Hiding In Plain Sight
by Jay S. Jacobs
Mary McCormack has spent most of the past decade circling stardom and with the new USA Network series In Plain Sight; she may finally touch down as a full-blown star. In the new series – created by first-time producer David Maples – McCormack plays Mary Shannon, a tough and competent Federal Marshall in the Witness Protection program. The series tracks her cases as she helps newly-on-the-lam citizens deal with their new surroundings – all the while Shannon is having trouble keeping her own life in order.
McCormack first caught our eyes in one of the main characters in the heavily-hyped, critically-acclaimed but short-lived drama Murder One. At about the same time, she opened eyes on the big screen as Howard Stern’s patient wife in Private Parts. In the years since, she has been a regular in such series as The West Wing, K Street and ER. Her brother, Eric, has also become a TV staple – playing Will on the popular series Will and Grace.
As In Plain Sight is making it onto TV, the actress is on Broadway in a revival of Boeing-Boeing, which has earned McCormack a Tony nomination. She has also made her mark in other films such as Dickie Roberts: Child Star, K-Pax, Mystery Alaska, Gun Shy, Full Frontal and most recently played John Cusack’s estranged ex in last year’s horror film 1408.
However, now she is looking forward to settling into her new series and seeing where it takes her. Recently McCormack sat down with us and a few other websites in a conference call to discuss her experiences on In Plain Sight.
What has been the most challenging part of your role?
Well, the role is such a nice fit for me. Honestly, I think the most challenging part of this job was just how much I’m in it. I’ve never really experienced that kind of workload before. You know it’s challenging and fulfilling, it’s sort of you know one of those things, be careful what you wish for. It’s such a great part and it’s – you know you see her at work, and you see her at home. The sort of challenge for me was I went to Albuquerque with an eight-week old and was working sort of 13 to 19-hour days and for me that was the most challenging part was just staying afloat.
How did you come into the part? Did you audition like normal? And why did you decide that you wanted to do this part?
You know I was looking for a show to do and I was reading just lots of scripts and I just picked it up and it was in a stack of scripts and I read it. I remember just laughing out loud a bunch of times, which I rarely do, even with really funny scripts – just because I don’t know when I’m reading you know you almost sort of clock a joke in your head more than you laugh out loud. And this one, I just remember actually sitting in my living room just laughing. And I just called my agent and said I really, really want to go in and meet on this one and who are they after? And do I have a chance? And you know just expressing a bunch of interest. And so, then I went and met with Paul and David and they didn’t ask me to read actually. I was willing to read, but they didn’t ask me to read. We just sat and talked for a long time. And then, yes, they offered it to me after that.
From the pilot, I think you mentioned at one point that Mary was from New Jersey. Do you know much about your character background; how she ended up in New Mexico or was it basically that’s where the job was at the time?
Yes, that’s what we talked about – David and I. The trick of TV, of course, is that you can make a bunch of that stuff up and you know it all might change one day when the writer decides to write something else, you know because with television things get revealed slowly. That’s something a lot of actors hate about the medium, but I kind of like it. But you know we just discussed that, yes, with the Marshal Service it’s usually a matter of placement and that her relationship to Albuquerque and sort of the southwest is that she went there under protest. And so, her energy is so different than the mellow, you know sort of relaxed place she’s been put in.
Congratulations on the recent Tony nomination for Boeing-Boeing.
You’ve done a lot of work in theater, I was just wondering if you could compare and contrast that experience – like the live experience with doing a show like In Plain Sight.
Well, you know the acting is the same. I mean acting is always sort of the same – like you want to be – you know you’re pretending, and you want to make it as real as you can. That’s the similarity. The mediums other than that are completely different. I mean you know with camera work you’re doing really small detailed work and you know if you do anything too big you’ve sort of failed. And with stage, especially with the play I’m doing right now, I’m doing a farce, and it’s so over the top that you can’t actually be too big. So, it’s just completely different. And it was actually challenging for me to do the play because I’ve spent the last – I don’t think I’ve done a play in seven or eight years. So, for me to remind myself to be enormous and to be brave enough to be big, it was actually a real challenge.
Can you talk a little bit about what’s coming up in the show for your character? I mean all the episodes of this season are already filmed, correct?
I’d just love to know a little bit about what’s coming, what people can expect…
Well, you know, her relationship with Raphael gets investigated a little bit more, you know where they stand and what they have and all that. And Raphael sort of spends more and more time with my sister, which complicates things. And let’s see what else, you know each week there’s a different witness story, so you get that every week. In terms of my sister and my mother, they continue sort of down their road of destruction. And, yes, I mean I don’t know how much I can tell without giving it away. I don’t know what I’m allowed to tell. Brandi has – you know you see her use the drugs, in the pilot you see her sniff some sort of illicit drug and that storyline also continues. So, they wreak some havoc, as I think everyone can sort of see is coming. Oh, I think I’m not giving anything away.
Discussing your mother and your sister – obviously the other women in the family have a much looser concern about law and order than Mary. How do you think that she got involved in law enforcement with a background like that? And what are Lesley Ann and Nikki both like to work with?
Well, I love working with both of them. I mean I think it’s so interesting. I mean to me, you know I had a mother, my mother was always, and I think I can say this without hurting her feelings, my mother was always late and is often late, and I’m always fifteen minutes early to everything. So, I think we’ve all experienced sort of becoming who we are as a reaction to what we come from. And I think Mary Shannon sort of raised herself and had to look after herself from day one and probably is really, really – I think in my mind this is how I explained it – is really, really frustrated and really, really angry about not having a mother who was into the law and into structure and rules and all that. So, she went as far as you could go with that and keeps everybody in line and keeps a to-do-list on her you know dashboard. And all of that is sort of a reaction to what she comes from, I think. As far as working with those two ladies – I love it. They’re both great. Lesley Ann is one of my all-time favorite actresses and she’s never done a television show, so to get her to do this is really a coup.
Your role of Mary is very witty and smart. Your comedic timing, has it always come natural to you or is it something that you worked at?
No, I don’t know if I have actually good comedic timing. But I don’t think I’ve worked at any timing. I think timing is probably something you can’t work at. Well, I don’t know. I definitely didn’t work at it.
We were talking to your co-star a couple weeks ago – Fred Weller – and he was saying that the tech advisors got really weird when you would ask them questions when you guys were training for the role. Did you find that being the case – how they get a little shady?
No, we only had one guy. We were only allowed to have one guy. The Marshals Service actually allowed us to have a technical advisor. These Witness Protection Marshals take an oath, a lifetime oath to never to talk about their service, ever. So even after they retire, until their death they’re not allowed to tell their wives, they’re not allowed to talk to anybody about any of it. So, it’s impossible to get information, of course. But the Marshals Service did allow us one retired Marshal. I think probably it was a dual function. I’m not sure it was for us as much as it was for them to sort of know what we were doing and to know if we were going to present it properly. And I mean they actually were excited about the show and read the script and liked it and all that. But they gave us this man who is lovely, named Charles Almanza, who was our technical advisor, and there were situations where he wanted us to tell the story properly and he wanted us to sort of tell the story the way the Marshals would do it. But once in a while if the details got too specific, he couldn’t get involved. Like we’d say, “What about – Charlie, in this situation where would I take this person? What would be the name of the place I would take them?” He’s like I can’t tell you the name. I’m like okay, is it a house? And he’s like, yes. And I’m like, Charlie, is it like a basement of a school? What is it? Is it like the back of a warehouse? And he’s like maybe. You know so sometimes it was a little bit of a guessing game, but we were always happy to have him. I mean I was thrilled to have him just so we don’t look like idiot cops – you know just with all the gun stuff and arrests. And there are so many people doing that badly on television that it is nice to have someone around to say you’d never push a guy in a car like that. Here’s how you’d do it – you know.
Right, this is how you kill someone.
Yes, that helps.
What’s your favorite part about working on the show?
Well, I think my favorite part about working on the show is I love team sports. I love the crew a lot. I love hanging out with the crew. I mean I usually stay on set. I love the other actors on this show. Fred Weller has become one of my best friends. All of them – Paul Ben-Victor – and they’re all great. I just love hanging out with a group of people. So, I’m in the right job for that. In terms of this show versus all my other television experience or film experience, I love this part a lot. Like this part to me feels like David wrote it for me. And he didn’t, which is just weird. I mean it honestly feels like if I could have dreamt up a role that I would be comfortable in and enjoy doing, this would be it. And it’s a nice fit. I think she’s cool. I want to hang out with her.
In the pilot, I found the interaction with the Native American community really interesting. Is that thing pretty much continued throughout most episodes or does it just come in here and there?
Here and there.
Since you’ve acted from the stage and movies and on several television series, do you prefer any format over the other?
I love them all for different reasons. I know it’s a cop-out answer. I do love them all for different reasons. I think television might be my favorite, if I had to choose one, because I like the familial aspect of a big crew. I really like you know – I usually play on the softball team with the crew. And I like people having babies. And I just like hanging out with the same large group of people for years. It’s a nice way to go to work.
You’re joining kind of what I think is a pretty cool group of strong women – female characters kind of having to do with law and law enforcement and … cable TV. Do you have much of an interest or sense of like you know – performers like Kyra Sedgwick in The Closer, Holly Hunter in Saving Grace and Glenn Close in Damages. It seems to be a pretty welcoming territory for female actresses…
Yes, I actually don’t watch them, and I should. I just stuck a few of them on my TiVo and I was like what is all that? What’s going on here? But I’m thrilled that at least right now people seem to be willing to make room for us, too. And I think it’s a pretty excellent trend. I think it’s weird that it’s such big news because – I mean it’s not weird because it is big news. I don’t know for such a long-time women’s parts have just not been that cool, you know. And now finally people are willing to sort of be less likable. You know for a long-time woman had to be the moral center and had to know right from wrong and had to sort of not be sexual creatures and not ever take a shortcut, and you know all those things and that was sort of like what the guys did. So, I think it’s about time and really refreshing and I’m thrilled that we’re allowed to join it. I mean David wrote this so long ago, it might have even been written as those were being written or before, but I’m thrilled that people seem to be willing to have another. I hope they continue. We enjoy doing it.
I was just wondering – most of the USA shows are like the half season, like a 13-episode format. Is this what In Plain Sight will be?
Yes, we shot 13 this season. It’s already shot. And the first two were combined for the pilot. So, we have 11 episodes left to air. And then if we get invited back, which I hope we do, I don’t know how many we’ll do – probably the same, or sometimes in the second season of cable shows they do a few more. I don’t know.
So, you prefer that – the half season format over the full season?
I do. I do. I’ve got two little kids.
What do you think it is about this show that will draw in viewers?
Well, I hope it’s the writing – you know the sense of humor, the fact that the characters are a little bit off-beat. When I read the script, I laughed out loud a few times, which is rare. Things that I thought were going to happen didn’t happen. I hope people want to laugh and sort of follow an interesting… I mean also it’s interesting that I think each week you get a little bit of both kind of shows. You know you get a procedural because each week you get a new story about a witness and how they ended up hiding in Albuquerque. I think something appealing about the show is that you know you get both the procedural aspect and you get a serial aspect. And I think that’s satisfying, at least it is for me.
I know that people on the Witness Protection Program – they don’t get to choose where they relocate. But I was just wondering if you could choose where would you go?
Golly, I’d like to live in London.
Why is that?
Well, my husband is from there. I mean you can’t go where your family is, but my husband is English, and we spend a lot of time in London, so I know it and like it.
What has been your favorite scene to film so far, if you can tell us about it?
Let’s see – my favorite scene to film maybe was that – I don’t know if you guys have seen this episode, but the one with the Trojan horse. Have you seen that one?
No, I’ve only seen the pilot and the next two after that.
Oh, okay. It’s an episode that Fred and I sort of get in a standoff. We end up in an abandoned bar in a sort of gun standoff. And so, I shot the scene with Fred where I think he might die and he thinks I might die, and I think it’s a really beautifully written scene.
It sounds good.
There’s one thing I really like about your character is that she’s really very brilliant professionally and yet her personal life is kind of screwed up, and I’ve noticed that in some other roles that you’ve played in in the past too. Why is that kind of a dichotomy interesting to you as an actress?
Well, I think it’s probably something we see a lot, right. I mean with successful people they focus their energy on their work, and you know unfortunately some things like marriages or relationships and other things slide a little bit. Usually it’s people hiding themselves, right? They’re hiding from something they don’t want to look at and so they hide in their work. I think that happens a lot. So, I love that David sort of has her hiding as well. She’s hiding from her own fear of intimacy and she’s hiding from her own anger at her mother and she’s hiding from all that stuff, so she just focuses on work you know. I think it’s sort of a beautiful backdrop that she hides people for a living, and she’s sort of hiding as well.
How has the experience of working on this show been different from that of working on the other shows that you’ve been a regular on?
You know I think this one is so different mainly because of the workload. For me, I just have never had this big a part. And I said it before it’s a case of be careful what you wish for. You know I was I just want that role that’s – and sort of dreamt up this role, and now I have this role and she’s cool and it’s funny and she gets great lines and you know I get the gun and the car. I’ve got the best role in the world. And you know what comes with that is really, really, really long days and a lot of pressure. So, I think that’s been the toughest. That’s been the biggest challenge for me. And that’s been the difference is that I feel a lot more pressure and I care about it a lot more, too. I care about everything a lot more. I care about the crew a lot more because I feel responsible now. You know I feel like this is on me a little bit, so I want it to be a nice experience for everybody.
Okay, first of all, you said “I get the car.” You drive a Ford Probe – hello.
But it’s cool. She loves that little car.
I think it’s a classic. I love it. I love that she’s just sort of stuck on it. She’s a creature of habit.
Well, I was just going to ask about the whole being a cop thing and if that’s just fun as an act. I mean obviously many actors on television get to do the…
Yes, I’ve never done it before. It is fun. I mean you know she’s kind of a bad ass. She’s a bad ass without being a superhero, which I like. Like I don’t think David made her… you know like when she has a fight, you’ll see in some episodes when she fights, she actually gets hurt. You know I mean I think it’s not always pretty. But she still can look after herself and really mess somebody up if she needs to, which I just love. Of course, it’s great. I mean I’m built for that as well and I feel like I’ve never really gotten to do it. I mean I look like – you know my body looks like I might be a Marshal and I’ve never really played a cop. So, it’s nice.
A Marshal and a German stewardess – that…
Exactly, I said recently, and I feel this is true that for the first time in my entire career I’m the right size for the role – both roles.
What has been your most memorable moment you’ve had from filming this show?
You know when I shot that scene with the Native American in the bathroom where I throw the soap at his groin? I was so sick when we shot that scene that I was throwing up between takes in a bucket. That’s memorable. So, when I see that – actually I had some sort of stomach bug that I’d gotten from my baby and I was so ill, but we had to shoot it that night because we were losing that location. And I actually would just like say a line, throw up, say a line, throw the soap, throw up. You know it was unbelievable. I was honestly just barely getting through it.
I was wondering if there are any guest stars we should be looking forward to this season.
Yes, Dave Foley is great in – I don’t know what number it is, but it’s called “A Trojan Horse.” I think it might be four. Dave Foley is excellent in that. And we pick up Sherry Stringfield – is really good. And oh, gosh, Wendell Pierce – he is my favorite of the whole season. He was phenomenal. I mean Wendell Pierce is like a brilliant actor and it was a huge coup to get him. He had worked with the director of that episode before. So, I think he came really for him and he loved the writing and the role. But he’s amazing in it. I mean he’s just really moving. I don’t know what number his is. It’s called “Iris Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.”
Do you have any dream guest star that you’d like to see on the show?
Oh, my gosh. That’s a big question. Of course, there are so many. I want to drag everyone I love down there. No, I’d have to think about that because that’s big. I’ve got to like think, you’ve got to call me back for that.
Would you ever be interested in writing or directing for the shows if they gave you the opportunity?
I don’t feel like I really want to direct. My husband is a director and I see what the job – I really know that job well. And I certainly love to watch directors work. I don’t feel decisive enough to direct. Writing interests me more, but neither so much. I really think I have my hands full with the acting.
The show is filmed in Albuquerque, which is sort of off of the normal New York, LA, Canada radar for most shows. What’s it like working there and how do you feel that the city sort of contributes to the flavor of the show?
Well, I mean I liked working there. Albuquerque is sort of a great city. I mean it’s interesting because when people think of New Mexico they would always say oh, you’re in New Mexico. Oh, it’s gorgeous and Santa Fe is beautiful. And I was like I know, but we’re going to Albuquerque. And no one really knows having – people certainly – lots of people know Albuquerque, but it’s not what they talk about when they talk about New Mexico. But we actually really enjoyed it. I mean for me I like it more than this other city. It feels more like a city actually. I mean it has a university and so therefore it’s more – I don’t know – more interesting. You know it’s diverse and there’s a lot going on culturally. It’s bigger and less touristy and it feels like a real place – like people really live there. And I don’t know we enjoyed a lot. I think in terms of what it contributes to the show – just New Mexico in general really contributes to our show. There’s nothing else on TV like that – you know with the big sky and sort of that landscape, which is really like another planet. There’s no one else shooting there right now. So, it’s really special and it looks like you could get lost there. You know it looks like a place you might go to start over.
What would you like to say to everyone who is a fan and supporter of you and your work?
Thank you, of course. I mean my goodness you know I’m doing this play right now and after I leave the theater, I was saying this to my husband the other night because there are so many people outside who want autographs. They’ve just seen the play and they get to tell you exactly what they thought, and you know they’re still laughing. And you get this sort of instant feedback. And it’s so much fun for me. Sometimes some of the other actors think like oh, I have to go out there and do that or they don’t go out between shows. And I always go out because I just feel like how sweet that people are waiting around to get my autograph. But also, I guess because I’ve done so much film and television, I don’t get to talk to people about the work ever. And it’s nice to hear that people have enjoyed your work you know. So, I would say thank you. I get to do what I love, and I get to do it because people you know enjoy it. And that’s a treat.
I know you said you’re doing the play, but do you have any other shows or projects that are coming up soon for us to look forward to?
You know, I don’t right now. I have this. I mean this I went from shooting In Plain Sight in Albuquerque to having Christmas and then right into rehearsing the play. And now I’ll be doing the play all summer. So hopefully we’ll be going back to Albuquerque right after the play. I mean that’s my – I’m knocking on wood as I say that. There I just knocked.
It seems that Marshall ends up being Mary’s confidante for the most part since they can actually talk about what’s going on in her work life at least. Does Mary have anyone she would actually consider a friend in New Mexico or mainly if she is too busy with her work and family?
Yes, no, we don’t see any evidence of that yet. I mean we’ll see what David does. I don’t think she’s a very friendly person. You know, I don’t think that’s a strength. In fact, in episode four, there’s a line between Fred’s character and mine where he says, “You know you’re my best friend.” And she says, “You’re my only friend.” So, yes, I think that’s it. I mean I don’t think she has really any friends. I had to say it out loud.
Hello, can you tell us besides when you were sick another funny moment that happened either while filming or just hanging out on the set?
Let’s see, let’s see. Golly, I wish I’d thought of that ahead of time. I’m going to waste everybody’s time by sitting here thinking. Oh, I know I can tell you about Fred. I constantly teased Fred because he’s so vain and he wears – between takes he puts in retainers sometimes. And he says they’re not retainers, they’re Invisalign – very defensive about that. And then he also carries – oh, my gosh, he’s going to kill me for this – he also carries in his suit pocket – he carries – sometimes he carries a little mirror so he can check his hair. So, I give him a lot of heat for that because I always say he’s the chick and I’m the guy.
I’m a West Wing fan. I just wanted to ask what it was like working on that show – you experience there and any stories…
That was a dream job. I mean when I took the West Wing job, sort of a week later when we were negotiating my deal, I found out I was pregnant. And I called John Wells to come clean because I just felt like I couldn’t sort of negotiate a deal and you know show up something that I wasn’t when he offered it to me. And of course, they were great and said don’t be silly. We don’t care and it’ll be wonderful, and you know. And I said, “Please, please, write it in that I’m pregnant.” And they didn’t so my experience was a big, big, huge lesson in humility, you know because I shot it 100 pounds overweight or whatever. I mean I’m Irish and I went for it, but I was definitely big – but you know I said some of the best lines on TV. I mean I had a great role. They wrote Kate Harper for me and it was one of the best roles I’ve ever had. I spoke twelve languages. I was ex-CIA. I mean I was like the President’s confidante. I brokered peace in the Mideast. You know, you could do worse things. But my experience there was also that you know I worked with some of the best actors I think working in television – Richard Schiff, Allison Janney, Martin Sheen, and Bradley Whitford – I mean amazing actors. And then I got to that party too late. You know when that show ended; they were all so tuckered out. They were really ready to you know – it was bittersweet for them, but they were really ready to move on. I was sort of like what do you mean guys? Let’s do another year. I was just thrilled to be there. But I feel grateful that I got two and a half years because I consider it you know wonderful television and better than a lot of the film I’ve done.
You mentioned the size thing just briefly. Is it crazy making – being a woman in Hollywood who you know where normal is not normal for folks who…
You know I don’t think it is crazy making for me. I think it is for many. For me it’s obviously not because I’ve always sort of stayed the same – normal. I have a normal look and I’m sort of athletic looking and I’ve always sort of stayed the same within five pounds or something. I don’t really go up and down that much. So obviously I don’t get that swept up in it. Some people do, but I’ve managed to have a good – I like my career and I like the parts I’ve gotten, and I’ve never really been accused of being skinny – sort of always been normal. So, I think it can be done. You just have to not lose your way and people are all different.
When you’re acting, do you ever get to offer your input or advice or change things and how is the director with doing that?
You know I mean I certainly do. David Maples who created the show is really collaborative, which I love. I’m so grateful for that because not everyone is that way. And yes, if I find like if I think there’s something that just feels funny or whatever and I mention it to him, he’ll look at it again and either change it or explain what he was thinking. And we just sort of – you know yes, he’s very collaborative. So, I feel grateful for that. In television the directors are pretty collaborative. It’s really the show creator who is the most protective generally and they’re – but David is lovely. David has a really wonderful outlook. It’s the best idea wins you know, which I think it makes for better product.
You just mentioned in The West Wing about how when you got the job you found out you were pregnant. Now In Plain Sight also has been in work for well over a year. How gratifying was it for you as an actress to know that they thought so much about you that they were willing to sort of push things back while you had your baby?
Oh, amazing. I mean amazing that John Wells did that for me because he certainly didn’t have to. And then yes, that USA network – I mean I shot the pilot and then we were going to go back in the fall and then they said well, maybe the spring and by then I’d gotten pregnant. They waited a whole year – over a year to shoot. And I thought you know yes, a huge compliment. And this time I said, Flip, if I’m going to have any more babies, I’m calling you first, which my husband you know yelled at me for. Maybe call me first. And then we’ll call USA.
What got you started in acting?
I grew up in New Jersey and I saw Broadway plays first. It was like what we got to go to for my birthday or a class trip. You know so I think living near the city was probably the biggest influence. Yes, seeing Broadway plays.
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Copyright ©2008 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: June 12, 2008.