You might have seen Mark-Paul Gosselaar on television without realizing it. The former Saved by the Bell star is barely recognizable in his role as Mike Lawson, the sarcastic veteran pitcher and captain of the San Diego Padres in Fox’s Pitch. In order to play the role, Gosselaar packed on the pounds, trains regularly, and grew an epic beard, much to the chagrin of his family. He spoke to Vulture on the phone early this week about reluctantly rooting for the Cubs, eating over 3,000 calories a day, and why he’d have to shave his beard in front of his kids.
Did you watch the World Series?
Yeah, of course. I was one of the 40 million people that watched that as well.
Who were you rooting for?
I really didn’t have a team that I follow closely. But I was hoping for the Cubs. I figure they had the longer drought. I would’ve been happy with Cleveland as well. I felt like the Cubs deserved it a little more, what was it, 108 years. So yeah, selfishly, I just wanted them to win because I was tired of hearing the Cubs’ fans whine about the fact that they hadn’t won and the curses and the goat and the this and the that … I was like, let these guys play. Next year, they can worry about somebody else.
What attracted you to Mike Lawson as a character?
It wasn’t necessarily the character Mike Lawson that attracted me; I was attracted by the overall picture of the show. The character Mike Lawson — it was written a bit different. It wasn’t the character that we see on television now. I started playing it in a certain way and the writers started writing it a certain way to complement what I was doing onscreen. But Mike Lawson was more of a playboy, and I don’t think they wanted me to be the veteran catcher. I think I was written a little younger possibly. But yeah, sometimes you get on a project and they like what you’re doing and they start riding in that direction.
I always felt like, well, he was written as the captain of the team — me being 42 and I’m playing a 36-year-old — I could just play it a little more jaded and like the guy’s been around. He’s seen it all, and it starts to wear on your body. David Ross, he’s 39 and he’s retiring. So you’re ancient in baseball. I think it was a nice dynamic to have Kylie [Bunbury]’s character as a rookie and fresh-faced and new to the Majors and have Mike be at the tail end.
Did you talk to or hang out with any ballplayers to get into this role?
Yeah. One of the big things for MLB was to make sure we look as authentic as possible. So they had doubles for us for the pilot and I think there’s a few scenes where we actually use a double and since then, since we went into production, Mo [McRae], myself, and Kylie have not used doubles at all. We were training four times a week when we weren’t working, for three hours a day, and then while we’re working, it’s basically any open slot we could get, we were either batting or throwing or catching. So we’re constantly either watching baseball, doing baseball, or acting baseball.
It’s been the most intense, physically taxing job that I’ve had. The other side, the acting side, is easy, in relation to the physical stuff. Kylie trained the same way that Mo and I trained. Also, we’ve had advisers on the show. If Mo and I have a question about anything, I could call Chad Kreuter, who played in the Majors, and A.J. Pierzynski — I was texting him for a while — A.J. Ellis I’ve texted for a little bit. There’s just a bunch of guys. And it’s funny, when you start airing, more and more people see it and they start reaching out to you. One of the nicest tweets I got on Twitter was from A.J. Ellis saying that he really thought this was a well-done baseball show, and what I was doing onscreen reminded him of himself and his career.
You have gotten very beefy. What are you eating and is that exhausting?
Yeah, I mean, a lot of people say like, “Oh, my God, you get to eat whatever you want, that must be so amazing …” and it is for probably two weeks and then you’re basically forcing yourself to eat. I have a high metabolism, I’ve always been relatively thin, and to play this role, I constantly have to think about food and eat food. Before the pilot, I had about a month and a half to gain between 15 and 20 pounds, which is unreasonable, but I started eating about 3,000 to 4,000 calories a day and that consisted of just anything. I would go through drive-throughs and eat ice cream with the kids. So it kind of got me to the point where I look a little believable as a ballplayer. I put on about 15 pounds, and it wasn’t good weight. And when we went to series I had to figure out a way to sort of pack on pounds, but not all fat. So I went on a ketogenic diet. But a ketogenic diet, usually people use that to maintain or lose weight. For me to gain it, I had to eat more than normal, which consisted of eating a lot of meats and fats. Mo and I are kind of on the same diet and that’s probably, along with the training, one of the hardest things we have to do. Because it’s a constant effort. And you’re constantly thinking of maintaining and bulking up, and also [in tonight’s episode], we had to bare our bodies.
Yeah, you’ve got to get it right, get it tight for photo day.
I know, we’re just a bunch of models that day. Making sure that we didn’t drink water the morning of. Mo and I are really good that way, we’ve been really pushing each other, whether it’s been training to get better at baseball or look better with our shirts off.
A lot of the show is about navigating celebrity at such an early age and the psychological impact that it has on you. Has the show made you reflect on the difficulties you might have had when you were young?
Yeah, there’s some relation to what Kylie’s character, Ginny, is going through and what I went through on a very micro scale. The luxuries that I had growing up were there was no social media. So I didn’t have to worry about people taking pictures of me or posting something on Instagram or Snapchat or things like that. I didn’t have to worry about what she worried about in the last episode. So, in that regard, I was able to let loose and act like a 16-year-old being put in that position. And yeah, did I do some stupid shit? Of course. That’s what 16-year-olds are supposed to do, but now it’s always documented and people can judge you and that’s what makes it more difficult for the people growing up now. I had the same thoughts as Ginny Baker, I didn’t get to go to college, I didn’t get to let loose, partied a little too hard, but like I said, none of it was documented.
How are you liking the beard? It’s quite intense.
Yeah, it is. I’m at that point now where, depending on when we go back for a second season, I don’t think I’m in that window where I can shave it and grow it back to the point I’m at right now. So I think I’m living with it for a while. And I don’t actually mind, I just think my wife would rather that I had it a little bit shorter. She likes scruff, not looking like a bear.
What do your kids think of it?
There was something on the internet that showed a dad playing peek-a-boo with his baby girl and he had a towel on his head and he had a beard. Then he said, “I’ll be right back,” and he went and shaved and put the towel on his head without her noticing. When he pulled off the towel, she saw this man that she didn’t recognize and she had this visceral response where she was trying to get away from him and pulling his arms away and, “No! No! No!” and, you know, “Stranger!” I think that’s how it’s going to be with my 21-month-old daughter. And my 3-year-old son sort of recognizes me, but if I shaved, then I think I need to shave it in front of him. They rather that I didn’t have a beard but, Daddy’s gotta make more money so I can buy more Xbox games. That’s what I tell them.
What do you feel like you did that allowed you to make a successful transition from Saved by the Bell to doing more serious work as an adult?
I don’t know. If you look at the whole of the cast, we all turned out pretty well, and we’re all pretty successful in our way. Looking back, I would just say that we had good family backgrounds to rely on. I know that Mario has a great mother and father and Elizabeth has a great mother and father, and same with Tiffani. We’ve all come from a background that I think was pretty safe and relatively normal. It was a different time. We were actors, but these actors that come up nowadays, I’m in awe of them. I have so much respect for them because they come in knowing exactly what they want to do. They’re like, “I’m going to do this,” and their work is amazing. And I feel with us, on Saved by the Bell, we were just doing something that was fun and something you can do after school. I didn’t think of it as a career until after I’d finished.
This interview has been edited and condensed.