There are plenty of times when Kyra Sedgwick, who plays the Georgia-born detective Brenda Leigh Johnson at the center of TNT’s hit police drama The Closer, will purr ”Thank you” in that distinctively sultry, Southern-fried voice of hers and actually mean it.
This isn’t one of those times.
Inside a large L.A. sound studio, Brenda’s underling Detective Lieutenant Provenza (Police Academy‘s G.W. Bailey) is trying to apologize to colleagues for abandoning a crime scene to catch a baseball game when Brenda hits him with an acid-tipped version of her now-signature phrase. ”Lieutenant Provenza, thank ewwwe for that apology…which was short, sweet, and entirely insufficient.”
A few days after she laid down the law in the squad room, costar J.K. Simmons — who plays Brenda’s chrome-domed boss and ex-lover Will Pope — can’t help but appreciate the subtleties that Sedgwick injects into her portrayal of the quirky Southern belle. ”Her ‘Thank you’ is like an aloha,” he explains, laughing. ”It can mean a thousand things.”
And for nearly 5.5 million viewers, it’s reason enough to keep their sets tuned to TNT again this summer. A year ago, the drama’s bow set a record for scripted basic-cable-series premieres and was seen by 7 million viewers. Now the show — about the CIA-trained Johnson, who supervises a resentful, mostly male LAPD homicide unit while using her eccentric charms to wheedle the truth out of perps — is back for a second season (premiering June 12 at 9 p.m.). While it makes the perfect companion to TNT’s rerun-heavy lineup of procedurals like Law & Order and Without a Trace, the network (surprise!) insists The Closer is more than just a cut-and-dried cop series. ”We sell it as a character drama,” says Steve Koonin, exec VP & COO for TNT and TBS. ”We loved the idea that the shows resolved themselves [in each episode] but were smart and accessible, and [that] the stars would become our viewers’ friends.”
Yet it was Koonin’s desire for an original lead-out from those Law & Order reruns that prompted a meeting with James Duff, a jovial writer who’d worked on far less violent projects like The WB’s teen-centric Felicity and Popular. Together with Nip/Tuck executive producers Greer Shephard and Michael Robin, Duff turned a lifelong fascination with the CIA — his uncle was the Air Force’s chief of internal intelligence in Vietnam — into a pitch about a brilliant female interrogator who can extract confessions that stick. ”I thought it would be a nice switcheroo to have the Southern belle who is also pretty smart,” says Duff, a Texas native with a twang of his own. ”Brenda uses it to her advantage. People automatically downplay you when you have a Southern accent. I know that from experience.”
The key was finding the right person who could utter those thank ewwwes with aplomb and force. Enter Sedgwick, the 20-year film vet (Something to Talk About, Phenomenon) and Manhattan native who had, incidentally, been offered roles on procedurals before. ”I didn’t think I would be good at it,” she confesses. ”I ran screaming in the other direction.” What’s more, she wasn’t much interested in a West Coast gig that would take her away from the New York home she shares with her husband, actor Kevin Bacon, and their two children, Travis and Sosie Ruth. But that was before she read Duff’s script and immediately fell in love with the brainiac divorcée with a near-debilitating weakness for high-calorie treats and frumpy floral attire. ”I think [the clothes] come from JCPenney and Sears, but I love it and don’t want it to be different,” says Sedgwick, who stays true to her character by keeping See’s Candies in her trailer (though it seems unlikely that the petite 40-year-old would ever touch the stuff). ”She’s not going to be wearing the butt-crack jeans or the suits. She’s a fish out of water. And that makes her look different.”