'Dallas' Star Brenda Strong Talks Ann Ewing and the Resilience of Larry Hagman

"He is made of iron, that man," the actress says of her co-star who's battling cancer.
Martin Schoeller/ TNT

Brenda Strong is pulling double duty right now as her character Mary Alice on ABC’s Desperate Housewives is getting more screen time on its final season and she’s busy at work on her new series, TNT’s Dallas, premiering next summer.

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“It’s the best problem to be having,” Strong tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Trying to find enough time to do two really fabulous things. So I am not in any way, shape or form, complaining. It’s actually pretty awesome.”

Strong plays Bobby Ewing’s (Patrick Duffy) wife, Ann Ewing. She’s an outsider to the storied clan, but she’s ferociously protective of her husband and stepson Christopher Ewing’s (played by another Desperate Housewives Alum, Jesse Metcalfe) rights to the family land.

“She is strong. She is tender hearted. She is deeply loyal,” Strong says. “And in a lot of ways I feel like I have just kind of stepped into her boots and allowed kind of the good parts of myself to come forward and be revealed.”

Strong spoke to THR from Texas, where Dallas is shooting, about her character, living up to the show’s legacy, and how Larry Hagman is doing while he battles cancer.

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Tell me about your character.

Brenda Strong: Ann Ryland Ewing is Bobby Ewing’s new wife, new of seven years, new to the audience certainly but not new to Bobby. Because she is a younger wife, she is the bridge between the older generation and the new generation that we’re going to be getting to know. And because she is an outsider herself, she can relate to not feeling like she necessarily belongs, but at the same time is fiercely loyal to this family. So, she is the glue… And she does have a secret that will eventually start to unravel, some things between she and Bobby that they will have to reconcile.

Do you feel a lot of pressure to live up to the expectations of Dallas fans?

Strong: I feel really, really good about the relationship that Patrick Duffy and I have created on screen, and I am hoping that the audience receives it with the same kind of loyalty and love that they received Bobby and Pam [Victoria Principal]. I am not unaware of the fact that those are big shoes to fill, but I also think they are going to be very happy that he has found love again. He has had some bad luck in love. He has had his previous wives die a lot and I have invisible ink in my contract that says I am never going to die, because I am tired of playing dead people. Invisible ink, mind you. But, I couldn’t be prouder of the work that we’re doing.

The women of Dallas are certainly iconic in their own right. How does your character give a nod to that history?

Strong: Oh yes. Actually, she has gone toe to toe with J.R. [Larry Hagman] already and kind of read him the riot act by Episode 4, which is great. It’s interesting, because when I was constructing this character. I kept, for some reason, going back to my mother and my grandmother and also Ann Richards of Texas. There's an integrity and a strength to women who have been raised in rough country. And my grandmother was the daughter of pioneers as was my grandfather and they were farmers. And they worked the land and there is a grounded value system that becomes inherent in knowing what's real and what's powerful. And understanding the material nature of not only man, but beasts and profit and all of those things that you fight for. And there is a loyalty and there is a legacy and land is a very, very powerful legacy that is left from one generation to another. So I feel like, inside my own blood and bones, I have that kind of understanding of the value of who the Ewings are at their heart, and who Ann is at her heart. And so I think I have employed that kind of iconic connection to the understanding of power, land, family, loyalty.

I think the women are very iconic. Sue Ellen [Linda Gray] certainly has kind of been a phoenix rising from the ashes. She is rising back into a powerful persona. I think Ann very much rivals her. These are powerful men. They need powerful women. And they're not shrinking violets in any stretch of the imagination. And they can go toe to toe with the men if push comes to shove.

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Of course, I have to check in on Larry Hagman. How is he doing? Has his work been reduced, because of his illness?

Strong: You know, his spirit astounds me. This man is so incredibly resilient. I have been doing scenes with him and his eyes are sparkling and he is on top of his game. And I know he is dealing with a tremendous amount of things in order to combat and deal with his health, but he is absolutely resilient and incredibly present and talented and it hasn’t really impacted his ability to work per se. They have scheduled him very well around his treatment and he is showing up and we’re not seeing any change in the schedule that affects any of us adversely regarding his need to take care of himself. So I am really impressed with his strength, not only physically, but he is made of iron, that man. It is steel. So, we are really proud of him and I think everybody is going to be so happy with his work. That twinkle and that mischievousness that is so kind of the deliciousness of J.R. is definitely present in all of his performances.

Has his episode count had to be reduced at all because of the illness?

Strong: Not per se. I think they worked it out exactly as they needed to, based on the storyline. So I don’t see it impacting him and his ability to work at all.

Has the illness been written into the story line at all?

Strong: Nope. There has been no need to. And like I am telling you…it says a lot. He is extraordinary and I see him having no trouble bouncing back.

Email: Jethro.Nededog@thr.com; Twitter: @TheRealJethro