Mary McDonnell Talks ‘Major Crimes’, Transitioning Her Character From Villain to Hero and How Prepared She is When She Gets On Set
Mary McDonnell stars as Los Angeles Police Captain Sharon Raydor on TNT’s Major Crimes, a role that she created first on the long-running series, The Closer. What’s interesting is that when her character first appeared on that show back in 2009, she was portrayed as a villain. Cut to today, and she’s the hero. That’s quite a journey, because as McDonnell said, “One false move and [the audience] may have rejected the idea” of that transition.
I talked with McDonnell and Executive Producer James Duff recently about the show and the cast, that transition from villain to hero and how prepared McDonnell is when she comes to the set.
You guys have a terrific ensemble. A lot of actors on the show have been in the same roles for a while now, but there is nothings stale are tired in their performances. It’s really nice to watch you guys work.
James Duff: I think it’s largely because the actors that we have are capable of non-static performances. Their characters don’t need to be static. They all work for the justice system and they’re all seriously involved in the justice system but they are also in a constant state of change.
If you take Mary’s character, for example, she’s been playing this part for seven years. She went from being incontestably a villain to being the heroine and that is a big long journey for someone to go through in a TV series.
And the other actors are all still growing. Their characters are still growing and the actors are loving it. I think they love playing characters that don’t do the same thing every week.
Mary McDonnell: To that as well, speaking about the ensemble, it’s been really fun to watch them particularly in this year because they seem to be finding…. It’s a bit of Renaissance it feels like to me in terms of who they are and what their characters are doing and what we’re finding out about them. So the thing that your loving it’s even better, I believe.
James Duff: The deeper appreciation you have for the characters, I think, the more interesting the mysteries become and vice versa.
Sometimes you’ll be watching the show and the characters will give one another a side-glance. I love that because it says so much in those brief moments and probably even takes out a page of dialogue
James Duff: We talk about subtext being part of our on-camera world and we do a lot of people doing one thing and meaning another. And also because all the characters who are police officers do what police officers do and that is lie all the time. They get to lie so much and it’s fun to be playing a character who is doing something good and lying at the same time. That’s just good detective work.
I think the silent communication that goes on between everybody…. and Sharon’s role as sort of the master strategist with everyone sort of looking to her for, ‘When we move? When we go forward? What part of the plan needs to be executed in this moment?’ And how well they know each other… That’s all played, as you rightly say, inside the silences.
Mary McDonnell: You know, sometimes before we do a scene, we’ll ask each other, “Do we think we knew what this game plan was before the scene or do we just catch each other in the eye halfway through and we kind of intuitively know that we’re leaning this way?”
And those are fun wonderful decisions that are sometimes really just made by the group on the spot in terms of how we’re evaluating what we may or may not know. So it has an aliveness to it.
Mary, James just said this, but when you started this character and she was the villain, has that been a fun transition going from that to where you are now?
Mary McDonnell: It was really fun. It was really hard and it was very closely traveled. Really James and I had a great deal of partnership on the very careful transitioning of her out of being the antagonist into being the protagonist.
It was a great deal of fun because it was such a challenge, but it was very focused work in order to do it right and do it successfully, which I think we did.
James Duff: We didn’t want to change the character because the character was well-established and was an important character and had played an important role in getting the LAPD out from under the consent decree. And her job in the justice system was very important and she took it very seriously and she had defended it very seriously. But she was transitioning jobs too and she was finding in herself what it was the job required. So we tried to make that journey without changing who she was at her core. That was complicated. It took us a year and change.
Mary McDonnell: It did. What neither one of us wanted to do, and we talked about this a lot, we didn’t want to ask the audience to like her because that’s just not fair your the audience. And that’s not the level that James had been writing the show to begin with, it’s more sophisticated than that.
So, in order to allow them into her more intimately, allow them to see her more and expose her more as a human being, we had to do it organically. Because one false move and they may have rejected the idea. And I would be very sad.
James Duff: There were two key moments in that. One of them was when Rusty [Graham Patrick Martin] comes back and says, “Look, I don’t know you but I don’t like you, and I’d really rather be dealing with Brenda.” And Sharon says, “Well, she’s not here right now and I’m who you get.” And that was really sort of her talking to the audience.
And then we reprise that in the second episode when his mother wasn’t there and he was like, “I want my mother.” And she goes, “Your mother isn’t here and I am.”
So those two moments, one articulating the aftermath of The Closer and one on a very personal level saying, ‘I will take care of you.’
But both of them dramatically tied to the plot, not really saying to the audience overtly those things but saying it to them on an unconscious level. Those two scenes were so pivotal in bonding people to the concept of Major Crimes.
You have to say that Mary did an amazingly brave thing. She just did an amazingly brave thing and it worked out. Both of us are still going, ‘Holy cow, can you believe we did this?’ [laughs]
But it’s worked out also because we’re talking about a part of our government that works. This is a bunch of people who, regardless of their political views can come together and solve a problem because everybody agrees that murder and rape are wrong. That these are not political questions. And seeing people take on urgent issues and solve them despite their differences, or sometimes even because of their differences, I think makes the show still relevant to what people would like to see.
Mary you’ve been doing this so long now, how prepared are you when you get to set? Do you still like write notes on the side of your script or have you been doing this so long now you’re like, “I got this.”
Mary McDonnell: Oh, no. No, no, no. I have to work really, really hard. [laughs]
It’s a constant examination of text and trying to make sure that I have the lines. And you know, I’ve been on television pretty consistently for 10 years doing the series and I’ve been in the business pretty consistently for 35 years but the thing we forget about is during those times I’ve aged. [laughs] Your brain changes the way that it memorizes, the way that it retains and so you have to constantly find new methods of keeping it sharp.
James Duff: Also, I would say, that every episode is tonally different. We don’t have the same tone in every episode. Some are light. Some are dark and some require you to go to very serious places. And others require you to go to lighter places.
And having turned 60 this year, I can tell you from my own personal experience, turning 60 is not just a number. It’s a situation. [laughs] Time is moving much faster.
Actually, that’s not really what’s happening. It’s just how you perceive it because you are moving so much more slowly. And because we are only able sense time in a linear way as human beings, that’s just how we’re oriented, it takes more time I think to absorb what your asked to do in a creative way.
Like you said, we’re keeping the show fresh. Everybody has a job in dealing with how their character works. I have my job writing the script and figuring out how the stories are going to lineup and all that sort of stuff. But the actors each have their own job too, which is to manage their characters. And that doesn’t change. From episode to episode, they’re all very serious about making sure that they understand what their character is supposed to do and what that journey is.
Mary McDonnell: Yeah, that’s part of what you’re saying about the ensemble too. No one ever doesn’t ask questions of every episode. Everyone is always trying to make sure that they are crystal clear about what their moment is.
James Duff: And everybody once the show to be better. So, everybody is working to that end.