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  • 10.06.15

Why Being a Good Lawyer Means Being a Great Actor

The Grinder executive producer Nicholas Stoller discusses the similarities between the two professions that overrule his new comedy show.

Why Being a Good Lawyer Means Being a Great Actor
Fred Savage and Rob Lowe in The Grinder [Photo: Ray Mickshaw, courtesy of FOX]

Nicholas Stoller will not rest his case. He is convinced that Emily Blunt would make a top-notch attorney, with maybe just a tiny refresher course on the legal system.

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“She’s a very trustworthy person and I think she could project that,” the director says. “You kind of believe anything coming from her. She also exudes intelligence, and the British accent makes her seem even smarter. If I had to have a fake lawyer, I’d hire her.”

Nicholas StollerPhoto: Vera Anderson, WireImage

The reason he and I are discussing this particular topic is because the new sitcom Stoller is executive producing this fall, along with The Carmichael Show, is about an actor who decides to become a lawyer. Not just any actor, though, but one who played a lawyer on TV for eight seasons. As explained by the character, Dean Sanderson, played with typical chipperness by Rob Lowe, if you needed a surgeon immediately and only E.R.’s Noah Wylie was in the room, you just might let him operate on you.

The Grinder is a self-aware show that’s played straight, and it’s at least partly about the artifice of serious TV acting. Sanderson makes a decent lawyer even though he doesn’t know anything about law, while his brother, Stewart, played by this fall’s TV homecoming king Fred Savage, struggles as a lawyer, even though he knows more than enough. The difference between their lawyering styles reveal a lot about what the best actors project to the world—and what the world tends to project back.

After the last film Stoller directed, Neighbors, became a monster hit, creators Jarrad Paul and Andy Mogel, whom he’d worked with before, approached him with the idea for The Grinder. Stoller loved it immediately and came onboard as executive producer. Even before he’d heard the idea for the show, though, he’d already drawn the connection between lawyers and actors.

As the show airs its second episode tonight on Fox at 8:30 p.m., Stoller explains several of the reasons why being a good lawyer means being a great actor. If you have any objections, leave them in the comments.

Lawyers Psych Themselves Up By Watching Actors Playing Lawyers

“My brother-in-law, Alex, is a lawyer—he works for the ACLU,” Stoller says. “Before that he was a public defender. And he says that a lot of lawyers watch famous law speeches from movies like To Kill a Mockingbird or whatever, and kind of study them. To be able to do big closing arguments, a big part of it is just being convincing. And you really have to be kind of an actor to get the jury to agree with you.”

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Lawyers Are Always Putting On A Show

“I think there’s a very similar thing between actors and lawyers, that they are both putting on a show, which is kind of interesting and also what The Grinder is really trying to explore,” Stoller says. “You can be so educated and really know the ins and outs of a case, but if you can’t present it clearly to the jury, then it doesn’t really matter what happens, which is what we’ve been playing around with, with Fred [Savage]’s character.”

Actors Are More Convincing Than Most People

“The best actors, or at least the actors that I work with, when they say something to you, you just believe it–whether or not it’s accurate, you just believe it,” admits Stoller. “I’ve had the situation before where I’ve been rewriting a script for an actor and they’ll be very forceful about a certain point and I’ll be like, ‘You’re totally right!’ But then I’ll go back to work on the script later, and I’ll realize it totally doesn’t work at all.”

Lawyers And Actors Are Both Confident On And Off The Clock

“The lawyers I’ve known have all been very confident guys,” Stoller says. “I think actors have to have the same sort of confidence too. I’m terrible at debating, and in arguments, I fall apart incredibly quickly. Like if someone came up to me and was like, ‘The world is flat,’ and I was like, ‘No, it’s round,’ they could win the argument if they were forceful enough. So there is a confidence I think with the best lawyers that actors also share. And I would like some of that.”

About the author

Joe Berkowitz is a writer and staff editor at Fast Company. His next book, Away with Words, is available June 13th from Harper Perennial.

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