JERI RYAN INTERVIEW
By Abbie Bernstein
In ABC’s BODY OF PROOF, which has its second-season finale this Tuesday at 10 PM, Dana Delany’s character Dr. Megan Fox is a neurosurgeon whose life is turned inside-out after she’s involved in a debilitating car accident. Because she cannot perform delicate operations on the living any longer, Megan joins the medical examiner’s office. Jeri Ryan plays Megan’s boss Dr. Kate Murphy, who tries to help Megan reconnect with her humanity.
Speaking on the medical examiner’s office set for BODY OF PROOF, Ryan in person seems happy and outgoing, with an easy laugh. However, Ryan’s fans may find Kate’s self-appointed humanizing task with Megan a bit ironic. After all, Ryan spent four seasons on STAR TREK: VOYAGER as the cyborg-esque, emotionally challenged Seven of Nine, who needed a great deal of assistance in accessing her own feelings. “I think Kate takes it upon herself to try to teach Megan how to be [more open],” Ryan says. “Because socially, [Megan] is very stunted. She’s incredibly brilliant, but she needs some help socially. And I think Kate takes it upon herself to help Megan.”
Did having the experience of playing Seven of Nine, an extreme version of someone in Megan’s position, help at all with playing that aspect of Kate? “Yeah,” Ryan replies. “I think everything that you do helps you sort out a character. In that case, I do think I probably have a little more insight into understanding that character’s quirks, I guess you could say,” she notes with a laugh.
Ryan was born Jeri Lynn Zimmerman in Munich, Germany. The family moved around to a number of U.S. military bases during her childhood, but when she was eleven, her parents made a permanent home in Kentucky. Ryan won a National Merit Scholarship that brought her to study theatre at Northwestern University Chicago, where she earned a Bachelor’s Degree. When she moved to Los Angeles, Ryan soon began working in film and television.
Besides BODY OF PROOF and VOYAGER, Ryan has also been a series regular on the high school drama BOSTON PUBLIC and the legal drama SHARK. She’s delighted that DARK SKIES, the 1997 NBC alien invasion drama that marked her first series regular gig, was finally made available on DVD last year. “I love that,” Ryan says enthusiastically. “I’m pretty excited about that, actually. That was my first series. I loved everything about it. I loved every second of being there. [Series lead] J.T. Walsh became a great friend.” Walsh passed away in 1998. “I still miss him. Amazing actor. It was a terrific show that got a huge sendoff [when it premiered], but then was left to fend for itself a bit. So I’m excited to see it again.”
Ryan is of course very excited about BODY OF PROOF. For one thing, the series has allowed her to return to her love of biological science. “That is one of the huge selling points to me of this show. I’m a huge science geek. So in high school, I was way into dissections and things like that. So I was waiting, before we started shooting – I finally was able to observe an autopsy. I was able to see two of them before we wrapped [first season]. We got to observe and get a tour of the M.E.’s office in Providence. It was fascinating. And I’ve read a lot of science books long before this. There was one, actually one of my favorites, called STIFFS: THE CURIOUS LIVES OF HUMAN CADAVERS. And that’s really good background for this kind of character.”
Autopsies in television dramas are not exactly like real autopsies, Ryan explains. “For obvious reasons, you can’t be completely accurate in your portrayal of an autopsy on television. So before you’ve actually seen one, you don’t realize where all of the differences are between what we’re portraying and what really happens, so this is a very much sanitized and cleaned-up version.. So you just find yourself biting your tongue a lot – ‘But wouldn’t they … No.’ It’s television,” she says with a philosophical laugh.
The difference is not blood splatter, Ryan adds. “There’s not so much splatter. The body is lying on its back, so the blood has all settled, so when you cut, when you make an incision, there’s no blood. Once you get in there and start looking at the organs, there’s a pool of blood, but it’s not going to splatter all over you or anything like that when you’re doing it, unless there’s [another factor involved].”
So what is it that broadcast standards shy away from? “Obviously, a Y incision is not going to look as tidy on a real body. It’s not anywhere near the Y incisions that we use on television. That was the biggest surprise to me, was watching a [real] body be closed up after the autopsy. Because all of the organs have to be removed, including the brain, and then they all go into a plastic bag, including the brain. [The autopsy doctors] take a sample of every organ and keep that in jars just in case they need it. And then they put a long plastic bag [containing the removed organs] into the chest cavity and sew it up with a really good abrupt stitch. That was a little tough. To be honest, that was the hardest part for me, seeing that after the autopsy, because you think, ‘That’s somebody’s loved one.’ And of course, they’re very respectful of bodies and all of that, but in the nature of the work, you can’t be painstaking and do perfect stitches when you’re sewing up the body when you’ve got six more autopsies. So that honestly was the hardest.”
Although Ryan loves playing Kate, she says she wasn’t seeking to play this sort of character – or any other specific role. “My jobs – any time that I set out to find a specific thing, it never pans out. Every time, a series has ended, I’ve said, ‘Okay, I’m going to look for a comedy, a good comedy.’ And I always end up on another drama. It’s just the way it works out, when the script is right and the deal works out and you like the character and you like the writers and you like the show and it feels right.”
Kate has actually been tailored quite a bit to fit Ryan, the actress explains. “The character’s being written for me. She wasn’t really there in the pilot. It was only a couple of scenes and she was an Indian woman in the original script. So I took this character literally based on a meeting that I had for drinks with [series creator/executive producer] Chris [Murphey] and [executive producer] Matt [Gross], and their promises of what this character was going to be and what they wanted to do.”
How does Ryan feel Kate has evolved since then? :”She’s evolved pretty much as I expected her to evolve. I love her. She’s a cool lady. I love that she has evolved. She’s obviously smart and tough to have gotten where she is, but I love that she has a lot of empathy for the people that she works with. So it isn’t just the empathy for the victims and their families; she also has the understanding for her staff. So I love that it’s not constantly finger-wagging and butting heads with everybody. I like that she’s somewhat human about it.”
In other words, Kate often gets to be the show’s voice of sanity? “To an extent. A lot of times, she is that, I think.”
Then again, everybody’s sanity took a bit of a hit at the end of Season One, when Megan discovered that Kate was having a romantic relationship with Megan’s ex-husband Todd (Jeffrey Nordling), a plotline that carried into Season Two.
“They’re best friends, can’t you imagine?” Ryan observes of the story development. “The [second] season opener actually started off right where the season finale left off, so everyone in the office was having to deal with the repercussions of that, because everyone’s feeling it, even the people not directly involved. This is a relationship that started because she met somebody professionally, they happened to hit it off and connect, they fall in love. That guy has a sixteen-year-old daughter [Lacey, played by Mary Mouser] and his ex-wife is Kate’s employee. So not only is there tension in the office, but everyone in the office is having to deal with it, even the people not directly involved. But Kate’s now finding herself pressed into the middle of an already really tense family dynamic, which she did not want to get in the middle of. And part of that includes a sixteen-year-old daughter. Kate is not a mom and had not planned on being a mom, and so that definitely goes into part of the discomfort for everybody and finding their footing again. Of course, ultimately everyone is very professional and will rise above what they have to, but it causes a little bit of tension in some of the cases initially. And I’m really excited that Kate’s more involved in the cases – she’s not just observing, so it’s fun.”
Fortunately for Kate, Ryan says, :”She’s still the boss. Which already was tough. And you can imagine adding the personal element on top of it.”
The first season of BODY OF PROOF was shot on location in Providence, Rhode Island. For its second season, production moved back to home base in Los Angeles, with artful production design finding exteriors that resemble the East Coast. For Ryan, the change in venue has been a blessing. “I could say that it’s paradise to be home and working at home and going to work like a normal person and going home to my family at night. That is heaven.”
Has the tone of the series changed at all? “There’s a lot more humor in it this year, a lot more levity, which is fun. I don’t know if that has anything to do with the move from Providence, I’m sure it doesn’t, but I will say it’s a big relief for me personally to be here, so my tone is a lot lighter,” Ryan laughs. “My son is in school. I have a sixteen-year-old son and a three-year-old daughter. If I wanted to see him, I had to come home on the weekends. If I wanted to see my husband [TC chef Christophe Eme], I had to come home on the weekends. My daughter would come out with me if I had a long chunk where I wasn’t going to get back over a weekend or something like that, and spend time with me with a nanny. But yeah, I was flying back and forth every week and it was rough.”
Being home allows Ryan to join her children in a favorite activity – gardening. “Oh, my God, as much as we can,” she enthuses. “We harvest eleven different kinds of tomatoes and corn and six varieties of beans. The kids planted a garden and plant tomatoes and stuff.”
Children of friends participate as well. “[Executive producer] Chris was there, because he’s got three little ones, and so they came, because it was time to harvest the carrots. And it’s fun for the kids, because we’ve got two varieties of purple carrots, and yellow and white.”
Is Ryan at all concerned that her daughter will reach kindergarten and get into a dispute with her teacher over whether carrots are orange or purple? “Well, she sees orange ones, too, but yeah, we’ve had that conversation. But that’s so much fun. [When] She was twelve months old, she knew what a fava bean was, she was picking peas in our garden, she knew which ones to pick. She knew the tomatoes, even all the different colors – she could pick the proper yellow tomato, the proper green tomato, the proper brown tomato, and she didn’t get confused. So this is really fun. It’s actually how she learned her colors.”
During BODY OF PROOF’s 2011 summer hiatus, Ryan wasn’t idle. “I worked some, I relaxed a lot, I hung out with my family and I played with my daughter. And then I did a Web series called MORTAL KOMBAT LEGACY.” Ryan plays Sonya Blade. “It’s amazing. We did the first season – it was nine episodes, I believe, which is on YouTube. And it was so much fun. Director Kevin Tancharoen is amazing. He’s got a very dark, very gritty vision for the franchise. He really believed in it. And it was really exciting.”
What does Ryan look for in a director? “Well, in addition to making it look cool and setting up cool shots and cool angles, I want somebody who can work with the actors and really tell a story and work with the actors to get great performances, because that’s a real skill.”
MORTAL KOMBAT LEGACY gave Ryan the opportunity to show off her action chops. Was she happy to get back into butt-kicking mode? “Yeah, I really, really was. It was fun. It’s always fun to do different things and action is always fun to do, so yeah, I had a great time.”
Might Kate ever get to … “Kick ass?” Ryan completes the question with a laugh. “I don’t really see Kate throwing down any time soon, but you never know.”
Ryan has had a recurring role on TNT’s series LEVERAGE as expert con woman Tara Cole. Might she return to the character? “I hope so,” Ryan replies. “She was a great character to play and it was so much fun working with those people. I loved it. So I would love to back.”
Ryan is protective of BODY OF PROOF’s Kate. “You do what you can. This character especially, out of all of them, would be incredibly easy to fall into the stereotypical tough-as-nails ice queen woman in power. And I don’t have an interest in playing that, because that’s something that, again, is very stereotypical. And I’ve already done it. And a lot of people have done it. So that’s one thing that I like about Kate, is that she’s very human. But obviously, that’s the biggest struggle, is finding the humanity and keeping it from getting like this. Dana and I are both pretty outspoken about not wanting to get into the catfight territory. And you have discussions with the writers and the producers and you get some things changed, but what doesn’t change, you just play it the way t hat you feel that it should be played. They can write a line that is ostensibly very mean or bitchy or ice-queeny or whatever, and you just play with it. You just make a different choice whenever you can. This doesn’t always work, you can’t always do it, but whenever you can, you definitely do it. These are human beings and they have layers and they have different colors and I want to make sure that that stays in.”
Is there anything else Ryan would like to say about BODY OF PROOF at the time of this interview? “No, I just hope people watch and I really hope people enjoy it.”
Interview By Abbie Bernstein