By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Benjamin Arthur plays the unlikely family scion in NBC’s new summer comedy “Working the Engels.” As Jimmy Engel, he is a petty criminal and perennial bad boy. Nevertheless, he’s completely committed to his family, and when called upon to help out with the family business, a storefront law firm, when his father dies, Jimmy steps up.
Created by Katie Ford (“Miss Congeniality,” “Desperate Housewives”) and Jane Cooper Ford (“Listen Missy,” “Material World”), the offbeat “Working the Engels” is a joint Canadian and American production. The 12-episode season premiered in the U.S. in early July. It is shot in Toronto, which is great for Arthur, a Canadian.
The premise is Jimmy joins his mother and sisters in running storefront law office as its investigator to help settle bills that dad racked up. Problem is only sister Jenna (Kacey Rohl) is licensed to practice law. Self-absorbed and overly dramatic mom Ceil (Andrea Martin) serves as the firm’s paralegal while younger sister, Sandy (Azura Skye), a former pill-popper who has never worked a day in her life, serves as its receptionist. The NBC series airs Thursdays at 9:30 p.m/8:30 Central.
Viewers may recognize Arthur from “American Reunion.” He most recently starred as Josh Blecher in the highly acclaimed Canadian series “Less Than Kind.” He also has appeared in “The L Word” and “Whistler,” and co-wrote and starred in the 2012 comedy “Hang Loose.”
He recently spoke by conference call about the new series, working with former “Beverly Hills 91210” actor turned director Jason Priestly and being the only major male cast member surrounded by funny women.
Q: What was it about “Working the Engels” that made you want to be part of the show?
Arthur: I go through a lot of scripts especially in pilot season and it’s not often that you come across something that’s so well rounded, and all of the characters really jump off the page. (All of the Engelscharacters) had very different points of view. I found Jimmy Engle to be an interesting character because dad’s gone and now it’s his time to sort of step up and be the man of the family.
Q: What does “man of the family” mean within the context of the show?
Arthur: For Jimmy Engle, it’s a bit skewed. I found that very interesting. It’s a fun place to live in that character especially being the only male in a female ensemble. That was also a very interesting driving point. When I got the job, I had just come off “Less than Kind” with Mark McKinney from the “Kids in the Hall.” He was the show runner, and it was kind of like a boys club. It was very sort of jokey on set, a lot of male jokes being thrown around and stuff like that. And then when I got this job, my manager, who also reps Andrea Martin, said, “Just know your audience. It’s a female writers’ room. It’s a huge female cast. Just be really aware of what you’re doing.” And I said, “Oh, that’s a really good point.” When I got to set, though, it turns out that the girls are (talking) even dirtier than the guys. But I still watch what I’m saying between takes and stuff like that, but yes, everyone had the same sort of mentality on set. The hardest thing about the job was not laughing at Andrea (Martin). Every single take was totally different. She’s so zany in the best way possible.
Q: Was there anything about Jimmy that you added that wasn’t scripted?
Arthur: When you get the job, you have to figure out who the character is. This one was kind of tough because we didn’t have all of the scripts laid out. I couldn’t really take a look at what the arc was going to be throughout the season or even the first half of the season because we only had the first three scripts. I felt like it was a very interesting part in the sense that he was the man of the house and his mom forgave him for what he had done. He had embezzled money from the family for a pyramid scheme. We don’t hear about it in the first season, but basically his back story is he didn’t do it with cruel intentions. Unfortunately, he’s not exactly the sharpest nut. So I wanted to sort of play with him stepping up and being the man of the family.
Q: What has been the most embarrassing thing you’ve had to do on the show so far?
Arthur: There’s an episode coming up where I have to basically make out with one of our neighbors, and she’s been a long-time friend for years. It turns out that she’s the daughter of a prominent businessperson in town who is about to give the law firm a bunch of work. As it turns out, the actress cast in the role is Eugene Levy’s daughter, and he is playing the prominent businessman. So when I’m making out behind Eugene Levy’s back, I am making out with Eugene Levy’s actual daughter. Talk about awkward?
Q: Jason Priestly is directing a few of the episodes. What was like working with him? Does the fact that he comes from an acting background give him a connection with the actors? Were you a fan of “Beverly Hills 90210?”
Arthur: I literally watched zero episodes of “90210.” I do understand the stature of Jason Priestly and his work, though. We were previously on a network together, HBO Canada. He did a show called “Call Me Fitz” when I was doing “Less than Kind,” so we saw each other quite often. But I had never worked with him in a professional capacity until he came onto this set. I have nothing but love for that man. He was exactly who you think he’s going to be in person. He is hilarious. He’s handsome, charming and completely professional. It was one of my first experiences working with a director that’s still an actor, and it helps. Jason would get the script and he would kind of walk himself through the scene and figure out the pace. He’d do the turns and so forth. When are you ever going to get this from a director? Directing is already as hard as it can be on TV. You have to make sure you’re coming in on-schedule. You’ve got to make sure you’re getting all your coverage. So the fact that he can step away and take time to focus on not just the arc of the episode but just go over it with an individual character arc is fantastic.
Q: You have a Who’s Who of Canadian comedians besides Eugene Levy. You also have Martin Short and (American) Andrea Martin has done a lot of Canadian TV. I’d imagine it must be exciting to work with these actors who are at the top of their game.
Arthur: I grew up watching “SCTV” and “Kids in the Hall.” We didn’t have a lot of channels where I lived, but those were the two comedy shows that would come in. They were the people I grew up watching. So, to get a chance to work with like the “SCTV” alumni is mindblowing. What is it like on set? When we have Martin Short and Andrea Martin together in a scene, you really have to shake yourself once in a while and go, “Don’t forget, you have a job to do. You really have to be acting in this scene.” It’s really tough. I haven’t seen Martin’s episode yet, but if they use 10 percent of any of the improv that he did, it’s going to be hilarious because he was non-stop every single take.
Q: You guys are a Canadian production being shown on American network television, which is kind of unusual.
Arthur: Yeah, there have been plenty of dramas that have made crossed over the border, but there hasn’t been a lot of comedy. I believe that we are the first. It’s a strictly a Canadian production that moved to NBC. Shooting in Canada was important for Andrea. It was a selling point because much she’s married to a Canadian and her children are Canadian. She spends most of her time in New York, but she also owns a home in Toronto. So it was really important for her to go back up to Toronto. She loves being there. She has a ton of friends up there. For her, it was like going home. So she felt very comfortable there.