It's been two years since she starred on Judging Amy. Now Amy Brenneman is back on prime time, playing the Oceanside Wellness Center's resident psychiatrist Dr. Violet Turner on Private Practice. We caught up with the five-time Emmy nominee to talk about raising kids, returning to television and who really inspired her to play an obsessive ex-girlfriend.
TVGuide.com: Why did you decide to return to TV after mostly making movies for the past two years?
Amy Brenneman: Shonda Rhimes. I'm ADD enough and I have these little kids so it's rare that I get sucked into a show. I did with Grey's Anatomy, especially last year with Izzie and Denny. I got completely swept up in it and in all the chances the [writers and actors] were taking. At that point, I really didn't have any interest in returning to television. But I remember thinking, "That looks like a blast!"
TVGuide.com: Did you know Shonda before she approached you for this show?
Brenneman: I had not met Shonda, but we share people in common. My husband [director Brad Silberling] did a movie with Ellen Pompeo called Moonlight Mile. Shonda really loved that movie. That's where she first saw Ellen and got excited to work with her. Her producing partner Betsy Beers and Brad developed something, too, so the world gets smaller and smaller. So no, I had not met her. But when I sat down with her and Betsy, I really did feel like they were old friends.
TVGuide.com: Is it hard juggling motherhood with working full-time again?
Brenneman: It is. I had Charlotte at the end of the second year of Judging Amy. So for a full four years I was working with that job and I had her and it was great. But I remember thinking, "I really love being the star of a TV show. But, if I'm lucky enough to have another baby, I would really love not to have to work so hard." As much as I was sad to see things go, it was great timing because they canceled my show and two weeks later I gave birth. When I looked towards doing something more steadily, it was really important not to have it all on my shoulders so I could have a little bit more flexibility in my life.
TVGuide.com: Does Shonda understand, since she has kids, too?
Brenneman: She does get the whole thing. I've been the lead on an hour television show and it was great. Judging Amy was beyond my wildest expectations. But I know what the job is and it doesn't completely go with being a mom of small children. It was interesting because I'm happy playing a supporting part, but I'm not comfortable playing the wife to the male lead. That's a bit of a drag and feels like an odd step backwards. I love to work and I'm game to do anything if it's a shorter-term commitment. But I know this is really like getting married to something. What's amazing about what Shonda does is that she writes true ensembles. [Everyone's] serving the plot. She really develops the characters and puts things together in a beautiful, mosaic way. I found that very unique.
TVGuide.com: Do you relate to Violet?
Brenneman: I do and I don't. This particular thing that we play with in the first episode where she's basically obsessed — she's kind of in a posttraumatic moment — she was basically jilted about a month before. And she cannot get over it. She's in an obsessed state and that gets more and more played out in the episodes to come. I've had a different life, but what I really love is Violet's ability to be very clear-eyed, like, "Look, I know exactly what I'm doing and I can analyze myself better than you." Therein is the humanity and the insanity of it. That pesky humanity thing...
TVGuide.com: How does she compare to other characters you've played?
Brenneman: I think Amy had a lot of different aspects to her. But, in retrospect, I think you have to carry a certain sanity with you because you're the entrée for the audience, whereas Violet really goes off. In episodes to come, she's pretty far out there. But, again, it's sort of saved, if you will, because she's self-conscious about it. And I feel like so many characters I play are rooted in family, so I find it very interesting that Shonda has not provided these people with blood families. Clearly, their coworkers are their family. It's a different kind of familial setup.
TVGuide.com: Can you elaborate on what you said earlier about how she gets wacky?
Brenneman: We've sort of teased out this ex-boyfriend thing — we just finished up our fifth episode. Almost every episode has some chapter of that story. In the second episode that will be broadcast, I go out on a limb. I don't want to give that part away, but at the end of the episode, she'll be melting down saying, "I'm a total idiot." It's a little bipolar, actually. She has these manic hopeful episodes, then she kind of plummets. I also think there is love between herself and Paul [Adelstein's character].
TVGuide.com: You and Paul have such great chemistry on screen.
Brenneman: Yeah, I just love him. I feel like he's going to steal the show. All of the press is talking about Tim [Daly] and Kate [Walsh] and Taye [Diggs] and Audra [McDonald]. Paul is so rarely mentioned yet everyone who watches the show is like, "Who is that guy?!"
TVGuide.com: Do you think it's because people are surprised to see him play a sensitive guy after Prison Break?
Brenneman: Yeah. Cooper is not him, but Paul is a very sweet person. Shonda really writes to the people she casts, to their strengths and what she sees in them. I love working that way. I did an autobiographical television show, for god's sake! I just think there's a wonderful alchemy. I think what you're seeing in this is much closer to who he is.
TVGuide.com: Do you think Violet and Cooper will become romantically involved?
Brenneman: I honestly don't know. I am not a producer and there's this Shonda Rhimes code of silence. So I'm not even keeping anything from you. From what we've shot so far, that has not been explicit. But I think what Shonda writes really well are situations where you want to throw a doughnut at the TV because the audience can so clearly see what the characters can't. That's what's so engaging about her stuff.
TVGuide.com: We've all heard about Shonda's code of silence, but how strict is she with the cast?
Brenneman: We honestly don't know much until we get the script. We just get the scripts and that's the next chapter. So in that way I think she [guards us against] any temptation to [reveal] the future. I think on Grey's, she got burned a couple of times. She does want to keep the pleasure for the audience, but she doesn't threaten our children!
TVGuide.com: You don't have to promise her your firstborn if you spill?
Brenneman: [Laughs] No.
TVGuide.com: How is the cast getting along?
Brenneman: Honestly, it's fun and they're amazing. We got Audra McDonald after she won her fourth Tony. Taye is just a dream, and Tim is amazing. There's always that feeling of, "What is this ride going to be?" But none of us are in Hollywood for the first time, which is really great because then you can just settle down and do the work. It's funny, in the press we've been doing everyone asks, "Is it sizzly? Is it sexy?" Sure, it's sizzly! It's sexy! Then we talk about tampons and crack fart jokes. We talk about kids. We talk about everything. You have every kind of conversation on this set, which is really where I like to be.
TVGuide.com: Is the buzz surrounding the show nerve-racking or exciting?
Brenneman: It's a little bit of both. With Judging Amy, we were put on the air, but we had very small expectations. So the great thing about that is we just did exactly the show we wanted to do. Then, as soon as it was on the air, the audience found us. Not that the network didn't like the show, but they just kind of shrugged their shoulders like, "OK, keep doing what you're doing!" This is totally different. We did press on this thing two days after we started shooting. People wanted to know what the show is but we were like, "We don't know." It's like we are literally gestating with child. On the other hand, it means that the studio will promote it. It means that if Shonda wants to reshoot something, they'll give us money for it. I call this set the bubble. I gave Kate this card the other day because I just think she's handling herself like a queen. She just got married and has so much on her shoulders, but she's funny and humble and generous. That's real grace under fire.
TVGuide.com: What did the card that you gave Kate say?
Brenneman: It was just a little love card in the midst of the busy days. I realized I'd been thinking, "Wow, she really is handling this really well." It's kind of like what I do in my marriage. I thought it might be nice to communicate that! So it was just getting it out of my head and letting her know, because she is a really amazing girl. She's excited and she's graceful and it's her turn. She's a very special person.
Take a sneak peak at Private Practice with our Online Video Guide.
For even more Private Practice preview, check out this video interview with series creator Shonda Rhimes.
The Sept. 24 issue of TV Guide features House star Hugh Laurie's most irreverent interview ever and a look at the new season of How I Met Your Mother. Try four risk-free issues now!
Send your comments on this Q&A to firstname.lastname@example.org.