Interview: Peter Tolan and Callie Thorne Talk ‘Rescue Me’ Season 6

Denis Leary and Peter Tolan

It’s amazing after seven years (if you count the minisodes season due to the writers strike) that FX’s firefighter drama Rescue Me is still going strong. I had a chance to sit down with series co-creator/writer Peter Tolan and star Callie Thorne to talk about the upcoming season.

The first thing I had to know was how the announced end date had effected the way Tolan was writing the show. To which he actually revealed something very unexpected.

Tolan: First of all, we’re actually done.  The show is done.  We’ve actually finished production about three weeks ago.  So, I think, it was actually very liberating to have an end date because it was just easier.  First of all, you’re much more careful because you’re like, this is it.  There’s not going to be anything after this, so this better be … great.  You have a responsibility to your characters and all that.  That’s a big part of it.

Also, we had made a decision last year, last season, when we were doing all those episodes of what the final episode was going to be.  So, we knew what we were writing to.  And that has happened very rarely.  I think, on this show, in the first season, we knew what we were writing to.  We knew what the last scene of the last episode of that group was.  So, that was sort of liberating in a way, too.  It really helps you to have an end.  The combination of being more protective of the show since it’s the last few episodes and knowing exactly what you’re writing to—some people might find that constricting, but it was really, actually, very good for us, and I think the show is much more focused than it sometimes has been in the past.

Once I found out the show had already wrapped production I wondered if the end of it all was bittersweet for him. Callie also weighed in on that.

Tolan: No.  I hate everybody involved except for Callie Thorne who is actually on the phone with me.

Thorne: He’s telling the truth.  He couldn’t wait to run off the set on our last day.  Everyone was like crying and hugging.  Everyone was like, “Wait, where’d Peter go?”

Tolan: Of course it was bitter-sweet.  … what was the saddest part of it, because Callie was actually there.  When we sort of wrapped everybody, we were doing a big scene with a lot of the characters in one place, and, normally, you have like a series wrap as sort of one person at a time.  This is pretty much everybody.  So the saddest part was the girls, the daughters, the Gavin girls, because when they started the show they were 7 and 14, and now they’re 14 and 21.  They just sort of grew up with us, and I think that was more of a difficult thing.

Thorne: I think you’re right.  I agree with you.  I was already crying the day before.  I think that when I first started to first cry was when they said that this was a series wrap on Lenny Clarke.  I just realized what was happening, and that we were all doing the last parts of everything.  But, you’re right, I agree with you about the two girls, because as much as they grew up with us, I sort of feel like I grew up with them as well.  We’ve all been together for a really long block of time than on any other job I’ve not experienced.  It was very sad.

It then became a wonder, how was Tolan approaching the final episodes?

Tolan: It feels like one long arc because we shot them all together.  So, we were much more into the idea of connecting them and, again, working towards a final episode.  So, that was important.  However, there is a very big story point that happens.  Because, you know, the idea was we said this long journey, let’s have a positive outcome, because you don’t want to have ….

The question of a series is can a guy who goes through a life change in an awful event come through to the other side with an appreciation for life and living and what’s important.  Or is it going to consume him?  Obviously, you want the positive response to that.  Otherwise an audience will say, “Why did I hang around for seven years?”

So, we wrote towards that.  We wrote towards a positive expectation at the end.  We knew the choice that we had to make, and then we had to complicate it, so that it wouldn’t just here’s what I’m going to do, and it’s going to be easy, and I’m going to make these changes in my life, and my life’s going to be better.

Thorne: Not telling anything up and above.

Tolan: Right. Exactly.  So, a person can make that choice, but then it’s up to fate to decide whether or not it’s going to be easy for them or difficult for them.  So that at the end of the sixth season, there is a large event that happens that complicates that choice, and, in fact, forces Tommy— I think Tommy’s choice is to be with his family and to raise his family, recommit to them, and at the end of the sixth season, something happens that forces him away from that choice and actually into Shelia’s life.  There’s the bump that ends the sixth season, but we were thinking of it as an arc of the two seasons.

So this brings up the question, does Tolan  have any anxiety about how the final episode will be received?

Tolan: No.  I’m happy with them.  I can’t worry about that.  I hope the fans like them.  Obviously, the reason that you work and work to have what you feel is a positive end so that they haven’t wasted their time sticking with the characters all this time.  So, I care on that level.  But I can’t dictate what’s going to be – look – the great thing about the internet is, if you want to, you can come into contact with everybody who watches the show.  You can go on a million websites and see a million different opinions, so you quickly realize that you can’t please everybody.  And somebody’s going to go well that was stupid.  Or that was too dramatic.  Or that was too funny. Or that wasn’t what I expected.  So, you just say I’m just going to do this for me, you know.  It’s going to be the best thing that is for me and leave it at that.

Considering the show has been going on for so long, it really brings into question, what exactly were their original expectations for the show?

Tolan: Well.  I have no idea.  I mean, you just don’t have any idea.  I don’t normally think like that.  I don’t think, gee, I wonder what’s going to happen.  I think you just go in— hey this would be interesting.  9/11 happened while we were shooting The Job, while we actually making an episode of The Job.  I said to Denis, boy, this would be an interesting idea for a show because we knew these firefighters, and we thought that would be interesting.  But, you know, you don’t think I wonder how long it’s going to last or whatever.  We just knew here’s the beginning, here’s the characters, and here’s the last episode of these 13 episodes.

Beyond that, we had done The Job, and it had been extremely well received, like the reviews for The Job were fantastic.  So we knew that we could work well together, and the work would be a certain quality.  But beyond that, we don’t know.  Nobody knows.  That’s the thing.

In show business, nobody knows.  You don’t even think about it.  You say this interests me.  I know where I’m coming from with these characters.  You got no idea if people are going to like it or if it’s actually going to resonate, but you just do the best you can and hope for the best.  Somebody said to me a couple of years ago, so when you’re shooting the show are you actually also shooting the extras for the DVD?  I said are you a lunatic?  I’m trying to make a … show.  That’s enough work.  And that’s really what it is.  It’s so much work to do the show that you almost have no time to think I wonder what will happen to this.  So it’s always a mystery to me when people come up to me and go we’ve watched every episode.  I’m like, really, you’ve done something that even I have not done.  What are you talking about?

Thorne: Oh my …  I completely agree with you, and I think that for me, myself, in the beginning, whatever it was seven or eight years ago, that I was just saying previously to this, Shelia, when I auditioned for her, was originally just two episodes with a possibility of a third.  And so when I joined them to come in when they were shooting their second episode, all I was thinking about was whether or not I was going to get a third episode.  So, I was like in that moment of being so thankful for my two episodes and wondering with what I was doing versus what they were thinking when they were writing going to be something that would be interesting enough to bother bringing me back for a third episode.  So then, all these years later, it’s more than I could have ever dreamt of.

The conversation then jumped to Callie, she summed up her experience working on the show.

Tolan: Don’t start with I was touched inappropriately.

Thorne: The journey certainly is different from everything else I worked on because, in terms of having this amount of time to explore and sort of live through a real lifetime of a character is daunting, it’s awesome, and it’s fun, but you do a play or you do a guest spot on another show, or sometimes even when you do a movie, you’re doing kind of like a glimpse of a day in the life of somebody.  So, being able to really live a lot of Shelia is something that I’m never going to forget, and the fact that Peter, Denis, and Evan, as they did the whole case, they really treated us like peers instead of employees.

They were very much interested when we had ideas about our characters or when we felt something felt a little hanky or we felt something might make more sense if Shelia behaved this way.  They were always listening.  They were always ready to try something new, so that is actually another thing I’m very grateful for in terms of having spent all this time with these people because, again, that’s really rare.  It’s not often that you’re asked your opinion.  And not only are you asked your opinion, but it can show through in the scene work.  So, I attribute all my favorite things about Shelia in all these years to really how Denis, Peter, and Evan led us through the story telling.

Tolan: Is this the longest, because I’ll be ignorant, that you’ve ever done one character of time?

Thorne: Yeah.  Because the other regular TV shows, like series, regulars and Homicide and that was two years.  And, then anything else I’ve done have been like great arcs or get The Wire.  I did six years of the show, but I would go on there and do like two episodes a season or something.  I certainly wasn’t like bringing a character to life.  I was really sort of brought to The Wire to propel Dominic West’s character.  That’s why I was around is to remind the audience that he was a drunk and didn’t take care of his kids.  So, yes, this was very, very singular for me.

The final question I had for her was whether or not she agreed that the character of Shelia has devolved over the course of the series where as all the other characters have evolved in some way.

Thorne: Let’s see.  I agree to a certain extent that, while other people may have been evolving and moving forward on the show, Shelia was falling backwards, but I don’t know if she ever thought that.  Do you know what I mean?  Like, I think that each year, each season that we’ve found Shelia in the middle of all this chaos that she has created for herself, it’s always because she thinks, in her sort of selfish little way, that it’s better for her and better for the people around her if things go the way she said and the strings that she pulls and all that stuff.  So, I think that it’s not something that she was aware of in terms of that she wasn’t growing.  But she’s in such a state of, still these years later, mourning the death of her husband and not knowing what life was supposed to be after something like that happens to you.

I definitely think that where we start in the sixth season and where we end at the end of the seventh season, Shelia does start doing something the audience has never seen before, in terms of how she’s handling life, and what we can probably safely assume she never did before we ever saw her on the show.  She’s learning how to be a different person and how to— I don’t know how to say it without giving too much away.  But, I do think that it is whole other level of people that are fans of  Shelia’s that are going to see something develop that they’ve not thought of before, I think.  I don’t know.  Peter, what do you think of that?

Tolan: I think, definitely, that Shelia has evolved.  I tend to remember that she was a white hot mess back soon after the death of her husband, which I don’t blame her.  And then I remember taking the character through some situations that even, as a writer or creator of the show – like are we really doing to do this like the lesbian thing, you know the whole lesbian thing – which in the end turned out to be really interesting.  But, even then, I was like really?  I mean I understand that she’s sort of searching and whatever, but it seems that Shelia had much more focus, purpose, and wasn’t as buffeted around by faith as she had been early on.  So, I think in the last couple of seasons, she’s much more centered.

Thorne: Yes, definitely.

Tolan: And much more of a direction.

Thorne: Yeah.  I agree.

There was one more thing that needed to be addressed before they hung up, and that was regarding the fate of the shows main character Tommy Gavin and whether he is even looking for redemption.

Tolan: No, he doesn’t seem to be looking.  I don’t think you want to do a television series for this many years and not leave an audience that’s been along for the journey with some sort of positive message.  So, this year, definitely, definitely, and quite soon, Tommy will find his way back and find his way into figuring out what his priorities are in life and what’s important to him.

It starts off, obviously, with a glimpse into what’s waiting for him after death, or what he thinks is waiting for him after death.  But that’s, ultimately, is not the thing that turns him around.  In the fifth episode of the sixth season, he really does finally hit rock bottom with the drinking and his other behaviors, and it directly affects another member of his family.  That’s the thing that finally turns him around.  We will get to see him slowly scrape his way back out of this enormous abyss he’s put himself in.

Thorne: I like that.  Scrape his way back is really good.

Tolan: With him, it’s always a struggle I’m sure on some level.  I know, probably in those first episodes, when he’s trying to change or making his usual, feeble attempt, it’s more likely that he’s going to blame everybody else for not recognizing the fact that he’s trying to change and not getting with the program.   So, yes, it’s going to be a struggle.  But then you’re looking at the fifth episode of the sixth season, so that’s right halfway through.  Then there are really only five more and then nine more.  There are really 14 more episodes to pull it all together, so I don’t think he can slowly scrape.  He’s got to make some big choices in those last 14 episodes.  I think it does accelerate a little bit more.

Thorne: It certainly accelerates once he sees that everybody else is changing regardless if they’re noticing what he’s trying to do, he’s noticing that everybody around him are making different choices that are affecting him very differently and living in a certain way with or without him.

And that was it. It’s clear that these two, like everyone else I’m sure, has a great deal of passion for the show and is glad to have spent every moment that they did on set.

The new season of Rescue Me kicks off tonight at 10pm on FX.

To hear excerpts from the Rescue Me interviews on the Idiot Boxers podcast, head over to Fat Guys at the Movies.

From a young age, TV guru Merrill Barr has been obsessed with the small screen. And one day he decided to put that obsession to good use.

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