'Sweet Magnolias' Star Justin Bruening Breaks Down Cal & Maddie's Spark
He played a doctor on All My Children and a paramedic on Grey's Anatomy. Now Justin Bruening is getting into the swing of things as a baseball coach on Netflix's 10-episode drama Sweet Magnolias, based on the novels of the same name by Sheryl Woods.
The series stars JoAnna Garcia Swisher (Reba) as Maddie, Brooke Elliott (Drop Dead Diva) as Dana Sue, and Heather Headley (Chicago Med) as Helen. The women, best friends from high school, support each other through the many challenges of life. One challenge Maddie is facing: she's getting a divorce from husband Bill (Chris Klein), but also finds another chance at romance courtesy of her son’s coach, Cal Maddox, played by Bruening.
TV Insider chatted with the amicable Bruening about what attracted him to the role of Cal, his run as Matthew Taylor on Grey’s, his time in Pine Valley playing Jamie, the son of AMC legends Michael E. Knight (Tad) and Julia Barr (Brooke), and more!
I promise not to accidentally write 'Steel' Magnolias in my copy.
Justin Bruening: I have a funny story about that. I said to my wife, Alexa [Havens, Babe, AMC] that I was offered this part in Sweet Magnolias. She said, 'Steel Magnolias?' I said, ‘Yeah, that must be it.’ I went on iTunes, downloaded Steel Magnolias, and watched it. [Chuckles] I thought, this is not the same project I’m doing.
When I think of Netflix, I think of edgy series, but the tone of Sweet Magnolias has a family-friendly feel to it.
I think what [Netflix] wants is to have a show for everybody. Our show is one in a newer division that focuses on family-friendly stuff. There’s still a little bit of that Netflix edge, just not as much as on their other shows.
JoAnna’s character is attracted to her son’s high school coach, played by you.
Yes. Jo’s character is going through a phase of her life. She’s getting a divorce. Fate intervenes. It just so happens that [it’s with] her son’s baseball coach. She’s not looking for love. I’m not sure my character is either. [But] you can’t fight an attraction. There’s a spark there. Sometimes sparks lead to fires.
How do Maddie’s pals, Dana and Helen, take to Cal?
In the books, Cal is actually intertwined with all [of the women]. His main focus is with Maddie. Her friends are interested in her being happy. They’re in favor of whatever that is. They’re trying to push Maddie into her new life in a gentle, loving way. I meet Maddie first. But they all know about me. The whole town knows about Cal. He used to play baseball, he’s famous. There’s a little confusion as to why he’s in town.
How do Maddie’s children deal with her new relationship?
They’re dealing with their parents' divorce and what their father has done. There’s Tyler (Carson Rowland), Kyle (Logan Allen), and Katie (Bianca Berry Tarantino) and they each deal with it in different ways. You’ve got an angsty teen developing into a man, the middle child who’s more the intellectual, and the fun little girl who doesn’t understand what’s happening. That’s what drives a lot of the story, their reactions. The story is set in the fictional town of Serenity, South Carolina, but I look at "the town" as our cast and crew, and it’s a joy to visit the town. I couldn’t wait to go to work.
What was your experience on Grey’s Anatomy like?
I remember watching the first episode of Grey’s when I was on AMC. Alexa wanted to watch it. At first, I was like, ‘Why are we watching this? This is what we do [on AMC]!’ But by Episode 2, I was hooked. I had auditioned 20 times for 20 different characters on that show. The casting director, Linda Lowry, told me there was one [earlier] role the producer wanted me for but she said, ‘Look, if you use him you can’t use him again so maybe save him for something else?’
I later got the part of Matthew but I had no idea who he’d be involved with. I guessed it was Sarah Drew’s character [Dr. April Kepner] based on how sweet and genuine he was. He’s a wholesome character. I think Alexa guessed it first. She said, ‘It’ll be that girl in the shooting.’ She remember the scene where a guy playing a shooter let April live.
You left Grey's once and come back. Is the door open for another return?
My character isn’t dead. Even on soaps, unless your head is separated from your body, there’s a way to find your way back. They didn’t kill me. Trust me, I asked. ‘I die in the next episode, right?’ They finally said, ‘Why do you think we’re going to kill you?’ I said, ‘You kill everybody!’ Fortunately, they did not kill me and I got to play on that show for a long time. It was one of the most fun roles of my career.
Maybe they’ll have you back.
I’m still a working paramedic.
You came back to AMC for the end of that show before it went off the air in 2011.
Yes. I left in 2007 but I came back for the final two episodes. I wanted to come back and pay tribute to my character and say goodbye to my family on that show. It was sad. They had moved the show to LA [from New York] already so a lot of our original crew wasn’t there. There were a lot of familiar faces behind the scenes, but not everybody that I’d grown to know over the four years I was there. That show was a legacy. Susan [Lucci, Erica] had been on since the second episode? She’s synonymous with that show. I loved working with Michael and Julia, who played my parents.
What did you learn from Michael?
Working with Michael was trial by fire. He’s very funny. He’s awesome. I remember my first day. I was so nerdy. I had my script binder and all my lines were highlighted. Michael and I started rehearsing. [Michael] has no script. He had the first line of the scene [but what he says is] not even remotely close to what’s in the script. I could feel the sweat forming.
Conal O’Brien was the director. I said to him, ‘I think I have the wrong script.’ He grinned at me and said, ‘Oh, no you don’t. Welcome to the world of Michael Knight.’ That was the most glorious thing Michael taught me – freedom. We had so many fun moments as father and son. He was a comfort. Whenever I had scenes with Michael, I was so thrilled, I knew we’d riff off each other. We’d have fun and the more fun I had, the more fun the audience would have.
I thought you couldn’t get more ironic in life that David Hasselhoff played Michael Knight on the TV series Knight Rider and he was once married to Catherine Hickland (Lindsay, One Life to Live), who later married Michael E. Knight, the actor, who played your dad. But then you were cast in the lead role on the revival of Knight Rider in 2008.
Yes. That was a fun little six degrees of separation. Michael, my Michael, was the first person I called when I got the job. I said, ‘I’ve got some news. I got a job. I’m doing the same thing – I’m playing the son of Michael Knight.’ He said, ‘You’re Knight Rider.’ He got it right away.
You were also cast as Steve Trevor in the Wonder Woman pilot by David E. Kelley that starred Adrianne Palicki but never aired.
Yes. I was very excited to get that job. I’m a huge comic book fan. I’m a comic book nerd. I’m in my office right now and it’s filled with Ghost Rider stuff. There’s Johnny Blaze, the original Ghost Rider, but I started reading it when it was revived with the character of Danny Ketch.
I read for Steve Trevor twice. David E. Kelley wrote so much humor into the show. Steve Trevor’s basically the damsel in distress. He’s the only one who can say, ‘My girlfriend is going to beat you up. Just wait till she gets here!’ Steve was capable in his own right, but he was the one getting saved. There was so much fun stuff. In one scene that didn’t make it in, [Diana and Steve] have a fight, a typical couple’s fight. I storm off and leave and then this huge bus flies by my head and I turned to her and said, ‘Really?’
Is there another role in the superhero world you’d like to play?
I would like to do the Daniel Ketch version of Ghost Rider. As his story developed, he became such a tortured guy. The original Ghost Rider, Johnny Blaze, made a pact with the devil, but Danny never did that. He just tried to save his sister and then he [became the Ghost Rider]. Later on, he becomes addicted to the power. There are fun things to explore. Hopefully someday.
Any other thoughts on Cal and Sweet Magnolias?
I view Cal as the Obi Wan Kenobi of Sweet Magnolias in the sense that yes, he’s young, but, as you’ll see, he’s been through [a lot]. On soaps, I always felt that the women characters were far more interesting than the men ever were because, generally, they had all the secrets. But this show is set in a small town so everyone knows everything about one another already. It’s the men who come into town who have the secrets. You get to explore their pasts which is always very interesting. A lot of things happened to Cal before he got to Serenity. He’s much wiser because of what he’s gone through. He gives advice and it’s sound advice. It makes him a good coach, a good person to turn to.
Sweet Magnolias, Streaming Now, Netflix