Angela Bassett talks about scrubbing in for ER's final season
SheKnows visited the set of NBC's ER, a show closing its doors at the end of this season. After spending an afternoon on the set, it's clear ER plans to go out with a big year. Not only are they bringing back familiar faces, but they also nabbed powerhouse Angela Bassett to shake things up as new Chief of Staff Cate Banfield.
"First day, she walks in and she's upsetting the status quo," Bassett promises of her character. "She's a very good boss with very high standards, trying to bring up the level of excellence around here, but she's the new person and there are folks who are not able to appreciate her style. She's tough. She can throw down if need be! So she's butting heads with different personalities early on."
No surprise there, considering the welcome the last few chiefs, including Stanley Tucci, have gotten at County General, not to mention what we know of Bassett. At the age of 50 (going on 35 by the looks of it!), the Oscar nominee has a slew of powerful roles under her belt, none more fierce than her portrayal of Tina Turner in What's Love Got to Do With It.
Serial TV, however, is a whole new ball game for this industry vet.
"When I first came to Hollywood, I went from one episodic drama to the next, but they were all guest starring roles, other than the arc I did on 'Alias'," she recounts. "I've been asked to do [serial roles] before, but if you're gonna commit to something, it had better be good work."
Lucky for ER, they made the grade and found Basset interested when they contacted her about joining the cast this spring.
"It was a show I always enjoyed and I knew they had a standard of excellence," Bassett reflects. "One of my dear friends (Eriq La Salle) was in the first season and he had a great time; and many other friends, like Forest Whitaker, have been on the show and done fine work that I admire. ER is a great show, so I told them, 'If you're going to get me here, use me. Work me!'"
ER was only too happy to oblige, creating a character just for her, and Bassett quickly settled into the primetime pace and 12-hour days. She hasn't gotten any major advice from her costars along the way, but that doesn't mean they haven't made it easier on her.
"They just said, 'Welcome' and with that sort of twinkle, 'Is the dialogue getting you?'" she laughs. "They're wonderful. There are no divas and they've already established the rhythm, so all you have to do is jump on. It's all about preparation and being excited about who you're working with, the scripts and meeting the standard that's already been set, a standard that has allowed the show to last for 15 strong years. It's a good place to be."
An even better place for the two other little factors that attracted Basset to the role: her twin toddlers Bronwyn and Slater. It turns out, the studio is just a 15 minute hop from the home Bassett shares with hubby Courtney B. Vance, which means the twins can stop by the ER for checkups.
"Sometimes when I get home they're asleep already, so I bring them to work or they come at lunch time to visit," Bassett says. "My daughter loves to put on the stethoscope. To see her eyes the first time she heard a real stethoscope was amazing."
Daddy Vance also gets to come in for visits, but he now has to start clocking in: The actor, who fans may recognize from Law & Order: Criminal Intent, has landed a recurring role as the Chief's onscreen hubby.
Cast is always returningCasting big names has always been a one of ER's strong suits and in addition to Basset and Vance, the show promises to bring back some familiar faces before saying goodbye.
"All the characters who have existed on the show before are ripe in the writers' room, in terms of, 'Is there a story we can come up with that's a good story for that character and can we get that actor back on the show?" exec producer David Zabel teases. "We're considering everything."
Case in point, they've figured out a way to bring back ER fave Dr. Greene, even though he died of a brain tumor in 2002! Word is Anthony Edwards has signed on to return as the beloved doc for November 13 flashbacks that show a history between Greene and Bassett's character.
Blasts from the pastOther possible returns include Eriq La Salle's Benton, Alex Kingston's Corday, Ming-Na's Dr. Chen, William H. Macy's Morgenstern, Sara Gilbert's Figler, and Laura Innes' Weaver, among others. Folks on other networks, like Abby's "mom" Sally Field and ex-doc Jorja Fox, are less likely to make it.
One definite return, however, is the show's longest resident, Noah Wyle, who played Dr. John Carter for the first 10 years of the show. The old money doc with a heart battled drug addiction, was Abby's first big love interest and eventually joined Doctors without Boarders.
His adventures took viewers from the Chicago ER to the horrors of Darfur and the Congo in several powerful storylines. He tried to come back to Chicago a few times, but after mourning the loss off his stillborn son and opening a ped's unit in his name, Carter reconnected with his wife, Kem, and they returned to a life without borders.
"We haven't discussed where he'll actually be coming from," exec producer John Wells admits. "We'll see where he has been, but I doubt we'll actually go to someplace to shoot it. We're very proud of the work we've done, particularly in the African episodes, but they're extremely difficult to do and we've explored as much as we can, so I doubt it will be a huge part of the story."
No word on whether Thandie Newton will return as Carter's wife, but newer cast member Shane West is already back to work as sexy Dr. Ray.
Two seasons ago, a love triangle with Neela and Gates (a.k.a. Parminder Nagra and John Stamos) left rocker Ray heartbroken, which in turn led him to get so drunk he didn't see the mac truck coming. In typical soap opera form, he was taken down just after Neela decided she was ready to give their romance a go. She's felt guilty since and the updates from off screen have had him in a very angry, dejected place.
"Ray's actually gone through this terrible period and come out on the other side and it's sort of a heroic return," Zabel previews. "He comes back on artificial limbs and he's in good condition. It's very sweet also and the romantic complications of Neela's life with him will play out early in the coming season."
As for the shows' biggest alum, George Clooney? It isn't looking good for Dr. Ross fans.
"His schedule is a little busy!" Wells quips. "I don't anticipate it, but George is great. He's a friend of all of ours and he was wonderful on the show and was great to us in his success. My assumption is, if he's available, he may come back and do maybe some press for us at the very end or something. That's if he's available!"
Interestingly, while anyone would kill to get Clooney on their TV show, Wells isn't even sure he'd want the character back, or at least, not without Julianna Margulies' Nurse Hathaway, who followed Dr. Ross to Seattle with their twins.
"I was very proud of the way in which we ended the Hathaway Ross story," Wells explains. "Anything other than just seeing them together still happy would be a little bit of a letdown for the audience. That's one of the ones I feel was wrapped up beautifully, in a way that was great for the audience, and I would worry about doing something that unwound that dramatically, in any way. "
He's similarly committed to finding an over all ending that fits with the spirit of the show he's run for all these years.
"The only way to do justice to the show is to continue what has worked," he says. "We just sort of showed up as an audience one day in 1994 and caught what was happening that day. Then every Thursday, we show up. Things have happened since the last time we were there and there's other stuff happening already. "I would hate to give the impression that the difficulties of running a county hospital and the problems within the system come to an end because, conveniently, the hospital gets closed for a new one," he continues. "We haven't written it yet, but certainly my inclination will be to feel as if we've simply walked away from the hospital with the cameras."
To catch the final season and see how new boss Bassett fairs in the ER, tune into NBC on Thursday, September 25.
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