Nancy Travis: The First Lady of “Last Man Standing”

Nancy Travis is the womanly woman behind Tim Allen’s manly man.

After frequently being deployed as one of TV’s reliable secret weapons, as a guest star (“Grey’s Anatomy,” “Desperate Housewives”) or latter-seasons cast addition (“Becker”), Travis has a hit series out of the gate playing opposite Allen on the new sitcom “Last Man Standing.” Travis tells PopcornBiz about tweaking Allen’s signature shtick as the matriarch of the women who surround him.

Tell us about working opposite Tim and finding your own way into that style of comedy that he’s built so well.

It's a brand of comedy that he has built very, very well. And my job has been literally and figuratively trying to marry myself to it. I'm aware that he's got a huge, huge fan base, and they came out in droves to watch the show. It's thrilling that I get to be a part of that and sort of go along for the ride. And we have a great time making the show. He's very smart: he knows the formula, he knows the format probably better than anybody, and he cares a lot about trying to make a really good show. So we work hard at that.

How are you trying to add a freshness and a new spin to your end of the equation that kind of fits in with Tim's established persona?

It's interesting because I am trying to make myself a partner with Tim and at the same time go to the writers to develop Vanessa's roles and point of view and life. And a lot about creating a new show and a new family is just trying to zero in on who these people are specifically and what they mean to each other and what they do. We've got an episode coming up where I go back to work, and you see me in the workplace and you see how that reverberates in the house, how it affects my relationship with the daughters. It's just trying to be specific as the scripts come along and be able to say, 'You know what, my character wouldn't say this. You want to take that line? Your character would say that. Can I have that line?' And just continually looking at it under a microscope and trying to make it specific and push the situations. I just want to add, too, I love to do physical comedy, so in the next episode where I have this paralyzing realization that I'm a grandmother in the show I get to have some physical moments in that as well.

Was that episode in particular a lot of fun for you to mess around with, given the kind of aging paranoia that exists in Hollywood?

Well, you know, it's all too real! It's very fun, and given the fact that we're doing a sitcom it's also trying to not be afraid to have serious moments, too – feeling like you can go three seconds without a laugh. So it's just trying to find all those balances and extremes, and thank goodness we have a wonderful director, John Pasquin, who is very good at, as he says, pulling me back from the comedic overblown sitcom-y stereotype.

You've done your share of sitcoms. What is the thrill of that format for you?

I love the fact that it operates like a play. You rehearse something all week long and then you finally get to do it in front of a live audience. I love the telling of a story in that amount of time. And I do like that it's with the four cameras you get to shoot it like a scene like a play, whereas with a single camera you're shooting everything in little bits and pieces, so there's more of a sense of continuity and a through-line for you when you get to shoot it in that way. And just personally and selfishly the schedule is the best that there is: I'm a mom and a wife and it just works out great for me.

What's that one seemingly cliché male/female disconnect that, no matter how much you don't want to believe it, you constantly find is true?

I think it's looking at a situation – and we explore this in a couple episodes – where one person sees it as white and the other person sees it as black. It's like speaking a different language, and you can argue the point to death but you just completely see it from different perspectives. We do one episode where it's sort of good cop, bad cop [setup]: our daughter Mandy wants to do some kind of teen fashion thing, and Mike doesn't understand, he can't see why I say I think it's a bad idea. And I can't understand why he thinks there's no problem with it – we just can't get there. So it's just seeing both sides of a coin, and maybe both are right to a certain extent. And even in my own world, my husband can practically sit in a dark room and not change a light bulb. I can't understand. Like, 'Just change the bulb!'


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