Veteran character actor Tim Griffin has played a lot of tough roles in his life, but in NBC’s new drama “Prime Suspect,” his character has to deal with the force of nature that is NYPD homicide detective Jane Timoney, played by Maria Bello. Griffin plays Detective Augie Blando, part of a group of detectives called the “Beef Trust,” who in the pilot not only suffer a big loss but regard the arrival of Timoney into the group with suspicion and more than a little sexism.
On another level, Bello, Griffin and executive producer Peter Berg (“Friday Night Lights“) have something even bigger to face: the specter of the immensely popular original British version of “Prime Suspect,” where Helen Mirren played one of her signature roles as hard-bitten Scotland Yard detective Jane Tennison for fifteen years. Griffin sits down with XfinityTV.com to talk about how the new version, which airs Thursdays at 10/9c, will keep things fresh and why he thinks Bello’s headwear got so much of the attention during the summer promotional season.
Were you familiar with the original version of “Prime Suspect” with Helen Mirren? Had you been a fan?
I actually was familiar with it, and I was a huge fan of the original. The funny thing is that the original was in 1991, and the amazing thing was sort of watching that evolution of that character, and I remember that it was something that I found really inspiring. Something that you could do on TV that you could never do in movies is kind of like Helen did with her character of Jane Tennison, and the arc that you go through. It’s something that, with the exception of “Lord of the Rings,” rarely do you see someone go through that sort of journey over several years.
Watch the Series Premiere of “Prime Suspect”:
The original production team that produced the [British] series are our partners, and it’s actually really fantastic, because we have access to that brilliant canon of cases, but the writers are so brilliant, they find ways to cleverly take different cases and reinvent them for modern times.
How did the writers change the conditions under which Maria Bello’s character deals with being a woman in an NYPD homicide squad? Things have changed a lot there since 1991.
In the pilot, you see some of the guys coming very hard down upon her. But somebody made a brilliant observation that she does meet resistance and a lot of push-back, and part of it has to do with her being a woman, but the real thing is her personality, her abrasiveness and the way she, in a lot of the guys’ eyes, sort of inserts herself where we haven’t been conditioned to her. And we’re a well-oiled machine that’s supposed to adapt to this person who’s barging through the door. It’s that personality that forces people to clash with her and we’re having a lot of fun with it. We’re on the seventh episode now, and [our characters] realize that she’s so brilliant at her job that she can’t help but be integrated into our group. We end up becoming a pretty cohesive unit. She’ll never win over people like Brian O’Byrne’s character Duffy; he was too close to the loss of his friend.
You know the ironic thing? There are a lot of female detectives on TV, but in reality we visited three precincts in New York, and we had the full cooperation of the NYPD, and there were no female detectives in homicide. It was kind of shocking.
So what you’re seeing in that pilot is closer to reality, even in 2011?
Yeah, and what you kind of find out is that… for example, Elizabeth Rodriguez is going to come join the show in the fourth or fifth episode, and one of the fascinating things that happen is that she’s with us, she’s a part of us, and the way we sort of light up for her and welcome her makes [Bello’s character] start to take personal stock and go, “wait a minute. It’s not women that these guys have a problem with, it’s me!” Her coming on the show really makes everything go in new directions. It’s fascinating. [Bello’s character] makes no apologies for who she is.
What’s the best example of Bello coming to the set and not caring about how she looked in a scene?
It shows itself in different ways in different episodes. She’s not a brooder; [executive producer] Peter Berg does not like brooding, he doesn’t like overearnestness. [Bello’s character Jane Timoney] is sort of like a shark that never stops moving. In every episode, there are things that get to her; this is a hard job. Manhattan Homicide is one of the darkest jobs a person can do. You can see it; she lets it wear at her; she doesn’t sit there in lip gloss and say “make sure the wind machine is blowing so that my hair can be just ever so.” She’s interested in portraying a real, three-dimensional character that has battle scars, and it’s all the more impressive that she’s willing to put herself out there like that.
Does Bello wear that hat beyond the first episode?
The hat is an oft-talked about thing because it was part of the original promotional… and it’s like a tokenistic thing for her and it has special meaning for her. But I don’t actually see it often on set. I think it’s something she wore so iconically in the pilot, that people were like, “This is going to be like the Kojak! It’ll be like her signature lollipop” or whatever. It’s just another tool in her arsenal.
Were you guys concerned it was getting too much attention?
The truth is that it kinda took us by surprise. I can’t speak for anyone else, but it was never on my radar. The last thing we want to do is take away from what’s really going on in the show we’re producing being something that we’re so incredibly proud of. When you have these kinds of scripts and these kinds of actors and these kinds of producers get together at the top of their games, all the silly stuff will just fall by the wayside. It might be something that people will focus on in week one or whatever, but it’s not part of your core DNA, it’s not really what defines the show.
You said the stories have been updated and modernized. What are some good examples of that?
I’m a fan of the original series, and I’m also friends with Mike Sheehan, the guy who’s our technical advisor. He’s a really good story; Detective Mike Sheehan was one of the most iconic cops of his generation. He was the go-to man for every major high-profile case that came through Manhattan Homicide; you’re talking the Preppy Murder… pretty much anything that hit the papers, that was his case. So he’s got thousands and thousands of these stories, and it’s fascinating for me to see the writers take one of his stories, or elements of one of his cases, and they interweave it with like, let’s say there are acts…
Like in one of the episodes we just shot, I recognized exactly some of the devices they were using in the original “Prime Suspect,” like the crazy mother; we had Sean Penn’s mother come in and play the incredible eccentric [role]; that came from the pilot of [the original] “Prime Suspect,” where you have a crazy old mother and a guy who seems all normal on the outside. But they find ways to twist it where even if you recognize that it comes from the original, they turn it on its ear so you don’t see what’s coming. They’re probably the most talented script-writing team I’ve ever seen; these guys had 13 episodes before other shows had even boarded one.
There are rumors going around that executive producer Peter Berg is going to have a guest role on the show. Is that true?
If you heard something like that, I kinda heard something like that, too. I’ll believe it when I see it. Because if he does what I think he’s going to do, it’s going to be awesome; there’s a great character that he will be playing. Of course, he’s busy editing a little film called “Battleship,” and he’s got about a $200 million budget going, so our corporate bosses are like, “He’s going to do what!?” So I’ll just wait until I see him on set, but I know that that’s been coming down the old rumor mill, and I’d love it if it happens.