It's no easy feat to live up to the hype of Hugh Grant. But David Walton, a staple of network TV for the better part of a decade, manages it in NBC's adaptation of About a Boy.
Few actors come off as effortlessly charming as Hugh Grant, which is why when the human personification of suaveness finally showed some emotional range and acting complexity in the 2002 film About a Boy, his fans were taken off guard—in the best way possible.
The same thing is about to happen with David Walton.
While admittedly not boasting the same high profile as Hugh Grant in the early 2000s, Walton has been a staple of network TV for the better part of a decade. He starred on a string of short-lived sitcoms—Fired Up, 100 Questions, Perfect Couples, Bent—and recently had a long arc as a love interest for Zooey Deschanel on New Girl. Each part was a variation on a same theme: man with Peter Pan syndrome who gets away with it because his studly looks make up for his unevolved emotions. (Not that Walton isn't brilliant playing that note…go back and rematch the underrated Perfect Couples as proof.)
Now, however, Peter Pan is growing up. Well, at least he's getting some depth.
Walton plays the Hugh Grant role in Jason Katims's (Friday Night Lights, Parenthood) adaptation of the 2002 film, about a bachelor living off the royalties of a hit song he wrote way back when whose carefree life is interrupted when a single mom (Minnie Driver) and her weird son (Benjamin Stockham) move in next door. Though it's a half hour comedy, it's still a Jason Katims show. And as anyone who's watched Friday Night Lights or Parenthood knows, that means there's a lot of emotional depth and a lot of heart accompanying those sitcom-y laughs.
Ahead of the show's premiere after the Olympics on Saturday, we chatted with Walton about comparisons to Hugh Grant, why he plays the man child cad so well, and how he swept his own wife off her feet.
How familiar were you with Jason Katims' shows? Did you cry along with Friday Night Lights every week?
I've been familiar with him for a long time. My wife was on one of his first shows, called Roswell. She had always said how incredibly gifted he was. And I thought Friday Night Lights was so powerful. I was always head scratching why—it attracted a loyal audience, but not that kind of numbers that make it an easy load to five seasons. Then I started watching a lot of Parenthood because in About a Boy we shoot in a similar style. We shoot with three cameras, and it's cross coverage so you can sort of talk over each other, so we have that very organic natural feel to the show. That's what we're aiming for that I think Parenthood hit so well.
So we find out Jason Katims is doing About a Boy and that you've been cast in the role made famous by Hugh Grant. It must feel pretty good to be cast in a role made famous by Hugh Grant, right?
It was pretty cool. People are like, "What role do you play," and I get to say, "The Hugh Grant role." It's also a lot of pressure! I had been in a bunch of shows but I've never been in one where I'm in every scene and the story is going through my eyes. It was a little scarier. But to get specific about Hugh Grant, I actively avoided it. I didn't rewatch About a Boy. I watched it when it came out but I didn't rewatch it. I didn't want to be accused of stealing any of his wonderful moves, even though I probably should've. I just wanted to see, almost as an experiment, what would happen if the About a Boy movie didn't exist and we just did our own thing.
I'm always curious whether actors who have been cast in a role made famous by someone else find it useful to watch the performance of the person who played the role before them.
Yeah. I think if this was a clean-cut total remake, where I was British and the same age and all that stuff, I think it would have been different. I feel like there's some key differences in these characters. I'm from San Francisco. I created the Christmas song that's making all the money for me, though in the book and the movie it's his father, so he's really just a trust fund baby who never worked. They just seem different enough that there wasn't a terrible amount of pressure—I didn't feel like I wasn't going to be opened up to direct, direct comparison to Hugh Grant. Because we basically take care of the whole plot of the movie in the first episode, and then we do our own thing.
Do you have a good British accent?
Oh, it's terrible. Though it's getting better because Minnie has a very cool British accent. So I just started calling everyone "dahling" on set. People are getting annoyed.
I love that Minnie Driver is in another TV comedy. She was so brilliant on Will and Grace for that guest arc. Do you remember the first thing you saw her in? And maybe how obsessed you were with her?
Oh 100 percent. It was Good Will Hunting, which is one of my favorite movies of all time. I know she's done a bunch of really cool, big movies. But I've seen that one over 30 times, I would say. I'm from Boston and it's that movie that made me really want to be in the industry. So it's a really—it's always strange showing up on set and meeting this person that I can quote all of her lines. "Hook! Hook! Dunk! Dunk!" I never get used to showing up on set and interacting with people who are larger than life to me. Minnie is so talented and good, and so fun to be with. This isn't disparaging to other comedy actresses, but there's a range of skill sets, and she's just a bad ass actor. That, to me, is the most fun person to interact with.
It's played for laughs in the pilot, but when she sings that One Direction song, she's actually remarkably good!
Oh yeah! She's got albums. She's toured with bands. She's written songs. She's a double threat. Beautiful voice. And a songwriter. She just was on The Ellen Show playing backup vocals for one of her friends' bands. Music is a huge part of her life. I didn't know that at all!
So you guys sing together on set, then?
Yeah, well I have this sort of disorder where I just start singing random songs all the time. I usually wait for someone with a better voice to come in and join, who sounds better. But we sing a lot. There's a lot of singing on set. She really has such a pretty voice. You start singing and then she joins and you want to stop to hear her. My character, now we're filming some episodes where my music career is going to be rekindled. And that's terrifying. I'm going to be singing on national television. To go from shower to national TV is a big leap I'm not comfortable with. (Laughs.)
In the pilot we see Will pretend to be a single dad to impress Leslie Bibb's character. I know you're married with kids and settled now, but what's the craziest thing you've done in the past to impress a girl?
What's the craziest thing I've done to impress a girl? Whoa. Hmm. I've eliminated all those things before I got married. (Laughs.) Ask me some more questions and we'll have to come back to that.
Well, sort of along the same lines, based on the characters you're cast as on other shows you seem to play the "hapless bachelor" very well. It's so different from your actual life, but why do you think you're so good at it? Yearning…?
(Laughs) I think every guy, at least that I know, at a certain point in his life really could get a lot of joy from having zero responsibility, acting on every impulse, having a lot of money, and having girls who seem to respond to his come-ons. So there's the part of every person who wants total freedom and to live completely selfishly. So I never had a hard time tapping into that, I guess.
But that changed for you?
My wife—I have so much responsibility now. And there's all sorts of different things that come with a family and building something that's wholesome and sweet and full and love, and that's Will's journey for the series, I think. You meet him and he's in a stage of complete and total hedonistic selfishness. It's incredibly fun, but there's clues that somewhere deep in him he knows he's missing out on something more meaningful. And then this boy comes into his life and they start to really care about each other. The boy doesn't have a father. So it carbonates all of these, I'd say latent desires, to have more meaning in his life. And that's where a lot of the heart comes from in this show. A family coming together and the parents don't even know that it's forming.
Before you had a family, were you like Will, where you thought maybe being a family wasn't for you, and then you discovered it later on? Or were you always the guy who wanted a family?
I definitely had a wild phase. Years ago went by so quickly. It doesn't seem so long ago that I was a lot like Will, single and having fun. I distinctly remember, though, hitting a wall. Like, OK, that was an incredibly fun weekend, but it's Monday and there's no net gain from that weekend. Except that I don't feel that good. I did. I think a lot of guys you see—there seems to be this thing where you can have all the fun in the world, but in the end of the day there's no one to share it with. I felt like I wasn't building something. It was a little bit of an empty feeling.
The way that Marcus is presented in the pilot is that he's a pretty weird kid. Do you think he is? Do you think he's "weird"?
Yeah, I think he's different. I think he's so atypical of what a normal 11-year-old is like. He's not athletic at all. He's very aware of so many things, as far as emotions go. He's so honest. He's so aware of what's going on, but he's also so self-aware of how he's coming off that it's a really weird combo. He's super honest. Super direct. Really open with his heart and feelings. He tells like it is. He's confident, but all those things make him the kind of kid that no one else in the sixth grade would want to touch with a 10-foot pole.
Were you ever in a middle school talent show like the one he's in?
I've been in a talent show, yeah. They are terrifying. The most nerve-wracking experience of your life, I'd say.
What was your performance?
Well in high school we had public speaking. I went to a very strict school. You had to memorize something and stand stock still with your hands behind your voice and just boom out in front of 500 people. The idea of forgetting a line and being up there, because there's no safety net, they would just let kids squirm. My bowels would start—this was like third grade. The day before I would start having an upset stomach and couldn't eat the next day. And everyone's parents were there watching. If I get a nervous for an audition, it's somehow related to that: the terror of public speaking. My talent show story is less terrifying, because it was at a camp or something. What it is, they say the fear of humiliation is stronger than the fear of death. So it's like ego death, you could call humiliation. I think that's part of the reason why that final scene is powerful. At least for me. You're giving this kid what's most people's worst nightmare.
So I have to wrap up now, which means going back to that question again: what's the craziest thing you've done to impress a girl?
Let's see. I'm trying to think how I impressed my wife. We had an on-stage kiss, and I really went for it. Because I liked her. Usually you can get away with it being just technical, but it was a problem when I ended up kissing my wife on the set. I'd say I stopped acting and kissed her on set.
How'd she react?
I'd like to say that she was blown off her shoes, but it took me a few more months. So the kiss did a lot more for me than it did for her.