PTR Senior Staff Writer
So, what happens when a character and actor are so perfectly melded into one that it seems to go beyond coincidental?
It gets a little spooky.
So says Mary McCormack, who embodies the kick-arse U.S. Marshal Mary Shannon on USA Network's hit series, In Plain Sight. We recently had the chance to catch up with Mary on a conference call as she enjoyed an hour's peace while her two young kids were down for their naps. The second season of the show is now underway Sunday nights at 10 p.m. on USA.
When I asked her whether portraying the character of Mary Shannon has allowed her to learn anything new about herself, she shed some intriguing light on what it has been like playing a character that seems to have been written for her - even if creator David Maples wrote the role without even knowing who she was.
"[There] are just little things - like little, little details - that are just coincidences, but are spooky," says Mary. "David Maples wrote [the role] without me - he didn’t even know who I was. But her name is Mary and she’s from New Jersey, and I’m from New Jersey. She calls her sister Squish, and I called my oldest daughter Squish when she was little. There are so many little things."
"Wow," I say.
"I know," says Mary. "They’re just obviously tiny little coincidences, but the first time I picked up the script, I was like, 'This is odd.' It feels like it was actually written for me. [And] I’ve learned an enormous amount. I’ve worked a lot over the years, and I’ve done a lot of TV, but I’ve never been in almost every scene. [And since] I have two kids under the age of four, and [I'm working] 15 to 20 hour days everyday, I’ve learned a lot about stamina and rest and balance and forgiveness in terms of my own guilt about where I’m falling short in my life. Certainly, I’ve learned more than I ever thought I could learn about that stuff.
"And I learn from the character, too," Mary continues. "So, as I investigate things like codependence or what her abandonment issues are, and her father leaving - my father didn’t leave, but just in terms of any kind of loss - how that affects how readily available you are for intimacy and stuff, I definitely learn about myself through some of the storylines she’s dealing with."
And that, in and of itself, has been incredibly rewarding - and a comfortable fit - for her.
"It just feels like a really, really comfortable fit for me. I love the way David writes [the character]. There’s one episode - and I reference this often because it just struck me when I read it as it's so unusual for a woman to say something like it on TV - [where] she sees a little baby and out of the blue, and pertinent of nothing else - she doesn’t continue the thought - she goes, 'What’s with babies? I don’t get them.' You never hear women say stuff like that on TV. [And] I just think David has a really fresh approach to writing this woman because it’s certainly not representative of any other woman. She’s a complex part, and I like that she’s allowed to be sort of grouchy and a little bit angry, angular. It’s a comfortable fit for me. I’m not proud of that, but it is."
"Well, it does seem it just fits you really well," I say.
"Yes, and I get to work with great people. I like the stories, and I think it’s also an interesting backdrop for a show. We’ve never seen witness protection and certainly the only thing I knew about witness protection before this was what I knew from Goodfellas, which isn’t a lot. It’s a crazy world to think that people just up and leave. They do leave, like, food on the stove and walk out of their house - never call, never talk to their families again, never turn back. So, it’s a very dramatic world. It’s high stakes and pretty emotional."
When I confess to her I didn’t know anything about witness protection, either, but have since become ... well, somewhat obsessed with it since watching the show, Mary relates.
"I know!" says Mary. "It’s crazy. [The witnesses] don’t actually even get to tell their families where they’re going. We have a technical advisor, and one time I was grilling him about this [fact] because I just couldn’t believe that [the witnesses] didn’t get to say goodbye. He said once in a while, if they felt the person would be better - like if it was so emotional - they would stage a goodbye in a safe place."
She pauses for a moment.
"We have to do that scene. Can you imagine that scene? I mean, what a scene! [But] often, they don’t even get to do that. I said [to the technical advisor], 'Well, how does the family know they’re not just dead? What’s to stop the family just from having a funeral or mourning forever or committing suicide or who knows what you’d do with that kind of grief?' He said they contact the family and let them know - they don’t say the exact words - but they’ll say, 'They’re not going to be back, but they’re safe' kind of thing. I mean, what?!?! It’s too much to think about. It’s crazy - and all for testimony. But people, when faced with [whether they're] going to die or start over, the will to live rises up, I guess."
Some other highlights from the call:
On what makes In Plain Sight different from the other police dramas on TV: "I think our show is pretty special for a number of reasons. One, I just think witness protection is pretty interesting and you don’t see it in many other police dramas. It’s definitely a singular backdrop. But also tonally, I think our show is unusual. It’s not strictly a drama. It’s also really funny and finding the balance is sometimes tricky for us. A lot of cop shows are just procedurals. Every week, you have a mystery and by the end of the hour the mystery is solved; [then] next week, you have another mystery. Ours has that, but we also have the ongoing story of my life and my relationships - my work relationships, my boyfriend relationship, my family relationship. So, I think our show is pretty special for doing all that within the hour - and hopefully doing it well. I mean, the challenge is making sure we do all of it well."
On the continual challenges of the role of Mary Shannon: "One of the weird things about TV - and one of the things that some actors don’t like but I kind of dig - is that you never know where you’re headed. You never know what the writer might think of next. So, unlike a film or a play where you know the entire story and you know where you have to end up, with In Plain Sight and with Mary Shannon, I never really know what [is being] cooked up. This season is completely different from the first season. There’s more development with me, and with the mystery of where is my father and what happened to him. There’s just so many kinds of question marks with Mary Shannon that that’s always a challenge. [Also] trying to make her vulnerable [and] balance the vulnerability. I don’t want [the character] ever to be two dimensional. Even though she has sort of bad ass qualities, and she’s a tomboy and she doesn’t really take a lot of garbage [from people], you have to sort of see how she ended up that way - and why she ended up that way; where she’s weak, where she’s frail, where she’s girly. So, trying to make her three dimensional and complex, that’s always challenging."
On whether the dynamic of Mary Shannon's "family issues" will get better or worse this season, and how she will cope with change: "In the beginning of the season, my mother hits a new low in her drinking, which is extraordinary to watch. You think it’s going to be funny and it’s not at all funny. And then, she decides to try to stop drinking and she goes to rehab. [But] Mary Shannon’s never known her mother without alcohol involved, so it changes the entire family dynamic. And my sister goes back to school and decides to try to turn over a new leaf. [But for Mary], change does not come easily - because she figures things out and likes the way they work, even if it’s bad. Even in the unhealthy family dynamic, at least she was used to it. She had been living in it since she was a little girl and she knew it. Now, her mom is all AA slogans, and her sister is sort of in a healthy relationship, which is just confusing. Everyone’s just a little bit different. Even Rafael, halfway through the season, makes a big change in his own life - a career change - and it completely freaks Mary out. It’s his own life, but she has to redefine her relationship with him. So I think it’s a bumpy season for her. And then the mystery of Mary’s father is still floating and looming, and you get some more clues as to what happened to him.
On whether Mary and Rafael really are right for each other: I think they are a mismatch - my guess is that they’re sort of mismatched. I mean, he would probably ideally not want her to continue with this work, and she’s never going to give it up. So yes, that’s sort of a train wreck waiting to happen. But bless his heart, he’s so kind and keeps hoping she’ll change and she never [does]. I don’t know where we’re headed, but intimacy doesn’t come easy for Mary Shannon. In the second season, she certainly tries harder in that department - a lot harder."
On whether Mary Shannon can relinquish her caretaking role as it pertains to her family: "[There's] a lot less of that sort of caretaking model [in season two], which actually is a little bit odd for her. I think we even touch on it in one episode. Marshall says to her, 'Your whole identity has been about this. You’ve sort of defined yourself by [your family's] inability to look after themselves, and now they’re doing it and you don’t really know who you are anymore.' So, it’s interesting because it’s that whole thing of when you care-take - when that becomes your role - if people get better and they don’t need you anymore, who are you? I think it’s a pretty adult theme, but it’s a theme anyone who has ever done any of that in their life - either side of that coin - knows about. [It's] a big change. She likes to bitch about it, but at the same time her own addiction is sort of looking after people."
We extend our great thanks to Mary McCormack for taking the time to chat about all-things Mary Shannon (got to keep those Marys straight, y'know?). We also thank our friends at New Media Strategies. New episodes of In Plain Sight air Sundays at 10 p.m. on USA Network. To catch up on all-things Witness Protection, head on over to the show's official Web site.