CHICAGO — “We are not holding up a mirror to Chicago politics,” Kelsey Grammer said last week on the set of “Boss,” his new television series about power politics and dirty dealing in the City of Big Shoulders.
“I believe that Chicago politics can indict itself pretty handsomely all on its own,” he added with a trace of a smile during a sit-down that included a first look behind the scenes at the series.
But the city does play a major role in shaping the tone and details of this eight-episode drama, which is being filmed entirely in Chicago and is set to debut on Starz in October. “We are telling archetypal stories that are grand in theme and grand in scale and grand in consequence,” said Grammer, “and Chicago has size that can be construed as epic.”
Pulling from elements that helped define both “The Wire” and “The Sopranos” as iconic explorations of power-wielding subcultures, the series stars Grammer as a fictional mayor caught in a web of his own making.
The show is about politics as played today — the cynicism, corruption and hard-core strategies employed by those looking to hang on to power — and Grammer’s character is worlds away from his Emmy-winning performance on “Frasier.” He is executive-producing the drama along with Farhad Safinia, a 35-year-old Iranian-born, London-raised screenwriter whose only major credit so far is Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto.”
The production has been in town since May, based out of a five-story red brick building at the new Cinespace soundstage facility on the Southwest Side, where filming is set to wrap July 27.
“It takes some courage to make the decision to do business with someone that doesn’t have an enormous track record, but Farhad’s terrific,” said Grammer, sitting in his character’s City Hall office, which is adorned with a bust of Lincoln and an old hand-drawn map of Chicago, among other touches. “It’s never a leap of faith when you spot talent.”
The production offices are on the fourth floor (the show is being produced by Lionsgate, which is the company behind “Mad Men”); the entirety of the fifth floor has been transformed into the main set — the show’s version of the real mayoral beehive on the fifth floor of City Hall. It is a vast space that feels lived-in and real. The Chicago seal adorns everything: the elevator, the frosted glass doors, the mock paperwork scattered on the desks.
(Shortly after “Boss” wraps, NBC’s “The Playboy Club” — which has set up shop in the same building — will begin production.)
As the show’s creator, Safinia is there watching every take and offering feedback. Last week the cast and crew were shooting Episode 6 (directed by Mario Van Peebles), which included a scene in the City Hall pressroom during which the mayor publicly throws a member of his administration (played by longtime Chicago theater actor Carmen Roman) under the bus. “What’s my first line again?” Grammer asked before taking his place behind the podium.
“We think we are somehow more modern, more clean, more sophisticated than people were even 50 years ago,” Safinia said. “And when things happen — like what’s happening with Anthony Weiner or what happened with John Edwards and so on — we tend to be shocked by it. And I think the interesting thing is, why are we shocked by it?” Grammer described the process as “figuring out a way to update a Shakespearean tragedy into a modern-day tale without being grotesquely obvious.”
Chicagoans make up the bulk of the cast and crew. Only the featured players (including Connie Nielsen as Grammer’s wife, Martin Donovan as his chief of staff and “90210” alum Kathleen Robertson as a top adviser) are from L.A. Most of the Chicago theater actors on board (including John Judd, Kevin Gudahl, Ron OJ Parson and Craig Spidle) have real character arcs, not just bit roles. Of the 125-member crew, 115 are local. First assistant cameraman Dean Simmon estimated that about 75 percent of the crew came from Fox’s similarly Chicago-centric (and now-canceled) story of corruption, “The Chicago Code.”
“Both of us landed on Chicago because it is ground zero for today’s cultural politics,” Grammer said of his early conversations with Safinia. “It just seemed to be the right place. We also talked about its identity of a self-made-man kind of city, and its history of corruption and violence. It seems almost like a kingdom that sprouted from the plains.”
For Safinia, Chicago — and by extension Illinois — offers a larger-than-life setting that is rich with absurdities, including the fact that Illinois has no gubernatorial term limits. “That’s another fantastic, brilliant thing about this state, it’s just brilliant! What if there are angles within the political mechanism here who know that you have to get rid of certain guys, so all that stuff (the downfall of past governors) is sort of orchestrated? So you’ve got your own version of term limits, and it’s called jail. I mean, where else are you going to find that in your country? That’s great as a place to set the show.”
“The Chicago Code” ran afoul of complaints for its occasionally silly portrayal of city politics and blatantly off-the-mark Chicago accents. While it remains to be seen if “Boss” captures a truer sense of the city, production designer Daniel Clancy said the scripts pass the smell test. “When I interviewed for this job I was shocked. I swore there must have been a writer from Chicago, because the writing was so Chicago,” Clancy said.
“And then Farhad speaks, and he’s from England, and he knew little details that nobody knows. His research is unbelievable. I was like, ‘How do you know about Columbus Park?’ I grew up on the West Side, and nobody knows about Columbus Park. He knew about stuff that only a Chicago guy knows. He just understands Chicago — the terminology, the wording. He just nailed it.” (Don’t expect to hear the archetypal Chicago accent very much on this show.)
Clancy and Safinia have filmed in neighborhoods typically avoided by most film and TV crews, including Pullman, Austin and Englewood. According to Clancy: “People are like, ‘You’re going into Englewood?’ Even the cops are like, ‘Really?’” The house they are using for the mayoral home is two blocks away from the Obama residence in Kenwood. Safinia made several trips to town over the last year, absorbing the city by osmosis, and he has included actual news stories in the plot, including the issue of O’Hare expansion.
“The show isn’t about a real mayor, he’s a fictional mayor of Chicago,” said Safinia. “But Chicago was always the choice for the place to set it because it seems like the politics of this city, throughout its history, has been just operatically fascinating, right? And you can say that about a number of different cities in this country, but for some reason there’s almost something cartoonishly beautiful about how Chicago politics has evolved.”
Grammer, who has worked in Chicago sporadically over the years (including a 1981 production of “Othello” with James Earl Jones), has been staying with his new wife, Kayte Walsh, at a hotel on North Michigan Avenue.
“We usually go for pizza at Spacca Napoli (on the North Side),” he said. “We’ve done a couple of the finer restaurants. We have lunch at Barneys. We saw (“Frasier” co-star) John Mahoney’s play ‘The Outgoing Tide’ at Northlight, that was great. Good to see John. We’re probably going to have dinner next week, but I keep going back to L.A. every weekend to actually deal with my divorce stuff and child custody, things like that.”
Grammer’s personal life — including his ongoing battle with his ex-wife Camille Grammer, who stars on “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” — has been public fodder of late. In some ways, he said, that experience has been useful for the role.
“It’s interesting and I think it’s one of the reasons we’ve decided this would be fun to do,” he said. “Because of the nature of my success as Kelsey Grammer, Frasier, whatever, there is a public-private dynamic to my life that has been played out for the last 25 years.
“I’m not sure you could actually ask an actor to play this that didn’t have that kind of cachet to come along for the ride. There’s something that comes along with me that sort of piggybacks with this character and it’s kind of seamless.”