Meet Skylar Astin, the star of CBS’s So Help Me Todd. You might know him as Jesse from the cult classic movie Pitch Perfect. Now, he steals the show as Todd, a private investigator who teams up with his mother to solve cases together. The American actor and singer is utterly down to earth and if one quote comes to mind when in conversation with Astin it would be this one by F. Scott Fitzgerald: “It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself.”
Skylar chats to Schön! about So Help Me Todd, his music career, what’s next for him, and so much more.
Let’s talk about So Help Me Todd, your latest show. You play Todd Wright, a former private investigator stripped of his licence who starts working for his high attorney mother Margaret Wright, who is played by Marcia Gay Harden. What can you tell me about Todd and the story itself?
When we first meet Todd, he is without his licence, living in his sister’s garage, still owing his estranged mother nine thousand dollars, and he finds himself working on a case that eventually finds her missing husband, now they are just an investigatory lawyer duo. At the heart of it it’s a story about a mother and a son and the way they navigate these cases together but also their cases, their family drama and trauma and even comedy. It explores those relationships through this procedural format and that’s fun to play.
How is So Help Me Todd different from all the other projects that you’ve worked on so far?
I like playing Todd because he’s messy; he’s a bit of a renegade and he resorts to his own unconventional devices, so that’s been fun to play. It’s nice to focus on the comedy and the dramatic elements of the show and blend them and just tell a human story, not relying on having to sing or anything like that, but just storytelling and making people laugh.
Are there any similarities between you and Todd?
A little bit of my charisma and quirkiness. It comes from within. I also like playing a character that’s very different from myself and has a very different relationship with his family than I have with my own.
How was it for you to play a character that has a different relationship with his family than you have with your own?
I love it. I love the relationship because there’s still love at the center but there’s more of a bickering with Marcia’s character compared to myself and my mother, but I like playing into that and I think there’s also a lot of comedy in there.
You have an extensive history of acting and also music. How have you grown as an actor between when you first started and where you are now?
I started as a teenager and I was working on Broadway in a musical. I didn’t think I’d do much more than theatre. When I made the transition to film in 2008 or 2007 and did my first movie, it was an adjustment that I took to pretty well. I have become a lot more comfortable in front of the camera. I’m very loose these days — I improvise a tonne on So Help Me. Todd. I’m allowed to tweak lines and things, and more often I can write them in a way that I would say them. It’s been fun to kind of craft my performances and I trusted my instincts and the creator, the showrunner Scott, and others are allowing for that to happen which is the best.
If there’s any advice that you as Skylar could give to Todd what would it be?
Let the game come to you more. You don’t always have to break down doors because sometimes they just kind of fall into your lap. Have a little bit more patience with your heart. But that wouldn’t be as exciting as television so while I would give that advice to him personally, I wouldn’t want to see it on CBS because I like the story we’re telling and I love all of Todd’s flaws. I think there is tons of room for growth and we’ll play into that but slowly over time and that’s the thread of storytelling and comedy.
Is there a memory that you take away from the set that you will always remember?
There are a lot of moments, but the ones that stick out are the scenes with me and Marcia where we are involved in some sort of a stakeout or a sting operation or some sort of fun adventure together. Whether it’s climbing into a vent together, breaking into a house or stealing a car and playing with all of the high intensity and humour that comes with a situation of doing that with your mother, or trying to tape a camera to the bumper of a henchman’s car. It’s all that kind of stuff shooting that with Marcia, we have fun with those scenes. We’re always in a great spirit those days because it’s just pure adventure and fun. While we take it very seriously and make sure that we’re hitting all the story beats, we can’t help but kind of crack up a lot of the time.
Tell me more about the dynamic between the both of you.
There’s just a ton of trust between us. We advocate for each other all the time and are a pair. We‘re really like an actual pair, the two of us. We are always tweaking certain moments and building in certain physicality that can add to the scene, like nuanced moments. Sometimes I’ll have an idea for her or she’ll have an idea for me, we’re just really cut from the same cloth. We’re both theatre professionals and we approach scenes in that way. It can feel manipulated in editing or coming together in post-production, it feels right on the day with Marcia. That’s my favourite part of going to work with her.
Was there anything that she said to you on set that you’ll always remember? I can imagine that everyone that you work with leaves an imprint on you or inspires you in a certain way. What did she leave behind for you?
She always encourages me to trust my instincts and I think that’s important. She validates when I make a good decision, and I think that there are no huge wins that she’s bringing to me only because I think we just view each other as equals. I think it’s in the day-to-day where we just encourage each other’s positive choices and we are super honest with each other. That is why our trust is so great. We are like an equal partnership.
Let’s talk about Madeline Wise who plays your sister Alison, how was it to play alongside her?
I love her. She feels like my little sister. We have a really special bond. She‘s such an incredible actress, she’s so funny and she’s always so prepared. She’s just so easy to work with and I just love watching her work. I feel very relaxed. We have a very similar sense of humour. I also love when Maddie comes to set when she’s not working because she will shadow directors often. I love having her behind the camera because she’s just another person that I trust, that I can check in with to see if something’s working or not, or if she has a fun idea. She feels like a real collaborator in the process.
The show is set in Portland, Oregon. What was your favourite thing about shooting there?
We shoot in Vancouver in Canada. It has a very similar aesthetic to Portland. It does rain a lot and it has a grey cloudy vibe that Portland has which is I think the character of our show. We try to throw Portland homages and I take it as a compliment that you assumed that we do shoot there because that was the goal to sell Portland and I’ve been deployed by so much love for that city. I’m so glad to represent that city. Maybe one day we can shoot some exteriors there. Go on a little field trip and do big Portland moments that are synonymous with Portland. We could go there but, until then, we do appreciate Vancouver as a city that we shoot in. We get great locations, and we also like to be representing both cities.
How is So Help Me Todd different compared to your other projects like Pitch Perfect?
I love all of the projects that I’ve done in my career and Pitch Perfect, of course, is one of them. I love that Todd has so many flaws. I love playing with his inappropriateness. I think that Jesse and Max and certain characters I’ve played are great at winning which I love and while Todd is very charming and silly and charismatic, he is not as perfect boyfriend material yet or a perfectly professional guy like some of the other characters I played. There are similar nerdy aspects, I guess. I don’t think Todd feels like those other characters. A little departure is to show something different, to show many different sides to my personality and the characters I could play throughout my career.
What did you learn from the creators of the show?
I just like playing the character of Todd because it is based on our creator. So, anything that’s autobiographical. I know it’s very personal to them and it’s representing someone’s story and making it both factual and true to them, but then also adding my spin that makes it my own and that makes it more of a television version of an autobiography. I think that we’ve threaded a needle and found a nice balance between Scott and Todd.
Let’s talk a little bit about your music career. What can we expect from you in that sphere?
I have five songs that have been released on Spotify. I just uploaded them myself and tripled them out throughout the last few months. My most recent release is a song called Enemy. Also Save My Words, Helium, I Wanna Dance With You and Chills. But I do have several more coming out in the new year that is already finished. It’s just a matter of releasing them slowly. My next song is a duet with an artist named Valerie Broussard and it’s called Gravity.
I heard of her. That’s exciting!
She’s incredible. She sings on a lot of Kygo songs, she also has an incredible music career and fan base. We wrote a song together and it was supposed to just be a songwriting session but we ended up wanting to sing on it together. Now we’re releasing it so I’m very excited and that should be out within the month.
How does being an artist and an actor differ?
It’s a different gene. I like it more when I write scripts rather than act on things because when I write music, I have complete creative control. Collaboration is my decision. I decide whether or not certain things stay or go and I’m the artist behind the music whereas with acting, I’m more of the vessel for somebody else’s words. It’s nice on So Help Me Todd that I get to tweak things and improv a lot, but it’s very different when it starts with you at a laptop and a keyboard and a piano with another person. Then, in eight or nine hours, we have a fully produced song, ready to be edited and put together in the next couple of days. It’s my favourite thing. I’d be doing it all the time if I wasn’t filming. I’m trying to get in a session in the new year literally. I have two days to do it, but I’m going to try because I love doing it. I love doing it in LA where I have my home studio and my partner Stefan Lit has his home studio in California, too. So, I do my best and most efficient work there with him and intend on continuing that on my hiatus.
That’s all very exciting. In terms of music and acting, are there any people that you would love to work with?
It’s a weird answer to that question because, while there are so many incredible actors that I want to work with and collaborate with, that list is endless. Lately, I’ve been realising I would love to do something with Dave Matthews. Even though he’s not an actor, he’s a singer. Of course, I’d like to sing with him, but I feel like it would be fun if he played a character related to me or something. I know he’s taken roles in his past in Adam Sandler movies. Adam Sandler is a friend of mine. There are so many incredible actors that I would die to work with. I mean Daniel Day-Lewis is retired but there are just like the Christian Bale’s of the world and incredible actors both old and young and actresses and everything in between but Dave Matthews kinda just jumps to mind.
I hope that that comes true for you one day. Tell me more about what’s next for you. What are you most excited about when you’re thinking about the future?
I’m pretty busy with So Help Me Todd. I wrote a script a year ago called The Hanukkah Guy and I still want to get it made. I think Jewish representation is really important. It’s a really fun holiday movie. It started with my writing partner and close friend Danny Jolles and I around the holiday season saying “Where are all the Hannukah movies?” There are a billion Christmas movies. I understand there are more people of that faith but where are any of the Hanukkah movies? There’s the animated Adam Sandler film Eight Crazy Nights, which is great, but you know, other than that, there’s not a Hanukkah movie. So, we wanted to make a live-action Hanukkah tale and we wrote this one called The Hanukkah Guy. It’s like that Tim Allen movie, The Santa Clause, meets the Will Ferrell film Elf with a little bit of a tone of Mel Brooks comedy who’s done Blazing Saddles and Spaceballs and some of my favourite movies and movie musicals. So, he’s got that kind of Jewish comedy stick that Danny and I know and understand well. There’s a little bit of that laced in the tone of that holiday movie, and I just think it’s a slam dunk. I have the script, there is a musical component that of course I wrote the music and lyrics to and one day hopefully that will be made. I would also play the lead character of Jacob who becomes The Hanukkah Guy.
What do you like about writing your scripts compared to acting?
Similarly, when I write music, I like to do something creative and fill in the blanks and not have to wait for somebody else to do it. There’s something very empowering about that. I enjoy looking at the script and paring it down and making cuts, making little additions and refining it until you’re proud of it to publish it send it to production companies and agents and say, Hey, I love the script. It’s just a very accomplished feeling and, on top of that, one day, I want to produce something that I’ve written. I have developed and sold shows to big networks like ABC and they’ve come very close to being made. The goal is to think it in your head, write it down, and then one day be standing on set going: I can’t believe I made all this happen. That will inevitably happen for at least one of my projects.
What inspires you when you write music and scripts?
It’s everything. It’s life, it’s my past and things that are personal to me. It’s always nice to write what you know because it comes right from you. I also can draw from other films, whether it’s a homage and a certain moment of a script I’m writing or a melody that feels familiar to me that feels like I can recycle and put in as kind of a homage or something that almost happens accidentally. It’s just all inspiration writing is that so, I tend to make it personal when necessary, and some songs are incredibly personal and some songs are more of a story and the same is with when I write scripts.
My last question is, what is something that you want to be remembered for? What is something that you want to leave behind as an actor and as a person?
I think most importantly, as a person, just my kindness and capacity to love. My big heart, thoughtfulness and willingness to make people laugh. I try to be positive as much as possible. I have a lot of love to give and I was given that by my family and I try to spread that. I hope that’s the lasting impression. Career-wise, of course, I would want to be known as a great actor and a great singer and all the things that I’ve given to the industry. But then, on a lighter note, just to be able to provide an escape in people’s homes when times are hard or times are great or times are worth celebrating or distracting from something bad that happened. I like to provide either that distraction or that comfort or both.
So Help Me Todd is airing now.
photography. Amanda Pratt @ Art Department
fashion. Sarah Darcey @ Judy Inc
talent. Skylar Astin
hair. Mi Sun
make up. Vincenza Celentano
production. Anthony Crane @ Capa Film
location. Coast Modern House
photography assistant. Igor Peretiatko
fashion assistant. Anna Matviichuk
words. Maja Bebber