Right now, no woman on television is tougher, smarter, leaner, meaner, grittier, or, well, prettier than Carey Lowell’s assistant district attorney Jamie Ross manages to be every week on Law and Order. The latest cast change in a series famous for its perpetual cast changes, Lowell’s Ross has definitely made her presence felt: Her sensible-heel pump has already poked a corpse or two with police detectives Lennie Briscoe (Jerry Orbach) and Reynaldo Curtis (Benjamin Bratt) and, in one of the new TV season’s most memorable hours, she’s gone toe-to-toe with a creepy old judge who was sexually harassing her.
Meet Carey Lowell at work and she’ll give you a steely smile and a bone-popping handshake. Since the actress was in the midst of wrapping a scene for an upcoming episode, she may still have been in character — Jamie Ross is a hand cruncher if ever there was one, a former defense lawyer whose prickly partnership with assistant DA Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) is giving NBC’s 10 p.m. Wednesday-night show a jolt in both the ratings and the quality of the solid, seven-year-old series.
”She brings adult beauty, intelligence, and sex appeal” to the show, says executive producer Dick Wolf, the bluff L&O boss. And Waterston adds that her arrival ”hasn’t caused so much as a hiccup in the rhythm of the show.”
At the moment, however, everyone’s professionalism is being tested. Law and Order is filmed in a Manhattan studio located next to a roller rink. In the scene being shot, Ross is busy glaring at a murder suspect. Just as Ross and McCoy are about to offer the accused a stiff first-degree-manslaughter deal, some jaunty organ music from the roller rink interrupts. ”You could dance to this music, it’s so loud!” yells a sound technician. Breaking out of their no-nonsense adversarial characters, Lowell holds her arms out to Waterston, as if offering a quick tango; both laugh. A minion is dispatched to silence the music.
Lowell, 35, uses the break to grab a handful of Smarties from a big bowl just off camera before striding briskly toward her dressing room (”Don’t you think this skirt is too tight for a DA?”), where she describes the wayward arc of her career and her own life as a smartie: a youth spent everywhere from Long Island, N.Y., to Libya (thanks to a peripatetic father who was an academic); college in Boulder, Colo., and at New York University, focusing on Russian literature. (Trust me, Lowell knows more about the Vladimir Nabokov translation of Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time than you want to hear.) Then, a fluke: modeling. ”I was at NYU, and it was a quick way to make some money and travel.” Signed by the Ford agency in 1979, she did ad campaigns for Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, and Almay. ”It wasn’t an era of supermodels, so I wasn’t a celebrity. That helped me make a transition to film, because I didn’t have a model’s image to live up or down to.”
And indeed, film work followed, but ”[most of the] parts I’ve had have been so brief. Sleepless in Seattle was, like, 60 seconds [she was Tom Hanks’ deceased wife] and Love Affair was, like, 45 seconds.” (She was who in that? ”Does anyone care?” she shrugs.) Go rent a copy of Leaving Las Vegas and look for the scene with a platinum-blond-wigged Lowell as a bank teller.