Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Sharon Lawrence got her start as an actress in the theater, and she would’ve been just fine remaining there if TV hadn’t started to get better in the early 1990s. But because it did, she scored her breakthrough role in NYPD Blue and has remained in front of the camera ever since, including comedic turns in series like Fired Up and Ladies Man. Currently, Lawrence can be seen in the independent drama Grace, now available on VOD.
Sharon Lawrence: At that point I was represented by the same agency that handles Annika Marks, who plays Grace. We had a mutual friend who asked if she could contact me, and she wrote a lovely letter about her interest, the reason why she signed onto the project, and what her commitment was to it. It was very impressive, and I recognized when I saw her work on The Sessions that she had a very honest quality to her work. For me, that felt like the most important aspect to this character that she was going to be playing: the ability to be very honest on-screen. And when I recognized that it was produced by women and written by women, that was another reason to commit to a bit of an unknown team, because one of my commitments as an actor now in this stage of my career is to support female filmmakers. All of those things made Grace appealing to me.
The A.V. Club: How would you sum up the character of Sonia?
SL: She’s someone who recognized through the damage and the heartache that her addictions were not something that she could ignore or handle on her own, and she’s working the recovery program in a way that allows her to be a mentor to Grace and helps recognize that healing begins through that rigorous honesty.
AVC: Did you find that you and Annika had an easy chemistry in front of the camera?
SL: Annika and I had a wonderful respect for each other right away, and we recognized how we could help elevate what was on the page even before we joined each other on set. And it only improved our partnership from there. There was a lot of trust right away, and we’re still very close.
Civil Wars (1992)—“Norma Helmutz”
AVC: Based on IMDB, it looks as though your first on-camera appearance was in an episode of the series Civil Wars.
SL: [Uncertainly.] I don’t know whether that happened the same time that Cheers did, but I believe I auditioned for both of them the same day. So they were happening pretty simultaneously.
AVC: Presumably Cheers was seen as the more notable gig at the time.
SL: Yes, although it was their final season. It was the second-to-last episode of the entire run of the show, so I don’t know how to rank them in terms of viewership at that point. But Civil Wars was a known quantity at the time, also. It had been on and was running.
AVC: How did you find your way into an acting career?
SL: My father had performed in local productions. He was a newsman, but he had grown up around local theater and had studied both things at Northwestern. So for me it was not an exotic or an unvalued or unsupported endeavor. I come from a long line of extroverted storytellers. But no one had ever pursued it professionally. I was just hardwired this way. I had natural ability. If it had been in athletics or mathematics, I’m sure that would’ve been what I would’ve pursued. But because I am genetically predisposed to be able to sing and dance and tell stories and be comfortable in public speaking, it was a natural fit for me, and it didn’t scare the people in my family that this was how I was going to focus my energies in my early adult life.
My degree’s also in journalism—I would’ve been very happy as a journalist. But I graduated from UNC Chapel Hill, which introduced me to the Southeastern Theater Conference, and they have annual auditions for the summer-stock companies in the area. These are all supported by the North Carolina and Southeastern region’s commitment to the performing arts.
I’m a public-school kid. There were always great choirs and good drama programs and musicals that the schools committed to every year, and commitment by those systems and institutions gave me training and access and support. I ended up working with some people that had been hired from New York to play roles, and because I was playing opposite them, I recognized that I might be able to function at a level that the professional community in New York required. I went to New York and did a lot of Broadway shows and tours, and when the community embraces you that way, then you recognize that the risk isn’t a calculated one.
AVC: When you started in theater, did you always have an eye toward jumping in front of the camera?
SL: No. I was very happy and satisfied onstage, as I still am. But I did find that the development of technology changed my pursuit of it, because when VCRs became ubiquitous, I was finally able to watch television again. Evenings were always the time of day when I was working, so I couldn’t see television for probably… oh, I don’t know, eight years or something. But VCRs gave me the ability to finally watch what was happening on television, and I was excited to see real women portrayed on television. And by that, I mean rather than the glamorous iconic characters that you’d find on Dynasty or Knots Landing, which I didn’t quite identify with.
The characters on L.A. Law and China Beach and thirtysomething felt more relatable for me, and the idea of telling a story that could unfold and develop and evolve was interesting to me. So I took a big chance and came to Los Angeles with no representation—and not an invitation, certainly. [Laughs.] But at that point, I had enough understanding of my own abilities that I was willing to try something new, and I always felt that the experience and education and network that I’d built in New York would be there if I felt that I missed that work so much. And when I came, I didn’t burn any bridges in New York. It was just a matter of saying, “I’m exploring something new!”
The Perfect Family (2011)—“Agnes Dunn”
SL: Again, female filmmakers, which is why I said “yes.” I didn’t know much about that aspect of the Catholic community, honoring their female congregates, that the mothers are acknowledged by families on an annual basis. So it was a character stretch for me. I did a bit of research, but it was really more my interest in supporting these women who were telling a true story about modern-day Catholicism and the struggles of these families who are dealing with gay and lesbian children, and how they reconcile the marriages and all of the changes in our culture. I’m glad to have gotten to work with those filmmakers.
SL: I had the great fortune to say one of my favorite lines [on that series], and it was written by Kevin Williamson. He’s the first person—maybe still the only person at this point—that allowed me the joy of firing a weapon on-screen.
AVC: What was the line?
SL: “I’m from Texas, you moron. We get a gun before we can walk.”
AVC: Nice. How was the experience of doing the series in general? Kevin Williamson seems to enjoy playing with the clichés of prime-time soap operas.
SL: Well, it was Dawson’s Creek set in Palm Springs. [Laughs.]
Star Trek: Voyager (1995)—“Amelia Earhart”
Blunt Talk (2015)—actress
SL: That was a thrill, to work on the Star Trek franchise and to embrace an iconic figure with an interesting possibility of what may be the answer of her disappearance. And to work with Kate Mulgrew, who I’d grown up watching on Ryan’s Hope.
AVC: Had you also been a Star Trek fan growing up?
SL: Yes, well, the original series had certainly captivated me. Again, I wasn’t watching that much television until not long before Voyager had begun, but Star Trek: The Next Generation had been on before that, if I’m not mistaken.
I just finished working with Patrick Stewart [on Blunt Talk]. It was really great to spend time with him and recognize the twists and turns that brought him to his iconic role on Star Trek. He’s one of those actors who’s trained in so many fields and has had such a wide range of experiences, and yet a role on a big show like that is what changed his life.
AVC: How did you enjoy working with Betty White?
SL: Well, she’s Betty White. [Laughs.] She’s gracious, and she makes the set a happier place just because she’s there. She uses her time so wisely, and she has a real zest for life and people. Dixie Carter played my mother on that show—she also played my mother on Fired Up—and those two gals are people that I think about as I mature in this business, as far as what it means to bring the gracious and grateful maturity to the set on a daily basis. They did it in such an inspiring way that I think of them when I go to work, because oftentimes those people set the tone and the standard for the type of work environment that we’ll all experience. It was great.
SL: Fired Up was just a blast to have a role that was so physical and so quick-witted, and to just work at the top of my game. Because, you know, it required everything. It required really sharp, fast learning and being very creative, everything from all my own pratfalls—because I did all my own physical comedy—to dancing and singing, big production numbers, and of course the romantic partners that would come in and out of the show. Whenever you’re number one on the call sheet, you’re just really so invested in the work, and it was really a joy.
AVC: That came on the heels of NYPD Blue. Had you been looking to make a change and go comedic?
SL: I did a guest star on Caroline In The City with Jimmy Burrows, who also had directed that one episode that I did of Cheers, and they all recognized that I had a capability that most audiences weren’t aware of, and certainly most people in Hollywood weren’t. And that was from my musical-theater background, because comedy really is all about rhythm and timing. And the episode was a very physical and sort of high energy, operatic character. Not operatic in that she was singing, but just a diva who was very demanding and very spontaneous. And really mercurial. That’s really what she was more than anything. Because she was trying to quit smoking, and she was just at the end of her rope and bouncing off the walls.
So that was something that the character of Gwen needed to have, because she was a female Frasier type. She had to have an elegance and a believability. You had to believe that she had been in that executive position, but you also had to believe that she was coming unglued because of her new circumstances. But, you know, things just lined up, and Steven Bochco was very gracious and let me go do the show. That was before—I think that was maybe season four or five of NYPD Blue. I left when David Milch left permanently. But it was a great cooperation between the two studios and two networks.
AVC: How did you enjoy working with Jonathan Banks?
SL: [Laughs.] He was as solid and seasoned as they come.
SL: [Laughs.] That was with Michael McDonald from MADtv. It was before he did MADtv and before I did… anything? I can’t remember where it fell in the spectrum of work. But we became good friends on that set just enjoying the absurdity of what we were doing. I think I was just there for one day, and maybe he was, too. I don’t remember much about the film.
AVC: Did you need to watch the first four Bloodfist films to get a feel for your character?
SL: Not at all. [Laughs.]
Wolf Lake (2001-02)—“Vivian Cates”
Augusta, Gone (2006)—“Martha Tod Dudman”
Rizzoli & Isles (2012-14)—“Dr. Hope Martin”
SL: Wolf Lake was really thrilling, to dabble in that genre, in that kind of dark, macabre way, but with that beautiful art direction and design of [Mark S.] Freeborn and all the creators, the team behind Carnivale. They just had such vision for the show. And because our scheduled debut was September 12, 2001, it was very difficult for audiences to want to watch something so dark after the attack on the Twin Towers. CBS had a tough ride with how they were going to program it after… well, after the world had changed. I’m really grateful to have worked with such skilled pros, all the actors. Bruce McGill and I, we’ve gotten to work together a couple of times since then, not only on Rizzoli & Isles, but in a really interesting play we did where he was Orson Welles and I was Vivian Leigh [Orson’s Shadow]. We had a great trust, because we had played husband and wife on Wolf Lake. Later I worked with Tim Matheson on a movie that we starred in and he directed [Augusta, Gone]. I’m very grateful for those relationships, and I’m very proud of that show.
SL: Well, that was just a couple of days, but being on the set with somebody so skilled as Joel McHale—I really think that we’re lucky to be around when he’s hitting his prime as a comedian, because he’s just one of those great everyman actors. I watched him lead that set in a way that was very admirable. He took on a tough challenge. Comedies that are shot single-camera, it’s tough. There’s so much demand on your time. And he was doing The Soup at the same time! It’s just great to see somebody so even-keeled who makes everybody feel appreciated.
SL: That was a blast, to get to improv with Larry [David]. And to accomplish what many, many characters felt the need to do but never had the opportunity: to just beat him about the head and face. [Laughs.] It was an honor. I saw him at the premiere of Transparent, and it’s always great to cross paths with him, because we always share a wink and a nod. It was a special moment for both of us.
SL: That’s where I got to know Ed Begley Jr., and we serve on a couple of environmental non-profits together, so for me that’s what I take away from that one: my joy with my brother in the good fight. [Laughs.]
SL: It was such a great experiment for me. I had never done prosthetic makeup like that and never been asked to transform quite so physically. So I was really excited about that process, and Chris Carter gave me the best team in the world to work with, just so experienced. John Goodwin did the special-effects makeup, and he was astounding. You know, the time involved, it was three hours into the makeup and an hour out, but every moment was a joy with him, because he was such a gentleman. And then the team of Chris, of course, and Nelson [Cragg], the DP, and then the actors… We really had a great time together. The challenges of all those night shoots just bonded us more and more. Although I’m sorry that it won’t be continuing as a series, the audience loved what they saw, and there was so much that I knew that my character was going to be exploring, moving back and forth between those ages. I mean, how often do you get to do that? It was once in a lifetime. And I’m so glad to be close to Chris. He’s somebody who I really am grateful that I’ve had the chance to work, and I’m hopeful that another opportunity comes along soon.
AVC: Can you offer any insight into what happened? Everyone who loved the pilot and got psyched for the series was shocked when, all of a sudden, it was gone.
SL: Yeah, I’m the same way. But I don’t know a thing, either.
NYPD Blue (1993-99)—“A.D.A. Sylvia Costas Sipowicz”
AVC: How did NYPD Blue come about for you? Was it just a standard audition?
SL: Yeah, an audition. They had decided that they needed more women to populate that world. The role was originally written for a man—it was just “Assistant District Attorney”—and Sipowicz’s line to the attorney after the cross-examination on the stand was, “Ipso this, you pissy little bastard.” [Laughs.] That was in the original script! But when they decided they needed women, I guess they pulled from professional-type women who had been within the Bochco casts before. Because of Civil Wars, I assume that’s why Junie Lowry-John’s team—the casting director—brought me in. It was as a day player, but they decided that the scene in that storyline was compelling enough to become a teaser for the show, and they decided to reshoot that very classic end to that sequence as an exterior. They brought us to New York to shoot it outside of One Center Street, the judicial building in downtown Manhattan, and that gave us all a chance to spend more time together. The creators saw Dennis and I hanging out together, enjoying each other’s company, and that’s when they had the idea to make this an unlikely love story. So it was really just a matter of them creating the Sylvia and Sipowicz couple.
AVC: Did you have a favorite Sylvia and Sipowicz storyline?
SL: I thought the way Sylvia dealt with Sipowicz’s alcoholism was very compelling. And accurate. We got to see her backbone. She was not just a saintly gal who only saw the good parts of him. She recognized the rest, and she had good boundaries there, and I think that was something that people felt was important to her. For the real-life average people who have a tender romance, that was very satisfying to a lot of viewers, but I think that hitting those bass notes of the challenges within the relationship was equally valued by our viewers.
AVC: Did you have any say in Sylvia’s final fate, or was it presented to you?
SL: I think when Milch was making lots of decisions because he was getting ready to leave the show, there was just an understanding that Sipowicz was always going to be a character who dealt with challenges. And the timing worked out for me, because Ladies Man… I literally shot Sylvia’s gunshot wound in the morning and then had the table read for Ladies Man that afternoon. So there wasn’t much of a time for me to feel like I was losing more than I was getting. Six seasons is a long time, as you know. Most shows don’t last that long.
Middle Of Nowhere (2012)—“Fraine”
Somebody’s Mother (2014)—“Alice”
The Bridge Partner (2015)—“Olivia Korhonen”
AVC: Is there a project that you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
SL: Well… [Long pause.] It’s hard for me to even remember them all! But I have a couple of shorts out right now that I hope find their way into some more audiences, because I think they’re very interesting. The Bridge Partner was just at the Newport Beach Film Festival, and Somebody’s Mother just won an award for best director [at the Hang Onto Your Shorts Film Festival]. I did Ava DuVernay’s film Middle Of Nowhere, and these independent films by women, it’s challenging for them to find marketing dollars. Middle Of Nowhere is on Netflix now, which is great, and I’m so proud to be part of that movie and part of her team. I hope that these shorts find that, because the form is very satisfying to me as an actor. The Bridge Partner is based on Peter Beagle’s short story. Beth Grant and I star in that, and I play this Eastern European woman who meets a very mild-mannered, easily intimidated gal at a bridge game, and I set my sights on her as prey.
Somebody’s Mother is by Mandy Fabian, who writes on Web Therapy, with Lisa Kudrow and Dan Bucatinsky, and Missy Pyle and Christine Lakin and I star. I play this cougar mom who is now living her own life, and it’s a challenge for her adult daughters to see that. And I think that’s something that’s really relatable to a lot of women, both mothers and daughters. It’s not just the women who are finding their third act to be very important to them, to be able to express and explore and not hide, but the daughters who have to come into their own and realize that they now are sort of taking the leadership role rather than having to expect their mothers to always serve their needs. I think it’s something that’s very modern.
AVC: My only regret is that your answer to the previous question was not Atomic Twister, because that would’ve been awesome.
SL: [Bursts out laughing.] Listen, I’ve got a picture of a huge billboard that they put up on Sunset Boulevard for Atomic Twister. Trust me, it got as much love as it deserved!