No trial to play with screwball comedy

With any new scripted series it can take a few episodes to find its voice, be it dramatic, comedic or something in between.

ABC’s new drama Newton’s Law, was at various stages described as having elements of both Upstairs Downstairs and Seachange. But it is a nod to screwball comedy that attracted Toby Schmitz, who plays Knox Chambers Senior Counsel, Lewis Hughes.

“(Writer) Deb Cox was saying ‘You may say in your TV Bible what this show is going to be a mash of, but no-one really knows what the tone of the show is until a few weeks into shooting and the rushes have come back and you piece it together'” he explains.

“Ep one maybe ep two ,the tone becomes apparent. All the creatives on this came back pretty quickly and said ‘The rom-com is great, we believe the drama of the procedural, defendants and the crime this week. But boy that screwball comedy stuff is fiery. Feel free to be champing at that bit or extending those kind of corridors of thought.’

“And when I say Screwball Comedy I don’t want it to diminish an idea, because the Girl Friday and Gary Cooper movies which I love and adore and close to my heart, have a lot of drama and action and pace to them. You’ve got to care about the people on the front page.

“But you can’t just have a whole string of very fast banter and gags. You’ve got to care about the drama.”

The Claudia Karvan drama from Every Cloud Productions (Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries) has drawn some commentary around ABC’s other recent legal dramas, but according to Schmitz, there’s plenty of differences,

Rake is hilarious but it’s a bit grottier,” he suggests.

“Lewis wouldn’t be caught dead with stubble. But for Cleaver that’s his uniform.

Janet King and Crownies have serious social issues at their core, as we touch on too, and I’m very proud of that -but they avoid too much levity because Marta’s character is in a very tough place.”

But during filming the other shows were not front of anybody’s mind.

“They never mentioned it on this… maybe because they thought it was too obvious, or maybe they loathed the show, but I had a great few years tuning into Ally McBeal and this doesn’t go as zany or as broad as that.

“There’s a banter, a sophisticated back-and-forth, and a kind of Moonlighting tension between the leads.”

“I was thinking Is this just 50 Frames of Money falling off boobs?”

Schmitz is familiar to audiences from his work in Black Sails, and various roles in Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo, Spirited and a lead role in Underbelly Files: The Man Who Got Away.

“I was not and arguably still am not large enough name for them to put me on the DVD cover,” he recalls of Underbelly. “I think they had my friend and Brendan Cowell on the DVD cover even though he’s only in our scenes.

“I never really watched one of those things, and I didn’t quite know what I was going. But as the series went on I was thinking Is this just 50 Frames of Money falling off boobs? But it was a paid gig. I really enjoyed that particular one and I thought the director was very sensitive.”

“He just wants to be part of the club.”

Now as a “high-flying” lawyer on Newton’s Law, Lewis is very driven by appearances and the trappings of success.

“He longs to be part of the fraternity of the top end of town,” he continues.

“I’ve met all sorts of lawyers over the years and some of them would rather chew their own arm off than indulge in the theatre of actually being in court.

“I think it’s a sense of belonging. And I think he genuinely loves the idea of the Chesterfield couch and the incredible suits and the atmosphere of the Supreme Court. I think all that stuff turns him on.

“We all choose, I suppose, a fraternity that we want to be part of, whether it’s a sports team on the weekend or whatever, just to hang out with your peers or whatever profession. I think that right at the heart of it, he just wants to be part of the club.

“He is quite Zen about it, having reached a comfortable life, but now requiring an extra spark to send him a new direction.”

“I don’t doubt there were a few names that were struck off the list before me.”

Lewis invites his former University sparring partner Josephine Newton (Karvan) to a role at Knox Chambers. It doesn’t hurt that the two have sexual tension.

“I think that’s why he goes back and poaches Josephine from her world to re-enter his life, because he was never as dangerous or as exciting as when they were at Uni together. And she provided a kind of counter to his aloof ambition.

“Josephine genuinely cares about people and her clients. She has a sort of superhuman ability to not become emotionally involved with them which is one of the reasons why most lawyers I talk to say ’You have to have a sense of remove.’

“A lot of these lawyers have to have a sense of remove or they go mad.

“It’s a very attractive part. I don’t doubt there were a few names that were struck off the list before me.

“It’s been fun to do. It has not been a ‘trial’ to do at all.”

Newton’s Law airs 8:30pm Thursdays on ABC.

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