Interview: 'The Chicago Code' star Jennifer Beals
On FOX's excellent new cop drama "The Chicago Code" (which premieres Monday at 9 p.m.), Jennifer Beals plays the newly-installed superintendent of the Chicago PD, Teresa Colvin. Colvin is relatively young for the job, and a woman - a woman who looks like Jennifer Beals, no less - and so she gets very little respect from certain corners of the rank-and-file, and from some of the crooked politicians she's trying to get rid of. But they underestimate this tough, smart, reform-minded woman at their own peril.
Similarly, if you're still thinking of Beals as the 19-year-old in the off-the-shoulder sweatshirt from "Flashdance" (still by far her highest-profile role), you may be surprised by just how good she is at the center of this ambitious drama, which comes from "The Shield" creator Shawn Ryan.
At press tour, I talked with Beals about her research for the role, and about her own view of the Chicago PD as a girl growing up in that city.
The first thing I’m curious about is the accent. Did you ever have one?
I didn’t. I worked really hard not to have one. So trying to acquire one was a very interesting task. And the good thing was that I had certain sounds in my head already, though the accent that I chose was not one that I was that familiar with. It’s more an area of town that I certainly didn’t grow up in. But it was interesting. It was a really interesting challenge. And then certainly a great entrée into the character and the rhythm and the way of thinking and behaving.
Why choose that area as opposed to where you were raised?
Because I don’t think the Superintendent would have come from Lincoln Park. There are certain areas of the city really that produce more police officers. It’s a fascinating thing. And when you ride with different cops, there is a similar sound that arises. Not everywhere of course but every single area where we did our ride-alongs, you heard this kind of voice.
What were those like? How many ride-alongs did you go on?
I went on several. I had to balance my research between what I would have done as a cop on the street with what I needed to do as an administrator. So, you know, not only did I spend time on the street but then I spent time trying to interview different deputy superintendents and trying to work out exactly logistically, what do I do during the day? You know, I’m in charge of 4 different bureaus. What does my day look like? How is my day organized? Who are the people around me who help me accomplish this task and what is the order of reporting?
And when you were out on the street, were there any particular memorable incidents, or did you happen to wind up on some fairly quiet tours?
My first one was very quiet but my last one wasn't. I was concerned about the first one because the night before there had been several murders, and my husband was very worried about me, and I’m sure in the back of my mind I was worried about me. But then by the time I got to the last one it just felt very normal. Like all of it had been normalized. And John (the Chicago cop who took her on the ride-alongs) and I were the first to respond to a guy who had been shot, and he was basically starting to bleed to the state of being unconscious on someone’s stoop. So I got to watch them set up the crime scene from the very beginning and trace the trail of blood to try to figure out exactly where he had been shot and where the shooter would have been and trying to locate the shell casings. And I said to them, "Look, I can do this, because on New Year’s Eve, my dad and other people in our neighborhood would shoot their guns off at midnight. So in the morning the big game was for the kids to go out in the neighborhood and find shell casings." So this was like a very familiar thing. We didn’t have Easter egg hunts, we had, "Go look for the shell casings. Isn’t that fun?" And so I said, "I can do this. Just give me a flashlight." So I helped them on the crime scene.
But it was interesting how my feelings had changed and how I wasn’t afraid at all, for better or for worse, and just being able to take in the people around me and take in what was happening and take in how the police officers were dealing with people and dealing with each other. And there’s a lot of gallows humor that goes on, you know, to keep them sane. And it was really, really interesting and crucial. And I miss the ride-alongs, quite frankly. Like, I would text John and say "I think I need another ride-along," just because I was jonesing to go be on the street, even though my job wouldn’t necessarily take me on the street as often as say, you know, Jarek Wysocki.
Do you think Teresa misses that?
I think so to a certain degree. I think she probably misses the simplicity of it. She misses the very clear camaraderie. "If I have your back, then you’re in, you’re okay." And the clear simplicity of how you deal with the street as opposed to how you deal with politics.
There’s that scene in the re-shot version of the pilot where you’re at Grant Park walking up to Jarek and you’ve got this big smile on your face like, "Gosh, I just love being at a crime scene," as opposed to dealing with the other things.
Yeah. And trying to connect the two and trying to help him see that things are connected. These things are all connected.
Now, you’ve played a lot of strong women and you had access to some police administrators but there has not been a female superintendent on the Chicago Police Department before.
Where, if anywhere, have you drawn inspiration from?
Well, a lot of things you just have to make up, you know? So mostly from my imagination, and doing interviews with female police officers and as high up as I could get where there are women but then making up things. And the name just jumped out of my head because I’m very tired but there is a woman who was the President of Chile who first started out as the Secretary of Defense. (After the interview, Beals remembered it was Michelle Bachelet.) And then she became President and was a fantastic President. And I had the opportunity to meet her in Washington when the U.N. Foundation invited me to a seminar. And it was really interesting to watch her because she was very clear minded, very determined and yet still very feminine. And the thought that she would be supported as first the Secretary of Defense and then as President was really interesting to me.
Well, how much of the push back against Teresa do you think is related to her gender, as opposed to her youth or just her trying to change things?
I think it’s a combination. Being a woman certainly informs a lot of how she’s treated and especially how’s she’s treated when she makes a mistake. But there’s also the newness of the job and I think primarily what she’s trying to accomplish. Like, "How dare you with that combination of things you have going on? You try not only to clean up corruption in politics and clean up corruption in the street, but how dare you take on the Chicago Police Department? Corruption within the department itself. Was this the way that things are done? And how dare you try to change that?"
In the press conference, you talked about your own take of growing up in Chicago and the (political) machine and the corruption. Was that something that you or your family was exposed to directly at any point?
No, not at all. Not that I’m aware of certainly, no. But you just sort of take it for granted that’s how the city runs, you know? You take it for granted and in a perverse way, there’s a certain amount of pride that goes on in the city. That that means there’s a certain amount of cunning that’s involved. And Chicago is a very complicated place. Cunning is revered and integrity is revered. And beauty is revered and a certain brazenness is revered. So there’s all these sort of dualities that are going on within the same city in ways that I’m not familiar with in other cities.
Have you ever played a cop before? I’m trying to think from your filmography.
No I don’t think so, gosh.
So obviously you did the ride-alongs, and you had these Chicago cops around on the set...
Yeah, and you’re also having to filter the information they give you. The riding on the street is very clear. I know that the cops I rode with toned down their language around me and were very respectful around me, because I know the stories Jason came back with were hilariously different than some of my stories. But you get to the truth by watching their behavior in moments that are adrenalized. And when you’re talking to a bureaucrat, you’re having to filter through that information. When you ask point blank, if there’s any sexual abuse within their ranks - particularly when there’s only 25% of women - and how do you handle that when somebody looks you in the eye and says there is none? You just know that that’s not possible. You know whenever there are 10,000 people, no matter what the job is, there’s going to be some kind of crime especially involving women. When the women only comprise 25%, of course something is going to happen. So you’re just having to go, "Okay, I’m not going to get that answer. We’re just going to have to know it and move on." So it’s interesting trying to get to the truth.
And you come with a higher degree of recognizability than Jason or Matt do at this point. I’m wondering if that at any point in these ride-alongs that came up, like, "What is she doing here?"
It hasn’t. You dress as a cop when you’re there. You pull your hair back. It’s regulation. You have your hat on and your vest on and people are focused on other things. They’re not there looking at who you are. I mean, maybe if Oprah rode up, it might be a different situation. But people are worried that their son is going to bleed to death on the porch because he’s been shot. Other people are worried if they're going to identify the shooter. Other people have their own real visceral worries and concerns at that moment that don’t really have to do with your identity.
And given that you are from Chicago, do you feel either any sense of pride or any sense of pressure that the show has Chicago in the title?
I don’t feel any pressure because, you know, my Chicago will be different from Shawn’s Chicago. It’ll be different from Tim (Minear)’s Chicago, and it’s their story. I’m just there to help serve their story and I do feel a tremendous amount of pride being from Chicago and I always have. And I think in some ways that informs my character - that she really loves the city and she wants to do a good job and help the city, because the city is like the only child she ever has or ever will have. That is her family. Those are her people.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org