It's jarring to hear Janet Montgomery speak in her native British accent after seeing the new CBS drama Made in Jersey, in which she stars as Martina Garretti, a young lawyer who sounds like she just stepped off the set of Goodfellas.
Montgomery worked with a dialogue coach in order to literally develop a voice for the character, who lands a job at a prestigious Manhattan law firm and tries to balance her career aspirations with her (brash, Italian) family life back in New Jersey. (The actress says she's currently spending her evenings watching The Sopranos, both to decompress from long work days and to perfect her Jersey cadence.)
"When I first started auditioning, there was very little guidance [about the voice]," Montgomery tells TVGuide.com. "The studio and the network and [creator Dana Calvo] and [director] Mark Waters all had different ideas about how strong the accent should be. So it was really up to me to sort of decipher.
"I've always had an ear for accents," she continues. "I'm like a parrot. ... The most important thing with that is not to mimic anyone, and give your own voice to the character. So it was about fine-tuning it so I found Martina's voice, not an interpretation of someone else."
But it wasn't just the accent that gave Montgomery pause when she got the call to audition for the role. She was working on a project in England at the time and ended up testing over Skype. "I said to my agent and manager, only send me the stuff that you really think I'm right for, because I'm working right now," she says. "I couldn't really understand why my manager thought I was so right for the role because I was like, 'She's a New Jersey lawyer.'"
But Montgomery soon discovered she had more in common with Martina than she initially thought. "I constantly feel like a fish out of water," she says. "I think there was a lot of stuff that really [resonated] with me with Martina, this balance between where she's been and where she is now, and her family life, which is still so important to her. And I really feel that, because it's so difficult for me being so far away from my family. None of them are in this industry at all, and it's trying to balance that so they can understand this strange kind of career that I have.
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Like Montgomery herself, Martina relies on her family members to keep her grounded — particularly her mother (Donna Murphy) and older sister Bonnie (Erin Cummings). "I think it's a really interesting scenario that Dana's created," Montgomery says. "Usually in these scenarios, it's a woman with a family or with a love interest that she's trying to balance with being successful at work. But this is different because it's this young woman who is slowly becoming very successful in her career, but she's the black sheep within her family. ... They're a working class family, and she's not ashamed of that, but she's trying to make sure that she gives them the respect they need, and doesn't get too big for her boots."
"She gets moments where she's still a little girl to them and she's still frightened, but she's so incredibly ballsy within her job and has this feisty personality," Montgomery adds. "It's nice to see those moments of weakness."
The one-line summary frequently attached to Made in Jersey is that brassy Martina uses her "street smarts" to one-up her stuffier work colleagues. But Montgomery says she takes exception to that boilerplate description. "I'm sort of starting to resent the whole 'using her street smarts,'" she confesses. "She's not like someone who was a thief or has been in jail. She's not part of the mafia."
A major theme of the series, however, is that Martina's middle-class background allows her to relate more to clients than her Ivy League colleagues do. In the premiere (Friday at 9/8c, CBS), she uses her knowledge of fashion and salon procedures rather than by-the-book legal expertise to crack a case. But Montgomery insists the show won't stick to that Encyclopedia Brown formula every week and will focus more on Martina's personal life.
While the Working Girl theme has been done before, Montgomery says part of what drew her to the role of Martina was Calvo's modern approach to the work-life balance.
"I really loved Ally McBeal. It was one of my favorite shows," Montgomery says. "But it was the late '90s, and the whole time she was so stressed about turning 30 and not having children, not being married. And I'm like, 'Women don't stress about that anymore.' Especially not women living in New York or L.A. or in London. They're not worried about that at all just before turning 30. I mean, I'm 26, and I think that what I love about this character is she's not trying to find a boyfriend. That is not that important to her. What is important to her is the people she loves in her life — which I think we can all relate to, whether it be family, friends or your dog."
Made in Jersey premieres Friday at 9/8c on CBS.