Grown Up on Camera
by Deborah Wagner
When you think of Joey Lawrence, most people think “Whoa!” I know I do, thanks to the iconic catchphrase he made popular back in the 90’s while playing Joey Russo on the hit TV show Blossom.
Before becoming a teenage heartthrob on Blossom, Joey spent his adolescent years doing guests spots on other popular sitcoms like Diff’rent Strokes and Silver Spoons before landing his first recurring role on the 80’s hit Gimme a Break.
Since Blossom ended in 1995, Joey has continued to act in films and made-for-TV movies, as well as in sitcoms including Brotherly Love (alongside his brothers Matt and Andy), Run of the House and Half & Half and the popular drama American Dreams. He also danced his way into third place in 2006 on ABC’s popular reality competition Dancing with the Stars.
Now at 34, Joey Lawrence is all grown up and this father of two is back on TV in the ABC Family’s original series Melissa & Joey that airs Tuesday nights at 8/7 Central. Starring beside his childhood friend Melissa Joan Hart – with whom he had also done the TV movie My Fake Fiancé – Joey portrays an unemployed commodities trader named Joe Longo who has turned live-in male nanny. He also lends his singing talents to the show – a passion which he has been exploring since his 90s hit single “Nothing My Love Can’t Fix” – performing the opening theme song “Stuck with Me.” Gaining popularity, Melissa & Joey has now been picked up for 20 episodes next season.
Recently, we sat down with Joey to talk about growing up in front of the camera, family, his new role as a “manny” and our mutual love for a school called Abington Friends.
I have two kids at Abington Friends School, where you graduated.
Really? That’s so cool. I loved that school. How long have they been there?
This is my daughter’s first year. She’s in kindergarten and my son is in third grade.
No way. It’s such a great school. They have a great campus too. The school store, I mean come on, the school store is awesome. It’s like 200 years old, that thing. And the meeting for worship house, it was just a great time. I was actually there when they built the Mueller Auditorium. I just have such great memories from my years there.
So, my first question is by ’94 when you actually graduated, you had already done Gimme a Break and you were working currently on Blossom. How difficult was that – to travel across the country while working in LA and then come back here to Abington Friends for school?
It wasn’t difficult because it was just what I was used to. I had been doing it ever since second grade. First grade, really. And 60% or 70% of my class were lifers so we were all there together since kindergarten. It made it very easy. There weren’t new groups of kids that I had to deal with or that didn’t know who I was. They were there with me from the beginning, so it never hit them overnight. Therefore, I was able to come back home and get right back into the groove of things and go on my cool country trips. Great stuff. It was really awesome.
That is cool.
Yes, it’s was a really great time in my life. It was incredible.
I really liked you in American Dreams. Would you like to do more of the dramatic roles, or do you prefer comedy to drama?
I like both. I can do both, so it’s just a matter of what makes sense at the right time. This seemed like a good project and I was able to have a lot of creative control on this one. I hadn’t been involved in the half hour in a long time, so to come back to it this way was nice. But yes, movies and drama and stuff like that I think is obviously in the future. It’s all part of the journey and this is where I am at the moment.
You and Melissa have known each other for quite some time. How do you guys maintain chemistry onscreen? You’re friends in real life, but you have to have a spark onscreen too.
Right. Well, you know that’s why we get paid the big bucks there. [laughs] It’s just all part of the job when you have to play certain characters. There are areas that you have to tap into, and you’ve got to pull from personal things in your life and try to use those in your job. I associate it to just putting myself into Joe Longo’s world. He’s attracted to her; therefore, I am as well as Joe Longo.
You both also have younger kids. What’s it like raising tweens [on the show]?
I think that’s where the comedy comes from because these people are barely in their 30s themselves, and they have 16-year-olds running around. So, it’s really more of an uncle/aunt type relationship or an older sibling type of relationship. We’re trying to create some kind of normalcy for these teenagers with their parents either in jail or on the run. Yet at the same time when you’re 16-years-old you’re kind of baked. You’re who you’re going to be. It’s just a matter of the final toppings on the sundae there. I think that we feel that responsibility to hopefully at least set a good example for them. It’s tough, being in our 30s, but we’re sort of on the young end of that, so I think that we’re still kids at heart and probably act like big kids at times. It’s a tough job. I wouldn’t know what it’s like other than the fact that my youngest sibling, Andy, is 12 years younger than me. So, growing up I was really more like an uncle to him than I was a brother because I took care of him and he looked up to me that way much more so than Matt, for instance. Matt and I are only three years apart, so you have all the much more the normal sibling stuff.
I wonder if you could talk about just how this project got started. I would assume your chemistry in My Fake Fiancé led to this?
Yes, I think so. My Fake Fiancé was something that we did together, and we had a good time. There were intangible things that happened, and I think that in the comedy world we just have this sort of innate timing that really works well. You never know why two people work well together in a certain genre or a certain type. I don’t know if it would be the same in drama, but certainly in the comedy world we just worked well. We had never worked with each other or anything like that. We had known each other, but when we were doing the movie, I think that we felt that – and I know the network, they were watching the dailies and stuff and they were feeling that. Then one thing led to another and before the movie was over, we were all thinking this might work to do a half hour comedy or something like that. And a year and a half later here we are. But definitely I think the initial idea came from My Fake Fiancé and that whole experience.
How different is it being the executive producer on a series like this? What does that exactly mean? Do you have more say into your character and how the show goes?
It’s awesome. You can’t be fired at all, which is great. [laughs] No, it does allow you a lot more creative control over how the show turns out at the end of the day. In this particular medium I have a lot of experience, so it’s not just like an actor grabbing at some power; it’s that I know as much as anybody does in this particular medium just because I’ve had so many years of experience. I think that it just helps when you’re not feeling great about something or if you have an idea about something that they’ve got to take it seriously. It’s not like an actor for hire. It’s a part of the team. If I was going to jump back into this world – to the half hour comedy world – I wanted to be a big part of the team rather than an actor for hire.
With the teenage characters on the show, how involved are you in choosing some of their storylines and saying, you know what, I don’t want to go too dark with them and I don’t want to make them seem like they’re growing up too fast? As a parent of young kids do you feel like a role model for the younger audience that is watching?
We’re on the edgier side, so we’re not going to sugarcoat it, but at the same time it’s not the Disney Channel. It’s not for eight-year-olds. I would say minimum would be thirteen, just because of the content of the show. It’s a young adult comedy with teenagers, so it certainly wouldn’t be for six-year-olds, seven-year-olds, or eight-year-olds. It probably wouldn’t hurt them to watch it, but it’s not for them. In terms of the teenage stuff, we try to handle it responsibly, but part of the comedy is that Mel’s character is not responsible and that I’m there to shed some light on responsibility. That’s where some of the comedy comes from. So there are moments when there is not the right example set, but I think by the end of the half hour somehow you get a sense of either what should have happened or what will happen the next time. They’re not really parents and I think they’re both less developed in that area than I am in my personal life and Melissa is in her personal life, because we are young parents and they aren’t.
Why did you decide to keep your first name for your characters on the show?
Honestly, that was an ABC Family decision. They were emphatic and very passionate about that. Initially, believe it or not, the character names were Jack and Annie. But they did their marketing research and the brilliant minds over there in the ABC Family said, “Look, there are a lot of channels and a lot of choices, and we believe in this show and we want to make sure that people know what it is and we want to be able to cut through. And we really think that if we use your names, that that will be a no-brainer, people will know what this is and instantly there will recognizability for it.” We couldn’t disagree, even though I think Melissa and I were both sort of like, eh, at the beginning. But they gave us some examples and they said look, if you look back at some of the shows that have done this and it’s worked, to name a few, they said there’s Cosby and Roseanne and Seinfeld and Mary Tyler Moore, and after that you just kind of go, okay. But it was really for name recognition and marketing and so far, it’s really worked. I think they know a thing or two over there.
Your character on the show is a bit embarrassed by having the job as a nanny. What are your feelings are about playing a male nanny?
Look, every good dad and husband is part nanny. That’s part of the job, right? You have kids. I know that part of the domestic responsibilities; it’s a 50/50 road there. I’m doing laundry at home and cleaning up around the house and cooking meals, and that’s just the way it works. But I think that for this guy in particular it would be a little tough to go from making millions of dollars and basically having life at your fingertips to living in a basement apartment and cooking meals. It would be a transition, to say the least, and I think that’s where the comedy comes from for Joe Longo. That’s why he’s obsessed with the fact that he’s not actually working for her – he’s working with her and he’s freelance, so he thinks he can leave at any time he wants. He probably could, but he wouldn’t have anywhere to go. So, until he gets his feet back under him, that’s sort of the underlying theme. He’s going to use this job until he can trade again, which is five years from now, because he struck up a deal with the Feds to avoid jail time, but he can’t trade for five years. So, it would be tough, I think. Not because of the job but just because of where you came from to where you were at the moment.
What do you like best about your character, Joe Longo?
What do I like best? I like that he’s a guy’s guy. I like that he’s brutally honest. I sort of wanted to create him as a throwback because I didn’t think that this guy was on TV right now, this brutally honest kind of Bruce Willis from Moonlighting type guy who had a swagger and had a great heart. He’s just the kind of guy that if a woman asked him if she looked good or not in a dress, he would be perfectly honest and say, “Honestly, that one doesn’t look that great.” That’s the kind of guy that you think you’d hate, but at the end of the day I think you’d probably like him because he’s not saying it for malicious reasons but he’s saying it to be honest. Whereas, most guys would go, “No, honey, you look fine, you look great, you look wonderful.” But this guy would say it. I just wanted that guy back on TV. He’s a little politically incorrect. He’s kind of a unique combination because he’s very smart and made a lot of money and now he’s taking this job that he feels he’s really sucking it up for a minute until he gets his life back together. He’s a complex guy and I didn’t think that that guy was on TV, so that’s probably what I like best, that he’s just brutally honest.
The big question, whenever you do a romantic or a sexual tension sitcom, is do you put the couple together? Have you guys and the writers figured that out yet?
I think that this relationship is very similar to Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd in Moonlighting. It’s very similar to Ted Danson and Shelley Long/Kirstie Alley. It’s those love to hate, hate to love things, and if you get these two people together that starts to signify the show wrapping itself up. So, you’ve got to fight that for as long as you can, because if you give into that then it becomes syrupy and gives you cavities and then the comedy dies. So, it probably will happen, but hopefully we have an opportunity to be on for a while and it won’t happen for a while.
What does it feel like for you to work in front of a live audience? Do you find the energy is different having the immediate reaction from the fans?
Yes, I think that with this particular medium, the half hour comedy, I prefer it in front of a live audience, or at least some sort of hybrid version of it, just because I feel that a lot gets lost when there’s no live audience at all. It was really intended to be theater in a box. I mean, that’s what half hour comedy on TV was intended to be. As it’s grown and changed, I think that there’s a single camera format where you don’t have any audience. I think the live crowd keeps the show alive and moving along and keeps it bubbling under the surface, so to speak. I like that energy being in this format. It’s fun to watch and I think it makes you feel alive when you watch it. It is a rush, because it really is like theater. You get that great response when a joke works and you also don’t get a great response when a joke doesn’t work and you know and then you can change it, which is what we do. I don’t know; it’s a great experience.
Are there any personality traits in real life that have been infused into the characters?
You’ve got to put a little bit of yourself into all the characters that you portray. There are some similarities, but I’d say there are more things – especially in Joe Longo – that are not similar to me, but that’s what I enjoy. I enjoy playing that because that’s not the guy that I am essentially. But I do like the fact that he’s honest. I think we share that in common.
Talking about families, both you and Melissa have young children and I’m just wondering how hard it is right now to balance the series and your families.
That’s really the challenge of any young parent with any job really. I’m not any different than any guy who’s an upstart lawyer or an investment banker or a construction worker or a teacher or anything like that. The toughest challenge in life is to balance being the best parent you can be and also succeeding as much as you can. Knowing that you’re doing it for your family, knowing that you’re doing it for college funds and to hopefully allow you and your wife to be able to spend your later years in somewhat of financial comfort. That’s what it’s all about. But that balance is probably the toughest thing in life, really, because it’s about switching gears constantly. You come home from a long day of work and there’s a lot of things on your mind and the normal stresses and anxieties and responsibilities of your work, and then bang, you walk through the door and it’s diaper changing and Phineas and Ferb and story time and bath time, and it’s just, wow. So, it’s not easy, but challenges are something that I feel are exciting and that I want to conquer, and this is certainly I think one of the largest ones that any person will ever have, really.
Are you going to use your musical talents on Melissa & Joey?
Yes, I actually did write the theme song for this. In the opening titles, the way they do it nowadays sort of the theme song as a whole has kind of disappeared, which is unfortunate, they don’t play the whole thing. But at the end of the show if you listen out for it and it’s like this, “I guess you’re stuck with me,” right, and that is part of a full song which will be up on iTunes and it’s a really cute little folky-pop thing. Then we totally did a full remix, a brand-new version of it, which will be on my record which comes out early next year, which is really exciting. The record’s great. I would not have gone down that road again if I didn’t really think it was awesome, and it is exciting working with Matthew Gerard and a bunch of great guys on this thing. It’s a pop record that I think people are going to be happy with. It’s really exciting stuff. Anyway, the total remix version is we did this reggae sort of dance version of this song and we flipped it up on its head and I re-did the vocal and everything and it sounds really sick. So that will be on the record too.
You and Melissa both have a really large fan base that goes back a long way and so I was hoping that you could talk about who the fans are for the show and what audience you’re expecting, new fans, old fans, and just the response so far.
The response so far has been great. I think our fans are people that have grown up with us and then there’s a younger growing fan base that’s grown up with the reruns of the shows. That’s what’s so great. I know that when Brotherly Love went over to the Disney Channel, although my fans at the time were probably 19, 20 years old, it went over there and became the number one show on that channel for four or five years, and it was exposed to a bunch of 8-year-olds and 10-year-olds who are now 17 and 18. So even though probably my core audience is 25 to 35 or something like that, there are all these 15-year-olds, 16-year-olds, and 17-year-olds that know very well who I am and who Matt and Andy are just because of that success. I know it was the same with Melissa with Sabrina being on reruns everywhere and stuff like that. That’s what makes it very unique. When you’re blessed enough to do this kind of work for a long time and yet still are young, you are exposed to a bunch of different ages, and they will start to follow you if you’re lucky. We’ve both been very lucky in that regard. I’d say the age range is probably anywhere from 12 to 49, which is what made it enticing to the network.
You said that you’ve been in the business for a long time. What do you attribute your success to, anything in particular?
It’s the intangible, really. But there’s no rhyme or reason for it and there’s certainly no progression that you can follow, other than just try to work hard. I’ve always tried to work hard. I try to live right and make as many right choices as I can. Nobody’s perfect by any means, but I think that we all know right and wrong and the goal in life, as my grandfather told me, is to try to make as many of the right decisions as you possibly can. I was from a generation that was about the work. There were young people even in my generation growing up that messed up, that had problems with drugs and run-ins with the law and stuff, but it was about the work. They didn’t go into it wanting to be famous for anything other than doing great work or being in big movies or TV shows. Today if there’s been any change at all, it’s that a lot of young people are coming in to this to be famous – like famous to be famous, not famous because of the work. For us, it was just about doing the work you loved to do. The fame thing was like, wow, a cherry on top and it was a cool thing, but you always kept perspective on it. Whereas, today gosh, so many of these young people are just famous for a sex tape or famous for something else crazy or getting arrested or drug overdoses, you know, it’s horrible. Part of the reason why I’ve been able to stick around for a long time is just because, well, number one, I’ve been lucky and I have great, incredible fans out there that grew up with me, because I’ve been able to do this from 5-years old to 34-years-old already. And I’m just sort of beginning really, I feel, because as a leading man this is when it begins, at 30 really. So, it’s kind of cool. Then keeping my nose clean and trying to live right and making it about the work instead of about my personal life and trying to keep as much of that private. Even though I’m a public person you try to keep as much of that private and try to keep it classy. I think that it’s worked so far.
What, if anything, would you do differently if you could go back and re-do it?
There were certain movies that I did not do during the whole Blossom run and stuff, just because I didn’t want to get burned out doing the whole teen thing. I was fortunate that when I was a young teenager, I was playing the age that I was. It wasn’t one of those things where I was like some of these other actors and stuff that were 25 playing 16, so that was the good thing about it. But you pass on some of these roles and they end up turning out to be huge hit movies. I don’t know whether I’d re-do it, but it makes you think twice, like maybe I should have. At the same point in time I didn’t want to burn myself out as a teenager and not have any sort of career later in life, because I think there are two ways you can go with that. You can either get over-exposed and then never work again, make a lot of money but never work again, or you can pace yourself and say, you know what, I believe that I can do this for the rest of my life and I think the prime area of a career, for a male especially, really doesn’t even begin until you’re in your middle thirties. Then if you’re lucky enough and if you choose wisely and you work hard enough probably 35-60 is really the career that you want. If you look at all the great leading men, you look at Tom Hanks and Michael Douglas and John Travolta, Bruce Willis, George Clooney, these guys. I mean, George Clooney didn’t even start ER until he was 35 or 36 years old. So that’s what I was thinking. I was trying to keep my eye on the bigger picture. But there were a couple of those movies that ended up being huge hit movies that probably wouldn’t have hurt, and that’s the way the cookie crumbles. I try not to have any regrets about anything, just because I believe that the way it went down is the way it was supposed to go down. You have to believe that otherwise you’ll drive yourself crazy.
I know in the past you’ve worked with your brothers in a lot of different projects. Is there any chance one of them would guest star in the future? Would you be interested in that?
Sure. I love those guys. They’re so talented. Yes. We’re already starting to throw around some ideas, cool ways to have Matt and Andy on the show in some regard. As a matter of fact, it’s a very good chance that Matt at some point will be on the show very shortly, and Andrew will as well, but I think the role for Matt will probably come up first.
I know you’re still involved with film other than TV and I was wondering if there are any upcoming projects or things you’re working on that you could talk about?
As I mentioned, we’ve got the new record coming out next year, which is exciting. I was able to work with Matthew Gerard on the whole thing, and I don’t know if you know who he is, but you can Google him. He’s just a prolific producer and has had 30 number one hit songs – one that Kelly Clarkson did, Jesse McCartney… it’s just incredible what he’s been able to do to. Miley Cyrus and all that stuff. We just started working and it’s turned into this amazing thing. In terms of films, I’m always working on that. That’s just a process that I really wanted to take my time and not rush it. That’s why even as a teenager I passed on a lot of those movie roles because I wanted to do them later when I felt like as a man that I’d be able to do the roles that I wanted to do. We’re getting there. I’m going to be doing a movie next year called Havana Heat, which is this big action Miami Vice thing, sort of in the line of The Expendables. Wesley Snipes is in it and we’re working with a bunch of great other guys. They’re closing their deals right now so I can’t really talk about them, but we’re going to put together sort of a dream team of amazing action guys and I’m going to play this cop that is sort of in the middle of it all. It’s about a drug lord that goes from the United States down to Cuba and me and my team follow him. It’s really exciting. It’s really cool. We’re going to start shooting that probably early next year, as soon as I’m done with hopefully the first full season of the show and before I start the second season.
I wanted to know what your favorite memory is or what you loved best about working on Blossom?
There’s not one specific memory, just kind of a really great, warm feeling about the whole thing, because that was a tremendous time in my life. There was a period of time there where as a 16-year-old, I was probably the most successful one in the world, so it’s not something that you plan but you certainly can’t beat that. It was just so great to be on a big hit show like that and to be so successful personally and yet still have all my friends. Since I was in high school and all those great things, you get your prom and you get your school trips. I flew back every three weeks to Abington Friends and then got to experience all that stuff and graduated from there. It was just a wonderful time. You look back on that and you say, wow, man, it was crazy how simple and just awesome it was, because as you get older life gets complicated, you know.
I read that you sold a script to ABC Family for a movie called Mr. Everything. Can you tell us about it?
Yes. It’s a movie that I’m doing with the producer of the Wedding Crashers, which is great. It’s a really funny movie, kind of like Doc Hollywood meets Sweet Home Alabama. We hope to be shooting it sometime next year, in between hopefully season one and two of this show. But it’s a really funny, romantic comedy that I think will work well for them. It would have made a great feature too. But I think that with the success of My Fake Fiancé we thought why not let ABC Family kind of give another crack at it, and they were excited about it and got a great team, and we’re going to make a good one. So, I’m looking forward to that.
You mentioned that you liked working in front of the live studio audience with the comedy. When you worked in Chicago were you bitten by the theater bug at all? Do you want to do more stage work?
I would do that. That is a ton of work. I’ve got mad props for those stage actors that do it 50 weeks out of the year, because it’s just tremendously draining because every day you wake up and basically, it’s a countdown to the show. Especially a musical like that, you have to be in perfect voice, and you have to sleep, and you need your rest, and you wake up and just prepare for the show. It’s eight shows a week. It’s unbelievable. I did it for four months and it kicked my butt. It was a great experience, but boy, it was like, wow. I happen to love that particular musical and I love the character and they let me do a Frank Sinatra thing with them and I loved it, so that was why I did that.
You’re really active on Twitter and I’m wondering how you’re finding that and how you find time for that.
Well, it’s hard to find time for it, actually. I was sort of pushed into it. All my friends are like, oh man, you’ve got to be on Twitter. I’m like a techno-idiot actually, but I was able to master my iPhone and Twitter. It’s kind of cool. It’s crazy; it’s like crazy and cool at the same time. It’s crazy that you are communicating with your fans, and that’s kind of cool and you get that instant feedback. But then it’s part of your job now, because if you don’t do it there are a lot of people that are doing it and developing that kind of relationship, I think is important.
I also noticed that Melissa is active on Twitter and has more followers than you, and I’m wondering if there’s any rivalry there?
Well, she started a long time before me. I just began the thing like five, six weeks ago, maybe seven weeks ago, and I’m getting my feet wet. I haven’t announced that I’m on Twitter as much as I should because I keep forgetting to do it, like when I’m on Regis and stuff. But we’re working on it. Yes, she’s got more than me. Bastard! No, it’s fine, it’s cool. I didn’t expect to have more than 200, so I was like hey, I’ve got 8,000, it’s pretty cool. I’m sure it will grow the more that I talk about it and stuff. I just have to do a better job of letting people know that I’m on it. That’s really my job.
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Copyright ©2010 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: September 5, 2010.