There’s a school of oft-repeated conventional wisdom that says that the only place for actresses over 40 to get a meaty leading role is on cable.
By that questionable logic, “Body of Proof” should be on TNT or FX or, mostly likely, on Showtime.
“Body of Proof” features Dana Delany as Dr. Megan Hunt, a prodigiously talented neurosurgeon who becomes a Medical Examiner after an accident leaves her unable to operate at her former peak. Megan has a failed marriage and a damaged relationship with her young daughter and she also has an ego that causes her to butt heads with the detectives she can usually out-think.
It’s a fantastic character for the 55-year-old Delany.
It’s also the lead role on a network TV show.
“Body of Proof” premieres on ABC on Tuesday (March 29) at 10 p.m. after the season’s first “Dancing with the Stars” results show.
I caught up with the “China Beach” Emmy winner last week to talk about this complicated new character, the significance of playing the role on a network and the advantages of having “Body of Proof” pushed to midseason.
HitFix: Is there a challenge to playing a character who’s almost omniscient and keeping her from coming off a little bit obnoxious because of how much she knows about everything?
Dana Delany: [She laughs.] You know what’s funny? Only men ask that question. That’s really interesting. But yes, unfortunately that’s the nature of procedurals. I think you could ask that of any person on a procedural. As some point they’re going to have to solve the mystery and there’s always one person who knows it. But yeah, I would hope that it happens organically, that you could see why this person would figure this out.
HitFix: But a character like House on “House,” he knows everything, but we’re already supposed to think he’s an ass and that’s just a key part of that. With Megan, we’re still supposed to like her or warm to her even though she knows everything, right?
DD: I think we’re just supposed to think that she’s really smart, basically. Maybe it’s because she’s coming at it from a different angle, from a different world. She’s not in the police world and she’s not your typical medical examiner, she’s coming at it from a different place.
HitFix: OK. I’ll bite. Why do you think the question I started with is one that only men ask?
DD: I think it bothers them. I think. I don’t know. It’s just funny to me. I think that Megan can seem to be a know-it-all and I think that women are not attractive that are know-it-alls, whereas when a man’s a know-it-all, it doesn’t bother you as much. I could be wrong! I don’t know!
HitFix: And now I’m feeling guilty about the question…
DD: No! But I think it’s a cultural or a gender thing, but it’s weird, it’s very weird. Believe me, you’re not the first guy who’s asked me that. It’s very interesting and I don’t know if that’s what it is. Or maybe women are too polite to ask that question?
HitFix: Let’s take it that way, so that I don’t need to feel bad about it.
DD: I don’t want you to feel bad! I, personally, have said to the producers, “She cannot be right all of the time. Let somebody else be right. Let her be wrong every once in a while.” I think that’s more interesting.
HitFix: And did they listen to that?
DD: Yeah. I think she’s not right once.
HitFix: That was going to be my next question. Do we hit up against the wall of the things she’s an expert in?
DD: Yeah, a couple times. I’m hoping there will be more of those to come. They wanted to establish in the beginning, maybe a template. But that’s hopefully going to change, so then you can break that template.
HitFix: Speaking of templates and of gender expectations, one of the key things about this character is that she’s a mother who feels like she had to sacrifice her family to rise in her profession. How important was it to you that she maybe acknowledged that convention, but doesn’t feel guilty or regretful about it?
DD: Well, thing is that it’s true. But bottom line is that it’s true in the world. I can speak for myself, I can speak for my mother. My mother was a working woman and still is and I don’t think that’s the reason her marriage fell apart, but it certainly impacted it, that she wanted to be off working all the time. I think it’s very hard to have it all, for women and men both. I don’t know how anybody does it these days. I don’t think anybody should feel bad about it, but you have to be honest about what’s important to you, where you’re going to put your emphasis. I think that for Megan, it was doing her job well and that’s what her interest was.
HitFix: How much was that flawed, human nature what drew you to the character?
DD: Yes. Yes, that. I find that struggle always interesting of “What do you have to give up in life?” and “Why are you successful at one thing and not successful at another thing?” I think that she’s at a crossroads. I think that she was raised by somebody, by a family that valued success over emotional maturity and emotional success. It was all about your achievements, let’s say that. And in the end, I think you reach some point in your life where you realize that all the money in world and all of the success in the world is not going to make you happy. I think she’s at that point where she’s asking, “Well where *do* I find meaning in my life?” and having to start over again. And I think that’s an interesting place to be.
HitFix: Are you a fan of procedurals yourself?
DD: I like mysteries, definitely. I’m a big reader, so I read a lot of mystery novels. I don’t watch a lot of procedurals, myself. What I like about our show is that there is a procedural aspect — there will be a body every week — but I like the science of it, I like that part. I also like the fact that we’re going to have a family drama going on also.
HitFix: Over the years, have you done enough shows of this type that technical dialogue is easy for you, or do you still get thrown a bit?
DD: Oh no. It throws me. I think it’s harder the older you get. Your brain’s a lot more supple when you’re younger. And especially the hours… When you’re working 15 hours a day and then you have to go home at night and learn lines, it’s not so easy. But thank God for my iPad, because I can just pull it out at 10 p.m. at night and look up some word that’s 10 syllables long and I Google it and then there’s a reference to Wikipedia that I’ll go to and then there’ll be a picture and there’ll be a description and I’ll go, “Oh, I understand what that is.”
HitFix: How important is it for you to have that understanding of what it actually means?
DD: Oh, I definitely need to. I couldn’t say it otherwise. It’s the only way I can say a line, to know what it means. It just needs to make sense to me.
HitFix: Is that something where you work the writers to make sure that things come out smoothly?
DD: Not really. Once you get going on a show, you’re sortta on this train that doesn’t stop, so by the time I get the scripts, sometimes it’s right before I do it, so I don’t have a lot of time to really change anything. Little things here and there, but the science stuff? I have to trust that they know what they’re doing, because I certainly don’t in that area.
HitFix: When you’re picking a pilot, though, how do you know that you’re going to be able to trust the people behind the show to know what they’re doing?
DD: Chris Murphey, who wrote the pilot and is our showrunner, he’s a really smart guy. I mean, come on, he went to Harvard. He must be smart. He would never put anything in a script if it weren’t true. I really believe that. He’s incredibly honorable. [Pause.] I mean that sincerely!
HitFix: You don’t often hear people raving about Hollywood producers as “honorable.”
DD: He is! He’s an honorable man. In fact, I worry about him, because he’s a really good human being and pure in many ways. I hope he can retain that. I think he will.
HitFix: Your last few TV projects have been ensembles, but while you definitely have some fine actors with you in this cast, this is still your show. Were you looking specifically for a top-of-the-call-sheet role?
DD: No. I really wasn’t. I was very happy being part of an ensemble. I had no idea, when I was younger, that an ensemble is the way to go. It was a revelation to me that you can have a life and have a good job too. That’s what I had on “Desperate Housewives.” So I was little loath to give that up, but I like challenge.
HitFix: Did having those ensemble experiences maybe make you somewhat better prepared to take a role of this size on?
DD: This show was tough. The 13 episodes we shot were very hard. In fact, I think I’m still recovering from it physically and that was three months ago that we stopped. I’ve said to the writers that if we continue, that they really need to write more for the other actors. First of all, they’re really good actors and they’re certainly capable. And I think it’s better for the show, it makes it more interesting to have a variation in characters. And going back to referencing that other thing, maybe one of them can be right. But also it’ll give me a little time to breathe.
HitFix: For the past couple years, there’s been this conventional wisdom that the juicy, leading dramatic roles for actresses had moved to cable. But here you’re still on a network show. Has that conventional wisdom maybe been over-reported?
DD: I think those things change constantly. Everybody said that woman over 40 couldn’t work on television and then “Desperate Housewives” happened. Then it was 50s and look at Kathy Bates, she’s in a new show on network. It just keeps changing. I don’t think there’s absolutes ever.
HitFix: But Kathy Bates is playing a role that was originally written for a man. You’re playing a role that was originally written for a younger actress. Is the key simply being too good for producers not to cast?
DD: Yeah, but I think it’s more about who resonates with the role. I don’t know about being good, but who resonates. And you know what’s funny? I read that article and I didn’t even know that my role was written for a 35-year-old. That was news to me. I had no idea. I just thought, “OK. Sure.”
HitFix: Had you contemplated a shift to cable over the years, or is there something about staying on network that you’re comfortable with?
DD: No, that was my plan. I was going to finish up on “Desperate Housewives” and then develop my own half-hour show for cable, like a “Nurse Jackie,” which I think is a brilliant show. I’d already gotten my list of writers together and I was just going to go away for a while, and disappear and create the show and then come back. But then this was handed to me, so it threw me off.
HitFix: You were developing projects previously, but you’re not a producer on this one, are you?
DD: I’m not a producer. Contrary to the New York Times story, I’m not an executive producer, though I was very happy about the raise and I called the other producers and thanked them.
HitFix: I know you’ve done some producing in the past. Is that a direction you’d want to take?
DD: Oh, definitely. I plan on producing more stuff. It’s just that this particular show, I came in late in the game. I don’t believe in taking a vanity title. It means nothing to me. I’d rather actually do the work.
HitFix: And you don’t see that as being something you’d want to take on in a second season?
DD: If I felt like I was really a producer and really doing that sort of producorial work, then yes.
HitFix: You guys were originally a fall show and then you got moved to a better time slot, but also pushed to the spring. What was the impact of that push on the creative end?
DD: It’s been great. We really lucked out. I feel like the show has been really blessed in many, many ways and almost just by chance, really. When Paul Lee took over at ABC, he took a look at all of the new shows for the fall and said, “Wait a minute. This one deserves a better slot and it shouldn’t be wasted on Friday nights” and he decided to hold us off for midseason. Because of that, we got to shoot our 13 episodes without being disturbed by ratings, not needing to worry about what the public reaction was. We got to finish and we also got to shoot in our own little pink bubble in Providence, Rhode Island. Because ABC had already sold the show foreign, these countries were all saying, “Where’s the show? We paid for it.” Then ABC thought, “Well wait a minute. Why don’t we give it all the countries that are non-English-speaking and see what happens.” So it’s already premiered in Italy, Spain, Russia and several different countries and it’s done well. So that’s been a nice little vote of confidence. Then we’ll premiere here and we’ll see what happens. But it’s a whole new model. What if we’re successful in Europe and not as successful here? Will they keep the show going? I don’t know.
HitFix: Did you like working in this bubble? You obviously had a very different experience with this than on a show like “Kidnapped,” where you premiered with all of that hype, had ratings trouble and then it became clear how much of the show was going to air and where and when…
DD: Yeah, it’s basically the cable model, especially just to do 13. That’s what HBO does and I think that’s the way to go. I like it.
“Body of Proof” premieres on ABC at 10 p.m. on Tuesday, March 29.