When it comes to writing, one of the oldest adages around is to "write what you know," and when Greg Poehler (yes, as in Amy Poehler's younger brother) decided to leave his job as a lawyer and try for a career in show business, he did just that. Obviously, it worked.
Figuring his own fish-out-of-water experiences after moving to Sweden for love would make for good comedy, Poehler is now the creator, writer and star of the semi-autobiographical "Welcome to Sweden." On the show, he makes his acting debut as Bruce, who moves to Stockholm with his Swedish girlfriend Emma (Josephine Bornebusch), leaving behind his job as an accountant to the stars -- which means ample opportunity for celebrity cameos, like Will Ferrell (who's surprisingly fluent in Swedish). And, of course, his sister Amy, who's an executive producer on the show and plays herself in a recurring role. Already a huge hit in Sweden, where it was recently renewed for a second season, the Swedish/American co-production is premiering in North America on Thursday night.
So, in advance of the "Welcome to Sweden" premiere, HuffPost Canada TV spoke to Poehler about how he was secretly auditioned to play a fictionalized version of himself, working with his sister, and how they balanced making a show for both American and Swedish audiences at the same time.
HuffPost Canada TV: How long had this idea been kicking around in your head before you sat down to start writing it?
Greg Poehler: A long, long time. I think the first time I came to Sweden to visit is when I met my now-wife's parents for the first time, and that was in 2001. That visit is basically the basis for the entire first episode. So the idea had kind of always, since that day, been in my head for about 10 years at least, 11 years before I actually started writing it. And since then, I moved here and lived here now for eight years. Well, six years when I started writing the scripts. During the course of that time, being an immigrant or a stranger in a strange land, there are things that happen to you every day where you realize that you wish there was a camera on you. [Laughs] Just through misinterpretation or cultural differences. I kept getting the gnawing feeling that this could be compelling to someone.
Had you always envisioned playing the lead yourself?
When I originally wrote the script, I was assuming that it would be somebody else as the lead actor. I assumed that they would get some sort of American actor, but I had secretly wanted to do it. I mean, it was basically about my life. I was writing a very semi-autobiographical story. And then I actually had a friend of mine, a comedian friend, I was talking to him about the show and I said, "Yeah, we're going to get an American actor probably to come over." And he said, "Why don't you do it?" And, you know, sometimes in life, all you need is one other person to say that they believe you could do it, and I latched onto that. Like, yeah, you know what, I was thinking about doing it, but now that you say it out loud...
So I managed to convince people here that I was somehow the right guy for the job. We had auditions for the role of Emma, which is my girlfriend on the show, and the Swedish production company here was filming all those auditions, which I thought was kind of strange. Now I realize they were also my auditions. [Laughs] They told me after the fact that the only reason why they were filming those was to make sure that I wasn't a complete ass on-screen. So apparently I passed that test.
I would imagine when it's a story that's based on your actual experiences, it has to be that much harder to hand the role off to somebody else, or even the reins with writing and producing.
Yeah, exactly. I was showrunner/creator/writer/producer/lead actor, and first of all, I didn't know any better because I'd never done anything before, so I didn't know how strange that was. But also, since it was such a personal story, it felt strange to give up control to somebody else, creatively or otherwise. It just felt like this should be my thing. It was kind of a struggle and I had to fight for that I think, especially among a lot of the more seasoned producers and writers and actors, to hold onto the vision of the show that I wanted to make. But I managed to do it. And for me, that is the ultimate accomplishment of the whole ordeal, that by the end of the process, I really feel like it was exactly the show that I wanted to make. And that feels good.
What was your learning curve like? What was harder to get your feet under you with the performing, the writing, the producing, or did it all come pretty quickly and naturally?
Well, the writing thing was kind of weird. Because I was head writer, because I had written these scripts, and then we had three other writers come in, very experienced, seasoned Swedish writers. And the first day, I remember, I was head writer, so I was in charge of the meeting, but I had never been in a writers' meeting before. So it was kind of like, "So ... what do we do? What do we normally do in situations like this?" [Laughs] That was kind of an odd dynamic I think, that took some time, especially for them. I'm sure they were muttering under their breaths, at least for the first couple weeks.
But the producing I would say was the hardest, mainly because it was a co-production between Sweden and the US. We had my company and this other Swedish production company, and then we had eOne, which is our distributor, and then TV4, which is our Swedish channel, and then NBC. So there's basically five players, producers of some sort. All chiming in and giving their notes, and I was the guy in charge of all that, and addressing all of that and trying to make everybody happy. So by the time we got to the actual acting, it felt like the finish line almost. [Laughs] And that's weird, because I've never acted before either, so normally I think that would've been a time of much stress. But once we got to that point, I felt like it was almost over, when the scripts were ready and we were filming. So I would say the acting was the easiest part for me.
I'm assuming it was a very deliberate choice to open the series with a shot of your sister, Amy. Was that always in the cards from Day 1, or was that a joke that you came upon later?
Actually, it's interesting you say that, because that wasn't always the idea. In the original pilot, we had her just as a flashback, and we started with the Bruce at a customs scene. It came about partly to get her more into the show and also, I just thought there'd be something cool about starting the show with the two of us together, the brother/sister combo. If we're going to work together, and be in a scene together, it might as well be the first scene. [Laughs] But it also serves to set up Bruce's former life a little bit more; even though it's just one scene, you at least see him for two minutes in his office in the U.S. before he makes the big move.
How was it working together? Were either of you at all wary about the idea of working with family at first?
I think that's always a concern when you're doing business with family. Not so much the acting part, but when we were actually figuring out signing the deals about who got more. [Laughs] Who gets more money on the producing side. We have a very close relationship, and there was never any problem whatsoever, to be honest. She and I lived together in New York when she started "Saturday Night Live," right before I met my wife. So we've always been very close and kind of conflict-avoiders, both of us, so that helps.
Speaking of which, what did your wife's family think when they first saw the show?
I just told them that everything on the show was fiction and nothing that they saw should be taken as true, or none of the characters actually resemble them in real life. And they believed that. Great.
That was my follow-up question.
[Laughs] Yeah. I told my parents the same thing for when Bruce's parents show up in Episode 6. As long as you tell people it's fiction, even though they might see themselves and think that something kind of resembles their true self, there's nothing they can do if you tell them it's a fiction.
So was it difficult for you attempting to make a show for two different markets? Were you consciously trying to balance the jokes for a Swedish audience vs. an American one?
We were very aware of that. I think that was the biggest challenge we had. On the producing side, we were getting input from both Sweden and the US, so that was my biggest challenge as a producer, trying to keep those two sides happy. But in general, we had Swedish and American writers and any joke that we told or any scene that we wrote, we made sure that it worked for all of us. And that was our way of making sure that these scenes in the show would work in both places, and hopefully everywhere around the world. We tried to find the universality in comedy.
"Welcome To Sweden" premieres in Canada on July 10 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Comedy.