Wednesday, July 09, 2008
PTR On Set: ‘The Closer's’ Fourth Season
PTR Senior Staff Writer
“It’s a spicy, spicy, spicy new season filled with conflicts – much, much conflict.”
So says Gina Ravera, who plays Detective Irene Daniels on TNT’s hit series, The Closer.
“Power, power, power … power’s the theme – being powerless, being powerful,” adds Jon Tenney, who plays the incomparable FBI Special Agent Fritz Howard.
Spice. Conflict. Power.
As if last season wasn’t enough – what with BJ (that would be Brenda Leigh Johnson to those just tuning in) getting shot, going through early-onset menopause then deciding to have her ovaries drilled, giving up her sweets addiction, selling her house, watching two squad members start dating one another, watching one of said squad members nearly lose his job, trying to figure out how in the world she’s going to get married to Fritz only to learn of his alcohol addiction of years past …
Whew! To expect even more this year seems … well, criminal.
And let’s just say this: If you think BJ and Co. are fabulously entertaining and downright hysterical on screen, you should listen to them chat up assembled journalists as part of TNT’s press day set tour last month.
Can’t. Stop. Laughing.
“He’s coming out of the closet,” jokes Tony Denison (Lieutenant Flynn) to G.W. Bailey (Detective Lieutenant Provenza).
“Noooo, no, no …” says Philip Keene (Buzz Watson), innocently trying to steer the conversation back to something resembling serious.
“He’s got little girl’s underwear on right now,” Ravera says.
“Actually, I do,” says Denison.
Need we say more?
It’s a treat to find the cast so entertaining off screen, which makes it even easier to explain why the chemistry of the entire squad has become so addicting to us Closer fanatics over the years. But as comical as they are, they tell us of a season that is actually going to be quite dark and thought provoking, centering on a key theme: the loss of control and power.
“Power is often defined in the negative,” says creator and executive producer James Duff. “It’s demonstrated to you by how little control you have over your life. The first episode [“Controlled Burn”] pits Brenda against a fire, which is a very primal force. We think, as a civilization, we are in control of things. And yet, Griffith Park [in Los Angeles] – which is the largest wildlife refuge inside a major city in the United States – is like the sulfurous tip of a match. If it were to ignite, on a windy day, with a good wind behind its back, it could destroy the city. And, that’s the illusion we have – that we live with every day. We live with the illusion that we are in control, and the truth is we are not. Over and over again, the squad is going to face this dynamic where their footing is tested. Or, they’re going to see people in powerless situations, and see how the lack of power affects society.”
“I think the last couple of episodes [we’ve filmed] have been very, very intense,” says Ravera. “Dark.”
“But very thought provoking,” says Denison. “[As far as my character goes], whatever is different between last year and this year will probably be very subtle. [But] I know I’ve changed – I feel myself different as the character.”
Says Bailey: “The episodes we’ve done so far, [Provenza] has been a little more vulnerable than [in the past]. This last episode we just filmed [“Dial 'M' For Provenza’], while it was very funny, it also had a lot to do with his age – being forced to retire, having to face the fact that he is very vulnerable to time.”
He pauses for a moment, as if to deliver a punch line. “I guess I’ve noticed a lot of old man jokes - they’ve been stressing my age a lot.”
“What age? I see no age on thee?” jokes Ravera, who’ll be dealing with the aftermath of her inter-squad romp with Sergeant Gabriel.
“Well, it’s not good to sleep with those you work with, right? All of Brenda’s fears of what would go down – not in terms of the squad falling apart so much as the difficulty of working with someone after you’ve had an intimate relationship with them – will be realized,” she says.
“Once the bloom is off the rose …,” says Bailey.
“Dating at work is like fishing at Chernobyl. It’s very difficult,” jokes Denison.
“You never know what you’re going to get, right?” asks Keene, who says we’ll get to see loyal and faithful tech guru Buzz come out of the electronics room even more this season. “He’ll actually be in the murder room – going to get a little more exposure, a little more to do. It’s a nice evolution for him.”
And that, as it turns out, is all part of being a key player in a large ensemble cast.
“I’ve never been part of a large ensemble,” says Ravera, “but I think all of us have a very healthy respect for each other and for the ensemble they have built here. We play our note in it – whatever [large or small] note that may be.”
Speaking of playing notes (er, I guess you could say changing tunes), one time BJ nemesis (now team player) Commander Taylor, played by the excellent Robert Gossett, says it feels good to be in the fourth season given the rich evolution of character development everyone has experienced these last couple of years.
“One of the things that people come up to me and tell me they love about this show the most is the dynamics that are growing between each [character]. They like what the episode is about – the murder, the confession, all that. But, the stuff that’s going on under that – between all the guys and gals – is really what intrigues them. And I think that’s what grabs them – that intrigue. Otherwise, we’re just a regular cop show – just the facts, get the Perp off the street, wrap up the case, see you next week.”
Ah, perhaps he means like a certain other show on a certain other network that used to be about a seriously interesting and devoted female homicide detective in Philadelphia, but now is stuck in the procedural doldrums formula routine, long past its prime, with no indication of getting out any time soon.
Alas, I digress. I swear I did not pay Robert Gossett to summarize the shortcomings of the procedural trap so perfectly. Suffice it to say, as I mention to the cast that I think they are one of the best shows on television at the moment in balancing the personal with the professional, it’s refreshing to hear they, too, enjoy all those personal anecdotes and interactions as much as the rest of us – and that it is key to holding not only their interest as actors, but to the audience and the overall quality of the show.
“One of the things that’s completely unique to this show in comparison to other procedural dramas on television is our creator was not afraid to let the audience members invest in these characters,” says Corey Reynolds, who plays Sergeant Gabriel, the proverbial favorite son of BJ. “On a lot of other shows, the characters, the leads, can be replaced. We [can] see them actively get replaced because it’s about the formula of the show. One of the things [we’ve] done that some people in television would say is unwise to do is to really have this show rest upon these [characters]. They’re not easily replaced. What would the squad be without Tao? What would Brenda be without Fritz? We couldn’t continue to create what we have if [the writers and producers] hadn’t allowed us to commit to the characters and bring them to life to the point that it would really change the dynamic of the storytelling for a person not to be here. That may be a little dangerous in a business mind, but for viewers, that’s what you love – you love to be able to take that journey with the characters. So, for us, we evolve as well – our characters evolve, what they know evolves, what they fear evolves, what they support evolves. In film, you have the transition within the arc of the story, but with television, you have the transition within the arc of the series.”
Like, wow, can we say it any better than that? I don’t think so. Cold Case should take note.
“I think each story presents its own problems for all the characters,” says Michael Paul Chan, who plays Lieutenant Mike Tao, “and it’s our job to always make specific choices on how we’re going to approach something. That is always changing. Often times, the audience knows our characters better than we do.”
“In every episode,” says Raymond Cruz, who plays Detective Julio Sanchez, “there are little revelations – like pieces of an onion [skin] being pulled away. You, as an audience, gain insight into that specific person. And it’s like, ‘Wow! Sanchez has a temper!’”
“The writers spend time when they’re talking about story arcs for the year,” says J.K Simmons, who plays Assistant Chief Will Pope. “For every episode, they go around the table and ask how are we addressing each character’s development and each character’s relationship. You can literally take any script and find there is an interesting little nugget here or there alongside the development of the specific plot. Aside from continuing to have interesting whodunits, that’s what keeps it interesting for us.”
Adds Gossett: “The scripts that have come so far, they make it easy. They are so rich. And I think [the writers] know us – they write for us.”
And they do, which is part of the overall collaborative environment fostered between cast, producers and writers.
“We’ve become a collaborative team over the years,” says Duff. “We have a very tight, creative relationship. If an actor comes to me with a question or an issue about their lines, we generally are able to find something better – we work until we find something better. And, I take into account the fact that these are highly trained theater actors who have a strong appreciation and respect for writers. So, for them to come and talk to me means, maybe, something isn’t right. [As such], we often times work more in tandem. Every season we work closer, I think.”
“And somehow, we manage to do [it] all without the show becoming a soap opera,” jokes Gossett.
“We’re like CHiPs with a degree,” teases Cruz.
“Oh my God!” says Duff, exacerbated at the thought of BJ and Co. being compared to the cop show fixture of the 80s. But Duff needn’t worry. The Closer folks continue to push the envelope at what they can achieve creatively, and they do not choose formula over fortitude.
“And that’s partially because we have actors who we went looking for, who can do more than put their glasses on,” says Duff. “The truth is that if you don’t have actors of that quality, and that capacity, you can’t write for it. It is a very difficult balance to achieve, and it’s one we’re still learning. I don’t think we’ve peaked, yet. I feel like we’re still learning, and I also feel like I can still be surprised by just how terrible I can be on any given day. I’ll wake up, re-read three pages of dialogue from the day before and think, ‘What show is this? Who is ever going to say these words?’ And then I’ll start over.”
Nowadays, we couldn’t imagine starting this show over with anyone but Kyra Sedgwick as the lead. Yet, you may be surprised to learn (or remember) that it almost didn’t happen.
“Initially, [this] wasn’t what I was looking for,” says Sedgwick, who also serves as one of the shows co-executive producers. “I [actually] told my manager not to send [the pilot script]. And then [they] dropped [the fact] that it was like Prime Suspect, and I said, ‘Then you better send it.’”
And thank goodness for that. Can you imagine BJ being played by … someone else?
Not so much.
That said, as far as we’re concerned, it has been Sedgwick’s portrayal of Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson that has redefined what it means to be a strong, powerful, conflicted yet balanced lead woman on television.
“I think that the success of this show has really helped to make it a bankable thing to do – to have a female lead, a female-centric story,” she says. “So, I’m really grateful for that. It’s been really fun. I’ve never been able to do the girl in the picture. You know, when I was first starting out – when I was 16 – they’d send me scripts, and they used to be all these teen comedies. It was, like, a guy, and then there was this girl – it was in and out, it was teeny, it was small. And I said, you know what, I don’t know what to do with this part – I can’t do it. So, it’s [always been] easier for me to be able to do more.
“And [this] feels really good,” she continues. “I get a lot of mail from young girls and women and mothers [who think of Brenda] as a role model. God, I can’t tell you want that feels like to me. I love women. I really have my most intimate relationships with women. I’ve always been on their side. You know, I think some women aren’t, but I always have been, so for me, what could be better. I can’t think of a thing.”
Sedgwick says she never had hesitations about moving from film to the small screen, and in fact, it’s proven to be an invigorating experience throughout the four seasons.
“I love the work that we do together, really fast-paced. I think, sometimes, it can be the most spontaneous – you just throw everything against the wall and see what sticks. You’re willing to just go for it and not pretend. There’s something about doing it on budget that is exciting for me.”
Adds Reynolds: “I can honestly say that Kyra is one of the few ‘leads’ / ‘stars’ / ‘number ones’ – whatever you want to call it – that really come in with an open slate as to what’s going to happen in [the] moment. I have never felt as though she comes in and dictates the tempo of the scene, [or that she] serves her serve [and] expect[s] you to hit it back with the same energy and intensity. She gives you the versatility to send it back in whatever manner [you want] – she’ll take it in whatever form. I think that’s where the genuineness and the organic nature of the performances come from. We’re not just there to read scenes. The cameras are really there to capture moments, and we create those moments. It doesn’t even feel like acting, quite frankly.”
That is perhaps none truer than in the creation of the ever-important dynamic with BJ’s beau, Fritz. When I mention the fact the Brenda/Fritz relationship is my favorite on television because it comes across as so incredibly real, not contrived and stereotypical, and that everything just seems to mesh in a true examination what works in a relationship, what doesn’t and what challenges lie ahead, Tenney is genuinely thankful.
“Well, it’s really nice to hear you say that,” he says, “that [the relationship] feels genuine and honest. James Duff and the writers have [always] looked at this as a character piece – a series that’s character driven, not a crime driven drama. So, I always felt like there was a lot paid to the development of the truthfulness [between the characters] and living in the gray area that is real life. To have that celebrated by the writers and the directors, and the whole environment in which we work [is a great thing].
“We carve out time to say, ‘Let’s have this rehearsal, and let’s find out what these moments are,’” Tenney continues. “We have a read-through before we begin an episode, then there’s tone meetings, then people hang out after the read-through and bring up any points that cross their mind. A lot of attention is paid to [making time for rehearsal]. The whole company loves to toss it back and forth, and everybody sort of operates in an open way, which makes it a lot of fun. There’s nothing more fun than discovering something in the moment, so it’s nice to hear that it translates.”
Adds Sedgwick: “It’s also the cameramen – the camera people, the camera operators. They’re told, ‘If you find something that you find interesting, shoot it.’ So they’ll shoot little teeny moments that the director will go, ‘Wow, I didn’t even see that.’ But the camera guys [do], [and it’ll be] something [so] little [that ends up being] so good. It’s like everyone is encouraged to play.”
As for what is in store for the fourth season on the Brenda/Fritz front, Tenney says it’s all about dealing with addictions and Catch 22s.
“We’re renters, now. We’re not going to buy a place until we’re married, and we’re not going to get married until we buy a place, so there’s a little Catch 22 set up. And we spin off on stuff we did last season about Fritz’s addiction issues. Frankly, I think they’re both addicts – Fritz is trying to be aware, and Brenda’s not aware. It’s a luxury to be going into season four, because like Corey was saying, it’s a long arc. There’s no shortcut for [how you] develop [Brenda and Fritz’s] relationship or [Brenda and Gabriel’s] relationship. It’s nice. We’re lucky.”
So are we. For another umpteen number of seasons we hope.
Our great thanks to the cast of The Closer for taking some time to share their thoughts on the show as well as our friends at Turner publicity. The Closer begins its fourth season July 14th at 9 p.m. on TNT. If you missed out on any of the third season, be sure to check out the show’s official Web site to catch up on all-things BJ and Co.