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Landing a key part in the hit television series JAG was just the break Catherine Bell needed to launch her Hollywood career. She spent nearly a decade inhabiting the character of Colonel Sarah MacKenzie, until the series ended, while continuing to work the television circuit with a plethora of cameo appearances and a smattering of big screen roles. Then she bagged another major role with ABC’s Army Wives. Debashine Thangevelo chatted to Bell and found out how she feels about finding her roots in another drama and turning producer with a handful of made-for-TV movies…
IT isn’t every day I get to chat to an actress I grew up watching on TV so you can imagine my enthusiasm when interviewing Catherine Bell, who certainly made an indelible impression in JAG, in which she co-starred with the debonair David James Elliot, who played Harmon “Harm” Rabb, jr.
The series, inspired by the films Top Gun and A Few Good Men, enjoyed 10 seasons before the plummeting viewership prompted CBS to decide against another.
By then Bell was a household name and bagging work wasn’t as daunting a task as it was when, in 1990, she appeared on the game show To Tell the Truth, or in the comedy Sugar and Spice.
Getting ready for daughter Gemma’s school run, Bell – who also has baby Ronan, who turns two next month – gave us a few minutes to chat about her second big TV role as nurse Denise Sherwood in ABC’s hugely popular Army Wives.
Despite her TV and movie roles since JAG, I for one was thrilled to bits when Bell returned to more stable roots with Army Wives, now in its sixth season.
After first exchanging pleasantries, the UK-born actress says: “South Africa is one of my favourite places.”
I enlighten the 43-year-old on how popular JAG was here and how Army Wives has received an equally flattering reception. She was suitably impressed.
In a series overflowing with oestrogen thanks to its five key characters – Claudia Joy Holden (Kim Delaney), Roxanne “Roxy” Marie LeBlanc (Sally Pressman), Colonel Joan Burton (Wendy Davis), Brigid Brannagh (Officer Pamela Moran) and Bell, of course – one could easily weigh Army Wives against the friendships seen in Desperate Housewives, Sex and the City and Cashmere Mafia.
But it isn’t as clear-cut.
The strength of the series, which taps into universal subjects such as family harmony in the face of deployments, abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, adultery, drug addiction and death, among other things, ensures that it rises above superficial level.
Bell explains: “Yeah, for sure. People ask me: ‘Is it like a military show?’ Well, I say it is a very different show.
“It isn’t so much about the military as it is about friendships, how these women get through the difficult times in life dealing with husbands, a family, a career and other issues.”
Over the seasons, Sherwood has weathered many storms… and one or two romantic affairs along the way. From dealing with Jeremy’s anger-management issues in season one to his enrolment in the army and subsequent death in season six, she also embraced motherhood again as well as found a career in nursing – something Lieutenant-Colonel Frank Sherwood, her husband of 20 years – wasn’t comfortable with.
Uncomfortable making storyline comparisons with similar genres on the small screen, she decided to touch on her most draining storyline.
“The most intense one was when my son died and the aftermath several episodes later (season five). It was difficult to shoot. All of us cried on set. Obviously, given the backdrop of the show, it was important to portray that as part of military life and how the family deal with it,” she shares.
As for where the writers have taken her character, she continues: “I think she is attempting to come in to her own. There is more responsibility for her at work now.”
So when the director shouts “cut”, do the claws come out on set?
“I work with such wonderful actors. I think the producers have done such an amazing job. And it is a wonderful show in that regard because you don’t always get that with so many women around.
“The fact that we are filming in Charleston, South Carolina, the cast go out for dinner together. It really is a great group. Everyone is friendly, approachable and it is always a team effort,” she says.
Not wanting to credit any one specific element for the success of the show, she admits: “You know, you never quite know. It is a combination of things.
“It is the writing of the storylines, the acting and the combination of actors that give it that magic feeling.”
Bell continues: “And the content is relatable whether you are in the military or not”.
As for spreading her wings into producing, she says: “Directing doesn’t appeal to me – I am more like the overview person. I find the right project and the right people for the job. We did movies for Hallmark Channel – The Good Witch, The Good Witch’s Garden and The Good Witch’s Gift.”
The actress also produced and took the lead in Last Man Standing and Good Morning, Killer.
Her unmistakable seriousness while chatting about her career is clearly what propels the actress to continue to leave her footprints in Hollywood.
I guess she prefers to let her career do the talking… and there’s nothing wrong with that when you think of overrated media attention-seekers such as the Lindsay Lohans or the Kardashian sisters.
• Army Wives airs on M-Net Series (DStv channel 110) on Mondays at 7.30pm.