LOS ANGELES – Starting a new series is like making dinner for 20 in a kitchen you’ve never been in, says actress Robin Tunney.
Cast as an L.A. district attorney in “The Fix,” a new 10-part drama from former prosecutor Marcia Clark, Tunney says she had to learn where everything was, how to relate to her character, and how to make cast and crewmates feel like family.
To get a sense of the character, Tunney grilled Clark. “I wanted to know what her nervous tics were,” Tunney says. “I wanted to know if she was superstitious or if there were idiosyncratic things I could use for the character.”
Clark, the lead prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, told her plenty but admitted she didn’t have a lucky shirt or adhere to certain rituals. “She bites her nails, which I thought was interesting,” Tunney says. “But there’s so much bravado in being an attorney, I wanted to see if there was something else I was missing.”
More important, Tunney didn’t want to do an impression of Clark. “You have to own your own character, so someone doesn’t come up to you and go, ‘No, no, no, I would never ....’ Nobody knows the story better than the writers, but nobody knows the character better than the actor.”
Clark says she drew on her Simpson experience for the first five minutes of the new series. “You see an aspect of what I went through but after that, it’s all fiction.”
In the drama, which debuts March 18, Tunney plays Maya Travis, a district attorney who suffers a devastating defeat after prosecuting a movie star for double murder. She flees for a quieter life, then gets called back to the DA’s office when the same star is under suspicion for another murder.
What Clark discovered – from her own experience – is star power matters. “It does skew the way a jury views the evidence and, so, the playing field is not level,” she says. “Once a jury starts to identify and relate to a defendant in that way, you are in big trouble. There’s no such thing as a piece of evidence that can’t be spun in one way or another if a juror is inclined to do so.”
While Tunney has played law enforcement officials in various shows, Maya is an authority figure who’s on a stage of sorts.
“There’s a ton of acting involved in law,” she says. “There’s performance in court – that’s why we’re so drawn to it – and, let’s be honest, it’s not telling the truth a lot.”
Unlike her long-running series “The Mentalist,” everything doesn’t wrap up neatly in 44 minutes. “The Fix” will take 10 episodes to show the details of the actor’s life, his family’s life and Maya’s life.
“It’s a much different rhythm,” Tunney says. “There’s more time for nuance and character development. It does humanize (the actor’s) character.”
Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje plays Severen “Sevvy” Johnson, the actor accused of murder. “I was insistent that we make him accountable and not just explain it by saying, ‘Oh, he had a bad childhood,’” he says. “I went into this role playing him as innocent. Whether I’m guilty or not, just the perception and pressure, emotional or psychological pressure, that it puts on you was very difficult to play. (Johnson) has to constantly defend his life, his integrity ... his lavish lifestyle.”
Producers say the series wasn’t a way for Clark to rewrite history but to draw on her own experience in a number of cases. If the series is renewed, Tunney’s character will tackle a different situation in the next season.
Tunney says it’s great to play a character in her 40s who’s vital. “She’s not just somebody’s mother or somebody who’s married to her job.”
She added her own tweaks to the show (she loves that Maya drives an old convertible); she sees a well-rounded relationship key to the show’s success.
“I had a great time making (‘The Mentalist’) with people who were at the top of their game,” Tunney says. “But I wanted to find a character that was different and definitely not a copy. Once you have success at something, everybody wants you to do the same thing again. I didn’t want to have a gun or handcuffs ... I wanted something new.”
In the process, she also gained a friend in Clark. “I don’t think Marcia feels she made mistakes in court. She knew the cards were stacked against her,” Tunney says.
To refresh her memory of the case, Tunney watched Clark’s press conference after the verdict. “I said, ‘Marcia, it looked like you were going to cry.’ And, quickly, she said, ‘Nope.’ What I learned was: You don’t get in an argument with Marcia Clark because you’re going to lose.”
"The Fix" premieres Monday, March 18, at 9 p.m. on ABC.