Rob Lowe and Fred Savage could easily snag the title of fall TV’s best new comedic couple. Playing brothers on Fox’s freshman courtroom sitcom The Grinder, the actors, who both became famous in the ’80s, butt heads and make peace as if they actually did grow up together. It all comes down to chemistry, that intangible that’s impossible to force, and can feel like magic when it’s there. Vulture wanted to get to the bottom of the Lowe-Savage je ne sais quois, so we visited the set on the Fox lot twice.
“You’ll ruin it,” warned Lowe about trying to pinpoint the electricity between him and his co-star. “If it can be called for what it is, it disappears.”
Over the last decade, both Savage, 39, and Lowe, 51, have been working in television — Savage directing episodic TV and Lowe starring in several dramas and comedies — but their paths never crossed. Lowe signed on to The Grinder first, playing retired actor Dean Sanderson, who tries to parlay his years as a lawyer on a long-running TV series into a real-life career as an attorney alongside his younger brother. Casting the more responsible, mature sibling, Stewart, proved a bigger challenge. “It was hard to find somebody who could hold their own next to this bigger-than-life character that Rob was doing,” said co-creator Jarrad Paul.
Executive producer Nick Stoller, who knew Savage because their daughters go to school together, suggested the actor, even though he had not been in front of the camera in years. “Lana Turner was discovered having a malt at Schwab’s,” intoned Lowe, sitting in the show’s law-school conference room with Savage, between filming scenes. “The modern-day Schwab’s is the [school] drop-off.”
Lowe, who is also an executive producer on the show, was working in London when Savage met with the other producers to try out scenes; he later watched his audition tape from abroad. “We saw a lot of people who were really, really good, but it seemed like Fred’s additions and riffs were completely unique,” Lowe said. “Then the question is, okay, great, but how are we going to be together?” The chemistry between the two was particularly important here, as the show hinges on the two leads’ odd-couple-like dynamic.
They didn’t find out until after Savage took the job. He and Lowe finally met in person when they were trying out actresses for the role of Stewart’s wife, Deb, which went to Mary Elizabeth Ellis (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia). “It was just fun from the beginning,” Lowe said. “Chemistry is a thing that people try to force in every single project, and it’s very rare that it happens. It just is or it isn’t.”
Savage was more intimidated coming in. “Since I was a kid, I looked up to Rob. His whole oeuvre could serve as signposts for key moments in my life, so there is a bit of starstruckness when you’re working with someone like that — or there could be,” he recalled. What ultimately humanized Lowe for Savage was the way he talked about his family. “I love how important it was for him to raise normal kids — he raised them intentionally outside of Los Angeles. [He’s] a committed husband and father, and for me, that really spoke volumes about the kind of guy he is. It made me able to connect with Rob on a level that was very important to me.”
Lowe, in turn, fell in love with Savage’s family. “All dads, like all moms, have a common language, and I’m a little farther down the road in this than Fred, so it’s fun for me to be like, ‘So, what happened this weekend? Tell me about Halloween costumes.’ I live vicariously through that and maybe offer a glimpse of what he has to look forward to. We really bonded a lot over that.” That, and their weekly gentlemen’s club in Lowe’s trailer, where they hang out watching sports and smoking cigars.
Lowe has another theory on why they get one another so well. “There aren’t that many people who can legitimately say, ‘I was a child star,’ and then are still here this far down the line,” he said. Lowe got his start as a teen in films like The Outsiders and St. Elmo’s Fire, while Savage grew up on The Wonder Years. “To me, maybe that is the weird equation that makes this work. It’s the navigating of this process in a healthy way. It lets us be able to relate to one another.”
Savage had never considered that, but agreed that people who have survived in show business from an early age share a similar perspective. “You’re focused on the work. It’s not really about any of the other artifices that might have derailed us a long time ago,” he said. “I also think it’s just doing it for that long. Whether it’s hands-on as an actor or stepping back as a director, between Rob and I, we really know what a scene should feel like, how it should go, the peaks and valleys, how to craft a moment, how to craft a joke.”
And since they don’t have to focus on creating a spark, the two can spend more time making other elements feel believable, Savage added. “This is all pretend, right? Everything we do is manufactured,” he said. “A lot of your effort is spent keeping that make-believe going. When [the connection] comes easier, as it does in this show, you can spend your time fine-tuning, and that’s what makes things crackle. That’s when you’re going to get something extraordinary.”
In late October, Lowe and Savage filmed a head-spinning courtroom scene from tonight’s episode, “Grinder Rests in Peace,” guest-starring Timothy Olyphant (Justified) and Jason Alexander. Spoofing Hollywood and celebrity is where The Grinder excels, and the scene involving a “spinoff show” starring Olyphant is as meta as it gets.
“It can get really stupid around here,” Lowe joked. “This could be the end of a lot of careers.”
One detail of the courtroom scene, featuring Olyphant, Lowe, Savage, and Alexander, rested on a three-stage embrace, first between Lowe and Olyphant, then Lowe and Savage. Lowe has the bigger personality on set, and is skilled at making his co-stars break, as he did to Olyphant throughout filming of the “man” hug, which evolves from a shoulder-grab to a head-hold to intimate facial touching. “Everyone should get hugs from Rob,” Savage said between takes. “It’s like a massage.” He insisted on repeating the hug until the movements felt seamless, the sort of attention to detail he credits Lowe with instilling on set.
“His commitment to getting it right and making sure everyone around him is operating at as high a level as he is challenges people every day to come in and do their best work,” Savage said admiringly. “Rob can certainly be at the phoning-it-in part of his career, easily, and no one would take it away from him. If he can ask that of himself, I can ask that of myself. It’s very aggravating because I’m looking for a flaw and I haven’t found it.”
Lowe sees something similar in his onscreen little brother. “He doesn’t give up. He’s a grinder! We’re out there fucking pushing that boulder every day. It’s not easy, man, to do smart, hopefully, offbeat, interesting yet accessible network comedy. Fred has always been up for it. To have that in a co-star is unbelievably rare — and then Fred’s a fucking great actor.”
What their chemistry comes down to, then, is quite simple: trust and respect. “I know if I were mentally incapacitated and we had to do an entire year where I was writing on a chalkboard,” Lowe said half-jokingly, “I could trust Fred with every creative decision.”
“I would help Rob learn to speak again,” Savage chimed in.
“He would. He’d be there for me. He would turn my best side to camera,” Lowe said, turning to Savage. “You would sacrifice your own coverage so my paralyzed left side would still look great. That’s what I like about you.”