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Maria Bello on Prime Suspect, Its Chances, and Her Character’s Modernized Katharine Hepburn Style

NBC's Prime Suspect may not be long for prime time. It's gotten pretty poor ratings, and despite NBC's decision to air reruns of the show at 10 p.m. every day this week, leading up to tonight's new episode, it still hasn't gotten a full season pickup. But the numbers don't tell the whole story: Prime Suspect is really good! A gritty, funny, smart procedural starring Maria Bello as the difficult yet lovable homicide detective Jane Timoney, a character who is much more than just her goofy hat. (Though, if you think her fedora is silly, please, try our Prime Suspect Hat-O-Matic.) We spoke with Bello yesterday about the show, its Friday Night Lights shooting style, her similarities to Jane, and how Jane's style is "Katharine Hepburn, but a modernized version."

Okay, let's just get the hat out of the way. Have you been surprised about how interested people have been in the hat?
Yeah, it made me laugh a lot especially in the beginning, but I was happy about it in a way because that's who Jane is. She doesn't give a fuck who likes her hat or not. So it's a great representation, all the crap going around, about the hat, then that's what the hat represents, basically. And she'll wear what she wants, she'll do what she wants, she doesn't care what people say.

While we're on accessories: Jane's glasses, they're sort of chunky, Buddy Holly frames. Did you pick them?
Yes, I picked my glasses and I worked really hard with Amy Stofsky on my wardrobe. I had a really particular way of wanting to dress, which was Katharine Hepburn, but a modernized version of her. And I didn't want to do anything with my hair, with my makeup, you know? I just wanted it to be really, really simple. And it takes me fifteen minutes in hair and makeup and that's a relief. That's really great.

Did you and the writers and producers ever talk about the hat? Like, after all the hubbub, did anyone suggest you forgo it?
No, literally, I went into the office with the hat and I was like, "I'm wearing this hat or I'm not working. I'm not doing this part. This is hers." And I was like that and they have never said a word since. They've been really supportive of the hat. It's not like NBC said, you know, "Okay, people are talking about, you can't wear the hat." If they did say that, I don't know what I would do. 'Cause I'm like Jane.

Are you?
So much. I think I'm Jane but a little bit nicer, just a little bit.

Is that what you liked about the character?
Well, I understood the character and I loved how complicated and smart and honest she was, and conflicted and had a sense of humor about it, right? And so I certainly related to her being sort of a strong woman in the world, but also feeling really vulnerable at the same time. I just fell in love with her from the start. But I said "no" a couple of years in a row because I didn't think I could do a job like this. But then I read Alex Cunningham's version and thought, There's no way I can't do this. You don't read a woman like this on television. I don't like regular procedural cop shows where everybody, especially women that they write, are so earnest about everything. Everything is so dramatic and earnest and vulnerable. All the cops I know and have met, they're much more interesting than that and they all have a great sense of humor. It's not so heavy all the time. So that's what I loved about the writing.

So had you seen many versions of the Prime Suspect script before you signed on to this one?
No, it was the year before they asked me to do it and I didn't do that. And then this one. Even when I got this one, I said no because I have really good friends who do these hour shows and they never see their kids. And I worked in Haiti part-time for the last few years, have an organization there, and my son is 10, and I thought, I don't want to work fifteen hours a day and not have my life because I never consider myself an actress, right? I don't define myself by that. There's so many other things in my life that are part of it that I just wanted to make sure my whole life would work. But I went in and it was Pete and Alex, and they assured me that it wouldn't take up my life and they would make it work for me, and they've been true to their word.

You'd been on E.R. for a season in the nineties. Was that sort of when you figured out, like, "I can't do this, it's too much"?
Yep, uh-huh. That was part of it. But also Mariska Hargitay and Patricia Arquette are some of my best friends, and I see what their hours have been like — not that they haven't loved their shows or don't love their shows, but it's really hard being a parent, and especially with my travels in Haiti, I couldn't figure out how to do it. But, like I've said, they've been wonderful.

How have they been able to do that? Do you just shoot faster?
You know, it is faster. Everybody who comes to work has said, "Oh my God, I can't believe you work like this!" Other hour shows are doing fifteen hours, we're doing eleven or twelve 'cause we don't have cameras on sticks. There's three cameras and they're on guys' shoulders, walking around the room; it's not just close-up, close-up. We're not sticklers about lighting. If you see, it's kind of really raw, we don't worry about, kind of, how we look so much. And we get to improv and make stuff up and everybody gets to play and do what they do best. There's no marks on the ground. We get to stand where we want to stand, and it's really fun. It's like right now I was just rehearsing a scene with someone and we're in this fight scene and I'm really mad. So during rehearsal, I just picked up a glass and threw it and they're like, "I love that! Do that!" They would never say, "Maria, don't do that, it's not in the script."

It sounds like how Friday Night Lights was shot, which makes sense since that's also a Peter Berg show.
Yeah, some people are calling it the Friday Night Lights way. He kind of made that up, right? That way of shooting. It's a very fun set to be on. You know, I don't mean to be very, very "everything's perfect," because some days it's not. Some days it's exhausting. You know, I feel like it's Groundhog Day, waking up at five in the morning. But then I think most men and women I know work pretty long hours and thank God I get to play dress up for a living and I don't have to sit in a cubicle all day with bad lighting.

In the pilot, which was based more closely on the original series, the sexism in the department was really overt. It's been toned down pretty significantly.
Yes. Because, yes, there is certainly a sexist element in the department, but it's also because they don't like this woman, right? They have an idea of her that she slept with this guy, so it's the wrong idea, but also she's really brash and tough and some people are gonna like that and some people aren't. And you'll see slowly throughout the series, the guys and gals who she gets along with, who kinda like that about her, and then guys who don't. So I think it's gotten even more complicated, not so sexist, but just about being human beings.

In the third episode, another female detective, Elizabeth, was introduced who has a whole other, more flirty way of dealing with men. What does Jane makes of her?
I think Jane doesn't understand it. It's like a snake seeing a tiger for the first time. She has no idea what that is. She can't comprehend it, because Jane has probably never even thought about using her sexuality or what that means, and this woman does. I don't think Jane judges it as much as she's fascinated by it. And that it's something that she wants to understand and is curious about. We never set out for it to be, "Oh, she doesn't like her. Elizabeth isn't as good a detective, or isn't as smart or isn't as competent because she's, you know, kind of flirty and more feminine." Understand that it's just something Jane doesn't have, so hopefully they'll learn from each other.

It's odd, though, because Jane seems like she knows how to flirt, at least with her boyfriend. They seem to have a good relationship ...
Yeah, I don't know how long that'll last! One of her biggest problems is gonna be relationships and relating to people whether that's her lover or others.

One scene I really liked was when Jane was talking to the buttoned-up guy who had actually beaten his wife to death, and he asked her why she didn't have children, and she said, "I don't know. Lucky," like she genuinely thought she was lucky. It's very rare for there to be a woman on TV who's so unconflicted about having kids.
Yeah, she really doesn't want that in her life. Oftentimes, with a character, it's like they're so wounded, what must have happened to them that they don't want children, that they don't want to get married, right? I even feel it myself in real life because I've never been married, never wanted to get married, never will get married. Really. Some people say, "Oh well, that's okay. Oh, you will one day," as if I'm gonna grow out of it or something. And I'm like, "Well, no, it's a choice for people." And I think it's like that for Jane, too.

What episode are you filming right now?
We just finished the tenth and we started eleven today.

If you're on eleven, that means NBC has to decide whether or not to order more episodes soon, right?
Yeah, we hope so, because November 11, we have to start prepping for episode fourteen. So we have to know soon. At this point, we're confident that it's a really, really great show. We love what we're doing and then the rest you can't really control. Hopefully people will come to the show and get it and NBC will give it a while, and we'll see.

Are you feeling confident about a pickup? Or are you feeling pressure?
The only pressure I feel is with our crew. Everybody loves their jobs here. It's such a great team, such a great crew. And I hate to see them lose their jobs. There's not a lot of jobs here in L.A.

*This original photo accompanying this post incorrectly identified Julie Benz as Maria Bello. We've updated to correct the error.

Photo: Veronica Summers/Splash News