An Interview With Jason Bateman

by Christine Champagne

Jason Bateman, best known for his roles on TV shows like "Little House on the Prairie," "Silver Spoons," and "The Hogan Family," is playing gay in "Some of My Best Friends," a sitcom based on the 1997 indie film "Kiss Me, Guido."

Airing on CBS Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET, "Some of My Best Friends" casts Bateman as Warren Fairbanks, a gay writer who needs a roommate to share his Greenwich Village apartment after his boyfriend suddenly moves out. Warren places an ad in the paper, and an aspiring actor named Frankie Zito ("Snoops" alum Danny Nucci) answers it. Although the ad clearly indicates that Warren is a GWM, Frankie mistakenly assumes that stands for "guy with money."

Frankie and Warren hit it off, and it isn't until after Frankie moves in that he realizes Warren is gay. The question ultimately becomes: Can a straight man and a gay man live together?

As Bateman aptly notes, "Some of My Best Friends" is essentially a modern-day version of "The Odd Couple."

While it isn't always so easy for shows launched midseason to find an audience, "Some of My Best Friends" certainly has a shot at success. Both Bateman and Nucci are charming in their roles, and openly gay actor Alec Mapa, who made a name for himself in Broadway's "M. Butterfly," is a scream as Warren's flamboyant neighbor Vern. So mark your TV calendar and check out the show for yourself.

We recently chatted with Bateman about the series.

Christine Champagne: The producers had a lot of trouble coming up with a name for this show. First, it was "Kiss Me, Guido." Then, it was "Me and Frankie Z." They finally settled on "Some of My Best Friends." What's the deal with all the name changes?

Jason Bateman: I don't know. But I think the one they settled on has got to be about the worst title in the history of television. The title that they have now doesn't work for me because it sounds like the most generic title ever: "Some of My Best Friends." Come watch us. Here are some people I know being funny. Even if you happen to think of the phrase "some of my best friends are gay," and I don't think most people will, that still is not that clever. There just seems like there is so much room to be a little bit better than that title. I can't believe that's the one they settled on after looking for one for six months.

Champagne: Did you offer any suggestions?

Bateman: I came up with three that I thought weren't bad: "Thinking Straight," "Both Ways" and "Between Us."

Champagne: I like "Thinking Straight."

Bateman: The one I really liked that they'd probably never let us have is "Leave It, It's Beaver." [Laughs.]

Champagne: Maybe if you had been on a cable network you could have gone with that title.

Bateman: Or "Everybody Loves Rimming."

Champagne: Again, maybe if the show had been on cable. How did you wind up being cast on "Some of My Best Friends?"

Bateman: Actually, I started writing a spec pilot and went in and pitched a few production companies that I had a relationship with, and one of them was Axelrod/Widdoes, which is run by the two guys who executive produce this show. And they said, 'Fine, we'll meet with you and hear your pitch about the script that you wrote. But when you're done we'd like to talk to you about a pilot that we'd like you to think about doing as an actor.' So I bored them to tears with my show, and then they told me about "Kiss Me, Guido." A few weeks later they sent me the script and said they wanted to see me come in and read the part of Warren. I did it with them and then with Danny [Nucci] and for the studio and for the network, and it wasn't a slam dunk. I think Mr. Moonves [Leslie Moonves, CBS Entertainment president] didn't see it as clearly as everybody else did, maybe because he's been my boss since I was about 16. Perhaps he had a bit of a difficult time seeing me as a gay guy, or perhaps he had something completely different in mind, I don't know. But he wanted them to keep looking, and they did, and they entertained a few different people and names and ultimately ended up coming back to me.

Champagne: Even just a few years back, straight actors were hesitant to play gay characters. Now, it doesn't seem to be an issue. Was it ever an issue in your mind?

Bateman: I'm in a little bit of a different situation, because working in the business that I do and living in the city that I live in, I haven't had a problem with people who are gay. Since I was 10 I've been working alongside them, and some of my best friends are gay. I have enjoyed, though, seeing the tolerance increase across the country, and I think it's about time.

Champagne: As for how you portrayed Warren, was there any concern on your part about how to approach the role of a gay man without offending anyone? Or did you just think this is just like any other part, and I'm just going to play it how I see fit?

Bateman: When I went in and read for it, I asked them, 'How gay do you want the character?' And they said, 'Gayer than Will on "Will & Grace" but not as gay as Jack.' So I thought, 'Well, maybe they want the character somewhat flamboyant.' So, I played it with a little bit of a flair. And they said, 'No, we just want you.' Basically, they said, 'You're plenty gay.' I took that as sort of like a green light to go ahead and play the character not too dissimilar to the way I've played other characters in the past, in that I really think that bulletproof men are really not funny. I've always tried to make the characters I play somewhat susceptible to getting their feelings hurt, and in this case highly susceptible to getting their feelings hurt. To see those flaws and to see the vulnerability and fragility is important in comedy. Now, is that stereotypically gay? I don't think so. I can say no, it's not, because again a lot of my friends are gay. So no, I wasn't concerned about offending or exaggerating. My first job was to do what [the producers] wanted me to do.

Champagne: In the pilot, Frankie obviously has a lot to learn from Warren. Do you think Warren can learn anything from Frankie? He must have preconceived notions about what someone like Frankie would be like.

Bateman: Yeah, I hope so. Much in the same tradition as "The Odd Couple" was, I think Felix had plenty to learn from Oscar as well. Being highbrow and opinionated and "right" all the time, you're often wrong, and I think observing that education can be twice as entertaining as the other side, which would be the obvious. That's a goal of ours. We started to tackle that a little bit with these seven episodes, and we'd love to have the opportunity to explore that more.

Champagne: "Some of My Best Friends" will inevitably be compared to "Will & Grace." But this show seems different to me in that Will and Jack live in this cocoon where they don't tend to deal with straight men who have issues with them being gay all that much.

Bateman: Yeah, in every interview we do there is the mention of "Will & Grace." We should be so lucky to be as good and as well-received as that show. But again, I think our show has got a lot more to do with "The Odd Couple" than "Will & Grace." It is a modern-day "Odd Couple," and Felix is gay because he can be now. The difference is, the necessary black and white dynamic of our show lies in their sexuality, because it can nowadays as opposed to just one is educated and one isn't, or one's from this side of the tracks and one's from that side of the tracks. No, the 2001 version is, one's gay and one's straight. And we can do that partly because of the success of "Will & Grace." But we're not trying to do "Will & Grace."

Champagne: Is it tough for you to keep a straight face when you work with someone as funny as Alec Mapa?

Bateman: It's very difficult. We're really lucky to have him. Quite honestly, I think that's one of the elements where we draw so much comparison to "Will & Grace," because there is this flamboyant friend. Unfortunately -- well, I don't know whether it's fortunate or unfortunate -- I mean, no one's really convinced me yet that a comparison to an existing show is a bad thing, aside from accusing somebody of being a copycat. And I don't really buy into that. You've still got to write the jokes, you've still got to deliver the jokes, you've still got to get the laughs. So what are we copying? Are we copying good comedy? We're not saying the same jokes, and we're not doing the same storylines. I'm comfortable with it. I hope the audience is.

Champagne: In a perfect TV universe, there would be a crossover episode between "Some of My Best Friends" and "Will & Grace." I could see Will and Warren hitting it off.

Bateman: That would be funny.

Champagne: You mentioned that you taped seven episodes so far. Do you have any sort of commitment from CBS as to how many shows they'll air? I know it's tough to launch a midseason show, and it seemed like we had to wait forever just to get a first airdate for "Some of My Best Friends."

Bateman: It was frustrating for us, too, because we're so proud of the show. We are dying for people to get a chance to see it. We've got the seven episodes done, and hopefully, they're going to air all seven. That would be the obvious plan. But you know as well as I do, if you don't really deliver ratings in the first few weeks -- I think it's down to two episodes now ... If you tank in two episodes, you're gone. Hopefully, there will be a big enough sampling in the first two weeks, and we can ride that momentum. I really feel confident that if the audience shows up, they're going to come back for more.