Primetime Pulse Exclusive Interview: Tony Shalhoub and Bitty Schram

Tony Shalhoub and Bitty Schram

Tony Shalhoub and Bitty Schram joined me and a couple dozen other online press types (so “exclusive” is a relative term) for a conference call earlier this week to promote the return of Sharona in this week’s all new episode of Monk.

Here’s the network description of the episode: When Sharona returns to San Francisco to handle legal issues related to an uncle’s death, Monk suspects foul play and finds himself torn between the differing styles of Sharona and Natalie. Bitty Schram guest stars in “Mr. Monk and Sharona”, Friday, October 23 at 9/8C on USA Network.

Tony Shalhoub has earned three Emmy Awards, a Golden Globe Award and two SAG Awards for Best Actor in a Comedy Series for his portrayal of Adrian Monk, a brilliant detective who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder. Monk’s psychological disorder costs him his position as a legendary homicide detective on the San Francisco Police force. Due to the tragic unsolved murder of his wife, Monk has developed an abnormal fear of germs, heights, crowds and virtually everything else, which provides an unusual challenge to solving crimes … not to mention his day-to-day existence. (All that’s also from an official press release, but anyone who has actually watched the show knows that the OCD pre-dates his wife’s death and stems from his troubled childhood as well as a probable genetic predisposition. Just sayin’.)

Bitty Schram (“A League of their Own”). Schram co-starred on the show from its inception as Monk’s beloved nurse and “Girl Friday” sidekick, Sharona Fleming. Below she reveals a little bit about what she’s been up to since.

It was a lively session, with lots of Tony/Bitty banter. Nobody asked the question you’d think most press people would be dying to ask, namely, why did Bitty leave the show? Maybe it’s all considered water under the bridge now.

We’re going to start out with my questions and their answers to my questions, because that was the really fun part for me.

Teresa Murray: My question is for both of you. What’s your favorite Monk/Sharona moment?

Tony Shalhoub: Wow, that’s a…

Bitty Schram: [finishing his sentence for him]: …a hard one. Because I always think that you do so much and you work so many long hours it just becomes a blur, right? It’s hard to remember those things.

TS: I think I would have to go back to season two. We did an episode called “Mr. Monk Goes to the Circus.” Was it the circus? Yeah. And Bitty…. Sharona in that episode revealed that she had a fear of elephants.

BS: Oh, I remember that. [She laughs.]

TS: That was just a really great runner [running joke] where Monk, after she’s taken care of him and been sensitive to his problems and condition he has no…. he is so out of touch. Monk is so out of touch. He just gives her no sympathy at all when he finds out that she’s got this fear of elephants, because it’s as if, why could you be afraid of anything so ridiculous. I think there was a lot of good back and fourth in that episode in those moments.

BS: The one where they squished the watermelon, but I thought it was your head or something like that? I don’t know.

TS: Yeah, there was a guy, a guy gets his head squished. Right.

BS: That was funny

TS: That was a good one.

BS: This is good and hard. I can’t remember. We’ve had a lot of good moments.

TS: Also I think there was, not to speak for you, Bitty, but also I think that first moment of the pilot, you know, just the first couple of beats of the pilot.

BS: With the stove?

TS: With the stove and Monk and Sharona. So much of the tone of the show and the dynamic between the two characters, the dynamic between the two characters was illustrated in that opening and her kind of you know firm and yet really, really supportive….

BS: You know what, that pilot, that whole pilot I liked. That was really good, the pilot, the way Dean [Parisot] did that pilot.

TS: Yeah, we felt very, very good about it. We knew that we were on to something good there.

BS: Yeah, we had lots of good moments in that pilot too. I think so. Like the way we worked with Dean that was very special in that whole pilot I thought.

TS: Does that answer your question?

Teresa Murray: It does. So aside from Bitty, Tony, who was your favorite eighth season guest star?

TS: Oh god, aside from Bitty? I can’t think of anybody else who even comes close. Oh, we had Daniel Stern in the UFO episode and he was terrific to work with. I had never worked with him before. He was delightful and really, really helped to ground an episode that could have gone a little too goofy. So he was really important to that show.

BS: He’s a good actor.

Teresa Murray: Tony, what will you miss most about Monk?

TS: I’ll miss the people. It’s always about the people: the crew and the production team and the directors and obviously the cast. You know, we’ve just all gotten very close and love spending time together. That’s kind of what gets you out of bed really early in the morning and putting up with these long, long days. You do it because of the people and for the people. It’s been a great way to keep all these people working.

Here are the rest of the questions from others on the call.

To prepare for your role as Adrian Monk on the USA series, Monk, it’s reported that you did a substantial amount of research with a Los Angeles psychotherapist specializing in obsessive-compulsive disorder. What was that experience like? Did you have to study someone with OCD?

Tony Shalhoub: The psychologist that I spoke with and had sessions with just gave me a lot of information and a lot of reading material. That combined with some videos that I was able to find, videos of people who suffer from OCD, I was able to kind of build the character off of that information. It was kind of standard research that you would do for prepping for any role, really.

What can you tell us about the upcoming series finale?

TS: I can’t tell you too much other than the writers have – they’re going to solve the Trudy mystery and have resolution there. But I’m really not at liberty to give away too much of that information. And after eight years on Monk, it’s had a devastating effect on my memory, so even if wanted to, I probably couldn’t tell you, because I really don’t remember how it goes.

What was it like for you and Bitty to work together again?

TS: Oh well, it was fantastic. It was great. It felt like we just picked up right where we left off. We didn’t miss a beat. The only difficulty for me was that I look a lot older and Bitty looks exactly the same.

Bitty Schram: I’m not so sure about that. You’re being too kind.

Was the chemistry that Adrian and Sharona always had easy to revive, Bitty?

BS: Oh, yes, absolutely. It was honestly like I never left. I swear it’s exactly what he said. It’s a bizarre phenomenon, but it’s true. I don’t know why. At that Seinfeld thing, on Curb Your Enthusiasm, I heard something like a remark that Jason Alexander said, like they never left, like riding a bike and it’s true. It’s like it never leaves.

TS: Bitty and I both looked at each other while we were doing the first scene. The first day was the scene where she returns and it just felt like we just looked at each other and laughed because it felt like no time at all had passed.

BS: That’s very true you know. I mean honestly it felt like I never left. Even with the crew, even with everyone. It was bizarre, but in a good way. I mean, it’s good you know. It never leaves you, never.

I saw some pictures of a wedding taking place. I wonder Tony if you can give us any information on that?

TS: Um, no. Okay, yes. I’ll give you some information. A wedding takes place on the show. A man and a woman become wed. That’s about all I can give you.

What lesson did you come away with about people dealing with mental health issues?

TS: I think the biggest thing is that sometimes, I think this is true for people that suffer from OCD, but also just for everyone in our culture, sometimes our neuroses or our idiosyncrasies or what we view as our shortcomings or our problems, can actually be used as our strengths. You know, if you can figure out a way to turn your liabilities into assets. With Adrian Monk of course it was his obsessive, obsessive attention to detail that drove him and others crazy, but also allowed him to be really good at his job. So that’s what I came away with.

Is it difficult putting a character away that you’ve played for so long and if you left and came back is it a different reaction to do the same thing?

TS: You want me to go first? I really just stopped shooting yesterday, so I don’t really feel like it’s left me yet. I don’t know how long that is going to take. So I think I’d have to answer that question in a few weeks.

BS: As for me, I think it’s similar to the question I answered before. It never leaves. Even though I came back for a brief moment it was as if I never left, honestly it’s not…. What was the question again? I’m so sorry. What was the question? I knew the question, but I forgot it as I was answering it.

Was it difficult to put this character away?

BS: To put it away? Is that what you said? Yes, I get it and does it come back? No, because it kind of like it just comes back. I can’t explain it, but it just does. No, it wasn’t hard.

TS: I think it has a lot to do with the writing the way these writers work, the language, the rhythm, the music of the dialogue. It sort of kind of infects you and lives inside of you. It really does become a part of you.

Would either of you want to revisit these characters again?

TS: Go ahead, Bitty.

BS: I think I’m capped out on it, you know. If I had a reason to do it I would be more than happy, but I think I’ve explored all that I can explore with that character. You know what I’m saying? But I would, if I had to go back to it. I love the character and I love the chemistry and I absolutely love working with Tony. He knows how much I respect his work. I have no problem going back to it if I have to, but I think I’ve explored what I had to explore with it.

TS: I don’t know, I’d never say never, really. I don’t know how likely it is that we’ll have the chance to go back to these characters. I honestly can’t say, as it’s really not up to me, but I never say, never.

Both of my questions are for Bitty. Did you give much thought to how the character of Sharona would react to the character of Natalie as you were doing it?

BS: I didn’t really know what the script, what they had planned, until I got the script. I got it like a week before and then I thought about it once I got the script, because I didn’t really know what they wrote for me to come back and stuff like that and what they had the relationship being. You know what I’m saying? But once I read the script then I could make choices on how to play that and how to play my relationship with Natalie. I didn’t know until I had more information.

Did you watch the show much after you left?

BS: No, honestly, I didn’t, but that had nothing to do with me leaving. When I was on it I didn’t really watch it, because it’s hard for me to watch. It’s really just hard for me to watch anything…. I’ve never really even watched some other things I’ve done. I don’t like doing that to be honest. So it has nothing to do with… it’s just my neuroses.

Tony, when you look at Monk now what feelings do you have for the character as opposed to day one?

TS: Ah, day one. Yes, well, day one I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t really have an understanding of where the writers and where I was going to take this character how it was going to evolve, but now of course having done 124 episode I was really, really gratified to see that we made this character really multifaceted and full of contradictions and I think pretty well rounded. So as an actor that’s something you really always look for.

Is it easier or more difficult going into a season and knowing it’s the last?

TS: It’s both. It sort of alternates back and forth. On the one hand it’s easier, because you understand that there’s going to be resolution and there’s going to be a finish line, an end point. Then on the other hand, it’s just become such a family and you know you’re going to miss these people and these relationships and the sort of collective creative energy.

I have two questions for both of you. Are you satisfied with how the series is ending? And what’s next for both of you?

TS: You want to go there, Bitty?

BS: Okay. I don’t know how the series is ending with the last two, but from experience I – because I don’t know the storylines – but for me being back on the show, I was really happy to do it and I thought it ended really, really well. I just thought it ended the way it should have and I was very, very pleased with it and very pleased to be working with everyone again on that show. I really was.

TS: Do you want to talk about what you’re going to do next?

BS: Thank you, Tony. Next? Well, I wrote something. I’m in the process. It’s a long story. I don’t how to say it. I wrote a pilot myself and we’re in the middle of getting that off the ground. So it’s like a series type thing.

And Tony?

TS: Well, as far as the finale of the series, I’m very, very happy with how it’s come out. In fact the last, not just the last two episodes, but the last five or six, when there are a lot of things revealed. I just think it’s some of the strongest stuff we’ve done in all this time. So, yes the answer is I’m very, very, very happy. It was incredibly satisfying for me and I’m guessing it will be for the viewers. As far as, you know, what’s down the road for me I um…. I guess I’ll be stalking Bitty until I get a part in her pilot.

BS: I would be more than…. I haven’t thought about it, but that’s a good idea.

TS: Well, you better start thinking about it.

BS: Okay, so here we go.

TS: It’s really why I arranged this phone call.

BS: And why we have 20 PR people here. This is very smart, very, very smart.

TS: That’s right. Because you’re in such an awkward position. You can hardly say no.

BS: It happens a lot.

My question basically involves Monk’s family. I think the more memorable episodes of the series have always been seeing kind of a bit of the background. Will we get the chance to see more of them return or perhaps even his mother?

TS: No, not really in the last six. No. Really Trudy resurfaces in a big way. I mean the memory of Trudy. That’s kind of the way the writers have mapped it out.

This one’s for Bitty. We all know that Sharona’s coming back obviously, how will the storyline play out as far as her relationship with Monk and Natalie’s relationship? Is it going to be the same dynamic or is it going to be a little bit different?

BS: Well, I think with me and Tony, or Sharona and Adrian, I think it is the same dynamic. I just think with Natalie added in there I think there’s…. I mean, it may change the dynamic a little, but I think we still have the same relationship, but I’m very competitive with her because, you know, I’ve always loved him no matter what and I think that’s the core of making it work. You know what I’m saying? You know all the humor and the depth that we try to get within the humor, but I think my relationship with Natalie is a competitive one, vying for his attention…. No, not attention.

TS: Loyalty, really. Yes, vying for Monk’s loyalty, I think.

BS: Yes, or like who’s more special.

TS: His favorite.

BS: Yes, exactly. Who’s his favorite? I think we both care about him. I think we’re both coming from the same place, just a different approach. And so I think with Natalie thrown into the mix, our relationship is the same but I think it’s just an added element to it. I thought it worked well and I liked it. We did fight a little and I liked that, the little cat fight.

TS: Yes, they’re fun to love. That was a little nice conflict. They do come together. The two characters do come together, Natalie and Sharona. But their common ground is that they have enormous affection for him and they’re also driven crazy by him. That’s another thing that they share. They’re approaches to taking care of him are what create the conflict.

BS: Yes, and wanting to be special to him.

Tony, you had mentioned that you had made a film in Door County [Wisconsin] and I was wondering if there’s any news on that, if it’s going to be released or how that’s going?

TS: It’s funny you mentioned it. I just came in from a lab where we had they had just finished the color correction on the movie. So we’re sending it out to various film festivals. We don’t have distribution yet, but the movie’s in great shape. The mix has been done and the music’s in and it’s all color timed. So we’re hoping that we’ll get some positive feedback from some of these festivals. You can find a distributor by going that route, but thank you for asking. It’s called Feed the Fish: The Feel Good Film of the Winter.

BS: That title, Feed the Fish, I like that.

So could you just tell us a little bit more about it, just a little description of it?

TS: Sure, it’s a comedy and it’s sort of a fish out of water story. Sort of a failed children’s book writer who lives in Los Angeles and has kind of hit bottom. His relationship has gone south. His career has gone south. He gets talked into going to this place in Wisconsin called Door County which is near where I grew up. Anyway he goes there. It’s the dead of winter. He leaves sunny Los Angeles and goes to stay with his friend. His friend is getting ready to do a polar bear plunge. He goes there and he’s just way, way out of his league. It’s a fish out of water thing. It’s freezing. The people are strange. The whole environment is strange. So it’s kind of a really sweet movie. I love it.

What has been your favorite episode so far and why?

TS: Go ahead, Bitty

BS: For both of us. Oh, god. That’s always a tough one. I never know how to answer that. I liked a lot of them. I like the one with John Turturro. I always liked that one.

TS: “Three Pies”.

BS: With Tony and his brother. I love that one. “The Three Pies”?

TS: Yeah.

BS: Yeah, because I love the dynamic with Tony and John Turturro in that. I just love the brother. So that’s my favorite, because of that.

TS: That’s one of my favorites too, I’d have to say. Also, though, all told, I think down the road if you were to ask me this question in a month or two, I would say the finale is going to become my favorite because it’s been such an enormous…. it’s a two parter and it’s a big, big story and so much, so much is revealed there. I think that’s going to be a good one.

Are you doing a Christmas episode this year?

TS: No, because our finale airs in December. Well, the first part airs the Friday after Thanksgiving and then the last part, the second part airs on December 4th. So we’ve luckily dodged the Christmas episode for one season. That’s always been a little tricky.

Bitty, what are the similarities between you and Sharona and what were the differences?

BS: Oh, god. I guess the similarities are, well, she’s kind of feisty, you know. I guess I can get that way.

BS: I guess I could get that way. I think she could have kind of a tough exterior, but she’s kind of mush inside. I think that’s more me. I do. I do. I just think her strength or whatever just comes from a survival mechanism. It’s not really like what she is, if she didn’t have to be. You know what I’m saying? The differences? I think I have more culture than her.

BS: I’m a lot more smarter than she is.

[Tony laughs. He thinks Bitty’s a riot. And she is.]

BS: She doesn’t go to New York and see plays. You know what I’m saying? She’s just stuck in Jersey, you know. Even though I am from Jersey. Not to put Jersey down but…. I like Jersey. I’m more cultured. How about that?

TS: I’d have to agree with that.

When you both saw the script and the idea for the show for the first time did you ever grasp how large this show could grow and the fan base and the awards?

TS: No. The answer for me is, you just never know in TV these days. Sometimes you can do something that you feel is really good and worthwhile and it just for some reason it doesn’t translate or it’s the wrong. It’s ahead of its time or behind its time or whatever. The television landscape is very, very tricky and unstable. So you, when you try to be a realist about it, you just have to remain just cautiously optimistic at best.

BS: I would never have thought this. I just thought it was going to be a TV – remember, Tony, a TV movie. It was supposed to just be that.

TS: Exactly. There was talk of, because it was a two-hour pilot there was some talk of it just being a one-off or there was some talk that maybe they would do one of these kinds of TV movies a year or we just, we didn’t really know if it was going to turn into a series.

BS: Yes, we really had no idea.

You’ve won three Emmys; you’ve got a Golden Globe. Is it strange now to turn on the TV and find yourself on Nick at Nite on Wings?

TS: On Wings. Oh my God. It’s funny you say that, because Wings has been showing on USA a little bit, so sometimes if I’m flipping channels and there’s me on Wings and then they’ll do a promo of Monk during the commercials of Wings and I look like my own father or something. It’s awful. It’s really hard. I can’t watch that for very long.

What was one of your favorite experiences working on Monk? And this goes to both of you.

TS: I would have to say last season we had Gena Rowlands on as a guest star, and that was an enormous honor for me to be able to not just work with her, but get to know her over the course of that episode. And because when I was a student studying theatre and acting and she was an idol of mine and has remained so, I felt after I did that episode that I could just basically retire.

BS: Oh, she’s great, Tony. She is.

TS: Yes. And she was also nominated for an Emmy for our show. So that was one of the highlights for me. There were many though, there are many highlights, but that was huge for me.

BS: And I guess for me if I was doing that episode that I would have the same answer as Tony with the Gena Rowlands. I wasn’t there, but one of the highlights for me was working with Willie Nelson.

TS: Oh, yes, I forgot about that.

BS: Willie Nelson, because he’s such a legend. He’s just such a legend and that was a highlight for me. Very simple and…

TS: Also very gracious, incredibly gracious.

BS: Oh, yes, he’s a true artist. Willie Nelson was just great. Yes, he was gracious and for me, that would be it, too.

Has any of Monk’s OCD triggered you to have slight OCD tendencies? Do you have to actively make any effort to be filthier than normal, not to take on Monk’s habits subconsciously?

TS: No, I don’t think – to be honest, I don’t think I’ve taken on many more than I already have to begin with. I just, just that my eyes were opened to more of the things that I – I became more aware of the things that I already had.

Bitty, what was it about now that made you decide to return to the show?

BS: Oh, they just simply asked me. It was that easy. I was just like, yes, sure. It was that easy, yes. Yes, it was nothing like – it was that simple, yes.

What would you like to say to everyone who’s a fan and supporter of Sharona?

BS: I would first of all like to thank them so much for their support and for watching and actually liking – it makes me feel like I do my job, so I thank them for that. And I wouldn’t be here without them, so it’s all about the audience that we’re trying to – it’s all about the audience because without them we’re nothing, right? So I’m just very thankful for their support.

TS: I think they’re going to really like this episode this week. Especially the Sharona fans, the hard core Sharona fans. But I think everybody’s really going to like this one. It’s got a lot of juice.

Bitty, I was just wondering if you could give us some idea of the concept for your pilot, like the underpinning idea for the series.

BS: Oh, you mean the thing I wrote? Oh, Jesus, I wasn’t prepared for that. Let me think. Well, it’s very simply put, it’s a very controversial concept. How can I explain this? I don’t how to just explain it without giving it away. And I don’t think I really should give it away right now. Let me think about this for a second. It’s very media orientated. It’s kind of – do you remember the film Network? It’s very like that. It’s a modern day Network, if that makes any sense to you. Like a modern day Network.

TS: Have I mentioned that I’m available?

BS: Oh, Tony, it would be up your alley I think. I really do think so.

TS: Just throwing that out there.

BS: It’s actually a very manly piece. You wouldn’t think a female wrote it – it’s a lot of men in their 50’s and – but there’s women, too. It’s a huge ensemble, but it’s very manly orientated, very much so.

So it would be a dramedy?

BS: It’s a dark satire. It would be – it’s very HBO. It could not go on – honestly, it could not go on a major net – well, I shouldn’t say that, but it’s a very HBO feel. Let’s put it that way. But it’s a dark satire.

Tony, do you have a sense that you made an impact in the OCD community?

TS: You know, based on mail that we’ve received from people who suffer from this disorder and from various other people like doctors and people in academia, impact is kind of a big word. But I definitely think that they seem to have embraced this character and maybe in some ways Monk has kind of become a poster boy for those who suffer. But the feedback has all been so positive. I hope that it’s had some effect in maybe destigmatizing the disorder and allowing people to see it as something not as just a debilitating mental illness. This character suffers, but still can do his job well and still contributes and is a contributing member to society. I hope that people can see other sufferers in the same way.

What has Monk taught you on a personal level?

TS: You mean the character of Monk? I guess it’s made me a little bit more – I tend to take my time with examining certain things or I feel like it’s made me somewhat more observant and less quick to jump to conclusions or to make snap judgments. It’s kind of slowed down my processes in that way, just allowing me to kind of pour over something a little for longer periods. And I think that seems to have been, be of some value.

My question is really for both of you. Is there ever any thought of making the relationships more than friendship and turning them romantic — with both Sharona and Natalie?

BS: We came close, Tony. There was some – Tony, remember when we had to kind of try to kiss or something and …

TS: We were posing as a married couple. Yes.

BS: That was funny.

TS: That was good. I don’t want to answer that too directly because some of the upcoming episodes start to speak to that. And I wouldn’t want to reveal anything prematurely. I do have one question if I may, before we finish. Bitty. Where do you think that pilot will shoot? I mean, where will the show shoot? In case that would be a factor as to whether I’d be able to do it. You know, would it be Canada? Or would it be . . .

BS: In New York City. Yes, but you know what, though, Tony. Just so you know, I just want to make clear to everyone this is not like signed, sealed and delivered. I’m in a process, right in the middle of a process of making that. So I just want everyone to know like this isn’t like signed, sealed and delivered. I would be humiliated, but we’re in a process right now if that makes sense.

TS: Well, I’m a very patient person.

BS: Just so you know, Tony. I mean, it would be shot in New York City. Just so you know.

TS: Just putting out the feelers. Thank you all for your time today.

Watch “Mr. Monk and Sharona”, Friday, October 23 at 9/8C on USA Network

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