Nominated for an Academy Award and winner of a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Tina Turner in the 1993 film What’s Love Got to Do with It, Angela Bassett has worked continuously in theater, film and television. She brought to life the historical figures Rosa Parks and Betty Shabazz and, more recently, the fictional Queen Ramonda in Black Panther and a CIA agent, Erica Sloan, in Mission: Impossible—Fallout. She directed the TV movie Whitney and a Breakthrough documentary for National Geographic. After playing multiple characters on American Horror Story, Bassett is now starring in FOX’s 9-1-1, created by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Tim Minear, in which she plays an L.A. cop, Athena Grant, who works alongside a team of first responders. She talks about the intriguingly tough and tender sides of her character in 9-1-1 and the roller-coaster pace of the series.
TV DRAMA: How did you hear about 9-1-1?
BASSETT: I heard about it soon after I finished my four years on American Horror Story. [I had completed] my contract, so I was free as a bird! Ryan Murphy reached out to me and said that he had a project he was coming up with about a 911 concept. He told me the name of it and, of course, I’m thinking 9/11, like September 11. He said, no, it’s about first responders. I thought, OK, this could be interesting. Maybe it was another year before we got started on it and I got the script. But because I had had such a wonderful working relationship with the company and felt like part of the family and am familiar with the writers and the entire team, I felt pretty confident that it would be an opportunity and a role that I would enjoy. For the previous four years, I had had the opportunity to play a lot of different characters. 9-1-1 was going to be different, but I didn’t feel it would be less fun, interesting, intriguing or compelling.
TV DRAMA: Did the role of Athena Grant require any special prep? Did you meet any first responders or cops that helped you get into the character?
BASSETT: Yes, I worked with a retired cop, who is one of our consultants. He was very helpful to me in terms of how our policemen go about procedures, what they would do, how they neutralize a situation, how they take down a perpetrator, how they work handcuffs. We even spent time at the shooting range, which was very different for me, because I had never handled a gun before. That took a little getting used to, but I quickly got in line with it and got pretty good at it! He also put me in touch with a woman who is on the force, a lieutenant who I was able to spend time with, go on a run with, go to an event with and observe her in action with her colleagues and those who work under her. Seeing this woman who is really in charge at this big outdoor function was interesting and fascinating. But also to sit down with her and get some insight into what the journey for her has been like as she has risen in the ranks and become a lieutenant.
TV DRAMA: I imagine it’s a difficult job in many ways.
BASSETT: It is, but what is really wonderful about her is her commitment to her community, to the area that she serves.
TV DRAMA: I’m a bit of a squeamish person. So at times while watching some of the rescue scenes, you know how little kids hold their hands over their eyes and look through their fingers?
TV DRAMA: I find myself doing that, too! But I love the interactions between characters. The scene when Athena’s husband, Michael, has to tell their kids that he is gay was full of sensitivity and authenticity.
BASSETT: This show is somewhat procedural, but it also veers away from that in terms of getting to know the characters. As you said, the relationships they have and that they are building and the issues that they are going through are modern issues. And [what Athena and Michael are facing] is one of them, and what sort of family they are going to become. Athena is very confident in her position, in her job, on her feet, with others. She is very discerning in how to deal with people and what they are going through. But she gets knocked off her center—all of the characters do in their private lives. How do they save themselves? Who comes to their rescue?
TV DRAMA: Does the role of Athena, between the action scenes and the relationships, offer a satisfying range for you as an actor?
BASSETT: Absolutely. You are able to be tough and commanding, but you are also able to play the other side, the vulnerability and the tenderness, the confusion and the questioning. I enjoy that; it keeps me very satisfied as an actor.
TV DRAMA: What added responsibilities do you have as a co-executive producer?
BASSETT: Just spending time with the writers and the main writer, Tim Minear, and talking about what the shape of the season is going to be. We’ll do 18 episodes this year, so there will be a lot of conversations!
TV DRAMA: From what I hear, the demands of episodic television are pretty intense, with long days on the set. Compare that to shooting a film, like Black Panther or Mission: Impossible—Fallout. Are TV and film very different experiences?
BASSETT: In a way, they have been. In terms of the work, no, there is no difference in how you approach the character and what you are trying to do—be as authentic as possible, as compelling as you can be. But in terms of the commitment and the day-to-day, Black Panther and Mission: Impossible, you may go in and do a week in New Zealand or stay in Paris! [Laughs] On 9-1-1 you are shooting week to week for maybe nine straight months. There are 18 scripts this season. You don’t know what the end will be, how it’s going to turn out at the very end. For instance, Peter Krause [who plays the firefighter Bobby Nash] and I were both surprised when we saw the last script of season one, in which Bobby and Athena get together. It’s not like getting the full 115 pages [of a feature-film script], and OK, you know the beginning, middle and end. No, [with a TV series] we know the beginning. Then we get to next week and might know step two! And then the next step, but we never get to run with it. That’s interesting, because sometimes you have a script and you look at it as a whole. You go all the way with it and make strong choices. Then you get another script and go, Ah, I might have calibrated it a little differently if I had known I was going in this direction. But it’s interesting.
TV DRAMA: You’ve directed episodes of other series. Is that something you might do on 9-1-1 as well?
BASSETT: I may. I’m still getting my feet wet, because an element of 9-1-1, unlike American Horror Story and Whitney and the Breakthrough [documentary], is the element of action. I don’t feel extremely confident, but of course, we’ve got lots of help. I have to understand that I don’t do that by myself. You have others whose expertise that falls in. But that is something that I am observing and trying to get a really good handle on how it’s done.
TV DRAMA: Because you enjoy directing?
BASSETT: I do, tremendously. I enjoy working with others and bringing out the best in them; trying to unpack a scene and its tensions and emotions and what it is we are trying to convey or say. And the best way in which to do that, the most complete way, is to discover together how to do that.
TV DRAMA: Is there any chance we are going to see Athena sing? I’ve seen you sing in other movies. Might Athena serenade Bobby?
BASSETT: Oh my God, I haven’t heard any word of that! I haven’t thought about that at all. She might find herself at a karaoke club one night with the girls and Bobby and let loose!
TV DRAMA: 9-1-1 was the second-highest-rated show on FOX last season. To what do you attribute its appeal? How is it connecting with viewers?
BASSETT: It has that wonderful mix of “WTF?” moments in terms of the emergencies that they are trying to solve and the way that they are executed. Those [emergencies happened in real life] and some of them are very hard to believe. They’re not made up. I don’t know if the audience knows that or not, but they can go to the internet and check them out. But you get into this hole of what’s next, and we complete those emergencies, and then there’s another and another and another, so it keeps you on the edge of your seat, and as you said earlier, the dynamics of the relationships between people. They are topical and modern. We have both sides of the coin, the tough and the tender.
TV DRAMA: You are shooting 18 episodes. Does that give you time to pursue other projects?
BASSETT: It makes it very difficult. It’s always a challenge, but as I like to put it, the possibility is open! This summer I did a movie for Netflix called Otherhood, the stage after motherhood. That was a lot of fun, very interesting. I also did Bumblebee [as the voice of the Decepticon Shatter in the upcoming Transformers film], and I’m looking forward to that coming out.