Tony Shalhoub, <EM>Monk</EM> Tony Shalhoub, Monk

All hail the return of Monk (tonight at 9 pm/ET, USA Network)! On the heels of last week's Season 6.5 premiere, everyone's favorite quirky detective is back to kick more criminal butt in Episode 2, airing tonight. And the show's star, Emmy-winner Tony Shalhoub, tells us it'll get even harder being Monk this season as the detective embarks on his most perilous case yet. Plus, we get the scoop on Shalhoub's love affair with guest star Howie Mandel. You don't need a magnifying glass to see where this one's going.

TVGuide.com: Good morning, Tony.
Tony Shalhoub: Good morning. I actually got up a little earlier for a change and took a hike. I'm in L.A., and the weather's great. And since we've been on hiatus, the challenge is to really enjoy the free time.

TVGuide.com: So you guys film out in Hollywood? Any plans on shooting out of town soon?
Shalhoub:
You know, we're always lobbying for an episode on a cruise ship or something. Like in Hawaii, or Mr. Monk Goes to Florence or something. But I'm not so sure that's going to happen in the near future.

TVGuide.com: What happens in tonight's episode?
Shalhoub:
I go undercover as a security guard in a bank after a heist. That's kind of fun because Monk gets a uniform, a gun and a badge again. He's investigating a crime in the bank and they all get locked in the vault, actually.

TVGuide.com: I hear Natalie is partial to you in uniform.
Shalhoub:
Yes, there's a great bit where Natalie sees Monk for the first time in his security-guard uniform, just going, "God, you look great in that," and she becomes kind of fixated on him.

TVGuide.com: What are you excited for in terms of the rest of this season?
Shalhoub:
We have a two-part finale. It's the first time we've ever done a "to be continued" episode. And it's big. It's our homage to The Fugitive, actually. Monk gets involved in a crime and goes on the run. But he's being chased and trying to figure out what's going on, and he's terrified and doesn't want to go jail — everyone thinks he's guilty. It even reintroduces the character of [Season 1's] Dale the Whale and is a heavy Trudy episode, too. It's got all kinds of clues. If ever we were going to do a movie of Monk, this would be the story.

TVGuide.com: That sounds really exciting!
Shalhoub:
We also have an episode that's an homage to the movie Psycho, and one where Monk becomes really discouraged with his job, and [his therapist] Dr. Kroger [Stanley Kamel] suggests he take up a hobby. So he takes a painting class.

TVGuide.com: Painting? Seriously?
Shalhoub:
Yeah, Monk's art is not good. But it's very symmetrical.

TVGuide.com: Speaking of trying new things, in last week's premiere, Monk almost joined a cult. That was pretty scary.
Shalhoub:
Oh, good! Yeah, we wanted it to have a little bit of a darker tone, where the stakes were really high and the brainwashing is this gradual thing and you really start to worry.

TVGuide.com: In the episode, the recruiters wanted to make sure Monk was a vulnerable person before trying to recruit him.
Shalhoub:
Right. And what I think is kind of neat about it is that Monk gravitates to Howie Mandel's [cult leader] character because they're alike in a lot of ways. He's very smart and very good at reading people and exploiting that. So there's a little bit of a connection between Monk and this guy. I wanted to make it really plausible that Monk would be seduced in a short period of time.

TVGuide.com: Another scary part is when Monk's on stage and rejects the hand wipe even though his hand is dirty. As a viewer, you're happy to see there might be hope for him to get better, but then you realize that it would be at the hands of a cult. And even scarier, if his compulsions went away, he wouldn't be the same Monk we love.
Shalhoub:
Yeah, what's the cost? We've toyed with a variation of this theme before. A few years ago we did an episode called "Mr. Monk Takes His Medicine" where his shrink prescribes a medication for his OCD. And it takes down his symptoms, but then Monk can't do his work, loses his attention to detail and must make a choice: Does he want to feel good or does he want to do well in his work? So he chooses to reject the medication in order to be a really great detective. And I think that scene is brought up again in this episode. Do you want to surrender to this other way of seeing the world and this other way of being, or do you want to really be yourself, even if you're tortured?

TVGuide.com: How was it working on this material with Howie Mandel, who is publicly germaphobic?
Shalhoub:
We hadn't previously worked together. And I was aware of all of his problems and was worried, because this character has to hug and we had to touch. I didn't want to put him in a completely uncomfortable position. But he has this unbelievable ability to compartmentalize his life and his work. As soon as the camera starts rolling and he's in character, he's able to sort of push through, in a similar way that Monk has to. Not to mention that he's one of the funniest people I've ever met. Sometimes you just meet someone and feel like you've known them, and will, for a very long time.

TVGuide.com: It seems like it's not that often you get the chance to work with people who you connect with on that kind of level.
Shalhoub:
You know what, it really isn't, you'd be surprised. But he and I started sharing war stories about being parents, and it was amazing how quickly we got down to the nitty-gritty. He's just someone I completely trust and felt really easy opening up to. We're dating now, actually. [Laughs]

TVGuide.com: You're going to have to break that to your kids somehow.
Shalhoub:
Well, you know. [Laughs] It's Hollywood. 

For more on Monk, check out our Strike Survival Guide.

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