TNT has forged a solid reputation for dependable dramatic programming over the past few years, and, although they have some of the biggest shows on cable TV right now, with The Closer, Saving Grace, Raising the Bar and one of my personal favorites, Leverage, there is always room for one more hit on the slate. It looks like TNT will have that additional hit series when Hawthorne, which stars Jada Pinkett Smith as Chief Nursing Officer Christina Hawthorne and Michael Vartan as Chief of Surgery Tom Wakefield, premieres on Tuesday, June 16 at 9 PM ET on TNT (CLICK HERE for my full review of the pilot episode, which was pretty damn good, folks). I was lucky enough to be invited to a press conference for the new show, where stars Jada Pinkett Smith and Michael Vartan answered a few questions from a small group of reports. Here's what they had to say about the goings-on at Richmond (VA) Trinity Hospital in this first season.
I'm really curious to know about your mother-in-law and her back-story. How long is it going to take before we understand the tension and the acrimony between your character and Joanna Cassidy's character?
Jada Pinkett Smith: Not long, not long. We will dive into some of Christina's back-story as the show goes on and a lot of our story will unravel about what happened with her husband and whythere's tension there with her and her mother-in-law and all those things.
To follow up with that tension with the mother-in-law, will we find out that some of it is about an interracial relationship? How is that going to play into that?
Jada Pinkett Smith: No. You know what? We don't even get into that. It just is (Laughs). The tension is more about it happened when they were very young, and it happened while I was in school and his education got interrupted because of our interaction, but we never do get into the whole interracial piece, really.
Can you both talk about how you got involved with the project?
Michael Vartain: Well, I read the script and thought the writing was fantastic and, of course, found out that Jada was attached and that was it for me, to be honest. Then I found out she was the executive producer and that was really a comforting notion because I'm a big fan of hers, period, but I have great confidence in her storytelling ability and in her creative vision and, knowing that she had a lot of creative power and say over some of the things that would take place on set, on a daily basis. It's one thing to read a script and you finish the show and it's aired, but when you're actually shooting the scene, things come up all the time that don't necessarily work or sound right, and she's there to guide the ship in the right direction. All those things put together just made it a no-brainer, basically.
Jada, there used to be a time in Hollywood where actors either did film or television and now it seems you just work. So, why television and why now?
Jada Pinkett Smith: I really felt like I needed the experiences that TV can offer. There's a certain level of intensity, there's a gradient of storytelling, story structure that I needed some help with. My husband is what we call the "ghost producer" on the show, and so right now, one of his students, I hate to say it while he's here (Laughs), one of his students, he's quite a fantastic story structuralist, so right now, I'm learning from him just how to structure story in a way that speaks to the universal voice and just understanding how to hit those human, emotional chords that resonate universally, no matter what country your from, economic status, none of it. So, I really needed this television grind to be "in the gym," I call it being "in the gym." Every day, every week we have to create a movie, basically. This television show as a whole is like a book but every episode is like a chapter, so unlike a movie where you have to tackle a book at one time, I can tackle a chapter of the book each week and create a season that is the book. I like the gradient of television and also the intensity of it, because there is no leisure time. You can't just sit back and go, 'Oh, somebody will figure that out or find that problem.' No. Everything is immediate and, for me personally, because I can be lazy sometimes, I need that type of pressure to just be on it and be constantly have that pressure and grind.
You've written and developed for television before, Jada, so is there any chance of you writing any of the episodes here?
Jada Pinkett Smith: No (Laughs). One thing I know, in trying to star and executive produce at the same time, I was like, 'Jada, promise me...' because I talk to myself sometimes, 'promise me that you will keep your hats to a limit.' So I'm really going to try to stay true to that.
Michael Vartan: I'll give it a shot.
Jada Pinkett Smith: Yeah. Maybe Michael will write something.
I thought it was cute how the junior nurse who gets thrown up on and pooped on by a bird, is that going to be recurring where she's going to be smattered by life?
Jada Pinkett Smith: She's got some really really strong storylines. Her name is Vanessa (Lengies) and she plays Kelly on the show. She has some very very strong storylines where you'll kind of see how her character develops and how she learns and matures through some of the experiences she has in the hospital.
Can you talk about the format of the show? Is it going to be more of a procedural, where every episode is open-ended or is it going to be more with storylines continuing throughout the whole season?
Jada Pinkett Smith: Well how we're structuring it is, basically, each episode is basically stand-alone, meaning that you can come into the middle of the season of Hawthorne and be able to enjoy that episode, but we do have storylines that continue, as far as the characters and their relationships with one another. We don't really have a whole lot of crossover storylines. We do have characters, like Isabelle, for instance, the homeless woman that you see, she'll have quite a few different stories that we'll deal with that close at each episode, but that her emotional arc continues throughout the season, so that's pretty much how we're dealing with that.
So, seeing as we're praying for several seasons here, where do you see your character's arcs going?
Michael Vartan: I think Tom Wakefield will eventually break into the NHL (Laughter). I've been pushing that storyline with the writers, Jada keeps blocking the idea. But no, I think the great thing about the show is that these characters are so multi-faceted and they interact with each other in such different ways that there are a lot of different possibilities. My character has kind of been a work in progress. When I first got the job, there was a structure, a skeleton, but there weren't too many defining pieces and, as we're shooting episode six now, the relationship between Wakefield and Hawthorne is becoming a lot more fun and the friendship is being discovered and there are a lot of different shades that are appearing as we go along. Season 2, 3, 4? Fantastic. I don't really care as long as that happens.
Jada PInkett Smith: There are a lot of possibilities and we're still pondering do we do a season theme, so we'll see. We're still in that discovery process.
Can you both talk about the changing face of cable television. It seems as if the best scripted programming on TV resides in cable, so can you talk about that and why do you think so much good content is on cable now?
Michael Vartan: Personally, I just feel that the major networks just don't have creative programming. One show will break out every season and will be a hit and, justifiably so because it's a good show with a great cast and a good story, and for the next several years, every network will try and bank on that same sort of formula. Audiences are a lot more mature now than they used to be and they catch on to that. They don't want to see the same idea rehashed in a different way. They want to see something inventive and new, so I think cable allows the audience to pick and choose what they want to see, but the programming is very creative and different and they can take a few more risks because they can say words like "shit" and "asshole" and not that that's the be-all-end-all, but when you're in a scene and you can say those words, it adds an element of realism, because we speak like that in real life. I don't know about you, but when the shit hits the fan, I don't say, 'Oh shoot.' On network TV, when you do that, as an audience member, I've often been taken out of a scene, because I thought, 'Are they real people? What's going on?' So, even on that minute level, it's just a microcosm of how cable TV is just a lot more real.
I think you have hit on a nerve on the tension between nurses and doctors in hospitals and that seemed very real. Are you expecting any sort of backlash from the doctor's lobby or has that already happened? Or have you heard from nurses or doctors who have perhaps seen it already?
Jada Pinkett Smith: We have. We've screened it with several communities of nurses and they all seemed to think it was pretty authentic. Just so you know, just because there's tension between the nurses and doctors in the first episode, that's not something that really lasts throughout. Our hospital, the nurses and doctors are pretty collaborative. You run into physicians that you have difficulties with, but our show is definitely not about pitting nurses and doctors against one another, but those problems do come up from time to time. It's been very important, to me, because nurses really feel like they have been misrepresented on television, so TNT has been very sensitive and made sure that we've screened it. I always try to explain to people, 'You know, this is television' (Laughs) so we do have to take things to the extreme because sometimes real real life is not that interesting, so we have to compact it. Something that might happen over a month's time will happen in a day at Richmond Trinity. Just making sure that the authenticity of how we carry ourselves, just simple things like where you place your badge and they have hand sanitizers around their necks, stuff like that. But, definitely, they really related to the characters and felt they were realistic and I was really happy about that. My mother is a nurse, so she watches every episode and you know how mama's are - 'Hmm, no, you have to go back and reshoot that.' So that's been really helpful.
So can you talk about any guest stars that we will be seeing this season?
Jada Pinkett: Umm, Malcolm Jamal-Warner is coming on. Michael Ealy, Cloris Leachman was on (Laughs). Cloris... hilarious. Umm who else. We'll have maybe one or two more guest stars.
Michael Vartan: Will Smith, maybe.
Jada Pinkett Smith: Will has come on the show. He's an extra in one of the episodes, so just see if you can catch him (Laughs). He's just walking by. He's doing a drive-by... and we could hardly afford that (Laughter), so we'll see. It was a very costly drive-by, walk-by.
Are we going to get to really see more of you and your daughter's relationship and how you're dealing with the passing of your husband?
Jada Pinkett Smith: Oh yeah. For sure, yeah. It's just these two women who are trying to grow up together. Christina had her at a very young age and Christina doesn't always make the right decisions, which I like. I don't think Christina is as good a parent as I am in real life (Laughs). My kids would have to be the judge of that, but yeah, I think there will be some real interesting dynamics between Christine and her daughter.
Knowing that your character has lost her husband, do you think there's a chance that she'll find love again, or where is her heart going to go?
Jada Pinkett Smith: Well, she's going to have to find love again, for sure, so there are some interesting areas that we might go with that, for sure. Some interesting places, we'll see.
Jada, you just mentioned your kids and you've made a lot of professional sacrifices for family, so how much of a 9-to-5 environment, particularly shooting it here in L.A., offer you, being that you don't have to travel?
Jada Pinkett Smith: Well, the great thing is that my kids do know I'm in town (Laughs). That's about it. The great thing is that when I found this, I sat down with my kids and my husband and I really asked their permission. I said, 'Listen. There's this show that I'd really love to do and it'll be three months that you might not see mommy a lot.' They're looking at me like, 'Really? What does that mean?' I'm like, 'Well, I might not be home when you wake up and I might not see you when you go to sleep at night, but you'll have me during the weekends and there might be a day during the week that I'm off, that you'll have me once again.' So, they're thinking about it and they're like, 'All right. I think we can live with that for three months.' Will's like, 'I don't know if I can live with that for three months, but we'll see.' So, it's worked out really well because I just communicate with them and let them know what's happening instead of just doing things and don't understand what's going on. So I found that, in our household, that as long as we get communication and get agreement, it's smooth. Everybody knows what to expect for the next three months and they know that, for the rest of the year, I'm off. They've got me for the rest of the year. So they get to eat chocolate for breakfast and go to bed whenever they feel like it for those three months while I'm working, so it works out.
I wanted you both to expand on the relationship between your two characters, so how will their relationship evolve throughout the season?
Jada Pinkett Smith: Oh yeah. Will has given his stamp of approval on Michael, so it really could go anywhere (Laughs). So we're playing in a lot of different territories. You'll definitely see, in the episodes coming up, you'll see how our relationship starts to develop and there's some interesting stuff happening.
Where is the fictional setting of the hospital and where are you really in production?
Jada Pinkett Smith: We are supposed to be in Richmond, Virginia, but we're really in Inglewood, California. It's a hospital, Daniel Freeman, that actually closed down two years ago. It's an abandoned hospital.
Michael Vartan: It's nice. When you lean on the walls, they don't collapse. You turn a faucet, water comes out. It's so weird.
After the press conference wrapped, in true TNT fashion, the press corps were whisked away to the awesome Apple Lounge in West Hollywood for a lovely little post-junket party. Yes, you really do have to love post-junket parties, especially this one where you can get your fortune read by a tarot card reader, get an amazing (seriously, AMAZING) massage and enjoy a plethora of different cocktails all night long. It was a smashing little shindig, if I do say so myself, and I wish TNT put a show into production every week just so I could go to a cool party like this every week. But, alas, they don't, so I'll just have to patiently await the next one. That's all I've got from the Hawthorne event and make sure to tune in to the series premiere on Tuesday, June 16 at 9 PM ET on TNT. Peace in. Gallagher out!