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Kelsey Grammer on the power of 'Boss'

By Mike Ayers, Special to CNN
updated 10:10 AM EDT, Fri August 17, 2012
Sanaa Lathan and Kelsey Grammer star in the new season of
Sanaa Lathan and Kelsey Grammer star in the new season of "Boss."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "Boss" returns for season 2 on Friday
  • The series won star Kelsey Grammer a Golden Globe
  • He says this character is the brightest guy he has ever played

(CNN) -- Though he's best known for his comedic work playing Frasier Crane on "Cheers" and "Frasier," Kelsey Grammer is enjoying critical success in dramatic fashion these days.

On the Starz original series "Boss," Grammer plays Chicago Mayor Tom Kane, who is suffering with DLB, a degenerative neurological disorder. The show is a look inside a backstabbing and corrupt political culture, where Grammer takes Kane into twisted, dark places, yet at the same time, exudes a sadness that makes fans feel a little empathy for the guy.

The first season was just eight episodes, but it was enough to earn Grammer a Golden Globe for "Best actor -- Television Series Drama." The series enters its second season Friday, with actors Jonathan Groff, hip-hop artist/actor T.I. and Sanaa Lathan joining the cast.

CNN recently spoke with Grammer about the politics surrounding "Boss" and how a show like "Cheers" prepares one for a dramatic role.

CNN: You won a Golden Globe for "Best actor -- Television Series Drama" for "Boss." Was that a shock?

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Grammer: Well, you know, I thought I had a shot with the Hollywood Foreign Press. They had a great meeting, where they do that chat thing that they do and asked a bunch of great questions. It's like a press conference. They asked questions that were interesting and required some thought to answer, so I thought they were obviously engaged a bit in this project.

CNN: Audiences know you in comedic roles, but might not think of you as a dramatic actor.

Grammer: Right, yeah, well that's something we were keeping secret all this time [Laughs]. Pull 'em out when you need 'em.

CNN: On a general level, what's in store for "Boss" season 2?

Grammer: There's so many twists and turns on plot points that can't be revealed, but what I can tell you -- the first half of the season is a series of manifestations of his disease and the decisions he's making are maybe colored by it. A bit more rash than he's been previously. So what we have is an accelerated, rhythmic shift in the energy of the show. I think some will find welcome, but also confusing in a weird way. It all changes again in the middle of the season, where we shift him back in a more slightly evil way and what his choices are for the next season, if we have one.

CNN: What was great about the first season was how manic he became and how it overtook him.

Grammer: What I like about Tom is that he's such a fighter. He won't let it finish him until it destroys him. That's what I love about him.

CNN: I read that the character isn't based on any current Chicago politicians.

Grammer: No, none of those guys are as cool as Tom Kane is. That's all I say.

CNN: Are there any aspects of the new season that mirrors what's happening in current politics?

Grammer: We really try to avoid it. If you take a look at the political world, it's 3,000 years old of difficulties and egos and aspirations and power grabs and betrayals. We just wanted to explore what we think is the whole condition of something that always seems current, which is politics.

CNN: Where does he fall in terms of the complexity of characters you've played?

Grammer: He's probably the brightest guy I've ever played. He's the greatest fighter I've ever played. MacBeth is similar to him, certainly. What I love about MacBeth is that he starts out as a hero and ends up as heroically evil in the end. So Tom Kane might start out where MacBeth is, but Tom Kane will fight you for that last ounce of life. I love that about that character. I wish I was more like him.

CNN: There's this great balance that the viewer gets of this guy. He's estranged from a lot of people that once meant a great deal to him in his life, and he has this disease that will make him nothing that he planned. But at the same time, he can be quite horrible to people. How do you balance that in bringing that out?

Grammer: It's confusing. What's interesting about Tom is that when he's in a caring moment, it's real, it's full, it's rich. You spot the humanity that's within this monster. You start to feel sorry for the monster, which is typical of a great horror-movie villain. You discover this humanity in him and you long for it in a weird way. But when he cares, he really cares. He's not phony. But then it becomes more confusing. It's just a great thing to get to play. He's so disabled by his own choices.

CNN: What most of us know about politicians is through these mediated filters: what we see on TV or the Internet . But this show is interesting because it gives a deeper look into these people that have a lot of responsibility.

Grammer: It's funny, I like the idea that my politicians might be human. I also want them to be real. I like it when politicians acknowledge "I'm good at this, I'm not good at that, you got to help me do that." I'd love more candor. But we're not going to get it. That's life.

CNN: Are there things that you learned working on a show like "Cheers" that that you're using still on "Boss"?

Grammer: Well, comedy's interesting. For a great laugh to happen, you have to believe the situation and believe the character. Comedy today is really gag-gag-gag, one-two punch. With Frasier we tried at least a page, a page-and-a-half without asking for a laugh. That's a slightly different experience.

"Cheers" was a bit like that, but "Frasier" more. What you learn from a drama like "Boss" is that there are big choices I make as that character and you have to believe it's possible. I mean, Frasier ended up jumping up and down on a bed, pretending he was having sex with himself (Laughs). This is extraordinary s**t. But you have to believe this is possible and coming out of a real situation. So I end up tearing some guys ear off as the mayor and you believe it. Because you bought into why he's there. Maybe those things are what you learn as a result of knowing what works ... you have to lay the foundation.

CNN: Have you been following the current race?

Grammer: Listen, this one was really predictable to what was going to happen, from both sides at this point. It has been for a couple years. If you're not doing well in office, then the country's split. They've been playing that card for awhile now. We're in that cycle. I've been rooting for the conservative side of the equation for awhile now and that's where I'm at. Only because I think it's time for change this time, a different kind of change.

The new season of "Boss" premieres August 17 on Starz.

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