In one hand, Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson holds a pair of hot pink undies in a plastic evidence bag; in another, a flaming red, six-inch platform stiletto. She peers through black glasses and frowns. They were found in a motel room, along with a dead preacher, and there is something awfully fishy about the whole situation. Just business as usual on the set of The Closer, the TV show starring Kyra Sedgwick that set a new—high—standard for what ratings were possible on cable. And the only cop procedural on television brave enough to mix screwball comedy with grisly murders.
Soon, there will be fewer of these quirky scenes, as The Closer is coming to a close after seven seasons—it premieres tonight on TNT. At the end of last season, Sedgwick announced she was ready to move on; there will be 10 new episodes this summer, five in the winter, six next summer, and then the show’s spinoff, Major Crimes, starring Mary McDonnell’s prickly character, will begin.
In the makeup trailer, as the hair stylist curled her hair into ringlets and as the latest YouTube talking dog video played on a laptop, Sedgwick explained her decision. “I just felt like—let’s go out on top. Last year was our highest audience rating.”
A new story arc finds Johnson being sued by the mother of a gang member shot in Season 6, giving this season an uneasy undercurrent. Audiences will tune in to find out whether Brenda Leigh—the saucy Southern belle with an equal penchant for demolishing candy bars and suspects in the interrogation room—will be able to close her own case.
Though The Closer, which was created by James Duff, has been well-liked by fans and TV journalists, it has never received the fawning critical acclaim of The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, and that’s just fine with Sedgwick.
“The size of our audience—that really pleases me,” she said. “Because our fans come from all over the country—men and women. They are not just this exclusive sect of New York and L.A., and we really have that Middle America thing covered and I think that’s awesome.”
It’s hard to remember now that she is a household name, that going into The Closer, Sedgwick was an indie queen, best known for roles in Singles and The Woodsman, and a splashy beginning opposite Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July. But she never broke out, partially because she never pursued the girlfriend experience.
“When I first started out when I was about 18, there were all these girlfriend roles,” she said. “So many times, I wouldn’t even go in on them, and they were the parts that women who took them ended up being stars. I was like, ‘I don’t think I can play this role, I don’t know what to do with this role. There’s not enough there for me to do anything.’”
Sedgwick often turns to the word “workhorse” to describe herself. She didn’t take the typical Hollywood starlet path. “I wasn’t interested in having this mercurial rise. I’ve always believed in slow and steady wins the race,” she said. “I’m an actor, and that’s what I do, and I’ll always act, and I’m a workhorse actor.”
She now has an Emmy and a Golden Globe—what will she do next?
She could go the Julia Roberts route, she mused. “I’d love to do a romantic comedy about a woman in her forties, who’s looking for love and never found it, and still keeping their heart open despite tough times and bad relationships,” she said. Bridesmaids is mentioned and she nodded. “I think that there’s a market out there for women our age. Clearly. Everyone is craving it. I want to do something like that.”
“I think what constantly drove me was great characters—and great characters aren’t always the most commercial,” she said of her past and future projects.
In the upcoming Sam Worthington thriller, Man on a Ledge, she has a small part as a reporter: “She’s down on the scene, reporting. She’s got a New Yawk accent,” she said. In January, she stars opposite Jeffrey Dean Morgan in horror director Sam Raimi’s next flick (as yet unnamed).
In a way, Sedgwick is betting on being underestimated just the way people do Brenda Leigh (“It really disarms people—that Southern accent, and the flouncy skirts, and the sweater sets,” she said of Brenda’s quirks. “They are not expecting it. I think she does it on purpose, so that they’ll underestimate her so that they’ll spill!” She laughed.)
“It’s funny, I had some agents actually say to me, ‘Hollywood doesn’t watch your show, and I was like ‘Oh, that’s the good news!’ And then I come in for an audition and they are not expecting anything,” she said, and flashed a broad grin.
There are distinct differences between Sedgwick and her character—there’s a raspy tinge to her voice instead of Brenda Leigh’s twang. A drawer in her personal closet backstage marked, “Kyra’s Snacks,” contains Miss Vickie’s Salt and Vinegar chips and trail mix, instead of Ring Dings—but Sedgwick wishes she had one thing that Brenda Leigh has in spades.
“I’m gonna miss her righteous indignation, and the fact that she can get revenge on people that really do the wrong thing, she can put them in jail for the rest of her life,” said Sedgwick, later in her trailer, where pictures of her husband Kevin Bacon were displayed on a table.
“That’s awesome. There are so many people that should go to jail for the rest of their life for doing what they are doing and there are so many injustices in the world that I am completely impotent to change. And that really infuriates me and so I love”—she rolled the last word, and leaned forward in her seat, the veins in her neck standing out—“I love when she gets to go, ‘You’re fucking going down!’ That’s awesome!” She laughed.
She settled back into her seat. “I have no trouble cultivating that righteous indignation.”
Though she doesn’t say it, Bernie Madoff’s name—the financier who swindled people out of billions of dollars, including Sedgwick and her husband—lingers in the air.
Perhaps the hardest part of leaving The Closer will be leaving this obviously close-knit family. On Friday nights, the cast and crew often have theme parties—last week they had open mic night and karaoked. “It’s great that you spend 15 hours a day with these people and you still want to hang out on the weekends,” she said. “That’s a good thing.”
J.K. Simmons—who has played Brenda’s boss and friend, Assistant Chief Pope—hung out with his parents offstage. They were visiting from Missoula, Montana—an annual trip. In between takes, the cast and crew, including Raymond Cruz who plays Detective Julio Sanchez, came out and said hello. Sedgwick greeted them warmly as they asked after her two now-college-aged children.
Later, Sedgwick is asked about how she will feel on the last day.
“I think I’ll be very sad. I think I’ll cry a lot. I love these people. I love them deeply. Really, they are just mensches—the menschiest menches,” she said, and smiled. “Whenever I see them again in the future, my heart will melt and open up and my heart will soar like a hawk, as Dustin Hoffman says in Little Big Man.”
Still, it’s hard to walk away from something so certain especially in these tumultuous times. “For an actor, to know that six months out of the year they are going to have a really amazing, creatively fulfilling experience and they are going to be working their asses off and they are going to be totally submerged in work and in the creativity and excitement and exhaustion that comes from that, that’s a really great thing. And not knowing is kind of terrifying.” She paused. “But not terrifying enough to do an eighth season.”
“I will miss her, though,” she said of Brenda Leigh, as she walked briskly into the shoes of her character, one scene closer to the end. “I think I will miss her very much.”