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Monday, September 20, 2010

"Chase" executive producer Jennifer Johnson: How Kate Jackson inspired me as a girl, and how I hope Kelli Giddish inspires my young daughter

In these outtakes from her interview for my Los Angeles Times fall preview story on TV's Tough Chicks, Chase creator and executive producer Jennifer Johnson tells how Charlie's Angels' Kate Jackson inspired her as a girl who loved to climb trees and chase--and be chased by--her brother. "I grew up watching Charlie's Angels and always wanted to be Kate Jackson because she was the smart one," Johnson says in the LA Times story. "She could do it all. That's what I gravitate to. [Annie's] gonna have to beat these guys with physical prowess combined with a smart plan of attack."

The former Cold Case producer and Lost scribe also reveals how she hopes Chase star Kelli Giddish (All My Children) will be a new empowered female role model for Johnson's four-and-a-half-year-old daughter. The Jerry Bruckheimer action-adventure drama premieres tonight on NBC.

Kelli’s moves are even more impressive considering you’re filming in 100-degree-plus heat in Texas. I’m from Oklahoma, so I totally appreciate that.
Oh, are you? So you understand completely. We’re going to Oklahoma soon for some of our U.S. marshal exploits. It’s 105 degrees and Kelli does her own stunts—as well as the stuntwoman. We have to roll cameras before everyone starts sweating. They get powdered up and then we say “Action” before they start sweating again.

I got lighter in the moment that I met Kelli because I’d found the perfect person to do this. She came in for the screen test and had learned Waylon Jenning’s “Armed and Dangerous” on her guitar. And she had it. I had a pretty good feeling at that moment!

And of course there’s her voice. How gorgeous is her voice? It’s confident and it has gravel in it, and you feel taken care of by her. So she’s earned the song.

I’d started considering changing to (pilot) scene to not saying “I am Mason Boyle,” because it’s such a hard theme to pull off. And here comes Kelli Giddish. She put down her guitar and said, “I learned ‘Armed and Dangerous’ over the weekend.” She walked onto the set and said, “I’m Mason Boyle.” It felt like my whole soul raised to the 40-foot sound stage. And I said, “There’s our girl.” She has all the characteristics that Annie does.

Kelli definitely has grit in her voice and her performance.
One of the first times in Dallas we went out to dinner and were walking back to the hotel. There were all these trees around us and she said, “Do you like to climb trees?” I said, “I love to climb trees.” We just kind of looked at each other and that’s all we had to say.

I grew up with a brother who’s 18 months younger than I am. And I grew up in upstate New York. My brother and I chased each other through the house, played gags on each other, beat each other up.

I know a lot of men who are in basketball leagues or play pick-up games. But I hadn’t found that outlet. So this show is that outlet for me. To be 11 again and chasing my brother through the house. (Laughs.) To be running from him and being genuinely scared—that adrenaline and rush that you get. My experience with women—I don’t have that outlet.

I love the concept of a female U.S. marshal leading the team in a role traditionally seen as male. You’ve said Chase sort of reintroduces the American hero. In which ways does it redefine the American heroine?
My proudest moment in the development of this show was when my attorney, Matt Johnson, called me and said, “Jennifer, I love the pilot. But my daughter really loved the pilot.” I was thrilled because his daughter just started high school. He said, “Especially when Annie jumped off the bridge. I think she felt Annie was a role model and she wanted to watch the show.” It was my proudest moment because I have a four-and-a-half year-old daughter. So these are issues I think about constantly.

We had a placemat of the presidents of the United States. The other day I said to her, “Ingrid, you could be president of the United States.” And she said, “No, I can’t, Mommy. They’re all men.” So these are the subliminal messages that our kids get every day, that young girls get every day. So I promptly threw out the placemat. It’s coded in our language. If you see a dog or a cat go down the street it’s “He, he, he, he, he.” So in our house we say “she” a lot just to reposition her perspective.

We see women who can kick ass. But with Annie I’m trying to combine that with commitment to her job, intelligence and compassion. It’s that full package I think that could potentially translate to role model.

There are so many movies where rights of passage are looked at as kind of cool for guys. But rights of passage for a woman, it’s like, “That’s a chick flick.” That’s a demeaning, condescending remark. I would love to sneak it in, to not have people say, “It’s a chick flick” and have it be a smart, empowered, kick-ass woman.

How far TV has come since the mid-’70s empowered woman—particularly the beautiful women who never broke a nail, ever got dirty. Annie gets down in the dirt and jumps into the river. Why is important to you to show that earthy, gritty element of today’s empowered female?
Because it’s real and it expresses confidence in the character. She’s more concerned about catching the bad guy than she is about how she looks. She’s not a woman who cares about whether she’s having a good hair day or a bad hair day. So I hope she’s a role model, because even empowered women are expected to look beautiful. Kelli Giddish on Chase doesn’t have to work at that. It’s a character’s priorities that tell you who they are. Hers are her commitment to her job and finding the bad guy. She’s about justice.

Kelli’s spent a lot of time with the U.S. marshals. When she talks about them she gets a little teary-eyed. She gets very emotional. Because what they do is so admirable.

I think it’s a realness, a daringness, a complete focus on what she’s doing and a refusal to be distracted by anything less important. (To focus on her appearance) is not part of her DNA—but her commitment to her job is.

Annie’s dad is a fugitive, so her commitment seems to come naturally.
Her family experiences and family roots simply inform who she is. There’s a part of her who’s let go of her past. It just is who she is.

Another thing that I’m going to explore in the earlyish episodes of the first thirteen is what kind of makes her jump. In conclusion after being in conflict with Jimmy (Cole Hauser) over it—because he perceives it as sometimes being a little reckless—is that it is who she is.

We do see Annie kick a lot of male butt in the pilot. Given her issues with her father, does the character get satisfaction in taking down the bad guy?
Absolutely. Every time she captures a male fugitive, she feels a step closer to finding her father. And at the same time, ironically, she proves that she’s not a bad guy. She proves that she’s not like her father.

You’ve also said that once psychologically you get into a fugitive’s head you can pursue them physically. Coming off of producing Cold Case for four years, why is it important to you to show a woman who can handle this on both levels?
I think when you talk about redefining the heroine, for me that’s the modern-day version of the heroine who is smart but can also use her physical power to capture them.

In my experience women don’t have as much participation in team sports. In my experience in TV-making Hollywood, there are a lot of men’s basketball pickup games … I didn’t want to limit her (Annie.) Working on Cold Case for four years was so satisfying, and Lilly was really was a rich character. So dimensionalized. Kathryn Morris, I love her and consider her a friend. So for me this was a progression. And I really didn’t think about it. And I really didn’t think about it. When I created my show … it’s a little bit my own personality. That’s the character I wanted to write, to see.

I knew it would be a show about fugitive hunters, but that’s all I knew. I wanted to create a female lead who could run and jump and make physical contact with even the toughest fugitive because she has some great moves. She can do a roundhouse kick. And she combines it with smarts. When a guy has a choke-hold on her, she has the idea to yank off his belt and use it to throw him over her shoulder. Because she’s a woman she maybe has to use her head a little bit more.

She knows that even if she takes a few punches it will be worth it. And hopefully what we’ll intuit from that is, that’s how committed she is. Every time she runs after that guy … we will hopefully intuit: no. 1, she doesn’t consider herself inferior to men so there’s nothing to ever stop her. And no. 2 there’s such a purity of purpose that she’d never consider not pursuing the fugitive.

Sounds like a winning recipe for today’s young heroine.
Hopefully the 13-year-old girls will feel empowered by that. And also it’s okay for women to care deeply about what they do. That’s not new but I think it may be the physical side of that in combination that makes her not only kick ass and (but?) intelligent and compassionate.

It’s that whole package that to me equals role model. And that’s what I saw in Kate Jackson and Sabrina on Charlie’s Angels: a willingness to engage, intelligence and I think she cared less about her appearance … I don’t know. I haven’t watched it in a really long time. (Laughs.) But I do remember her wearing a little less make-up than the others did.

Potentially and hopefully this is a new thing that young girls will watch.

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