Contrary to what regular viewers of televisionís ratings juggernaut ER might believe, actress Maura Tierney does, in fact, smile. Unlike her perpetually distressed and depressed character Abby Lockhart, Tierney, in the course of a 30-minute interview, actually smiles quite a lot.
Itís not surprising, really. The actress, whose résumé includes a role on the now-defunct series NewsRadio, along with parts in the high-profile films Liar Liar, Primary Colors, and Forces of Nature, has plenty to smile about these days. Abby has become one of the backbones of the still-acclaimed ER, and Tierneyís got the Emmy nomination to prove it. And now she has the pleasure of promoting a film ó Scotland, PA ó in which she not only stars, but which was written and directed by her husband, Billy Morrissette.
And Tierneyís especially glad to be promoting the film in her old hometown: though she left Boston ó and, more specifically, Hyde Park ó nearly two decades ago, much of her family still calls Beantown home, including her father, Joe, a former Boston city councilor and mayoral candidate.
Q: How do you think growing up in Boston has affected your work as an actress?
A: I donít know if it has affected my work as an actor. I mean, as a person ... itís an interesting city, because itís such a political city ó and my father was in politics, but everybodyís in politics here. The mindset here is so political, and everybody wants to be involved, and I think that affects me, and affects anyone who grows up here, because itís different from anyplace else.
Q: What was it like, growing up with a politician in the family?
A: I loved it. I mean, I always perceived my fatherís life as really glamorous, because I was seven when he got on city council. And just going to City Hall was really fun, and going to the chambers was really fun. Campaigning was always fun, and we were part of it, and we would stuff envelopes and make phone calls and go canvassing ó all of that stuff, I really enjoyed. And plus, the people are crazy. So there were all these crazy people in our lives all the time. And theyíre really interesting. So all of that, I think, perhaps shaped me.
Q: Do you follow Boston politics now?
A: Not as much, no. And it makes me sad. Itís something I miss. Because my whole familyís still really hooked in, politically, and everybody knows stuff, and Iím just not part of that community, and I feel left out when I come home. It makes me sad.
Q: I was going to ask you how you lost your Boston accent, but I hear it a little bit now. You donít hear it on ER.
A: It comes back when I come home! I had this great drama teacher, an English teacher, in high school, whose name was Mrs. Doyle, at Notre Dame Academy in Hingham, an all-girlsí Catholic school. We did the Boston Globe Drama Festival, and people from all over the state came, and she said to us, "You canít talk like that. You canít be in these competitions and talk like that." So I started to become aware of it as a sophomore or junior in high school. And then, Iíve been gone for 18 years. So I was made aware of it pretty young. And then I went to speech and all that stuff.
Q: Itís a hard accent to lose.
A: Itís so tough to lose. Itís hard core. And itís tough to imitate. Itís almost never done correctly. And it sounds awful when people do it poorly.
Q: It seems like itís so hard for TV stars to break into movies, even when theyíre acclaimed on television. Do you worry about the TV trap?
A: I mean, sometimes I worry about that, but Iíve also been a part mostly of ensemble shows ... so I worry more about being a woman in this business, and that stuff, than I do the TV thing. Because really, as far as TV goes, there is more interesting stuff for women on TV now than in the movies. So wherever the interesting work is, is where Iíd like to be.
Q: Aside from the fact that Scotland, PA was written and directed by your husband, what attracted you to the film, and to this role?
A: Us working together was a big thing. But also, itís a role that nobody would cast me in. Nobody but my husband would cast me in that role, because itís just not, I donít think, how Iím perceived in this industry. So it was a huge opportunity. It was scary, but very exciting.
Q: Why do you think youíre perceived as not being able or wanting to take on a role like this?
A: I think partially itís sort of how you get cast, and so you get cast as, you know, the sweet wife or the understanding spouse, so people then cast you as that again, and that can perpetuate itself. I think I have to stop complaining about that, because Iíve kind of clawed my way out of it. Not just with this movie. But also, I donít sort of put myself out there as a sort of "sexy person." So thatís also why I donít think I would be cast in a role like this; sheís so, like, sexually frank, and thatís not really what I put out there.
Q: So this role is obviously a huge departure. Is this your first "bad guy"?
A: Yes. Except for my very first job in TV, I played a bad cheerleader. In 1987. So Iíve come full circle.
Q: Are there other villains youíd like to play?
A: I always say I would love to play Heidi Fleiss. But Iím too old now, unfortunately.
Q: You think so?
A: Wasnít she, like, 22?
Q: She never looked 22.
A: Thatís true, she never looked 22! Her story to me is fascinating. And I guess you could call her a villain, perhaps, or a bad guy, but she would not play games with the boys. She did not do what she was supposed to do with the police officers, and she didnít stay in her place, and was punished. And no one else got punished; only her. So thatís a story I would love.
Q: Are you tired of talking about ER? Doesnít mean Iím not going to ask you about it, though.
A: No, you know what, the only thing is people sometimes want wacky anecdotes, and I donít really have any. Thatís the thing: the days of the high jinks and stuff were before me. So there were all these stories about the wacky high jinks on ER, and it totally predates me. So I get tired of scrounging for some wacky thing. But I love my job, so I donít really get tired of talking about it.
Q: How has your life changed since ER? Is anything still the same?
A: Most things are the same. Definitely more people notice me, or know who I am, or look at me. That happened instantaneously: after the first night I was on, the next day, it was like, amazing. Itís just really obvious how many people watch that show. So thatís different.
Q: Do you like being recognized?
A: Yeah, usually itís fine. I mean, most people are really nice about it. Some people are not, and then itís sort of like, I didnít go over to talk to you; you came over to talk to me. Itís mostly really nice, and people are really nice. But then sometimes people will go out of their way to say, "I donít watch television." And I sort of want to go, "Then how do you know who I am, if you donít watch TV?" My husband has a great response, which I say now: when anyone says, "I donít watch TV," I say, "Well you should try it sometime; itís a lot of fun." Because I love television.
Q: What are your favorite shows?
A: I love Frasier. I think itís hilarious and very smart. I love The Sopranos. I really like ER; I think itís a really good show.
Q: What do you think of all the reality shows?
A: That I canít get behind. I really canít. I take it personally. Because I work hard; I think all actors work hard, you know, and it is a craft, and I have a respect for it, and I donít think that the people on Survivor are doing what weíre doing. I donít think itís the same. And I also donít think itís reality. Itís all a sham to me.
Q: Do you ever watch that Trauma: Life in the ER show on the Learning Channel?
A: Yes, I have watched that. But thatís different, because thatís more like a real documentary.
Q: A lot of that show looks like what we see on ER.
A: But you know what the difference is? The doctors tell us this, too. The real way we cheat on our show is time, because there are things that weíll do in trauma ó and thereís always a doctor there, and itís all about making it look real, and weíre all informed as to what the procedure is and what it means and what weíre doing ó but we do it really fast. And so when you see it really done, it just doesnít happen in 30 seconds ó it happens in three minutes.
Q: Are you squeamish by nature?
A: Not really.
Q: So the stuff you see on the set doesnít bother you?
A: Sometimes itís gross. Sometimes it is really gross. You know whatís very gross is we have these fake babies ... and itís gross, because the skin, it looks like the skin of a baby, and you can touch it, and itís beautifully done, but those are really scary. Those gross me out.
Q: How many times have you been vomited on on the show?
A: You know what? Iíve never gotten vomited on. I try not to say this, because it came up the other day at work and someone said, "Oh, weíre going to have to do something about that!"
Q: Is there more vomit on the show than there used to be?
A: They all make jokes about how many times theyíve been vomited on. I once had to step over vomit in one of the episodes, and one of my patients vomited blood, but I was never vomited on. And I was trying to, like, fly under the radar about it, because I know itís going to happen to me if it comes to their attention.
Q: Whatís the most complicated medical term youíve had to learn or memorize?
A: You know, it goes in my head and it goes right out, the stuff I have to learn. It really is like studying for the SATs. It goes in my head, and I manage to spit it out of my mouth, and then itís gone, like, five minutes later. There was one thing I had to say, like two years ago ... it was a medicine, that I could not say. Ceftriaxone. And for some reason ó ceftriaxone is not a hard thing to say; I had to say, like, "Five grams of ceftriaxone," and I couldnít say it, and John Wells was directing, and I was terrified.
Q: Has being on the show made you germ-phobic?
A: Totally. Iím, like, crazy now. The reason Iím germ-crazy from the show is the magnitude of people ó there are so many people on that set, with the background and the crew, and people are coughing and sneezing and touching everything and touching all the food, and all of a sudden I was just like, "Hundreds of people couldíve touched this carrot."
Tamara Wieder can be reached at twieder[a]phx.com