During Scott Foley’s 25-year film and television career, he’s gone meta and played someone working in the industry (as Roman Bridger in “Scream 3”), and he’s worked on a competition program (as a host and judge on “Ellen’s Next Great Designer”). But now his latest project, “The Big Leap” for Fox, combines those two elements, creating a wholly different experience for the veteran actor.
Foley stars as Nick Smart, the boss behind the dance show-within-the-show on “The Big Leap” from executive producers Liz Heldens and Jason Winer. (The show-within-the-show is also titled “The Big Leap.”) Nick is a fast-talking producer who never hesitates to let those around him know how urgent his requests are. He also has a keen eye for the genre, innately knowing what characters the audience will want to watch and how to orchestrate the right storytelling around them to make that audience return. He is the man with the most power, but also the most at stake because of a recent professional failure, a divorce and an impending custody battle — all of which, Foley notes, are “good things to sink your teeth into as an actor.” But it can be lonely at the top.
“The character is the boss and he has to be able to separate himself from the humanity of all of those people and look at the show from the angle of the drama he has to create,” Foley tells Variety. “It was also a chance for me to separate myself — and not necessarily in a good way — from the rest of the cast. I had never really been an outsider in a cast before, and that was really interesting to me. I knew it would be a challenge [but] I think that’s a really important part of the job and the character. Because of that separation of church and state, if you will, it helped me to find the character.”
Foley has stepped behind the scenes a number of times in his career, including directing episodes of “Felicity,” “Monk” and “Scandal” and executive producing “Whiskey Cavalier,” on which he also starred. But he has never been the person with the most power on set. More than his own experience as a producer — or even previously embodying someone running a set in “Scream 3” — he took traits from showrunners he has worked with to help shape his new character. He shares that he thought about everyone from J.J. Abrams and Shawn Ryan to Shonda Rhimes and David Mamet, but one of his biggest influences was Bill Lawrence, with whom he worked both on “Scrubs” and “Whiskey Cavalier.”
“A lot of the ways he deals with cast is how I looked at a lot of the reality show cast members of ‘The Big Leap,'” Foley says of Lawrence. “I stole a lot from his empathy and from how he operates.”
Foley considers Nick to be “driven by the job and product,” which is what he would say about all of the real-life producers he felt inspired by. “They are all extremely kind and empathetic, but there’s a job to be done and the hard conversations I’ve had with each of those showrunners have really opened my eyes to, ‘Oh I know they like me, but I still have to say the fucking line. Even if I hate this line, they’re the boss.'”
Foley admits that his former bosses “might have taken different paths with me” than his “Big Leap” character takes with his talent, specifically Gabby (Simone Recasner).
Gabby doesn’t initially make the cut of the competition, and Nick gives the single mother a second chance. But it is not for altruistic reasons. On the one hand, he sees great story potential in digging up details about her past and the father of her son. On the other, he knows things are bound to heat up further when she offers to help pro athlete Reggie (Ser’Darius Blain) — the star power Nick desperately needs on the show. Additionally, though, he sees multi-quadrant viewing potential in casting her because, as he says in the premiere episode, “She looks like America.”
“He understands the place that America is [in] right now, and it’s a place we have never been before and it’s a much more accepting place,” Foley says.
As much as Nick is distanced from the contestants at the start, he and Gabby do begin to form a bond that becomes “one of the foundational relationships of the show,” according to Foley.
“There is an honesty to her and an availability, and Nick isn’t exactly emotionally available, but he sees in her that she’s been crushed over so many times and it’s hard to break through and can appreciate who she is and where she’s been,” Foley says. “He really roots for her, and I think she understands that and appreciates that. But there is a toggling back and forth that happens between Nick and Gabby. You see that part of their relationship for a little while, but then he also goes back and reminds her, ‘Hey, I’m the producer and you’re on the show; I’m going to exploit you.'”
Even as Nick gets more entangled with those on his show, becoming less of the outsider Foley saw him to be when he first read the pilot script, something still sets him apart: his humor. Whether he is yelling at his underlings that they better do something for him or else he’s going to “do murder,” or simply accepting that the reason his assistant (Tim Lyons) got him a small apple is because Nick told him he wanted his hands to look big, Foley is responsible for delivering a number of moments that probably would read utterly ridiculously on paper, but thanks to his gravitas come off as both charming and completely fitting. (Foley says the former was scripted but the latter was an adlib on set.)
“They’re very open to improv,” Foley says. “We do what we can to get it [as written] and then they give us a take or two to play and try to beat it.”
That kind of freedom of expression comes into play for characters in the early episodes, as well, as they audition and introduce themselves to the show’s production team and each other via their chosen style of movement. It is only once the show is cast that they all have to pivot to ballet to prepare a rendition of “Swan Lake.”
As the producer of the show-within-the-show, Nick had to watch everyone audition, which Foley admits was another unique experience “The Big Leap” provided him.
“I’ve been in casting sessions where I’m not the actor and they have been painful — not because they’re not good — but because you see the want; you see the dream. And to be one of the people tasked with a yes or a no is a lot of pressure. And because I’ve been there, I know you have to detach to a certain degree,” he says. “I was there watching each and every one of them, so I knew which ones were supposed to be good and which ones were supposed to be bad. There is definitely a sense memory of feeling for them, but there is a space, there is a distance you need to have because he has a job that needs to be done. So, I was very aware of that.”
“The Big Leap” launches its first two episodes on Hulu, Fox Now and On Demand Sept. 14. It will then air on Fox Mondays at 9 p.m. beginning Sept. 20.