Standing near the window, the mayor of Chicago, played by Kelsey Grammer, dips his head and swirls a glass of Scotch.
“Maybe they’re right,” he says, as his assistant (Kathleen Robertson) watches from in front of his desk. “People, out there. Not in their appraisal of me—you know what I think about that. At some point, you maybe have to ask yourself why it was worth it. Maybe that’s how you calculate that it’s finally time to [long pause] step down.
“What’s left to do in this office that I haven’t already done? Except maybe put up with more days like this.”
It’s an intense scene on the set of episode seven of Boss, which begins an eight-installment first season October 21 on Starz (and was already renewed for a second season) and features Grammer as Mayor Tom Kane. We’re at the opened-in-May Cinespace Chicago Film Studios on West 16th Street, near Douglas Park, where the crew has constructed a 37,000-square-foot set that encompasses the mayor’s office, as well as that of the Chicago Sentinel, a newspaper that, in the show, is a thorn in Kane’s side.
It’s mid-July, and the three-month shoot is winding down, but I’m told that this particular day’s scenes are explosive. Between takes, the suspendered Grammer sits outside the mayor’s inner office, a few feet away from a portrait of himself, tapping his toe on a stool leg. The man he plays—a politician trying to maintain power while secretly suffering from a degenerative disease—is afraid to be seen shaking.
What’s Grammer working on as he fiddles intensely on his iPad during every break? A publicist thinks he’s memorizing a mammoth ten pages of dialogue. Not quite. “Words with Friends,” Grammer tells me, referring to the mobile-based Scrabble knockoff. He elaborates later, by phone. “Scrabble’s always been my favorite game, so when Words with Friends arrived, I was very pleased with it,” he says. “I’m even trying to actually get in the business with Hasbro on it, to actually figure out some way to make some sort of television show based upon it or some sort of film based upon it.”
During the break, he also fields e-mails from back home in Los Angeles, where he’s dealing with the fallout from a divorce in February. Grammer acknowledges his private life has influenced his take on the role. Among his character’s few confidants is his distant, Hillary Clinton–esque wife (Connie Nielsen); a pivotal drama in the show concerns his desire to reconnect with an estranged junkie daughter (Hannah Ware). “You don’t do this consciously, but what happens is, sometimes, the emotion, the energy that you’re experiencing in your personal life can piggyback on the life of the character you’re playing,” Grammer says. “What I’ve been experiencing lately has probably helped give what would not be a decipherable depth to the performance, but certainly something that adds color and adds substance.” Still, he adds, “I like to go to work, I like to throw on the costume and get it done. And take off the costume and go home and be me.”
Grammer, who doubles as one of the series’ executive producers, has said the show does not correspond to Chicago politics. (There’s no relation to Mike Royko’s Boss, the journalist’s best-selling account of the first Mayor Daley’s tenure.) But for those who know Chicago, it’s hard to escape parallels to our recently abdicated Mare. Grammer glowers like Richard M., and his character makes a passing reference to “the old man’s time.” In the first two episodes, one of the major struggles involves a snag in the O’Hare expansion—although it’s hard to picture Daley sweating over vote counts in an uncooperative City Hall.
Inspired by King Lear, the show is the brainchild of a creative team that includes Farhad Safinia (screenwriter of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto) and director Gus Van Sant. Indeed, it’s another chapter in the filmmaker’s ongoing series of films exploring mortality.
According to Grammer, Chicago simply provided an appropriately epic backdrop for the story of a king’s downfall. “The language of the history of Chicago is rich and full of dramatic and terrific examples to help support a story like this,” he explains. “We did a lot of research—Farhad did a lot of research, honestly—and I think people who’ve lived in Chicago all their lives will actually learn things about the history of Chicago from this show. I don’t want to sound like a pretentious twit, but I do think people will be surprised about some of it.”
And if the real Daley had hot secretaries who sleep with gubernatorial candidates, well, then, this town was made for television.
“It’s a pretty crazy world,” says Robertson (90210, Gregg Araki’s Splendor), who plays the mayor’s assistant, Kitty O’Neill. A Toronto native, she met with former Chicago mayoral staff to get a sense of the subculture, and found a former Daley aide (whom she can’t name) who was particularly helpful. She also says the salaciousness of the series—which includes her having a fling with Kane’s hand-picked candidate to challenge the governor—is tame. “Our show is certainly not even close to some of the stuff that has gone on [in real life],” she says. (“Very out there,” Grammer adds when he pops his head into the room.)
The show deals with the decline of Kane’s empire, something vividly examined in the two scenes I watch being filmed. The first, for reasons unclear, has the city on lockdown, with O’Neill informing Kane that all nonessential employees have been put on leave and all parks and monuments are closed. It’s hard not to see a parallel between the mayor’s doting staff and the film crew, nearly all of whom have high praise for the actor. (The party line is that Boss will be seen as a major change of pace for the Frasier star, even though he’s acted in drama—particularly Shakespeare—onstage for many years.) Before shooting dialogue, the crew poses him at the desk to catch his most iconic look. Later, episode director Jean de Segonzac scraps one take in order to straighten a crinkle of shirt clustered under Grammer’s suspender.
Outside, indie-film vet Martin Donovan (Amateur) waits. He plays the mayor’s right-hand man, Ezra Stone, who attends to his boss’s dirty work. “I remember people saying early on that, well, they’re thinking of Rahm Emanuel,” Donovan says. “I don’t know what you know about this story, but it’s just so not modeled on any living person. It’s a very dark, almost operatic piece.… They talk about wards and they talk about aldermen and ward bosses and on the superficial level, its setting is Chicago, but it wouldn’t help me to know in particular a great deal about Chicago politics. It’s all about power, the nature of power, and that can be applied to any setting.”
As much as everyone insists that Boss’s Chicago is fictional, attention has been paid to details, from the obvious (the newspaper office is adorned with headlines that include ryan guilty! and jane byrne wins!) to the less so (memorabilia from the CTA centennial). This is in part because most of the set decorators are local. It’s a Friday; on Monday, many crew members will move to the shoot for The Playboy Club, the new (and recently canceled) NBC drama filming at the same studio.
With lunch scheduled for 4pm, the second scene of the day involves Kane’s grim powwow with the ward bosses. (Normally, when you hear, “Ward boss two needs to be wired!” it means something else.) After the scene wraps, Grammer exits the office, yelling, “Ward bosses, get outta here!” He then thanks the actors individually. It’s hard to picture a real Chicago mayor doing that.
Boss premieres October 21. Attend a free advance screening of the first episode at 7pm Tuesday 18 at Landmark Century Centre (2828 N Clark St, 773-509-4949). Or watch a preview starting Friday 14 at starz.com/boss.