Interview: The Cast and Creators of ‘BRAINDEAD’

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You certainly can’t claim the husband and wife team of Robert and Michelle King are repeating themselves. After creating the beloved and critically acclaimed series “The Good Wife”, they are returning to CBS with one of the strangest shows on network TV. “Braindead” attacks the seemingly broken political system in DC just in time for this year’s presidential elections, with a healthy mix of horror and comedy. Like a premise from a Roger Corman movie (something Robert King mentioned as one of their inspirations) brain eating bugs have arrived in Washington and are eating the braindead politicians that can’t seem to get anything done.

The show focuses on Laurel, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, part of a political dynasty which includes a father and brother (Danny Pino) in high positions. Roped into working for her brother when her own career as a documentary filmmaker stalls, she takes notice of just how broken the system is, from her new place on the inside. Extremism and apathy’s attacking DC like a virus. And even optimistic career politicians can’t get things done; like legislative director Gareth (Aaron Tveit) can’t get his own boss, senator Red Wheatus (Tony Shalhoub), to do anything. But when the bugs attack, the political minds seem to get a bit of house cleaning.

The Kings are well aware that a show with a premise this silly could confuse the audiences eager to get more Alicia Florrick speeches. Winstead’s Laurel may have fit perfectly into the Good Wife world, but she’s far from a stand in for Julianna Margulies’s character. Winstead has recently found her own off-beat career as a leading lady, including Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Smashed, Alex of Venice, Faults and upcoming Swiss Army Man. Although she has her own experience with the horror genre, her leading role in this year’s 10 Cloverfield Lane, she’s moved beyond her early days as a scream queen. Winstead, who’s allowed to showcase her comedy and dramatic chops on the show, was interested in doing the show because of how risky and outside the norm the show seemed, saying during the press day “I was pretty stunned by it, just in terms of what a shift it was for the Kings. I just thought it was such an adventurous experience and risky, and seemed like it would be a lot of fun. I had no idea if it would work.”

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The Kings decision to take a sharp turn in their career path was no accident. They had begun working on the show a year earlier (while working on the final season of “The Good Wife”) and wanted to avoid the writer’s equivalency of being typecast. They had always wanted “The Good Wife” to have humor, and feel Winstead and Tveit’s budding love-hate romance is in “The Good Wife’s” mode. But this was a show with which they wanted to be almost absurdly funny, so they could use the not so subtle metaphor to openly discuss the current political situation, Robert explaining “The series has a very serious underpinning, but we didn’t want the seriousness to be right on top. We wanted it to be in the Roger Corman movie ways.” Like many sci-fi and horror films (the Kings also mention Invasion of the Body Snatchers as an influence), these genre conventions are used to make political comments more palatable to audiences. For the Kings, the political shut down and subsequent air of left and right extremism provided a logical target for satire. And CBS’s recent move to making their summer series genre based (they also have “Zoo” returning and “American Gothic” premiering next week), was a perfect fit. Especially because they wanted a limited run according to Robert King, “The only demand we had was we couldn’t do 22 episodes again, because it is soul crushing.”

Like “The Good Wife”, the cast of “Braindead” is nothing short of exceptional, full of impressive character actors. In fact, Tony Shalhoub was one of the actors the Kings couldn’t get for a guest appearance on “The Good Wife”, they could never work around his busy schedule. So it was their good fortune that Shalhoub had time for the series. But like the Kings, DC’s current extreme climate and election fever made it an exciting opportunity for him to take on, explaining “By the time I got this pilot script, I’d already been steeped in this election cycle, which seems to have started the Jurassic period and feels like it’s never going to end. So this folded in so nicely, it was sort of refreshing, comedic spin on what’s going on out there. Although sometimes I’m not sure which is the fiction and which is the reality.”

On the show, Shalhoub based his character of Red on some of the current presidential candidates including Ted Cruise, Ron Paul, and as he refers to him, “the Donald.” But while he seems to relish playing some of the absurdist, comedic aspects of our current politicians, he sees the show as a somewhat optimistic look at how politics could be made better, saying “I like to think the new Red is the real Red, and the Red we first see is the one who has basically surrendered to the system. He’s lost his way and become damaged goods…and the new Red is closer to who Red was as a young man.”

Shalhoub’s favorite character on the show, Garath, would also be described as the most optimistic about the value of the political system. And with Red back in action, Aaron describes his character making his own adjustments because “it’s really interesting that because Red was kind of a shlubby drunk, passed out on the couch most of the time, maybe Garath slide something in front of him to sign that was more his own political views than Red’s. I get the sense he felt like he had run of the office. So it’s kind of a double-edged sword. Now this guy’s back, so I can’t do that anymore, but what’s interesting about the bugs is, they’ve totally cleaned Red up. I signed up to work for Red, this new guy I thought I’d get to work with.”

BrainDead" is a comic-thriller set in the world of Washington, D.C. politics that follows Laurel, a young, fresh-faced Hill staffer who discovers two things: the government has stopped working, and bugs are eating the brains of congress members and Hill staffers. Series premieres Monday, June 13 (10:00-11:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Pictured (L-R) Aaron Tveit as Gareth and Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Laurel Photo: Jeff Neumann/CBS ©2016 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved

The network only had the first episode available for viewing at the time of these interviews, partly because they are still working on the series (the cast’s still receiving new scripts on a weekly basis), and because the Kings are adding and changing the news bytes to reflect the election and political climate as it changes. As close to air as possible they plan to make adjustments so the series as timely as possible, something the entire cast noticed. Mary Elizabeth’s been surprised by the show’s timeliness, noting ““I’ve been working so much that sometimes I feel like the news is just slipping away from me and not paying as much attention as I should be. But there are moments when I’m getting ready to go to work and watching the news, and realize the scenes we’re doing are so current, and I didn’t even realize it. Obviously its parallels and taking it in a direction which of course isn’t literal, but it just amazes me how current they are. Sometimes I think they’re almost ahead of the news, they have this weird psychic ability. But that’s been really exciting, because it gives the scenes this energy.”

Aaron feels how timely the show can be will be part of the show’s appeal for audiences, responding “I think the fact that the country has an awareness about politics this year, and everyone seems to have an opinion. Much like in 2008, when Obama was elected, it feels like a tent pole election year. So the fact that we get to make this show in a time when everyone seems aware of the political climate is a lucky thing for us.” But while spoilers were of course a no-no, they did tease a few things. Mary Elizabeth claims that within her diverse career, this show has provided her “the weirdest scene she’s ever done.” Tony, not so subtly, mentioned that Garath will have a job change when someone’s head explodes. And the Kings gave the most revealing spoilers…the bugs do have their own agenda, and they have a four season plan with each season targeting a different place; DC, Wall Street, Silicon Valley and Hollywood.

Braindead premieres tonight on CBS.

Lesley Coffin is editor and founder of Movies, Film, Cinema. A writer with a masters degree from NYU’s Gallatin School in biographical studies and star theory. She wrote the biography on Lew Ayres (Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector) and Hitchcock’s Casting (Hitchcock’s Stars). Lesley currently freelances for a number of sites, including regular contributions to The Interrobang, Pink Pen, The Young Folks, and previously wrote for The Mary Sue and Filmoria.