Locally bred actor Todd Grinnell is best known for his co-starring role on NBC’s Four Kings and, more recently, his role as Schneider on the Netflix original series One Day at a Time, loosely based on the iconic 1970s Norman Lear sitcom by the same name. Grinnell grew up watching Lear’s shows and admitted he was initially surprised that he got an audition for the role. The actor and die-hard Red Sox fan returned to Boston in between filming the show’s second season and dished on his brief stint in local politics, why growing up in Massachusetts made him a funny man and how a therapeutic food called Plumpy’nut helped him and his actor friends start a one-for-one company to help fight malnutrition.
What was it like to grow up in West Newbury? It was idyllic … It’s the quintessential New England small town. We rode our bikes everywhere. And we were out at Plum Island all the time in the summer. You get to grow up in a small town while having exposure to the culture of a city, which is pretty special. I’m always trying to replicate it wherever we go. My wife and I live in LA and we’re like, “How do we make it like West Newbury here?”
You’re now on the Netflix original series One Day at a Time. What can you tell us about your role as Schneider? It’s literally my dream. I grew up watching Norman Lear’s shows. The fact that I get to work with him every day is amazing. Gloria [Calderon Kellett] is an old friend of mine. So when this project came up for her [as showrunner], I was so happy for her. I had no thought that there would be a part for me. Because I know what Schneider is. Then I get an audition for [the part]. [Gloria] said …“You’re not right for it, but we’re not sure what we’re doing with the character yet, so if nothing else you get to audition for Norman Lear.” I was like,“That’s great. I’ll do that.” So I came in and ended up having a blast with it. I think because I knew those shows so well and I knew that kind of character, it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I was ready for that audition.
You seem like a natural fit for comedy. Did you always know you were a comedic actor? I’ve always been a huge goofball … And I’ve never been afraid to laugh at myself too. I think not having ego maybe helps. It’s also just growing up in Boston too. It’s a very sarcastic, funny part of the world. I think just being from Massachusetts – how you grow up is just making fun of each other and being quick … I used to watch my dad and his friends do it. As a little kid I was like,“I want to get in on that. I can’t wait to jump in and say something sarcastic and snide that cuts somebody down that makes the whole group laugh.” … I discovered very quickly in acting class that I really like comedy. The things that really stuck with me when I was a kid were shows like Cheers, Taxi, All in the Family, Good Times and all these different sitcoms. I was an obsessive fan of Friends and Will & Grace. Next thing you know I get an audition from the Will & Grace producers for their new show. That was my big first break.
What led you to become an actor? I didn’t really know I wanted to be an actor until halfway through college and then after college. My mom being an anti-nuclear activist, I knew I wanted to do something to help the world and give back. And so initially in college I thought,“I’m going to be an environmental lawyer or I’ll be an advocacy attorney.” And so I’d planned on going to law school. I interned for an attorney in LA, which was great, but through that I had enough exposure to the legal system and [decided] this is not for me. Then I switched gears and said,“OK, well, I’m going to go into politics.” I ended up getting an internship with Steve Tolman, who at the time was a [Massachusetts] state rep. I worked in the State House for, I don’t know, six to nine months right out of college. And it was great. I loved it. Boston politics is amazing. And he was a wonderful guy who taught me a lot. He’s a real man of the people … But at that time I had just finished school and had a lot of friends who were actors. It just seemed like a really cool life. I’d wanted to get a proper liberal arts degree so I’d studied history and political studies … But I couldn’t stop thinking about being an actor. So I started in Boston. I started taking acting classes.
Going from politics to acting is quite a career transition! [When] I was quitting working at the State House, I said sheepishly,“I’m going to LA to be an actor. I feel kind of badly about it because we’re doing such great things here and this feels like a very narcissistic career choice.” And [Steve Tolman] said,“That’s ridiculous. The thing you gotta remember is you can always be a public servant. You don’t have to get paid to be a public servant.” And I thought, that’s so wonderful … I can be an actor and still give back and work in philanthropy in some way. This is how This Bar Saves Lives started.
You started This Bar Saves Lives after a humanitarian trip with your actor friend Ryan Devlin. Tell us more about it. We were doing some work in Liberia. We had teamed up to build a bridge for some villagers in an area of Robertsport. On this trip we toured a refugee camp and saw these kids with their moms. The kids were starving to death. They were literally days away from passing away and were being brought back to life by Plumpy’nut … The guy who’s running the refugee camp said, “Yeah, it’s wonderful. We just don’t get it enough.” Ryan and I left and we were driving home crying. We thought,“This is so crazy. Those kids are going to die in the next couple of days. And there’s this stuff that could fix that.”
We came up with a business plan and we showed Ravi Patel, who’s our other business partner, and Kristen Bell. The four of us became partners, and we slowly stumbled our way through starting a packaged food business. We’re a bunch of actors. We had no idea how to start a food company.
We started internationally because that’s where we were when we came up with this and that’s where the most severe cases of malnutrition are … [Malnutrition] is a different problem in the U.S. than it is internationally, and as a small company just starting out we wanted to help the most severe cases … As we’ve grown we’ve always wanted to establish a domestic giving program as well. We’ve just started our partnership with Feeding America, which is the largest hunger relief program NGO in the U.S.
To date we’re at over three million packets of food aid donated to kids around the world. We’re in every Starbucks in California … all over Boston, Philly, DC and New Jersey. We’re also available in Target and Whole Foods. So that’s what’s exciting.
What has contributed to the success of the company? We’re a mission-first company. We have this [name] This Bar Saves Lives. And people go “Well, what the hell does that mean?” I think we’re very transparent about what we do. We aren’t a bunch of food scientists or people who loved granola and the cause is secondary … The taste and quality of our food is equal to the mission. We are adamant that our mission and our giving is the best it can be while still allowing us to keep the lights on at the company.
With the Feeding America partnership we’re really hoping that it spreads more awareness. It’s also a fun thing this summer. If people are going to the Sox game go,“Let’s stop at Starbucks” and see that this bar is going to help the food bank in Waltham or wherever, it’s a really cool thing. We’ve always wanted to do that.
As a Red Sox fan, do you have any superstitions? I have my Sox hat that I’ve had since I was 16. I only wear it when they get to the playoffs; otherwise it stays in my office. Never been washed. It’s very gross. I don’t talk to it necessarily, but I do check in with it.
What’s on your must-do list when you come back home for a visit? Get some Dunkin’. I don’t really drink Dunkin’ when I’m not in Massachusetts because I don’t really believe that it’s the same … I go to The Grog in Newburyport. They have the best clam chowder in the free world. And that’s it. Just hang at home. Pretend I’m on summer vacation in college. Eat all my parents’ food.
What’s been the best piece of advice that you’ve received as an actor? You have to really love it. There has to be no other option for you … Because it takes that kind of dedication of spirit.