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Q&A

Character-Driven Stories Lure Another Star to TV

February 23, 2001|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mary Stuart Masterson is the latest movie actor to make the leap from the big screen to the small one. The veteran of such films as "Fried Green Tomatoes," "Benny & Joon," "Immediate Family" and "Heaven Help Us" stars in the new CBS series "Kate Brasher," which begins a six-episode run Saturday.

The first series from Jersey Television--an offshoot of Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher's Jersey Films--"Kate Brasher" finds the 34-year-old Masterson playing a financially strapped single parent of two teenage boys (Gregory Smith and Mason Gamble) who walks into a community advocacy center called Brothers Keepers asking for legal advice. A feisty attorney (Rhea Perlman) and the tough but fair-minded director (Hector Elizondo) of Brothers Keepers show Kate that she can create a better life for herself and her two sons. Masterson talked about her series earlier this week from the cutting room of "Kate Brasher."

Question: Since you come from the theater and movie world, has it been difficult adjusting to the long hours and rapid pace of doing TV?

Answer: The pace of a TV series like "Kate Brasher" is very similar to doing low-budget independent movies. [Doing the series] sort of requires a little bit more endurance. I like it. It's a great cast and crew, so it makes it fun.

Q: You are also one of the producers of "Kate Brasher."

A: One of the many producers.

Q: Was being given a producer credit one of your criteria for doing a TV series?

A: I was given a development deal by CBS, and that sort of implies wanting to be involved in the development. I take it seriously. I don't think [being a producer] is in order to be in control, as much as a collaborator.

Q: Have you been pursued over the years to do TV?

A: More or less. I think what I saw was a growing trend away from character stories in film and that those stories were being told on television. And a lot of the writers whose strength is character-driven stories were gravitating toward television as well, and a lot of actors too. So, suddenly, it seemed like the talent pool was pretty deep in television.

Q: How did "Kate Brasher" come to you? Was it already in development at CBS?

A: I was given the script by [talent agency CAA] which represents both Jersey Television and me and also the creator, Stephen Tolkin. I read it and thought it was refreshingly not generic. It had original voices and original kinds of characters in it. It felt more like a film than a TV show. It took about a year of development. We even did a presentation of the pilot before we retooled it and rewrote it. It took a while to find what was the sort of repeatable franchise--the thing you can come back to every week.

It started out being somewhat similar to the pilot. I [Kate] had four jobs just to keep my kids in a good school district. So what changed is that in this incarnation the franchise is this community action center, Brothers Keepers. What is wonderful about it is that it is a place people come to who don't have resources for help and that ends up being the place I work and where every main story emanates from.

Q: Kate didn't graduate from high school.

A: No, because I had two children by the time I was 17. I ran away in order to get married to the guy who got me pregnant and then he turned out to be not the most responsible guy, so I have been raising them on my own for 12 years. The whole point is that I had them real young and was never able to pursue my own career or own life.

Q: What are some of the plot lines in upcoming episodes?

A: We are trying to make sure there is a lot of character humor and irony in the show. That is what makes the hard times doable. [Stories go from] everything from a Desert Storm vet who keeps losing his leg on the public buses--so I need to help him get a Medivan ride program--to a man wrongly accused on death row for 15 years who is set free because DNA evidence cleared him and he is being treated like an ex-con. So we are trying to help him readjust.

Q: Did you spend any time at places like Brothers Keepers before filming began?

A: Shields for Families was our best resource. It's a community action center that has 14 different community outreach programs. It's based in Compton.

Q: What are your feelings about premiering in midseason?

A: I feel like every step of the way has been a great learning experience and has been good. It's not bad to be on later in the year because we did have more time to develop it. It was not an easy, obvious thing to develop, so having that extra time was invaluable. And it's not like the flashiest [show]. It is not easy to say what the show is in one sentence. It's not a heavy drama. It's not melodrama and it's not a sitcom either. It is the kind of thing that requires nurturing.

Q: It's interesting that you are going into the time slot of "Walker, Texas Ranger."

A: I know. It couldn't be more different. I think ["Kate"] has a lot to offer [both sexes]. We thought, "Sure, it will appeal to women." I must say when we did test it, the men really responded to it as well.

* "Kate Brasher" premieres Saturday at 9 p.m. on CBS. The episode is rated TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children, with an advisory for coarse language).

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