Emmys: 'The Killing's' Mireille Enos On Her Stage Roots, LA Auditions and Upcoming Role Opposite Brad Pitt

Mireille Enos Portrait
John Russo

AMC looked at "every single person on Earth" before casting the Tony-nominated, BYU-educated actress for its newest series.

It's a stereotypical L.A. scene at the Alcove Cafe in Los Feliz on Sunday afternoons, as resident hipsters dine on veggie omelets alfresco and pretend that, behind their fedoras, they really aren't checking you out.

Among the brunching masses is neighborhood local Mireille Enos, whose practical gray knit cardigan, peach T-shirt and jeans and generally unedited presentation of enthusiasm offer a refreshingly stark contrast to the too-cool Hollywood types who swarm around her.

"I love the food here," says Enos, taking bites of her beet salad, her signature long strawberry-golden locks tucked away from her face in a loose ponytail. Her skin is void of cosmetics, her affect free of any version of pretension. "We usually just walk here -- it's great for families -- but today I drove. I promise, I normally don't do that! I just had a lot of errands."

Enos hasn't had much time for grocery runs during the past year. The 35-year-old native Texan not only became a first-time mother to daughter Vesper with her husband, actor Alan Ruck, last fall, but also made history as the first female lead on an AMC original series, The Killing, which premiered April 2 to 2.7 million viewers, a bow second only to The Walking Dead on the network.

Breaking through AMC's macho drama-lead tradition (Mad Men's Jon Hamm, Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston, Dead's Andrew Lincoln), Enos' Seattle detective Sarah Linden has shaken up television's female-cop prototype by -- shock! -- channeling her character's brain rather than her sexuality.

The Tony-nominated actress (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), who also appeared on HBO's Big Love -- that was Enos playing twin sister-wives -- says her breakthrough role on Killing felt perfectly in sync with her life's trajectory, untimely as it was with her pregnancy.

"I'm really grateful for how my career has unfolded," says Enos. "Here I am, solidly in my 30s, with a marriage and a child. It's nice to have the rest of my life kind of stable before everything explodes."

Enos grew up one of four kids in a Mormon family in Houston, the daughter of a French mother -- her namesake, pronounced Mee-ray, was that of her mother's best friend in high school -- and a missionary father. After graduating from the city's High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, she opted, as many Latter-day Saints kids do, to attend Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, and majored in theater. Because BYU imposes strict conditions on the material its campus theater can perform -- no nudity or foul language -- Enos fell into what she would later realize was the most rigorous training she could get as a young actor.

"A lot of my friends had gone to fancy conservatories in New York, and I was jealous," she says. "But BYU didn't allow most of the modern plays, so there was a focus on Shakespeare, Ibsen, Shaw, Chekhov. It was an incredibly firm acting foundation, but it took me getting into the world and auditioning with other actors to appreciate it."

Enos was in her third year at BYU when she decided to head east to New York to join the legions of Broadway wannabes. In 2005, she won the coveted role of Honey in director Anthony Page's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opposite David Harbour, Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin. Enos points to landing that part as the first of a few key moments she felt destiny was on her side. "There have been a couple times -- it happened with The Killing, too -- that I just felt something was mine, that if I were lucky enough to get it, I could really do something with it," she says.

Theater was her love, but Enos says the pull of Hollywood film and TV offerings was strong. She made frequent trips west for pilot seasons and admits she "shed tears over the ones that never got picked up." But Enos' face-time in L.A. ultimately paid off when Big Love casting directors Junie Lowry-Johnson and Libby Goldstein needed a fresh face -- well, two, actually -- to play twins Kathy and Jodeen Marquart.

"Ooooh, I loved it," says Enos of her three-season arc (and those billowy, high-shoulder compound costumes). "I mean, just talking to Harry Dean Stanton and Bruce Dern between takes … those classic Hollywood guys are such treasures."

Enos' run on Big Love ended in 2010 around the time producer Veena Sud (Cold Case) was deep into a global search for an actress to headline her adaptation of the Twin Peaks-esque Danish series Forbrydelsen (The Crime) for AMC.

"Whoever we hired had to be as dark and complex as AMC's male heroes, have that gravitas -- the Don Draper of it all. That was the bar we had to hit," says Sud of her search across Australia, England, Canada and the U.S. for the perfect Sarah Linden. "It felt like we saw every single person on the face of the Earth."

When they heard what Sud needed in her Killing hero, casting directors Johnson and Goldstein immediately thought of Enos, whom they brought in two different times in February 2010 to read for the role. Two months later, Enos returned for a third audition, but this one carried a far more complicated reality. By then, she knew she was pregnant.

"I waited until after that audition, which went very well," says Enos. "They said, 'OK, we want to test her,' and we said, 'OK, but you should know something.' They didn't bat an eye. They said, 'If she's our girl, we'll work it out.' By the time we filmed the pilot, I was five months along. Thankfully, I got to wear those bulky sweaters and rain jackets."

Adds Sud, who cast Enos just three weeks before shooting the pilot in Vancouver: "I have a child, our director has a child, our studio exec has a child, and casting directors are mostly women, so it wasn't a huge deal. Mireille is such a compelling woman; we couldn't let her get away. She is so disarming -- petite, strikingly beautiful -- but also has a real intensity that I'd pictured all along for the character. She brought all the necessary complexities."

By 4 p.m., Enos still hasn't finished her salad but is itching to get home to her family. "There are no words," she says of motherhood. "It pales to say it's rewarding. It's the most magical thing." With Killing heading for a strong finish to Season 1 on June 12 -- though unannounced so far, it's likely to be picked up for a second run -- Enos has been enjoying Sunday-night viewing parties with her husband.

"I never saw any dailies or rough cuts," she says. "So the past few weeks, when it gets to the end, I'm like, 'Wait, wait -- I want to see more!' "

She's also prepping for her biggest film role, in director Marc Forster's zombie-apocalyptic World War Z, with Brad Pitt. She can't reveal much about the project, which begins shooting in July, but calls Pitt "a wonderfully sweet guy" and credits her good fortune on Killing for allowing her career's next chapter to unfold fortuitously.

"It was probably the biggest audition of my career," she says. "At first, I was thinking: 'I'm crazy! How could this huge movie, with Brad Pitt, possibly be for me?' But I did go in there with that feeling of destiny again. Like: 'You know what? I think this is mine, too.' "