Taylor Schilling and Liz Heldens Talk Mercy

The star and executive producer dish on the new NBC medical drama

The new fall TV season is getting under way and one of the more anticipated shows of this new season is the medical drama Mercy, which premieres on Wednesday, September 23 on NBC. Actress Taylor Schilling, who portrays Nurse Veronica Callahan and executive producer Liz Heldens recently held a conference call to discuss this new series, and here's what they had to say.

First of all, Liz, one thing that makes this so different is it's got a real respect for the character of Mike and for the blue collar guys in the show in general. The old per se they would have made Mike the bad guy but he's mostly a good guy. He cheated on his wife but she cheated on her - him too. But he mostly seems like a decent guy. Kind of describe what your thinking was as you made that character.

Liz Heldens: Well I really wanted to, you know, listening to, you know, National Public Radio in the mornings and, you know, I mean, like, you know, when I'm having breakfast I was kind of struck by a series they were doing on NPR about like returning veterans and, you know, their marriages. And, you know, I mean, and trying to keep a marriage together. And I was really struck by what a difficult position both of these characters were in sort of being swept up, you know, I mean, kind of being like swept up in history and swept up in this war. And I really had a lot of sympathy for the character of Mike. I think, I think, I mean, you know, it was really important to everybody that this sort of triangle be really, you know, fit, you know, I mean, this triangle be like a really fair fight and this guy absolutely has a point of view and he, you know, I mean, he's not a perfect guy, you know. I mean, he did, I mean, he was unfaithful to Veronica but we really wanted to sort of represent his point of view and make you really, you know, and like hopefully get you really invested in this marriage and make you really kind of root for these two people.

The thing I wanted to ask Taylor is the impressive thing about her is the character is that she goes back and forth between the blue collar world she grew up in and the professional world of the hospital really kind of convincingly, you know. And I wanted to ask you yourself, now first of all I saw that you're a Red Sox fan so anyone who's a Red Sox fan has met plenty of blue collar people in her life.

Taylor Schilling: That's for sure.

Now tell me when you grew up what was your family like? What did your folks do for a living?

Taylor Schilling: When I was growing up I grew up in West Roxbury in Boston. And my dad was for most of that time an assistant district attorney so he would always say, you know, he had like the Law and Order job where, you know, it was a lot of police officers and stuff and detectives and things like that around all the time. So the world of - the world that Mike and Veronica share and the world that Veronica has heard of - has seen out - she's sort of seen beyond that world and she's seeing something new. I mean I get that, I really do; I feel like I understand the world that Mike and Veronica are living in. And, yeah.

Liz, I don't want to say that Taylor has come out of nowhere because that marginalizes everything that she's done to get where she is. But what did she do that made you all take notice of her? And was the fact that she's an interviewer on TV an obstacle in any way in casting her?

Liz Heldens: Oh man, like, she, you know, Taylor auditioned in New York on tape. And we were reading people in LA. And I'd looked at her, you know, I looked at her read and my husband looked at her read and, you know, we were looking at all kinds of people. And he kept going what about that girl in New York? What about that girl in New York? So finally we were like let's fly her in. And then she just blew the doors off the audition. It was just really - she walked out of the room and we all looked at each other and it was over. It was just game over. She really - I don't know, I can't, you know, like that's what you want; you want somebody to come in and own the part. And she just found all these pieces and moments in the scenes that she was reading that I didn't even know were there. And, you know, I can't, you know, I can't sway enough good things about Taylor Schilling. I just think we would not, you know, we wouldn't be where we are right now if it wasn't for her. Like she just has so much range and so much, you know, I really think that she's an actress who can go to some, you know, who can go to some dark places with this character and people will follow her. And she's also just so facile with comedy. And I just, you know, you know we were really, really lucky. Sure.

Taylor, did you have to check with your brother to find out if he's ever claimed that Curt Schilling is related to him?

Taylor Schilling: Oh man, you know what? I didn't follow up on that but I think we could go on record saying that he has. He's done things like that.

I've always been aware of the fact that if I make a mistake in my work and an editor doesn't catch it I'm at worst embarrassed and it's probably true for you all in your work too. And of course if my sister in law makes a mistake somebody very like could die. Is that why medical drama is compelling to you? That the sort of the high stakes that are involved?

Liz Heldens: Yeah, I guess so. I guess, I mean, I guess that's true. I think, you know, I mean, everybody has been in the hospital and, you know, I mean, well, I don't know, I'm sorry, maybe everybody hasn't been in the hospital. But everybody, you know, a member of their family, somebody, you know, it's - I mean it's definitely, I mean it's definitely a heightened, I mean it's definitely a heightened and dramatic time in people's lives when, you know, when, I mean, when you or somebody you love goes into the hospital. And I think - I think that's what - I think that's what, I mean, I think that's what's interesting about it is it's like real, you know, I mean, it's like real drama in real people's lives and you're not stretching; nobody has to have super powers or anything you know what I mean? Like, I mean, so yeah.

There are a lot of medical dramas out there today and they all kind of approach different angles. So how would you say your show stands out compared to those?

Liz Heldens: Well I think for me what was interesting about this is a writer approaching the project was that it was a way to do a medical drama that was less about science and more about character. You know, it's like the nurses are the ones who sort of pick up the pieces after a diagnosis is made. It's the part that you usually don't see on television, you know. And so it was, you know, for me it was just a way to do a medical show that was about, you know, kind of people and emotions and not science.

Taylor Schilling: Yeah, well you know it's interesting from my perspective it feels like, you know, from where I'm sitting in this work it's like it's a show - it seems like it's really about people. And it's hard to quantify in my mind as a medical - it is a medical show, it takes place in a hospital. But it's about people that I can relate to - real people kind of trying to get through their lives, you know, outside of work and inside of work. And so, you know, the hospital is important obviously paramount that's where their lives are taking place but it's more about kind of the characters sort of navigating their lives, Veronica navigating her life.

Just out of curiosity your character is kind of very - well she is a very tough cookie. What's it like playing that character and how do you think it'll resonate with the audience such a strong female lead?

Taylor Schilling: Well what's it like playing that character - you know, I think that it's been - I just - I think it's always fun to explore different parts of yourself and explore different parts of Veronica. I think that she's, you know, she's tough but she's also trying to get by. And she gets flustered and she has a lot going on. So it's always interesting. I mean, that's why I want to be an actor is to kind of like go to those different places. And I would imagine if I as a viewer it would be really exciting for me at this time in my life as a woman to see someone who is strong and honestly trying to get - trying to do the right thing but not a hero. It's exciting to me. It's exciting to me to sort of be able to represent that and play with a woman like that because I think - I think it, you know, it could be nice for people to see.

Veronica we see her and we know when it starts off that she has had a relationship kind of while she was in Iraq and while she was I think just separated from her husband. So can you talk a little bit about how make - with a storyline like that how you approach it to make us viewers empathetic to her plight when on paper it might be something that people might not be that sympathetic to?

Taylor Schilling: Well I think something about that situation is, you know, it's not like a workplace affair. What I was so struck by was this sort of triangle that Veronica is involved in is she was at war; she was in extreme situation where I think anybody is going to be kind of grasping at straws to find comfort and support and a way to get through the day and deal with these issues that are unbelievable. I mean, I would go so far as to say unimaginable for I think all of us maybe haven't been deployed in a war zone. And so to look for comfort in another human being with someone who understands her and supports her and makes her feel safe that felt very honest to me. And it felt really forgivable. It didn't feel like a morale issue it felt like a human issue. Like and so and that's where - that's where it just really resonated for me. It's really hard to make it a black and white situation. It feels like there's a lot of gray in there.

Do you worry that there is this similarity between Meredith Grey and Veronica?

Taylor Schilling: No I don't, I don't. I mean I'm not a big - I've never really watched a lot of Grey's Anatomy so I don't, you know, but no I'm really not. I feel like we're - there are always, you know, we're attracted and we tell stories about interesting people so I think sometimes their shadows are reflections in other things that - this is - the (unintelligible) point of view. And I think, you know, Veronica's story is definitely different than, you know, Meredith Gray or, you know, any of these other shows that are out there. So I'm just really focused on that. I don't really think about it in terms of other characters.

How far ahead do you have these stories and characters in your head? Do you kind of think of just the first season or do you have like the five-year plan God willing the show goes that long?

Liz Heldens: No, I think, yeah, you know, we kind of think in batches of like three or four episodes, you know, like and that's - I think that's a good, you know, for me that's a good way to do it. And, you know, is there, you know, I mean, there's a few - there's a few tent poles that we sort of know we're going to hit maybe at the end of the this season. But I don't - I don't, you know, when we talk about the second season it's sort of - I don't know, you know, we're really, you know, like we're really focused on, you know, sort of looking at this first season, you know. And just, I mean, and just, I mean, we're really focused on just this first season and sort of letting the characters, you know, sort of find their way, you know. So I don't - this is not, you know, it's not the kind of, you know, to me it's not the kind of show that you go out, you know, that you sort of know like second season, third season, you know.

What does being an Iraq war vet, you know, give Veronica that the other nurses at Mercy don't have?

Taylor Schilling: Well I think it gives her a different way of looking at the world. I think she carries with her perhaps a truth or a point of view that not only do the other nurses not share but not a lot of people share. I think that, you know, in our show she has another vet that she can kind of connect to sometimes and can understand her. But it's a - it's a way of being in the world I think that most people unless you've been there or experienced it's kind of like a trauma or an event like that don't understand.

Now do you think the audience will find Veronica likable or is that the point like she's the smartest one not necessarily the nicest?

Taylor Schilling: I don't think she's the smartest one. I don't think she's the smartest on. I think that she, I mean, she knows a lot and she's a really smart woman but I think that she's, you know, she's still trying to figure it out; she just doesn't have a problem figuring it out on the fly. But, yeah, I think that she's, you know, because she's not perfect and she's - she messes things up and, you know, I almost swore, I'm sorry. She - I think there's a lot that's very relatable.

We heard about, you know, the medical shows that are out there and different types of characters. But what I'd like to know is what does Mercy have to offer us that Hawthorne and Nurse Jackie doesn't have?

Liz Heldens: You know, I just, I guess I just go back to I think people really connect to, you know, people, you know, people will either connect to these, you know, I mean, people will connect with these characters. I mean, I think those two shows are great shows, you know, there's nothing, you know, like and I mean the only thing, yeah, I don't know. I mean our show is, I mean our show does, I mean is kind of a little - maybe a little bit more of an ensemble. I'm not even sure if that's true. You know, I think we just have our point of view on this show and that's, I mean, and that's just kind of what we're doing. And, I mean, you know, hopefully it has its own unique voice and people will hook into these characters.

Can you give us a little thumbnail sketch of what your take is on the three ladies who kind of anchor this show? Who are they? Can you tell us in your own words what your take is on them, who they are?

Liz Heldens: Well, Veronica Callahan is, you know, is, you know, she's, you know, she's just returned from two tours of duty in Iraq. And, you know, she comes from a close-knit family, you know, she's got a lot of brothers. She's close with her parents, you know, they're kind of dysfunctional but, you know, but they're still together, they're still pretty tight knit. And, you know, and she's returned home from the war and is trying to pick up her life and her, you know, her marriage is a little bit in shambles and she's trying to make that work. And, you know, and in the pilot a doctor who she had an affair with in Iraq comes back, you know, comes back to declare himself. And, you know, she's a very flawed, very volatile, funny, you know, you know, funny, dark, big-hearted character. And then, you know, then we have Michelle Trachtenberg playing Chloe Payne who is a brand, you know, brand new nurse just out of nursing school. You know, comes from a highly functioning loving family and, you know, is just in over her head in the pilot and is just really trying to find her feet. And is in many ways I think kind of the most relatable character on the show, you know. And then we have Jamie Lee Kirchner playing Sonia - and then we have Jamie Lee Kirchner playing Sonia Jimenez, you know, who's Veronica's best friend and is, you know, a really, you know, smart, tough, beautiful girl who has her sights set on Manhattan. And, you know, who beyond her job as a nurse really, you know, really has a lot of hopes and dreams and aspirations for, you know, for kind of, you know, for kind of, you know, for kind of, you know, for getting out of the neighborhood and, you know, changing her life.

Taylor, can you tell us a bit more about what you think of Veronica's dilemma and how much are we going to explore the back and forth between the man she loved in Iraq and her husband? Can you tell us about, you know, that journey this season?

Taylor Schilling: Yeah, I think, you know, I think that she - both men are really important to her, you know, in a way almost serve different needs. But I think that Veronica is really trying to make it work and she wants to do - she wants to do the right thing. So I think it's a really - it's an interesting - it's a really interesting dilemma. And I think that it's going to, you know, just continue to play out. But I know that she's committed to her husband and is really trying to make that work but has, you know, the distraction of this other man at work on a daily basis.

You can watch all the medical drama when Mercy premieres on Wednesday, September 23 on NBC.