Harmon as Hazel King in Buried in Barstow
Harmon with Timothy Granaderos as Travis
Angie Harmon is on a film set in North Carolina — actually a mica mine, of all places — but it looks like she's in the middle of the California desert. She's standing in a hole, which is supposed to be a grave — a location that evokes the title of her new Lifetime movie, Buried in Barstow — and she's not alone. Her character, Hazel King, has just kicked — yes, kicked — a man named Travis (played by Timothy Granaderos) into the hole for possible permanent residence, and then jumped in after him.
This is the scene that grabbed Harmon's interest when she first read the script — the revelation that Hazel is more than just the middle-aged diner waitress and single mother the world knows her as. It's our first inkling that she is in fact a former contract killer. So the scene is pivotal.
Shooting it got off to a shaky start, though. The "grave" had been dug the day before, and no one realized it was positioned right over an underground spring, which leaked water into the hole all night long.
"It was almost like a swamp," director Howie Deutch says. Adjustments had to be made, and Harmon, as an executive producer on the project, had to worry about them. "When we got to the set, there was no grave," she says. "So it couldn't be shot in the way that I saw it in my mind. But that's okay. I get it. I'm an actor. My job is to pretend."
It's good to see Harmon back on TV after a six-year sabbatical — and, for the first time, as a complicated, kickass antihero with a powerful physicality, someone likely to be hiding a curved karambit knife up her sleeve. For decades her beat had been do-no-harm, straight-arrow law enforcement types. She played a forensic criminologist on the syndicated Baywatch Nights, stumbled around as a rookie FBI agent on ABC's C-16: FBI, broke through as an assistant district attorney on NBC's Law & Order and warmed hearts as a quirky homicide detective on the TNT fan favorite Rizzoli & Isles. Harmon was a busy and popular actress, but career-wise, she felt boxed in.
She has been "underrated," says Deutch, who has directed such hits and cult classics as Pretty in Pink, The Great Outdoors and The Replacements. "She's probably the best action actress I've worked with. She could play any of those parts in the Marvel movies, and people would be like, 'Wow — how come we haven't seen her do this earlier?'"
It's not that she hasn't tried. In 1997, Harmon auditioned for the role of Trinity in The Matrix. The directors were open to hiring an actress with a slim résumé, as long as she could throw a punch.
Looking back on it now, Harmon laughs at how she struggled to understand the script at her audition. "I was asking them, 'Can y'all explain this to me? I mean, it seems super cool,'" she recalls. "And they were like, 'Angie, it's okay. Every actor who has come in has said the same thing.'" (The role of Trinity went to Carrie-Anne Moss, "who did it so brilliantly, so wonderfully," Harmon says.)
Years later, Harmon was offered one of the lead roles in the first Charlie's Angels film — but Law & Order wouldn't let her go. "That was a really heartbreaking moment for me," she says. "Who knows? Maybe my career would have gone in a completely different way, had I been able to do it."
Leading roles in major action films continued to elude her ("I wanted She-Hulk so badly. I've been petitioning to play that one for years"). After a while, she says, the reaction she began to get was that she had missed her window. "I got the full-on, 'She's too old,'" Harmon says. "It was just like, 'Wow!'"
She's approaching fifty, but older male actors, of course — such as Keanu Reeves (fifty-seven), Tom Cruise (sixty this July) and Liam Neeson (seventy this June) — continue to do fight scenes without anyone checking ID. "Aren't we lowering the age limit of which birthday you should roll out a coffin on?" Harmon asks. "Yes, I'm older now, but I'm not dead!"
She recognized that if her career was ever to go in a different direction, she'd have to take matters into her own hands. To that end, she cut her teeth directing — first, a little-seen short film called Stockholm, and later, the hundredth episode of Rizzoli & Isles. ("I was floored when they offered me that.") She also took an interest in producing, which would give her more of a say in projects she signed on to. Her overall multipicture deal with Lifetime has her executive-producing for the first time and also directing multiple titles to be determined.
One of her major stipulations as executive producer and star of this first project, Buried in Barstow, was that the shoot be in or near Charlotte, North Carolina. Traveling between her home and the Rizzoli & Isles set in Los Angeles was "a hell of a commute," she says, and she'd promised her three daughters she wouldn't leave them like that again.
Shooting in North Carolina made it easier, but there were a few rough days — getting to Shelby (about forty-five minutes away) for diner scenes, or to Cherokee (a few hours away) for casino scenes. But her girls rallied, making themselves breakfast and getting themselves to and from school. "They crushed it," Harmon says proudly. "And they realized Mommy's not just an Uber driver with a bank account."
Barstow's crime-thriller script had been passed around quite a bit before Harmon took the wheel. It germinated in the mid-'90s, when writer Thompson Evans moved in with an older woman and discovered that she had a dark past. "It wasn't quite like Hazel's," he says. "But it was like, 'What have I gotten into?!'" When he wrote the first draft of Barstow in 2004, he thought the film would have to be rated a hard R — for violence and language.
By 2005, Evans's script hit the Blacklist, generating some buzz as a female version of David Cronenberg's A History of Violence. Many producers (Celine Rattray, Rob Lorenz), directors (Taylor Hackford), studios (Warner Bros.), and stars (Sandra Bullock) got attached to the property over the years — but they always became unattached. Then, three-and-a-half years ago, a good friend sent the script to Harmon. "She was like, 'You are going to lose your mind when you read this,'" she recalls. Harmon asked Evans for a meeting right away.
"Once I met Angie, it was almost like I had written it for her, and I didn't even know it," Evans says. "There's a complexity to Angie's work. She gives off this energy — it's like, still waters run deep. And that's the way Hazel is to her core."
Evans told Harmon he had been fiddling around with the script, thinking of turning it into a TV series, and that he had a first season already mapped out. With Harmon and Lifetime aboard, it has the potential for a movie franchise following Hazel as she gets back in the game to protect those she loves — and with the first film's cliffhanger ending, further installments could easily follow, as Hazel takes on a crime syndicate, a violent family and a human trafficking ring. The first film airs June 4, and a second is in the early stages of development; Harmon hopes to direct an entry somewhere down the line.
The world of the film, Evans says, "is a universe unto itself — a sort of modern-day Western in which Barstow is the town and Hazel is the de facto sheriff. In many ways, she's a real-life superhero," he says. "Yes, she's committed murder and she's done terrible things, but there's a deep-rooted moral foundation, too. She's the matriarch, the defender, the protector, the white knight of this empire, and people get involved in her life either in a threatening or a helpful manner. The potential for the world is limitless."
Although the films will air on Lifetime — long known for "women's movies" — the considerable violence in Barstow hasn't been muted (though the language has been toned down). Harmon wanted hardhitting action and fought for it, at one point insisting on a shootout.
"You can't have a story about an assassin and have it not be dark and gritty," Harmon says. "This is what they hired me for! To get away from the typical, cookie-cutter Lifetime movies. And to their credit, they were like, 'Okay, it's a lot more violence than we've ever had, but I trust you.' So we took it as far as we could go."
In addition to Harmon, the executive producers of Buried in Barstow are Michael Rosenberg, Laura Notarianni, Stan Spry and Eric Scott Woods. The movie is produced for Lifetime by Untitled Entertainment.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #5, 2022, under the title, "Class Action."