CHICAGO — He’s far from the most intellectually gifted character on “Shameless.” But Kevin Ball — aka Kev, the (mostly) kind-hearted doofus who lives next door to the Gallaghers, along with his kids and lady love Veronica — will occasionally spout some wisdom.
After a cancer scare this season, Kev and his wife found themselves sitting opposite a geneticist. They also tried to figure out what other health concerns they may have passed down to their daughters, but the jargon makes no sense to poor sweet Kev, who notes with considerable frustration: “In science a positive can mean a bad thing and a negative can be a good thing — crazy confusing!”
Right there with you, Kev.
As played by Steve Howey, he’s actually one of the more level-headed characters on the Chicago-set Showtime series, now it is eighth season. “The rhythm of naivete is fun to play,” Howey said during a recent conversation. “There’s more humor in that for me. I’m not as naive as Kev. He’s an uneducated fellow — dyslexic, illiterate, borderline bipolar, grew up without parents — but his heart is there and he is active in parenting and he loves Veronica fully. His safety net, his sounding board, his everything is Veronica. There is no Kev without the V.”
Prior to “Shameless,” Howey was probably best known for his role as Van Montgomery on the sitcom “Reba,” a character who shares plenty in common with Kev. “Oh sure, there’s a lot of similarities,” Howey said.
The following is a transcript of our conversation edited for space and clarity.
QUESTION: How do you get inside the mind of a big goofy lug who is well intentioned but kind of dense?
ANSWER: For me, it’s more fun to play a dumb guy. I love Don Knotts and I love Jim Carrey. Jerry Lewis. Growing up as a kid, I used to watch reruns of “The Honeymooners” all the time. Jackie Gleason as Ralph Kramden was my lifeblood. And I loved how self-deprecating he was. He didn’t mind looking like the fool. He would be like, “Aw, shuddup” to Norton — and then his wife would tell him to knock it off and he’d realize he was wrong and he would have to go apologize. He would take his hat off and crumple it up in his hands and he had those big puppy dog eyes. As a little boy watching it, I affected me. To have that ability to show that vulnerability.
I’ll watch other actors playing these men with internal torment and it doesn’t register with me. There are guys I know — working actors, famous actors — and they would never take a role that doesn’t make them look cool. That somehow showing a softer side is a weakness. And I don’t think it’s a weakness.
Maybe it has a lot to do with my father. He’s a very emotionally overt guy. I’ve seen him cry, I’ve seen him laugh, I’ve seen him dance, I’ve seen him fall. And he was not afraid to let that show.
Q: Your father, Bill Howey, was a longtime acting coach. It sounds like you had an unconventional childhood.
A: My parents had a 67-foot yacht called Valkyrien that we lived on. It was huge. In the ’80s you could afford to buy a boat like that. Dock fees weren’t that much. Now boats are money pits. But at the time, instead of buying a house they bought a boat and that’s where we lived, on Valkyrien.
The boat was big enough that it needed a crew to sail it. So actors like George Clooney and Patrick Swayze — we called him Buddy Swayze, that was his nickname — would come and party and hang out. We would sail to Catalina and everyone would just get sloshed. I was maybe 7 or 8. They didn’t worry about me at all. I was a little fish.
Eventually my parents sold Valkyrien and bought a smaller schooner named Sea Trek. And that’s when they said, “Steve, we’re going go on a trip around the world. You have to give all your toys away and say goodbye to all your friends.” So we shipped out and started cruising down to Mexico and by the time we got to the Panama Canal, it had already been a year and half. So they took their time. They were having fun. I was, like, 9. And then we just turned around and sailed back north to California.
Q: What about school?
A: School wasn’t a priority, really. It was more about the experience. It wasn’t my adventure; it was their adventure and I was along for the ride. My mom would be like, “Steve, after I smoke this joint and do a body shot off your father’s navel, I’m going to teach you how to do fractions.” She did as much as she could.
We would anchor off the coast of Mexico and there would be a small town nearby and I would say to my mom, “I’m going to go into town” and I would swim ashore and my mom would say, “Come back before dark.” So I would be by myself, barefoot and red shorts, collecting bottles and turning them in for recycling and then use the pesos so I could buy soda. Luckily I never ended up on a milk carton (as a missing child).
Q: You have three kids of your own. Can you picture allowing them to do this?
A: It’s horrifying! Horrifying! My parents are awful parents! I mean, they’re amazing in that they gave me all this freedom. But it’s like, “Did you not want me anymore?” And they’re like, “We just trusted you!” And I’m like, “I was 9!” And my mom to this day will tell you, “I know you were 9, but you had it together and I knew you would swim back before dinner.” I could never imagine doing that with my own kids, but it was also a different time. This was around 1985 or ’86.
Q: The show is called “Shameless” for a reason. What goes through your mind when you read scripts that call for really over-the-top sex scenes or other eye-popping storylines?
A: I’m thinking, “Oh, this isn’t going to work.” Every time. “This isn’t going to work. What are you doing? This doesn’t make sense. What? Aw, c’mon.” And then we do it and I’m like, “Wow, it works!”
At this point, we’ve pretty much done it all, seen it all.
We don’t watch a lot of TV, my wife (actress Sarah Shahi) and I, because we don’t have time anymore. But a few years ago I was like, “Hey, ‘Shameless’ is coming on, do you want to watch?” And she’s like, “Yeah OK, I’ll watch it.” And we sat down and it was the episode where Kev and Veronica try to get pregnant. ...
Anyway, Sarah’s watching this and she’s like, “You know what? I’m good. I’m done. I don’t need to — so this is what you do?” And I’m like, “Yeah.”
So once you do a scene like that, everything else is like no big deal. It all comes with the territory now.
(To recap from previous seasons: Veronica had been unable to conceive and asked her mother to be their surrogate, with Kev as the sperm donor. Rather than go to a doctor’s office, the insemination was accomplished the old-fashioned way. Veronica ended up getting pregnant at the same time as well, hence their two daughters who are nearly the same age.)
Q: The show was renewed for a ninth season.
A: That’s going to be so much fun because I think it’s the last year.
Q: Is that just a gut feeling or … ?
A: Contractually we’re all done. There was so much drama with Emmy Rossum’s renegotiation (Rossum successfully fought to be paid equal to co-star William H. Macy) that I don’t see Showtime or Warner Bros. paying the extra for all of us to keep us around. Because our lawyers and agents will definitely be asking for that if there’s a new contract.
But I know Bill wants to keep doing it. He loves playing Frank and I don’t blame him; the character’s such a ball. And Bill’s a lovely, lovely man — quiet and sweet and shy. Gentle. Just likes to play his ukulele. But when the director says “Action!” and he gets to play Frank, I think he gets to exorcise his demons.
Q: Who is your pal on set?
A: Shanola Hampton, who plays Veronica. We have a crazy connection. I know her husband, she knows Sarah. We both have kids. I make her laugh, she makes me laugh. She’s made me a better actor, actually — out of all the people I’ve worked with. I’m a better scene partner because of her. She’s a strong woman and very smart and if she doesn’t like something, she’s going to let you know.
To be brutally honest, because we would do a lot of nude scenes, she used come up and be like, “Nu-uh, don’t like that. No. You need to manscape.” So I find myself in the bathroom before scenes trimming and preparing!
In the earlier seasons, we would get into it a lot — not fighting, but there were times she didn’t like something and I didn’t care. And then over time, I became more attentive to what she wanted. I wanted to be better for her. I wanted her to be comfortable. So now I watch out for her, especially if there’s anything gratuitous that doesn’t need to happen. Now, I’m not thinking about me as much as thinking about us.