NEAL CONAN, host: Twenty years ago, audiences were blown away by Helen Mirren's portrayal of Jane Tennison on the British TV series "Prime Suspect," an ambitious police detective who faces sexism in the office. In the first episode, the head of the murder squad dies suddenly of a heart attack, and she decides to seize the opportunity.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) Hello, Jane.
HELEN MIRREN: (as Jane Tennison) This may not be the right time, sir, but under the circumstances, I'm not quite sure when would be the right time. I'm offering to take over the murder investigation. I know DCI Shepherd was at a crucial stage of the investigation.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) Inspector, I have to see his wife this afternoon. Don't expect me to make any decisions now. This is not the right time.
MIRREN: (as Jane Tennison) When is the right time?
CONAN: Now, "Prime Suspect" has been adapted for American prime time with Maria Bello as the star. It's now set in New York. Her character has a different name, Jane Timoney, but the same problem with sexism.
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MARIA BELLO: (as Jane Timoney) I know it's hard to talk about it right now, sir.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as character) Then, why are we?
BELLO: (as Jane Timoney) Because letting the ball drop on the townhouse murder seems like the only thing that could make a bad thing worse.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as character) The case that was yours to begin with, right?
BELLO: (as Jane Timoney) I'm not denying that's a part of it, right.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as character) He was sitting in the chair you're sitting in last night, your colleague, with one of the highest closure rates in department history, my friend whose baby girl turned four yesterday.
CONAN: "Prime Suspect" makes its U.S. premiere tomorrow on NBC. If you're a fan of "Prime Suspect" and have questions for Maria Bello, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And Maria Bello joins us now from our bureau in New York. Welcome to the program. And congratulations on the role.
BELLO: Thank you very much, Neal. I'm so happy to be here.
CONAN: Are you nervous about the premiere tomorrow night? I'm sure all the reviews are pretty much are out.
BELLO: A lot of the reviews are out. And thankfully, I've heard they're very good. I don't really read them. I just know that I'm having the greatest time on the show - more than I've ever expected. And it's incredibly creative and powerful and really great work. And I'm proud of that and however it's received, it's received. But I do think people are going to love it.
CONAN: And it's set there in New York. How much of the shooting do you do in the city?
BELLO: We did the pilot in the city, but we shoot in Los Angeles. And then, we come here every six weeks to shoot exteriors.
CONAN: And at this point, I suspect you may be getting a little tired of questions about Helen Mirren, though she has said she approves of the new series.
BELLO: That's wonderful to hear, and I have heard that. Lynda La Plante, who did the original series, wrote to our writer-producer, Alex Cunningham, and just said, you know, it was 99 out of 100 that she wouldn't like it and that she really loved it. It has such a different, you know, vibe than the English series. It really has a sense of humor. It's kind of quirky. It's very modern. It's very rough. And she - though my character is a strong female character, she's quite different from that Jane.
CONAN: And that I read is part of the reason for the name change.
BELLO: Yes. I think that was part of the name change. The funny thing is when I first had to say my name in the pilot, I have to say - it was like the first scene I did, and I had to say Detective Jane Timoney. And I kept forgetting my name because it changed so many times in the script. So I was saying Detective Jane Timonemenem(ph) - Tennison(ph) - Timoninnon(ph). And finally, after 20 takes, the producer came up to me and said it rhymes with Jiminy Cricket. So...
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BELLO: ...that's the only way I remembered my name - Jiminy Cricket, Timoney Cricket.
CONAN: Or Inspector Jane Ticket. Anyway...
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CONAN: ...you did get one of them right. One of the differences, of course, is the setting and the look of the show is, of course, completely different from the production values of a British broadcast 20 years ago.
BELLO: Yes. I think Pete Berg is so brilliant, who produce the show and also directed the pilot. They call it the "Friday Night Lights" style. He literally made it up. Usually on a television show, especially in our show, a procedural, you'll see that it's shot very much the same, from show to show. There's a close up and a close up and a wide shot, but Pete doesn't believe in that. He believes in keeping the camera always in motion. So we have three cameras at a time that are on guys' shoulders, just following us around. We don't have marks. The cameras never still. And I think that add some energy and excitement to this world that you haven't really seen often on TV.
CONAN: One big change, too, in the British series, it was one case over the span of a season, many hours. In the American - well, the convention is and the show follows it, we're going to have a case per week.
BELLO: We are going to have a case per week. Some might spill over into another episode, but it is a procedural. But the reason I was drawn to it is that it wasn't a straight procedural. If it was just, you know, whodunit, I wouldn't have been that interested. But it is a, you know, it's about characters of this woman who happens to be a cop who loves getting out these cases, and the men around her who are extraordinary characters in themselves. So because I have a full life outside of that, I'm very fulfilled in it.
CONAN: One of the motifs, as we mentioned in the introduction, is the struggle against the boys' club in the office. Don't you think a little more credible, 20 years ago, than now?
BELLO: You know, unfortunately, it's still happening. Unfortunately, it is still, perhaps, as relevant as it was 20 years ago. Every woman that I've talked to, from realtors to people in publicity and agents, have dealt with it at one time or another. This idea that, you know, you can't be pretty and smart; the idea that if you're in the same room as a business colleague, a male, oftentimes, the - another man will direct all of the conversation towards that man. So there are little, subtle things that happened in business, I find, especially between men and women, that I certainly see the vestiges of sexism.
CONAN: We're talking with Maria Bello, the star of NBC's new Americanized version of "Prime Suspect," which debuts tomorrow night. 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. And we'll start with Pete, Pete with us from Inverness in Florida.
PETE: Maria, one of your most memorable roles was a very strong character. You played a gangster's partner in a really superb crime drama called "Payback." And I wondered, how does it feel to be on the right side of the law as a major character now?
BELLO: I suppose I always - I loved playing cops and robbers when I was a kid, and I was usually the robber. So this is a new thing for me, to be the cop
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BELLO: but I'm kind of liking it. But what's interesting about Jane is she's not terribly moralistic, and she is very complicated and not always - she doesn't always do the right thing, which I find terribly interesting.
PETE: Thank you, and best of luck.
BELLO: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Thanks for the call, Pete. Jane Tennison, one of the things we saw about her was a major character flaw, if you will, and that was her drive, her ambition that led her at times to ignore the people around her, her family.
BELLO: Well, certainly, Jane has some of those qualities. She's completely unapologetic, impatient. She's very direct and honest to a fault. She can run over people with her drive and tenacity. But more than that, she's all of those things because she's interested in doing a great job. She loves her job, and she'll do anything to be good at it and solve a case. And it does affect her family life and her romantic life in a negative way, and she needs to deal with that throughout the series.
CONAN: Let's go next to Donna, Donna with us from Raleigh in North Carolina.
DONNA: Hi there, Neal. Thanks for taking my call. Hi, Maria.
BELLO: Hello there.
DONNA: I just wanted to say I am big fan of yours for many years. I can't think of many better to follow Helen Mirren in this role of Helen Mirren. And I love all your - I say - I don't know if I've seen all of your movies, but I love the diverse roles you've played. I think you were judicious in the roles that you played. And I cannot wait for tomorrow night.
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DONNA: I've got my DVR set. I just wanted to - I had just one comment. I see Emmy nominations in your future. And second: what's it like switching from all those roles in the movies and now doing something like the grinds of a network TV? And I'll hang up to take my call. Thanks.
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BELLO: First, I want to say, that was so kind of you, everything that you've just said. Thank you so much very much. As I've said, I've never probably been so excited for something to come out. I never thought I would go back to TV, mostly because, when I had stuck my foot in it before, it just seemed - not very creative. An actor wasn't really allowed to express him or herself, and I got terribly bored.
And also, my friends who worked in single-lead shows, they worked 12-, 13-, 14-, 15-hour days and never saw their kids. I have a 10-year-old son, and I work in Haiti part time, and I - so I passed on the project. And the producers called me in and I said, I can't - I don't want to live like that. I don't define myself as an actor. I'm a mother, I'm an activist and I'm actor, and I don't want to give up those other things in my life. And they said, well, you won't have to. And they have held true to their promise. It's been incredibly collaborative and creative. And I have a life outside of my job.
CONAN: We thank Donna for the call. We're talking with Maria Bello, whose new show starts tomorrow night. 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.
You mentioned you work in Haiti. You are in New York, I suspect, not to shoot exteriors, but because you were there at the Clinton Initiative, correct?
BELLO: I was. I came for the Clinton Global Initiative. And I'm honored to say that I was invited to - by President Martelly of Haiti to be part of his advisory council on economic growth and investment in Haiti. So we just had our first meeting. Some of the members are ex-President Bill Clinton and Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, and 30 other amazing individuals from around the world: politicians and activists and business people. So, I was incredibly inspired and hopeful about Haiti this morning.
CONAN: Let's get another caller in on the conversation. Let's go to Joey, Joey with us from San Francisco.
JOEY: Hi. Great to speak with you. Thank you for taking my call.
JOEY: I'm going to echo everything that the woman said before. I think you're a fantastic actress, and it's always fun to watch you, because I think your characters are really deep and round, and really, you know, you are a beautiful woman and you're smart. You're the epitome of pretty and smart and yet, you've never let yourself be pigeonholed as just pretty. How do you - two questions. One, how do you, sort of, choose the roles you take? And then secondly, do you find it frustrating that being a celebrity, sort of, almost prevents you from being a stronger voice in your activism, especially when you're coming up against politicians who are, in my humble opinion, much smaller-minded about lot of the topics that some very passionate celebrities apply themselves to?
BELLO: Oh, that's a very interesting way to say it. What was the first part of your question?
JOEY: How you pick your roles, because
BELLO: Oh, how I pick my roles. That's right.
JOEY: somebody like you can get pigeonholed, I imagine, in Hollywood. And yet, you've managed to find roles that are really, I think, really fascinating. And that might just be the way you play them.
BELLO: Well, you know, I - certainly, I don't believe in victimization. I think that if someone is being pigeonholed, they pigeonholed themselves by taking roles and accepting roles that are, you know, that are only the shell of a woman, for instance. It's still in a lot of Hollywood big budget films, I noticed, especially going to some with my son, like shoot 'em up films. Oftentimes, the women have really nothing to do except stand there and look pretty.
And my whole thing is, if an actor decides to do that, fine, you know, but then don't say, well, I'm just cast in the pretty roles. Also, people say, you know, after 40, there's no roles for women after 40. And my, you know, my response to that is, well, there are if you're not 40 trying to look 20. So I do think that is changing. And I take roles that move me and that are inspiring, I get to work with great people and that I know I can create a fully-formed woman.
JOEY: And your activism, you hadn't - the second question was the frustration that I imagine you must feel trying to spearhead some of the causes that you're passionate about.
BELLO: You know, that's true. There's two sides to that. For some reason, because I'm a celebrity, I do have a voice. I can continue and I do continue to keep Haiti in the news, to keep international women issues in the news. I write about it and I talk about it. And not only that, but I'm on the ground, I have an organization there called We Advance and working in the poorest community in the Western Hemisphere. So I really have my finger on the pulse. And the more I work there, because I've been there for three years, I have a lot of respect from the community and politicians because I'm doing the work on the ground. So I think I'm in a little bit of a different position.
I think that if you're a celebrity and you're just using your voice but not actually doing the work, or you don't have the background or the facts to back it up, I think that people won't listen and don't respect you, and it totally backfires.
JOEY: Thank you very much. I look forward to this series and best of luck with it.
BELLO: Thank you so much.
CONAN: Joey, thanks very much for the call. I wonder, is this version of "Prime Suspect" going to be shown in England?
BELLO: Yes, it is. I don't know when it's premiering, but yes, it is going to be shown in England.
CONAN: It is. One of their production companies is, in fact, the same production company that made "Prime Suspect" the first time around.
BELLO: Oh, is that right? Yeah, right.
CONAN: I think so. Yeah, yeah. Well, at least according to the credits that I saw
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CONAN: on the screener that you're people were kind enough to send me. So as you look ahead to this project, it can be a grind. You say they haven't given you the 12- to 14-hour days. But many weeks of the year, you're going to be committed to this and this character. And if you're lucky enough to have a hit, it could go on for a long time.
BELLO: It could and I'm excited about the potential of that and the idea that I think it only feeds my life. I have made a decision to just be in the flow. And creatively, I'm so incredibly fulfilled. So I feel really good about it. And, you know, even next week - and they're giving me a day off so I can go to Haiti. So I feel very, very positive.
CONAN: Well, good luck with the show. And I think everybody will say, good luck on the work in Haiti. That's really needed.
BELLO: Thank you very much. We have an incredible new president there, and I know he's going to change Haiti for the better.
CONAN: Maria Bello, the star of the new NBC series, "Prime Suspect," that premieres tomorrow night. She joined us from our bureau in New York. Tomorrow, now that openly gay men and women can serve in the military, we'll talk about what's changed and what hasn't, plus, an argument that the U.S. needs to stay in Iraq. Join us for that. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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