Best known for her work as the headstrong Marine Corps attorney Lt. Sarah MacKenzie on the action drama series JAG, Catherine Bell now stars on Army Wives, the highest-rated television show in Lifetime’s history. A one-hour ensemble drama, currently wrapping up its fifth season on June 12th and with a Season 6 already ordered, the series captures the struggles, dreams and friendships of a diverse group of women – and one man – living with their spouses and families on an active army base. Catherine Bell can also be seen starring in the action-thriller TV movie Last Man Standing, which premieres on Lifetime on June 6th. Produced by the actress and written by her husband, it tells the story of a happy suburban wife and mother who is forced to reveal her dark past as a military-trained special-ops agent when her husband (played by Anthony Michael Hall) is mysteriously kidnapped.
During a recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, actress Catherine Bell talked about how Last Man Standing came about, why she loves doing physical action roles, what she loves about being a part of the hugely successful Army Wives, what made her want to get into producing, how she hopes to be able to do a JAG movie someday, and that she would love to make a sci-fi film. Check out what she had to say after the jump:
CATHERINE BELL: We went to them with the idea, actually. It started with my husband sitting on the couch one day and he said, “What do you think about playing a female bodyguard?,” and I said, “Yeah, that’s great!” He knows I love action and I really wanted to get back to my action hero roots, which I hadn’t done much of in awhile. And then, we started talking about it, and he and his writing partner, Jolene Rice, worked on a pitch, and we went to Lifetime and everybody liked the idea, which was amazing. They said, “What do you think about having Gale Anne Hurd as the executive producer, helping you guys develop the script to make sure it’s really great?,” and Adam [Beason] and I were like, “Yes! Oh, my god! We love her. We’re huge fans of Aliens, Terminator and The Walking Dead.” So, she came on board and we spent a year and a half to two years developing the script with her and Lifetime.
So, this role was specifically written to suit you and your strengths?
BELL: Yeah, completely. Adam knew that I loved and did martial arts. I even got to do some of my own driving stunts. I love racing cars. All that stuff was tailor made for me.
What is the film about and who is the woman that you’re playing in it?
BELL: Well, on the surface, Abby Collins appears to be this suburban soccer mom and she has a great life with a husband and kid. She’s a PTA mom, and the whole thing. All we know is that she was in the military, and was maybe a computer analyst or a tech wiz. And then, a former member of her unit is found dead, and that same night, her husband is kidnapped. The kidnappers contact her and tell her that, if she wants to see him alive, she’s got to do exactly what they want. So, it turns out that she has a secret Special Ops past, and all of that kicks back in, as she spends the next three hours trying to save her husband and protect her daughter.
BELL: Yeah, for sure. I think this is very different for Lifetime and I’m really excited about it. I’m glad I got to be a part of it because it’s very much like a Bourne Identity movie. Also, I think the people that normally watch Lifetime are going to enjoy it because it’s a woman doing all of that, and because I’ve got a family and I’m protecting my family. There’s a lot of heart. It’s a great story, with the characters underneath the action. I’m blown away. Gale Anne Hurd was very involved in the whole process, from the beginning to the very end. She worked with her editor and tweaked it. It came out really good. It feels like a feature film, when you’re watching it. With the lighting, the directing, the action and the fight sequences, you’re like, “Wow, this is really cool!” So, we’re all very excited about it.
How was it to work with both Anthony Michael Hall and Mekhi Phifer?
BELL: They’re both really great. We actually had a really good time together. Anthony Michael Hall is probably sillier. He’s silly and fun. He’s been doing this for a long time and he’s such a pro. Mekhi is more of a serious actor. He’s a real pro, who comes in and wants to talk about the dialogue and character. But, at the same time, we all had a great time and got to be really silly. Maybe it was the late nights we were working. We worked all nights in Detroit, in the winter.
Ernest Dickerson has done some great work, in television and film. What was he like, as a director?
BELL: Oh my god, Ernest was amazing! Gale told us that she was bringing him on board. He had just done a couple episodes of The Walking Dead for her. He was phenomenal. He’s such a laid-back guy. He’s very zen. He never got stressed, no matter what was happening, how behind we got, or fast we had to shoot. He was just cool and laid-back, took his time and made sure we got what we needed to get.
Were any of the action sequences particularly fun for you?
BELL: It was all a blast! I really, really like doing action. Maybe it’s just because I’m a tomboy and I love all that stuff. The driving was so much fun. We went out before we started filming and the stunt coordinator showed me how to do a reverse 180, where I was basically going in reverse, as fast as I possibly could, and then turn the wheel, slam on the brakes, put it in drive, and then keep going forward. Learning to do stuff like that was just awesome. It was really, really cool. And then, I’d done a lot of fighting before, but it was great to do it again, in a movie where I had several scenes of fighting different people, getting out of certain situations, and doing a huge fight sequence at the end. I love the choreography of all that stuff, and getting really good at making sure it looks realistic. But, it’s a challenge. It’s exhausting. I had whiplash, just from being thrown around. You get so sore, with the adrenalin going through your body. I love it because I’m really physical and active, but I can imagine that some actors would get in there and go, “Why am I not doing a little period piece somewhere?”
What can you say about the upcoming finale of Army Wives and what fans of the show can expect from it?
BELL: There’s a lot of stuff that happens in the finale. Individually, we each have different storylines going on. And then, as a group, we get some news that’s kind of shocking and that’s going to affect all of us, in different ways, and forces each of us to make certain decisions about our lives. We end the show wondering where our futures are going to take us. It’s another good Army Wives finale that makes you go, “Oh, now I’ve got to wait six months to find out what happened!”
What was it that originally attracted you to the show, and specifically to your character?
BELL: For me, I was looking for something very different from what I had just spent nine years doing with JAG. I wanted anything different. It’s a military theme, so people think I’m doing something similar, but actually they couldn’t be further from each other. The character, Denise Sherwood, has changed a lot over the years and become stronger. Just becoming a woman who has learned her strength, over the years, was definitely appealing to me. I knew she wasn’t going to stay meek. I didn’t really want to play a meek person for many years, on a show, so it was nice to go through that journey with her and watch her mature and grow up. And, the writing is just phenomenal. We have the best writers and really deep, rich, wonderful stories and characters, which is really what it’s always all about.
In a climate where shows have to really fight to get a pilot on the air, and then fight to get past their first season, is it rewarding for you to hear fans say, in the fifth season, that the show is so strong, they feel it’s the best season yet?
BELL: Oh, it’s so rewarding! We were all talking about it on set, completely floored. How often does that happen that in the fifth season it’s the highest ratings, ever? It’s some of the best writing and work. It’s very rewarding.
Now that you’ve gotten to know your character over the course of five seasons, what do you love most about her, and is there anything about her that you wish you could change?
BELL: That’s interesting. She’s constantly evolving. She’s always going through stuff. She’s got a good balance. She’s a good mom and she’s a great wife. She’s trying to find the balance between having a new baby and getting back to work. I think she’s doing what we all do, when we’re juggling work and family and whatever else. We just try to keep it all together and keep it all going, as best as we possibly can.
How different do you think she is now from who she was when you first signed on to play her? Is who she is now anything that you could have envisioned?
BELL: No, not at all. I would have never guessed that she would have started riding a motorcycle and got a tattoo. She’s becoming more and more like me.
How much of that development has been a collaborative process, and how much have been things that have just completely surprised you?
BELL: A lot of it has been collaborative, actually. I ride motorcycles, so the writer/creator of the show said, “That’s really cool. I want to put that in.” The tattoo thing was funny. I wanted to get a tattoo of my daughter’s name, and they were thinking of giving my character one. We decided to make it the same tattoo, so I wouldn’t have to cover it up. On the show, we said it means “beautiful mistake,” but it’s actually my daughter’s name. And then, I wanted to get pregnant and I mentioned it to the producers and they were like, “Yeah, go for it! It’ll be great. We’ll write it in.” So, I got pregnant, and my character got pregnant too. We’re becoming more and more like each other. It’s pretty wild.
With Season 6 already ordered, is there anything that you’re hoping your character will get to do or go through that she hasn’t been able to yet?
BELL: Well, I know she’s getting back to work, and I think that’s always been important to her. She’s a nurse and paramedic, and wants to help people. It’s important to continue the healing process of losing her son in Afghanistan, for sure. I’m sure that will carry over into next year, with her continuing to heal and live her life. I’m not sure what will happen. The writers are always really good with surprising me with fun storylines. No more death, though. I can’t cry anymore. It’s brutal. I’m so sick of crying.
You’re a beautiful woman with a successful career and a successful family. How difficult is it to find a balance and be able to do it all?
BELL: It’s pretty intense. There are definitely some days where I’m like, “Wow, how am I doing this?” But, I just do it. All of us do, whether you have a regular 9 to 5 job, or a crazy job like mine that takes you all over the place. Some days I have off, and other days I work 19 or 20 hours. You just deal with it. I think I’m always trying to find ways to improve, and ways to stress less, and ways to spend a little more time with my kids, or to spend time alone, if that’s what I need, or with my husband. I just continue to balance it out. It’s not easy.
BELL: Yeah. With the first season of Army Wives, I wanted to make sure that this wasn’t going to be a weak woman for long, and I was assured that she was going to very quickly stand up to her son and really transform her life. I felt that that was important. Seeing people change like that is a great lesson. I always like to play roles that are, in some way, inspiring. And, it could be that it’s a terrible character. It doesn’t mean that I have to just play good people all the time. I’ve been playing a lot of really strong, able woman, but I think it would be really fun to play a crazy drug addict, or something. But, even with that, the story has to have some meaning. It can’t just be, “Isn’t this great? We’re doing drugs and stealing. Life is really cool!” It has to be like, “Wow, look at where life can go, if you allow it to go that way?”
What made you decide to get into producing? Is that something that you wanted to do, so that you could have more control over the development of the roles you want to do?
BELL: Yeah. I’ve always wanted to produce. I’ve had my production company name for years, even though I didn’t really do anything with it right away. For me, I’ve always thought of myself as a businesswoman. I have the creative side, but I also have this business sense. Producing is very much like running a business, where you find the project, you find the different people involved, you put the elements together, and you make sure they all work together well. And, creating my own roles, as an actor, is great. You’re so at the mercy of other people, and you’re waiting for a job. That’s just a horrible way to live, so I just decided to take matters into my own hands, find my own projects, and create them myself, and then do other stuff that people might throw my way as well. There’s no sitting around and waiting.
BELL: It’s so sweet. I hear it all the time. On Twitter and Facebook, people are constantly asking me for a JAG reunion, and I would love it. Actually, my husband has a great idea for a JAG movie, which we’ve talked to Don Bellisario about. He was busy doing some other projects, but never say never. It could definitely happen, someday.
Is there a dream role that you’d really love to do, but haven’t had the chance to do yet?
BELL: There are probably a couple. I love doing action and thrillers. My husband and I are working on a project that’s a Sigourney Weaver in Alien type of movie. It’s very sci-fi and futuristic, and set in the B-rings of Saturn, 200 years in the future. We’re raising some money on a fundraising website, www.Kickstarter.com, to do storyboards and build a model of the ship, and then use that to raise money for the film. That’s one of the things that I would love to do – really full-on sci-fi/action. I would also love to do a comedy. That would be great! I got to do a little bit of it in Bruce Almighty, and I’ve done episodes, here and there, on JAG or Army Wives, where I got to have fun and be funny, and people are always surprised that I have a funny side because I’m usually so intense, strong and dramatic. But, I’d love to do something really, really silly and funny.
Do you know what you’ll be doing next, now that the show is on a break?
BELL: I’m just figuring it out. We might do another Good Witch movie. We’ve talked about that. Those are the movies I do for Hallmark that we’ve done four of, that are also really popular. People seem to like them, so I might do one more of those. I’m just looking and meeting with people. I’d love to do another feature. Bruce Almighty and Evan Almighty were great. I’ve just been super-busy working in TV, so a feature film would be fun for balance. I’m looking at stuff right now, so we’ll see. I’ve got five or six months off, so I have a little time.
LAST MAN STANDING premieres on Lifetime on Monday, June 6th. The season 5 finale of ARMY WIVES is on Lifetime on June 12th.