- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 18, 2017

Politics are notoriously unpredictable. So, perhaps, it’s little wonder that the creators of “Madam Secretary” on CBS have a hard time conjuring storylines that are more dramatic than current events.

“We shoot three or four weeks out, and by the time they got on the air, some of these things have happened” in real life, Barbara Hall, the show’s creator and executive producer, told The Washington Times during recent filming along the National Mall.

On a particularly bright spring day, series star Tea Leoni jogged with a dog and two fictional Secret Service agents trailing her near the Lincoln Memorial. A sign not far off informed passersby that they were tacitly giving permission to use their likeness in the background of certain shots. Here and there, onlookers recognized Miss Leoni, using their phones to snap photos of the star.

“We try to take anything that’s happening right now and then ‘game it out’ in the future to the most dramatic conclusion,” said Ms. Hall, a veteran producer of “Homeland,” “Joan of Arcadia” and “Judging Amy” in between takes of Miss Leoni jogging with her entourage next to the Reflecting Pool.

Viewers have tuned in for the exploits of Secretary of State Dr. Elizabeth McCord (Miss Leoni) since 2014. The show, already renewed for a fourth year, airs its third-season finale this Sunday.

“The first time we were here was the pilot episode, so this is a little nostalgic for us,” said executive producer Lori McCreary of location filming in the nation’s capital. (The bulk of the series films on soundstages in New York.)

“We had no idea if the show would ever get picked up, or if people were going to like it,” Ms. McCreary told The Times of the political show’s beginnings. “So being here at the end of the third season is really satisfying because we know we have a great audience.

“And I love being here. There’s nothing like shooting in D.C.”

Season 3 has seen McCord working to end a hostage crisis in Sudan, fighting worldwide human trafficking and even in the running for a Nobel Peace Prize. All the while she balances geopolitics with a home life that includes her husband, Henry, (Tim Daly) and the couple’s young-adult daughters, Stephanie (Wallis Currie-Wood) and Alison (Kathrine Herzer), and son Jason (Evan Roe).

Both Ms. McCreary and Ms. Hall are proud of the fact that their show not only features a strong woman in the title role, but is run by women and has a writing room staffed by several more — somewhat of a rarity in the often male-centric television industry.

“The networks are really focusing on” gender parity, Ms. Hall said. “We’re certainly doing our part. I just think it’s a matter of awareness and everybody being committed to improving that situation.”

“Girls especially being able to see women in those positions will make the biggest difference,” concurred Ms. McCreary. “I think mentoring programs are great,” she said, adding the crew has many women on staff as well.

Such sentiments are echoed by actress Patina Miller, who portrays press coordinator Daisy Grant on “Madam Secretary.” Miss Miller, who came up through the milieus of soap operas and Broadway plays, believes it’s crucial to continue to support entertainment created and shepherded by women.

“It’s been great to work in an environment where we’re getting to tell smart, interesting stories that are written by females and performed by females,” she told The Times. “It’s a really great place to be in, and I hope we continue to move in that direction.”

Art not imitating life

“What I like about the show is that we portray a government that is aspirational,” said actor Erich Bergen, who portrays McCord’s assistant, Blake Moran. “Very similar to what was going on in ‘The West Wing,’ we’re trying to [show] a government that works for everyone and attempts to do the right thing.”

Mr. Bergen, who cut his teeth on stage as Four Seasons member Bob Gaudio in the stage and film version of “Jersey Boys,” said “Madam Secretary” viewers need only click “a few channels over” to witness the current chaos of the Trump administration and the nonstop criticisms emanating from its political enemies.

“I think our show holds an important place on television just because of [what] we’re watching our real government go through,” he said.

On “Madam Secretary,” the McCords marriage is depicted as stable and the fictional administration is largely scandal-free.

“The drama that is dealt with between Elizabeth and Henry is obviously very high-stakes given their jobs, but they work through it as a strong couple and a strong family would,” Mr. Bergen said. “I think that’s something we don’t see a lot on television.”

Like Mr. Bergen, Miss Miller is a veteran of the New York stage, having starred in the Broadway and London versions of “Sister Act” and assayed the lead in “Pippin.” But reciting the same lines night after night on the Great White Way is a far different animal than learning and filming a new mini-film every eight days on “Madam Secretary.”

“There kind of is no rehearsal process in TV and film,” she said. “We have blocking and marking, and then we shoot.”

Furthermore, she said 40 to 50 crew members don’t provide the instant performance feedback that a packed theater of 1,000 audience members can.

“Coming from the theatre, you feed off that energy every night. It helps your performance in a way,” Miss Miller said. “With TV, because there is no audience, you don’t get the satisfaction of knowing if what you did during the scene played well. You find out later whenever you see it.”

The piecemeal nature of TV and film work means that actors aren’t as “in charge” of their performance as stagecraft allows, Miss Miller believes. Rather, it’s “everyone telling the story,” including the editors who construct the show from shards of different takes.

The brisk nature of TV work also requires the rapid memorization of scripts — as well as sudden, and constant, rewrites. Miss Miller credits her time on “All My Children” with helping her to develop the ability to briskly learn new dialogue. (She calls “AMC” legend Susan Lucci “one of the most amazing, talented actresses.”)

“Honestly, you just get used to it,” said Miss Miller.

Mr. Bergen said that while people do approach him on the street to discuss real-life politics, more often they wish to inquire after aspects of the show’s characters.

“I hear the classic line: ‘Boy, I wish you guys were in the White House’ a lot,” he said.

Mr. Bergen was in fact invited to the Executive Mansion during the show’s first season. He dined with former President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Mr. Abe, it turned out, not only recognized Mr. Bergen but informed him that “Jersey Boys” was his favorite film.

“So I was there as a ‘Jersey boy,’ but then I was also starting to get known for this fictional government show,” Mr. Bergen said, adding that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi also approached him at the event to discuss the show, which he describes as a “meta moment.”

On the set of “Jersey Boys,” Mr. Bergen said he experienced another such surreal incident sitting next to director Clint Eastwood on the first day of filming in Burbank, California. Mr. Bergen pondered if perhaps “Jersey Boys” would be the octogenarian’s final film, but while entertaining the thought, he received an alert on his phone announcing Mr. Eastwood’s next project, “American Sniper.”

“He’s very inspirational to me,” Mr. Bergen said of Mr. Eastwood, who, at 86, continues to make films.

“It’s the same thing with Frankie” Valli, the Four Seasons frontman who still tours the country night after night singing “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and other classics, Mr. Bergen said. “If you love what you do and it’s what you know how to do best, there’s no reason to stop.”


The cast and crew of “Madam Secretary” are mum on the details of Sunday’s season finale, but all involved are proud of the season 3 arc, including the May 7 episode, “Seventh Floor,” which Mr. Bergen describes as “our strongest yet.”

“I think we’re really about to start hitting our best stuff” in season 4, he said. “I’m very proud of the work we’ve done.”

Miss Miller said her character Daisy’s pregnancy will play a major part in future storylines.

“We’re going to keep giving you a fantastic show,” she said.

Ms. Hall, the show’s creator, echoed the sentiments, saying the showrunners’ goal remains to continue to expand the universe of “Madam Secretary” moving forward.

“We want to [give] everybody a better understanding of our characters,” she said as the crew called for Miss Leoni and his entourage to do another jogging take by the Reflecting Pool.

The season finale of “Madam Secretary” airs Sunday at 9 p.m. EST on CBS.

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