‘Major Crimes’ Star Mary McDonnell Talks Season Five, Character Development, Rusty, Shandy & More

When Kyra Sedgwick decided to leave her award winning role as Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson on The Closer after some seven seasons, James Duff and TNT executive Michael Wright soon settled on the notion of continuing the show with a new lead in the form of a spin-off titled Major Crimes.

The actress who would take on that task of leading the spin-off was none other that Mary McDonnell (arguably best known to international audiences for her role as President Laura Roslin in Syfy’s rebooted Battlestar Galactica series); reprising her guest role as Sharon Raydor, the Captain from the LAPD’s Internal Affairs/Force Investigation Division.

In the four seasons that have followed, McDonnell and the show’s writers have fully fleshed out the character; moving well beyond her roots as an antagonist for Deputy Chief Johnson on The Closer. We have seen her grow – from becoming an adoptive mother to witness Rusty Beck, warming to her squad of detectives, the exploration of her past with an alcoholic husband, to entering into a relationship with Andy Flynn (Tony Denison).

With season five now airing on Monday nights on Universal Channel here in the UK, TVWise caught up with Mary McDonnell to discuss the genesis and development of her character, what’s in store for Sharon Raydor in the supersized fifth season, the mother/son dynamic with Rusty (Graham Patrick Martin), the blooming relationship between Sharon and Andy and much more.

Major CrimesTVWise: This started off for you with a guest role on season four of The Closer. In a previous interview, [Major Crimes creator and showrunner] James Duff spoke about the genesis of the show and how the decision was made to transition your character from antagonist to the lead. What was your reaction when you were essentially asked to fill Kyra [Sedgwick]’s shoes?

Mary McDonnell: Well, because it wasn’t put to me that way, I chose not to think of it that way. That would not have inspired me, because I don’t think you can fill someone else’s shoes. Creatively, I think that would have been kind of a blockade to being able to find a new Sharon Raydor. The way James cleverly put it to me was more in the way of “How would you like the challenge of trying to shift the character from antagonist to protagonist? How would you like to try that? Do you think you’d be up for it? Is Sharon that interesting to you?” The idea of that was interesting to me. I had no idea – nor did he – in the moment, how it was going to happen.

But I also didn’t want to give up on Sharon Raydor or as the fans lovingly referred to her in The Closer, Darth Raydor – I love that name! There are times in Major Crimes when Darth comes out [laughs], she comes back and [the fans] get so excited. But that was a very big commitment for me – doing the show, but not at the cost of losing this woman. She’s been a great role to play and it would be unfair to the fans and the show to suddenly make her nice. I was up for the challenge of it and we were challenged appropriately; meaning we did not know how it was going to be solved or how we were going to make it work. All we did know is that we wanted to try.

TVWise: That mirrors what James confessed to me. That he didn’t have a solution and that they lucked into having Graham [Patrick Martin], because they got to use Rusty as a surrogate for the audience…

Mary McDonnell: Absolutely and that grew, naturally, into a way of letting us see another side of Sharon, because of Graham’s presence. Rusty’s needs were so identifiable and so organic that they exposed [Sharon] as a mother and that’s always a humanising factor. I felt that, with Sharon, as I discovered the mother, and bridged that with the woman who was in a position [of power], and informed that by this woman who had been limited in her expression in internal affairs, it became a very interesting jigsaw puzzle.

mary-mcdonnell-major-crimes-1TVWise: What can you tell us about season five?

Mary McDonnell: My experience of season five so far is that we’re in new territory. We’re finding things out about people that I never [expected]. I never predicted that a procedural could go in this many directions. I think that there has been a re-invention, as it were, of how we go about every week and what it means to be telling this story or that story. Now there are these moments when the crime isn’t exactly taking a back seat but isn’t necessarily driving the episode, so, without ever losing the squad’s commitment to crime fighting, we seem to be in very new territory. We are in the middle of airing our Summer finale here [in the United States], which is a three-parter that really is the best, most-textured, risk taking episodes that we have ever done. That’s been very exciting.

TVWise: Let’s talk about this budding relationship between Sharon and Andy Flynn (Tony Denison), which the fans have dubbed Shandy.

Mary McDonnell: It was a complete surprise to me. That just sort of evolved. What I remember is that the fans started noticing [the chemistry] and they thought something was happening, so they started talking about it even before James was writing it, consciously. It was a very interesting evolution and then suddenly it was there to be dealt with. It’s been really sweet, actually, and it’s complicated, which I like.

mary-mcdonnell-major-crimes-2TVWise: We’ve already seen in the season five premiere that Andy is keen to sell his house and move closer to Sharon, who seems a little more hesitant of that move. What’s behind that reluctance, if you will?

Mary McDonnell: Sharon Raydor is at the point in her life where she would be perfectly fine alone. She’s been through it all: she’s raised children; she’s had a long-term marriage that was good for a while, then bad; she’s lived with addicts before (Andy is in AA, but he is an addict). She is also completely independent, has enough money and loves her career. Women at this age aren’t really rushing to get married again or to even live with a man again. It’s not something she intellectually wants or has sought out or was even looking for, so to have this happen is kind of surprising to her.

She is a very intellectual kind of person and would naturally take it more slowly. But I do think that he brings her a great deal of joy and Sharon will eventually risk certain things, but she doesn’t really need it. That’s the difference. I feel like Andy is the kind of guy who, if he wasn’t in love, he was always dating somebody and has to have a woman in his life. I just can’t imagine Andy without a woman somewhere. They are very very very different and I think James is right in outlining that they are not moving forward at the same speed.

TVWise: James also mentioned the theme this season is balance and, to that end, do Sharon and Andy run into any problems at work? Or do you think they have that romantic/work balance figured out at this stage?

Mary McDonnell: They do pretty darn well in the workplace and that’s part of the frustration of the fans [laughs]. Sharon and Andy have made some very clear decisions about how to be co-workers and that really does mean not interacting on a romantic level [in the workplace]. They’ve committed to that because it really is safer and better. But that makes the fans crazy, because they want to see more of that and get really upset when they don’t see any of it, so we try to sneak it in wherever we can.

mary-mcdonnell-major-crimes-3TVWise: The other big relationship in Sharon’s personal life is Rusty. If we were to look back to that very first episode, when a lot of other people would have just seen this obnoxious teenager, what do you think it is that Sharon saw in him that made her connect to him in the way she did?

Mary McDonnell: Well she understands a fatherless child, because she has raised children who had a part-time father, who was either there or not there depending on his particular addiction at the time. Sharon Raydor feels very strongly about the importance of men in a child’s life, particularly a young boy’s upbringing and she saw this child as truly in danger. [Rusty’s] life was in danger if someone didn’t step in. He would have gotten creamed in the foster system. He would have run away again and he would be living on the streets and prostituting. She saw potential death in his path. She could see it. It was the mother in her that responded to him, not the cop.

TVWise: It’s a relationship we’ve seen evolve over five seasons and your character seems to have this skill of steering Rusty in the right direction rather than telling him what to do…

Mary McDonnell: I think that grew out of parenting someone that you just met. You can’t do what you would do with your own kids, you have to almost be better at it [laughs] because there is not a mutual understanding and there is not yet an unconditional love. You have to be really skilled as a communicator. He was an adolescent boy and she was a woman; all of those things forced Sharon to be at the top of the parenting game in terms of the way in which she communicated.

mary-mcdonnell-major-crimes-4TVWise: We see that skill in use again early this season when Rusty’s birth mother re-appears with the news of her pregnancy. Especially given their previous interactions, why do you think Raydor is more willing to accept Sharon Beck starting again than Rusty is?

Mary McDonnell: Sharon feels that the idea of Rusty having a sibling that he would be connected to on any level, that he might have to care about, could be one of the best things to ever happen to him. Out of survival, he has developed a narcissism that is almost impenetrable and everybody who loves him runs into it, including Gus. She feels at the core that this could be a really great thing for him, however it plays out. It could be healing to, rather than keep his mother at bay forever and say “this is the worst idea ever’, lean into it and say “I have a brother on the planet. I’m a young man who is smart and capable and I may have to be responsible for someone. I don’t know how to that but, boy if I did, it might feel great.”

What I felt when I first read the script was that Sharon Raydor instantly went ‘this is a precious life, how do we do this?’ What that meant for her was: take a deep breath and allow this other Sharon to be who she is without my cop/snobby mother judgement and see if I can figure out a way to help create communication here. Not necessarily trust, because no one is ever really sure if they can trust this woman, but acknowledging that nonetheless there is a new life coming. She just thinks [a sibling] would be great for Rusty.

TVWise: Now going back a little bit, we had the whole story arc of Sanchez’s anger issues flaring up again and Sharon being supportive, certainly more so than other members of the squad. Given the fact she comes from IA/FID, why do you think she reacted the way she did, rather than just following the rules?

Mary McDonnell: I think it is exactly because of her time in IA. She saw people struggle with [anger issues] and blow their very great careers, because she had to step in and say “No, you’re not fit anymore”. But she’s also seen these therapies work and she’s seen people go through anger management and come out successful. So because of her time in IA she may have had a bit more faith in the potential of these processes than had she just been his boss watching him get angry again. Sharon Raydor also has a greater investment in the humanity in her squad, as opposed to what she was in IA, which was someone who was looking for the mistakes that they were making – she was looking to bust people, that was her job. In this case she had to learn how to love them, in a sense, and care about their struggles in a different way. That’s a very different position. It could almost make someone more lenient for the moment in an effort to try to be there for a successful process with him. [Julio Sanchez] is a great cop, you don’t want to lose him!

mary-mcdonnell-major-crimes-5TVWise: We’ve already seen that investment in the squad, as you put it, if only in the way the relationship between Captain Raydor and Lieutenant Provenza has progressed. And she certainly seems more willing to delegate with him, whereas Kyra’s character [Brenda Leigh Johnson] just wasn’t…

Mary McDonnell: No, she wasn’t, not at all. That is again what I’m very very interested in, especially with all the exploration that we are doing, culturally, with women in leadership. Time and time again, women who are succeeding [in leadership positions] are succeeding through an ability to delegate. An ability to empower those around them and lift them up, as opposed to the male paradigm of ‘the top of the heap’, which, classically speaking, is to do it oneself and be the hero and have a whole army of followers. The feminine impulse is turning out to be, we think, culturally, to actually empower those around you – it’s just natural. I’m not saying that all women who are bosses are doing that, I’m just saying we’re finding out, as we see women in these positions more and more, that quite often they lean in to empowering the people around them as the way to a successful venture, as opposed to being the hero at the center with people following. But It’s tricky, because the ego really wants to be the hero and I’ve been fascinated about that with Sharon.

TVWise: Last season, TNT granted this five-episode back order which let James and the writers toy with more serialised storytelling. How was that experience for you, especially considering that up to that point Major Crimes had been a very episodic show?

Mary McDonnell: I found it deeply gratifying and creatively very stimulating, because we could never get the [case] solved [laughs]. I loved that as an actress! It’s hard to tell the story of a big crime with any nuance in forty-two minutes. The fact that we didn’t have to do that and, to a certain extent, we could flounder around in the unknown, not being able to [solve the case], see what that felt like and drive more deeply into the core of the crime was so much fun, creatively. I loved it and I love the three-parter we are doing this season.

Major Crimes season five continues to air in the UK on Universal Channel on Monday nights at 9pm.