Tonight at 9 p.m., NBC will debut a comedy series starring a Poehler. Not A. Poehler as in Amy, but Greg Poehler, as in her younger brother. A former lawyer whose only Hollywood experience is that blood relation, Greg is the creator/writer/producer/star of Welcome to Sweden, a somewhat-autobiographical tale about a New York accountant named Bruce Evans who meets the Swede of his dreams (played by Josephine Bornebusch) and decides to give it all up for love and move to Scandinavia with her. (The single-camera comedy, which is also executive-produced by Amy, has already aired its first season and received a second-season renewal on Swedish television.)
EW picked up its transcontinental phone and rang up the 39-year-old Poehler—who lives in a Stockholm suburb with his wife and three children—to hear all about how he turned his life into a joke.
Were you always the funniest guy in your law firm?
I was definitely the guy in the courtroom or during these important meetings that was making the really inappropriate joke around the table. This is probably a feeling that a lot of people have, which is: You choose the profession at a certain stage of your life and that becomes your thing. And the idea of becoming an actor is similar to me as becoming an astronaut—I didn’t even really know how that could happen, especially relatively late in life, after you have a wife and some kids. Acting is always something I thought I could do and I thought I would be pretty good at it, but I thought that I missed the opportunity, that it was too late. This transformation has been amazing in that sense. I started doing stand-up a little over two years ago and that was kind of the catalyst in terms of, “Oh maybe, I can do something else.” And then wrote the script and sold the show here in Sweden. So, it’s been a whirlwind.
Growing up, did you and Amy do comedy routines around the house? Was that a shared interest but you just wound up taking a different career path?
That’s a really good way of putting it. She and I are actually very similar in terms of our sense of humor and what we find funny and our ability to make each other laugh. Growing up, we were always trying to make each other laugh and I think we were both our harshest critics when it comes to that. So I always knew if I could do something that made her laugh, that meant it was really funny and I could take that material to school and impress some of my friends.
She’s three years older than me, and when she moved out to Chicago and started doing Improv Olympics and Second City, I was planning on following her in many ways. I went out there to see her do some shows and I was totally blown away by how good everyone was that I saw that weekend. So it was kind of depressing to me at the time. I was like, “I’ll never be as good as these people, and these people are nobodies.” Turns out it was her, it was Tina Fey, it was Colbert and Carell—they were on the Second City main stage. It was Adam McKay, and Horatio Sanz, and all the UCB guys. So when I came back to school I didn’t try out for this improv group because I was like, “I’ll never be as good as these people.” And then over the next 10 years, I saw all of these people popping up on my TV screen, and I was like, “Oh my god, this is comedy royalty! I was in the comedy vortex! No wonder they were so good!”
So that was the fork-in-the-road moment for me, where I just missed it. Often times I thought about, if I could have gone back and done it, what would have happened? So to be able to do it at 40—I’ll turn 40 this year—has been just incredible. It’s something I realize people just don’t get the chance to do, which is make up for lost time.
I heard that you knew so little about writing a script that you started Googling info about it.
I had a big, gigantic, clunky Dell computer in my attic, and it’s kind of embarrassing, but I’m not even joking, I started by Googling “How to write a script.” That was step one. In quotes. “How to write a script.” And then I cut and pasted the How I Met Your Mother pilot, which is available online when you type in “How to write a script.” And then kind of just went from there. I had no idea what I was doing.
It’s fascinating that it turned out so well, because that script that I wrote that day was the basis for selling it to a whole bunch of places, in Sweden and the U.S. And then after I had written the script, I sent it to Amy, just so she could check to see if the font and the size was correct. I said, “Does this look like a script? Is this format something you recognize?” [laughs] Because I certainly wasn’t asking for her to be involved. First of all, I knew you don’t do that, and secondly I thought it was for a Swedish production. But then she read it and really liked it and said that I had something here. So it was great to get her on board in that sense.
Did you tell Amy that you were working on it?
Yeah, I just sent it. I said, “Hey, I wrote this script.” I started doing stand-up a few months prior to that. I had done a couple gigs in the U.S. that she’d seen, so at that point it wasn’t so out of left field, like your lawyer brother is sending you something, but I’m sure she was surprised.
How involved was she in the show?
I had meetings set up in Sweden already based on the script with a production company here, so that was already in motion. The Swedish thing stayed pretty separate in terms of her involvement. And to be honest, she’s not very well-known here, so it wasn’t so much of a help to say, “And Amy Poehler’s involved!” It’s like, “Okay, who’s that?”
So that was a really cool aspect of her involvement—she trusted me enough creatively and otherwise, on the producer end, to handle everything here. And then she was more involved in getting cameos and also the U.S. side of it, as far as distribution. Obviously the NBC deal came about through her contacts. When I wrote what I wanted the show to be in the synopsis, I did put in, “And the show’s going to have American cameos.” I think she saw, “Oh shit, I’m going to have contact all my friends, so I might as well as produce this thing.”
Not only did you write this, but you wanted to star in it, too. That’s pretty bold. Did you realize that the odds were stacked against you?
When I wrote the script for the show, I assumed no one would let me play the [lead role], so I was thinking we would get an American actor to come over. But I had one friend that was like, “Why don’t you play the role?” It was like, okay! (laughs) Sometimes you just need one other person to say, “I think you could do it.” “Okay, good. I was thinking that too.”…
To be honest, I was so naive going in. Also the fact that I made it in Sweden made it all possible. In many ways, there was no one else here to do it. (Laughs) There’s not many American actors hanging around Stockholm, so it’s not like I had much competition. And also it’s a very personal, autobiographical story and I think if you come with that and you say, “This is my story, this is my experience,” it’s hard for other people to say, “You know what? Let’s take over from here.” It’s tough for Swedes to say, “We’ll make the show about Sweden through the eyes of an American instead.”
So the subject matter lent itself to me having more control, but every day I totally realized how lucky I was and I really tried to enjoy every second of it because really, there’s nowhere to go from here but down as far as my career. I mean, I created, wrote, produced, and starred in my first-ever acting gig! I think five years from now I’ll be an extra walking through the back of movies… It’s a dream come true. I feel like maybe I’ll wake up tomorrow and I’ll be like, “Oh, that didn’t actually happen. That was the longest dream ever.” And if it is a dream, I hope nobody wakes me up. At least until the NBC run is over.
At what point in the process did NBC bite? The show was set to air in Sweden, but hadn’t aired yet, right?
We had a 12-minute pilot that we showed them. And they bought the rights to it, but they did wait until we delivered all of the episodes before they decided whether to air it or not. For me that was the best affirmation of the fact that the show was something—when they saw the episodes and really liked them and said they were going to air them and gave us this Thursday at 9 o’clock slot. Even though it’s summertime, Thursdays on NBC still mean something to me, as a child of the NBC ’80s.
Which parts of the show did you pull from your life?
The first night I met my wife, she said to me, “Would you ever consider moving to Sweden?” and I was like, “Yeahhh! I would love to!” I was just trying to have sex with her. I would’ve said anything. [laughs] I had to go home and look up Sweden on a map and figure out where it was afterward. I had to get ready for the second date. I had all the top cities in Sweden ready in case she was going to ask… The move [to Sweden] was part of the plan early on. I put it off as long as I could. We lived in New York together for five years before we made the move… Almost everything in the episodes are things that I encountered or happened in some way, but we certainly took a lot of liberties to try to make it funnier. Also, my own transition was so much smoother than Bruce’s, but there’s nothing either funny or compelling about making a show where everything goes great for him! If we made it more autobiographical, it would have been just boring, where a man comes and is accepted by his wife’s family—and finds a job fairly quickly. [Laughs]
The show features some fun celebrity cameos, including Will Ferrell, Aubrey Plaza, and Gene Simmons. Did these people just happen to be passing through Sweden at the right time?
Almost all the cameos were shot in Sweden, other than Amy’s stuff, which we shot in L.A. … Aubrey I knew, of course, through Amy, so that was great. We had a friendship prior to this. KISS was coming to Stockholm so we got [Simmons] while he was here. Patrick Duffy and Illeana Douglass, who play my parents, came to Sweden for a couple weeks to shoot. And Will has a Swedish wife, so he was here during the summer. Everybody had some connection to Sweden actually. Aubrey had a Swedish boyfriend in high school, I think, an exchange student. So she had been here before.
You also cast Lena Olin as your mother-in-law. How did you two cross paths?
That same day when I wrote [the show synopsis], I wrote, “I think the mother should be a Lena Olin type.” Mainly because she was the only Swedish actress I knew. And then, as we were developing the show, we were like, “Maybe we should try to actually get the Lena Olin instead of a Lena Olin-type.” [laughs] I met her here in Sweden—she was here on vacation a few years back. And it turns out we have a lot in common. She’s this Swede who moved to the U.S. and is trying to raise her kids somewhat Swedish in the middle of American culture, and I’m kind of living the reverse life, so we really hit it off.
And she’s never done a Swedish TV show before, which is amazing because she’s Swedish—she moved to the U.S. at a pretty early age—so she was interested in doing some Swedish stuff anyway and really liked the script and is super funny in this… It’s a great role. You always have these traditional fathers that are the disapproving “You’re not good enough for my daughter,” and we flipped it gender-wise and had her be the one that really believes that. So the first season is very much Bruce trying to win her over—mostly unsuccessfully.
What are some examples of those cultural differences that you’ll have fun with?
Instead of creating an entire show of “Look how different Swedes are from Americans!,” which would get old very quick, especially here [in Sweden], we tried to show that at their core, people are people, once you chip away and get past the cultural differences or language differences. As far as the Swedish differences, we tried to have one small thing almost in every episode. Like, Swedes take their shoes off before you go into someone’s apartment. That’s something I learned the hard way. And Swedes are really into hugging. They hug all the time when you first meet someone, so we did a whole thing about that. The men on paternity leave—so many fathers are pushing strollers around the city—that’s a bit of an episode as well. We really tried to focus on the smaller kind of sociological things that you maybe wouldn’t expect.
And what themes do you explore in the show, besides fish-out-of-water stories?
The show really at heart is a straight love story. On its face, it looks like it’s kind of a niche show—an American in Sweden—but it has much larger universal themes of, “Can love conquer the culture divide?” and things like that. People always talk about, “I would give up everything for this person,” but what happens when you do? That’s what the show is. The show starts on day one of Bruce having given up his entire former life for this person and he’s just sitting there in a strange place. What do you do now?
In many ways it’s like a blueprint for what the first few months of an immigrant’s life is like. The first season is really all about: Will he stay in Sweden? And their relationship is the one solid aspect—it’s more [about] these external factors like her family and the culture shock and his inability to find friends or find a job which are really weighing down their relationship. And he has all these American celebrity clients who are really pressuring him to come back, so he has that added weight on his shoulders as well.
A decent portion of the show is subtitled, as the characters are often speaking Swedish. Was that a concern for NBC?
It didn’t come up from them, but it was certainly a concern of mine when we were writing it. I realized that Americans aren’t super-excited about reading while watching TV. Even my parents are like, “Awww, man—we have to read?” So, we tried to keep it to a minimum. Still, it’s an interesting comedic device to to have people talking in front of someone and them not understanding. Hopefully it’ll just be something seen as quirky and fun and not too distracting.
How’s your Swedish, by the way?
It’s pretty good. I speak at a seven-year-old’s level. I speak Swedish mainly with my kids’ friends. My six-year-old son’s friends think I’m cool and my eight-year-old son’s friends think I’m a total f—ing moron, so I know that seven is the cut-off. That’s where I start losing my audience.
You said that Swedes don’t know Amy that well, so now that the first season has aired over there, are you actually more famous than her in Sweden?
I finally found a place… [laughs] For the general public, definitely. There’s smaller, comedy nerd fan base here, as there is everywhere, that is definitely into her. But I’ve kind of made her more famous here by being on my show. Sweden was the last place where she wasn’t very well-known, so I was trying to achieve that for her.
I’m also wondering if you’re getting compared with another famous Greg. Do you ever sign autographs as him?
It’s funny, I lived my first 38 years of my life with maybe one or two people ever saying that I looked like Greg Kinnear. As soon as I get into the entertainment industry, now it’s 100 percent of people.
It’s a flattering comparison.
Totally. I love Greg Kinnear. I think he’s a good-looking dude and he’s done some really great things as an actor. Maybe we can play… I don’t know, is he too young to be my father? How old is that guy?
Let’s look it up… He’s 51.
He’s too young to be my father, but he could be my brother. The possibilities are endless for the two of us to do a buddy film.