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[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Wednesday’s episode of Law & Order: SVU, “Contrapasso.”]
Jaws dropped Wednesday when Brooke Shields made her Law & Order: SVU debut Wednesday. As the actress and former Calvin Klein model jokes to THR, she had similarly strong reaction to the part at first.
“I’ve never played a grandmother before and I have to say, I practically punched Mariska [Hargitay] in the face when she said, ‘Oh, and by the way, you’re playing a grandmother,’ the actress and former model recalls with a laugh. “I was like, ‘Oh, that’s great. That’s how you lure me in? You actresses are all alike!’
But it isn’t just the fact that the former Calvin Klein model is playing a grandmother on the long-running drama, but who she’s playing a grandmother to. Shields kicked off a multi-episode arc in Wednesday’s episode as the biological grandmother of Benson’s adopted son, Noah. Although Noah’s late mother, Ellie, had told Benson her parents were dead, it turns out Ellie’s mom Sheila is very much alive. After hiring a private investigator to look into her daughter, Sheila found out about Noah and filed papers to vacate Benson’s adoption.
“We want to put Benson through a lot this year,” showrunner Michael Chernuchin says. “This heightens the drama rather than just not being able to pick the kid up at school. Here, she might actually lose the kid, and that’s a lot of drama.”
Chernuchin reveals It was Hargitay, who both stars in and exec-produces the series, that originally suggested Shields for the part. “I was not thinking of Brooke Shields. I was thinking of an older woman and right when I pitched it to Mariska — I give her so much credit — she said, ‘Brooke’s going to play the part,'” Chernuchin says.
With Shields’ recurring role (finally) unmasked, she spoke with THR to discuss the origins of her surprise arc, working with Hargitay and how she’s starting to approach her acting career differently: “I’ve got nothing to lose.”
This all came about because you’re friends with Mariska Hargitay. How did you two first meet and became friends?
We met years ago at a pediatric AIDS benefit out in California and then just our paths sort of kept crossing. We would just always run into each other or end up sitting next to each other, and then this past year, we met up at a screening for Ali Wentworth’s, our mutual friend’s show, Nightcap.
I had literally, about two years ago almost, when the first season was just ending, I emailed Ali and said, “I think your show’s hysterical. You got to write something for me that’s very fun and challenging and asks the most of me, and I’d love to be on your show.” She called me and said, “Are you serious?” I said, “Yes, I’m really serious but the prerequisite is that it’s a challenging role. It’s not just a cameo for the sake of being a cameo. (Laughs.) She said, “Oh, great.” You never know if those things are going to come true or not, but you can always put it out there. I let it go and didn’t think about it anymore and then five months later, she called me and said, “OK, I did it, I wrote it, here it is.” I read it and within seconds called her back and said, “I’m in.”
Mariska was at the screening and saw it and took me aside and said, “You’ve got to look me in the eye right now and hear me.” She was complimenting me and I kept trying to brush off the compliment. I was trying to attribute it to everyone else but me. And she grabbed me by the shoulders — you know she can be scary if she wants to. (Laughs.) There was just an honesty and an authenticity and a support from a female actress that doesn’t often show up in our industry. Just a very, very, very authentic support and applauding of another one’s talent and she wouldn’t let me brush it off and try to change the subject. Then she said, “I really want to work with her.” I said, “I would love to work with her.” Again, that happens and you really don’t think it’s going to come true. You think in the heat of a moment and then you realize there are so many things that have to go right before a person actually gets a role.
Then during the summer, she sat me down and said, “We have this really great arc and we need a strong female character that can stand up to me, and really unsettle me. It’s someone in her personal life who really challenges her to find a way to parent her little boy.” I come out of nowhere and basically presented a very obstacle for her in doing that.
Did you say yes right away? What was your first reaction when she sat you down and talked to you about the part specifically?
I said to her, “It sounds absolutely great. I would love to be a part of it, and I can’t wait to read the script.” Because you still just want to make sure … Sometimes I have come across productions where the faulty thinking is just having me is enough because it can generate attention, but then what often falls apart is the actual material and I fight for the material and then I’m often given the impression that, “It doesn’t matter. We’ve got you and that’s enough.” And I often say, “I’m only as good as the material is, and the direction and the team around me.” There’s only so much you can do. I don’t want to make mediocre material better anymore. Mariska understood that and she fought for it to be written in a way that she found smart and roles that are layered and a communication between these two characters that isn’t superficial. She appreciated that as an actor. I mean imagine how hard it is to fight to continue to make a show smart and multilayered when you’ve been doing it for 20 years. It takes consistency and it also takes energy from the writers and the other people not to fall into a complacent place. And she delivered, as usual.
What was that reaction when you did get to read the script after those initial conversations and your other experiences with less-than-stellar material?
The first script was sort of just hinting at the character and it was the next script that followed where there was a lot of dialogue, but it was precisely crafted. It’s extremely emotional as a character, and I think that it was my turn to not shy away from … It’s one thing to say, “I want the material to be smart, but I’m not willing to do that.” It was my turn to step up to the plate. I think that is what makes the collaboration she has with her writers and the material and someone like myself who’s coming in and putting a lot of trust in her. And also wanting to live up to her standards. I wasn’t surprised because she’s not full of shit and neither am I. (Laughs.) I guess I was slightly relieved and happy that everybody was putting their money where their mouth is.
In your statement about the role, you said “I play a very different character from any I have ever played.” What do you think made this role so different in your eyes?
It’s a subject matter that I, on the one hand, have zero reference to, and on the other hand, I’m very intimate to the story as a female and as a mom. It’s just someone who has to fight and at a certain point in your life, there’s nothing you wouldn’t stop at for certain things. I had not played that before. I’ve been predominantly comedic just in the way things have sort of unfolded over the past decade and this role came right after a movie that I did that’s coming out in December [Daisy Winters] and that was a very, very tough dramatic role. I connected with it, but it’s unlike anything I’ve done because I’ve never played someone in this circumstance.
[Mariska and I] are the same age onscreen and off basically, and our characters are both mothers in very different ways and different circumstances so then the question really becomes, at what point do you just do what’s best for the kid? You always have to have the kid in mind first and so these two women are forced to kind of let go of their ego, let go of their past and come together in a very modern, unique relationship — one being biologically connected and the other being legally connected and emotionally connected — so who’s to say who should win? Maybe it’s not about winning.
Where is your character coming from emotionally when she learns about Noah? She’s not only finding about a grandson, but also she’s finding out the truth about her daughter, finally.
Well, it’s been so many years so there’s just sort of a reservoir of guilt and the shock happened a while ago. It’s sort of a version of closure to finally realize your daughter is dead. It’s years and years spent trying to find this daughter and then realizing that the daughter is gone forever and yet there’s a seed that’s still there that she has to grapple with. Noah is not there to alleviate her guilt but it’s hard with guilt and with maternal instinct and what she wasn’t able to provide for her daughter and what she’s trying to make up for with this boy. But again, what’s best for the boy? It’s not about Benson, it’s not about Sheila, it’s about this kid. It takes time to process and maturity for these two women. Being mature when another life is really in your hands.
Knowing how beloved the character of Benson is, were you worried at all about the public reaction to your character since you’re coming in as somewhat of an adversary?
It didn’t make me hesitate but I realized, I thought, ‘Oh God, here I go.’ I’m sure people are going to hate me for doing anything that is seemingly not kind to this beloved icon in the television world. I think there’s a huge ownership that people have of her. And I really appreciate that as a character but I think it wouldn’t be interesting if we didn’t have something to fight against with each other. It just wouldn’t make for good TV. But I also think it’s going to create a dilemma for her fans because they have to admit that certain things need to be dealt with. So you sort of see that both of these women have a claim in their own and you can have empathy for both of them. You’re always going to root for Benson, obviously, but if I can stay alive … (Laughs.)
So you would be open to coming back beyond your initial arc?
Absolutely. When you walk on, it’s a well-oiled machine and you’re never waiting on a technicality. And when you do that, you have all this time to actually have more than one take. You come as prepared as possible — and maybe that’s not all the time — but these emotional scenes are not dealt with rashly. They’re not trying to move through them quickly, which as an actor is amazing, especially on television.
How has it changed your relationship with Mariska to work with her on the show?
I read interviews or listen to interviews about actresses and how they bond on the set and you know, I always end up being like the little kid on the outside of the candy store in my mind. I look and I say things like, “Oh, I wish I had that. I want to have that comradery and sisterhood.” It’s like this newfound part to our friendship because it’s that place you go to where you see each other almost every day. It’s just a nice, new sort of depth of a friendship because these scenes are also really emotional and they bring up things that really exist for both of us. To have the safety to be able to talk about it has definitely brought us together.
You mentioned emailing Ali Wentworth about a role on her show. So how are you picking roles today? How are you deciding when to email someone about a role? How did you get to that point?
I think it happened for me later because I grew up very differently in this industry and I got conditioned to waiting and sort of raising my hand and saying, “Pick me, pick me please!” That started to become who I thought I was, and it takes age and maturity and time and I finally just realized not too long ago that I’ve got nothing to lose. Ali didn’t have to write something for me. She could have just said, “Sure, great.” I would have put it out there and maybe nothing happened. I’m not just going to throw out a huge, huge net and call everybody because you want to be discerning, but really if I see a project or hear about a show and really think that I could add to the company or that I could play a part, then I will personally reach out to somebody, but I have to be very willing to commit.
After the last two things I’ve done, I realize I do merit being there. It’s taken years of having a very varied career and not ever really putting actress first because so many other things took precedent. Now I’m starting to realize, “Oh, I don’t have to be afraid of this material. I am as valid as the next person.” I think I used to put everybody else before me. My insecurity would take over and say, “Oh, they’re better than I am, they’re better than I am. I’m supposed to just be happy being funny and famous.” You start to believe those types of tales that run in your head. When people hear that I want to work with them or that I’m willing; I’m sure not all the time, but for the most part, I’ve been met with excitement. When I express my willingness and my desire to be challenged, I think that’s given me some respect that I really just had to claim. You can’t wait. You can’t keep waiting and putting yourself in a place where you feel less than. And that whole “Pick me! Pick me!” [mentality] is just such a demeaning place and it chips away at your confidence. I think I had to start believing in myself before anyone else was going to step forward and start believing in me.
Given that, what would you like to do next?
It hasn’t been announced yet, but I have signed on to a film that I think is going to be filmed in the later fall. Again, it’s another sort of difficult role. It’s with a director that had directed Lipstick Jungle at times and he had worked with me before. We found something, it’s an adaptation of a book. After being on the show, I think I’m now ready to have a show on television again. That sounds kind of cocky and horrible, but I actually feel prepared now in my life to go in full-force again.
Law & Order: SVU airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.
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