She’s the Boss
Actress and activist Amy Aquino takes charge on screen and in life.
“Yeah, if we have a spaghetti commercial, we’ll bring you in...”
These are the words that Amy Aquino says she heard pretty frequently in her early career. An Italian by birth, Aquino’s “look” was a liability in the early 80s when she began searching for roles. She had serious pedigree as a graduate of both Harvard University and Yale School of Drama, and had made a name for herself in a few off-Broadway roles in New York.
However, in a time when most lead television and movie roles went to white actresses, Aquino was somehow considered “wildly ethnic” and usually cast in small supporting parts.
Since landing her first starring role on CBS’s Brooklyn Bridge, on which she played a 1950s Jewish mother, times have progressed and Aquino has appeared in recurring roles on some of television’s most memorable shows.
Over her 30-year career she has made a name for herself playing serious, professional, often hard-nosed characters on shows such as Picket Fences, ER, Felicity, Everybody Loves Raymond, and most recently, Amazon Prime’s hit police drama Bosch.
On Bosch, which is based on the best-selling novels by Michael Connelly, Aquino plays Lt. Grace Billets, commanding officer of the LAPD’s Hollywood Homicide Division. She is the direct superior of the show’s title character, renegade detective Harry Bosch, played by Titus Welliver.
You often play tough, no-nonsense, professional characters like doctors, lawyers and judges. Do those characters suit your personality?
They do and they don’t. I clearly have a bossy part of me, but there’s also this part of me that is uniquely pussycat, and if you put a dog or a baby in front of me, or if you criticize something, I can fall apart.
There was a time 20 years ago-- a friend of mine said that he was going to get buttons made for all of my friends that said, “Yes, Amy--you’re right. I’m wrong.” I’ve actually evolved since then, though. I really have! But I am definitely comfortable in a leadership role.
I’ve done a lot of advocacy work. I was an officer of the Screen Actors Guild and then SAG-AFTRA and helped to get them merged. I’ve always had that part of me that can certainly sound very scary and authoritative if I need to, so I’ve been able to make a career of it. I think I’ve probably played more judges than any other woman!
On your Twitter feed you describe yourself as an actress and an activist. Why is that?
When I see that there’s an injustice or that something’s being done in a way that can really be improved, it is nearly impossible for me to not say something and try to change it.
I started up with the union work when I was working on my first big show. The cast noticed that we were working hours that seemed really long compared to what we were being paid. We contacted the union, and it turned out that we were completely right. There needed to be an adjustment made, but it didn’t happen.
It finally occurred to me that, okay, I could be the person who’s bitching about it from the outside, or I could take action and I could run for the board. I could be one of the leaders and try to make change. That seemed to be the only thing that made sense.
I need to be able to take care of the people around me, and I need to try to right wrongs when they happen. Someone once said, “It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it.” I don’t have kids, so that’s where I focus the nurturing part of myself.
On Bosch, you play Lieutenant Grace Billets of LAPD’s Hollywood Homicide Division. What is it that drew you to this role?
The reason I was attracted to playing this particular character in a procedural, which, for the record, is not the type of show that I’m attracted to, is that she’s not treated like a character in a procedural. Bosch is not, for all intents and purposes, a police procedural. It’s really a character study that is based around a homicide or two.
I’ve played the lieutenant to a number of different renegade cops. What’s different about Grace is that she and Harry [Bosch] are friends, and they’re real friends. They came up through the ranks together. She loves and respects him and she has to balance that with her job to manage him and to keep him from being fired, which she’s not always completely successful at.
Grace is also somebody who is very smart intellectually, and very analytical, which is what makes her a great detective… but she’s not necessarily so smart emotionally. In fact, she’s kind of a mess underneath it all, and that makes her interesting.
That, I think, is what makes the whole show so interesting. Everyone is three-dimensional. Everyone has strong areas and then areas where they are idiots. She is no exception. The relationship that she had in the first season [with female coworker Kizmin Rider, played by Rose Rollins], how she deals with her sexuality…That sort of thing gives her all kinds of texture and gives me all sorts of things to work with.
What kind of preparations did you have to do to play a police commander?
Tim Marcia and Mitzi Roberts are the two primary consultants on the show. They’re real police officers - partners. They’re amazing. I don’t do anything that Mitzi doesn’t do. She is my touchstone. I did a ride-along with both of them, and we went through a training session that they do with officers. It was fascinating!
You walk into a room and it’s got this full-size, life-size screen where they project a scenario. There’s an officer who’s manning the computer and he can change the outcome of the scene, like a video game. You’re holding a gun - it’s a laser gun, but it has heft and the feel of a real gun. You have to deal with the scenarios; you call out and you talk to the people on the screen and they respond to you. Typically, either you get shot or they get shot.
I had them laughing because more often than not I’d scream some expletive as I was getting shot, or as they pulled out a gun, or as I blew somebody away. Sometimes you realize that what the person was reaching for was not a gun-- it was a tissue, or a license-- and you realize that you just mortally wounded somebody for no reason. It gave me such an appreciation for what law enforcement has to deal with all the time.
Is there any particular advice that Mitzi has given you that has really stuck with you?
I met with her right before I did my first costume fitting. They had pulled out shoes for me, flats, and I said, “I need a little bit of a heel.” The costume designer argued with me, telling me a cop would wear flats. I asked Mitzi, and she said, “Oh, you’re a woman. Of course you’re going to want a heel, because you want to be bigger.”
The other thing that stuck with me was when I asked her, “I’m sitting. I’m basically a manager, sitting in the office most of the time. Do I need to wear my gun? It’s not very comfortable.”
She said, “If you’re a man, you can take your gun off during the day while you’re in the office. You don’t need it. You’re not going to pull it. If you’re a woman, you keep your gun on all the time, because you need to reinforce the impression that you mean business.”
That was very helpful for me in terms of understanding the reality, still, of being a woman in law enforcement.
Watching Bosch, it seems that most police officers have to decide between two paths-- the “street” life, with patrols, excitement, and gritty and dangerous times, vs. the “command” route which is safer and more office-based. Grace is on the command path, but sometimes it doesn’t seem like she enjoys the politics that go with it.
She’s in a hard place, and in that way she’s really like me. With my union work, I loved organizing things and finding better ways to run things and to be more effective. I was absolutely terrible at kissing ass or the politics, and Grace is, too.
She just likes the idea of managing cases and making sure that people are being used in the right way - that she’s got the right guys on the job, and that they have the resources they need, and that they’re prioritizing the work the way they need to be. The notion of maneuvering for advancement is not in her wheelhouse at all. For her, it’s not about ambition - it’s about getting the job done.
So do you think you would take the “command” route, personally?
I think I would go with command, because that’s sort of where I went with my life. Frankly, when I was finishing up college, while I was pre-med, I had already decided by my third year that being a doctor and administering help is great, but what I really wanted to do was try to change the way that healthcare and medicine were being administered.
I liked the idea of working on a macro level, so I had already determined that if the acting didn’t work out, that I would have probably gone into public health so I could try to change the way we approach it.
I think the same would be true for me in law enforcement. Take the issue of racial profiling, for example. That would be an injustice that I would like to try to figure out how to fix it, rather than being the person on the ground that is learning, trying to deal with it on a case-by-case basis.
I would enjoy the challenge of really analyzing the problem, the overall issue, and figuring out how it can best be resolved on a macro level. I think I would definitely be going the direction of Grace, and I would probably have exactly the same problem because I don’t want to kiss anybody’s ass!
The first and second seasons of Bosch are available now to stream or download from Amazon Prime.