Inside Ally McBeal

By Scott Catamas

The Television series ďAlly McBealĒ has become one of the most popular shows in North America, with itís ratings continuing to rise. Itís funny, sexy, hip and raises important issues for viewers to contemplate. It has immediately become one of the most talked-about shows, and recently won the Golden Globe award for best comedy. It was nominated for ten Emmy awards and also won two ďQĒ awards for ďQuality TelevisionĒ.

In an unprecedented move, Fox Television announced that it would be spinning off a half hour version of the show, simply called ďAllyĒ on Tuesday Nights, in the fall. The half hour version will take seen and unseen footage from the most popular episodes of ďAlly McBealĒ, and repackage it. Industry insiders see this a signal of the new direction that network television may be going into. This approach pushes the envelope, just as the content and sexual innuendo on Ally McBeal stretches network television into new directions.

At the center of Ally McBeal is itís creator and writer, David E. Kelley. Quite possibly the most prolific writer in Television history, Kelley writes every teleplay for the show. He also writes the majority of the scripts for the dramatic series ďThe PracticeĒ, which he also created. Previously, Kelley created and wrote the outstanding ensemble dramas ďPicket FencesĒ and ďChicago HopeĒ.

Without a doubt Kelley is one of the most extraordinary writers in the history of the entertainment industry. As a professional writer and producer my entire life, I have been intrigued by David E. Kelley, since he first came to my attention as a prominent writer on L.A. Law. When he created the television series ďPicket FencesĒ, I became hooked on his ability to present difficult issues from several vantage points. For seven years now, I am consistently impressed at his range and ability to create dramatic conflict while allowing all characters on all sides of the issues to have integrity.

In his courtroom scenes, as each character speaks, I find myself seeing the validity of their point of view. Life is not simple, nor are the issues that we face. David E. Kelley allows us to look at our thoughts, quirks, motives, hopes, fears and even sexual fantasies in a wide variety of ways.

When I had the opportunity to meet the cast of ďAlly McBealĒ, I jumped at it. Like the characters that they play, I found the cast to be diverse, passionate and a genuinely enjoyable group of individuals. Each one was very sincere, and not at all pretentious. There was a playful and intelligent feeling about the entire cast.

I interviewed 8 members, and here are some of the highlights of those interviews.

At the time of these interviews, I was developing a new show entitled Passionate Living. So, I asked all of the cast members about what they were passionate about.

First up was Jane Krakowski, who plays the nosy secretary Elaine. She was very flamboyant, and a lot of fun to talk to.

SCOTT: Hi Jane. I am working on a television show called Passionate Living and you seem to have a lot of PASSION! You dance, you sing. youíre funny and youíre dramatic.

JANE: Thank you. Wow! I think you have to live your life by doing what you want at that moment and not editing it. I think thatís one of the joys of playing the characters that we play on our show- that all of the characters get to say everything that we want to but always edit first in real life. I used to actually map my life out a little bit more and now I sort of live it for what I want to do at that moment to make me the happiest at the time.

Scott: How much of that was your own initiative to make her dancing and singing and doing these wild things? How much of that is an extension of yourself?

Jane: Thereís sort of this unspoken collaboration between David Kelly and the people who play the characters on the show.

Well, I think the more that David Kelley gets to know us, and the more he finds out about what we can do- what I call our extracurricular activities- theyíve been somehow eased into the show as part of our character traits. David Kelley has created such a world that anything can happen. So if youíre a trapeze artist, he will find a way to get it into the show. I think thatís great. Thereís not many opportunities where shows and characters are that custom built around what you can do. I never in my wildest dreams thought Iíd be singing and dancing on the show. Doing campy musical numbers at Christmas. I had no idea but I love it.

Scott: Heís a remarkable writerÖ.with so many good shows: Ally, The Practice, Picket Fences, Chicago Hope.

Jane: I know. All that and he goes home to Michelle Pfeiffer.

Scott: Thatís his reward.

Jane: Exactly, for working that hard. Thatís a good gift though, isnít it? I wouldnít mind going home to Michelle Pfeiffer!

Scott: Thatís a whole other passion.

Jane: Yeah, a whole other passion!!!

Next up was Dyan Cannon, who is a very passionate woman. When she laughs, everyone within a block can hear her! And, a few seconds later, she could very sincerely speak from the depth of her soul.

Scott: You are the perfect person to talk to about passionate living because clearly youíve lived a very passionate life.

Dyan: (laughs) This is true.

Scott: What is your advice for how to live a passionate life?

Dyan: Enjoy every second. Donít think about tomorrow. Praise God and enjoy today. Thatís where I get all my joy from.

Scott: Absolutely. Whatís it like working on the show?

Dyan: Oh, itís a ball. I have such a good time- working with a hip crowd, the best writer in the world, the best photographers, the best crew. The actors are a joy. I am having such a wonderful time. Iím truly blessed.

Scott: How much input do you have into the creation of your character? How does that work on this show?

Dyan: You know, Davidís so wonderful. You donít need to do much. A couple times IĎve called him and said, ďDavid, could we umÖĒ and both times heís accommodated me when I've had questions. On the scale of things, I have so few questions because he makes it so clear. He knows what he wants, what he writes and what he does! Heís the best writer living.

Scott: Is there any truth to the rumor that itís not David Kelly but Sir Francis BaconÖ?

Dyan: (belly laughs) No! Iíll be passionate about that.

Scott: Heís extraordinary. Heís amazing.

Dyan: Heís the best.

Scott: Absolutely. If you could just give us one sound bite to the camera. Passionate living is and then fill in the blank.

Dyan: Passionate living is loving God with all your heart, soul and mind.

(Dyan Cannon was married to Cary Grant, who was much older at the time; Her role on Ally McBeal is as a sexy judge, whoís in love with a much younger man so I asked her about age-ism in Hollywood)

Scott: Youíve brought a lot of dignity to whatís been a touchy issue in our culture: older women with younger men.

Dyan: Well, thatís how I live my life. Iíve been dating younger men for many years. Of course, when I was really younger, I was dating really older men. Iíve kind of done the extremes. To me itís not about the age. To me itís about the soul of a man and I donít really look at years or color or... I look at the soul.

Scott: Thatís one of the great things about the show. Recently thereís been a lot of press about the fact that Ally was dating someone who is black, but itís never mentioned as an issue. I think itís wonderful but there are people that are actually upset about that. What is that about?

Dyan: I feel sorry for them because there is so much in the world to be upset about and I think if we love each other, and forget the color, race and creedÖ..itís the oldest thing in the world. Letís just start loving each other instead of lashing out about such small things. I think weíve got to think about bigger things than that now.

Next up was Lucy Liu, who plays the very sexy, but sometimes mean spirited character of ďLingĒ. Unlike her character, I found Lucy to be extremely warm and light spirited. We shared several laughs, and she was very easy to connect with.

Scott: Iím with a television show called Passionate Living.

LUCY: Oh, Passionate Living--thatís a very exciting title.

Scott: How do you live your life passionately?

LUCY: In every way: food, fun, living, hiking, sports, music.

Scott: How do you do all those things? How do you get it all in?

Lucy: When we have breaks I sometimes run offÖ.sometimes I have a couple days off or during the weekends... But you know when you work, you use your free time much more wisely. ďOh my God I have two days off so what do I want to do?Ē So I do everything I could possibly want to do. When youíre not working youíre likeóyou donít even get out of your sweatpants. You just want to get a job. You feel like such a loser. So I think in some ways itís really a benefit for all of humankind that Iím working right now!

Scott: I happen to be a fan of the show. As an actress, theyíve given you a really interesting thing. On the one hand, youíre this incredibly cold fish and yet weíre all looking to see where is the emotion. Theyíve given you some of the sexiest scenes to play but yet youíre the one whoís the ice queen.

LUCY: I donít know if sheís an ice queen. I think sheís remote in some ways and I think thereís a lot of layers to Ling. I think, you know, she has a lot of emotion but she doesnít really want to show anybody particularly at any given time and she has probably high trust issues as well. There was an episode where there was a little boy involved and I think she really cared about him and really found him endearing but she spoke to him in a very certain way (she was sharp) and I think thatís just her way. She has a really soft heart and she might even have a softer heart than some of the people on the show. Thatís her mentality but she doesnít show it. I donít think sheís aware that sheís coming off cold. I think she is just being very blunt and honest and true to herself and she doesnít apologize for any of the statements that she makes or any of the ways that she thinks. I think thatís a wonderful thing about her. I donít know if people are seeing it as bitchy or stubborn but I think itís kind of refreshing. It's nice to play somebody like that.

Scott: In that episode with the little boy, when you ran away from everyone, crying, it choked me up. It was beautiful because after holding it backÖ..when she finally lost itÖ

LUCY: She lost it when she was alone which was a sad moment; I think for everybody becauseÖ. why couldnít she just take a moment and say: ďyou know, I need you to hold me, Iím upset tooĒ. Thatís whatís so sad because she has to be by herself to finally let loose and cry.

Scott: Have you made up a back story in your mind that explains her attitude, her reactions, her way of being?

LUCY: Well yeah, you definitely make up some sort of back story but you also- you learn about Ling as the scripts come in and as David Kelly writes about her. You learn about her as well, so you kind of have to just kind of go with it. Heís always coming up with super exciting things for her to do and say. I mean Iím having such a great time right now. Itís wonderful.

Scott: Thatís great. What does passionate living mean to you?

LUCY: Oh my God! My IQ is going to drop 100%. Passionate living is eating anything you want whenever you want and not caring. You know they say this thing about if you eat chocolate and you feel guilty about it, itís going to go straight to your butt, but if you eat chocolate and feel greatÖÖ.. it just floats away.

Scott: I believe it. I did an interview with a guy who wrote a book called ďDiet to Beat CancerĒ. Did you know that Chocolate and red wine have properties that help to fight cancer.

LUCY: GREAT! Iíll be drunk and 200 pounds the next time you see me but Iíll be happy. Iíll be living passionately.

After talking with Lucy, Calista Flockhart came up to me. I had some anticipation about talking with her, but like her fellow cast members, she was very easy going and relaxed. Sheís clearly very intelligent, and thought carefully about the questions that I asked her.

Scott: How do you live your life passionately?

Callista: I guess I throw myself into my work and I throw myself into my dog. I go on passionate hikes with my dog and listening to music, drinking a little red wine every now and then. I guess thatís about it.

Scott: You have a movie coming out, A Midsummer Nightís Dream. How is going from a situation comedy like Ally McBeal to classical Shakespeare? Is that a wonderful thing for you?

Callista: Yeah, it really was. It was certainly a departure. I got to go to Italy. Italy and Shakespeare--I donít think it can get any better than that.

Scott: I would guess that Ally McBeal has taken off more than you ever thought it would. Iíve heard your quotes about when people are trying to project on to you role model stuff. How are you dealing with that? How are feeling about it?

Callista: I certainly never expected to be a role model and I donít think that the intention of Ally McBeal was indeed to be a role model. Iím flattered that people would think I could be a role model, and I certainly feel the responsibility. Frankly, I donít know if I am responsibleÖÖÖ but itís flattering and a bit confusing actually.

Scott: I bet it is. Do your shoulders feel a little heavier?

Callista: Not really.

Scott: Thatís good. What would be your advice to anybody about how they can live their lives more passionately?

Callista: I guess you have to do what you really love in order to be passionate.

I spoke with Courtney Thorne Smith next.

Scott: How do you live your life passionately?

Courtney: I surround myself with people Iím crazy about. I laugh a lot. I run and play. Iím really happy.

Scott: This seems to be a really passionate ensemble. What do you think are the elements that made that all happen?

Courtney: I think weíre all excited about the work and weíre excited about the scripts and that really helps. We just adore each other. We laugh at each other. We support each other. I havenít been in a situation since I did stage years and years ago. Most of these people are theater actors so it really is an ensemble feeling.

Scott: It comes across and you really see it in the show. There is such a connection that you feel from all the characters.

Courtney: Yeah, itís great.

Scott: Whatís it like working with David Kelly?

Courtney: Heís the ďitĒ boy. He totally is. Itís really fun. Reading the scripts is like reading a great novel. You donít want to put them down; they are that interesting and that hasnít ended. I thought it would fade. It has not faded. The crew gets excited about the scripts. We talk about the scripts among ourselves and itís fun to watch my costars perform what heís written. Itís really exciting. He really pays attention and writes well for actors.

Scott: What is Passionate Living mean to you?

Courtney: Passionate living isÖ Passionate living is laughing with your friends.

I was approached next by Portia de Rossi. This statuesque actress from Australia seemed much younger in person, than on the show. Like Lucy, she was not an ice queen; but very exuberant.

Scott: How do you live your life passionately?

Porsche: I do things with my life that make me happy. I take ballet and I collect art and I am on a great TV show! I really enjoy my work, and I think thatís the best way to live your life wellÖ. to really enjoy what you do professionally and what you do in your spare time.

Scott: You have a very dynamic life. Did you create that? Have you always been the master of your own world?

Porsche: I guess so. Iíve done some pretty odd things in my life. I dropped out of law school. I moved to different countries. I became an actress when I didnít think I even wanted to. So this is an amazing thing to happen to me--to be on a hit TV show. I didnít expect that but Iím always up for a bit of adventure.

Scott: Now that youíve got this platform, what do you want to do with it? Now all of a sudden youíre becoming a very well-known person? What are you going to do with that?

Porsche: I think thatís really exciting because there are endless possibilities really. Iím Australian and Iíd like to produce Australian television some day. Iíd like to write. Right now Iím just really enjoying what Iím doing.

Gil Bellows was with his wife, who was quite pregnant. They looked great together, and I enjoyed talking to both of them.

SCOTT: As a married couple, What does passionate living mean to you?

HIM: Making love anywhere but the bedroom.

HER: Anytime but at night. The time set aside for dinners together.

Scott: As you become more successful, is it easier to be more passionate, to have a more passionate life, or does it become more challenging because of the workloads?

HIM: Both. I think when it comes, it comes and itís just a matter of keeping it consistent. I think thatís the thing. You know--donít get too obsessed with the personal stuff. Be more obsessed with the family stuff.

HER: I think you have to work a little harder to make sure it happens. But when it happens it gets to go further.

HIM: Good answer. (He looks at her adoringly, and they drifted away)

The last member of the cast that I spoke with was Lisa Nicole Carson, who plays Allyís room-mate Renee. We didnít have much time, so I asked a few quick questions.

Scott: What does passionate living mean to you?

Lisa: Well, I live it every day.

Scott: And whatís that like for you? Whatís your daily experience like?

Lisa: Itís a beautiful experience. Live every day for the moment. Exhaust all the possibilities.

Scott: What would be your advice to people watching?

Lisa: Follow your heart and have no fear.

Scott: Thatís wonderful. Thank you.

I didnít get to meet Greg German, Peter MacNicol or Vonda Shepard; hopefully I can meet them and reconnect with the cast in the near future. I have had the good fortune to observe David E. Kelley at length, as I recently sat in on two industry events that focused on his work. He is very soft spoken, sincere, and shows no ego. He cares about his work, but HIS passion is his wife and children. Remarkably, although he writes two or three television scripts a week, he only works from 9 till 6, and rarely uses a computer. Instead, he handwrites his scripts on a legal pad! Perhaps true genius can come with ease.