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Mary McDonnell – Taking on Major Crimes

Mary McDonnell in MAJOR CRIMES.

Mary McDonnell

Taking on Major Crimes

by Jay S. Jacobs

Slow and steady does it.  Not just for Captain Sharon Raydor, the former Internal Affairs officer in the popular TNT series The Closer who has just taken over the squad in the spin-off series Major Crimes, but also for Mary McDonnell, the actress who plays her.

The actress has been coming into our homes for over 30 years now, first capturing our eyes on the soap opera As the World Turns.  Soon she’d graduated to films, receiving two Oscar nominations in the early 90s for Dances with Wolves and Passion Fish.  She has followed with a quirky resume of arty films (Donnie Darko, Grand Canyon, Matewan), blockbusters (Sneakers, Independence Day) and genre films (Scream 4).

However, no matter how recognizable she was, McDonnell truly became a star when she took on a role on the reboot of the sci-fi classic Battlestar Galactica, spending five years playing the President of the galaxy on the very popular show.

Soon after Galactica blasted off TV, McDonnell was brought in for a high-profile guest appearance on The Closer as Captain Sharon Raydor, an Internal Affairs Captain brought in investigate unorthodox Police Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson (Kyra Sedgwick) and her squad.  What started off as a short story arc was extended to nearly three seasons of her character growing more and more important to the series.  When Sedgwick announced her retirement from the series at the end of the current, seventh season of the show, it was not a huge shock that Raydor was slotted in to take Chief Johnson’s role, both in the police department and the new spin-off series.

A few weeks before the final episode of The Closer and the debut of Major Crimes, we were lucky enough to be one of a few sites to talk with McDonnell about her latest chapter.   

Mary McDonnell in MAJOR CRIMES.

Now obviously you’ve been a part of this group for a while, and Major Crimes has a built-in audience. But Kyra was such a huge part of The Closer. How will the new show differentiate itself from the old show, and in what ways will it try to stay similar for the fans?

Well I think inherently it will change because Brenda Leigh Johnson is gone. So that was the center of the show. It was called The Closer. So right there, that is the biggest difference. The Major Crimes division continues as it would in life with almost all of the same people, so there is the sameness. We’ve got these really wonderful rich characters that we’ve been attached to and exploring life with for seven years. They are still there, most of them trying to solve crime in Los Angeles. So, there is the sameness. How this particular division goes about solving crime now has to change inherently because they no longer have Chief Johnson. Therein lies the reality of

the new show. That’s where it begins.

I’ve heard some of the cast members who are coming back but not all. Who will be and won’t be coming back? For example, I haven’t heard anything about J.K. Simmons, whether he’s coming back as Pope.

I can’t really talk about the cast members yet because that has to evolve as you see the plot.

Could you talk about how the character is going to be evolving and has changed since she first appeared on The Closer?

I think evolving is the key. You know what I’m saying? In that what we’re doing is we’re seeing a woman who was in a very specific professional role; through a very specific lens and as a character she had a very limited functionality within the ensemble of The Closer. She was clearly brought in to be the antagonist. As we evolve into Major Crimes this character professionally changes, she shifts. We begin to view her through a different job, a different set of circumstances, and different things are asked of her. One of the beautiful things about the writing is that it very organically allows her to grow in front of us because we’re watching her in a different situation from a different point of view.

Can you talk about how the show started? I mean, were you approached for this spin-off at the very beginning?

No, I wasn’t approached for a spin-off at the very beginning. I was asked to come on and do an arc of three episodes. I was quite happy to do it. It looked like a lot of fun to come in and sort of stir the pot, as they say. I really wanted to work with Kyra and James Duff offered it to me, and I thought I was coming on to do three episodes. And it just sort of evolved, and here we are. (laughs) Also I will say one of the reasons James wanted to talk to me about this is because he was a Battlestar Galactica fan.

The cast of MAJOR CRIMES.

What is the secret to Captain Raydor’s success, do you think?

The secret to her success? As a character? I think its commitment. I mean, I honestly feel like what I’ve learned from her is a kind of unabashed commitment to whatever it is she’s doing. She stays incredibly focused, and that can create many responses in many different people. I think that’s a lot of fun.

Would you ever like to see her paired with another of the other detectives in the department to work a case?

Oh, absolutely I’d love to see her paired with some of the other detectives. I’m looking forward to seeing how she begins to engage when they have common ground.

Since you mentioned Battlestar Galactica, how was that transition initially coming into The Closer to play Raydor? And second part of my question is, since I do know who is coming back, will we still see some of the buffoonish, Detective Flynn (G.W. Bailey) and Provenza (Tony Dennison) episodes still?

Well, I’ll start with the second one first. Flynn and Provenza – their wonderful natures – those don’t go away. (Laughs) Believe me. Oh, my goodness, are you kidding? That’s like precious gold. You will see plenty of Flynn and Provenza in that way that you described them. It’s wonderful. The first part of your question – the transition? Well it was kind of interesting because having been, excuse me, the President of the universe, I did learn a little bit about a solitary woman in power position. So, I did a little bit of research about that when I was working on her. When I came into The Closer and I realized that this woman, the character that James brought to me had an element of that, in that she had to have her eye completely, clearly on what the goal was and not get mixed up in some of the other dynamics that quite often we do get mixed up in. So, it was a little bit of that to tap into. That was kind of interesting. It was also kind of interesting to be working in LA as opposed to Canada. There’s a lot of differences in the work environment, but in both cases, it was really strong exciting ensemble and great writing, so I just felt lucky.

I am a major fan of Ms. President.

Thank you.

Well, I guess, former president.

Former president – oh dear, yes. She is no longer with us, but she was a great ride, for sure.

Mary McDonnell in MAJOR CRIMES.

Raydor was an antagonist for Brenda as you had mentioned. Will there be a female antagonist for Raydor at all on Major Crimes?

I’m not sure. I’m not sure the answer to that question. I do know that what we are slowly and very richly carving out is beginning to understand how – let’s just keep looking at how does the crime get solved in the new dynamic. What aspects does that bring out in this character that we have not seen in her other job? How does that interact with these other fabulous actors and characters? How they feel about things. So, there’s absolutely room for antagonism on all sides and connection on all sides, and I think that that’s what’s really exciting about the exploration.

Will Raydor be the center of the show or will she blend with the cast?

Well – how do I put this? It is an ensemble and she is both at the center and part of the ensemble. Without giving away too much, Raydor’s position in the new show is by its very nature forcing or asking of her to be more present for each and every other character in it. There will be a deepening of the engagement between Raydor and the other people.

Do you exec produce at all on the show?

No, I do not. No.

Will we get to learn any of Raydor’s back story at all?

Yes, you will. (laughs)

Mary McDonnell in MAJOR CRIMES.

Your character in this new show is just going to be thrown into the fire basically. You have no allies because you’ve basically targeted these people for a reason, and not for a reason previously. Do you have an ally? Are you totally – Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect. You’re completely by yourself, and you have no one watching your back, or do you develop an ally among these people?

This is how I would describe it without giving too much away. It’s a great question. She begins this journey pretty much a woman alone. Yet – what I’ve found out doing it and what we all, we’re finding out what James is writing and what everyone is – is that she has a deep commitment to whatever job she is in. By necessity in the new show, the job dictates a stronger connection, an engagement with the other members of the ensemble as it were. That starts to create stories that take us in new directions. It isn’t that she develops one ally here or one enemy there, anything like that. There is a natural necessity for this group of people to figure out how to solve crimes together. Out of that comes a new show, a new story.

But this is not something she’s ever dealt with before, so it’s a learning experience for her too.

Well she hasn’t been at the center of this particular – she hasn’t had this particular job, but she’s been a professional running a department, being a Captain in internal affairs for over a decade. This is not a woman who has not been in a corporate situation where she’s a boss or had to have a lot of people working beneath her. We’ve just never explored her professional situation on her turf when we were in The Closer. Now she’s on their turf, but this is a woman who knows how to be in the position she’s in.

Does she have family?

Yes, she does.

And that family would be? Can you tell us?

I can’t tell you yet.

Mary McDonnell in MAJOR CRIMES.

I also wondered, she is so focused that does she have room and time for family, or what’s her relief, when she goes home from these guys who don’t want here there?

This is such an interesting question. It’s the kind of thing where I can’t wait until the show has evolved more so that we can talk more about it. I can’t talk about it yet, because of the spoiler thing. But I will say this. In a general sense, we’re looking at a woman eventually. We’re looking at a woman who actually has had a very full life. Whether or not it was perfect, of course not. But has had a full life. There are reasons why someone may or may not have chosen to go through the LAPD as an internal affairs person as opposed to a detective where you are on call 24/7. There is a question and an exploration there about how do professional women also raise children? How does it happen? What are the choices that a woman at mid-life has to make at a certain period of time in order to create the goal being balanced perhaps? You know what I mean? So, there’s a little bit of exploring of that reality in there because that is what we are seeing with women who are my age who are now taking on positions in their professional life that are demanding more of them than ever before. A generation ago these same women would have been retiring. So, we have an opportunity to explore something that’s happening all around us. And to have some stories evolve out of that. Also interesting is the response of the people around women in our culture who are taking on these positions. I mean, I think I’ve said it a couple of times today, but I really mean it. This is the era of Secretary Clinton. We are beginning to redefine how we are perceiving what women are doing once they turn the corner at mid-life. Are they taking on bigger jobs? Yes, they are. Had we been telling stories about that for the past 100 years? Not really. So, it’s a really wonderful thing to explore in my opinion. I feel happy about it.

I was wondering about the tone of the show. The Closer seemed to have a balance between humor and drama: some of the gritty elements were relieved by a joke from someone. What kind of tone will we see from Major Crimes?

Well, what I can tell you is that this is a new show based in an old show or an original show. This is a spin-off from the same incredible, creative mind of James Duff. And he’s a very funny man. I think that the same responsibility that he felt during The Closer towards finding what is delightful and light, it will be his impulse in Major Crimes. You’ve got to find the balance. I mean, that is his style of writing. There is a tonality to his writing that also addresses the humor inside the dire, and I think that that will continue.

Is there something in particular that you would like to see happen to your character, you know, if it was up to you and you could write anything?

Is there something in particular that I would like to see happen to her? You know what I am so busy playing what has been written and really exploring it and trying to understand it and be alive in it, you know what I mean? So, I haven’t really projected outside of that yet, but I think that as soon as we finish the first season I will have all kinds of ideas. (laughs hard) So far, it’s been pretty fascinating.

What do you find the most challenging acting-wise on the show?

That’s a good question. I think that the biggest challenge for me at the moment or for the character or for myself, what I really felt was very important, was to be patient with the evolution of Sharon Raydor because I felt it was very important to not abandon the Captain Raydor that we got so used to getting angry with or upset by or whatever it is, frustrated by and how much we enjoyed that in her. I wanted to make sure that she came along and that what we end up doing is opening her up so that we begin to see other aspects of her, but we don’t suddenly change the woman.

The cast of MAJOR CRIMES.

I thought that Raydor had evolved (in the final episodes of The Closer) and become Brenda’s ally towards the end there. Kyra said she might come back, maybe to do some spots and how would you feel about that in Major Crimes? And have you done any kind of police work ride-alongs, anything like that since you’ve played the part?

I actually have spent some time with some lady female detectives at the LAPD. Absolutely. And of course, it would be great if Kyra came back – I mean, oh my God, it would awesome. I mean, there’s all kinds of potential for a lot of things to happen in this situation.

What was the biggest thing you learned from these female detectives. What were the biggest kernels of wisdom they gave you?

One of the greatest things I found out about them is that I loved, and this is very helpful for me with Sharon Raydor, the two women that I spent the day with that I just absolutely loved them. They both commented on how difficult it would be for them to work the schedules that we work in Hollywood because things were so out of control. That their lives, and their jobs had shifts and a routine to them, that they found was easier than what we were explaining to them goes. I’m sitting there with these women who have, you know, gone after major criminals and had huge careers in the Los Angeles Police Department, and they’re telling me that they would find it very difficult to be in the crazy floating kind of hours of what it is that we do out here. I found them so wonderful and amusing and human. They were great. They were absolutely awesome. And very, very practical women. Very cool looking and very wonderful and warm and funny, but really, really focused when they needed to be. It was just a great wonderful thing to see.Photo Credits:#1 © 2012. Courtesy of TNT. All rights reserved.#2 © 2012. Courtesy of TNT. All rights reserved.#3 © 2012. Courtesy of TNT. All rights reserved.#4 © 2012. Courtesy of TNT. All rights reserved.#5 © 2012. Courtesy of TNT. All rights reserved.#6 © 2012. Courtesy of TNT. All rights reserved.#7 © 2012. Courtesy of TNT. All rights reserved.

Copyright ©2012  All rights reserved. Posted: August 11, 2012.

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