We had a chance to chat with “Rescue Me” writer Peter Tolan and actress Callie Thorne, who plays Shelia Keefe. The talked to us about the characters, the show’s setting, and its final season.
I watched the first four episodes of the new season on the lovely screener that FX sent out. Mr. Tolan, my question is we’ve been watching Tommy Gavin and it’s been kind of like watching the Titanic sink in ultra slow motion. Is there any hope of him finding redemption or, actually I should say, is there any chance of redemption finding him since he doesn’t really seem to be looking for it.
P. 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.
C. Thorne: I like that. Scrape his way back is really good.
P. 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.
C. 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.
Speaking of different choices, Shelia has been going through a lot. The thing I liked about her is that with all of the ups and downs that she personally experiences, she has to be the most determined mom on the planet.
C. Thorne: I think so, too.
How do you keep that part of her grounded while everything else flutters?
C. Thorne: I think, in a way, it’s that part is almost the easier part of Shelia to recognize in terms of this fierce loyalty and love that she has for her son, and based on her experience, she doesn’t want to lose her son the same way she lost her husband. I think that that also fuels the way she leads her life. Everything else that she thinks she wants, all the other things she does to manipulate what she thinks she wants from love, lust, and friends, and all of that. That stuff does fall by the wayside when it comes to her relationship with Damien, and because that is the thing that I can understand the most, in terms of that kind of family love and connection for me, because I feel that way about my own family members. I don’t have a son, but I have people that I love desperately. So that sometimes is the easier thing to connect with.
P. Tolan: I don’t know what the … you just said. Is that something you were doing on the show?
C. Thorne: Yeah, sort of.
P. Tolan: Alright. I didn’t see that, but maybe—
C. Thorne: What are you talking about?
P. Tolan: I’ll look at the DVD set in a couple of years.
C. Thorne: What are you talking about?
P. Tolan: I have no idea. I’m kidding. That’s my usual fun.
C. Thorne: I know.
A few months back it was announced that the show has a set end date in two years, do you find that having that end date now you’re writing the show any differently or you’re being careful as to introducing new story lines since you know you’re going to have only two seasons to set them up? Or, in the way do you feel that now you’re wanting to end other story lines because you have an end date now?
P. 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.
Was it bitter-sweet when you wrapped production?
P. Tolan: No. I hate everybody involved except for Callie Thorne who is actually on the phone with me.
C. 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?”
P. 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.
C. 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.
My first question is for Peter. The city is such an important character in Rescue Me. Talk about how it impacts the filming process and what you think New York adds to the overall tone and character of the series.
P. Tolan: Well, way back at the beginning we were asked if we would shoot the show in Toronto. We said no.
C. Thorne: I didn’t know that.
P. Tolan: Yeah. That was the only thing, really, that the Network was saying to us was would we do that. We said no, because we recognized even before we started that we wanted the city to be that other bigger character. So, I mean, there’s so much you get from it. There are problems, but they are sort of minor in terms of dealing with the city and whatever else. But, it’s so authentic.
If you’re doing a show that supposedly about real people and real emotion, problems, and family and all that, you can’t put it on a fake stage. You can’t pretend you’re someplace else. There’s an authenticity to actually shooting in the city that can’t be replicated. That’s always helped us. It’s always been a big part of the show. So, that has always been important.
I don’t know about the challenges of it. The challenges are that we’re not in Miami Beach saying it’s New York, so that in the middle of January, you’re not freezing your … off. I’ve never been hotter, and I’ve never been colder in my life than I have been making this show. Never, never, never. And I lived in Minnesota for four years. I actually visited the sun one week on a vacation. I have never been hotter in all my life. That’s a little bit of a challenge. Other than that, it was fine.
My question for Shelia, if you could sum up your journey working on the series, how would you describe your experience?
P. Tolan: Don’t start with I was touched inappropriately.
C. 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.
P. Tolan: Is this the longest, because I’ll be ignorant, that you’ve ever done one character of time?
C. 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.
How are you treating the final episodes? Is it kind of one long arc, or is it two kind of discreet seasons? How did you approach it?
P. Tolan: Are you saying the final season, right, or the final two seasons?
P. 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.
C. Thorne: Not telling anything up and above.
P. 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.
Callie, I’m curious, too, when you’re playing it, and you sort of know that the end is coming, does that enter your mind in terms of how you approach the role at all?
C. Thorne: It probably would in another situation, but they were pretty smart with me because no matter how many times I asked how we were going to say goodbye to Shelia, they either A) never gave me a straight answer or gave me like five different ways that it could happen and that they were still thinking about it. Or they just said that she was going to die, and I had to figure it out. Because, thankfully, I didn’t know how we were going to leave her, then I didn’t have the opportunity to be that much in my head ever to say well, actually, since I know that such and such is going to happen, I should make sure that I don’t hint it here because that’s what I would do because I’m not that smart. So, luckily, I was able to just be in the present and be as is and do as if.
So, of course, when we all started getting the final scripts and finding out how we were saying goodbye to everybody, which it is for Rescue Me on a positive note, but it certainly does give our audience an enormous amount of freedom to think for themselves about how they want to say goodbye. That’s definitely true with Shelia. There isn’t a big event that says goodbye to Shelia. She’s sort of part of the bigger picture, and I really, really liked the way that it ended.
Are you guys ever going to do a show in the Massachusetts/Greater Boston area?
C. Thorne: Oh, that is a very good question. Peter Tolan?
P. Tolan: It’s funny you should say that, because I’m already at work on, not one, but two shows. Two! I’ll say it again. Two shows that are Massachusetts-based. If you can believe it, but none of them are in Boston, that’s the only thing.
But one is about Providence Town because some of my ne’er-do-well family is from Providence Town from my mother’s side. The other is actually not far from my youth for anybody who grew up on the south shore, Plymouth Plantation. I’m pitching two shows. The Providence Town thing is an hour drama for HBO, and the plantation thing is a single-camera half hour that will hopefully land on the network.
C. Thorne: And I’m assuming … that you’ve written something for both Providence Town and Plantation.
P. Tolan: I’ve already talked to you about Providence Town.
C. Thorne: Oh yes, you have. And all I can say is I hope you were being serious because it’s a brilliant premise.
P. Tolan: It is brilliant.
C. Thorne: Yes, it really is. I mean Crackle we can’t tell you— it’s brilliant.
P. Tolan: It’s fantastic. You can tell it’s going to be great.
I can smell it. It’s great.
P. Tolan: It’s Massachusetts.
One other question for you both. Of course, you’re wrapping this up now, but I was wondering if you could just reflect a little bit about how the two of you first met each other, Callie how you got involved in this show. Peter, how you first decided that Callie was going to be Shelia, that sort of thing.
P. Tolan: We actually met awhile ago because Callie was very, almost could have been in Denis and my other show, The Job. Wasn’t that the case, Callie?
C. Thorne: It was Diane and I were casting against each other, yeah.
P. Tolan: The part was a woman who was a cop. And ultimately, this is certainly nothing against Diane, we felt like Callie was too pretty to be a cop, and we needed somebody, not with a rougher edge, but you know what I mean.
C. Thorne: Yeah. I know what you mean.
P. Tolan: But she came very close, and Denis and I loved her based on that initial contact and never forgot her. When the second show happened, we went right to her.
C. Thorne: The way I remember it is that when I really, really wanted the role on The Job because I really wanted to work with this particular group of people, so I went in like gangbusters. They actually did something that doesn’t happen that often anymore which is they did a real film test. Because when you test for a television show, whether you’re going in for studio or network, it’s usually just a giant room filled with lots of suits and lots of people that are going to critique you when you leave, and this was actually done very sort of old-school. We did hair and make-up. There was a film camera, and there was a little crew, and they did casts on you. I was so fired up and in a race to get this job that I’m pretty sure that I might have actually even scared Denis because I remember when we were doing the scene on a little set in front of the camera, there a couple of times when I looked at him, and he actually looked like he was scared of me. I think that was because ….
P. Tolan: You were committing.
C. Thorne: I was committing, but it really did serve me well for later because though I cried when I didn’t get the job on the job, when the Rescue Me auditions were coming out, and I actually remember that I forced my way in for an audition for Andrea Roth’s role, and I knew I was completely dead wrong, and I couldn’t have been less of the description of the wife, but I wanted in on the show so badly that I was going in and doing whatever I could. And, thankfully, after the show got picked up, and they started to write the first season is when they came up with the idea of Shelia.
P. Tolan: Obviously, when somebody comes in and you just go ooh, boy, they’re good, then we always realize … because you never know how long a character is going to stay.
C. Thorne: That’s right. When I auditioned for Shelia, it was definitely two episodes with a possibility for a third.
P. Tolan: That is shocking to me.
C. Thorne: Isn’t that funny?
P. Tolan: That’s amazing. You were …. That is true.
Denis was teasing a support of last year about wanting to do a big screen project with the cast of Rescue Me and the creative team behind the cameras who didn’t have anything to do with firefighting. I thought that was a really, really fantastic idea. Is there any possibility of that, the getting back together and doing something completely different?
P. Tolan: I’m going to say absolutely none. I can say that with great certainty. I think quite certainly some of us will work together again. I don’t think this group will ever work together again. I’m not going to say it’s not going to happen, but I don’t know what he ….
C. Thorne: I know what he was doing. He was threatening to write a musical. First it was like a zombie musical that we were all going to be in and then several different versions of musical zombiesque things, but I think that that was not real. It was just a fantasy because it would be hard to bring us all back together again and not be what we were.
P. Tolan: Yeah. He’s being funny, I think.
Okay. I also wanted to ask you if you can remember eight or night years ago, when you were first putting this all together, what your expectations for the show were. Like how long you thought it was going to last, what you thought people’s reaction was going to be, that kind of thing?
P. 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?
C. 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.
Do you have any anxiety about how the final episodes will be received by the fans that have followed it through the years?
P. 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.
This question is for Callie. Throughout the show’s history, it feels like every character is involved in some way, but in Shelia’s case, it almost seems like a demolition of her character and her psyche and the way she acts. One, do you agree? And, two, do you like who the character has become?
C. 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?
P. 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.
C. Thorne: Yes, definitely.
P. Tolan: And much more of a direction.
C. Thorne: Yeah. I agree.