SIMON TEMPLEMAN ON “THE NEIGHBORS”
By Abbie Bernstein
In ABC’s new half-hour Wednesday night comedy THE NEIGHBORS, the Weaver family, headed up by Lenny Venito’s Marty and Jami Gertz’s Debbie, move to lovely new home in a nice suburban cul-de-sac – where all of the neighbors turn out to be Zabvronians, extraterrestrials who’ve been on Earth for ten years and are now stranded here.
Simon Templeman plays the leader of the Zabvronian expedition, Larry Bird (the aliens have all adopted the names of human sports celebrities – Larry’s wife, played by Toks Olagundoye, is called Jackie Joyner-Kersee and their son is Dick Butkus). Templeman isn’t from quite so far away as his NEIGHBORS character, but as an Englishman living in Los Angeles, he has some sympathy for Larry’s situation.
“I was doing a play,” Templeman explains, “which originated in England and came out to Los Angeles, and then we went to New York and we did a run on Broadway.” Templeman was actually in two trans-Atlantic transfers to Broadway, the 1983 production of Shakespeare’s ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL and the 1985 revival of NICHOLAS NICKLEBY.
“I met my wife and fell in love and became a sort of refugee,” Templeman continues. “So three years later, I moved back here, and now I’ve got family and kids here, so [Los Angeles is home. I’ve been married for twenty years. My wife’s American, and she still translates for me. Because she often thinks I’ll say something and people will just scratch their heads and not know what the hell’s going on. But she will make me make reservations at restaurants, because I think she feels that the English accent sounds classier. It doesn’t usually work – I’m usually bottom of the line, same as everybody else.”
Did the NEIGHBORS producers tell Templeman anything about what they were looking for when he went in to audition for the role of Larry? “You know, they didn’t,” Templeman says. “I remember when I first went in to audition for this, I thought, ‘This is going to be a complete waste of time. I may as well not even bother.’” He laughs. “And I kind of reluctantly went in and I thought, ‘Well, I’ll go in and I’ll do my best, but really, they’d be crazy to hire me.’ And it worked out. I mean, I can’t believe my good luck.”
What made Templeman think he wouldn’t get the job? He laughs again. “Well, because I normally think that anyway. I just think, ‘Why would they want me in this?’”
He feels that his affinity for series creator Dan Fogelman’s script may have helped. “Sometimes if you overwrite something, if you over-specify something, you kind of kill it, and I always thought this was just really funny and really well-written. In their wisdom, they chose me. I’m very happy they did.”
Larry Bird seems to be an uncommonly doleful alien. Series creator Fogelman credits Templeman with interpreting his character that way. “It was all Simon, really. Larry Bird could go in a million different directions, but Simon, from the day he walked in, that was just what made it sing.”
How did Templeman decide that Larry should be so mournful? The actor gives several reasons for his choice. “They [the aliens] have been there for ten years and things aren’t working out quite as he’d planned. I think they have certain foibles and the plans don’t go well. So he’s adjusting as he’s going on. He’s finding it very hard,” he laughs. “I think he’s struggling to keep up, too. I think it’s moving much faster than he’s able to cope with. He’s kind of thinking on his feet. So he’s having to adjust a lot, and that’s hard for him. He’s a little set in his ways, and I can relate to that. I think the pressure’s getting to him. And Dan’s written such a smart, funny script, which is just so much fun to do that it just seems to work, I hope.”
Although they both have British accents, Templeman’s speaking voice is quite different than the one he uses for Larry. How did the actor decide on those sonorous tones for the character? “I think he’s trying to assume as much authority as he possibly can,” Templeman explains, “because he’s the leader of this very difficult mission, and I think if he feels that he has a certain gravitas, then it may help his case. He’s faking it, basically,” Templeman adds with a laugh.
Despite the character’s outrageousness, there is a kind of subtlety to Templeman’s performance. Asked about this, he says, “Well, I don’t know. Some of my favorite actors are the ones who seem to do least, do you know what I mean? People like Alan Rickman or Michael Gambon, if we’re talking English actors, and any number of American actors who manage to do a little but say a lot. I love that. You just try and make the script work, really. And Dan is such a good writer that if you have any instincts as an actor, if you follow them with a writer as good as Dan, it makes you look good. If it’s not on the page, you can’t do that, you have to kind of lard it up, but Dan’s writing is deceptively smart and funny, I think.”
The NEIGHBORS pilot was shot in a gated community in Long Beach, Southern California; the series is produced in L.A., though it’s meant to be a suburb in New Jersey. Templeman says the real residents of the homes on the location shoot have been incredibly friendly, not to mention trusting. “They invited us into their homes and they left. One woman left to see a Kings [hockey] game and just left us in the living room. Dan was sick, fell asleep on her couch. They were so nice. Good neighbors.”
Is it different working on American television than on British television? “This is the first TV show that I’ve been a regular in,” Templeman observes, “so it’s all new to me. I’ve done a lot of TV out here, and it’s very different than working as an actor in England. You have to be much more on your game, you can’t sort of assume that everybody knows who you are and it’s going to be sort of given to you, you have to come into the room and do it, which is kind of good. It keeps you on your toes.”
Some of Templeman’s guest roles have included other non-human characters, such as the ghostly villain Pavayne on ANGEL, the Angel of Death in an arc on CHARMED and Lord Nor on several episodes of LOIS & CLARK: THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN.
Asked if he has any memories of playing Pavayne, Templeman enthuses, “Oh, yeah. That was great. It was a really scene-chewing bad guy, and I had a big old fight and bad teeth – bad teeth seems to be a common thread in my career. I had all this makeup on, I had these kind of gray-yellow teeth. And I remember leaving the [Paramount] studio one day and driving down Melrose Avenue, and I hadn’t taken my makeup off. I thought, ‘Oh, well, I’ll just go home like this.’ And I remember somebody looked at me as I was driving and I gave him a big smile with my teeth, and they completely freaked out. But I went home in my makeup. It wasn’t a good idea.”
As for the Angel of Death, Templeman laughs. “Misunderstood. Misunderstood. Blame the parents.”
Does Templeman find any commonality in his nonhuman characters, as opposed to his human ones? He opines that Larry Bird in NEIGHBORS is pretty human. “With this, I feel that the more relatable it is, the more human the character is, the better it works for the script. I mean, it’s so quirky and eccentric that it’s a lot of fun to do.”
In England, the industry is smaller, which means everyone is more likely to know everyone else, so casting directors are more likely to be familiar with performers. “If you’ve done this and you’ve done that and you’ve done the other,” Templeman says, “there’s a little bit of leeway, whereas here I think it’s kind of like a level playing field, we all go back to square one and you just have to be the best guy in the room or the guy that works. Whereas in England, it always felt a little bit clubby, you know, that sense of, ‘I’ve done this, I’ve done that, I’ve done the other, so I’m on that kind of level.’ And the [British television] market’s much smaller, isn’t it. Not so much now, but certainly when I was doing television in England, there were really [only a few] major channels, and that was it. Channel Four, ITV, the two BBCs. I’ve been here twenty years, so it’s changed a lot.”
In addition to stage and television, Templeman does a lot of voice work for animation and motion-capture work for videogames. This year alone, he’s been part of MASS EFFECT 3, DIABLO III, KINGDOMS OF AMALUR: RECKONING and DARKSIDERS II. “Brits are always in demand for bad guys, I’m happy to say,” Templeman notes, “and I just did one of these – it’s a motion-capture videogame, and I’m not even sure if I’m allowed to say the name of it, but I play a bad guy in that, which is fun. It’s a weird sort of hybrid where you dance around in a black suit – you’re like a modern dancer. You’re covered with these glass balls [for the motion-capture camera to track], and now they put ninety-two of them on your face. And they’re six bucks a ball, so do the math. It’s pretty expensive. So you’re togged out in all this stuff. We’ve been working on that on and off for like six, seven, eight, nine months something like that.”
Templeman has also worked frequently with L.A. TheatreWorks, a company that does staged readings of plays for later radio broadcasts. “I’ve done a lot of stuff for L.A. TheatreWorks. They phone me up if Alfred Molina can’t do it, so I’m always happy to jump in – I’d jump in for Fred any day. So yeah, that’s always interesting, too. That’s radio drama. So that harks back to my theatre stuff in England.”
What would Templeman most like people to know right now about his work on NEIGHBORS? “I’m having a ball doing this. It [has] a sweet, smart, tender script, and I hope it’s a lot of fun to watch, because we have a lot of fun making it. I hope that comes across.”