Yesterday, amid the crazy, cold Midwest weather, some of us got a chance to talk to Jennifer Beals about her role in the upcoming new series The Chicago Code. She was very open, intelligent and professional, but to give you a great feel for her as a person, here’s her explanation for being slightly late for the interview:
J. Beals: My apologies, I was stuck in the—I wasn’t stuck in the snow; there was a lady in front of me stuck in the snow, who left her car there. When she came back to it, I asked her if I could help her or if there was anything she was in need of, and she said she was waiting for a man to come help her push her out of the snow. I said, “Sweetheart, if you are waiting for a man to help you, you might be waiting for a long time. Let’s see if we can figure this out.” So finally, we got her out of the snow, and here I am, so my apologies.
I loved that she shared the experience with us and thought that it gave some real insight about why she’s the perfect person to play the part of Police Superintendent Teresa Colvin. She’s a strong and confident woman and I know she’ll be fantastic in the part.
During our discussion, she talked about how she prepared for the role, what it’s like working with the other cast members and what we can look forward to in the first season of The Chicago Code that premieres on Monday, February 7 at 9/8c on FOX.
Here’s how the conversation went:
Q: Do you get to do any stunt work this season?
J. Beals: Mostly just smashing people in the face with my elbow, but no kicking in doors. I’m not on the street that often.
Q: What was it about this part that made you want to return to series television?
J. Beals: I found it so interesting to play somebody who was walking into uncharted territory, in a way. She’s really creating the template for this job, being the first female superintendent. I just thought it would be very interesting to take that walk into what kind of a leader does she become in that position, and how do you balance your personal life with the demands of that kind of job.
I thought the relationship to Jarek was also interesting. It’s a very interesting line that we walk between intimacy and respect and being able to tell the truth to one another and goading one another and making each other laugh. I just thought that could potentially be interesting. Of course, for me, working with Shawn Ryan was a real lure because I really admire his writing and I admire the way that he works with his team of writers as well.
Q: Could you just talk a little bit about what you think The L Word did for your career? Did it change the way that you thought about TV or different roles that became available to you? What do you think it did?
J. Beals: Well, it’s interesting. Thank you for asking that question. It certainly prepared me for this role. Playing Bette Porter, somebody who was so driven and single minded sometimes and very strong and righteous at times, certainly helped prepare me for this role. Definitely, Teresa is much more physically confident than Bette is, and, as far as I can tell so far, is deeply heterosexual.
But being part of The L Word made me realize how much more television can be that what I had experienced in my lifetime in terms of being able to be of service to people. I had so many fans come up to me who were really deeply appreciative of the show and what it had meant for them and their own sense of identity and their own sense of inclusion in our society and in our culture.
Q: We’ve seen so far a really great dichotomy in Teresa’s strengths but also her vulnerability at times, and so far, it’s always been on the job. So I’m wondering, this season, do we ever get to see her out of her uniform so to speak, like in her personal life?
Jennifer Beals: There is an episode where it deals with her family, and so you do see her personal life in that episode. You do get little glimpses of it every now and again, but really, this is a person who has dedicated everything to their job for better or for worse. Towards the end of the season, you start to see the toll that that takes on her personally.
Q: I was wondering how important it was for you that this was set in Chicago, and if that sort of helped you in your decision to do it, and how’s it been being able to be the guide for your costars.
J. Beals: I said to my manager when pilot season came up last year, I said, “You basically have two cities; you have Vancouver and Chicago,” because those are the places that I can imagine spending long periods of time with my family. So when this series came up, I was very excited. I was very excited because of Shawn and the part and because I got to go back to my hometown, because I love the city. I think it’s so beautiful, and the people are so great.
I don’t know how much I introduced people to the— What I did do is when everybody first arrived, as far as the cast goes, I gave them all a copy of the “Chicago” poem, the Sandburg poem, because I really do think that poem “Chicago” paints a pretty accurate portrait of the city. There’s so many things that we’ve added now in terms of the beauty of the skyscrapers and downtown, but there’s this aspect to the city that really is like a brazen fighter. You know? Unafraid.
Q: Did you find yourself helping Shawn out, or the writers, with any of the Chicago specific things?
J. Beals: A couple things where I pointed out that certain words, the ones that they were referring to, were not accurate. There were just small things in the script, but people had really done their homework in terms of the writing. I did tell Delroy at one point that a Chicago jury is perhaps different from a New York jury. So there were certain things that were very different, but, frankly, because they all go out more than I do, they were telling me about restaurants and places to go.
Q: Can you tell me a bit about the kind of research you were able to do into the police in Chicago and how they work?
J. Beal: We were able to do ride-alongs with a homicide detective. So you could go all out all night in a car in a Kevlar vest. You sign a piece of paper, and you’re able to see all kinds of things. You get to see what they deal with day in and day out, how to set up a crime scene. We got to go to the shooting range. I was able to talk to some people who had more administrative positions to try to understand what that part of my job would be like. There are lots of things on the Internet. The Superintendent of Chicago has a blog that he has for everybody; that’s accessible to everybody. I started boxing … to get more into the physicality of it, the sort of aggressive kind of yang thing that can go on.
Q: Should we be scared of you now that you can shoot guns and box?
J. Beals: I don’t know. I don’t know if anybody should be scared of me.
Q: What did you see when you did your nights riding along?
J. Beals: Well I saw lots of things. On the more comic side was a woman who refused to put her shirt on in a fried chicken restaurant. She just kept taking her shirt off. She clearly had not been taking her meds, and she thought I was Obama’s sister and that I should somehow save her.
On the more tragic side was … being the first to respond to a man who had been shot, who was about to bleed to unconsciousness on somebody’s front stoop, and watching how— The ambulances weren’t the first to arrive. It was really the fire department. I mean, the police were the first to arrive, but the ambulances didn’t get there for, gosh, I don’t know, like 20 minutes or something. Had this person been relying simply on the ambulances, they probably would’ve died, but the fire department came and helped him medically.
At that time, I was able to see how the police department sets up a crime scene, being able to follow the trail of blood to figure out where he would’ve been shot, where the shooter would’ve been, and looking for the evidence of shell casings, which I helped the detectives find.
Q: That must have been quite shocking.
J. Beals: Well, no—I mean, it’s funny, the first ride along was much more shocking. Then as time goes by and you spend time playing the part and you spend more time getting information, it’s not so shocking. I grew up on the south side of Chicago. It was not the first time that I’ve seen bullet holes in cars. It’s not the first time that I’ve seen shell casings, and it’s, frankly, not the first time I’ve seen anybody shot.
What was shocking really was that there was a group gathered around this man before he got taken away in the ambulance who were all very upset that he had been shot. It was really clear that there were people there who knew who shot him and that it was a gang related incident, but that nobody would come forward with any information. That was shocking.
What’s shocking is to see six-year-old children jump roping in the street at 2:00 a.m.—that’s shocking—a block away from drug dealers. Just to see that the gap in the circle is education, in my mind, primarily for young women, because it’s the young women that are raising the kids and that’s where the circle, I think, perpetuates itself. To me, that’s more shocking than seeing somebody shot.
Q: Since Teresa’s such a strong character, in what ways does she test your own strength in new ways?
J. Beals: The notion again—I think somebody asked the question earlier of having to devote everything to this job, having to live that within the part. I think testing my own strength of having to suppress what are stereotypically more feminine kinds of values, or female values, like nurturing and inclusion and all these things. Because I think really early on in her leadership, as much as she’d like to be inclusive, as much as she’d like to share information, she doesn’t, because it would be perceived as weak and could perhaps put her in a position of weakness, because that is not the nature of the system that she is now a part of. That was trying sometimes to maintain some kind of balance between more masculine values and feminine values. That was really trying sometimes.
Q: Can you talk about specifically the role of a woman in the role that your character’s playing? Did you talk to other women who were in roles of power in Chicago or just in the police force in general?
J. Beals: I did talk to other women. Obviously, it’s a very interesting position to be a woman who’s in charge of a department or several bureaus who are primarily men and even to ascend to the point where she’s even been nominated for the position because certainly she doesn’t get—I don’t think anybody intended for her to initially have this position. There were two other men, older men, who had the position before her and through their own misfortune, she ended up actually becoming superintendent. I really believe that she was probably the token candidate and then is believed to be potentially a puppet for some of the aldermen. They are surprised by the fact that she’s not a puppet, or not the kind of puppet that they would want certainly.
Having said that, her ascension, I think, comes through expertise. She’s been in I think lots of different of departments within the Chicago Police Department. She’s started out as an officer, as a beat cop, was in tactical, was in homicide. She knows a lot of different departments, which is a feasible idea. So I think that she does have a great deal of respect among her fellow officers, but you would be naïve to think that to be able to ascend to that kind of level isn’t without a cost. She’s got to be a bit of a bad … to run that gamete, and I think it’s cost her her personal life. Everything is about this job, and I think it’s—if we’re fortunate enough to be picked up, you’ll see even more how problematic that is.
Q: Superintendent of the police is a very important position for a woman. Do you feel you were up to the challenges of the role and were there any reservations when you first received the script?
J. Beals: If I didn’t feel I was up to the challenges of the role, I certainly wouldn’t have taken it because I wouldn’t want to disappoint myself or anybody else. I knew that I had a great writing team, and I knew that with John Folino, Detective Folino, as our technical advisor that I would have a lot of help in terms of preparing for the role.
So even though in the beginning of shooting I was really sometimes at a loss of what to do— Because to try to comprehend the role is pretty extraordinary. There is so much that the superintendent does, and to be the first female superintendent is a lot to take on your plate. So there were so many things that I had questions about that nobody could answer for me, because there had never been a female superintendent in Chicago. So I, like Teresa, was kind of making things up as I went along trying to find my way.
Q: Did you have any reservations?
J. Beals: Oh, gosh, no. No reservations at all. I just thought it was a great part, and I think Shawn is an amazing writer and leader. So I had no reservations
about it at all.
Q: What is special about The Chicago Code? Why should [audiences in the UK] watch this as a new cop show?
J. Beals: At least in North America, and I’m sure it’s true in the U.K. as well, that people get a sense that something is really wrong in government and in our culture. There is a corruption not only in politics, but there is a corruption of spirit as well, I think, when people are so quick to be violent with one another.
I think everybody would like to be able to find a solution to make things better, and I think we have, all of us, inside of us, this desire to reform, and I think we get frustrated because we don’t know how to change things, even if it comes to our own behavior. Sometimes you get frustrated because you don’t know how to stop that thing that you know is either hurtful to yourself or hurtful to someone else.
Here you have a cop show that is not just about the action that is on the street. It certainly has that element, and it’s got a lot of cop drama kind of stuff that’s going out on the street, but you also have this whole other element where a female police superintendent is taking on corruption not only on the street, but in the halls of power and within her own department. So the paradigm of power is kind of turned on its head a bit by having a female superintendent. So there you’ve already started to change the order of things as we experience it in our day-to-day life, but you’re able to watch as this person is trying to make things right, at great cost to herself, but she’s trying to make things right.
So you get to go into those halls of power where people are making those backroom deals that you know, as an audience, are happening. They’re happening everywhere. No matter what city you live in, those deals are happening, and you know that there’s corruption in politics, and you know that there’s corruption within anybody’s police force. You know that there’s personal corruption, private corruption that’s sometimes illustrated in relationships with people.
The show works on lots of different levels. It works on personal relationships. It works on action and more drama on the street, and then it works on the corruption that goes on within politics. So you have lots of different levels, so you can experience the show on lots of different levels.
Q: Would you say that it’s got everything then? It’s got the politics. It’s got the action. It’s got kind of the gritty street as well as what happens behind the scenes…
J. Beals: Yes, but it also—really importantly, it has relationships. To be in the police department, regardless of really what your job is in the police department, is very difficult, and to be someone who’s out on the street, to be a homicide detective, is very difficult. I cannot stress the kinds of things that you would see and experience day in and day out, and how wearing that is to the soul, how difficult that is. To witness then, on top of everything, the corruption that goes on in City Hall day in and day out that contributes to the suffering of your fellow officers and contributes to the suffering of the people of the city is incredibly wearing.
So you have to ask yourself, why does somebody stay in a job? What do they have going on personally that makes them stay in a job? The show addresses those questions. It addresses that personal angle of why is somebody still doing that? My gosh, that’s so hard, that’s so painful. Why is that person still in that job and what does that mean to them to have witnessed this thing during that day? It’s not as if the show portrays every police officer as just being this kind of soldier who’s so tough, who can see shootings all day long and they’re impervious to it. No, it takes a toll. It takes a personal toll. So there’s a personal element to the show that I think is important to underline as well.
Q: I read that Chicago Code will bring in various directors over the course of the season. What is that like for you as an actress? Does it kind of bring a fresh taste to the series each time a new pair of eyes are on it?
J. Beals: Yes. It’s fun. We had lots of great directors on The L Word as well. It’s fun. You get to experience your character sometimes in a new way. You get a fresh pair of eyes on the city and on the relationships within the show. So it’s a lot of fun.
Q: What was it like getting to work with the cast. Did you find that the chemistry between you all gelled instantly or did you all take a bit of time to fit together?
J. Beals: I think it was pretty quick. Everybody has a pretty good sense of humor. So everybody gelled pretty quickly. In the beginning of the pilot, Jason and I got along really well, and we talked about work all the time. It was great. We had a great relationship, but we didn’t really spend time outside of work together or anything. Then I had to take a flight from L.A. to New York and it just so happened that he was sitting next to me for the duration of the flight, and it was really like the first time that we sat and talked personally. It was great. We get along well.
People are very silly on set quite often. I think not unlike the Chicago Police Department where there’s a certain gala of humor to get through the day. I think that’s also true of many sets. I think a lot of directors were surprised at how it seemed more like maybe a comedic musical on set than a drama. But, yes, everybody got along well instantly pretty much.
Q: One of the things that struck me about this show is, obviously with Shawn Ryan’s name behind it and with the history of The Shield, this show is obviously going to get to compared to The Shield. It’s in the ad campaign, and I was wondering with such high expectations, what’s that like for you guys that you’re kind of being promoted in the shadow of that previous series?
J. Beals: I really—for me anyway, I can speak for myself—I really separate myself from the advertising department other than doing interviews. To me, however they want to promote it is fine. Just as long as people tune in and listen to the stories and watch the stories, it doesn’t bother me at all. I think there was a thing about The L Word being compared to Sex and the City as well—same sex, different city, or something like that, and that was fine too.
Q: Is it safe to say that you’re a feminist? If so, then have you always been one or did something happen as you were growing up and getting wiser?
J. Beals: I grew up with brothers so I just assumed that I should have the same rights and access to things like baseball bats and field time and all that sort of thing. No, not really. Maybe it was the amount of time my mom read Greek myths to me, I don’t know. The whole literature about the goddess that somehow permeated and there’s an element of power there. I don’t know. I actually don’t know the answer to that question.
Q: With all of the outdoor shots that you guys do on the show, do you end up doing a lot of ADR with that? What’s your schedule like as far as that goes?
J. Beals: I haven’t done a lot of ADR, not so far, and we’ve being doing ADR for stuff that’s inside too, frankly. Actually, I’m just thinking back to my last ADR session. There was quite a few scenes that were outside that needed to be looped, and that’s fine. I’m one of those weird actors that really enjoys looping. I get a kick out of it. I think sometimes you can make a scene better if you really pay attention.
Q: What can you tell us about the premier and what we can expect from Teresa?
J. Beals: You can expect the person who’s very new to the job, who has a very clear vision of what they want to do and what they want to do for other people and how they want to transform their department and the city. But not necessarily being clear as to how exactly to do it, but having so much bravado that she keeps moving forward. She just keeps moving forward.
Q: Could you talk a bit about the conflict between your character and Alderman Giddons and what is it like working with Delroy Lindo?
J. Beals: I love working with Delroy Lindo. I get schooled every single day when I work with Delroy Lindo. It’s so much fun. He is so specific in his work and so dedicated to his work. He just made me laugh.
He was a great advisory, because he’s also really smart about the way he went about playing the character. Because as much wickedness as his character is purveying, he also is doing good things as well. So it’s not perfectly—his evil is not perfectly delineated and clear. It’s murky, which is often the way that it is.
So it was terrific to work with Delroy. I cried our last day of shooting together. Like a little kid, I cried, because I wished we had more scenes together, but maybe next season if we get picked up.