Will Rush is a hot mess. The lead character of executive producer Jonathan Levine’s new series Rush is a Harvard-trained surgeon who lost his status in the traditional medical community and has taken his practice underground in Los Angeles, treating elite clients who can pay the high fees for his skills and his discretion. Tom Ellis—well known to U.K. audiences for his work on shows like Miranda, Gates and The Fades—stars in the USA show, which explores the trouble a handsome young doctor operating on the fringes of the rich and famous can get up to. Drugs? Criminal behavior? Women? Yes, yes and oh, yes.
Fortunately, friends like Dr. Alex Burke (Larenz Tate) and Will’s assistant Eve Parker (Sarah Habel) prevent the centrifugal force of his decadent lifestyle from casting Will into L.A.’s darkest heart.
Writer-director Levine previously charmed critics and audiences with films like coming-of-age drug tale The Wackness, 2008’s Sundance Film Festival Audience Award winner; cancer comedy 50/50, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen; and zombie love story Warm Bodies, with Nicholas Hoult and Teresa Palmer.
In a recent chat, Levine explained what appeals to him about such a flawed character, bad pop music as creative inspiration/lifestyle choice, and his love of actor Harry Hamlin, who appears in the series as Rush’s father.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY COMMUNITY: Can you tell me a little about the genesis of this story and the character of Will Rush?
JONATHAN LEVINE: My fellow executive producers had heard about this urban legend of a doctor in Los Angeles who did this type of thing. After they saw The Wackness, they came to me, knowing I had an interest in dysfunctional characters, and I just kind of really sparked to the idea. I remember writing it for the first time and really falling in love with this guy’s voice.
How did you find Tom Ellis and get him to be that voice—to be Will Rush?
Tom was kind of the result of a very long and arduous casting process. We had been searching in L.A., and we had set the bar pretty high for the actor, because we felt the role was strong. We needed someone who was smart, who could convey the hyperintelligence of the character, who could get the rhythm of the dialogue, who could act like an asshole, but be kinda funny and who could also have that hint of pain and hint of melancholy behind his eyes. I think it’s very important that you see that this guy wishes he was a better person. I think that’s key to wanting to go on the ride with him.
Basically, we were out scouting locations, but deep down, I was like, This thing’s never going to happen—we don’t have the guy. We expanded our search to the United Kingdom, and Tom came in—I saw him on tape—and it was just kind of miraculous; we just knew it was him. And then I saw some of his work and watched some of his work in the U.K. on his reel, and I could just see that he had everything that we were looking for, and is a really good dude to boot.
When you audition U.K. actors for an American role, you have to ask them to do the accent, obviously.
Yeah, we did. British actors are so impeccably trained that—I’m not going to say it’s easy, but he, in particular, was kind of amazing with it. He had been doing this play in London, and he had been playing an American, and his accent was just impeccable. He stayed in it on set every day, and we didn’t have to ADR a single line. (See video of Ellis discussing the accent.)
Here you’ve got Will Rush, who’s flawed and, at the same time, elegant and conflicted about his overall person. Certainly in the episodes to come, you’re going to explore why he is the way he is and why he keeps making these bad choices. Can you talk a little bit about what’s to come for him in that way?
The first season, we will explore both what made him this way and the challenges to come from his sort of newfound realization that he actually, deep down, does care. The first season will be him negotiating that, and him negotiating how he deals with all the various worlds in which he walks, whether it be gangsters or Hollywood producers or rappers or actors or … It’s just such fertile ground, L.A., because basically he can see anyone with enough money and a secret. Those cases and the way they sort of fold in on each other and the way they sort of amp up for him is a very, very big part of his journey, but also a big part of his journey is learning how he became this way.
I want to come back to why he is the way he is, but first, can you please explain his musical tastes to me?
All right, this is actually something that I have in common with him: He’s a guy who likes pop culture, and he’s a guy who likes songs that you can sing along with. He’s not a guy who’s going to listen to entire albums. He just likes singles. And he’s not a guy who’s that attuned to technology, in spite of the fact that he’s an incredibly intelligent doctor. To him, life is like a pop song, and if he could just sing along and put the roof down on his Mercedes and just blast some Debbie Gibson—that is where he’s happiest. The explanation for it—there’s nothing so deep there, except that it’s not something I’d seen before. I have a lot of friends with bad taste in music—some might say that I have bad taste in music. I’d just never seen it before on television, and I thought it would be immensely funny if this guy just kind of had that. And I think it makes sense for his character, because all he cares about is the high points, and a good pop song is just kind of all high points. Even a bad pop song is that. That’s sort of it. It’s a little dangerous, because you have to clear all these ’80s songs, but I think it’s worth it for the kind of character—the little flourish that it gives you.
I used to drive a convertible around L.A. a lot. My convertible was not as nice as his; I drove a 1992 Volkswagen Cabriolet convertible with like a dented door. I just remember, you get out to Los Angeles—I’m from New York—you feel like you’re in some weird ’80s music video. Sometimes. So for me, that kind of Los Angeles—like the Los Angeles of Beverly Hills Cop or American Gigolo—that was kind of a big influence for the world of this show.
Could we talk a little bit about the characters around Will: Dr. Alex Burke and Will’s assistant, Eve Parker?
Larenz, who plays Alex, is a wonderful actor who I’ve loved since Menace II Society. This character is the one I identify with—a lot of my friends are like him. And even though I like to pretend I’m Will Rush, I think I’m a lot more like Alex. He’s a guy who went to medical school with Rush, and basically chose the opposite path: He works in a hospital. Rush works on the fringes of medicine. [Alex] has a strong family. Rush is sleeping with a different woman every night. And [Alex] has a strong moral code, and as we know, Rush’s moral code is a very slippery slope—even though he rigidly adheres to it, he can morally justify just about anything. I think it’s really funny where these guys sort of meet in the middle. Alex likes to live vicariously through Rush. Rush kind of needs Alex to be the good dude, so that Rush knows how he should behave. I think it’s just a really cool friendship, and the two of them together—their chemistry is pretty great. For me, it’s an opportunity to explore a friendship of people who went in different directions and how they keep the tension between them and the push-and-pull between them.
Eve is kind of Rush’s gal Friday. She’s incredibly smart. She is incredibly clever, and she also is sort of the angel on Rush’s shoulder. She’s always pushing him to live a healthier lifestyle and a more morally upstanding lifestyle. Their relationship, to me, is really the core one of the show. When Sarah came in, she was just so funny. I give people the opportunity to mess with the lines as much as they want, and she was just ad-libbing in such great ways. To me, it’s sort of the modern version of Moneypenny. It’s a really, really fun relationship to explore. Their moral differences definitely kind of put them diametrically opposed in a lot of ways, but the compromises each of them makes, I find to be really interesting throughout the course of the season. Eve’s backstory, which is hinted at in the pilot, is something that comes back later and creates a lot of problems for both her and Rush.
In the show description, there was mention of Warren Rush, Will’s father. With Harry Hamlin playing him, I expect we’ll see a lot of him—maybe?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, my first real television-watching experience was when I watched L.A. Law, like at 10 o’clock, Thursday nights with my parents. They would let me stay up late. And then I saw Harry Hamlin in Mad Men. And Carrie Audino, who is our casting director, also cast Mad Men, and I was like, “Is there any chance we could get Harry Hamlin? Because I loooove Harry Hamlin.” That is sort of a real dream for me. So, yes, we will see him frequently. He is a big part of both Rush’s past and the issues he’s confronting in his present. It’s just really cool that we got him.
I can’t wait for his introduction—because my love of Harry Hamlin goes back to the original Clash of the Titans.
Yeah, yeah—I didn’t want to date myself, but, of course, Clash of the Titans.
You can love Clash of the Titans and not date yourself—necessarily.
It’s true. I think it was already ironic when I was loving it when I was 12. I love that movie. I had that movie on VHS that I taped off the TV and would rewind it so much that it would get warped when certain scenes came on: when he kills Medusa—so cool. What’s that little owl’s name?
I did say “Bubo.”
You are correct.
Because I am a Clash of the Titans nerd.
I wonder if he has that owl? Wouldn’t that be cool? It’s really cool-looking. Someone does have that—sorry, now I’m distracted, Googling this talking owl. What else do you want to talk about?
Harry Hamlin—can you say which episode we’ll see him in or no? Is it a surprise?
He’s in the third episode … And he’s cool.
I know he’s cool. I’m sold. I saw his name, and I was excited.
I have a theory about how Will fits in with some of the previous lead characters that you’ve created. Could you maybe talk about a through-line for them—how they are what they are?
I certainly think that he has a little bit in common with the people in The Wackness, as far as people who are trying to self-medicate to not deal with things to get by and not feel. It’s interesting: I never really thought about it. I don’t know: Does he have anything in common with 50/50 guys? Maybe with Joe’s character, who’s always insisting that he’s OK and is kind of playing things off, but deep down really needs other people. God, what could he have in common with a zombie? I don’t know. You said you have a theory?
At first I thought he doesn’t have anything in common with them, and that makes him so different. But then I was like, Wait a minute: Adam had cancer. R was a zombie, so he had a disease—of a sort.
Oh! Oh my God, maybe I’m obsessed with medicine! Maybe I should’ve been a doctor. My mom would’ve been really psyched, actually. I guess that’s true. Certainly with R, yeah. Not only that, it was sort of a metaphor for not feeling. A lot of it is about feeling versus not feeling, and a lot of what Rush is for me is about how this is a guy who found it too difficult to feel when he was working within the traditional medical profession. When he was a doctor, prior to our pilot, he had such a hard time feeling that he just said, “You know, fuck it, I’m just going to treat people who I don’t care about,” because for him, he found it too difficult to feel, and I think that that is definitely a theme in Warm Bodies as well.
I just sort of made that up, but I think it’s maybe true.
I’m with you. What I thought was: You could look at his chemical dependence as a sort of disease—having something thrust upon you, something in your gut making you do bad things. It became a question of whether his addictions were actually a disease or just part of his bad choices.
To be honest, I don’t fall one way or another on that. I think that’s sort of what the show is exploring. I think it is exploring the nature of addiction. This is a guy who’s not just addicted to drugs; he’s addicted to adrenaline, he’s addicted to a lifestyle. For me, that’s kind of an interesting thing to explore. For me, it’s always more interesting to look at things when you don’t really have a horse in the race, so to speak. The show doesn’t have any agenda. It certainly doesn’t presume to judge anyone. I think that allows us to walk that nice line of looking at something in a sophisticated way, while at the same time to not have to use kid gloves with it, you know?
What are some of the other projects you’re working on? How busy are you?
I’m actually in New York prepping a movie. It’s a Christmas party-movie about three friends who have historically gone out on Christmas. This is one Christmas when they’re each at a crisis in their lives. It’s a hard-R Christmas comedy with Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt—the 50/50 guys—and Anthony Mackie and some other really, really cool people who will be announced soon. I’m incredibly excited about it. We’re going to start shooting in a month, so it’s going to be really hot, but—for me to reteam with those guys is just super-cool.
Sounds like something to look forward to.
Yes! Christmas 2015. December something. So you won’t have to look for it for a while—but it’s going to be great.
We’ll keep busy watching Rush.
Please do. That would be really nice.
Rush premieres Thursday, July 17, at 9/8C on USA. Come back that afternoon for my interview with star Tom Ellis.