Linda Lavin: “Sean Saves The World’s” Tough Love Mom

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Sean Hayes and Linda Lavin in Sean Saves The World

While NBC execs talked over the weekend at TCAs about their hopes for the new sitcom Sean Saves The World when they were just coming off the demise of The New Normal, we’re still two months away from the new Sean Hayes comedy.

That said, Linda Lavin¸ who plays Sean’s overbearing mother Lorna on the series, sat down with us after the panel to give us an early window into the mother/son combative relationship, what we can expect now that Smash alum Megan Hilty joined the cast as well as talking about early homophobia in her character on the classic 70’s sitcom, Alice.

TheBacklot: The energy between you and Sean together on the show is the kind of tough love that some mothers have with their sons. Can you talk about playing that with Sean?
Linda Lavin: Well, he’s up to it. I think they’re so much alike as mother and son. They both have a real zest for living. They’re both highly energized and evolving people. They’re awake. They’re alive. They’re in the moment. They’re confrontational. He’s a man who’s clearly challenged now with a kid in his life full time, and a great sense of humor, and he’s his mother’s son.

There’s a similarity that I see in the writing, and I see it with us, because we feel like we’ve known each other forever and that happened as soon as we met and that happens with people. Sometimes you’re like ‘wow, this is an old friend, and I just met them.’ That happened with me and Sean, so we connected on that level.

On the level of humor, we make each other laugh, and, well, his generosity…he’s extremely generous and is the star of the show, the center of the show. He is amazing to be that generous, because he’s got a lot on his plate, a lot to handle, but he’s very giving and that means a lot to other actors. To other people who are there in the same space with him.

So, what you get to do is you get to look in his eyes. You get to see what’s happening. You have the blue print of the wonderful material that we have in the show and you get to be real. You get to be in that place, challenging each other and it’s awesome. And that’s what feels real to me about mothers and children who really love each other, and yet can’t stand each other in the same moment. Just want you here, but need you to leave, you know.

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The Sean Saves The World cast at last weekend’s TCA panel.

TBL: I’ve only seen the pilot, and I love the fact that it’s not all about him being gay, but obviously Lorna is okay with it but does that issue come up at all in the show?
LL: I don’t know. In the pilot I say to him, I’m worried about him taking on all of this now with a new boss and a kid, and a great relationship with that handsome man who dumped you. So I could get that in.

Sometimes we speak before we think, and I think that’s part of one of the qualities that for her is an irritant to him, and I think he has that quality as well. But as a gay man, she seems completely accepting of it, so I don’t think that’s an issue for her. If it becomes an issue, then it will be fodder for another script. Maybe it’s something she is harboring. Maybe it’s something she hasn’t been able to articulate.

It’s pretty much the fear that your child…the passion that you have, the passion that she has for her own happiness, and that of her child and her grandchild as well. And so the fear that they won’t be happy, that something will mar their joy is very present, I think, for a parent who’s loving. And then the kid needs to say ‘Ma, you’re not invited to dinner.’ ‘Oh,’ she says, ‘may I come?’

TBL: I love that.
LL: How great is that? That he can say ‘certainly not’ and she gets it. She doesn’t take umbrage. She’s not the joke or the butt of the joke. She’s not a self-pitying person. She’s too alive for that. She’s too evolved for that. So, I love her for that.

TBL: Would you like to see Lorna dating alongside Sean dating?
LL: Oh yeah, for sure.

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Lavin (with Sarah Paulson) earned a Tony nom for 2010′s Collected Stories

TBL:  Maybe a double date or just be in the same space?
LL: That would be insane, and I’m sure hilarious is part of the insanity of it, but she is dating. In fact, in the pilot she comes in, and she says, ‘I have a date,’ and he says, ‘I don’t want to hear about that,’ but she keeps going. And they wrote that, by the way, just in the last couple of days, just before we shot the pilot. I have this new scene where she comes in and says, ‘I’m dating,’ and I thought good this bodes well for her future.

TBL: Megan Hilty was added to the cast after the pilot as Sean’s longtime friend. Do you k now what her relationship with Lorna will be like?
LL: I don’t. I only know what Victor [Fresco] has said, the creator, that there’s going to be a sort of vis-a-vis. Is she the right person to be taking my daughter out for a shopping spree, or shouldn’t that be me that’s doing it? There’s probably a built-in fear that borders on envy or jealousy.

TBL: Maybe a little of competition, too?
LL: I think a little competition between who’s going to be the onsite caretaker, nanny, and woman in her life. That’s very new with the emergence of Victor’s thinking about this. It wasn’t there in the pilot, and I’m so delighted that it’s Megan. I’ve watched her on Smash, and I think her presence is very good for the show. I think she certainly has a huge following, and I think people will watch to see who she is in this show.

TBL: Is TV watching a big part of your life, as far as you’re watching? Do you have your shows that you watch?
LL: Oh yeah. Now that I have Netflix and a Smart TV, I’m joining the twenty-first century. Of course, my husband is the only person who knows how to run the thing. I’m like ‘What button did you push?’ But we’re starting to watch Damages, which I didn’t see in the beginning.

I love Modern Family. I really try to be home on Wednesday nights. We do DVR a lot of stuff, but I’m still in the generation that is hooked to the time slot. That’s why I’m excited that we have that 9 o’clock Thursday night. That’s the best.

TBL: Thursday night used to be the night that you watched TV and before that it was Sunday when I was growing up watching Alice and all of those CBS shows.
LL: That’s right. That’s a good answer when someone says ‘How has television changed?’ It used to be Sunday, now it’s Thursday.

TBL: I have to ask an Alice question because I was just thinking, even though the times were very different then but what if Tommy (Alice’s son, played by Philip McKeon) came to Alice all of a sudden and been like ‘you know mom, I think I’m gay.’ How do you think Alice would have reacted?
LL: Well, I can answer that question because after the pilot, there was a football player friend of Mel’s (played by Denny Miller) came to town. And he was big, and tall, and handsome and blonde, and he invited [Alice] out to dinner, and I went to dinner with him. And then he came back to the apartment, we’re sitting on the sofa, and Alice is very fond of this guy and wondering why he is not more attentive or affectionate. So she starts asking him little questions like ‘Are you married?’ ‘No,’ he says. ‘Are you engaged?’ ‘No,’ he says ‘I’m gay,’ and that’s the end of act one and this was [1976].

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Screen capture of the 1976 episode of Alice featuring Denny Miller and Lavin

TBL: It was a big deal back then.
LL: We go to the commercial, we came back up and Alice says, ‘And that doesn’t mean just happy, right?’

TBL: That’s a great line.
LL: Isn’t that a great line? That was the second episode of Alice after the pilot (airing September 29, 1976)…that was how risky it was. Now, she tells Mel (Vic Tayback) the next day and he says ‘You’re crazy. He’s a football player, and he’s all man and he’s not gay’, and that’s Mel. That’s his small minded, bigoted, you know, he’s like that with women. He’s like that with a man who could possibly be gay.

And he says ‘We’re going on a hunting trip’ [and] his friend came to take Tommy hunting and Alice didn’t want him to go hunting with this guy. So, it did deal with her homophobia, her ignorance, her fear. And so she deals with that, and then she submits to the reality that they have made this plan and they’re going to go, and she grows up. She accepts the situation.

In a half hour, she grows up in what took us maybe as a generation 100 years, and then Tommy comes back from the hunting where they did shoot a deer. And this child, this young actor, Philip McKeon, looked in my eyes, and his eyes filled up with tears when he told me the story about shooting this deer and how it felt to him. So, it went from the place of homophobia, of fear, of a strange invasion into her life of something she didn’t know how to handle, to something even more serious, which was a child’s loss of innocence.

In the world of where men were men and hunting, and it took care of all of that in a half hour, and so, yes, we’ve dealt with it. So that’s how she would deal with it. She would deal with it the way most people deal with it. They don’t know and so they have an opinion that is not educated. And the more people, I think, are willing to admit that we all have gay family members. We are gay. We don’t want to hide. We have secrets. We are whatever we are, that we have hidden from ourselves or each other. The more we come out of those closets, the more we accept each other, and I think that’s what television can do.

Sean Saves The World premieres October 3rd on CBS. 

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