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Premature Infatuation: NBC’s State of Affairs [INTERVIEW + Preview]

State of Affairs

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

I can’t even tell you how excited I am by Katherine Heigl’s return to television. I discovered Katherine on a little show called Roswell. I knew then that there was something about her that would make me want to keep up with her career. I watched the first few seasons of Grey’s Anatomy and loved what I saw. When she took a break from TV I hoped and prayed she’d return one day. And now she’s back. I don’t want to undersell my excitement of Alfre Woodard‘s presence in this show as well. I love that she plays the President of the United States and that her character has a personal relationship and history with Katherine’s. I’m looking forward to watching these two powerhouses at work.

TV Goodness attended NBC’s TCA presentation for State of Affairs. Series stars Katherine Heigl and Alfre Woodard, executive producers Ed Bernero, Joe Carnahan, Rodney Faraon, Nancy Heigl and Bob Simonds were part of the panel. They discussed how they wanted to give the quality cable shows a run for their money, why Katherine and Nancy Heigl came on as executive producers and how and why showrunner Ed Bernero became attached to the show.

Katherine, this is a really different kind of show for you. Why did this role appeal to you and was there anything difficult or daunting about this project?

Katherine Heigl: “Yeah, mostly just trying to get people to believe I could actually be a CIA analyst. I think that was what was so compelling to me. This is an actual job and I had never realized that. I’m not sure why, but a lot of people have asked me, ‘Does this really happen? Does the President have a briefer?’ I thought the opportunity to delve into that and show this side of the CIA was really compelling and to play such an intelligent woman who is a real patriot, who really believes that she can make a difference and help protect her country and help her President do her job. The idea that this is ripe with all kinds of fascinating stories about this country and this world and what goes on that we don’t really know much about. So it all felt like the perfect extraordinary role and story to tell for me.”

What was the genesis of the idea? This show is a fairly straightforward procedural based on stories from Rodney Faraon’s career, what it’s like to be a briefer. You’ve layered on top of that this big conspiracy, Katherine’s desire for revenge, Alfre’s desire for revenge, a lot of personal drama on top of that.  How did all of this come together into this specific mix and balance?  

Joe Carnahan: “We all set out to, first and foremost, do something we felt would move in lockstep with a cable program. You’ve got Homeland. You’ve got Breaking Bad. You’ve got some extraordinary shows out there, and therefore, you have the bar set quite high. So I thought we really needed to endeavor to do something that was a step beyond that. When you get someone like Ed Bernero and you get the group of people we’ve assembled and the actors we’ve assembled, I think that’s what we did in breaking this first season. I don’t have a tremendous amount of experience in television, obviously with The Blacklist, but in laying out these first 12 to 15 episodes, I think it’s one of the most remarkable, in terms of a progression of dramatics and pathos and ethos. It’s really impressive. So I think our goal was always just to outdo what in cable has become, let’s face it, the standard‑bearer. That’s why I don’t know that many network shows were even nominated in the dramatic categories at this year’s Emmys and we would like to change that.”

Are there any limitations to doing this kind of show on NBC and trying to outdo something like Homeland?  

Joe: “NBC certainly hasn’t put any restrictions on us and I think we’re going to continue to push until someone pushes back. NBC is also very acutely aware that you need to stretch it, you need it push it, you need to go outside of these boundaries in order to be competitive with the like‑minded cable shows.”

Ed Bernero: “I’ve also had a lot of discussions with NBC about my belief that there doesn’t have to be a wall between what you can do in network and what you can do in cable. You just have to use a little bit different language and you can’t show sex as much. But other than that, the biggest difference for me in cable and network is characterization. Cable starts with a character sort of messed up and then they go downhill with them.  Network starts with characters messed up and fixes them right away. So I think that it’s just a matter of changing the way we deal with character.  There’s nothing that cable does that we can’t do.”

 Katherine: “Except show boobs.”

Joe: “Yeah, we’re working on that.”

Photo Credit: Michael Parmelee/NBC

Photo Credit: Michael Parmelee/NBC

Katherine, you’ve said that working on State of Affairs is sort of like entering a new phase of adulthood for you. Can you explain what you meant by that?

Katherine: “Just that I have the opportunity to not only perform in it but executive produce it. I’m not sure why I feel this way, but acting and performing has always felt a bit more like kid’s play to me because it’s something I’ve always loved. I love the opportunity to tell stories and be imaginative and the executive producing angle of it feels more like a grownup job.”

Ed: “And she’s good at it.”

Katherine: “I’m not actually.”

Ed: “No, she is.”

Joe: “She is.”

Katherine: “But I’m learning. I’m learning. I’m getting better.”

How close were you to actually walking away from Hollywood?  

Katherine: “Not that close, obviously. I took a couple of years off to just really be with my family and be with my new daughter and expand that family. I needed that time. I needed to be a mom and be a wife and be a friend and really revel in that and remember what it is I feel so passionate about in this industry.”

It’s very exciting to see a show with a black female President. How did that casting choice come about? Is the show going to handle that in a way sort of similar to the way Scandal deals with race?

Joe: “I think it’s funny that there would even be a conversation in this day and age that we could have a black female President. I loved Alfre and when we first started discussing it, it’s like, ‘Why can’t it be this?’ My thought was you get an exceptional actor. I don’t care what their color is, their creed, their gender. I don’t care. I think the idea that this is even a topic in this day and age- I don’t know. It just feels parochial to me, that there can’t be a black female President. Why not? If Oprah Winfrey had run ten years ago, do we not think she would have won? I mean, let’s be honest. I just think it never really occurred to me. It’s a manifestation of a lot of mass media. It’s like let’s make race an issue. Let’s continue to make race an issue. I just don’t think it’s much of [an issue] or much of an interesting one. And I’m not trying to be dismissive of your question. I just think  people say, ‘Why?’ I say, ‘Why not?'”

Photo Credit: Michael Parmelee/NBC

Photo Credit: Michael Parmelee/NBC

Well, it’s unconventional. That’s all.

Ed: “Well, moving forward, what we’re actually going to play is trying to have a loving relationship when one member of the family is the President. That’s much more interesting to us than the color of anybody involved. It’s how do you maintain a loving relationship when all day you’re saving the world and then you come home and you just want to have some meatloaf.”

Joe: “Yeah, which you will see and what we will do is the domesticity of the President – what that’s like and what it’s like to be married and a husband and a wife ‑ they’re the most powerful person in the world.”

Alfre Woodard: “I think we all know that the world will not spin-off its axis if there’s an African-American as President. So the gorilla in the room is that I’m a woman. Hopefully, everybody will get accustomed to saying ‘Madam President’ in their homes and so we won’t freak out when there is a Madam President.”

Joe: “Alfre makes us call her Madam President now.”

Ed: “In the audition.”

Nancy, why are you an executive producer on the show?

Nancy Heigl: “Well, it started because Bob [Greenblatt], Rodney [Faraon] and Hank  [Crumpton] came to Katie and I. Katie and I obviously have a partnership where we work in the business together. So they came to us with this maybe two and a half years ago. We loved the concept. We loved the people. We loved Rodney, Hank and Bob very much and it just seemed like a progressive thing. I am her mother for sure. So, of course, I care about her interests. But I’m just learning about executive producing. We’re really in the process and I’m learning from those who really know and from NBC and Universal and it’s been fun. It’s been interesting. I’m the newcomer to it.”

Joe: “But I also think Nancy has been pretty great with this process and particularly casting. That was the way this came together and certainly the way I came into it. These guys were hugely instrumental. I think the group we put together, the team we put together, the cast we put together, it was absolutely a concerted team effort and it would be reductive to think that Nancy wasn’t a huge part of that. She certainly was.”

Ed: “Nancy and Katie are both just producers like everyone else. We have producers’ meetings and they’re at work every day with everyone. The role outside of the show doesn’t really seem to affect anything. We had nine producers that talk about everything that relates to the show. So they’re just great to have around.”

Watching the pilot, I kept asking myself, “When are they going to tell the President. When are they going to wake the President?” From your experience as a briefer, is there a bit of heightened reality going on here? Is it realistic to think they would have waited till the actual briefing session to say that we have a premier terrorist in our gun sights and a doctor’s been taken hostage and released?  

Rodney Faraon:  “This is a work of fiction, but at the same time I think the spirit of everything that we do here is authentic. So to answer your question directly, yes, particularly because we got the news on the show pilot about an hour, two hours before the actual briefing was going to take place. So you’d use that two hours to get all of the information you possibly can. One of the worst things you can do as a professional CIA analyst with the awesome responsibility of briefing the President of the United States is to go in there half‑cocked with just three words to say that this is what happened. We need to know why and how and what’s the future trajectory of it. So certainly it’s all going to be somewhat heightened in terms of the reality, but also I think we’ve got the spirit of the authenticity down right.”

Photo Credit: Michael Parmelee/NBC

Photo Credit: Michael Parmelee/NBC

How did you come up with the idea? How did you get Katherine to come into it? Katherine, why did you decide to come back to TV?

Bob Simonds: “I’ve work[ed] with Katherine for a really long time. In fact, on the feature side, I tried to get her to do I Dream of Jeannie, but couldn’t actually get there because I couldn’t get the script right. We’re going to be doing features with her. In fact, we’re going to be doing one in March. But we started talking about doing television and she was really only interested in going back to TV if it was, as Joe was saying earlier, smart, what is now being called ‘cable quality,’ though I think NBC is very much changing that with a lot of the stuff they’re doing. I just formed a joint venture with Hank Crumpton and Rodney Faraon to look at some of these CIA issues in a very authentic way and went to Nancy and Katie and said, ‘Look, while we’re doing these features, can we also talk about doing TV,’ and that’s essentially how this was generated.

Rodney: “When I first came up with the concept and brought the idea to Bob, his first question was, ‘Who do think would star in this and would be credible?’ Immediately ‑ and this is no joke ‑ I said ‘Katherine Heigl.’  Because as a CIA analyst, I watched her on Grey’s and I just thought that she was terrific. So she was actually literally my first choice.”

Katherine: “Oh, thanks, Rodney.”

Ed: “And I’m doing it for the money.”

It’s happening more often, that there’s a new showrunner added after the show was already created just through conflicts or creative changes or things like that. When you’re coming into this job from a philosophical perspective, what was your approach to this script? What drew you to it? What kind of alterations or slight inflections do you think you’re going to bring to this, coming to it after the pilot process?  

Ed: “I’ve been on this show since the moment it was picked up. It just got in the press late. Joe’s office is right across from mine. He’s not gone from the show. When I first saw the pilot, I had been talking to NBC for a while about coming back because I started at NBC with a show called Third Watch years ago. I just missed the people and I was in a place where I didn’t have anything going on and it worked out perfectly. But I didn’t come in because there were any problems. I came in once the show was picked up and they knew they needed a showrunner. But this show didn’t present unique problems. It presented unique opportunities. I mean, I’m certainly not complaining about it, but there are worse things to be than the cop guy in Hollywood, but this show has no cops in it, which has almost made me cry. It’s not a procedural about cops or serial killers. So I’m excited about the opportunity to do something different and flex a different kind of muscle and meet different professionals like Rodney and Ambassador Crumpton who are now, I hope, among my friends. It’s just been really exciting. There was no hesitation to doing it. I’m just glad to be here.”

What made Ed the right choice for this job?  

Joe:  “From where I’m standing Ed came in, and I saw him do stuff in that writers’ room that in a million years I couldn’t have done – what he did in terms of taking twenty really talented people and focusing them and making these things very concise and break out the season. I just have never had that experience. So it was really impressive to see that and watch a real pro, a real seasoned guy come in and do it and a guy who’s not that old. You think Ed, with that level of experience, he’d be like this doddering old guy. And he’s not, so to have this kind of young blood – for me, it was a total, completely inspiring lesson and one I won’t forget and one I’m looking forward to participating in over time.”

Rodney, I was wondering if you could speak to the balance between emotion and logic and analysis in this role about something that drives a lot of the conflict in the pilot and I imagine will be a significant issue going forward? Data can take you quite far. Intelligence can take you quite far, but a lot of what matters in briefing is discernment. 

Rodney: “Correct, and objectivity and being dispassionate about what you’re about to present. I think the best analysts, in my experience, have always been the ones who understood what their own biases were. It’s because everyone has biases, right? You can’t say that I’m totally objective and I’m just going to look at the facts and interpret them based solely on the facts. But the way to combat that is by being aware that you have those biases and trying to apply that knowledge so that you can analyze things objectively. Emotion certainly plays a role with that, but, again, just like biases, you have to be aware of what those emotions are and you have to ask yourself constantly, ‘Why am I thinking the way that I’m thinking?’ and check yourself.”

I’d imagine you have to be aware of your principals’ biases as well? One of the interesting dynamics of the show is that Charlie (Katherine Heigl) and Constance (Alfre Woodard) have this bias that they share.

Rodney: “Right, that’s absolutely true. That’s a great question and great point because with the role of the CIA analyst who briefs the President or any other customer every day, our mission is to present them with the best information they possibly can use so they can make the best possible decisions. But in order for us to become persuasive, we have to understand what are the lenses through which our customers are receiving or seeing the information that we give them. I’s just like how am I going to be the most persuasive as I possibly can be. So that’s as much of an art as it is a science.”

Just mechanically speaking, moving past the pilot, is there a very procedural element to State of Affairs where every morning’s briefing will give you a new standalone story? Or is it more the continued pursuits of Alfre’s and Katherine’s characters? 

Ed: “Yes. What we’re hoping to do is every episode will have a brief story that has a beginning, a middle and an end in it. But a large part of the show will also be exploring the lives of these people and how the briefings affect them, but also how their past affects them and there’s a number of mysteries that we have and everyone on the show has a secret. Hopefully by the end of the season, there will be this real depth of experience that the pilot put us in a place to do. What I loved about the pilot when I first saw it and what Joe did with it, is he took something that could be dry and made it passionate and in breaking out the season, we started with that passion and worked backwards from where we wanted. Joe and I talked about where the end of the season should be. What do we think should happen at the end and then worked our way backwards from that. But there’s a level of passion to the material in the way it was presented in the pilot that really spoke to me and gave us the opportunity to tell incredibly human stories in what can sometimes be a dispassionate world. So going forward, I think you’re going to see a little bit of all of that. There will be things that I call cookies which people who watch every episode will get into and out of, but you don’t have to watch every episode to drop in and drop out. So if we do it well, it will have all of that stuff.”

Katherine, can you talk a little bit about the preparation process for this role since you’re playing a CIA top analyst and what you were surprised to learn. 

Katherine: “It was actually a really fun process because I got to hang out with Rodney and he has all these really awesome stories that make you feel like maybe somebody is going to come knock down your door and drag you off somewhere for knowing. But he promised me that wouldn’t happen.”

Ed: “The NSA will.”

Katherine: “There was a lot of getting to just talk to Rodney and hear all these incredible stories about his experience as a briefer and having him on set so that when the team and I were doing these scenes with Joe and trying to set it up as realistically as possible, we could turn to Rodney and lean on Rodney and say, ‘How would they handle this particular situation?  Would they be just chilling in the offices like this first thing in the morning, singing and hanging out and decompressing?’ So we get to have a real‑live ex‑briefer tell us yea or nay – which has been fantastic.”

Joe: “And Rodney’s a great bellwether for me and he would come to me like last second and say, ‘Change this line to this. Like they would say this. They wouldn’t say that.'”

Katherine: “The only problem was that when Rodney is not on set and you have a line like ‘five‑eyed back channels’ and you ask what that means, no one but Rodney knows. You’re like, ‘Well, Rodney’s not here today. I guess I’m going to have to wing it.'”

Rodney: “Sounds good.”

Ed: “I’ll know.”

We’ve seen some stories in the entertainment press that indicated that maybe you and your mother might be difficult to work with. I’ve seen other people push back against that and say you have spoken your mind in public and that maybe Hollywood has punished you because you’re a woman. In a recent interview you said you felt your career had gotten out of your control during that period.  What do you think has happened there?  Is there any portion of this controversy that is about Hollywood not knowing what to do with a woman who speaks her mind? Do you feel your career is under your control now?

Katherine: “I don’t know that I said I felt my career was not in my control. Are referring to the Marie Claire article?”

I thought it was Us Weekly, but it was a recent piece.

Katherine:  “I think I said that I felt I had stopped challenging myself and I was making choices that I loved that I was excited about. I love doing romantic comedies. I love them and I love watching them. But I stoppped, like Ed just said a moment ago, exercising different muscles of my ability. And then in that moment I felt that I was letting down my audience, that I wasn’t challenging them either. I think a lot of people want to know why this show, why come back to television ‑ because it’s an extraordinary role and it’s an extraordinary opportunity and it’s an extraordinary story. It’s an opportunity for me to flex some different muscles and show a different side of myself as an actor and performer and storyteller that I hope my audience will be excited and love. As far as your other questions go, I can’t really speak to that. I can only say that I certainly don’t see myself as being difficult. I would never intend to be difficult. I don’t think my mother sees herself as being difficult. We always ‑ I mean, it’s most important to everybody to conduct themselves professionally and respectfully and kindly. So I never ‑ if I have ever disappointed somebody, it was never intentional.”

Edited for space and content.

Series synopsis, from NBC:

Each day the president is faced with dozens of life-and-death decisions, and to prioritize the biggest international crises facing the country, one top CIA analyst — Charleston Tucker (Katherine Heigl) — assembles the President’s Daily Briefing (PDB). This list of the most vital security issues facing the nation brings with it moral and political judgment calls for Charleston and her trusted group of brilliant analysts at the agency. Aside from the political minefields she has to walk, Charlie has a close personal relationship with President Constance Payton (Alfre Woodard) because she was once engaged to her son before a tragic terrorist attack took his life. Charlie survived that attack and is now determined to bring the perpetrators to justice. Navigating a complex personal life and a pressure-cooker profession is, of course, a challenge, and Charlie sometimes engages in boundary-pushing behavior to avoid facing her grief. But when the clock strikes 2 a.m., she is all about her job — protecting her nation, serving her president and still trying to get to the bottom of her fiancé’s murder that will reveal itself as a shocking mystery.

State of Affairs premieres Monday, November 17th at 10/9c on NBC.

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