Heroes’ Greg Grunberg – Man On A Trapeze

Greg Grunberg as Matt Parkman in Heroes. Photo copyright of NBC

Do you know the old saying, “No good deed goes unpunished?” It is one that Matt Parkman perhaps should have heeded at the end of Heroes‘ third year. The good-natured and often put-upon law enforcement officer, who also happens to possess telepathic powers, thought he finally had the chance to start a normal life with his wife Janice and baby son, Matt Jr. Then, however, Noah Bennet and Angela Petrelli talked Matt into using his ability to help them get rid of Sylar. As a result, Matt not only wound up with a guilty conscience, but, at the start of season four, Sylar’s psychotic consciousness stuck inside his head as well. Yes, it was yet more angst for our reluctant hero to contend with, but Greg Grunberg, who plays Matt, readily embraced the new acting challenge. 

“Well, first of all, the end of season three was exciting for me because suddenly Matt was the one who they turned to in order to level Sylar, which was awesome,” enthuses Grunberg. “I love how we play things on this show, in that most of the time they’re character-driven and we try to keep it that way. So going into this particular story arc, I knew it would be good. However, Matt wasn’t happy about doing this. It was something he had never done before and he knew there would be repercussions. Although he was thrown into this, it was also something he chose to do. And, of course, when we’re burning the body [in the third season finale An Invisible Thread], Matt knows it’s not really Sylar, and he’s carrying that secret with him. 

“Then at the beginning of season four, when Angela [Christine Rose] calls Matt and says, ‘Things didn’t go as planned; we need your help again,’ it’s like, crap! He’s not happy about it and doesn’t want to go back. Once again, all Matt wants to do is try to lead a normal life, which is exactly what inspired Tim Kring [Heroes executive producer] to create this show after he saw [the feature film] The Incredibles. The thing is, no matter what you try to do, when you’re ‘special’ and have these powers, you’re going to get called upon, and when push comes to shove, you’re going to have to step up to the plate. As much as Matt tries to go back to that normal life, he can’t. He always gets pulled back into this one. 

“There are themes in Heroes that are very consistent and, as this season has gone on, the focus for my character is that he will do whatever necessary to protect his family. This goes back to season two and what happened with Matt’s father [Maury Parkman, played by Alan Blumfeld], which was a powerful moment for my character. Matt realized that his father had all this power and did whatever it took in order to save their family. But then Matt had to take him down. This year, it’s another powerful moment for Matt when he realizes, ‘By killing myself, I’ll kill Sylar [Zachary Quinto], because if I don’t, he’s going to go on killing people, maybe even my own family.’ So towards the end of this season you’re going to see Matt do some really dark things that you wouldn’t expect from him.” 

With Matt's (Greg Grunberg) help, Noah (Jack Coleman) and Angela (Christine Rose) prepare to carry out their plan to deal with Sylar in "An Invisible Thread." Photo by Trae Patton and copyright of NBC

Turning down Angela Petrelli’s request for additional help in the season four Heroes opener Orientation, Matt is shocked when Sylar appears, but only he can see him. In the following episode, Jump, Push, Fall, Sylar tells Matt that he is part of his mind and has no intentions of leaving until he is reunited with his body. Matt tries to ignore Sylar, but the psychopath’s relentless taunting starts to adversely affect him. Sylar’s hold on Matt strengthens when, in Ink, he uses Matt’s powers against him, causing the detective to almost beat a suspected drug dealer to death. 

“What I love about this story is that Sylar consciously or subconsciously tapped into Matt’s darkest and biggest fear, which goes back to my character discovering Molly,” explains Grunberg. “It really mirrored what happened back in season one when he found the little girl under the stairs, but this time when Matt found her, she was dead. That was something Sylar tricked him into seeing. For a second, Matt let his guard down when he and Sylar are in the bathroom and Sylar says to him, ‘Look at this house. I mean, you’re a cop. I don’t know any kid who you would raise in a house like this.’ Then he shows Matt the doll and he’s like, ‘Put it all together.’ 

“There are so many moments of huge suspension of disbelief in our show, but this is not one of them. Here’s a cop trying to do his job and being nagged by an image and a person only he can see and hear and who’s giving him clues he can’t ignore. Matt has to deal with this, which was really great for me acting-wise, and it was hard, too. The stuff I do on the show is difficult because I always try to play it as real as possible. However, if you were talking to someone and suddenly they tilted their head and looked at you funny, you couldn’t help but comment on it and ask, ‘What’s the matter?’ So there’s that fine line of Matt talking to Sylar and at the same time trying to keep other people from noticing he’s doing so. Those sorts of complex scenes are always so interesting as well as fun to do.” 

Matt contemplates his next move in "Ink." Photo by Chris Haston and copyright of NBC

Matt is about to lose his cool with Jimmy Keppler (Daniel Newman) as Sylar (Zachary Quinto) looks on in "Ink." Photo by Chris Haston and copyright of NBC

Was it hard for the actor to shoot the scenes in which Matt physically abuses his suspect, Jimmy Keppler (Daniel Newman)? “Yes and no,” says the actor. “I mean, we all have our rage, and if I want I can get to a dark place pretty quickly. Years ago I did an episode of NYPD Blue and I learned something from Dennis Franz [Detective Andy Sipowicz]. He drowned my character in a bar sink, and when we did the scene, he was getting super-physical with it. I remember saying, ‘Dennis, I’ve got it. I’ll go down and you can just put your hand on my head.’ He said to me, ‘Look, man, when they roll the cameras, I bring the evil.’ I thought, ‘Wow, what a great line.’ Obviously, Dennis did it in a way that he wasn’t hurting me, but he was just saying that he really embodied his character. 

“So in Heroes it ended up not being too tough for me to take everything I had out on this guy. For Matt to come in, realize, oh, my God, she’s dead, and then just ramp it up as he’s walking towards this guy and yelling, ‘What did you do to her!’ was terrific to play. From the camera angles, what’s interesting is that the slaps and punches were a foot-and-a-half away from the other actor’s [Daniel Newman] head, but it still really looked violent. In-between scenes, they [the make-up artists] came in, added [fake] blood and then we carried on, so it turned out great.” 

Along with Ink, another favorite episode for the actor to have worked on this season is Strange Attractors in which Matt thinks he has found a way to suppress Sylar’s influence on him. “There’s one scene, in particular, where Matt is packing to leave and Sylar is in the room with him, but Matt’s wife Janice [Lisa Lackey] doesn’t know Sylar is there,” says Grunberg. “She asks Matt, ‘Where are you going?’ He tells her, ‘I’ve got to get out of here.’ Matt then explains to Janice what he did [with regard to Sylar]. Janice offers, instead, to leave and take the baby somewhere safe, and Matt says, ‘Sssh, he’ll hear you. Don’t tell me where you’re going so he [Sylar] won’t know.’ Here’s a guy who is about to go crazy and his wife who loves him seeing that craziness building inside him. I love that scene. 

Fighting to be your typical, average family - Matt, Matt Jr. and Janice (Lisa Lackey). Photo by Chris Haston and copyright of NBC

“Also in this episode is Matt out-drinking Sylar, which is kind of cool. Some people made the comment, ‘It’s that easy. You just go and get drunk,’ but if you stop and think about it, no, it wasn’t that easy. Matt got inside Sylar’s head and found a weakness. He discovered what really meant something to him and took advantage of it. So it had layers to it, but on the surface it was like, oh, that’s all it takes to get Sylar to disappear from your head. Just drink until you pass out. 

“So I thought that was interesting, but the scene with Matt and Janice, going into it, I didn’t see it being as deep as it turned out to be. When, however, she looked at me, and it was her looking into her husband’s eyes and [reassuringly] going, ‘Ok, ok,’ but meanwhile thinking, ‘Dear God, I’m losing him,’ that was wonderful to play. 

“With this show I feel like I’m working on a trapeze with the strongest, safest, softest and most comfortable net below me because Tim Kring, Dennis Hammer [executive producer] and all the writers and editors are just so good. I can do something and know, OK, it’s on film and, yes, perhaps the network will see a take that I’m not thrilled about, but you’ve got to be willing to take chances to come up with some great stuff. You can’t second-guess yourself and think, ‘Maybe I should try this, but if I do it might not work.’ Who cares? Just do it. It’s only film, and with film they’re only going to use what works. But you’ve got to trust the people making those decisions, and I do.” 

Matt and Sylar are confronted by the police outside the Burnt Toast Diner in "Shadowboxing." Photo by Trae Patton and copyright of NBC

Unfortunately, Matt’s drinking is only a temporary solution to his problem. At the end of Strange Attractors, Sylar retaliates by taking over Matt’s body, and in the following episode, Shadowboxing, Sylar goes off in search of his own body. He ends up at the Burnt Toast Diner, where Matt reveals to Sylar that he, Noah (Jack Coleman) and Angela “transformed” him into Nathan Petrelli (Adrian Pasdar). While at the diner, Matt uses his power to make Sylar unwittingly write down on a napkin that he has a gun and he’s going to use it to kill everyone. Sylar then hands the napkin to a waitress, and when he eventually walks outside, the police are waiting. Matt tricks Sylar into pretending that he is taking a gun out of his jacket, forcing the police to shoot him. 

Matt uses his powers to "persuade" Sylar to act in a threatening manner towards the police in "Shadowboxing." Photo by Trae Patton and copyright of NBC

“For that scene, Zach and I each had 12 squibs on us,” recalls Grunberg. “I’d never had that many squibs on me before. I’ve been shot on Alias as well as in movies and the most I’ve ever had is four squibs, which is a lot of explosive charges to have on your chest. So we did the scene and Zach gets shot, then I step in and get shot, but they never showed Matt getting hit. They only showed my character lying on the ground with blood around him. Sylar was the only one who you actually see taking the bullets. In my mind I thought they were going to do a fade-across dissolve [shot] where it would show Sylar getting shot and then, as it fades, it’s Matt being shot, but they didn’t do that. 

Matt intends to sacrifice his own life by goading the police into shooting Sylar in "Shadowboxing." Photo by Trae Patton and copyright of NBC

“I remember watching the scene when I was doing looping for the episode, and I called Tim and asked him, ‘What happened? I’m not getting shot.’ And he said, ‘What are you talking about? Sure you are.’ In fact, they had made a decision in the editing room, which Tim had forgotten about, and that was they wanted to make it seem like Sylar was really gone. Had they shown me being shot, there might have been a question in some peoples’ minds that, oh, maybe it was just Matt who got shot and Sylar didn’t die. I thought, ‘I went through all those squibs and they didn’t even show it,'” chuckles the actor. “Stuff like that, though, is like playing cowboys and Indians. It’s a dream for anybody, let alone an actor, to do something like that, and I had a ball.” 

Poor Matt is down for the count in "Shadowboxing," but only temporarily. Photo by Trae Patton and copyright of NBC

Peter (Milo Ventimiglia), Matt, Nathan (Adrian Pasdar) and Sylar have an unexpected reunion in "Brother's Keeper." Photo by Chris Haston and copyright of NBC

Lucky for Matt, Peter Petrelli (Milo Ventimiglia) comes to the hospital in Brother’s Keeper and uses his replicated power to heal Matt. However, his “brother” Nathan (a.k.a. the transformed Sylar) is with him and, during a fight between him and Peter, Nathan brushes Matt’s hand. Matt suddenly finds himself back in his body and, apparently, Sylar has returned to his own body as well. Despite his character’s life and death struggle, Grunberg did not mind having Matt share his mind with Sylar. 

“Knowing I was going to be working with Zach as much as I did was a treat,” he says. “He’s the greatest. Zach and I have known each other for a long time and we’re very close, so right away I knew that this was going to be fantastic. And we have a shorthand with each other where we step on each other’s lines. I do the same thing with Adrian and a bunch of other actors on the show because we’re so familiar with one another. 

“At the same time, Zach has a really specific quality to his character and I wanted to try to embody that in certain things I did. In the airport scene [in Shadowboxing] where Sylar takes over Matt’s body, I suddenly kind of bring my brow down. There’s this look that Zach has about him and a very intense quality that he brings to his character that I wanted to try to copy, even in little moments like that, but in doing so I didn’t want to go over the top.” 

Matt's journey could have ended in "Shadowboxing," but he lives to fight another day, beginning in "Close to You." Photo by Trae Patton and copyright of NBC

With Sylar finally out of his mind, Matt is reunited with his wife and son, but in Close to You, Noah comes to Matt’s house and asks him for help to find Samuel (Robert Knepper), who is bringing together heroes for his own private agenda. At first, Matt refuses, but when Noah plants the seed that Samuel could one day come for Parkman’s son, Matt realizes that, once again, he has no choice but to lend a hand. Having worked with Zachary Quinto for much of the season, Grunberg looked forward to sharing some screen time now with Jack Coleman. 

“Jack is an amazing actor and it’s always great working with him. On the flip side, though, his character is someone who I strapped to a chair in a motel room, and now Matt is trusting him again, just like he trusted Peter, just like he trusted whoever,” says the actor. “These alliances keep getting to toxic levels and then suddenly we’re like, well, OK, it’s all fine with these guys. So it’s been a little crazy, but at the same time we’re all fighting for ourselves. It’s dog-eat-dog, and after a while a pack of dogs is more powerful than any single dog, so you’ve kind of got to go with it. 

“So at the beginning of the episode, Noah is pulling Matt out of his house, and then at the end, my character tells him, ‘Look, that’s it. Go home. I’m done with this.’ But like I said before, it gets very dark from here on in, not only with Matt, and I think people are going to like what’s coming up.” 

Having been a series regular before on Alias and Felicity, the actor has once again enjoyed the opportunity to walk for an extended period of time in Matt Parkman’s shoes and seeing his character grow and develop on Heroes. “When we first met Matt, he was quite lonely,” notes Grunberg. “His relationship at home was falling apart; he sort of had a clue as to why, but not really. Then, however,  he found out that his wife was cheating on him, so he couldn’t have been more alone at that moment. 

Father and son - Matt and Matt Jr. Photo by Chris Haston and copyright of NBC

“From there, Matt just wanted to figure out who did this to him [gave him his telepathic abilities], and in doing so, he discovered these other people who are very much like him. All of a sudden my character realized what it was he truly wanted, but then it was a case of be careful what you wish for. Matt became a John McClane [referring to Bruce Wills’ Die Hard character] and has been thrust into something he’s really not prepared for. He’s learning how to control his abilities, while at the same time discovering just how huge a deal this superhero stuff is. 

“So my character has basically gone from being alone, to going on this journey of discovery, and then finding his dad and realizing that all this is part of his destiny and there’s no turning back. Matt is now at the point where he can’t trust anyone, and the way I’ve tended to play it – and the writers haven’t really written to it in a while – is that this is a vicious cycle and he sees it happening all over again. Matt has powers and look what’s happened to his life, and now his son has powers, so what’s going to happen to him? Matt just wants to break this cycle and live that normal life, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.” 

Besides his heroic endeavors as Matt Parkman in Heroes, Grunberg has also been busy with various other projects, including two films, one of which is called Group Sex

Group Sex is something I co-wrote and co-produced with Laurence Trilling, who is working on [the TV series] Parenthood at the moment and who I worked with on Alias as well as Felicity,” says the actor. “He’s a good friend of mine and a really talented guy and we made this movie independently. I’m starring in it along with Henry Winkler, Tom Arnold, Josh Cooke, Odette Yustman, Kym Whitley, Robbie Benedict and James Denton. Hayden Panettiere [Clare Bennet in Heroes] has a part in it, too, and so does Dania Ramirez [Maya Herrera in Heroes]. 

A rockin' Greg Grunberg! Photo courtesy of and copyright of The Lippin Group

“It’s a romantic comedy that takes place in a sexaholic recovery group, and I play this guy who belongs in this group, but is the best friend of a guy who wanders into the group. My character’s friend follows a girl who he finds attractive into the back room of a church and, all of a sudden, he’s in the middle of this group being led by Henry Winkler, who’s standing there saying, ‘I’m addicted to sex.’ The film really turned out well and we’re currently working out a distribution deal. I cannot wait for it to get out there because the title alone should intrigue people enough to want to see it, but the movie really does deliver. 

“I also did Kill Speed, which is another independent movie but it was financed by a group of fighter pilots, so we got to use all their jets as well as received cooperation from the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] and airports. We also got military cooperation, which you normally can’t get. It’s the first film since Top Gun that actually has practical filming of air-to-air combat. The shots in the movie are unbelievable and they’re all real, like planes screaming between buildings in downtown Los Angeles, and a jet fighter following one of the these fiberglass planes that are used to transport drugs. 

“I play a government agent who’s calling the shots from underground and trying to get these drug runners. So for me it was coming in for two or three intense days of shooting where I was looking at monitors and yelling, ‘Come on, get ’em! Get ’em!’ It was more like a callback to my Alias days than anything else, but I had a really fun time doing the movie and I think people are going to enjoy it. 

“I’ve also got this iPhone application out there that’s been exploding and doing really well. It’s called Yowza!! and the website for it is getyowza.com. It’s a free application, and you just press Yowza!! on your iPhone, iPod Touch, Palm Pre, Android, Blackberry, etc., and it knows your location and brings up all the stores, restaurants and businesses around you along with all their coupons and deals. So you never have to clip coupons again or look for the best deal by walking the mall. When you’re in a mall, press Yowza!! and it’ll show you, closest to farthest away, where the best deals are.” 

Husband, dad, talented actor and all-around nice guy, Greg Grunberg. Photo courtesy of and copyright of The Lippin Group

While there has been no official announcement yet whether or not Heroes will return for a fifth year, Grunberg remains optimistic. “I definitely think we’re going to get the opportunity to properly end the series in one year, two years, whatever it may be,” he says. “A show like this is successful all over the world and on DVD, and in today’s TV business you’ve got to have that. If a program isn’t a hit around the world or if it doesn’t take advantage of ancillary markets out there, then it’s not going to survive. 

“When the time does come, I hope the characters can all band together – those who are still standing – and have some satisfaction that they’re doing the right thing. Ultimately, that’s what everyone wants to do, even the characters who do something bad. I mean, Ali Larter’s character [Niki/Jessica Sanders/Tracy Strauss] feels terrible when she does something bad, but she can’t help herself. So I hope we can all see that ultimate redemption – no pun intended. It’s a tall order to wrap it all up, but we’ll see how they [the producers/writers] do it. Like I said, though, hopefully it’ll be a couple of seasons from now.” 

Steve Eramo 

As noted above, photos by Chris Haston or Trae Patton and copyright of NBC or The Lippin Group, so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any kind. Thanks!

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