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Prime Suspect Interviewby Pattye Grippo    

Maria Bello

This is an interview with star Maria Bello and Showrunner/Writer Alex Cunningham on August 26, 2011 about the show Prime Suspect.

Question:
Maria, was it important to you that this be Prime Suspect as opposed to any other police show you could have done?

Maria Bello:
I didn't really care what the title was when I read it. It was such incredible writing and I hadn't read a woman like this on television before who was so complex and strong and quirky and self possessed and just knew I wanted to do this show. It could have been called Arlington. I don't know.

Question:
Jane has some very interesting methods of getting information like with bringing a camera crew and letting a kid play with her gun. What other interesting ways does she have of connecting with witnesses and suspects in the upcoming episodes?

Alex Cunningham:
I think the key thing about Jane is she's a story teller and an actor and she is going to put herself into any situation and decide in the moment what is the way to get to this person in a way that she can't do in her personal life. And I think we're going to see Maria do a lot of different empathetic or just whatever the situation requires

Maria Bello:
I think Jane is strategic without being manipulative. Every suspect, different ones that she talks to, she is being strategic psychologically and trying to find the in that would work with them to get information from them.

Alex Cunningham:
Our cop consultant who was a homicide detective likes to say he had the highest homicide closure rate in the history of the NYPD when he was there and he was really great at getting people to confess. And he says everybody wants to tell you. You just have to figure out a way to create a situation in which they can, which we've kind of taken that into the show and tried to use it in a lot of different situations.

Question:
Maria, I know from talking to you for films that history of violence with the film that stuck with you for a while for obvious reasons. Is there anything on this show that could stick with you in a similar way?

Alex Cunningham:
I'm not going to speak for Maria, but a lot of the cases that we're doing on this show are based on real cases that are a few decades old but, nevertheless, they happened. And to hear those stories from the cops who worked them, it sticks with me and I can't believe as intuitive and sympathetic a person as Maria is that she doesn't feel the same way.

Maria Bello:
It's true. I was just going to say that the episode we're doing this week, but I'm not going to spoil it; but it's kind of devastative to hear what this woman has to say and to see what she's been through, you know. How could you not be affected by that?

Question:
What all did you have do in terms of like shadowing real life homicide detectives and stuff like that?

Maria Bello:
I worked in New York City in bars for a long time with NYPD and FDNY guys, so I organically had a sense of what that was and the best thing that I feel like Alex was able to do to bring to the strip was this really dark, amazing sense of humor that all these guys have. And then we have this incredible consultant, Mike Sheen, who Alex can speak about who has really helped us in so many ways to shape the character in the show. Alex, do you want to talk about Mike?

Alex Cunningham:
Yes, we have a retired homicide detective who then went on to become an on-air crime reporter for Fox and PIX in New York and he was a gold shield detective and had 100% closure rate for however many years in a row in Manhattan North Homicide. He is actually on our writing staff now, so we have him. But also when we shot the pilot we put Maria together with a female detective, Jen Augustine, who took her around to kind of show her what that experience is like in the modern NYPD. And we also have the squad commander of Midtown South who is a man named Lieutenant West, who really consulted with us a lot, especially with Aiden, to kind of give everybody the sense of what it's like to be a detective in today's police department.

Question:
Maria, I've talked to actors who have been in westerns and a lot of times they'll tell stories about how they're looking for the right cowboy hat. Is it similar to you and that hat you've got in this show? What was the journey like for that particular hat? What did it do for you?

Maria Bello:
My best friend gave me that hat last year. She had it on and she took it off immediately and she put it on my head and she said this belongs to you. And as soon as I read Jane, I knew that hat belonged to her. There was something about feeling invincible in this hat, something about an attitude, something that felt Jane. And as soon as I put on the hat, it was Jane. And I like this idea that some people are saying why the hat, what's with the hat because I think that's who Jane is. That's the greatest part about her is she doesn't give a shit who likes her hat or not.

The greatest kind of top the seven detective is to beat Kojack and Baretta and they all had a thing and this is her thing.

Question:
In the pilot you were hanging out with a bunch of guys, a guys' club thing. You're sort of doing the same thing with the actors. I was wondering how that's going?

Maria Bello:
I was just the loneliest guys. There are a bunch of like already guys, right. So even during the first read through when they had to be sort of mean to me, Tim would do a line and then will go over and go. We are really, really having a blast. I grew up with brothers in a neighborhood of all boys and so for me it's just such a natural part of my life. But we also have a new cast member, the amazing Elizabeth Rodriguez, who I can't wait for people to see, who is not only an extraordinary actor, a beautiful, incredible woman, so that'll be nice to have that energy on the show as well.

Alex Cunningham:
Maria is also a very blunt, ballsy girl from Philadelphia, so I'm sure there's probably moments when she says things that the guys react to like I don't know how I feel about that.

Question:
There's been a lot of talk about the original Prime Suspect and the original Jane Tennison and I was wondering if you have had a scene or a moment where you said, okay, this defines our Jane?

Alex Cunningham:
I think in the pilot there were a lot of moments like that. I feel like the, for me, probably the moment that defines our Jane differently from the original Jane is when she gets beat down because that to me that was sort of a reaction to all of the times that I see women cops and other law enforcement agents who are women in TV and movies and they get in a physical situation with a man who is bigger and stronger and has (speaks) in getting out of the situation with them and they beat his ass.

And I just find that completely unrealistic and it was one of the reasons I wanted to do the show in the first place is to show there are inequalities between men and women in physically dominated jobs that you're not going to be able to overcome. You're going to have to compensate in a different way, which is what Jane does in every realm of being a cop besides that one. She's figured out how to succeed and when she's literally face to face, like faces touching, with a man like that, she's going to lose.

And if those other guys didn't come to save her, which they do even though they don't like her because at the end of the day it's about being a cop and cops help other cops, that was sort of a defining moment for our pilot. But I don't know that answers your question with reference to the original. I feel like the original gives us the chance to be here at all. So I feel like the original defines us and gives us the driving force to portray a character like this again.

Question:
Maria, what was it about Detective Jane that caught your interest initially?

Maria Bello:
It was purely the rating. I hadn't even considered doing a television show for ten years and then I read Alex Cunningham's script and I hadn't read a woman like this, such a complex woman on television who was so incredibly self possessed and unapologetic and quirky and just I knew in my gut that I might have to do this. And then after meeting Alex and Pete and Sarah, I am a very, very lucky woman today that I get to play this woman ever single day.

Question:
Alex, how will this version of Prime Suspect differ from the British original?

Alex Cunningham:
We are trying to give it a little more humor because as we all know, it's been 20 years since the original, which was breaking new ground in so many different ways like in the portrayal of a woman cop, a woman cop in a position of power a woman trying to sort of break a glass ceiling in a male dominated world.

And we've seen versions of that since then, most of which were inspired by the original. It's 2011, working in the police department is different and you have recourse whether or not you choose to use it. There's more female detectives even though there's not nearly as many as TV and movies make you think. And so we have to figure out a new way to tell that same story, which I think is easy because at the end of the day it's a procedural.

It has a great engine driving it and it's just about making sure our character has the same great qualities that the original Jane Tennison had where's she's just she's hard core, she's ambitious, she's unapologetic, she considers like to be a meritocracy and she's flawed and she has her own issues that, after a while, are going to get in the way of her succeeding, including her personal life, which that's a journey that we're going on as well.

In the original Prime Suspect in the first series Jane was living with a man. She had a boyfriend and they lived together and he had a son and she really thought she could do both of those things and by the end of it she was very unceremoniously shown that she couldn't by her boyfriend. So that a journey that we're going to go on to, the can you have it all journey because our suspicion is that you can't.

Question:
Have there been any talk or plans to get Helen Mirren to guest star in a future episode?

Alex Cunningham:
We would have to make sure, A, that she wanted to do something like that and, B, that if we were going to do it that it would be in a non-cheesy way that would be true to the original and to our show. So that may be a balancing act that we can't pull off. But obviously if she called me tomorrow and said I want to be on it, I would do whatever it took. But right now we're just going to try to concentrate on doing a show that's so good that she would actually want to be involved.

Question:
I'm wondering if you drew on any sort of real-life experiences of breaking into boy's clubs that sort of show in this show?

Maria Bello:
I don't know one woman in any career who has seen the show and not said that something similar has happened to them. I was having an interview yesterday with this young woman, gorgeous, beautifully dressed. She must be 26 years old. And she graduated from Columbia in journalism, brilliant.

But even she at her age was saying guys look at her sometimes and she'll be in a meeting with someone with a guy who hasn't even graduated high school but the person that they're in the meeting with will put all their attention on the guy and direct all of their questions to the guy, meanwhile she's the kind of smarter leader.

And this happens often. My friends who are agents, my friends who are real estate people, we've had these discussions. I think it's less with the younger generation of men because they're grew up with a lot. They grew up with women in the workforce. But it's certainly still something that we struggle with from time to time.

Alex Cunningham:
I completely agree. I every job I've had in the industry we're in, I've had inappropriate things said to me. I mean, and they don't necessarily have to be about sexual attraction or attractiveness to be inappropriate and to be about men versus women. So I just feel like 20 years after the original it's still around but it's more insidious and in some cases it's women doing it to women now, which is a sort of evolution that I guess shows how far we've come but at the same time, it's become a thing which is a thing we're also going to explore with the show is where there's two women and they're head space is, well, only one woman is going to get this, so it's going to be me which it's interesting that we're still thinking that way as opposed to the best person for each job.

They couldn't possibly hire two women. They'll only hire one and I'm going to be that one, so I'm going to do everything I can to sort of outdo the other one is an interesting place to be now, so and not something anyone would ever necessarily call human resources about. It's more insidious than that. So I just feel like as long as there are people of different sexes this is going to go on in some way and it's unrealistic to pretend that it won't.

Question:
What have you found the most challenging aspect of this role for you, Maria?

Maria Bello:
Honestly, the most challenging aspect has been trying to figure out my life, how that works with having a 10-year-old son who's going back to school and I work in Haiti. I have an organization in Haiti that I lived there part-time last year, so now it's time to figure all that out. And I'm so lucky to have producers that are making that much easier for me than I thought it would be. But that's been the biggest challenge. The rest of it it's like going to a playground every single day and being in a sandbox with a bunch of amazing kids. Honestly, I've never, very rarely, been on such a collaborative, creatively collaborative process.

Alex Cunningham:
It's really true. Even the crew is happy.

Maria Bello:
Beyond happy.

Alex Cunningham:
Usually the crew is like it's a different thing for them. They're not necessarily feeling the creativity the way the rest of us are and they all seem to be having a really great time, which makes it a really fun, fast-moving frenetic set to go to and everybody seems to really be enjoying themselves given the dark subject matter that they're dealing with. It's kind of an interesting contrast.

Maria Bello:
It's so true. And one of the camera guys said to me the other day my kids are shocked when I come home. They said they haven't seen me for dinner in 30 years. It's very unconventional that you have a big an hour series like this that doesn't shoot 16 hours a day or doesn't try so hard, take itself so seriously or it's not so earnest. And that comes from the top. It comes from Alex and Pete and Sarah and also to be really open creatively. There's nothing I can say to Alex or a writer and sort of a director and say oh, how about can I say this. They're always like, sure, try it. And that doesn't happen often in television.

Alex Cunningham:
We have the freedom to let them because Maria and the rest of our actors are so amazing that like if they want to try something, we know it's going to be worth it. So like it's very rewarding in that sense. Everybody feels like partners.

Question:
What are some of your favorite moments from filming, Maria?

Maria Bello:
One of my favorite moments; maybe getting beat up that night or when it was my birthday and I had to run around the reservoir. It was my real birthday and that morning I had like a hot dog, pizza, chocolate cake, 500 cigarettes. And then Pete Bergen said, okay, you don't really have to run around the reservoir. You just have to run like a block. And I said, okay. So I started to run the block and they never called cut because the helicopter that was doing the above shot couldn't find me. So I ran around the entire reservoir before they called cut and I literally thought to kill him. I'm not much of an exerciser, so it was a tough day for me.

Alex Cunningham:
It was good. It worked for the character because the character's not a runner.

Maria Bello:
And she's been smoking and she's spitting up her lungs and she can't breathe. It was kind of perfect. I didn't have to act at all.

Alex Cunningham:
It was scripted that she would hawk up loogies and she actually was doing it for real.

Question:
Why do you think that people will want to watch Prime Suspect this version?

Alex Cunningham:
I feel like we know from American viewing public patterns that they enjoy procedural, so I feel like we have that going for us because we have great cases that are juicy and interesting and real but then we also have this amazing cast who are playing characters who are more interesting than perhaps some of the characters on procedurals that are out there are allowed to be, which is not a criticism of those shows.

It's just more that their mission statement is different than ours, that it's about telling a story about forensics or telling a story about like the worst serial killer ever. And like we're more concentrating. We're trying to take it back to sort of like the grassroots of American procedurals, the Hill Street Blues and the NYPD Blue where it's we have these great cases but we also have these fascinating people that you want to watch because at the end of the day I feel like the creators of Nurse Jackie said this.

Like people don't tune in because of decision the director made or the writer made or the case of the week. They tune in to watch people they like. And I feel like the point of that spear is Maria, who I've been working with Maria every day for months now and I never get tired of watching her, even when she's not acting, which is creepy.

But when she is on set, I just can't wait to see her do another take, you know. It's like she's always finding new stuff and that's an arterly, writer thing to say but the fact is that it's on the screen. I mean, when you watch her she's magnetic and she says the things you want to say and she acts the way you want to act, especially for a woman watching. But the people around her are responding in that way and giving her those things to play off of and I think people are just going to enjoy spending time with these people as they solve juicy cases that are cool to watch.

Question:
The character is very intense and very kind of a hard ass. How much of that is really you and your personality and how much is really the acting part of it?

Maria Bello:
I think that Jane and I are very similar. I think that Jane is Alex and I combined, so it's not all of me because she puts these amazing words in my mouth that really creates this character.

Alex Cunningham:
The cruel, inconsiderate and selfish parts are me.

Maria Bello:
That's Alex, completely.

Alex Cunningham:
It's not like I'm making a joke. But Maria, when Jane is like that, that is not Maria.

Maria Bello:
I don't know about that. And the nicely, benevolent sweet parts, that's all me.

Alex Cunningham:
Exactly.

Maria Bello:
No, but I feel like she is so well balanced, Jane. I don't find her to be a hard ass. I really don't. I find her really direct and candid and honest to a fault. But you see at that one point when she goes home to her boyfriend like crying in bed she's still like a little girl who wants to be loved, right. More and more throughout the series you're going to see both sides of her, all sides of her. And I think that that's what we lose oftentimes or we haven't had much of, especially in big blockbuster films these more complex women characters like women in real life. We're very complicated people and sometimes, most of the time, people forget to write that.

Question:
You've pretty much done everything across the board in terms of your film career and what do you prefer? Do you prefer a role like this?

Maria Bello:
I don't really care if it's lighter or heavier, whatever it is. It just has to be something that moves me and I connect with emotionally. And this character, since I read her on the page, I knew that there was depth and breadth and width of emotions and psychology that would be really exciting to explore.

Question:
The one image of your character, so happily beat up in the restaurant is just such a striking image to me as a viewer. When you stood as an actress, what do you sort of think of and what do you draw upon to play that kind of an emotion?

Maria Bello:
It's the whole idea of I did a great job today. It's like after that scene we all went out and I went out with all my makeup on, all the beat up makeup because it had been such an intense and exciting, adrenaline-filled day at work and to know that it was a job well done was that. And I think Jane is like that too. She doesn't care. It's like scars of the job well done. She's almost proud of it, battle scars.

Alex Cunningham:
Yes, they got the guy. That's the only thing that matters.

Question:
Maria, you talked about the fact that you were attracted to the writing. But what were some of the other things that you were sort of excited about coming back to television, coming back to this medium? What else sort of appealed to you in making that move?

Maria Bello:
Honestly, the writing and this team, these producers and how incredibly collaborative they are and how I got to play. I was terrified to go back on TV that someone that I would feel like I was in a box and someone would say, like often happens in TV shows, you can't change your words. You have to say this line, line for line. You have to stand there. And I'm so crazy to a certain extent like need to create stuff. I would blow my brains out. And so to meet them and to have this instant partnership collaboration was everything to me.

Question:
Alex, Maria talked about how talented you are and what you bring to the table. Can you tell us a little bit more about what she brings to the table as an actress?

Alex Cunningham:
I don't think there is anything she doesn't bring to the table as an actress of the things that you would want. I mean, she is intelligent. She is honest. She is completely without vanity. She has this like inner strength and confidence where you don't have to reassure her at all. Like she makes choices and she's collaborative.

She's sympathetic. She's I could boar you forever with the positive adjectives. But like, honestly, there's really nothing that I could have wanted given that you're setting off on this intimidating journey of making a show that sort of revolves around this one person who let's face it, in this business, in that situation, has a great deal of power. And if they want to flex it on you, then that's going to happen. And Maria, from the second I met her it was exactly what she just said about wanting to collaborate and wanting to create together. And also she's a great, grounded, family-oriented, no word I can't say, no bull crap person.

You know, she's very about her son and her philanthropic efforts and she has a well rounded life and a lot of friends and she's very close to her family and she's completely no drama and that's the kind of person that you want to work with in any situation, let alone a situation where hopefully you're going to be together for years. You want to be with a person who has every value in the right place and that's what she has a performer and as a person.

Question:
Did you ever have any reservations or had it been played long enough so far away that people weren't going to be hearing the echoes of the show?

Alex Cunningham:
You know what's funny about things that I've heard people saying about the original is that present company excepted. I'm not talking about anyone who's on this call. But I have read and heard some criticisms comparing us to the original that sort of conveyed that the person who's saying it didn't actually see the original, which like I say, I'm not naming any names.

But like there are some people out there who are saying things like, oh, this Jane, they're already dumbing it down. They have here in a relationship with a man who has a kid and blah, blah, blah. It's like, well, then I know you didn't see the first one. It just seems like an elementary mistake. So in terms of the cases, we're not doing the same cases. So that's not going to be ruined for anyone. They're not going to be able to look up on the Internet and find out who did it from watching the original if they didn't see it. You know, I feel like we're trying to keep the spirit and the character and all the other things that we can keep given the fact that it's now 20 years later and this is America.

Everything else we can keep we've kept and I think fans of the original, of which I consider myself one of the most embarrassing fans like that I really can tell you so much about the original and could even before this. But I feel like I watching it would be excited to recognize the sort of signs that I, the writer, put in there for people who are real fans of the original. And for people who are criticizing me just based on how they know Helen Mirren is great and that the original was great. If you only take away from that you know it's great, that's good. That's a good connection. And if you're criticizing me and I can figure out you didn't see it, then I don't care.

Question:
Were you a big fan of it when it came out?

Alex Cunningham:
I was. I saw it on public television, channel 13 before I had a cable box.

Maria Bello:
I saw a couple of them years ago, like when I lived in New York that I didn't really remember. But I've always been a huge fan of Helen Mirren. She's one of my heroes. She's one of my heroes. So but like I said, when I read the script I didn't really care if it was called Prime Suspect. It was so original and interesting and I think it's so different from the other show. This character is quite different. Yes, she is a strong, central female character but she is different.

Alex Cunningham:
You do get the feeling that from what some people are saying that they wouldn't accept anything other than us setting it in 1991 in a police department in England and that if we did that we'd get taken attacks for that. All I can say is there is no one out there who is a bigger fan of the original than me and I proceeded with all the respect and love for the original that no one else could have done it more that way than me. So if you like the original, you have to at least say that I did that.

Question:
Have either of you heard from Helen like good show or heard you're doing well or seen it and said I really like it?

Alex Cunningham:
She might be too busy to watch pilots that haven't aired yet. So I don't get the feeling she has time to watch screeners and stuff. But she did say when she heard that Maria was cast, somebody made a point of asking her during an Oscar season about Maria's casting and she said that she thought it was the best possible choice for the role and that she was very happy about that, so we'll take that until we hear something else from her.

Question:
What can you tell us about the premiere and what we have to look forward to from Jane?

Alex Cunningham:
I feel like the clips that have been online so far are about as far as I want to go in terms of talking about what else is in the show. I just feel like you're going to see a tour de force performance from Maria and you're going to see a great cast and you're going to see a really exciting, fast-moving procedural show with a lot of great characters.

And going forward, we're keeping that same template, although we are going to learn a little bit more about the characters who surround her and we're going to learn more about her personal life and her father and the history of the affair that she had that's referred to in the pilot with Deputy Chief Patrol Castello. We're going to meet him. We're going to throw that wrinkle into the mix and see how Jane handles that. And just more of the same.

Question:
Alex, how would you describe your writing process and how Prime Suspects compares to some of your previous work?

Alex Cunningham:
My job before this was Desperate Housewives, immediately before this was six years of that. I would say that what that taught me was to write very fast and to keep a lot of characters going at once, which is very valuable. That also that show, since there were so many characters that needed to be served, it taught me to do a lot of work in a short amount of time. My process is I write whenever I can given the fact that I have a 2.5 year old and now we have a lot of episodes going at once. So I do as much as I can and I have a great writing staff to shore me up and, yes, there's a lot of coffee involved. There's a lot. Like I don't want to scare you.

Maria Bello:
I haven't seen someone drink as much coffee as Alex.

Alex Cunningham:
You know how they have that new size at Starbucks? I don't know if you know this but there is now a trenta, which is 31 ounces of coffee in one cup. So that is where it starts.

Maria Bello:
Right, especially since you quit smoking. She's such a good girl. She quit smoking. She's inspiring me to quit smoking, not. But you're being good.

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