story by Joan Allison, Focus® Mid-South managing editor
(image above: Jayne Atkinson as Della Bedford, photo by Virginia Sherwood)
MEMPHIS—Sept. 10 2019 — What’s quirky about Memphis? I asked this of Jayne Atkinson, the actress who plays the character of Della Bedford in the new filmed-in-Memphis-and-about-Memphis TV series, “Bluff City Law.” With a burst of laughter, she replied, “Their love of barbecue…and telling you where the best barbecue is!”
OK, she nailed it – or us, as it were. The obvious follow-up question, “and YOUR favorite barbecue place is?” was answered with, “I’ve only been to Central BBQ.” I’m pretty sure that was not an actual answer. Well played, Jayne. Best to stay noncommittal on this topic.
What does she find unique about the people of my hometown? Let me just tell you. In her praise of Memphians, she nearly gushed. “The thing that I felt right off the bat,” she said, “I felt how friendly and welcoming that Memphians are towards newcomers. They’d just do anything for you. They’ll tell you where you need to go, where you need to eat, where’s the best place for fried chicken… (they’re) just kind.”
The city’s heat, however, has not been so kind to her. At our early September interview at the Peabody, Atkinson asked when it would get cooler. I tried to reassure her that late October, November and December would be her payoff months on our weather knowing full well that it might actually be November before we’re consistently in the 70-degree range. Thank God for her that most of their shooting is done indoors on an air-conditioned sound stage.
Even still, this two-time Tony-nominated actress, who’s also had high-profile roles in major shows like “24,” “Criminal Minds,” “House of Cards,” and “Madam Secretary,” has been enjoying walks along the Mississippi river (including a trek across Big River Crossing back in the cool damp of March). She reports that she’s most enjoyed walking on the Island Drive sidewalk on Mud Island. She says that she enjoys observing both the river and the people. She’ll need the observations of Memphians that she makes as an actress as she reveals to us her BCL character, Della.
Della is a middle-aged, high-profile lawyer in Memphis. She’s a partner in the show’s law firm. She also happens to be a lesbian who in mid-life left her hetero marriage to pursue life with another woman.
Atkinson, on the other hand, is straight. She’s been happily married for 20 years to her number one celebrity crush, her actor-husband Michel Gill. They’ve known each other for about 36 years and have one college-aged son. By the way, her number two celebrity crush is Javier Bardem, but she drew a complete blank when she tried to recall his name during our interview. “Clearly,” she said, “I don’t have a lot of celebrity crushes because I’m happy with my celebrity husband!”
The revelation that Atkinson is straight brings about the obvious question: as a straight woman, does she have trepidations about playing a lesbian? “I was in a play called “Why We Have a Body.” I explored that (lesbian) character in that play and it was rough…mostly because the woman who wrote the play wanted her girlfriend in my part (Atkinson giggles). What’s interesting for me as an actor…if I were playing a mom, a straight mom, 60 years old, who gets divorced and who meets another guy…that’s something I don’t really have to think too much about. But to play (a lesbian) requires of me, and as an actor, a much greater opening of my heart.”
It doesn’t hurt that she’s been offered help in portraying a lesbian from the LGBT community. “I’ve had a (Bluff City Law crew member) offer to teach me what it’s like to be an old, married lesbian,” she said with a laugh. “I said, ‘OK.’”
I asked her if she’d thought about the push back that she might get from the LGBT community (please don’t) when they learn that she’s straight.
“I appreciate that first of all, (Della) was straight. And then she has this awakening… Della loves a man and then realizes that she has fallen in love with a woman. She must follow that path…As a straight woman, I’ve had awakenings to parts of myself that were unknown to me. Voicing those parts was difficult, and painful and scary…I’m an actress. My job is to walk in the (shoes) of that person… I would investigate my own personal experiences of coming into a belief and understanding of myself and my world that caused me to change my world. That’s what Della does.
“I would say that my curiosity, respect and devotion to the journey of a woman who was coming into that knowledge of herself, I find it a very sacred task. So that’s why I would say to anybody, ‘I got your back. I’m going to do service to this journey in a way that you will feel seen, heard and felt.’… I’m going to play the shit out of that.”
Veteran actor Jimmy Smits (“NYPD Blue,” “L.A. Law”) portrays the law firm’s founding partner, Elijah Strait. His daughter Sydney Strait, also a lawyer, is played by Caitlin McGee (“Chicago Med,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”). Sydney grew up adoring Elijah until something happened that shattered that adoration. And whatever that was is not revealed in the pilot or first episode, although there is a juicy cliff hanger at the end of the pilot.
When we meet the characters, they are wading through the debris of their splintered relationship trying to figure out a new parent/adult child paradigm with the added tension of working together as partners in the firm. Della’s storyline intersects with theirs through Carolyn, Elijah’s deceased wife. The three were longtime friends and Della clearly cares deeply for Sydney.
Other cast members include MaameYaa Boafo, Barry Sloane, Michael Luwoye, Stony Blyden, and Josh Kelly. The executive producers are Dean Georgaris; David Janollari (of “Friends” fame among others); Michael Aguilar. Honest to God, you’re going to have to go to IMDb to see all the credits that these talents have. They’ve ALL been involved in things you’ve ‘ever heard of’!
Atkinson says that early on in the series, the show will be presenting stories of gender fluidity alongside Della’s story. “We have a beautiful episode, a gorgeous episode, of LGBTQ rights (Episode 3),” Atkinson said. “My episode is Episode 6 and that’s when I am celebrated by the LGBT community with a lifetime achievement award.” Atkinson is referring to a ceremony in the show in which Della receives an LGBT award.” That scene, by the way, was/is being filmed on the Peabody’s rooftop. If she didn’t really know what ‘Memphis hot’ was before, she does now!
In my interview, I’m quick to point out to her that Focus had just had its own LGBT and allies award show on August 23 at Ballet Memphis. I know the show’s production team most likely had this scene booked on the Peabody roof for weeks, but damn. How cool would that have been had it filmed as part of OUR show (Atkinson agreed). Not to despair. Our publisher, Ray Rico, will be meeting with one of the show’s writers who has specifically reached out to us at Focus magazine (thank you BCL Executive Producer David Janollari for the referral) to uncover the real Memphis LGBTQ scene!! Yes, we are definitely flattered. But I digress. Let’s get back to Atkinson.
She says that Della came out at age 45 and her child was 15, adding that the show continues to develop the character. “This (past marriage) was what she knew, and then this woman came along. And (being oriented to women) might have been something that she had felt and suppressed. I think that’s where (the writers) are going with it. (Coming out) was hard on her, and her child. You’re going to see her grapple with that decision and what it takes to be authentic and honest with who you are and the people you love dearly.”
Della’s love interest, who is referred to as her ‘wife’ in the pilot episode, will be played by Broadway actress Beth Malone (a real-life out and proud lesbian). Like Atkinson, she is a Tony-nominated star; she earned her nomination from “Fun Home” whose show album was also nominated for a Grammy. Malone has the distinction of being Broadway’s first openly butch lesbian protagonist.
In addition to acting, Atkinson has donated her varied talents to helping the LGBT community. She wrote two songs for a production by a friend in Los Angeles who works with homeless LGBTQ youth.
“About 10-15 years ago, my friends Norma Bowles and Mark Rosenthal were working with gay and lesbian homeless youth. The rates of teen suicide are higher in this population. We worked together to create a musical based on their lives,” Atkinson said. “I wrote ‘I Want to Be a Girl’ for the show. The song was for one of the group members who is a trans female. I also co-wrote the theme song for the show, “Same World,” with friend and song writer Katherine Reclusado who had gone through her own trials and pains when coming out.”
The show’s publicists have been more than generous with interview opportunities for Focus. Be on the lookout for Atkinson in the Memphis community. If some of our offers to them pan out, we’ll get to introduce Atkinson in person to you all very soon (and I’ll leave that little teaser right there).