, I think, but you can see the connection,” Willard tells us. Seen previously in a quick Skype holiday phone call, Willard’s character now appears in the flesh, having driven his van from Florida across the country to give his beloved dog away to his son and family. “My character’s wife in allergic to the dog,” he lets us know.
Will Dad be back?
“They said it’s possible. The trouble is my character lives in Florida. I suggested they go down to Disney World for a week. Ty loved the idea.”
Willard does a whole different type of turn on NBC’s “Chuck” next Monday (5/3). He and Swoosie Kurtz play a married couple of spies sent by the government to teach Chuck (Zachary Levi) old school spying techniques. “But we seem to double cross and triple cross them – and so much for spy lessons.” He adds, “It’s the kind of role I’ve always wanted to play. Not out-and-out funny. And I just loved working with Swoosie.”
FROM THE INSIDE LOOKING OUT: Victoria Justice, who many might remember from “Zoey 101,” now has her own television show, Nickelodeon’s “Victorious,” in which she plays a singer at a performing arts school. The 17-year-old tells us that with her new busy schedule, she’s trying to find the right balance between being a teenager and being a working actress, but so far, so good.
“The show takes up 95 percent of my time but it gives me some time to hang out with friends or go out to dinner with my cast. Sometimes it’s tough because friends will be like, ‘Hey, do you want to go to a movie,’ and I have to say no because I have an interview or have to learn lines or I have rehearsal, but I love doing what I do and I think I would be bored if I wasn’t doing it,” says Justice. “I’m most happy when I’m on set or when I’m at home hanging out with my family or friends and I don’t have to worry about wearing makeup or being all dressed up.”
In fact, she claims her life couldn’t be any less Hollywood. “I live a pretty normal life. It’s not all glamorous or anything like that. Plus, I have a great support system. They’re never going to let me think I’m better than anybody because it’s just ridiculous to go there.”
CASTING CORNER: They’re rounding out the cast for – why? – Johnny Knoxville’s “Jackass 3.” Among the roles still being set: a “hottie babe of a girl” who’s a quick thinker with a comedy background; an older woman with comedy experience to play a grandmother; and another funny femme to play “an overweight, loose woman.” For the latter, they want either a “white trash or African-American mama.” You can just tell what the movie’s going to be like already, can’t you?
With reports by Emily-Fortune Feimster