By Rick Bentley

Tribune News Service

TV spotlight

“Graves” 10 p.m. Sundays, EPIX

LOS ANGELES — Skylar Astin sees his role on the EPIX original series “Graves” as a little bit like getting paid to go to school. And his teachers are really good at what they do.

Astin plays Isaiah Miller, the overly eager assistant to Richard Graves (Nick Nolte). Miller finally gets to work for the man he has admired for so many years at the exact same instant his political hero is tearing down his legacy. Graves, a former two-term president, wants to right the wrongs of his administration 25 years after leaving the White House. His enlightenment takes place just as his wife Margaret (Sela Ward) decides it’s time to pursue her own political ambitions.

“Graves” gives Astin a chance to play an inexperienced character who gets to learn from a veteran politician while he is a young actor getting to learn from veteran actors Nolte and Ward.

“It’s 100 percent art imitating life,” Astin says. “I draw so much working with these actors, mainly Nick. There are moments when I get to just look into his eyes and he does the entire job for me. I am very fortunate that when you work with someone like Nick, he gives every single thing he has on every single take.

“If the line escapes him, he stays in the moment in such a powerful way.”

Nolte offers an interesting take on the relationship between the president and his first lady and with his eager assistant. Nolte’s theory is that the presidency has a lot of relationships that are quite dysfunctional but a good president has functional relationships too and those come from the characters played by Astin and Ward.

There were only 11 episodes in the first season and the total moved to 12 with the second season opener on Oct. 22. It was only a handful of shows but that was plenty of time for Nolte and Astin to develop a shorthand that makes working together all that much easier and more connected. Astin laughs and adds that he never dreamed that when he was watching Nolte in the film “Cape Fear” that he would one day get the chance to co-star in a series with him.

Nolte had already amassed more than 75 TV and film credits (plus two Oscar nominations) before Astin, 30, decided to leave New York — despite finding success on stage as part of the original Broadway cast of “Spring Awakening” — and move to Los Angeles to look for work in TV and film production. He’s probably best known for “Pitch Perfect” starring alongside costars Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, and Elizabeth Banks. Astin’s other film credits include “21 and Over,” “Taking Woodstock,” “Hamlet 2,” “Flock of Dudes” and as the voice of Roy in Disney’s animated feature “Wreck-It Ralph.”

Prior to “Graves,” Astin starred in the TBS comedy “Ground Floor” and has made guest appearances on “House M.D.,” “Girls” and “Love Bites.”

Astin’s bounced between drama and comedy over the years and that proved to be good training for what has been thrown at him with “Graves.”

“There are moments when we are doing a straight-up drama,” Astin says. “In season one, when I would talk about the show, I would always call it a dark comedy. A political, satirical comedy. This year is really hitting the dramedy pocket in such a special way. I think everyone brought a grounded energy to this season and it really feels cohesive.

“It takes some time for the actors to become comfortable together and the characters have been through a lot together. I think this show started to click about halfway through season one and we picked up right where we left off.”

Whether it be serious or silly moments, Astin has loved being able to see his character grow and change with each passing episode. When the first season started, Isaiah was a young, idealistic assistant who was so excited to be in the presence of his father figure. That dynamic began to morph as the president began to corrupt Isaiah through his actions. That all culminated with Isaiah being shot at the end of the first season.

“This season it was really difficult and really exciting and challenging to play with the realities and almost the humor of certain elements of PTSD and what it’s like to a human being after they take a bullet for somebody when they really didn’t ever plan to,” Astin says. “It’s not like my character went to war.

“So it changes your perspective completely when you take a bullet, and it has been a treat to play a character who was formerly super idealistic and now is just questioning everything: what’s important to him, who he loves, if politics even matters. And it’s been really fun exploring that.”