Still from 'Vicious' featuring Ian McKellen & Iwan Rheon
Gary Janetti is no stranger to sitcom couple chemistry, having been a showrunner on Will & Grace and a writer and consulting producer on Family Guy. Janetti may be an American (and familiar to many as boyfriend of stylist Brad Goreski from Bravo's It's a Brad, Brad World), but he traveled to the U.K to enlist legendary English actors Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi (both openly gay) to portray an octogenarian couple with barbed wit for Vicious. The show premiered last year on England's ITV before its summer rollout stateside on PBS beginning this Sunday, June 29.
McKellen plays Freddie, an underemployed and struggling actor, opposite Jacobi's flamboyant stay-at-home Stuart. Audiences may be surprised to find such a 20th-century sitcom—including a live studio audience—with plenty of theatrical flourishes, making it feel like you're in a jewel box theater watching a West End comedy. Each episode begins with Jacobi verbally sparring with his ancient mother by phone, followed by a grand entrance by McKellen as he descends the stairs with an insult for his lover. "I wanted to start the first season of the show with something theatrical, since Ian and Derek are such extraordinary stage actors," Janetti explains. "I wanted something old-fashioned to start the show. With just six episodes, you can thread [a gag] through it."
It was co-star Iwan Rheon (vicious himself as Ramsay Snow on Game of Thrones), as the couple's handsome young upstairs neighbor, who had the most difficult task as the object of the elders’ attention. “It was a completely surreal moment for me working with them," Rheon admits, who is also currently filming another BBC show, Our Girl. "Obviously, I'm aware of their immense back catalog of work, but they treated me in such a gentlemanly way. To hear their stories is something a [young actor] can only dream of.” He says he enjoyed playing fresh-faced Ash, since that sort of guileless character is a role traditionally written for a woman. "It's quite funny; it feels interesting for me to play that role, something fresh and new."
It's not just McKellen and Jacobi's characters' flirtations Ash has to contend with, however, he's also wheedled by Violet (played by Frances de la Tour), the perennial third wheel present in the old codgers' flat. "Their relationship is really funny," Rheon says, explaining that de la Tour isn't nearly as tall as one might expect from her Harry Potter roles. "She's brilliant."
Although U.S. audiences are only seeing the show now, Janetti is currently at work on a second season that will begin filming this year in the U.K. "I'm planning on taking it out of the flat more," Janetti says. "They'll have a lot more adventures in the world—even more fun."
Does he ever get inspiration for the snippy couple from his own real-life relationship? "There's a part of me in all four of them," Janetti admits, laughing. "Yeah, maybe Brad and I have our moments—where we are a little Freddie and Stuartish."
Vicious premieres June 29. Watch Ian McKellen audition for Downton Abbey on episode 3: