The dark comedy starts with gunshots, then flashes back (sometimes literally throwing the actors in reverse, speaking and moving backward) to track the lives of a naive, young couple (Paul Rudd and Kate Arrington) who hope to open a chain of gospel motels. Along the way, they meet a reclusive neighbor ("Boardwalk Empire's" Michael Shannon), and a German-accented exterminator (Asner), who zaps bugs and shoots zingers.
But for millions of TV viewers, Asner will always be that gruff, irascible newsman Lou Grant. Just looking at him -- even now, at 82, with his white hair and Santa-like beard -- you can't help but hear Mary Tyler Moore's famed, plaintive cry, "Oh, Mr. Graaaaant."
That kind of immortality -- he earned three Emmy Awards playing Lou in "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" sitcom from 1970 to 1977 and two more in the newspaper spinoff drama, "Lou Grant," from 1977 to 1982 -- can be a blessing and a curse for actors. But Asner has continued to forge a career on-screen ("JFK," "Elf," the Pixar-animated hit "Up"), and stage (Broadway's "Born Yesterday," and a one-man show, "FDR," which tours nationally).
Are you relieved you're the one character in this play who doesn't have to do things backward?
Yeah. I tend to do that in real life, so it's a pleasure not to have to do it onstage.
Paul Rudd has to handle most of that.
He's done a fantastic job. We both come from Kansas City. I'd never seen him, though. I'd heard about him. To watch him handle those enormous stretches of dialogue, and all the backward stuff, to watch the emotional variety he engages in, and the humor -- he's uh . . . he's a million-dollar baby.
We see you early in the play -- and at the end. What do you do backstage in between?
I go over my lines. And I write letters. I've saved up a year of writing letters. So I dedicate myself to writing one letter a night.
Letter letters -- that is, the pen and paper kind? Or emails?
Longhand. I never mastered email. My assistant does that for me, so I don't have to enslave myself to the machine.
What in this script interested you? Surely, these days, you could sit back, take it easy . . .
No, I have to keep working. I don't have a stockpile of money. It's been 23 years since I was on Broadway. So I figured this was an excellent play to attempt the so-called comeback. It's a good way to shake the bottle up. Get some fizz going.
Your character lays down some bold proclamations -- "There's no God." Does that mirror your own beliefs?
Well . . . I'm quite aware of the old World War II phrase, "There are no atheists in foxholes." But I've yet to be in a foxhole of any danger. And so far . . . I don't know. I'll call myself an agnostic.
Your parents were Orthodox Jews.
Yes. Even though I was raised quite religiously . . . I don't know if there's a God. I may use his name in vain. But . . . I don't count on him.
Ever thought of retiring?
No. I'd go nuts if I did. If I can't act anymore, you may as well put me in the box. We'll see. We'll see how long I can keep up the pretense.
Do I see Mary? I haven't in the past few years. She's been laid low, and she's out of town. When we need to get together for the sake of the show, it's a great reunion. But other than that, I talk to her on an as-needed basis.
I believe you're the only actor to win Emmys playing the same character, Lou Grant, in both a sitcom and a drama.
It was not an easy circuit to pursue, I tell you. I had to do some re-examinations, some changes. I was listening to too many people telling me to always retain Lou from the comedy show. Well, it couldn't be Lou from the comedy show. It had to be a new Lou. I finally found the new Lou.
Why are you the go-to guy for all these gruff characters? Lou . . . Carl in "Up" . . . the exterminator in "Grace" . . .
I don't know. I'm willing to concede that I'm a pussycat at times in real life.
Really? That's not what I've heard.
When you need a pussycat, try me.