Dual lives for Jordana Spiro as 'The Mob Doctor'
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - "The Mob Doctor" focuses on Dr. Grace Devlin, a respected surgeon at Chicago's Roosevelt Medical Center who supplements her day job with an underground practice: To pay off her brother's gambling debt and save his life, Grace has sworn to give private medical care to the Southside mobsters she grew up with.
"When I first heard the concept of the show, I wondered if this was just a gimmicky way to have a medical procedural," says Jordana Spiro, who stars as Devlin.
Soon enough, she concluded otherwise.
On the series (which premieres Monday at 9 p.m. EDT on Fox), the central issue for Spiro is this: "When does the motivation stop being the debt Grace owes and become a hunger for the adrenaline rush she gets from treating these dangerous criminals?"
Under her seemingly oppressive deal, Devlin has turned the table on people who, through the years, had exerted control on her and her family.
"You like feeling powerful, don't you?" says Constantine Alexander (William Forsythe), the former and maybe yet-again head of the Southside mob, as he notes the clout Grace's doctor skills have given her.
"I like making a difference," she says evasively.
Ignoring her, he makes a pointed reference to how power corrupts.
"It's not about power," Grace insists.
Spiro knows better.
"For me, the show is not a medical procedural," she says. "I see it as being about someone who is torn between the two different worlds she occupies. I think she's trying to make good in both these worlds, even when they're at odds — and even if she gets more and more compromised."
Doing all that, at least in the pilot, keeps Grace scrambling.
"A friend told me the title of the show should be 'Dr. I-Gotta-Go,'" Spiro says with a laugh.
Pinballing between her hospital and gangster enclaves in her SUV, Grace twice makes an abrupt departure with a curt "I gotta go," and once again with "I gotta take care of something," not to mention her cellphone's cuing even more interruptions: "I gotta take this."
Living her dual life, Grace is headstrong and defiant in the face of authority — whether it's her hospital boss or a mafia boss. And she seems fearless and remarkably adept behind the wheel when pursued in a car chase.
Meanwhile, she finds time for flirtations with her handsome doctor boyfriend (Zach Gilford), locks horns with her screw-up brother (Jesse Lee Soffer) and holds at bay her gangster ex-boyfriend (James Carpinello).
Not your typical doctor?
"She's a surgeon, not a doctor," says Spiro while meeting with a reporter last month. "Doctors hear symptoms and are driven by the riddle of what is the diagnosis. But surgeons want to cut it open and get their hands in it: going for broke. That's how Grace is living her life."
All in all, it's a far more hectic routine than the life of weekly poker games and covering the Cubs that Spiro portrayed as Chicago sportswriter P.J. Franklin on her TBS sitcom "My Boys."
Airing from 2006 to 2010, "My Boys" established Spiro as a winsome and amusing everygirl.
"After that, a lot of things coming my way were light comedy, which I was interested in continuing," she says. "But Grace Devlin was such a great role!"
Appreciatively she cites "Mob Doctor" co-creators Josh Berman and Rob Wright as well as director Michael Dinner, saying, "They could have so easily gone to other actresses with a better-known drama background. For them to put their faith in me, I feel really grateful for that."
The deal came up while Spiro was in school. She's been studying film at Columbia University since "My Boys" ended two years ago, she says, which is where she was when she got early word about "The Mob Doctor."
"It was kind of funny," she recalls. "The only time they could find to speak was during my writing class. I ducked out of my class with Paul Schrader, my screenwriting hero" — he wrote "Raging Bull" and "Taxi Driver" — "to find a quiet spot in a Columbia hallway to talk to them."
She is taking this semester off, but her studies continue: She'll be doing a thesis film to complete her Master of Fine Arts.
But she's always liked learning things. The 35-year-old Spiro grew up in Manhattan, the middle of five kids whose parents were art dealers. They encouraged her interest in acting with one caveat: that she never forget it's a business. So she made it her business to use acting as a path for exploration.
In recent months, she's been shadowing surgeons to prepare her to play Devlin, "and it reminded me why I wanted to be in this business in the first place: the access, being a fly on the wall to witness something you wouldn't normally be able to see."
Has she also been shadowing mobsters?
"It's a little more difficult to find THOSE opportunities," she laughs. "You have to rely on what you read and your imagination."
By then, Spiro has spent a busy weekend in Los Angeles doing press for her new show. Early the next morning she will be on a plane for Chicago. By afternoon, she'll be shooting the series.
Does she know her lines?
"Thrombocytopenia," she trills in affirmation. That's a medical term Dr. Devlin would know and now, thanks to the script, so does Spiro.
It's a good start.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier