Interview: Kate Walsh on Bad Judge, Shonda Rhimes, Adam McKay and more

© 2013 NBCUniversal Media, LLC. Credit: John Fleenor/NBC

One of television’s most familiar faces is returning to primetime, and she’s ditching her hospital scrubs for a judge’s robe. Kate Walsh teams up with Will Ferrell’s producing partner-in-crime, Adam McKay, to star in NBC’s Kate Walsh of Bad JudgeBad Judge airing Thursdays at 9/8c beginning Oct. 2. As the title suggests, Kate’s character, the honorable Rebecca Wright, isn’t exactly a girl scout, but she’s very effective at what she does, and the results are tailor-made for some laughs. Here’s a slightly condensed version of what the down-to-earth Walsh had to share.

Many viewers who primarily know you from dramatic roles in Grey’s Anatomy or Private Practice may not know of your history as part of the comedy improv group Burn Manhattan. Was comedy your first professional love?
Kate Walsh: I’m either the greatest dabbler in the world, the most indecisive person or really super fortunate in that I’ve always been able to do both [comedy and drama]. Even when I was a kid doing school plays and community theater, I was always interested in both. In Chicago, I moved there to do a play and then continued training in theater and get my equity card and everything. Chicago’s where I really got to explore both a great deal because it’s such a hotbed for theater as a city and community.
I never really wanted to choose. Fortunately I never really had to. I continued on, did the long form improv in New York in Burn Manhattan. As you said, and improvised with all those great people. I knew Adam McKay, who I’m doing Bad Judge with, from Chicago. I introduced him to his wife, Shira Piven, who was from the Piven Theater Workshop. She and I worked together, and she directed me in tons of plays.
That was always my history. I did both comedy and drama, always. I do a comedy part or drama part every year, or do a few episodes of a show. The best was when it was kind of both, like The Mind of the Married Man on HBO, which was a dramedy. I guess. Grey’s Anatomy happened and that was the big thing, so I got known for that. Truth be told, I was always kind of doing both. Also I feel really fortunate because Shonda [Rhimes, creator of Grey’s Anatomy] has that gift of being able to write pathos and comedy, although it’s not straight-up comedy, it was great character-driven things so when there were moments of humor, it came out of story and character. I feel really lucky.
After having played Addison for so long on both shows, I was ready to go back to comedy. I’m thrilled to be reunited with Adam McKay after having been friends and worked together for 20 years.  … It’s been a wonderful experience. I think it’s a totally different character than Addison and super funny, it’s a workplace comedy. I am excited to get into it. That’s a really long answer, sorry dude. Apparently I needed to talk.

No problem, I’m here for you. You mentioned the involvement of Adam McKay. Certainly that’s a name that a lot of people know from a very specific style of comedy, a lot of films that in very short order become classics. How would you describe the comedic tone of the show? Is it to the point of being farcical — is it a bit more grounded than, say, Anchorman?
It’s going to be a workplace comedy. It’s super, super smart. It’s not quite as farcical as some of the Gary Sanchez movies because what works in a two-hour film doesn’t necessarily work over on TV, but it’s very funny. Adam did the rewrites on the pilot and it was laugh-out-loud funny. He’s such a genius in terms of comedic moments in comedy. It’s really going to be a character-driven piece.
At the end of the day, we want people to laugh and think, but I think we also have this great opportunity to do some great social commentary too, perhaps in the world of the judge and all this stuff that comes her way. At the same time, laughing is the most important thing to this show. There will definitely be some physical comedy because that’s my strength too, but it’s character driven and driven under circumstances of the story.

Bad Judge start Kate Walsh

Your title character is somewhat of a paradox, seemingly willing to break as many rules as she’s supposed to be upholding. Is that a reflection of the change in how our society views public officials and others that we used to put on a moral pedestal?
I don’t know. If you go back — I’m thinking of female characters from Sex in the City — they’re at once this fantasy, then all of the sudden they are incredibly flawed. I think that’s something that people gravitate towards for both of those reasons. They identify, yet it’s total fantasy. If you could be a judge who sort of has her own way of justice, that’s kind of a great fantasy.
If you’ve got a judge that has a baseball bat in the back of her car and occasionally smashes somebody’s windows — that’s a fantasy that I think that everybody can relate to. If you could get away with it, what kind of sentencing would you impose on someone who’s sexually harassing somebody at work? Would you have them wear a sandwich board, walking around saying, “I sexually harass women” in front of the corner? It’s this great outlet for fantasy.
At the same time, I think that decades ago had these ideas of who our heroes were. They were inspirational but they were not really flawed.  We’ve become more sophisticated as a culture, and we understand that there are politicians, doctors, judges and lawyers that all have this face that they present to the world. Then there’s their shadowy selves that they all have to live and deal with and somehow integrate the two without destroying themselves or each other.
How about that? Does that sound too dark? I think there’s a source for great comedy there and hopefully pathos too.

How much fun are you having thus far playing this carefree character that gets to break so many rules?
It’s been really fun. I’m also executive-producing the show so I have my hands in a lot of aspects of it — every aspect, one might say. I developed this show with Chad and Anne Heche, who came up with the idea in the first place. She’s one of the other executive producers and all the guys at Gary Sanchez and NBC have been incredibly supportive. I’ve been moving with this, and developing it, and sort of honing it and sculpting it for a year …. For me it’s hugely exciting to create a character and a story and everything down to what she has on her nightstand and what kind of car she drives. I said, “You know what? I think she should drive a beat-up old oxidized van with a mural of a Native American scene on the side.”  “OK, we can do that.”  “Is it OK if it’s oxidized copper instead of oxidized blue?” “Yeah, that’s great.”
It’s a dream. I feel really lucky but also, in a way, it’s kind of full circle. I’ve done this my whole life and it was always my dream to do this and I’m able to do it. I’m also able to work with my friend that I’ve known for 20-some years and go back and work with Adam from the days where we were like struggling little actors and writers in Chicago … now he’s calling me to his production offices in Hollywood and we’re making a good show together. It’s super exciting and fun.