This year is still pretty young, but already Todd Grinnell has appeared in two of its most well-received TV shows. In Netflix’s One Day at a Time, he played the clueless Schneider, a role plucked from the original One Day at a Time and reinvented for the reboot. He also had a small part as Deacon Kurtwell in HBO’s The Young Pope, a project that could not be more different than a three-camera sitcom performed in front of a live studio audience.
Grinnell recently took a few minutes to speak with Vulture about his experiences playing both a hipster doofus and a man of the cloth.
You’ve been acting in film and television for a while, but is it true that you started in theater?
I started doing small theater in Boston right after college. And when I moved to L.A., I was doing a lot of small theater around Los Angeles. That’s really where I got to hone my chops and explore things.
I mention that because in an interview with Gloria Calderon Kellett and Norman Lear about One Day at a Time, Gloria mentioned that having a theater background was especially helpful in doing that kind of comedy. How does that inform what you do?
The way we shoot One Day at a Time is essentially a play. It’s filmed in front of a few hundred people each week and we have sets that look exactly like theater sets look. In fact, Gloria and I had known each other for about ten years previous to One Day at a Time. Each year, she produces a night of one-act plays. Most of the one-acts she has written herself. It’s a fundraiser for Susan G. Komen and breast cancer awareness, which we all love to do. She gathers all of her favorite actors and friends and we all get to do these one-acts together. In multi-camera you get the immediate response, and you also get to play off the audience and hold for laughs. Sometimes something is funny that you didn’t realize was funny and you get to make more of a meal out of it. I grew up watching all of Norman’s shows, watching shows like Cheers and Taxi and The Cosby Show and Golden Girls, so I really love that experience.
So I’m guessing that you had watched the original One Day at a Time.
I was born the year it came out, so I guess I watched it probably in syndication. I remember it vividly, and of course I remember Schneider.
What’s interesting is that when I got the audition for the part, I had known Gloria so I called her and said, “Did you set this up or do I just have amazing agents who got me in for something that I’m completely wrong for?” She said, “No, it’s probably both, but I’m really curious to see what you do with this. I want Norman to see you, Mike [Royce, the co-creator] to see you. If nothing else, you get to meet Norman Lear and read for Norman Lear.” And I said, “Okay, great! That will be a super-fun afternoon for me.” And I really didn’t think I had any chance of getting it because I was so aware of Pat Harrington Jr. and the amazing character that he created. But she said, we’re not trying to replicate that. We’re going a completely different way. We don’t know what that way is, but we just know it’s going to be different because we can’t try to fill his shoes.
I went in and had my own take on it. And what’s great about Norman and Mike and Gloria is that the three of them are so brilliant in their own individual ways and when they come together, it’s such a collaboration. When I went in for the audition, it immediately became this discussion about, “Well, who do you think this guy is and what’s your take on him?” He wanted to talk as much as he wanted to see me act, and for an actor, I love that.
What was was your take initially on Schneider and how did it evolve as you started working on the episodes?
I liked everything about what Pat Harrington did with Schneider. That guy was a force of nature. I think the common bond that the two characters have is that deep down inside, they’re both really lonely guys. And they match that loneliness with this big exterior. They sort of deal with this inflated sense of self, so I wanted to bring that to this part.
Before I came in they had already thought about having him be a hipster and maybe coming from privilege. I’ve seen people like that in my life: you know, guys who come from a lot of money, but think it’s much cooler to romanticize being someone who didn’t come from money, but still enjoy all the trappings of coming from money. There’s something interesting and kind of silly about that, and there’s a lot to play with there.
I told Norman when we were talking with Gloria and Mike that the way I looked at him, this guy kind of sees himself as a mix between Keith Richards and Richard Branson, sort of this larger-than-life man of the people but a real badass, kind of bon vivant. The rest of the world thinks he’s a bit of a doofus, but I feel like this guy is constantly writing a book about himself. He’s constantly aware of the memoir that will be someday, The Legend of Schneider.
In the original, as I remember, Schneider would flirt with Ann Romano; there was a little bit of sexual tension there. It seems like you guys made a conscious choice for Schneider not to have that relationship with Penelope (Justina Machado’s character), at least at this stage. In some ways that energy is directed more at Rita Moreno’s character. Did you consider having more of a romantic energy between him and Penelope?
Gloria is someone who has a lot of platonic male relationships in her life, and I’m actually a person who has a lot of platonic female relationships in my life. I have a lot of great girlfriends who are like sisters to me and I really enjoy those friendships, and Gloria really enjoys her friendships with men. It’s a relationship that’s not really explored that much on television. Almost the easy thing to have is sort of a Sam and Diane, Ross and Rachel type of relationship. And those are great, obviously. But just given this particular story that we’re telling, it seemed like it was beneficial for us to keep them as friends and not have it go there. Once it goes there, that’s what the story is. And yeah, I seem to flirt with Rita a little more, which is a fun thing.
The other thing I like about the show is that it shifts into poignant moments in a way that feels natural. Were there any moments when you were working on a scene and you felt moved by what you were doing?
What’s nice for me is that I get to be there and watch everything as it happens. The scenes that I’m not in that are particularly emotional, I’m usually sitting with all the writers watching the monitors and just, you know, on the verge of tears.
The one that really hit me was during the quinceañera in the final episode, when Victor leaves, and Isabella is left on the dance floor looking around for her father and they cut to every character — it’s all in silence, but you can tell that everyone is going “Where is he?” and looking around. Then I come in through the door, after having gone to chase him down, and I just shake my head that, you know, essentially he’s not coming back. Fathers and children and those relationships always get me. There’s something about seeing a young girl on the dance floor looking around for her father, and he’s not there, that just destroyed me. Every time that I would leave to chase him down, I would stand there and wait for my cue to come back to tell them that he’s not coming, and the song that was playing was beautiful, too, and it just got me. Like, every time, I started to tear up right before I’d reenter the room.
The Young Pope is obviously a completely different sort of project. Did you work on that before One Day at a Time, or after?
I worked on it a few months before. I think we did that last January or February. That was really fun because Paolo Sorrentino is an absolute genius. I’d seen his previous movies and just am a huge fan, and obviously that cast is amazing and the subject matter is amazing. It was neat to just be a small part of it. It was fun to work with an entire crew of Italians in Los Angeles.
For the most part, everybody spoke English but had really beautiful Italian accents and for a second, if I closed my eyes on set, I felt like I was in Florence even though I was in Koreatown.
Did you have a broader sense of what an unusual tone the project would strike overall?
I did because I had read the first episode. I think that was the only script I was given. So just from reading that, I thought, “Oh, wow, this is something special and incredible and different and strange and beautiful.” I had an awareness of his other work, so I got to where I could see what it was going to be.
There’s a big scene in The Young Pope when Cardinal Kurtwell, your superior, finally confesses that he was molested as a child. Obviously it’s not a funny scene. But I couldn’t help but notice that he describes his abuser as a super in his building. And you’re standing there, and you played Schneider, who is based on a character that was a super in the building on the original One Day at a Time …
That’s amazing! I didn’t even put that together. I cannot believe I didn’t see that. That is incredible. That is funny. I think that’s the definition of irony, isn’t it? I guess that was sort of life foreshadowing itself in a way, right?
This interview has been edited and condensed.