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Joel Gretsch

Joel Gretsch

Standing Up to the Visitors

by Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2010 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: March 29, 2010.  

Joel Gretsch never planned to become a sci-fi star, but somehow he keeps getting pulled inexplicably in that direction.  In a decade-plus career that has spanned movies like The Legend of Bagger Vance, The Emperor’s Club and National Treasure: Book of Secrets, Gretsch has always been open to a wide range of roles.

It was Steven Spielberg who first saw Gretsch’s potential in genre productions – first tapping him for a role in the film Minority Report and then following it up with a splashy villain role in the miniseries Taken.

These led to a four-year run as the star of USA Network’s popular sci-fi drama The 4400 – in which Gretsch played a federal agent in charge of investigating thousands of humans who were abducted by aliens and given odd new powers when they were returned to Earth en masse, years after their abductions.  The series touched on fascinating themes and subjects like drug abuse, governmental corruption and religious fanaticism – making some trenchant points on the world we live in by looking through the prism of fantasy.

Still, Gretsch has left himself open to non-genre roles, recently playing Angie Harmon’s love interest on the series Women’s Murder Club and doing a funny guest starring role on the popular cable drama Burn Notice.

The 4400 creator Scott Peters lured Gretsch back into the sci-fi fold.  Gretsch’s latest role has the potential to be his greatest.  He plays Father John, a freedom-fighting priest in the splashy ABC remake of the 1980s cult-fave series V.  The story of what happens when aliens make contact with Earth, Gretsch plays an honest and giving man of the cloth who comes to realize that the aliens are not the peaceful beings they claim, eventually joining the resistance determined to save the human race.

Less than a week before the return of V, Gretsch was nice enough to take the time to call us and discuss his new series and his career.

Joel Gretsch of 'V.'How did you get started in acting?

I saw a film a long, long time ago.  It was a night I couldn’t sleep.  I was in high school.  The movie just moved me so much and I liked it.  I got fascinated by how they could make me feel the way that I did.  Then I went and saw a play in Minneapolis.  I saw Death of a Salesman.  I sat in the theater going: God, this is amazing.  I was interested in how that occurred.  How did somebody perform and make me feel the way I did.  I started studying.  I took some acting classes and went on from there. 

A lot of your more successful work has been in the Sci-Fi genre.  Do your personal tastes skew that way as well, or has that just been sort of a coincidence?

A coincidence.  I think the first stuff that I did, stuff that I really was passionate about like The Legend of Bagger Vance or The Emperor’s Club – I loved those stories.  I always felt as an actor if I was so emotionally connected to the story, a part, then I really could contribute.  I always felt more confident going into the meetings.  I really feel like I can do something with this.  Then, it just went on with my career.  I was doing Taken with Spielberg – I loved the story.  I loved the role.  I played a bad guy in it, so that was just a great part for me.  When we won an Emmy doing that with Spielberg, I thought, where do you go from there when it comes to sci-fi?  Then my agent sent me a script for The 4400.  I actually first said no.  He goes, “Just trust me.  Just read it.”  I thought it was really a great character thing.  My daughter was just born and the idea of a TV series sounded pretty decent.  (laughs)  A steady income.  Then the show ended up being a really great ride for four years.  The creator of that was Scott Peters.  Then he was writing V after we ended.  He said, “What are you doing?  There’s this part for Father Jack.”  Scott Peters is one of the great, great guys in the business.  So I met with him and it worked out in my favor to get the part. 

Well you just mentioned doing Taken with Spielberg.  You also did Minority Report with him.  What was he like to work with and do you know how you got onto his radar?

Dreamworks did The Legend of Bagger Vance and Spielberg from what I understand watches the dailies of every project Dreamworks is doing.  He’s one of those guys – him and Jeffrey Katzenberg – that is just watching everything.  They are very much in tune with what is going on with everything that they are working.  Steven said to me on the set of Minority Report, “When I was watching the dailies, I knew that we would work together some time.”  I was so flattered, considering who he is and being such a huge fan of his work.  Then he said, “You know, there’s this miniseries I think you’d be wonderful in.”  So it just worked out.  I remember the first day on Minority Report, there’s three actors.  We’re all on the set.  I remember going to the set, going, oh my gosh, Steven Spielberg.  Steven Spielberg!  We get to the set and he started talking about the scene.  His enthusiasm about what the scene was about and doing the scene – he was like a kid.  And such a peer.  He doesn’t make anybody feel any different than you are.  We are just here to create the best possible storytelling.  I found that to be true to most of the successful people that I’ve worked with.  Robert Redford was like that [making The Legend of Bagger Vance].  Just being onboard was like… we’re going to tell a great story here.  And we’re all going to do it together.  It was terrific.  It could not have been better, to be honest with you.  It was really one of the highlights of my career.

Joel Gretsch of 'V.'You are mostly known for TV work, but you’ve done a lot of good movies as well – like Minority Report, The Legend of Bagger Vance, even National Treasure: Book of Secrets more recently.  Do you have any preference?  How is working in TV different than film?

The main thing, from a creative standpoint, is when you do a film, you read the script and see the beginning, middle and end of your character.  There is a beginning to an end, so you can plot your way through from your character’s standpoint.  On television, you’re getting the next script and you don’t know where you’re going.  You can sit down with the writers or the show runner and sort of get an idea where they are going, but they are breaking the scripts only a couple of scripts ahead.  So, you don’t know.  That can be a good thing or a bad thing.  In some ways you want to know.  Because, wait a second, if I knew that this person was my brother (laughs) I would have played it differently two episodes ago.  Yet, in some ways it’s nice not knowing.  From the standpoint of an actor with a family: two kids and my wife, it’s nice that television goes on for a while.  Hopefully we can do a series for a long time.  I’m hoping that way for V, because it’s a joy to work on.  It’s nice to have stability in this business. 

I’ve got to say I was a huge fan of The 4400 – which lasted for four years.  What was that like to be involved in and how did you get into it?  I know you said earlier working with Scott [Peters], but how exactly did that come about?

You know, pretty basic.  I got the script from my agent.  I read it.  I liked it.  Went in for the meeting and then met with people over at the USA Network and got the part.  It’s such a ride as an actor, because you really don’t know.  Sometimes you are going for a pilot.  In this business – first of all it’s hard to get a pilot, then you get a pilot and you don’t know if it’s going to go.  If it goes, just to get past the first season…. It’s a very small percentage that gets to go on like that.  The 4400 was a great job to sink your teeth in.  To do a show for four years, you got to find a balance really fast with your personal life and work – because it’s all-consuming when you’re doing a series.  But it was great.  Fortunately enough, I’ve been working with really great people.  For The 4400, I got to work with Jacqueline McKenzie, who is just delightful and smart as a whip and a great person to be with every day.  Now with V, I’ve been around long enough to know that when some things go well, you really appreciate it.   I really appreciate this show.  Elizabeth Mitchell is about as delightful as any actor I’ve ever been around.  And I can say that pretty much about everybody.  Plus, we are telling V – a series that came from the 80s that had a great following and now we’re piggybacking that into this re-imagined version.  Things are looking pretty good for us.  I hope we air next Tuesday and it airs well.

Joel Gretsch, Lourdes Benedicto, Logan Huffman, Elizabeth Mitchell, Morena Baccarin, Scott Wolf, Morris Chestnut of 'V.' (l. to r.)Were you familiar with the original series V before getting this job? 

Some of it.  I think it was always… I knew some of it, I remember seeing some stuff about like when the baby was born and it freaked me out.   I didn’t watch the whole thing, but I was definitely aware of it. 

Have you seen any of it since then, or are you avoiding it to keep the new one fresh from the older one?

I YouTube it every once in a while.  In the beginning when I first got it, I did.  Thank goodness for YouTube out there – you can do this stuff.  But they were telling a whole different thing.  Post 9/11 the world has changed.  CGI and technical stuff we have at our availability has changed.  But, no, I didn’t watch a lot of it.  I totally appreciate it, though. 

What are some of the interesting challenges of playing a priest?

I think the main thing, besides being just a priest, is that Father Jack is really well-intended.  He’s really – from the standpoint of why somebody does become a priest – you do it for the intention of really helping someone.  Helping people, spiritual guidance or relationship to their higher power.  I think Father Jack definitely brings out the best part of me, the guy playing it.  He thinks twice before he’s going to hurt somebody.  (laughs)  He’s a good man.  He’s the moral compass of the show, to a certain degree.  He definitely stands for what is right and wrong… and wanting to do what’s right.  He’s fallible.  He’s a man, he makes mistakes.  He’s a real rounded person, he’s not just this imagination of what a priest is supposed to be like.  Jack is well-intended, but he’s a man.  He makes mistakes and he has a past.  He screws up, but he definitely wants to do the best and right thing. 

Joel Gretsch and Elizabeth Mitchell of 'V.'You mentioned earlier it was fun playing a bad guy in Taken.  About a year or so ago I interviewed Megalyn Echikunwoke [who played The 4400 villain Isabelle Tyler] and she said it was much more fun to play the bad guy.  As someone who has played both, what do you think?

I think every actor loves to play the bad guy.  It’s like you can do no wrong.  It skews the boundaries.  You get to play the little mischievous bad boy.  (laughs)  It’s fun, to a degree.  It just seems there’s less restriction a lot of times.

The 4400 did have a pretty definitive ending in certain ways, but there were other things left open.  Were they always planning on finishing up at the end of the fourth year or were there some rumors flying around the set about what might happen in a potential fifth season?

I don’t know if there were new storylines to go on, but I think it just came down to the ratings.  If we would have ended still strong at the end, we would have came back.  I just think that we lost our fan base.  It just petered out that way.

As you mentioned, Scott Peters created both The 4400 and now V.  Did the working relationship with him the first time around make V a more attractive scenario to you? 

Totally.  Absolutely.  I know what Scott is capable of doing and I knew he was going to write something that was very fascinating.  Not something one-dimensional.  He’s a very passionate man, Scott Peters.  So, I knew going into it that it was going to be a good show.  I also knew that the pilot was directed by Yves Simoneau.  Yves Simoneau directed the pilot of The 4400.  I knew how talented he was… or is.  I knew going into it – I actually said this to another actor, the last time we met with the studio at network, I said this show is going to go.  These two are just too good.  Plus, we have V.  It’s a franchise.  It was a successful show in the 80s.  So, we had a lot going in our favor. 

On the other hand, the storyline of V is somewhat similar to that of The 4400.  Were you afraid you may get pigeonholed as an actor?

(sighs)  Yeah, you’re pigeon-holed until you get the next job.  I don’t… you know, it’s not Diff’rent Strokes.  (laughs)  Or, I shouldn’t say that… any show.  I think V being a drama and before I was an FBI – or NTAC – agent, now I’m playing a priest.  But, you never can control what [happens].  I remember doing Taken, playing the bad guy.  Then I got The 4400 and then after that I went on a meeting and somebody said, “Yeah, I don’t think he can play a bad guy.”  Then the casting director said, “Did you see him in Taken?  He was about as bad a guy as I’ve ever seen.”  (laughs again)  People forget fast, but you have no control over that.  You just show up and try to do the best work you can.

Joel Gretsch of 'V.'I was also a fan of your series Women’s Murder Club a couple of years ago – in fact I also interviewed Aubrey Dollar from the show – and was surprised it never got a real shot after the writer’s strike.  Were you surprised when the show was cancelled?

Yeah, I don’t know.  I think the timing of that show might have hurt it – being around the writer’s strike.  Angie Harmon is a very talented actress.  But that’s the business.  There’s really no rhyme or reason why some things stay and some things don’t.  Sometimes shows will start out not so great in the ratings and they hang with it and it builds up to a huge success.  I think you have to find your legs as a new show.  You have to find your way.  I know that we’ve done that.  Like every show, you find that the writers are getting used to you, you’re getting used to the writers.  The studio and network is trying to figure out all this stuff.  It’s a very complex business.  It’s a very competitive business out there right now.  As for Woman’s Murder Club, it was a great premise, a great group of people.

I’m also a big fan of Burn Notice Was that a fun show to guest on?

Oh it was.  Jeffrey Donovan is a hoot. 

Yeah, he is.  I interviewed him recently, too…

He’s a character.  And a good golfer, by the way…  He’s a good guy.  He’s one of the good guys out there.  It’s a good show.  USA has found their little niche with their way of telling stories.  That is definitely a great show, and I think a lot of it falls on the shoulders of the success for Jeffrey and the rest of the cast.  They do a beautiful job on the show. 

Last I saw on V, your character had been stabbed.  Obviously, he survives or we wouldn’t be talking – but without giving away any big spoilers, does he get better and is he able to go back to helping the resistance? 

Well, I do make it.  (laughs)  And I make it in a very interesting way.  Something happens to me while I’m in the process which is fascinating a lot of the fans.  Something gets established right out of the gate, the first episode on next Tuesday that is going to set the tone for Jack for a while. 

Joel Gretsch and Elizabeth Mitchell of 'V.'Your father-in-law [William Shatner of Star Trek] has certainly had his share of genre television success as well.  Did he give you any advice early on about what it was like to be part of a hit series? 

Ummm, the only thing he probably would say was that it’s a grind.  You have to really find a balance in your life.  I think not just him, everybody says that when you’re doing a series.  It can be all consuming.  This show, we are shooting in Vancouver.  Having to travel back and forth as much as I do, it gets tiresome.  But, also, I’m one of those actors that… I’m very grateful.  I know a lot of wonderful actors who are not working.  I am very, very, very grateful to have a job.  And to be in a job that you love.  So it’s just balance.  He always would mention balance.  But, he was also like, “You’re working?  Great!”  (laughs)  He knows how hard it is to work. 

You just mentioned that V is filmed in Vancouver.  I believe The 4400 was, too.  Do you ever wonder if you are ever going to get a show out of LA? 

Oh, boy, I tell you, it would be nice to work out of LA.  I mean, Vancouver is a beautiful, beautiful city.  It’s just not home.  But it is a beautiful, beautiful place.  If I have to be somewhere, it’s a great place to be.  But, yeah, you always want to be by your family. 

What would people be surprised to know about you? 

About me?  Ummm… (long pause)  Hmmm… Boy.  I’m extremely loyal.  Almost to a fault. 

How would you like for people to look back at your career? 

He was a very passionate actor who wasn’t afraid to take some risks.  And hopefully be wonderfully entertained.  (laughs) 

Are there any misconceptions out there that you would like to clear up? 

I’m not as bad of a golfer as they might think.

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Copyright ©2010 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: March 29, 2010.  

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Copyright ©2010 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: March 29, 2010.