Q & A: Maria Bello on ‘Prime Suspect’ and Finding the Perfect Hat

"I hadn't even considered doing a television show for ten years"

On September 22nd, NBC is premiering it’s new drama, Prime Suspect, based on the critically-acclaimed British television series of the same name.

Prime Suspect was a huge hit on the BBC, airing between 1991 and 2006 and starring Helen Mirren. In this version, NBC, Maria Bello stars as the ‘tough-as-nails’ Detective Jane Timoney (it was Jane Tennison in the U.K. version), who is an “outsider who has just transferred to a new squad where her new colleagues already dislike her.”

The show was developed for American audiences by Alexandra Cunningham (Desperate Housewives, NYPD Blue) and director Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, Hancock, the upcoming Battleship) and also stars Aidan Quinn, Brian O’Byrne (Flash Forward and the under-rated An Everlasting Piece) and Kirk Acevedo (Fringe).

Even though it may seem like Bello may have some big shoes to fill, it sounds like the only thing similar to the British version is that they have the same first name, they’re both detectives and they’re both women. Which I think is a good thing.

I talked to Bello and Cunningham in a Q&A about the show, the challenges of playing Timoney and how to find the perfect hat.

Prime Suspect premieres on September 22 at 10:00/9c on NBC

Maria, was it important to you that this be Prime Suspect as opposed to any other police show you could have done?

Maria Bello: I didn’t really care what the title was when I read it. I like to say that Alex and I are (jaying) together. It was such incredible writing and I hadn’t read a woman like this on television before who was so complex and strong and quirky and self possessed and just knew I wanted to do this show. It could have been called, you know, Arlington. I don’t know.  

Did you shadow real life homicide detectives?

Maria Bello: 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.

I’ve talked to actors who have been in westerns and a lot of times they’ll tell stories about how they’re looking for the right cowboy hat. Once they find the right hat, they have the character. Is that similar to you and that hat you’ve got in this show?

Maria Bello: 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.

I know that there’s been a lot of talk about the original Prime Suspect and the original Jane Tennison and I was wondering if you guys, both of you, either while writing or while acting, have sort of had a scene or a moment where you said, okay, this defines our Jane.

Alex Cunningham: 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 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.

Maria really liked 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 Bello: 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.”

Maria, what was it about Detective Jane that caught your interest initially?

Maria Bello: You know, it was purely the rating. I hadn’t even considered doing a television show for ten years and then I read Alex Cunningham’s script and I hadn’t read a woman like this, such a complex woman on television who was so incredibly self possessed and unapologetic and quirky and just I knew in my gut that I might have to do this.

You touched on a little bit about the sort of boy’s club inequalities and how it’s not the same as it was from the original show. But I’m wondering if you, Alex and Maria, drew on any sort of real-life experiences of breaking into boy’s clubs that sort of show in this show.

Maria Bello: 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 have you found the most challenging aspect of this role for you, Maria?

Maria Bello: 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.

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.

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 Cunningham: 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.

Alex, what does Maria bring to the table as an actress?

Alex Cunningham: 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.

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