Looks Back on The Unit
by Jay S. Jacobs
There are many Hollywood legends about how an actor was discovered. Ever since Lana Turner was found sitting at Schwab’s Drug Store on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, there has been a fascination with actors who have been found through quirky means – sitting at the mall, walking in school, driving cabs and waiting tables.
However it is not just every day that an actress gets a shot at a major TV role because she was a math tutor.
Yet that is exactly what happened to Nicole Steinwedell.
As with most struggling actors new to the LA scene, Steinwedell had to take a few jobs just to make ends meet. She had a gig as a bartender, also delivered food and worked as a private tutor.
Amongst her students, Steinwedell helped with a couple of the children of actress Lindsay Crouse. She quickly became good friends with her oldest daughter Zosia.
“I started helping her and because somebody named Rick Blue signed my checks, I never knew that her name was Zosia Mamet,” Steinwedell recalls.
Blue – a TV editor and director who worked on Scrubs – turned out to be Zosia’s stepfather. Her father was acclaimed Pulitzer Prize winning playwright-turned-filmmaker David Mamet.
“We basically get her through junior math and go into senior year math and she ends up moving out of her mom’s house and moving in with her dad,” Steinwedell says. “She starts talking about not going to college. She wants to be an actress. I’m like: whoa, whoa! If you are going to do that, we need to have major amounts of The Coffee Bean and we can sit down and really think this out. I’m going to tell you how to do this. She goes, ‘Well, you know who my father is, don’t you?’ No… She goes, ‘David Mamet.’ I’m sorry, who? We study him in school. Then it was like, gee, you don’t need my advice honey. Go get ‘em.”
Steinwedell and Zosia stayed close and were soon acting together.
“What was cool for me – and for her, I think – is that we had already become friends,” Steinwedell says. “It was kind of like she was my younger sister before I knew who she was. So that helped us stay cool as things rolled on. What ended up happening is she moved in with her father and he came to a showcase that she and I both did together with a bunch of other kids from Atlantic [Theater Company]. I came out afterwards and he said, ‘Oh, you’re a really good actress.’ I was like (gasps) thank you. He said, ‘I’d put you on my show, but we’re on hold’ because the writer’s strike was going on at that time.”
His show was the respected military drama The Unit – Mamet’s first foray into a television series. Starring Dennis Haysbert, Scott Foley and Robert Patrick, the series about a super-secret military unit was already in its third season on the air.
Mamet could have completely forgotten his innocuous statement, but Steinwedell was not going to let such an opportune meeting slip away. Months later, with the writer’s strike finished and The Unit back in production, Steinwedell decided on making a bold move.
“I just kept it in my mind. When they came back and I saw the breakdown for Bridget’s character, I sent him a letter,” Steinwedell explains. “I’d only met him twice, but I sent him a letter. ‘Dear David: My parents are both Marines. My mom outranks my dad. This part is in my blood. Give me a shot.’ And he did! He read my letter. I got an audition with a casting agent through my agent. When I went to the call back he was there. He introduced me to Shawn Ryan [The Unit executive producer] by saying, ‘You know Nicole’s family was in the military. Why don’t you tell us about that?’ He really read my letter. That was something that I didn’t expect which was lovely.”
Steinwedell was offered a role on the series. She was brought in to play Bridget “Red Cap” Sullivan, a tough-as-nails soldier whose beauty was an afterthought to her talent as a military operative.
Her family history gave her a unique perspective on the role – but it also gave her a huge responsibility to play the character right. It was an odd dichotomy, making the role more comfortable for her at the same times as it was more challenging.
Nicole Steinwedell in The Unit
“I think it is both,” Steinwedell says. “First of all, my grandfather was a Colonel in the Army and loved the show before I was even on it. I wanted to do it justice so he wouldn’t call me out on my inadequacies or my inaccuracies. Meaning how I hold my weapon, the way that I address authority, everything. So it was important on that level to be authentic for all the people in arms that I know and that I’ve met over the years.
“Then on the other side, there is something that already is in my blood – like I said in the letter – about this character,” she continues. “Especially for me and my mom, because she was a woman in power and you had to deal with being feminine and powerful. And she outranked my father. How you deal with that without letting it really emasculate a man? All of those things are undertones of the show, also. What kind of girl was going to be okay that she came into the ranks? That she brought something valuable. She didn’t threaten. She added.”
So her grandfather was a fan – but what do the rest of her family and military friends think of her show and character?
“It seems that the military is some of our biggest fan base, which is really great,” Steinwedell says enthusiastically. “I mean, my parents of course are biased. They just love me. But everybody really seems to feel that of the shows that are out there, this one is the most authentic. Of course, it’s about a branch of the military that isn’t about the uniform and the rank and file – it’s about the guys that are so awesome that they can grow their beards out. The guys that are so awesome they don’t wear uniforms anymore.” She laughs. “It’s kind of tricky that way. But, yeah, they are huge fans of the show.”
In the meantime, Steinwedell’s character was reaching well beyond her circle of friends and family. Bridget was originally planned as part of a limited arc for the show. However, a limited role quickly became recurring, then Steinwedell soon after became a series regular. Steinwedell was pleasantly shocked with each bump that her character got.
“So excited, so flattered,” she recalls. “She was originally written as a three of the first six episodes arc. Could have been three, could have been six. That was already just awesome. Then they contracted me and it was amazing, because for the first time I got to quit my bartending job and be a real actress every day.” Steinwedell laughs. “I could really invest in this and really let myself know that it was true and that had somebody trusted me with a really big responsibility. And that I could handle it. It was awesome.”
As the role became more and more integral to the story, Steinwedell had to stretch her acting muscles in quite a few extremely dramatic story arcs as a woman in a man’s world. Perhaps none were more difficult to handle than an episode in which Bridget was sexually assaulted by a fellow member of the Unit.
“I thought they did a really good job of dealing with [her fitting in with the men] the whole season,” Steinwedell said. “Not ignoring it. Then, this was incredibly intense, because it came from within that very trusted group of people – the unit. It was soooo hard. It was a great challenge for me to do it and to do it in a way that…” she sighs and collects her thoughts, “… never discounted women that had been raped. That happened to them. That never showed them to be victims, like they were asking for it. But also to not be somebody who tried to pretend like it doesn’t matter and she is a soldier – she can take it. So I thought it was a really fine line to take care of.”
It was very difficult to handle as an actress. Then, there was another shoe to drop, when later in the season that distressing occurrence turned out in a plot twist to not have happened as the audience – and the actors – had originally believed.
“I was devastated when I read it was all a hoax. I was devastated just as much as my parents were when they saw the episode. They were like, ‘What! She went through all of that for nothing?’”
Still, even with that disappointing plot turn, Steinwedell was thrilled to have her first series and looking forward to a fifth season. However, The Unit was an expensive series to film and the ratings were on the bubble, and in something of a surprise CBS cancelled the series after four seasons. The producers looked into moving the series to a different network or cable, but nothing came together. So, for now, it seems that The Unit is grounded.
Months later, with the release of the DVD, the wound of losing the series is renewed for Steinwedell.
“The surge that we are doing right now to celebrate the release of the box set DVD and Blu-Ray for the fourth season – it’s so interesting, I’m talking about it more and I’m reliving all the glory of it. I had sort of let it go,” she chuckles. “So it’s really tough. But, listen, I’m so grateful for that season. It definitely has given me some great opportunities. I got some wonderful…” she sighs, “… oh, gosh, just practice at doing what I love. I worked with incredibly professional people. I’m so lucky. And I saved my money, so I’m okay.”
Speaking of working with incredible people, Steinwedell had a small role in the movie He’s Just Not That Into You with Jennifer Aniston, Ben Affleck, Jennifer Connelly, Bradley Cooper, Scarlet Johansson and Drew Barrymore. Steinwedell’s character didn’t really get to interact with most of the famous cast [she played a woman in a bar getting hit on by two men as Justin Long and Ginnifer Goodwin discussed what was happening], but still it was an experience she cherished.
“That was excellent. Ken Kwapis [director of the film] – at the time I was a bartending and he came into my bar,” Steinwedell laughs. “He sat down and we started talking. He had gone to Northwestern and so had I. I was like, well you’re an all right cat and he was like, ‘Hey, come be in my movie.’”
She laughs again at the memory. “I’m like, okay! Literally, he was like, ‘Here’s the scene. They’re not talking to you, but they are talking about you.’ I’m like, you know what? That’s the way I like it. It was actually a really funny, fun feature, because it’s all like pantomime and sort of goofy. It was great fun, a nice little thing to do. To work with him, he’s lovely. I was very lucky to be able to do that.”
Steinwedell also has a small part in Tom Ford’s movie A Single Man, which has been playing the festival circuit and is expecting a wide release soon.
“In a similar way, Tom Ford just wanted to include me in his film, so I’m in a flashback in the 1940s. I got to get done up like Veronica Lake and do this whole number with Matthew Goode and Colin Firth. Awesome.”
However, as someone who knows all about the uncertain life of an actress, Steinwedell is already looking ahead to find her next project – and isn’t afraid to do a little networking.
“I do not have anything, so if you know anybody let them know I’m available,” she says, good-naturedly. “I feel like Christmastime waiting for presents. Yes, unfortunately, sir, I am a’lookin’.”
“I am auditioning as much as I can.”
She is open to anything as an actress, but she would particularly like to do movies.
“I want to make films. I want to be in those kind of films like Tom Ford did in A Single Man that tells the story about people and families and things that happen on a very human level. I think that theater is awesome because you can feel the response. Even you and I on the phone right now, when I say something that is goofy, you laugh. Or when you say something that makes me blush, I blush,” she laughs. “You may not be able to see it, but…. And that’s wonderful.
“That immediacy doesn’t happen in TV or film, so I miss it. I haven’t done theater in a while. Maybe I’m overdue. But, I think I prefer this. I prefer Hollywood. I prefer the amount of people that we get to reach. I prefer something that lets everybody replay something and look at it for different value – like when I go back and watch a movie like Say Anything, that I haven’t seen in ten years and it means something completely different to me. Unfortunately – or fortunately – with theater we can’t do that.”
And what would be the ideal role that Steinwedell would love to play?
“It’s not like Hamlet or anything, though Hamlet is pretty awesome. I want to play women who are warriors,” she says, “warriors either leading countries or just trying to provide for their families as a single mom. I think it’s awesome. And I’d always like to be like Bridget. She wasn’t non-sexualized just because she was powerful. So I’m quite grateful to work on roles like that.”
Most of all, Steinwedell hopes that in her career she can play roles which are “enlightening to people.” She would like to someday be able to look back and know that “I was part of projects that told great stories and maybe shed light on new situations and that maybe spoke up for people that couldn’t speak up for themselves. I think the power of theater and film is to inspire and make people think. I hope. If [her career] is doing that, I would be so grateful and proud.”
Copyright ©2009 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: October 10, 2009.
Photo Credits:#1 © 2008. Courtesy of Fox Home Video. All rights reserved.#2 © 2009. Courtesy of Caliber Media. All rights reserved.#3 © 2008. Courtesy of Fox Home Video. All rights reserved.#4 © 2008. Courtesy of Fox Home Video. All rights reserved.#5 © 2009. Courtesy of Caliber Media. All rights reserved.