Interview with Maria Bello & Executive Producer Alex Cunningham from Prime Suspect

Creator/Executive Producer Alex Cunningham and star Maria Bello from NBC’s new fall drama, Prime Suspect, recently spoke to the press about the upcoming new series. If you haven’t seen it, here’s what NBC has to say about it:

Based on the critically-acclaimed British television series of the same name, Prime Suspect has been redeveloped for American audiences by Alexandra Cunningham (Desperate Housewives) and Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights. The crime drama takes a look inside a New York City homicide department. The series stars Maria Bello (A History of Violence) as tough-as-nails NYPD homicide Detective Jane Timoney, an outsider who has just transferred to a new squad where her new colleagues already dislike her. Jane is confident and focused – and also rude, abrupt and occasionally reckless. She has her vices, and rumors of a questionable past follow her everywhere – but at the end of the day she’s a instinctively brilliant cop who can’t be distracted from the only important thing: the prime suspect.

Also starring are Aidan Quinn (Unknown) as Lt. Kevin Sweeney, Brían F. O’Byrne (Flash Forward) as Det. Reg Duffy, Tim Griffin (Star Trek) as Det. Augie Blando, Kirk Acevedo (Fringe) as Det. Luisito Calderon, Damon Gupton (The Last Airbender) as Det. Evrard Velerio, and Peter Gerety (Blue Bloods) as Jane’s father, Desmond Timoney.

Check out the great questions & answers below.

On how Jane connects with witnesses and suspects

Alex Cunningham: Well, I think the key thing about Jane is she’s a story teller and an actor and she is going to put herself into any situation and decide in the moment what is the way to get to this person in a way that she can’t do in her personal life.

And I think we’re going to see Maria do a lot of different empathetic or, you know, just whatever the situation requires.

Maria Bello: I was going to say a similar thing which is she is – I think Jane is strategic without being manipulative.

Alex: Exactly.

Maria: She – every [suspect], different ones that she talks to, she is being strategic psychologically and trying to find the in that would work with them to get information from them.

Alex: Our cop consultant who was a homicide detective likes to say – and he was the most – he had the highest homicide closure rate in the history of the NYPD when he was there, and he was really great at getting people to confess.

And he says everybody wants to tell you. You just have to figure out a way to create a situation in which they can, which we’ve kind of taken that into the show and tried to use it in a lot of different situations.
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On a defining moment for them, where they knew that was their Jane

Alex: You know, I think in the pilot there were a lot of moments like that. I feel like the, for me, probably the moment that defines our Jane differently from the original Jane is when she gets beat down because that, you know, to me that was sort of a reaction to all of the times that I see women cops and, you know, other law enforcement agents who are women in TV and movies and they get in a physical situation with a man who is bigger and stronger and has (speaks) in getting out of the situation with them and they beat his ass.

And I just find that completely unrealistic and it was one of the reasons I wanted to do the show in the first place is to show there are inequalities between men and women in physically dominated jobs that you’re not going to be able to overcome.

You’re going to have to compensate in a different way, which is what Jane does in every realm of being a cop besides that one. She’s figured out how to succeed and when she’s, you know, literally face to face, like faces touching, with a man like that, she’s going to lose.

And if those other guys didn’t come to save her, which they do even though they don’t like her because at the end of the day it’s about being a cop and cops help other cops, that that was sort of a defining moment for our pilot. But I don’t know that that answers your question with reference to the original.

I feel like the original gives us the chance to be here at all. So I feel like the original defines us and gives us the driving force to portray a character like this again.

Maria: I’m with you, Alex. I was going to say the same thing. I can’t…

Alex: Yes, Maria really like the beat down. Maria enjoyed the beat down in a bizarre way. I’ll never forget shooting that on the street and every time the guy took her down she would like jump up and be like, yay, which was really – it was – and Pete Bergen as an action director, he’s going to beat the crap out of you, so, you know, it was almost like she was challenging him to make it worse.

Maria: Yes, but at one point I hit my head on the sidewalk and I put my hand up during the take and went, oh, and new I really hurt myself and right after he said, “I know you really hurt yourself but that was awesome. That’s what,”…

Alex: Yes, exactly.

Maria: I’m like okie doke. Thank you, sir. (He’s a) sensitive, sensitive man.

On how she prepared for the show, in terms of shadowing police, etc

Maria: You know, I worked in New York City in bars for a long time with NYPD and FDNY guys, so I organically had a sense of what that was and the best thing that I feel like Alex was able to do to bring to the strip was this really dark, amazing sense of humor that all these guys have.

And then we have this incredible consultant, which Alex – who Alex can speak about who has really helped us in so many ways to shape the character in the show. Alex, do you want to talk about Mike Sheehan?

Alex: Yes, we have a retired homicide detective who then went on to become an on-air crime reporter for Fox and PIX in New York and he, you know, was a gold shield detective and had 100% closure rate for however many years in a row in Manhattan North Homicide.

He is actually on our writing staff now, so we have him. But also when we shot the pilot we put Maria together with a female detective, who took her around to kind of show her what that experience is like in the modern NYPD.

And we also have the squad commander of Midtown South who is a man named Lieutenant [West], who really consulted with us a lot, especially with [Aiden], to kind of give everybody the sense of what it’s like to be a detective in today’s police department.

On Jane’s signature hat came into play and what it means

Maria: You know, my best friend gave me that hat last year. She had it on and she took it off immediately and she put it on my head and she said this belongs to you.

And as soon as I read Jane, I knew that that hat belonged to her. There was something about feeling invincible in this hat, something about an attitude, something that felt Jane. And as soon as I put on the hat, it was Jane.

And I like this idea that some people are saying why the hat, what’s with the hat because I think that’s who Jane is. That’s the greatest part about her is she doesn’t give a shit who likes her hat or not.

That’s the point. And also, the greatest kind of detective, you know, Kojack and Baretta and they all had a thing and this is her thing.

On how this version differes from the original British version

Alex: Yes, we – you know, we are trying to make it – give it a little more humor because, you know, as we all know, it’s been 20 years since the original, which was breaking new ground in so many different ways like in the portrayal of a woman cop, a woman cop in a position of power, you know, a woman trying to sort of break a glass ceiling in a male dominated world.

And we’ve seen versions of that since then, most of which were inspired by the original. But, you know, we – it’s 2011, working in the police department is different and you have recourse whether or not you choose to use it.

There’s more female detectives even though there’s not nearly as many as TV and movies make you think. And so we sort of – we have to figure out a new way to tell that same story, which I think is easy because, you know, at the end of the day it’s a procedural.

It has a great engine driving it and it’s just about making sure our character has the same great qualities that the original Jane Tennison had where’s she’s just, you know, she’s hard core, she’s ambitious, she’s unapologetic, she considers like to be a meritocracy and, you know, she’s flawed and she has her own issues that, after a while, are going to get in the way of her succeeding, including her personal life, which, you know, that’s a journey that we’re going on as well.

In the original Prime Suspect in the first series, you know, Jane was living with a man. She had a boyfriend and they lived together and he had a son and, you know, she really thought she could do both of those things and by the end of it she was very unceremoniously shown that she couldn’t by her boyfriend.

So, you know, that a journey that we’re going to go on to, the can you have it all journey because our suspicion is that you can’t.

On using real life inspiration to draw from about being a woman getting into a boys’ club

Maria: You know, I don’t know one woman in any career who has seen the show and not said that something similar has happened to them, right.

I was having an interview yesterday with this young woman, gorgeous, beautifully dressed. She must be 26 years old. And she graduated from Columbia in journalism, brilliant.

But even she at her age was saying, you know, guys look at her sometimes and she’ll be in a meeting with someone with a guy who hasn’t even graduated high school but the person that they’re in the meeting with will put all their attention on the guy and direct all of their questions to the guy, meanwhile she’s the kind of smarter leader.

And this happens often. My friends who are agents, my friends who are real estate people, we’ve had these discussions. I think it’s less with the younger generation of men because they’re, you know, grew up with a lot. They grew up with women in the workforce.

But it’s certainly still something that, you know, we struggle with from time to time. What do you think Alex?

Alex: I completely agree. I, you know, every job I’ve had in the industry we’re in, I’ve had inappropriate things said to me. I mean, and they don’t necessarily have to be about sexual attraction or attractiveness to be inappropriate and to be about men versus women.

So, you know, I just feel like 20 years after the original it’s still around but it’s more insidious and in some cases it’s women doing it to women now, which is a sort of evolution that I guess shows how far we’ve come but at the same time, it’s become a thing where – which is a thing we’re also going to explore with the show is where there’s two women and they’re head space is, well, only one woman is going to get this, so it’s going to be me, you know, which it’s just – it’s interesting that we’re still thinking that way as opposed to, you know, the best person for each job.

It’s, well, of course, they couldn’t possibly hire two women. They’ll only hire one and I’m going to be that one, so I’m going to do everything I can to sort of outdo the other one is an interesting place to be now, so and not something anyone would ever, you know, necessarily call human resources about. It’s more insidious than that.

So I just feel like as long as there are people of different sexes this is going to go on in some way and it’s unrealistic to pretend that it won’t.

On the most challenging aspects of the role for her

Maria: Honestly, the most challenging aspect has been trying to figure out my life, how that works with having a 10-year-old son who’s going back to school and I work in Haiti. I have an organization in Haiti that I, you know, I lived there part-time last year, so now it’s time to figure all that out.

And I’m so lucky to have producers that are making that much easier for me than I thought it would be. But that’s been the biggest challenge. The rest of it is just – it’s like going to a playground every single day and being in a sandbox with a bunch of amazing kids.

Honestly, I’ve never, very rarely, been on such a collaborative, creatively collaborative process. It’s been…

Alex: It’s really true. Even the crew is happy.

Maria: Beyond happy.

Alex: Yes, like, you know, usually the crew is like it’s a different thing for them. They’re not necessarily feeling the creativity the way the rest of us are and they are all – they all seem – I don’t want to speak for them but they all seem to be having a really great time, which makes it a really fun, fast-moving frenetic set to go to and everybody seems to really be enjoying themselves given the dark subject matter that they’re dealing with. It’s kind of an interesting contrast.

Maria: It’s so true. And, you know, one of the camera guys said to me the other day, you know, I – my kids are shocked when I come home. They said they haven’t seen me for dinner in 30 years.

Alex: Yes.

Maria: You know, so that as well, it’s very unconventional that you have a big, you know, an hour series like this that doesn’t shoot 16 hours a day or doesn’t, you know, try so hard, take itself so seriously or it’s not so earnest. And, you know, that comes from the top. It comes from Alex and Pete and (Sarah) and also to be really open creatively.

There’s nothing I can say to Alex or a writer and sort of a director and say, you know, oh, how about, you know, can I say this. They’re always like, sure, try it. And that doesn’t happen often in television.

Alex: Well, and we have the freedom to let them because Maria and the rest of our actors are so amazing that like we know they’re not – like if they want to try something, we know it’s going to be worth it. So like it’s very rewarding in that sense. Everybody feels like partners.

On her favorite moments so far from filming

Maria: One of my favorite moments; maybe getting beat up that night or when I was – it was my birthday and I had to run around the reservoir. It was my real birthday and that morning I had like a hot dog, pizza, chocolate cake, 500 cigarettes.

And then Pete Bergen said, okay, you don’t really have to run around the reservoir. You just have to run like a block. And I said, okay. So I started to run the block and they never called cut because the helicopter that was doing the above shot couldn’t find me. So I ran around the entire reservoir before they called cut and I literally thought to kill him.

I’m not much of an exerciser, so it was a tough day for me.

Alex: It was good. It worked for the character because the character’s not a runner.

Maria: And she’s been smoking and she’s spitting up her lungs and she can’t breathe. It was kind of perfect. I didn’t have to act at all.

Alex: It was scripted that she would hawk up (loogies) and she actually was doing it for real.

On why they think people should and will watch

Alex: You know, I mean, I feel like we know from, you know, American viewing public patterns that they enjoy procedural, so I feel like, you know, we have that going for us because we have great cases that, you know, are juicy and interesting and real but then we also have this amazing cast who are playing characters who, you know, are more interesting than perhaps some of the characters on procedurals that are out there are allowed to be, which is – that’s not a criticism of those shows.

It’s just more that their mission statement is different than ours, that it’s about, you know, telling a story about forensics or, you know, telling a story about like the worst serial killer ever.

And like we’re more concentrating. We’re trying to take it back to sort of like the grassroots of American procedurals, the Hill Street Blues and the NYPD Blue, where it’s, you know, we have these great cases but we also have these fascinating people that you want to watch because at the end of the day I feel like – the creators of Nurse Jackie said this.

Like people don’t tune in because of decision the director made or the writer made or, you know, the case of the week. They tune in to watch people they like. And I feel like that – the point of that spear is Maria, who, you know, I’ve been working with Maria every day for months now and I never get tired of watching her, even when she’s not acting, which is creepy.

But, you know, when she is on set, I just can’t wait to see her do another take, you know. It’s like she’s always finding new stuff and that’s, you know, that’s an (arterly), writer thing to say but the fact is that it’s on the screen.

I mean, when you watch her she’s magnetic and she says the things you want to say and she acts the way you want to act, especially, you know, for a woman watching.

But the people around her are responding in that way and giving her those things to play off of and I think people are just going to enjoy spending time with these people as they solve juicy cases that are cool to watch.

On how Maria is similar to Jane

Maria: I think that Jane and I are very similar, for sure. I think that Jane is Alex and I combined, so it’s not – it’s not all of me because she puts, you know, these amazing words in my mouth that really creates this character.

Alex: The cruel, inconsiderate and selfish parts are me.

Maria: That’s Alex, completely.

Alex: It’s not – like and I’m totally serious, like I’m making a joke. But Maria, when Jane is like that, that is not Maria.

Maria: Well, I don’t know about that. And the nicely, benevolent sweet parts, that’s all me.

Alex: Exactly.

Maria: No, but I feel like she is so well balanced, Jane. I don’t find her to be a hard ass. I really don’t. I find her really direct and candid and honest to a fault. But, you know, you see at that one point when she goes home to her boyfriend like crying in bed she’s still like a little girl who wants to be loved, right.

So I think that – and more and more throughout the series you’re going to see both sides of her, all sides of her. And I think that that’s what we lose oftentimes or we haven’t had much of, especially in big blockbuster films, you know, these more complex women characters like women in real life.

We’re very complicated people and sometimes, most of the time, people forget to write that.

On what Maria brings to the character and the show

Alex: You know, I don’t think there is anything she doesn’t bring to the table as an actress of the things that you would want. I mean, she is intelligent. She is honest. She is completely without vanity. She has this like inner strength and confidence where you don’t have to reassure her at all. Like she makes choices and she’s collaborative.

She’s sympathetic. She’s, you know, I could boar you forever with the positive adjectives. But like, honestly, there’s really nothing that I could have wanted, you know, given that you’re setting off on this intimidating journey of making a show that sort of revolves around this one person who, you know, let’s face it, in this business, in that situation, has a great deal of power.

And if they want to flex it on you, then that’s going to happen. And Maria, from the second I met her it was exactly what she just said about wanting to collaborate and wanting to create together. And also she is just – she’s a great, grounded, family-oriented, no word I can’t say, no bull crap person.

You know, she’s very about her son and her philanthropic efforts and she has a well rounded life and a lot of friends and she’s very close to her family and she’s completely no drama and that’s the kind of person that you want to work with in any situation, let alone a situation where hopefully you’re going to be together for years.

You want to be with a person who has every value in the right place and that’s what she has a performer and as a person.

On what reservations they might have had about doing a remake

Alex: I mean, you know what’s funny about things that I’ve heard people saying about the original is that, you know, which I’m – present company excepted. I’m not talking about anyone who’s on this call.

But I have read and heard some criticisms comparing us to the original that sort of conveyed that the person who’s saying it didn’t actually see the original, which, you know, like I say, I’m not naming any names.

But like there are some people out there who are saying things like, oh, this Jane, they’re already dumbing it down. They have here in a relationship with a man who has a kid and blah, blah, blah.

It’s like, well, then I know you didn’t see the first one. It just seems like an elementary mistake. So, you know, in terms of the cases, we’re not doing the same cases. So that’s not going to be ruined for anyone. They’re not going to be able to look up on the Internet and find out who did it from watching the original if they didn’t see it.

You know, I feel like we’re trying to keep the spirit and the character and all the other things that we can keep given the fact that it’s now 20 years later and this is America.

Everything else we can keep we’ve kept and I think fans of the original, of which I consider myself one of the most embarrassing fans like that I really can tell you so much about the original and could even before this. But I feel like I watching it would be excited to recognize the sort of signs that I, the writer, put in there for people who are real fans of the original.

And for people who are criticizing me just based on how they know Helen Mirren is great and that the original was great. If you only take away from that that you know it’s great, that’s good. That’s a good connection. And if you’re criticizing me and I can figure out you didn’t see it, then I don’t care.

Maria: You know, I saw a couple of them years ago, like when I lived in New York that I didn’t really remember. But I’ve always been a huge fan of Helen Mirren. She’s one of my heroes. She’s one of my heroes. So but like I said, when I read the script I didn’t really care if it was called Prime Suspect.

It was so original and interesting and I think it’s so different from the other show. This character is quite different. Yes, she is a strong, central female character but she is different.

Alex: I mean, you do get the feeling that from what some people are saying that they wouldn’t accept anything other than us setting it in 1991 in a police department in England and that if we did that we’d get taken (attacks) for that.

Maria: We definitely can’t do that because I do a horrible British accent.

Alex: Well, exactly. There’s that. So but, you know, because we didn’t do that, all I can say is there is no one out there who is a bigger fan of the original than me and I proceeded with all the respect and love for the original that no one else could have done it more that way than me. So if you like the original, you have to at least say that I did that.

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