Robin Tunney and Simon Baker in The Mentalist

The TV landscape has become a breeding ground for female protagonists, especially in the crime drama realm. And The Mentalist’s Robin Tunney salutes Hollywood’s writers for reflecting the strengths of women in a male-dominated job. Her role as Senior Special Agent Teresa Lisbon is a milestone for her. Debashine Thangevelo talked about the popularity of the TV series, the obsession with catching Red John that continues to hover over the storyline every season, Tunney’s friendship with co-star Simon Baker and what’s next…

ON TV at the moment, Mary McDonnell (Captain Sharon Raydor) rules the crime roost in Major Crimes, while Mary McCormack (Mary Shannon) is doing the same as a Deputy US Marshal in In Plain Sight, as is Kristin Lehman (Detective Angie Flynn) in Motive.

For five, going into six seasons, Robin Tunney, 41, has enjoyed a captive audience as Senior Special Agent Teresa Lisbon with the California Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in The Mentalist.

And while her character has entertaining moments, the best ones germinate from her daily interaction with Patrick Jane, played superbly by the dashing Simon Baker.

She says: “I like the fact that Teresa isn’t your typical hard-boiled cop. She has a sense of humour. She is a different person with Jane than the people who work for her. Being a boss is like being a mother. You can’t show when you’re afraid, you have to put up a front. I think she does that with the people who work for her and not for him.”

A tea addict, Patrick is in your face with his shocking and rather blunt, not to mention libellous, accusations. And a by-the-book Teresa has to not only suffer his out- of-the-box approach, she has to stave off the brunt of her superiors’ anger when Jane steps out of line.

Such is their relationship, which has evolved into a friendship on and off the screen.

Tunney admits: “It is great. I’m very close friends with him and his wife. And we spend weekends together, go to restaurants. Often we get the Maître d’ asking: ‘Aren’t you guys sick of each other?’ But I love his wife and kids and spending time with the family. The kids are so beautiful. I know I’m going to miss them so much when the show ends, which is imminent.”

Sometimes the biggest compliment you can pay an actor you interview is to give them your thoughts on their show, which I did. Well, I stopped short of confessing to being an armchair whodunit detective. But I was unashamed about my fascination with the series.

When asked for insight into Hollywood’s trend with female-centric cop shows, she muses: “I think it is sort of an ode to Cagney and Lacey breaking the ground. At the time, it was like ‘wow, women are police!’ Obviously, while it is a male-dominated job, it doesn’t have to be a woman behaving like a man. Now you can be a woman in power, but still retaining her femininity. And also, television has been making better roles for women.”

With her bagging this role in her late thirties, she points out: “It has been a great opportunity to show what women can do. It feels great to also see older females in lead roles – it proves you can have great opportunities and roles.”

Unlike most actors – and Tunney isn’t afraid to say it – she isn’t held to ransom by expectations. Instead, a script in hand is always the deal closer.

Still retaining the humility that often abandons most in the industry when they get into bed with fame, she says: “As an actress, you are a small part of the process. Simon has bucket loads of charm. Bruno Heller has written a clever show.”

Although season six got the green light in March, it could also be the last of the show.

What then?

She laughs: “I’m pretty certain I don’t want to be a police officer again. The idea of playing a doctor has been scary for me… maybe!

“Actors have this thing; like your fortune could change in 24 hours. That is where the adrenalin lives. It is like going to Las Vegas and playing roulette.”

With the Red John twist pervading every season, I asked her whether it might not be prudent to make progress with that storyline.

Tunney hints: “In season five, you get a clear idea that he is one of seven suspects. It is going to be resolved towards the beginning of season six. It is something that is great. Red John has been Patrick’s reason for being with the CBI. After finding him, the reason for him being there goes. I think people like watching the show to see him on his cause.”

Sharing her most unforgettable storyline in season five, Tunney explains: “I had a storyline where I was going after a very bad man. It was a case Teresa was emotionally attached to. And Jane goes out of his way to help me. I have always been there for him, breaking the rules and so on. That was reciprocated.”

Although the big screen isn’t appealing to her with “90 percent of it superhero movies and the rest about the world ending”, Tunney is far from nose-diving into such projects – unless it is more interesting work than her last job.

A reader more than a TV buff, Tunney leaves me with these parting words: “I loved The Sopranos. Now since I have been on the show, everybody keeps telling me to watch Breaking Bad. It is becoming overwhelming. But there has been no time to look at anything else.”

With Sandra Oh (Cristina Yang) exiting Grey’s Anatomy after season 10, maybe Tunney can play doctor after all. Wonder if Shonda Rhimes would consider her for a role? Well, trying can’t hurt, I suppose.

The Mentalist 5, M-Net (DStv channel 101) on Wednesdays at 8.30pm. SABC3 screens an earlier season on Saturdays at 5pm.