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October 30, 2019

Make It Real

Jayne Atkinson finds truth and love in Bluff City Law.

Melissa Byers
  • NBC
  • NBC
  • NBC
  • NBC
  • NBC

It took Jayne Atkinson just five pages of script to know that she wanted to be a part of the NBC drama Bluff City Law.

Set and shot in Memphis, Bluff City Law is the story of Sydney Straight, played by Caitlin McGee and her father, famed civil rights attorney Elijah Strait, played by Jimmy Smits. In the aftermath of a family tragedy, top corporate attorney Sydney puts aside years of conflict with her father to rejoin his legendary civil rights firm. Atkinson's character, Della Bedford, is a family friend and also a part of the law firm.

Atkinson was impressed with the project from the very beginning. She says, "Well, it was pilot season, and they came to me, and asked for my availability, and was I interested. And I had just turned 60 years old, and I have been in this business a long time, and I sort of basically had decided the kind of part I wanted, and that I needed to feel a lot of love from this business because I wasn't feeling a lot of love from the business.

"And so I just had sort of decided that they had to come and find me now. And they did. They came, they found me, they gave me this script, I read it, I read the first five pages. I hadn't even read my part, and I called my manager and said, 'I want this.' I wanted in on this show because it's so good.

And it went forward from there. They called me. And for my character, Della, there wasn't a lot on the page for the pilot. And I said, 'Guys, you had me at hello,' basically. And they were very relieved because they were very respectful, which is what a girl likes to know and hear. And I said, 'Yes.'

I said, 'Let's do this because you've got something that I think is very special. It's well written. It's got all the things, it's got emotional drive and connectivity. It has humor, and it is on the right side of what needs to be talked about and seen right now.'"

Atkinson is drawn to the characters and relationships portrayed throughout the series, not just her own character's arc. She says, "I have a father. I'm a daughter. That just hooked me right away. And people are messy, and they do silly things. That's why we're here. We're not here to be perfect. And we are here to be lifted up. There's redemption, there's forgiveness, hopefully.

"And that's the other aspect of it. You have these imperfect people that are finding their way with each other, fighting for the right thing. And that's just true. It's just true of life.

"A friend of mine said, 'The only difference between your husband and a stranger is that you give your husband the opportunity to discover you. Your son gives you the opportunity to be a better parent. Your friend gives you the opportunity to be a better friend.'

"I think one of the things that I have said about this show that I truly believe is that there are people who don't do the right thing consciously. And for whatever reasons they do it, they don't care that people will die, they don't care that people will be hurt. And whatever sociopathic mentality that is, I think it isn't the norm.

"I think the norm is that most people are good and want the opportunity to be good. And I don't think I'm a Pollyanna about it. I think that we are shown and maybe guided towards our nastier sides, but I think that in my life, in my experiences, most people are good, and want to do the right thing, and yearn to have a good path to follow, and want to help each other. And I think we need that message right now. I really, really do."

Another element of the series that resonates with Atkinson is the writing and the storylines which go places that other series often won't. The cases on the legal drama are drawn from real life, and the reactions and actions of the characters also reflect human reality.

Atkinson notes, "Every episode is based on a true story. That first episode, the pilot, is a true story about an Hispanic gentleman who was working at a school and was working with a Monsanto chemical that is still on the market. And he is still alive, but we tamped down the way he looks on our show. He is covered in these open lesions and sores. And he did win. They appealed the case, but he won.

"And that's our show. We take cases that are actually true. I don't know that they all win, and I don't know that we'll always win, but this is what we're doing."

The cast is also engaging its audience on social media, keeping its finger on the pulse of reactions. Atkinson says that the reactions have been very strong and positive. The October 14 episode, called "Fire in a Crowded Theater," took on the topic of hate speech and where to draw the line on free speech. Atkinson and others in the cast were gauging reactions in real time.

She says, "[Last night] while we were watching the show, a bunch of us were on the Twitter feed (I am just learning how to handle social media because it's just not something that I have done), and what was consistent was, 'Thank you for handling such a meaty subject in a meaty way.'

"Granted, I would have loved to have this whole case go over several episodes, just to be able to lean into the parents, and to this guy, and to the whole issue. People were really responding to it as, 'Most television shows won't go here.' And they won't go where this show went last night, which is, yes, maybe Elijah was doing theatrics in the courtroom to get an emotional rise, but you know he felt the way he did.

"And when he says to Anthony (cast member Michael Luyowe), 'They just don't understand what we've been through,' it's just really, really powerful. And the response to it was, "Thank you. Thank you for going deep.'"

The writers and cast do not just depend on news articles to approach topics. They also have consultants, and they will talk to people on their staff to get reactions from those who have been in difficult situations, to be sure that the cast is getting it right.

For the episode on free speech, Atkinson says, "Ernie Drucker has written books on civil liberties, and the movement against civil liberties, and the history of civic rebellion, and all of that. And [his wife, my friend, is] an artist, and she wrote me last night. And she said, 'You know, in Germany they have hate speech laws." And I have always agreed with those laws.'

"But here, and as you saw on the show, as it is said, it is a very slippery slope when you start curtailing people's free speech. But what happens, where is the line when there is an incitement with speech to violence?

"We have a lawyer here named Richard Glassman and his daughter, Lauren. And they are our Memphian attorneys that are our consultants, and they're terrific. And I sat with him. I said, What do you think about this?' He said, 'It's really difficult.' I said, 'Do you think that our show is on the right side of the issue?' He said, 'I'm not sure.' I think it is plausible that he could win, but he doesn't necessarily know of a case."

For the October 28 episode, Atkinson had a more personal conversation to guide her in her performance. her character is an LGBTQ activist, along with her wife, and is to be presented with an award. Della wants her son to attend the ceremony, but he still has some bitterness from his teen years when she first came out.

"So what I also love about our cast is that we have very thoughtful, engaged people in our cast who work very well with the topics and the writers too. And the writers work really well with us," Atkinson says. "My episode is an [episode concerning] LGBTQ, I am going to be a Woman of the Year, and I have to give a speech.

"And the gal who was the head writer, Lisa Morales, we sat down, and I sat down with the gal who changed my life and another gal who's our script supervisor, they're all out in the community, and said, 'So talk to me. Talk to me about your experiences and what is it that ... What is your experience being out and gay in the 21st century?'

"And across the board, they are happy now, but it was a very painful and shame-filled, to-begin-with experience, and still have has some residue of that and difficulty with that.

"And so we worked within that context with a speech of a Woman of the Year who came out at a late age. So what does she have to tell? And she worked with me, and she allowed me to interpret her experience through what I was saying and what I felt should be happening in that moment in time. And she leaned in, and we wrote. She worked with me, we did it together.

"And I really appreciate that because I've been doing this a long time. I've worked with a lot of writers. And I'm not a writer, but what I am is, I know when words speak to the human experience and make an impact. And I love, I love that they respect that, that they respect the years that I've put in in interpreting the human experience so that you feel it, and believe it, and see it.

"And I so value that. It's not a battle, it's not a struggle, there aren't egos. There are healthy egos."

Those healthy egos extend to the younger cast members of Bluff City Law, as well. Atkinson explains, "When we were shooting the pilot, Dean Georgaris (executive producer of Bluff City Law) sent me a picture of all the young ones with headphones on watching Jimmy and I do our scene together. He said, 'You could have heard a pin drop, Jayne.' It was the sweetest, most wonderful thing."

It's something that Atkinson does not take for granted. Just before she was offered the part in Bluff City Law, she was considering taking some time off from working in television. Fate had other ideas.

"I did a one-woman show this year at Dallas Theater Center called Ann by Holland Taylor about Governor Ann Richards. I based Della on Governor Richards. I got the contract for Ann and the job offer on the same day.

"I had to do both, and it was not easy for all parties because suddenly Ann was not in first place, they were in second place, which meant that we had to get an understudy, which we hadn't put in the budget. And NBC had to work around me doing a play seven shows a week in Washington.

"So the first couple of episodes, I'm a little light in, but the point is that having done this since I was in my mid-20s, I found, all of a sudden, this wonderful embarrassment of riches. And I'm very moved by that, and I'm very proud of that.

"And to see these younger actors on television, not in the theater because theater is different, sitting there watching and listening to their elders, in a sense. I don't think that happens very often. But it happened on our show. And that's the other behind-the-scenes gem of this show that no one would honestly know, but I'm telling you.

"And it's not like we said, 'Sit there, and listen, and watch your elders.'  We're just doing our work, but they are watching because they have long careers ahead, and they want to see how we do it, and steal some things, I hope. I hope, because that's what I've done. You steal from the people you admire, and that's perfectly legitimate. It is the greatest form of flattery when someone sort of steals the way that you might do something.

"And I'm Mama Della, so every Monday night I have everybody over to my apartment. I have a big old couch, so everybody who's here comes over, sits on the couch, and we watch the show together, and we just hug each other, and we say, 'Great work.' Because we are shooting out of town and because we shot the pilot out of town, we kind of had Camp Bluff City Law.

And it shows, I think. I think it shows in the ease and the way that we all are together on screen because we kind of camped out, and it was like a theater troupe."

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