Pearson star Bethany Joy Lenz on the fun of 'butting heads' with Gina Torres
Bethany Joy Lenz is stepping into the ring with Gina Torres on Pearson.
Premiering Wednesday, the Suits spin-off follows Torres’ Jessica Pearson as she wades into the murky waters of the Chicago political scene as Mayor Bobby Novak’s (Morgan Spector) right-hand woman. Her new job inevitably brings her into conflict with the One Tree Hill alum’s character Keri Allen, the city’s attorney who was responsible for Jessica losing her law license. Needless to say, neither woman is too pleased about having to work together; however, part of the first season’s arc is watching this dynamic grow and evolve, because there are some things they can apparently learn from each other.
Below, EW chats with Lenz about how she relates to Keri and what it was like working with Torres.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What attracted you to playing Keri?
BETHANY JOY LENZ: I loved that she was written as a layered character and wasn’t just one or two dimensions. She’s grouchy, but it’s because of this insecurity, and we get to see her at home and she’s soft. It’s very rare in the TV that I’ve done [for] a script come across and really see that they have time to explore the character with you.
Was there something in the script or her personality that you connected with on a personal level?
There was! I did connect with Keri right away because I understand what it’s like to be in a high-stress work environment where time is money, everybody’s counting on you to keep things moving, and you have to make strong choices and be able to defend your choices if the people around you disagree with those choices. You also have to be willing to change your mind on a dime if you realize you’re wrong. So, there’s a lot of emotions and ego juggling in the performing world, as far as being an actor, and Keri deals with the exact same thing at her work. I know what it’s like to be just a bulldozer and go in and plow through and that’s what Keri does. And I know what it’s like to go home and shut the door of your apartment or your house and just go, “God, I’m carrying so much. I’m tired, but everybody thinks I’m a bulldozer. Does anybody wanna come have my back?” Boy, I really do relate to her.
On the flipside, what is the most challenging part of the role?
The most challenging part of the role has been the legal stuff. It’s like getting hired to play a surgeon and you’re saying words that you’ve never heard before. Getting comfortable in the office space, that’s always a challenge, too, because she’s always moving, she’s always on the go. Even when she’s in her office, she’s almost never sitting still, so I’ve gotta know what’s in every drawer and what file to pull from where and kind of memorizing her landscape and her apartment so that I can go in without thinking twice while I’m saying the words and emoting what needs to come out. Putting all of those layers together has been a challenge. Hopefully, I rose to the occasion.
By the end of production, did you feel like you’d gotten a hang of it all?
Yes, for sure. I think it took like three or four episodes and then it started to feel like home.
What was it like working with Gina in the first season?
Working with Gina has been an incredible experience. I’ve learned so much from communicating. Watching the way she talks with directors, the cast, and the crew members, she’s such a class act. I feel really blessed to be a fly on the wall when I walk into a scene and just watch the way she interacts and deals with things. I’m such a Jersey girl and I’ll just say exactly what’s on my mind and I spit it out there, and if you have better argument, tell it to me and I’ll change my mind as soon as I realize I’m wrong, but in the meantime I’m going to go to the mat with you. But she has perfected this effortless way of communicating and making sure everyone feels heard and that their opinions are valued and at the same time being able to communicate her own needs. It’s truly a wondrous skill. And I’ve learned a lot about acting. She’s a great actress and she’s so fun to play with, and we have a really great rapport. I just love her.
Were you a fan of Suits before getting the script?
I knew about Suits and I liked the show, but I have an 8-year-old and only so many hours in a day, so I hadn’t really watched it consistently. So, I was really excited for the opportunity, once I was cast on Pearson, to have an excuse to sit down and really binge-watch a bunch of Suits. I like the pacing. I really like the actors. And I just thought it was always really smart. I like the sleek, sexiness of it. It’s got a very particular flavor that you can’t find in every ice-cream shop, so I was happy to dive in.
In the backdoor pilot, a lot was made of the fact that Keri was born and raised in Chicago. How does that affect what she’s willing to do for Mayor Bobby Novak?
There’s a lot of loyalty in Chicago. So much of Chicago politics is centered on who’s loyal to whom and for what reasons. Being a Jersey girl myself and growing up around a lot of blue-collar people — my dad wasn’t blue-collar; my dad is a rehab counselor, but we were not wealthy by any means — I understand that world and I feel that I can relate to Keri in that way, and I see that in Chicago, her loyalty is really, really in her blood. Once somebody makes their way into her heart as a friend, as a confidant, as somebody she’s like, “I’ll go to the mat for you. I believe in you.” It’s really hard to break that off. She really, really believes in Bobby, and she believes in herself, so she’s willing to do whatever she needs to without compromising, well sometimes to her own detriment, in order to help the people she believes in succeed.
There’s tension between her and Jessica. How does she feel about Jessica coming to work for the mayor and how their relationship develops?
Keri’s incredibly frustrated Jessica has been brought in for several reasons. The first being, Keri was successful in getting Jessica Pearson disbarred. Having somebody come in to work for you who you know doesn’t like you because you disbarred them does not create a super healthy working environment. That’s one of the reasons.
Another reason is that Jessica has been brought in by the mayor for some unknown reason and that complicates her relationship with the mayor because there’s a trust there that has been destabilized because she realizes he’s got something else going that she doesn’t know about. Here’s this woman that technically now works for Keri but actually won’t listen to anything Keri has to say, won’t do what she is asking her to do. Jessica goes rogue and does her own thing all the time, creating more of a mess for Keri — well, Keri thinks she’s cleaning up messes, but Jessica is actually fixing things.
Having to wrestle with another strong individual who’s got good ideas, who’s very capable, and stubborn as well, they’re butting heads a lot and Keri doesn’t really know what to do because she can’t fire her. So, what’s she going to do? She has to find a way to make it work. Throughout the course of the season, that’s something that we see — the way that these two people connect with each other when they find out that they need each other and that need creates an opening for vulnerability and loyalty, which again, is something that’s very important for Keri.
There’s a moment in the trailer where Jessica says Keri has a lot to learn about being a lawyer. Can we expect Jessica to help Keri become a better lawyer?
It’s true, it really does set up part of what their relationship is going to be. Keri says, “You have a lot to learn about the way things are done in Chicago,” which is true. Jessica does. And Jessica says, “You have a lot to learn about being a lawyer,” which is true. Keri is 33 and she’s in a position she was never expected to be in so soon and has a lot of responsibility, and it’s a lot to juggle. She’s doing her best, and she’s doing quite well, but yes, there is a lot for Keri to learn about things that aren’t always so black and white.
Pearson premieres Wednesday, July 17 at 10 p.m. on USA Network.