Why would any actress who is successful in movies want to do a TV series? And why would she want to do a role that was created by Helen Mirren? Those questions came up at the TV Critics panel with Maria Bello for the US version of the British series Prime Suspect.
From Emmy Award-nominated producers Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights) and Alexandra Cunningham (Desperate Housewives), Bello, who has starred in such movies as A History of Violence, Thank you for Smoking and Beautiful Boy, takes on the role of Jane Timoney. She’s a tough-as-nails NYPD homicide detective, an outsider who has just transferred to a new squad where her colleagues already dislike her. She’s rude, confident, abrupt and occasionally reckless… and a brilliant cop.
You’d been working quite a lot in leading roles in feature films. Were you looking to do television, or was this just television you couldn’t resist?
I was in phase one of being open and seeing where my life was taking me. This script landed on my desk, and I read it and said, ‘Nope, I’m not doing that. I love it, but no. It would take over my life.’ I’ve seen how many of my friends worked single-lead shows and they worked 16 hours day. I work in Haiti [with the organization We Advance] part time, and I have a 10 year old.
Peter Berg said, ‘Call Kyle Chandler.’ I called him and he said, ‘[Doing Saturday Night Lights] was the best creative experience of my life, and I still had a life with my family.’
Then I heard from the [producers], ‘Come in and just have a meeting.’ And I met with them and really trusted that this was going to be different from any show that I’d done, from any show that my friends have done. That it was going to be collaborative and creative and there would be freedom in it and it wouldn’t take over my life completely. And they have stuck to their word, and that’s what the show has been and will continue to be, I hope, for a lot of years.
What was it about the character of Jane that engaged you?
I Iike to say that I’m not Jane, Alexandra and I are Jane together. Without the writing, the kind of quirkiness and edginess that this character has and this dry sense of humor, she wouldn’t be able to come to life. We all agreed in the beginning not to make her a conventional cop.
My favorite shows growing up were Baretta, Columbo, Kojak. They were all detectives who had a little weird thing, their own quirk. And we haven’t seen a woman detective like that on television. So we were all in agreement that that’s what we wanted to do. We didn’t want her to be in a traditional pant suit, being earnest.
How much did you study Helen Mirren’s performance or did you just completely ignore it?
You know, I didn’t at all. I’d seen it some years ago and remembered it as being really dark. But when I read the script, it was such a different show because of the humor and it’s modernized and it’s set in New York City, and so I haven’t gone back to watch it since then.
I know you’re doing a separate show, but inevitably people are going to compare the two of you.
I wish my body looked like Helen Mirren’s! It’s bizarre, but the first day we started shooting last week was her birthday.
Can you talk a little bit about the physical part of this role? There’s a lot of running and jumping and punching in this.
Yeah, there is. And it wasn’t my fault. It was Pete Berg. When we did the reservoir scene, it was the day of my birthday, and I had five pieces of pizza, a hot dog, 500 cigarettes and chocolate cake, because Pete told me I only had to run from there to there, but didn’t call “Cut” until I ran around the entire reservoir.
I’m not much of an exerciser, but when I was getting beat up once, my head hit the ground. Peter saw it hit the ground and he’s like, ‘That was an awesome take.’ So I expect to get beat up [some more].
Why does your character wear a hat, it’s almost distracting.
I was obsessed with the hat. I feel like it’s my magic hat. When I put it on, I was this character. It felt right to me. It felt like this is who Jane Timoney is.
So much of the pilot is about sexism.
Certainly sexism isn’t dead. I experience it, and everyone I know who has seen the show has some aspect of that, especially if you’re a powerful woman, especially with an older generation of men. With the younger generation coming up it’s not so much, because a lot of their mothers worked and were in the world and there was an equality.
But then I think it just comes down to people. Some of these guys will just not like me because Jane is very direct, very self-righteous in her own way, unapologetic and some people will have an issue with that.
This is a tough role, is it hard to let it go at the end of the day?
I don’t really take my work home with me to be honest. I think I have a lot of the same characteristics as Jane in a lot of ways. And it’s really playful, even when we’re doing really dramatic stuff on the set, if feels like you’re in a sandbox playing with a great group of kids.