Angela Bassett was recently thrown onto the force with regular collaborator Ryan Murphy’s idiosyncratic, thrilling procedural series 9-1-1 on Fox. Having never played a cop before, Bassett — a Golden Globe winner, Oscar nominee and four-time Emmy-nominated actress including this year for her turn on Netflix’s Master of None — did her due diligence, while working to challenge her own preconceptions.
“You just have this idea: ‘OK, you’re running, you’re pulling your gun, you’re tough.’ These cop stereotypes,” laughed Bassett.
Meeting with a real Los Angeles lieutenant, Bassett tapped instead into what was real, and really compelling, about Athena Grant: a true-blue professional who excels on the job, while struggling to a greater extent in her personal life, in the midst of a marriage interrupted.
What was it that got you invested in 9-1-1?
The big draw for me is that I had this history of working with Ryan, Brad [Falchuck] and Tim Minear, over the course of four years with American Horror, and each year, I was always very excited to start. The characters that were written for me were always very intriguing, very different from something I had done before. I know that they appreciate actresses—and mature actresses—those with history in what they bring to the screen. So it’s a real love affair and appreciation. I knew that I was in territory where you’re going to be challenged and pulled and excited about what they’re going to bring to the table. As you go along and establish a career, you want to make sure you’re working with great people, or that it’s great content. Definitely having that history with them, knowing that the work has resonated with audiences consistently, I had faith that it would be a good ride to take.
You’re also a co-executive producer on the series. What impact has that had on your creative experience?
I think in the past, coming on as an actor, you get the script, you read it—”OK, well how can I have some fun with this character? What can I do?” But because I came on as an EP, I was able to have a different sort of relationship this time around, able to be in communication about, does this ring true about my character? Would I find myself in this situation? I was able to do that early on, because the writers were still figuring it out themselves. I’m appreciating having that opportunity.
What were your first steps in finding your way into Athena Grant? What kind of research was involved?
I did meet with a sister who’s been a lieutenant on the force in L.A. for about 28 years, getting the opportunity to sit down with her and really capturing a vibe. To sit with this woman and just have a meal, talk about experiences, about family…If you didn’t know she was a cop and that there was a Glock on her hip at the restaurant, you just wouldn’t imagine. She was so gentle and sweet, and you just wanted to be friends right away. That was really informative and welcome—our day-to-day consultant was able to make that happen. He’s there every day to make sure that I’m doing right in the way that I handle a gun, and I’m safe with it, and I look legitimate.
He made sure that I was able to get with a sister who came up through the ranks when there were very few women coming through the police academy, so you’re talking about those sort of experiences. Also, getting to go out with her in the streets, it was wonderful seeing the camaraderie and the respect between her and the other officers. She was a black female and they were male, various cultures, but to see that regard that they had for her was intriguing, especially knowing that when she came through, she was one of two women coming through the academy. I was imagining what those years must have been like.
Could you describe your understanding of Athena, as a professional and a mother, and what you admire about her? She faces her own share of struggles, in her family life and on the job.
Athena is very accomplished and she’s quite the professional. She sees things as black and white—it’s right or it’s wrong. She thinks quickly about how to settle or neutralize a situation, and it may not be straight by the book. She’s been in probably hundreds of thousands of situations, but she understands human nature, on the job. I really appreciate her smarts as an officer.
At home, she’s a little bit more unstable. She’s soft, she’s motherly, she’s caring and she’s unsure, and I think that’s probably what resonates with audiences for all the characters. In their professional lives, they’ve really got it going on. They know what they’re doing, they’re good at their gig; they’re proven. But when it comes to these interpersonal relationships, you can’t control that, ‘cause your emotion is invested in that and it gets real. It becomes a tangled knot that’s more difficult to process through. The things she thinks she knows, she no longer knows.
Athena’s husband comes out of the closet in the midst of their marriage. The show handles this storyline in a sensitive and compelling way, demonstrating tolerance for individuals in the LGBQ community, while honoring the fact that Athena has experienced a betrayal.
Yeah, playing with the nuance of that was really interesting. Part of it is being accepting and understanding, but the fact is, we were in a relationship—we were husband and wife— and then you sprang it on me. You sprang a person on me, and you’re going all the way in. She’s dealing with embarrassment, she’s been lied to, and now is being disrespected—whether it’s with a man or with a women, it doesn’t matter. You haven’t allowed us to process through this. So it was really a delicate dance, I think, as an actor. You should be honest, communicate, and be your authentic self. But we’re dealing with emotions and we’re dealing with children, and their maturation.
I think there was a line in it that got cut. [Michael] says, “Just follow me. Go with me.” I was like, “But you’re going in a direction that the kids and I are having a hard time following right now.” It’s not that we won’t get there. But it takes time.
In addition to 9-1-1, with all its stunts and high production value, you’ve recently been involved with big-budget projects like Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War. What is it like being dropped into the extreme scenarios involved with a project like this?
A lot of the stunts happen to the firemen, when you have someone jumping off of a precipice, or the whole scenario with the plane that crashed into the ocean. It took about two months to really complete that episode. But with 9-1-1, truly, safety is a high priority. 9-1-1 is emergencies, so we can’t just stand around and talk about it. We really have some high-wire stunt acts going on there. It just takes the time that it takes, and you can’t rush it. It’s been interesting—audiences have really enjoyed it, and we don’t have just one emergency per episode. We have four or five.
What’s your feeling on what differentiates 9-1-1 from other procedural series?
It definitely has the, “Let’s solve the crime, the emergency of the hour,” but multiply that by four. But I think also that these people who seem to have it going on, they have these complex personalities and lives where they don’t have it going on. If you’re on the outside looking at others, just glimpsing their humanity, we think, “They have it together, and I wish I did.” But you can really relate when you see that there’s some times when they misstep, or misunderstand, or are just rejected. It’s very reflective of what goes on in life, and there’s that quirky tone that, I think, Murphy and Falchuk bring to it. But that’s life. You’ve got to laugh to keep from crying sometimes. ‘Quirky’ I guess is the only word I can sort of use to describe [the series’ tone]. It’s not completely action-oriented; it’s not completely procedural. It’s more everyday life drama thrown in there, with comedic elements.
Was there a most challenging or most satisfying aspect of the series for you in Season 1?
Most challenging: those polyester uniforms that don’t stretch or give. That’s a challenge [laughs]. But also, just the family dynamic. It’s a challenge that I welcome, that I relish, that I really enjoy discovering. Whenever the family or the husband was around, or the relationships—this woman who’s fresh out of a marriage and a mature woman, and now she’s back on the scene. What does she want, and how does she go about getting it? And is love still possible? Is it love that she wants, or is it lust that she needs at this time?
Dealing with that and the season ending was a surprise. I’m reading the script like, “What?!” [laughs] I know they’ve been in the writer’s room, so I can’t wait to see how we’re going to delve into this. I was wondering how the characters were going to come together. I had some interfacing with Connie [Britton]’s character, a little bit with Buck, but my main connection’s been with Hen. It seems like I’m going to have a little bit more of a connection with someone else over there in that department, so I’m looking forward to how that’s going to play out.
Athena is an exceptionally strong and complex female character. Is she emblematic in this sense of the roles you like to play?
I have always been attracted to strong, resilient female characters, so I’m really thrilled to have this opportunity to portray her weekly—the complexity of who she is—and just delve into her humanity. A lot of times, I’ve been able to play strong, “boss lady” type characters and I’m filling those shoes, but you just imagine that there’s something more going on. To really unpack it, open it up, and see her going through these different situations and issues, I’m really excited by that opportunity. It’s really fulfilling. It’s been a really great year.
Do you feel good about the amount of roles of this sort being written for women these days, in television and otherwise?
Yeah, I have a movie that I’m looking forward to doing this summer. We’re still at the very beginning of it right now, in the casting process, and it’s not just one female character. It’s many. They start out one way, they go through something, and they change, and I was very, very excited from page one. I hope that bodes well about what’s coming and what’s possible.