Mary McDonnell on ‘Major Crimes’

The star of TNT's new spinoff from "The Closer" tells us what we can expect from Captain Raydor.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

When Mary McDonnell joined the cast of “The Closer,” she seemed like a thorn in Brenda Johnson’s side. But when “The Closer” ended and Kyra Sedgwick's Brenda departed, McDonnell became the star of the spinoff series, “Major Crimes.”

Captain Raydor is now heading up Major Crimes and we spoke with her when she met with the Television Critics Association about her new show.

CraveOnline: What are you excited to figure out in "Major Crimes"?
Mary McDonnell: What I’m really, really interested in, to be perfectly honest, I’m very interested, as James is, we share an interest in the justice system. In the innocence of all Americans and their right to be heard and scene, and to find out the facts and to find ways of moving things. I’m interested in all of that but as a woman, I’m interested in a woman who at mid-life could suddenly have her job switch in such a dramatic manner at a point in her life, or she could be going to take over as head security of Staples Center, or she could be in fact if she decided to retire.

I think that that’s happening to more and more women in my generation where at this point, we are being offered even bigger jobs at a point in time where the generation before us was retiring. We’re going deeper into it and I think she’s going to have to also, because she’s been Internal Affairs for so long, the original detective in her has had to be put aside for quite a while because she had to view the detectives.

She had to view their way. That was her job. So suddenly, whoever the detective is inside of Raydor that was her original impulse is going to need to resurface. I’m excited to see who that is because I don’t know yet.
CraveOnline: Have you gained any insight into authority from playing characters in law enforcement or President Roslin from "Battlestar Galactica"?
Mary McDonnell: Yes, I have gained a bit. I shouldn’t say a lot. I don’t mean at all to sound arrogant but I have learned a lot about power, authority and the difficulty of the female in that position and the absolute necessity of the female in that position to assume that there will be a certain demonization from the culture, that there will be certain obstacles that one would rather not have there but they will be there nonetheless.

And also, it’s really tricky navigating one’s feminine energy in some of those positions. So I’m hoping with Captain Raydor to find a way to define her and open her up. Whereas in Internal Affairs, because you can’t be intimate with anyone, you’re investigating all of them, you don’t get close to the police. You get close to your staff, but you don’t get close to the cops. It is a big change.
CraveOnline: Did you pick up anything from Kyra Sedgwick about being the lead of an ensemble?
Mary McDonnell: Yeah. This is what I will say about spending the last couple years working by her side and observing her extraordinary commitment. I picked up a lot about what it takes to be ready day in and day out, to have that kind of energy going on around you and to maintain generosity. That’s what I really loved about watching her work and that’s what I hold dear.
CraveOnline: Are you more careful with things like speeding, running red lights, etc?
Mary McDonnell: Actually, I’m less because I figure I’ll get off now.
CraveOnline: Raydor seemed to come to admire Brenda.
Mary McDonnell: Yes, yes indeed. Yes, she did.
CraveOnline: So when you become the detective, will you loosen up maybe?
Mary McDonnell: Well, I would think that the requirements of the job, like I was saying before, are going to ask for some different parts of Captain Raydor. It’s just a different job so it’s going to bring up different things. She did come to admire Brenda. She admired Brenda before she started because she’s very aware of who she was, but her job required [objectivity].

She spent a lot of time protecting Brenda from being booted. She could have been in deeper trouble much earlier on. So learning a balance is going to be the interesting mystery about her. She’s going to have to be a very honest person, but right now, there’s so many eccentric aspects to her character so it’s going to be really fun to find out how they work out and where they work out. Who she becomes friends with and what it all becomes.
CraveOnline: Are you ready for another seven years?
Mary McDonnell: Yes. Yes. Or 10 or 20.
CraveOnline: Was the transition easier since you’d been around “The Closer” for a while, than if you were starting a new series?
Mary McDonnell: Well, the dynamic of an evolution of something really great was what was fascinating about it. It had a three or four part evolution. It started as an idea, an idea was brought to James [Duff] and I heard a little bit about it, but we were trying to do something else together.

It was all over the place but then eventually it sort of went like this. Then the dynamic of evolving her from antagonist to protagonist, this to that has been really one of the joys of working as an actor. You do not get to do this very often, to do a grand pivot slowly. The writing has been completely I think almost perfect in not asking of the actor to do something that is unrealistic or asking the audience to feel something that they’re not ready for. So there’s been sort of a beautiful organic nature to it.
CraveOnline: Over how many episodes do you think it takes before we feel like Raydor is the protagonist and she’s on the team?
Mary McDonnell: I don't know. I would never have the objectivity looking at myself. It seems to me that there are different moments from the very beginning that you may be able to see her that way, even if it’s fleeting. It feels to me like a collective thing that starts to happen at the end of “The Closer” where you start to see this woman open up to who she may be. Then I think people will come to that feeling at different points.
How does her view of the justice system change when she works on the law enforcement side?
Mary McDonnell: It’s an interesting thing to play because it splits the broad focus, learning how that becomes the singular character focus. It sort of stretches your maturity as a performer to understand. The self-involvement necessary to play a full blown character has to do with a lack of self-involvement in a broader sense. So it’s just a wonderful thing to explore.