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The Key to Playing a Homicide Detective, From Rizzoli & Isles’ Angie Harmon: The Victim’s ‘Still Going to Be Dead When We Get There, So Relax’

Angie Harmon specializes in playing tough (yet vulnerable!) detectives; she's known for her stints on Law & Order (both regular and SVU) and Women's Murder Club. Next up is Rizzoli & Isles, in which Harmon plays the tough (yet vulnerable!) Jane Rizzoli, a homicide detective in Boston who's best friends with the medical examiner in her department, Maura Isles (Sasha Alexander). In the pilot, which airs tonight at 10 on TNT, Harmon's character gets chased by the apprentice of a serial killer, then chased by the actual killer, yet miraculously survives to see another episode with her gorgeous hair intact. We spoke to Harmon, who just had her third daughter, about balancing work and family and working with dead bodies.

Were you actively looking to do another TV show?
No, actually. We had just had our third baby girl, and I was about to retire and move out of Los Angeles. I thought, The only way I’m going back to television is if it’s in on cable and there’s a shorter work schedule — and that’s pretty much it. And all of a sudden, here came Rizzoli & Isles, and it was exactly what I had wanted and prayed for. I work five months a year, and I get to be mommy the rest of the time, and we’re still moving out of L.A., so it worked out perfectly. I shoot over the girls’ summer vacation, so it kind of was a no-brainer. Not to mention I really like the character and the script.

It's pretty rare to be able to both be at home and be the star of a TV show.
It is. My husband Jason [Sehorn] isn’t working now, he’s working during football season, so the timing was impeccable. We literally were going, "Did God himself put this on our porch? I’m confused." I’m done as soon as he starts up. So he has the girls, and they have an incredible bond and relationship with their father, and then he goes to work and I get them all to myself.

What else besides the schedule attracted you to the show?
It’s on cable, so we get to do more creatively. I love the fact that she’s a tomboy, and she’s immersed in this man’s world. I actually did a lot of research with the Boston homicide unit, and they were kind enough to let me go with crime scenes and hang out with the bodies. And it was so fascinating and so incredible. And if I didn’t do this, I would actually try to be a homicide detective. It’s the greatest job in the world.

In the pilot, there's a lot of joking around, yet also numerous gruesome murders.
It is a dramedy. Our last director, he directed all of the Newharts. So we had a full-blown comedic episode. Of course we still have the gruesome crime, and this, that, and the other. But we’re a lot funnier in that one 'cause we had a hand guiding.

I wonder about the line these shows walk between comedy and drama. It's like, here's a dead body! Now let's joke about me wearing lipstick!
To us as the regular citizens, it’s like, "Oh my God, did they really just crack a joke over a dead body?" But what you have to understand is that anybody who’s in a homicide unit, they see dead bodies all day long, for years and years. So they do become desensitized to it. It’s funny, after spending just an hour with the body like we did when shooting, even I became desensitized. They’re a shell, they’re not a person anymore, so then it becomes about vindicating the person that used to be there.

Did your police training help with that?
Yes. Just to elaborate on that, when I was working with the homicide department, I’d hear sirens in the middle of the night and would text the detective I was working with like, "This has got to be something! Let’s go! Let’s go!" And he’d be like, "Yeah, it’s a dead body in Dorchester, but it’s still going to be dead when we get there, so relax." And that’s the whole attitude: It'll still be dead when we get there.

Did you have reservations about playing yet another detective?
I kind of did. I mean, I was sort of like, "Really? Another detective? Shocking ... " But then I read the script and I was like, "Okay, hang on, this is pretty great." This isn’t the typical, procedural, average show. As an actor, I’m looking for the relationships, and that’s kind of what drew me to it. We actually get to act in this one. It’s not just foreheads standing around a body going, "Well, this is what he did it with, this is how we’ll catch him."

Why do you think people constantly see you in these roles?
I don’t know. I’m thankful for it. It does seem to be this thing that keeps coming across my plate. I don’t know if there are a lot of other strong roles for women. I think people write this kind of role because they enjoy watching a woman in a role that most people expect a man to be in.

Photo: Splash Images