Martina Garretti, the heroine of CBS’ upcoming new drama “Made in Jersey” (it debuts on Sept. 28) is a Garden State girl through and through. She comes from a big family in Clifton, and though she commutes across the Hudson every day to work as a junior associate at a fancy Manhattan law firm, she doesn’t try to hide her accent, her days as a prosecutor in Trenton, or any of her other Jersey roots.
The actress playing Martina, on the other hand? She has quite a bit to hide, as CBS went way outside the state – outside the country, in fact – to cast English actress Janet Montgomery to play the role. Montgomery has played Americans before, most recently as a San Francisco jewel thief on FOX’s “Human Target,” but never as the lead of a show, and never in an accent made so famous by Carmela Soprano and the women of “Real Housewives of New Jersey.”
I sat down with Montgomery at the television critics press tour last month to ask about what she’s learned about the region, whom her accent is based on, and more.
You were an American on “Human Target” and on other things I’ve seen. In what way is the New Jersey accent different from the sort of non-region specific ones you’ve done?
Janet Montgomery: I actually always try to not do a general American accent. I always try to give a region.
So when you were on “Human Target,” what you were going for with that?
Janet Montgomery: I was doing San Francisco. That was a choice I made and I looked at a few actors from San Francisco and it was easier for me because I had been living in California as well. This was more difficult because I had such limited time and I didn’t get to go to Jersey and soak it up and I didn’t know anyone personally from New Jersey except for (“Made in Jersey” creator) Dana (Calvo) and my manager and both of those are like powerful women who seem to have lost it a little bit. So I looked to people like Mira Sorvino when she was much younger, like on David Letterman. She was on in 1992 and she has a great New Jersey depth without it being like reality TV now from New Jersey. She has a real soft, but present accent. There is such a variety of New Jersey accents as well. It’s so big. So I picked where I was from, who my influence in actors were. So I listened to the actors playing my parents.
Do you feel like you have it yet or do you feel like it’s still an evolving thing?
Janet Montgomery: I think I have it to the point of where my character is right now, but I have to make choices. There’s moments where I find myself talking differently to different people and that’s something I find really interesting. I’ll pick up the phone, and we have a phone voice, or when we’re talking to our best friend or our work colleague and I have done that with Martina. It’s harder for me to do as I’m getting new episodes, finding the time to add that and so when you block a scene I might think, “Okay, she’s angry here, so I’m going to ramp up the accent.” You block it and maybe the actors don’t give you what you’re expecting, and maybe she’s not getting that angry here, so how in control is she here, and then I have to do adapt. I think at the moment different voices for Martina are coming out.
Are you method at all about it? Damian Lewis once came to a press conference for “Life” and he talked in his American accent because he said he just finds it easier to work in that character in that way. Are you like that or do you just drop it off as soon as they yell cut?
Janet Montgomery: No, it really depends I think. It depends how tired I am and what my workload is that day and just where my head is at that day and movies are different from TV. I’m working 17 hour days. I don’t want to lose my identity. I’m still Janet Montgomery. I’m not Martina Garretti. I don’t want to go nuts. I don’t know when I’m going to finish this project, so I’m finding a balance of being able to leave the New Jersey for a bit and be me.
What appealed to you about playing Martina?
Janet Montgomery: She is smart. She is resourceful. She is a female lead of a show that isn’t looking for love. That’s not her priority. She embodies a lot of what the older generation like my mom’s generation have made possible for women to be both feminine and have a position of like an associate in a law firm. She is great to play. She says what she thinks before she thinks it through. She is such a great character. I’m lucky that Dana wrote her.
So beyond the accent, what elements helped you find the performance? You’ve got the hairstyle. In what order did the character come together for you?
Janet Montgomery: It was talking with hair. I send pictures. I had already worked with the guy who does my hair on “Our Idiot Brother,” so I sent pictures to him about ideas for hair and that was a big thing. I was like, “I really love that kind of little bump.” I actually remember having it when I was like 14 or 15. There was a couple of girls in England who are from Essex who I went to school with who had gold sovereign rings. There is a girl actually named Martina who I went to school with who had a very specific look and a hardness to her look, but she wasn’t hard at all. She was very sweet. I distinctively remembered her mannerisms and her strength for this character, the rings, the hair. I wanted big earrings, but she is feminine and she has her own distinct fashion sense that she is not willing to give up because that’s her personality.
I’m someone who has lived in New Jersey virtually all my life and people who are from other areas of the country just tend to sort of lump all these groups together – “People from New Jersey are exactly like people from New York.”
Janet Montgomery: New Jersey is very big. There are different areas of New Jersey. There is North New Jersey. There is like the center. There are a lot of actors from New Jersey that don’t speak with a New Jersey accent.
Yeah, but I’m not so much talking about the accent. I’m talking about how personality-wise, people just assume we’re exactly like the people in Philadelphia, exactly like the people in New York. Obviously you haven’t had a lot of time to study the area yet, but what sense are you getting at least of the area where Martina is from, what the people are like and what sort of makes them distinctive?
Janet Montgomery: It’s a big Italian community in Clifton, which is the area that I focused on and big families. And I looked at how it changed in the past 10 years, of how many people lived in each household. I took statistics -it’s kind of like the science behind my work – but just reading it actually helps you kind of create this world that your character is from. My manager is from New Jersey and she does not speak like a New Jersey girl in the slightest and she said, “I don’t know what they mean by New Jersey accent. We don’t have an accent.”
I say that to my wife all the time and then she laughs at me, so I guess it comes and goes.
Janet Montgomery: It’s about having her be different than other women at the firm, but also I’m not going to speak like I’m in “My Cousin Vinny” the whole way through. It’s not interesting. It’s not real. It’s not relatable.
Legal terminology is easier to learn than medical terminology if you are doing a doctor show. Has there been anything that tripped you up in doing the pilot where it’s like this is maybe perhaps more of a mouthful than I thought it would be?
Janet Montgomery: Yeah, there are words like the legislature, which in England we say (very English accent) “LEDGE-iss-lay-ter.” Here you say (New Jersey accent) “ledge-iss-lay-CHURE,” so it’s like getting things in my mouth that I’ve learned at 26 years-old to say a certain way and change it and get that speed, also doing the accent on top of the legal jargon you need to spit it out. It’s legislature and if you’re doing an accent as well that’s kind of where people like to drop the G on that and make it more like more Jersey is what they say it makes it harder to get it out.
As someone who sounds so unlike and appears so unlike the character you’re playing do you feel any, I don’t want to say pressure, but do you feel any like people are going to see you on talk shows or they’re going to meet you in the street and be like oh, wait?
Janet Montgomery: Yes because people, they want the character to be a real person and I understand that, but that’s not my job. I’m not a reality TV star. I pride myself on witnessing, watching people, studying people and being able to recreate that and create a human being. And I’m sorry, I’m not from New Jersey, but I’m trying to do an honest piece. If people are like, “Oh my God, I didn’t even realize that she was from England,” then that’s great and they can invest in the character and see past me. I think I’m doing my best at it.
New Jersey is often a state that gets made fun of by the rest of the nation. I’m not sure if growing up in England you even had any sort of awareness of New Jersey as a place at all. Did you?
Janet Montgomery: No.
What was your first exposure to either in pop culture or being here?
Janet Montgomery: I would probably say maybe-my first exposure. I don’t know. I guess maybe when I was like 13, 14 probably when I started to know about areas in America. I went to Florida when I was15. That was my first time in America, so you learn about how different the regions are.
And did you develop any sort of like preconceptions about what that particular part of America was?
Janet Montgomery: No. I come from a very working class background, so I pride myself on not having preconceptions. People have preconceptions about me and think that maybe I’m from a posh family because my gram taught me to speak well and I’m from the south of England, but me and my brother and sisters shared a room until I was 10 years-old. We were all in a two bedroom flat with my mom, so I don’t have a preconception. I watch those reality TV shows and like “Jersey Shore” and “Jerseylicious,” and they’re fun and they’re easy to watch. But that isn”t what my show is and I already feel the scream from New Jersey and it’s, “Do not take the piss out of us anymore!” And I’m like, “That is not what I’m doing.” I am not. I wouldn’t want to play a character that I didn’t respect. It wouldn’t be interesting for me.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com