The precinct police station is a major set for RIZZOLI & ISLES, the TNT series now in its third season, Tuesdays at 10 PM, adapted by Janet Tamaro from Tess Gerritsen’s mystery novels. Jane Rizzoli, played by Angie Harmon, is a Boston police homicide detective, who is best friends with police coroner Dr. Maura Isles, played by Sasha Alexander.
It’s not surprising to see that Harmon looks at home on the precinct set even when she’s not in character, nor that she has a comfortable, bantering relationship in real life with Lee Thompson Young, who plays Rizzoli’s partner Detective Barry Frost. The two actors appear to delight in teasing one another while helping visiting journalists explore the realistic-looking workplace where investigations are launched and deductive strategies are discussed.
Rizzoli is hardly Harmon’s first stab at playing someone who solves murders. She also played New York Assistant District Attorney Abbie Carmichael on three seasons of LAW & ORDER (plus appearing as the character on episodes of LAW & ORDER: SVU), as well as headlining a season of WOMEN’S MURDER CLUB.
With TNT airing LAW & ORDER reruns on a regular basis, it’s natural to wonder whether the network hoped that its viewers would be eager to see more of Harmon. The actress says viewers certainly aren’t seeing her in a similar role with Rizzoli.
“I think Abbie and Jane are dramatically different,” Harmon explains, “not only in appearance, but also in their ideals and jobs and who they are and what they want and how they picture society and what their views are for it. Plus, it’s been over twelve, thirteen years since I was on [LAW & ORDER].”
Still, Harmon allows that she does like playing women involved in law enforcement, though she’d like to do many more kinds of characters as well.
“Obviously, I love it and I love these characters. I love playing a strong, empowered woman,” says Harmon. “But as an actor, I’d love to do a musical, I’d love to be in a Western, I’d love to play a crack addict, I’d love to play a prostitute – anything. That’s my job. Whichever works for you, works for me. That’s our job. We get to pretend. And I think it takes a certain kind of person who wants to do that for a living. Because it isn’t all easy, it isn’t all just, ‘Woo-hoo, and then we went on set and we had a blast!’ I mean, we did a scene [in Season Two] and I came out shaking and went to my trailer and threw up, and that’s the first time that’s ever happened to me as an actor, and it was great. It didn’t feel really great before, but while I was throwing up, which is the most horrible experience, I was like, ‘This is great!’” Harmon makes a retching sound, non-graphically re-enacting the mixture of physical wretchedness and emotional euphoria. “’I love my job!’ Which is very odd and off-putting,” she observes with a laugh. “But it’s like, this man, who works at the grocery store, I don’t know if he feels that [enthusiastic] way about his job.”
What got Harmon so emotionally ramped up that she was literally sick from playing the scene? “[It was the scene when] Hoyt comes back,” she says. “And it just snuck up on me. Jane does something, and at the end of [the scene], it was a place that I had to go to and gladly went. As an actor, I doubt myself all the time and there was a moment where I was, ‘Hang on, I’m vomiting. This is great. I might be able to [continue as an actor] for awhile.’ I hope after fifteen, twenty years, I’m finally hitting my stride,” she laughs.
As RIZZOLI & ISLES is now in its third season, has it gotten easier to play the characters? Harmon says she thinks so. “You’ve already established the characters, you pretty much know the outline, who they are, their style, physically what they look like,” says Harmon. “Lee and I were just talking about it, that [by second season, it] always feels like just a comfy pair of pajamas that you’re putting on.”
“Or in my case, a well-tailored suit,” Young quips.
Harmon laughs. “Yeah. I think [in second season], you started to see cracks in the armor, if you will,” adds Harmon. “You see [Rizzoli’s] vulnerability, that she’s a person, you see that she doesn’t have all the answers, that she needs help. And equally so, it isn’t just her running the department. Sometimes Korsak [played by Bruce McGill] has the answers that Jane doesn’t. Sometimes Frost has the answers that they have to come to him for. So I think that that has sort of been a fun thing to play because, yes, it’s fun to be the hero and play all of that great stuff, but it’s also fun as an actor to be able to play the needs and the cares and the woes and the wants and the vulnerability and all those things that we as human beings are made of. It’s not like all of us just have it together all the time, so as lifelike as it can be, that’s when you know that you’re doing a great job and that people are going to relate to it, because it’s a person.”
The central relationship between the characters Rizzoli and Isles gives the series its title. How much of that friendship is due to the women simply liking each other and how much is due to the fact that each helps the other do her job better, something that is very important to both of them?
“I think it’s a mixture of both, really,” Harmon replies. “We’ve set the show up to where they have to depend on each other in order to achieve that common goal, which is get the bad guy.”
Harmon cites her time researching real police detectives. “When I was in Boston, you could see the women [police detectives] relate to each other – as much as they are in that man’s world, it was just smarter to have someone that you can relate to emotionally and talk to and get and figure out and know what they’re going through, and if they say [one thing] and mean something else, you’re going to pick up on it,” she says. “I think it was just, basically, the smartest thing to do is have a person that I’m most like [to work with], and we’re going to work together. In the show, they took that and obviously blossomed it into a fantastic friendship with two people who are completely opposite. And that just makes fun viewing, that’s just a good time, being able to laugh at each other. And I think that’s who we all are – we all have friends like that, we all have people who we work with like that. You’re going to gravitate toward one [individual] more than the other, a few more than the others.”
Young adds, “This is really a treat for me as an actor, to watch Rizzoli and Isles playing off of each other, and I’ve developed this analogy in my mind that it’s like watching Charlie Parker and Miles Davis having a little improv session, because their styles are so different.”
“They’re almost like polar opposites,” he adds. “And yet they find this rhythm together so they can play back and forth, and it’s like a master class. I feel like INSIDE THE ACTOR’S STUDIO every day. I’m like,’ “Wow, how did she get there?’ It’s really a pleasure to watch the chemistry between the two [Harmon and Alexander].”
Harmon laughs, tickled by her colleague’s praise. “I paid him to say that,” she says with a laugh. “No, he’s awesome. I think we all enjoy playing our characters and we all love being here and I think when it becomes that, you’re just less guarded and it’s just easier.”
When Harmon was doing research with the police in Boston, she says she saw a combination of acceptance and differentiation when it came to the women officers and detectives.
“It depends on what the situation is,” Harmon explains. “For example, the men still call [the women] ‘kids,’ and [the women] have been on the force just as long as [the men] have. ‘Ah, she’s a good kid.’ It’s that kind of thing. But also, it’s just that kind of typical workplace. You find your niche. I think the women who are there are gifted. They all have one common goal and, when it comes down to it, you put your personalities out of the way whether you get along or not and just get in there and get the bad guy and do what you need to do. I found that they were all treated equally, but then you hear, ‘Yeah, she’s a good kid.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I wonder, when they hear that, do they get angry? What do they feel – is it a term of endearment?’ You know what I mean? I don’t know, because I was there for a short time, I was only there for three or four days.”
Certainly no one calls Jane Rizzoli “kid.”
“Not to her face, no,” Harmon observes with a laugh. “I think we’ve set it up here – the reason that she’s the only woman in the Homicide Unit is because she’s gifted in what she does. The relationship that she has with Korsak and Frost is because these two are so fantastic at what they do, they’re good people, they’re good down to their core, they’re not full of it and they’re not playing games and they’re not trying to screw her out of credit or a job.” She says women are just as capable of being sexist towards men as the reverse, so behaviors both positive and negative depend on the individual, not the gender. “ So I think it’s just all a balancing act.”
How do Harmon and Young describe the relationship between their two characters?
“I know from Frost’s perspective, there’s a respect that comes from having to prove something,” Young says. “I think being a young guy, to have passed the Detectives Exam and also being an African-American guy, and also, having the weakness of being nauseous around the bodies, people questioning whether or not he’s a good detective or he deserves his job, and having to prove himself and seeing Jane as a woman in the Homicide Unit who has proven herself and gained their respect, understanding her journey, there comes a camaraderie in that that’s even more than just the normal police camaraderie. When we first started playing the characters, that was where I based the strength of our relationship. But then over time, as I got to know Angie better and as Frost got to know Jane better, there’s also an appreciation of just the basic view of life, the sense of humor and the way that we just approach doing our job and approach our friends. So it’s really, I think, a very strong relationship. And it’s fun for me, because you’ve always seen those buddy cop movies, where they have the partner and I feel like I’m living that, and it is an amazing feeling.”
Harmon elaborates on the difference between Rizzoli’s relationship with current partner Frost and erstwhile partner Korsak. “Korsak and Jane have that bond because of the situations that they’ve been through,” says Harmon. “Frost and Jane, they have a bond because they have a solid friendship and they’re similar and they get each other and they’re funny. And it’s exactly what we said. They sort of step back and look at the situation and sort of analyze it and then go in and operate accordingly.”
While there is a great deal of humor in RIZZOLI & ISLES, the cases are serious business and the crime scenes are often downright grisly. How easy is it to maintain a tonal balance?
“Well, it’s just like we do it in life, really,” Harmon says. “Yes, they’re standing in an incredibly grotesque and gruesome scene, but they’re also cracking jokes and talking about what they’re trying to get their kids to eat for dinner and, ‘Are we going to get this done by tomorrow morning, because I’ve got to be awake enough to take them to school.’ It’s that kind of thing. Life doesn’t have a ‘censor’ button and I think the detectives there, or any detective, really, would have to find some sort of shut-off button or filter that allows you to, be standing in a horrible crime scene and still be able to look at your friends and be like, ‘All right, so …’ And I think that’s where it becomes subconscious, because it’s just like, you would be funny in the grocery store, they’re funny at a crime scene. Because that’s what’s normal for you, that’s what’s normal for them. So it’s just their life, and then we just have the beauty of being able to be in these roles to play them. That’s really all it is.”
Related: RIZZOLI & ISLES interviews with Bruce McGill, Jordan Bridges and executive producer Janet Tamaro
Related:Interview with RIZZOLI & ISLES actress Lorraine Bracco and Sasha Alexander
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Article: RIZZOLI & ISLES interviews with Angie Harmon & Lee Thompson Young