By Diane Anderson-Minshall
Originally published on Advocate.com June 01 2012 4:10 PM ET
There's one show on TV that gets the most lesbian adoration and no, it's not Glee or Pretty Little Liars. It's TNT's Rizzoli & Isles, a police procedural that is unlike anything else and stars Angie Harmon and Sasha Alexander. Gay and bi women helped turn the show — returning for its third season Tuesday — into what AfterEllen aptly called a "lesbian buddy cop show that just doesn't know it yet." We caught up with Alexander, who plays Dr. Maura Isles, a Boston medical examiner, to find out if the lesbian teases are intentional, why she left NCIS, and what's in store for season three of R&I.
The Advocate: All the girls in the office here love Rizzoli & Isles. Let's talk about your character, Maura.
Sasha Alexander: Thank you. Absolutely.
I love that she’s oddly awkward around nearly everybody except Jane [Rizzoli, the police officer played by Harmon]. What part of the character do you identify with?
[Laughs] Well, it’s funny because I so enjoy playing her, and I think as you get down the road of playing a character you start to realize what are the parts that excite you. And for her, it’s, What is she thinking about? She’s got so much going on, and I like the fact that there’s this kind of innocence, this kind of almost naïveté or sort of enthusiasm for all subjects and all things. And I’m kind of like that. I’m really interested in all things of the world, people, and cultures. I like information. I like people who have information. I enjoy talking to people like that, and my parents are like that.
I think that we all have a little bit of that, that part of us. I am now, in this stage in my life, a much more outgoing person than I was as a child or in my teens. You know, my parents were both immigrants in this country and they spoke another language, and I remember feeling like a little bit of an outcast, like, Don’t speak any languages in front of my friends.
A classic first-generation kid.
Absolutely. And I think that we all have, whatever it may be, that thing that made us feel like a bit of an outcast and not fully comfortable. I like the fact that she is comfortable with Jane and comfortable with certain people but not with all. I like that part of her. I look at that part as like a huge strength, you know, sometimes I don’t know how to explain it. So I like that, and it’s different than who I am, for sure. Um, but I can really relate to her because there’s a huge freedom in playing somebody who doesn’t, who’s not really seeking to be liked. That’s not at the forefront of what she’s thinking about. And so there isn’t any of that. Like even with her beautiful clothes, there’s not really a whole lot of vanity involved in that. It’s just that this is how she’s raised; this is what she enjoys. This is her uniform.
When you have a character and you start seeing there are elements of her that you like, that you really like bringing out, do you end up emphasizing them more? Do you bring them out more because you’re drawn to them?
I think so. I think it’s natural that you do. I mean, for me, I know that the things that started to come out ended up being a dialogue with our creator, Janet Tamaro, and one of those things was that this woman does have this really sort of offbeat sense of humor. That she doesn’t really get the joke. That she is not really in step with everyone at every moment. And so it’s a tough line to toe when sometimes the joke is on you. Like, how do I not make her be the idiot savant? In a way, it’s like people are laughing at certain things that she’s not getting, and how do you do that? How, how do you keep that likeable and not ditsy? How do you keep that smart? There’s definitely a line, but I feel like between the writing and between my interpretation of that, we’re able to do it.
A lot of people have asked whether Maura might have Asperger’s syndrome, which is similar to autism. Have you encountered that theory?
I have. I’ll tell you what, that started from me — when I asked Janet Tamaro, “Does she have a form of Asperger’s?” — it was in the second episode of the entire series where Maura goes on a date with a guy when she starts to feel his skin and she diagnoses him with a very rare skin disease. And that scene, to me ... it was just so weird. When I looked at it I thought, Oh, my God, there’s something not OK with her. Like the fact that she’s on this date, she looks great, and she’s there in front of this person that she’s interested in, but it’s more important for her to diagnose the man than it is for anything else. That was the moment I asked Janet. There wasn’t really a definitive answer to that. I don’t think she decided on it, but I definitely think that from a social aspect, there are forms of Asperger’s that are just socially related. And a lot of people who do have Asperger’s or different forms of autism are highly intelligent people whose brain is more scientific.
Absolutely. People with autism spectrum disorders are actually watching the character Maura, kind of finding some strength and visibility based on how they perceive her.
You know what? I am so proud of the fact that I get to play a character on a show that gives out positive messages and positive presentation of, in this instance, Asperger’s, but also there’s so many people that have responded to the fact that this is a woman who’s technically a science nerd, who is making that job look a lot more glamorous. I’ve had a lot of young people and educational magazines respond to the fact that they’re getting a lot younger girls saying, “Well, I’m really good at science and I like the fact that she’s like that.” And if I can put out or do anything on my end to be part of something that sends out positive representations of not just a woman but anybody that suffers from anything, then I am so grateful to be able to do that. We’ve been sort of seeing in terms of even a lot of gay suicides this year or the bullying that’s been going on that I find so heart-wrenchingly sad because somebody wasn’t given the opportunity to just feel a part of the world.
That there’s a belief among some critics, especially lesbian critics, that Rizzoli & Isles is a lesbian buddy cop show that just doesn’t know it yet.
[Laughs] I love it.
It’s really not afraid of the lesbian label, that both these fictional characters and the real-life people behind them just don’t fear the interest or speculation about their relationship.
No. I mean, you know, it’s such a strange thing because people are always going to get from any film or TV or book or anything they want, what they want to see. And that is all of our right to do so. I mean, it’s completely subjective and that is, that is art. So that’s one part of it, but I feel like we have a unique situation on our show, which is that the books were written by a woman. The show was created and is executive-produced by a woman, and it’s starring these two women who are very different people, they’re very different characters, and so we have a lot more estrogen on our show than most shows. [Laughs] And I think that it’s a great thing because we have a woman spearheading it and she is writing these characters in a way that is just much deeper. They are, they’re deeper. Their relationship; it could be sexual one day, I mean, they’re not gay in the books. But who knows?
I mean, they’re not, but I feel like even if we talk about the Kinsey scale, there are different levels of sorts of relationships. Whether it’s sexual relationships or it’s emotional relationships, and I think that these two women live in a place where they are really connected. And some people can perceive that as sexual, as something more, or it’s just the fantasy of it. I mean, you know, Angie’s a hot woman. [Laughs] Like, hey, you know? I mean, when there’s chemistry there, then why not? But I don’t think that anybody’s shying away from that, and I don’t think that we’re playing into it. I think we’re playing these women the way we, as women, behave with each other. You know, people sort of grabbed on to the whole “they slept in the same bed together” thing in the pilot. And that sort of led to all these conversations and I thought, Well, we’ve been having sleepovers since we were 9. I mean, girls do do that.
And a lot of people that relate to the show do say, you know, “God, it reminds me of my sister,” or my best friend or my lover or whoever. The thing I’m most proud of is the fact that women like it because that means that they can relate to it, because it means it is speaking to them and their relationships in a way that is true.
I think it’s pretty clear that the two women are each other’s primary intimate partner, even if they are straight.
Correct, correct. They absolutely are.
Yeah, and that’s absolutely something that’s rare on TV, regardless.
Absolutely. And I think you are completely, completely right about that. It was never about fighting over a boy. It was never about, you know, these two women like the same guy. Guess what? Just because they’re friends doesn’t mean they like the same person. It is really much more about their relationship. And as it’s continuing to get deeper and more complicated because of the things that are happening between them, even just workwise and everything. But I agree with you, it’s just, it’s really about their emotional connection to each other, whether it’s being playful and fun and going to a spa or it’s dealing with their family or with work.
Well, how effortless is the chemistry between you and Angie Harmon?
It’s pretty effortless, I must say. It’s kind of one of those things that clicked from the moment we read together. And it was, it was kind of great, you know? We read together, and then when I — she was cast first — when I left the room they said, “Hang out for a second.” And within a second she came in. She said, “You know what? They want us to do it again. Could you come back in?” I thought, Really? I thought that was pretty good.
And we came back in and they stood up and clapped and said congratulations, you guys are it. Like, this was it. So they, even the people in the room, understood it immediately. And I think it, you know, Angie and I are very different people. We’re raised different. In real life we’re very different, but the chemistry just works. I feel like we represent different types of women and we can celebrate all of that without it trying to be one or the other. Plus I feel like there’s a little bit of back-end feminist history imbued in those characters as well. Like the way Maura’s mother was a working mother and distant and not connected with her in the same way that she had hoped and Jane’s mother was like the classic cookie-cutter mom and very overinvolved in stuff. So it gets to some of those issues that we hear young women talking about now.
Showcasing working women raising kids is a great thing.
It is. You know, we’ve enjoyed doing these mother-daughter episodes that have these storylines that get to really dive into that. I was raised by a single mom. I was raised by two women actually, my mother and then my aunt, who was basically my babysitter while my mom went off to work. So I have a really strong female bond. Women are essential to my life. Conversations with women are essential to my life, you know? I’ve spent many of a bad day crawling into my best friend’s bed and crying or eating ice cream. I like that I’m allowed to, on the show, cross the meter between being vulnerable and being feminine and girly and then also being tough and sexually charged with a lot of our male costars or love interests. And so I feel that it has those elements to it. And it’s fun to be able to do that without being censored. I have definitely, in my career in television absolutely been censored. “Don’t get too angry, don’t be too sexy, don’t be too this, don’t be too that,” and it’s like, well, women are those things. [Laughs] Like, what do you mean? Like it’s not attractive for me to get angry? Is it attractive for us to fight? Well, women fight. And then they make up. And so why aren’t we allowed to do those things?
Or allowed to be mad at the show’s other primary character for half an episode.
Yeah. And have you be mad not over something that’s petty. We’re not fighting over who looks better in the Alexander McQueen dress. We’re fighting over something substantial and real, that’s important to our life. Whether it’s her brother going to jail or my father that’s shot, whatever it may be, but these things are real things that are changing the characters in profound ways. And clearly the person that you’re close to and is your best friend is going to be able to be on that journey with you.
Now, you’ve had some iconic TV roles from Dawson’s Creek to NCIS to Rizzoli. I’m wondering, are you at the point in your career that you thought you’d be at?
I don’t know. I don’t think I really had an idea of where I thought I would be per se. Because for me it’s really about feeling good about the thing that I’m doing in that moment. I just want to work on things with good people and do good work. And do smart work and do things that I can put out into the world and feel good about looking back. I don’t know if I thought that I would be working in television as much as I have. I remember thinking that, God, I don’t have a small nose and I’m not blond. Like I actually thought like people doing TV, like my face was more European. And I thought, God, Isabella Rossellini is my idol. [Laughs] I thought I was going to make obscure European films and if I wanted to be an actress, I would go to London. I really thought that that’s what my path would be. So it was really funny when I started to get cast in things like Dawson’s because it was so all-American.
I remember when your character on NCIS was killed off, fans were just outraged and series creator Don Bellisario had to come out and say that this is the first time you’d been on a show for over a year and you just didn’t think you had the stamina to do it. Was that true at the time?
[Laughs] That wasn’t true?
It wasn’t. No, but you know what? Well, no, I’m going to take that back. It wasn’t not true. But that is not the reason I left the show.
Why did you leave the show?
It’s complicated. It is. I can’t really talk about it. But what I can tell you is that I had a great time doing it for the two years I was there. I learned a lot. It just wasn’t a place that I wanted to live any further than that. I love the people, love Kate, I loved playing Kate. I think the show is fantastic. I’m proud to have been part of its beginnings, and I, I knew that it would just go on and on and on and will continue to be. It’s a huge international success. And I love Don Bellisario. He is still a dear and close friend of mine. And I think at the time, yeah, it was true. I mean, the show is grueling. Grueling, grueling, grueling! People can’t imagine how grueling — on an average, 17-hour days, 10 and a half months a year — it was really tough. I slept in a hotel room usually three days a week. [Laughs]
It was really tough, but that’s not the ultimate reason that I chose to leave the show. And physically challenging? You know what? I was an Olympic-trained ice skater and an athlete my whole life and a dancer. No, that’s not really it. I think that physically I’m working the same on Rizzoli & Isles. And it’s a different show. It’s like an office. Some jobs are better fits for you than others.
And some of them have an expiration date.
I think what people don’t understand about television is that we often sign seven-year agreements. Before we have ever shot the show. Did you know that? Most people don’t know that. Can you imagine in any other profession if somebody said to you, “You will have to work at this job for the next seven years,” when you’ve never even been to the office. You never met anybody in the office. You know nothing about it. Somebody gave you a little bit of an outline of what your job would be. But that’s basically it.
I think it’s easy for viewers to just say “Ah, I can’t believe she’s leaving the show,” not realizing that you’re on the set 17 hours a day. That this is a daily grind the way their job’s a daily grind, except it’s not 9 to 5.
Yeah. And I will tell you one thing about the reason that I have no regrets about leaving NCIS is the fact that I have a beautiful family, and I firmly believe in my heart, I would not be where I am today, with my husband, with my two beautiful children, had I remained there. There’s no way. Because it was impossible. You cannot, as a woman, work that way and still manifest the other things that you want in your life. You can’t do it. Your relationships suffer. Your family suffers. There’s no way. And at some point you do make concessions. It’s just how it is. I mean, it really is.
Let’s talk about Rizzoli & Isles again.
We do have boob-grabbing on the set, if that’s what you’re going to ask me. [Laughs]
There is some boob-grabbing?
There is boob-grabbing. Yes.
I need to know about that immediately.
I’m going to admit to the boob-grabbing. [Laughs] Um. Yes, there’s a lot of female love. It makes the men very uncomfortable. It’s like a female locker room.
There seem to be subtle winks to the show’s lesbian fans, like Jane goes undercover at a lesbian bar, the episode where you’re in bed and Jane asks Maura, “Are we having a sleepover, or is this your way of telling me you’re attracted to me?” All those little insidery winks that lesbian fans always pick up on.
Well, I think that if Jane were open to it, I think Maura would absolutely experiment because she’s just a little bit more open-minded in that way. But Jane would never. She’s so straight.
Jane doesn’t even like to hear you talk about the people that you’re attracted to. She’ll say, “I’m gagging in my mouth now.”
Yeah. It’s true.
When the show premiered it set a record as the highest-rated debut for a commercial cable series and I think the second-highest for basic cable all over. Do you think the ratings would drop if Maura or Jane did come out as gay?
I don’t think so. I really don’t think so.
Have you ever played the Rizzoli & Isles lesbian drinking game?
[Laughs] I haven’t. I do know of it and I would like to play it but I haven’t.
You take a shot if Rizzoli & Isles stare at each other longer than three seconds, any time you sleep in the same bed, and any time there’s adorable bickering between the two of you.
It’s so funny because Angie and I are both very touchy people. So we’ll naturally hold hands. We hug all the time. We’re touchy-feely, like that’s how we are. And so it is kind of funny because when people first started to talk about that, we didn’t even realize we were doing that while we were shooting it. It wasn’t that intentional, I think. But I feel because you have chemistry, even a little bit goes a long way. [Laughs]
I think you’re right there.
But ... we certainly don’t shy away from it. Um. And is it teasing? I don’t know, maybe. You decide. Sometimes. Sometimes not. It depends on what we’re shooting and what it means in that moment.
Janet says that she thinks of Rizzoli and Isles as less Cagney and Lacey and more Kirk and Spock.
Yeah. She said that.
What’s going to surprise us the most about this upcoming season?
You know, I think, I think the writing has just gotten deeper with the characters and there’s just going to be so many more places for us to go and play. I think the show is grittier. I mean that in a good way. I feel like the writing is just going to get deeper, the storylines are, are stronger and much more character-driven. A lot of the characters are going to go through a lot of very interesting new avenues this year. It’ll be very unpredictable.
Unpredictable is good.
Yeah. As you know, the show is not your formulaic kind of CSI where each episode is wrapped up perfectly with a bow and we begin in the squad room and end in the squad room. I mean, it doesn’t happen that way. So things are a lot looser on our show, which allows for it to be a bit more freeing creatively.