Talk With The Cast & EPs of NBC’s New Hero Hit POWERLESS

In NBC’s new super hero comedy, Emily Locke (Vanessa Hudgens) starts a new job as Director of Research & Development for Wayne Security, a subsidiary of Wayne Enterprises that specializes in products that make defenseless bystanders feel a little safer. At the TCA winter press tour, the cast and creators of Powerless talked about the fun and challenges of leaping into the iconic DC universe.

Powerless airs Thursdays at 8:30pm on NBC.

For Ron Funches, we’re used to seeing more of you. How much weight have you lost and has it changed the way people respond to you?

Ron Funches: Oh, why thank you. I thought you meant, like, I wasn’t in the show enough. I was, like, I agree on both counts. I lost 130 pounds. Life-wise, I just have more energy, and I just feel better. I am sweating less on set; so that’s good. Then I just think it’s helpful role-wise as far as people are seeing me more as, like, the full actor instead of just like a fat best friend type of thing, and also, I have sex more. So that’s good.

In terms of the show’s development, when did you find out you could make the company a division of Wayne Enterprises and how did the tie-in with Bruce Wayne change the show?

Patrick Schumacker: I don’t know let’s say 15 weeks into this, we decided that the insurance company angle was not really generating the type of storylines that we wanted to be telling, and we had a nice sit down with DC in the studio with Geoff Johns and kind of brainstormed where else we could take it that we could tell classic workplace comedy stories but in a way that kind of activates the DC universe a little bit more and brings that into the office a little bit more. We landed on security products because we still wanted to do the idea that they are working on stuff that makes everybody like you or me a little bit safer in a world where demigods are flying around in the sky, wrecking buildings, causing falling rubble and that sort of thing. We thought it was more interesting to sort of go on the preventive side of things. Then, after we had hit the security angle, we sat down with NBC, and they were the ones that suggested R&D, and we loved it, kind of immediately generated stories. So, yeah, the Wayne of it all, it felt like… The first episode is called “Wayne or Lose.” It came about because, obviously, there’s a lot of recognition in the Wayne name. It is ultimately Bruce Wayne’s company. It’s a subsidiary of Wayne Industries, but this takes place in Charm City, [a] totally made up city for this version of the show. We are saying this takes place in Earth-P, which is like power of its own, universe within the overall DC multiverse.

Danny Pudi: There are a lot of earths.

Alan Tudyk: Never. Anybody else heard that?

Danny Pudi: First time.

Alan Tudyk: It explains so much now about my character. I wasn’t a Wayne before, and now I am, totally better. My dad sort of ran the company, and since now it’s Wayne and I have these aspirations to move up in the world in the Wayne Industries, it really ties it into the world, into the superhero world. It doesn’t make it just any show, where you can be a guy who is in this company that his dad runs, and you are rich, and you are spoiled and all of that. But this is all part of the superhero world that we have that “Powerless” is in. So it really helped ground the whole thing.

Patrick Schumacker: Alan’s character, Van Wayne, is constantly trying to achieve that dangling carrot of getting a job in the Gotham office, the mothership.

Justin Halpern: We sort of saw the Waynes kind of like any big business, like the Rockefellers or you have people who run the company, and then you have a bunch of, sort of, hangers on that are – it’s a big field of nepotism. It’s like you’ve got Trump, and then you’ve got all of his idiot sons. It’s like that at Wayne. Is that a secret, Trump is an idiot?

Vanessa, what drew you to this project?

Vanessa Hudgens: Well, I love workspace comedies. “The Office” is my all time favorite show and “Parks and Recreation,” and they are both on NBC. So when I found out NBC was doing another half hour workspace comedy, I was, like, “Oh, that would be an amazing thing to be a part of.” Then adding DC Comics as the backdrop for the show, I just knew that it would be something completely original. That’s what’s really neat about doing art and performing, is doing something that hasn’t really been done before, also something that’s light hearted that will just be kind of an escape for people. You can just sit down, forget about the worries of your day, and just laugh, and I think that’s something the world needs a bit of right now.

Do you do improv while you are shooting?

Vanessa Hudgens: I’m not as good as them.

Danny Pudi: Come on.

Vanessa Hudgens: I’m not. They are hysterical. They are really funny.

Patrick Schumacker: We start every take with a “Zip to Zap” doc with the cast, warm up, yeah.

Ron Funches: If she won’t speak up for herself, I would say she just fits right in and plays with all of us. There is no difference. It’s just all of us pitching in jokes and having fun, and the scripts come in tight already. So there’s not much to do, and whatever there is to do, she has no problem doing it. It’s fun. Like, you saw the video where the cloud of dust is coming out on her, and it’s funny. She’s so fun and cute and probably has enough money where she doesn’t have to do it. But, like, hey, we are going to do this take. Let me put this baby food powder in her mouth. She just goes, “Okay.” She’s game.

Danny Pudi: She’s a blast to work with.

With “Con Man” and “Rogue One,” you have a lot of projects going on right now. What made you decide to sign on for a half-hour series?

Alan Tudyk: I’ve been lucky enough to do a lot of different things […] and the main reason I’ve been able to do that is because I take a script or whatever project that comes along, and when I think something is special and when I think something is funny, I’m very attracted to it, and this is funny. This is funny, and that’s not easy. A lot of people try for that, and I’m sure there’s well, you’ve seen a lot of them today or this week or two weeks that you guys have been here, and I’m just very happy. I can’t wait for more people to see it because I think it is really funny.

DC projects tend to have a quite serious tone, unlike “Poweless.” Can you talk about the shift of tone with this project?

Justin Halpern: Well, I think it was definitely like—we have a joke in the pilot where we kind of poke fun at the “Batman v Superman” films, and it’s always like going up to them and being, like, “Hey, can we shit on this?” Usually, they have a good sense of humor about it.

Alan Tudyk: We’d rather you shit in the toilet. Why are you shitting on the toilet?

Justin Halpern: Usually, they we are very protective for their characters and for a good reason, I think. A lot of people invest a lot in these characters. For us, it’s a little bit of we ask for as much as we can get, and then we kind of see where we can find a happy medium. I’ve been pretty happy with what we’ve been able to get away with it. Like anything, they wanted to make sure that they didn’t think the show was terrible before they started letting us use stuff. So as I started to get cuts in and see things, I think they allowed us to have a little more freedom. It’s one of those things where there’s a concern that most of America is unfamiliar with anything but sort of, like, the big five, of Superman, Batman, Aquaman, and so when we use something that’s not I named three, but if we use something that’s not one of those five, there’s a little bit of trepidation. Hopefully, we’ve been able to kind of introduce new characters that are in the DC canon but in a way that everyone else will be able to kind of digest them.

What kinds of things have been off limits in terms of joking about them?

Justin Halpern: Well, it’s not so much joking about them. It’s seeing stuff, like, for instance, Batman. Right? Even if you want to see his hands pop into frame, you’d have to go get Affleck. You can’t just have someone else’s hands be Batman.

Alan Tudyk: Really?

Justin Halpern: So I think it’s one of those things where, if Affleck wanted to do it, we could bring him on the show, but…

Patrick Schumacker: If his hands wanted to do it.

Justin Halpern: Yes, if Affleck’s hands want to do it. Maybe we’ll get Casey and have him play the character from “Manchester by the Sea.” It is one of those things where we have trouble showing people that already exist in the world if we are trying to take them. And also, the Berlanti verse, I mean, everything seems to be in the Berlanti verse. Maybe the TCAs are also in the Berlanti verse. When you ask for something that’s in the Berlanti verse, there’s a lot of red tape because it’s on another network. So those are a lot of the challenges we have, if something is on another network, being used by another show. That’s when it gets really tough and it can be a little frustrating, but I think we’ve been pretty happy with what we’ve been able to….

Patrick Schumacker: Another important thing is that this show – I’ve read some comments online that people assume, “Oh, they are just leaning really hard into the Batman of it all because it’s Wayne Security.” It’s not true. The idea is that we are going to pull from the entire canon of the comics. I would say if there’s anything that exists, existing IP, it really is the comics that we are pulling from, and we want to kind of show as much of the breadth of the DC universe as possible. You are going to see characters that you are familiar with if you are a hardcore comic book fan, and a lot of those heroes are I would look at them as kind of underdogs in the overall scheme of things. You are not going to like Justin said, the big seven. They are members of the Justice League. They are not going to make appearances. They do exist in this world. We reference them all the time. The things that they do in the world affect our characters. When there’s some sort of large scale invasion or something like that that Superman is taking care of, that somehow creates a conversation with our characters or actually affects them physically somehow. We have some kind of interesting, high concept episodes that we are working on in the future.

For Alan Tudyk, based on your previous projects, you seem to have a love of sci-fi.

Alan Tudyk: Yes, but I don’t think more than most people. I did a TV show called “Firefly” that was canceled in 2003 or ’04.

Danny Pudi: Boo.

Alan Tudyk: I know, too soon. But I went into sci fi world from there, really, was when I really kind of got serious about it, went to a bunch of cons. I went to Comic Cons and things like that for years. I think it’s a great world. There’s so many acting opportunities within that world of all of the worlds that are created. There’s so many high stakes and imagination that you can just indulge in. It’s just wonderful. I really enjoy it personally. But as far as the comedy goes, it’s a great place with all of those high stakes to put a comedy, especially you have people who are over these incredible events happening and they’re just dealing with their mundane that if you have ice villains warring in the city that it’s what people have to deal with whenever they get an ice storm. Getting to work is a problem. The thermostat’s broken, things like that. But you also have these grand demigods running around the city and poking fun at them. Marvel does that really well, and I think it’s about time DC did it and so we’re doing it.

What are those conversations like when you want to use a certain character or bit of lore?

Justin Halpern: It’s not so much a negotiation. You usually get a yes or no right away. But it will usually involve us talking to somebody at DC or talking to directly to Geoff, and then we’ll hear back. A lot of these things are tied up in so many different rights. Like, for instance, there’s four different Batmobiles that have shown up in four different movies and four different people have the rights to them and even though it seems like you’re like, oh, you could just go to DC and get them, no, you have to go to Warner Pictures. It’s a lot of red tape, to get some things. Then other things will be real easy. They’ll be like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. You can do that, no problem.” It’s always surprising. I never know whether they’re going to fight us on something or if they’re just going to be like, yeah, sure, go ahead. The lesson I’ve learned is just ask for everything and then or just do it and get a laugh at the table read and then they’re stuck and then you can be like, “It killed. What are you doing? We have to do this.”

So you’re saying there’s a distinct chance Det. Chimp could be a regular next season?

Justin Halpern: Ah, I’d say he is.

Patrick Schumacker: No. But also, we’re shooting an episode right now where a batarang, an errant batarang plays a big part in the story, so….

At what point does it become kind of silly that the characters don’t realize that the tech they’re making is going to Batman and not Bruce Wayne?

Justin Halpern: For that exact reason, we don’t—they’re not just sort of like a beta for Batman. We use it in the pilot as sort of a wink and a nod that these guys have grand ambitions and they don’t know that they’re working for Bruce Wayne, who is Batman. We don’t use it as a sort of a test lab. We actually sort of tried to make a point to not use Batman and Bruce Wayne as a crutch other than just sort of the dangling carrot for Alan’s character, because the idea of this rich guy who’s been relegated to what is essentially Cleveland if LeBron wasn’t there and he wants to move somewhere that he feels like he’ll be a big deal. That’s how we use Bruce Wayne a lot, but we don’t lean into that past the pilot too much.

Does that make his arc a little bit sad if you know he can never attain that goal because of rights?

Justin Halpern: I have a very dark world view, so I love sad.

Patrick Schumacker: Well, never say never. Hopefully, we’ll live on for a while.

Earth P, “Man of Steel,” and “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” have happened in this universe, but “Gotham,” “Smallville” and the Berlanti verse are not part of this universe?

Patrick Schumacker: No. I would say “Batman v. Superman” and “Man of Steel” are the cinematic universe. The Berlanti verse is its own thing. Earth P is its own thing. They all exist within the multi verse of DC, but they’re each their own version.

Ron Funches: Dropped science.

Justin Halpern: I would say we don’t generally go off—we don’t treat the films as things that have happened within this world. The marketing team treats the films as if they happen in this world, but in the show we tend to not. In any of these superhero battles, there seems to be collateral damage that no one ever pays attention to, so it didn’t feel like it was exclusive just to those films.

Patrick Schumacker: It doesn’t preclude Batman from fighting Superman in our universe.

For Danny Pudi, for years played a character who would be extremely into what’s happening on this show. Do you feel any sense of gratification on his behalf?

Danny Pudi: Yes, I mean, my whole life has been trying to get as close to a superhero as possible.

Justin Halpern: And now you’re sitting next to him.

Danny Pudi: Now I’m right next to him. I would be very excited by this. I don’t know if he would-I think he would – I’m not sure how much he would thrive in this sort of environment or he would just be kind of constantly trying to connect the dots. At the same time for me, this is pretty awesome. I get to be close to superheroes and work with these people, so I’m very excited.

Did any of you grow up with any kind of nerdy predilections?

Vanessa Hudgens: I love Catwoman. Michelle Pfeiffer Catwoman is my all time crush. So I dressed up as Catwoman every day when I was like 4 years old. That’s the nerdy part of me.

Alan Tuyk: We have the same all time crush.

Christina Kirk: I definitely grew up with nerdy instincts, but they weren’t really comic book centered. I remember seeing “Superman” and … Christopher Reeve. Retrospectively, Gene Hackman was pretty awesome in that movie. So definitely grew up as a nerd but not around comics.

Danny Pudi: I love Tim Burton’s “Batman.” That’s probably my favorite. I grew up with this type of body, so I was always being almost injured or injured. I’m the guy who was constantly looking up at superheroes, so that would be me. In terms of, like, nerd stuff, I grew up Polish dancing, and traditional dancing. So just I grew up different.

Will any other famous character’s relatives show up?

Justin Halpern: We’re open to that kind of stuff. I think, again, we were conscious of not just kind of name dropping to name-drop. We want it to make sense when it happens. So we’re open to that kind of thing, but we’re sort of trying to be careful to not kind of service things the wrong way.

For Vanessa Hudgens, what superpowers would you enjoy? Do you already have any?

Vanessa Hudgens: Well, I have the power of my voice and I sing all day long on set.

Danny Pudi: Yes, and it is awesome to listen to.

Vanessa Hudgens: Normally a lot of Disney songs. Christmas was a good time, a lot of Christmas songs. I’m having the best time. Everyone is just so smart and talented and funny. It’s just a really amazing environment to come to every day. I genuinely look forward to going to work because I know I’m going to have a great time. When it’s the weekend, it’s kind of a chore because there’s so much to do and I’m like I just want to be on set hanging out with my friends. We’re having so much fun. I love it. I just can’t wait to share the show with my friends and my family. I can’t wait to watch it. I feel like even if I wasn’t on the show, I would still watch it, because it’s really funny.

Any more musicals in your life, be it Broadway or TV musicals?

Vanessa Hudgens: If the right one came along, I would do it in a heartbeat. I love musicals so much. I feel like they’re my heart and soul and it’s the thing that I love doing so, so much, so yeah.

What would be your favorite one to do?

Vanessa Hudgens: I love “Moulin Rouge”! I think they’re trying to do it on Broadway right now, so I hope someone’s listening.

Ron Funches: Put it out there in the universe.

Vanessa Hudgens: I’ll be Satine. Yeah, I love that musical so much, and the costumes. I’m a hopeless romantic, so I dream of that.

For Alan Tudyk, is it fun to say things that you wouldn’t get to say in real life as this character?

Alan Tudyk: Yes. He’s a fun character to play. Absolutely. He has power and he’s not smart. I’d say he’s trying, but he isn’t really. He’s kind of happy in his own ignorance and doesn’t really—when everybody does well around him, he’s like, “Great. I should get a promotion. Look how well’s everything’s going.” You’re like, “But that’s my thing.” “Is it? That’s funny how your mind puts that with that. It’s not at all. It’s me.” He’s really fun to play. He’s blithely stupid. I could play this guy. I look forward to playing him as long as I can.

Vanessa Hudgens: And the jokes he comes up with are just so ridiculously, horribly, incredibly amazing. That was, like, so many things, so many things.

Alan Tudyk: Inappropriate. I was waiting for her to work it in there.

Vanessa Hudgens: That would be the one word I could go…it would be a lot easier to explain that.

Alan Tudyk: HR is on set a lot.

Vanessa Hudgens: It’s just so much fun being able to work with him and hearing the stuff that he comes up with. I’m just laughing all the time.

Christina, can you talk about sort of reining that guy in?

Christina Kirk: Yeah, I don’t see that happening. I think of it less of reining him in and more as sort of managing him. I mean, then, of course, as an actor, it’s a lot of fun to watch someone very smart play someone who’s maybe not that bright and…

Alan Tudyk: What?! It’s different when I say it.

Christina Kirk: I’m talking about your character.

Alan Tudyk: I know. I know.

Christina Kirk: I said you were really smart. This is total Van Jackie dynamic right here. As an actor, these guys were saying and Vanessa was saying, I just get to sit there and watch Alan and listen to the crazy things that he spews out, both stuff that’s written in the script and stuff that he comes up with in the moment and, really, I’m just reacting.

Vanessa Hudgens: But your guys’ humor together is so incredible, because you’re just like super dry and he’s super big and together it’s just such an amazing relationship. It’s really funny to watch.

Alan Tudyk: Also, one cool thing about that, about this show, is that we’re not—even though that is a great—we all have these great relationships with each other’s characters, that right now we’re shooting an episode where the three of us, Danny and Ron and my character are together through most of it. We have our own thing.

Danny Pudi: Boys’ night.

Alan Tudyk: A boys’ night. But it isn’t boys’ night out. It’s even more interesting than that. It isn’t like—you know what? It isn’t that idea. Like that would be easy—we’re going to have boys’ night out and something comes from that. It’s actually—it’s really, really cool to have—yeah, I think it’s a testament to a good show, a well written show that you can have other characters be put in and plugged into different relationships. It’s not always the two of us always doing our same thing, playing out the same storyline or Jackie or any of us.

Ron Funches: It’s a real ensemble.

Danny Pudi: We should give a shout out to Jenny Pearson too who’s not here, but—

Ron Funches: Shout out to Jenny P.!

Danny Pudi: She’s hilarious. And speaking on the whole ensemble part, a lot of times me, Ron, and Jenny are together. We already got a nickname, The Noisy Three.

Vanessa Hudgens: TNT.

Danny Pudi: We’re very happy about that.

Vanessa Hudgens: I came up with it.

Danny Pudi: TNT. Vanessa came up with it. It’s fun to just have all these dynamics within the office too that we’re exploring, and it’s been really fun.

How is the show evolving since the pilot?

Justin Halpern: Well, I think for us the big thing was trying to keep the workplace stuff grounded workplace stuff. Because you’re already in a world that’s very heightened. It felt like you didn’t need to also go super broad within the workplace. So I think we were trying to strike that balance. I think you’ll find over the course of a few episodes we start to try to fine-tune where we can—which characters we can go a little bigger with and which ones we want to keep a little more grounded. I think in terms of the superhero stuff, for that we always wanted to play it in terms of how it affects the normal person’s day, and so we try not to ever play it for a joke in and of itself. We try to just—how does it affect—if we’re going to do it, why are we doing it and how does it affect our characters in just a very mundane sort of way.