Marianne Jean-Baptiste is an actress and director who was born in London, England. Classically trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, she has performed at the Royal National Theatre and is best known for her roles in Without a Trace, The Cell, and Spy Game. Prior to that, in 1996, she became the first black British actress to be nominated for an Oscar for her performance in Secrets and Lies.
Earlier this week, we had the chance to participate in a conference call interview with her regarding her latest role as Bethany Mayfair, Assistant Director of the FBI on NBC’s new hit series, Blindspot. Keep reading to see what she had to say.
What was it about the show’s premise in general and about your character in particular that turned you on, made you want to be part of this?
“Well, I found it a very quick and exciting read. I love puzzles, conundrums, mysteries and so this sort of thing was right up my street. The element of tattoos and Jane being a sort of treasure map sort of, you know, made me very excited about trying to sort of solve those pieces.
On further conversations with the creator, who obviously went into a bit more about Bethany Mayfair, I felt that this would be a great opportunity to explore something slightly different. Although I played an FBI agent before, this woman is the Assistant Director and is not at first what she seems to be.
There was a bit of intrigue, there was some secret that, you know, as the show goes on would be revealed so all those elements excited me quite a bit.”
NBC has had some really interesting takes on crime and government in the past couple of years, some really high-concept type profile shows and, you know, for whatever reason they haven’t worked so well with the audience.
Your show is definitely resonating. It’s, you know, an unquestionable hit at this point in the season. And I’m wondering why do you suppose that is? Why do you suppose that this show is working so well with the audience?
“Well, I think they have very cleverly have been able to weave-in great action, you know, you have the overall mystery of the whole thing so those people who love to solve a mystery or a puzzle, that’s for them with the action but also just sort of weave-in some great character stuff where characters are slowly being revealed and I just think it’s a really sort of magical combination that hooks a lot of people.”
I think it was pretty surprising that the show has already revealed that Jane is Taylor Shaw and I was just wondering if you guys were at all surprised that the show seems to be revealing secrets rather than keeping them for later on.
“Well, you’ve got an entire body covered from head to toe with these tattoos so it’s like there’s no end to stuff that’s going to be revealed, do you know what I mean, and I think it’s great because it’s like there’s been quite a quick payoff to some of the mysteries, you know, that are being revealed. And I mean, at first I was like oh come on, let’s string it out a little bit more but I think that, you know, we’ve got a great team of writers and that are extremely clever and I just think that they know what they’re doing, you know?”
Does that mean that we will be learning more about what Operation Daylight is sooner rather than later?
You mentioned that the producers talked to you about the back story a little of the characters. Did they give you a lot of character history and did they tell you what Daylight is and that kind of thing or are you still in the dark?
“Yes, no, they told us quite a bit. I mean, they know where this story is going. I mean, they’ve worked-out the entire thing. And you know, on a personal level I love getting the script and going ‘Oh my God,’ you know, and being surprised because I don’t always get to see the episodes when they air so it’s lovely to sort of like read them and discover what happens.”
Congratulations on getting a full season order.
“I know, thank you!”
That’s nice, lots of tattoos – well not a lot of tattoos – but a lot of secrets and you’re keeping some secrets.
So how close are you in real life to your character? Because you pull it off amazingly.
“I think, you know, I take my job very seriously and I want to do well and so that type of thing, you know, where they’re pushing the narrative, you know, I try and use every opportunity to explore someone who is very unlike me. That’s always sort of been my goal. She’s very well put together and business and official and in charge and bossy and it’s great to just sort of step into her six-inch heels every day and do that.”
Uh huh. Well, you do it well. I want to ask, since you are playing the Assistant Director of the FBI, could talk a little bit about how you prepared for the role? Like did you go over FBI procedures or anything like that?
“Yes, I did. I mean, I kind of did a bit of a refresher because I’ve done it for a show that I’ve done years ago but obviously she’s in a higher position so just sort of like reacquainting myself with protocols and all that stuff but then, you know, you look at the character as a whole and then you have to decide how much attention they pay to that. Do they slightly bend the rules? I mean, in this particular story that we’re telling, Weller is sort of a bit of a loose cannon at times and she [Bethany Mayfair] sort of, you know, against her better judgment, knows that he’s got a really good gut feeling and lets him do things that she may not necessarily believe is the way to do them. So yes, I mean, that’s been what I’ve really been exploring with it and trying to, you know, you want to keep it as authentic as possible but still with that sort of creative license.”
This is probably my favorite new show of the fall. I just can’t believe how cohesive it is right from the start. Between the actors, the characters, the setting, the writing…what do you think has made that possible?
“You know, I think Martin Gero is a very clever guy, you know, and it’s the perfect combination for me anyway. He’s clever and he’s kind so he’s sort of, you know, he selected a great group of writers, a great cast, you know, we all get on really well. We go out and eat and all that so when we’re on set it’s sort of like there’s already a little shorthand developing in how we work and interact with each other. The scripts are very strong. I mean, I’m reading them, you know, as soon as they land whether I’m in the middle of an episode or not because I just want to know what’s going to happen next and I know that my other cast members feel the same way and it’s where they’re excited about getting hold of them. You can only imagine what it’s like for the audiences discovering these puzzles every week.”
Where do you want your character to be by the end of the show?
“Oh, probably an island in the Caribbean somewhere…”
“You know, I don’t know. It’s very exciting just not knowing, you know, you kind of have a rough overview of things that are going to take place but it, you know, it’s a roller coaster ride. It’s sort of okay, she’s doing this, which I totally embrace. And I trust that it’s going to be very exciting, you know?”
I can’t wait for the next episode. You’re currently in two shows, Blindspot and Broadchurch where Broadchurch is a crime drama mystery and Blindspot is a drama mystery thriller. Is there any difference in the way you approach a role for an American audience versus a British audience?
“No, you can’t think like that. You’ve just – it’s got to be about the character. It really has to and it has to be about the integrity of the piece that you’re doing. I mean, obviously in the U.K. they take much longer with things. It’s not like an eight-day or nine-day turnaround. It’s like you get 2, 2-1/2 weeks on an episode but then they will only do eight so there isn’t that need, you know, to keep driving it through but yes, I mean, yes, it’s great. It’s great sort of being able to work in that way and just be focused on, you know, you don’t look at the big picture. You hope people will like it and respond to it but you’ve got to compartmentalize and really focus on telling the story to be the best of your ability and then hopefully the people go, ‘I love your show.’ “
Are you ever like blown away and just baffled by how intricate the actual clues are that are placed across her body?
“Constantly. I mean, I’m constantly blown away by how they’re deciphered and what and who it is that has, you know, created that puzzle in the first place. I mean, it’s very, very exciting for us, watching how it all unfolds. The cast is going, ‘Oh my God,’ and there are little tiny ones like the first one in the pilot that was behind her ear, the Chinese writing behind her ear. I mean, that’s like, that was amazing, and if you can imagine, she’s got little bits on her elbow, you know, there might be a number there and it’s all going to lead to somewhere. It’s all been sort of really well thought-out and planned ahead and it’s great.”
And I mean, it really is someone creating ciphers and things like that, correct?
Like a puzzle-maker, correct?
I was just wondering why Mayfair feels so protective of Jane despite the fact that she poses a clear threat to her?
“Aha, does she?”
That’s what I like to believe, I suppose with the redacted file and everything.
“Yes, I mean, it’s interesting because I think that the whole show is based on things that seem extreme. Very apparent then sort of being turned on their head and you don’t ever quite know for sure what is going on.”
In last night’s episode, we found out at the very end that the DNA and the isotope did not match but were both conclusive. Are you able to tell us anything about how your character might react to that news?
“I think that Mayfair is very level-headed and will assess all the evidence that is placed before her before making any kind of decision or assertion.”
That was just one of what I’m assuming is going to be many twists, correct?
“Yes, I believe so, yes.”
Are you finding out about these secrets and these twists as you go along or are any of them ones that you’ve been told from the beginning to be aware are coming?
“For the most part it’s a complete and utter surprise, but obviously ones that effect the character and their overall arc, you sort of have to know up-front.”
There are as many different acting methods as there are actors and they range from very method to Lawrence Olivier’s, ‘It’s all just pretend.’ In that range, where does your method fit and how does it work for you?
“Oh, gosh, that’s a good question, actually. It depends. I mean, I’m somebody who loves – I love – creating characters and being as true to them as possible in the moment. I do not do method really but I like detail. I think it’s coming from the Mike Dees kind of school or working with them and his star whereby you find out as much as you possibly can about the person and have as many of their things as you can so that you can move organically through the story that you’re telling.”
So you find the walk or particular piece of clothing or the way they wear their hair or something and build from that?
“And you build from that, yes. You build from that but it’s also that the inner world starts first and then you start to call on the outer accouterments if you like.”
Considering all of the twists and turns and all of the tattoos from head to toe, how long do you think that this premise can be drawn-out season and series-wise?
“Oh my God, I mean, I don’t know. I mean, you could draw it out for a good like five-six-seven seasons I think. But I mean, I don’t know. I don’t know how, yes, I don’t know. I don’t know. I just know that there is a wealth of material to clip through and, I mean, are we going to stay with the tattoos? Is it going to evolve in a different area? I mean, I don’t know.”
That was kind of my next question. Do you think that there is going to potentially come a point where Jane’s mystery is figured out, the tattoos’ messages run out, and the show is still going?
“It could do because it could lead to something else, you know, something else could show-up that they have to decipher that’s attached to, you know, the tattoos and attached to her so, I mean, I’m stunned each week by the stuff that they’re having to find. And I’m only on Episode 10 so it’s like, ‘Wow,’ and it gets bigger and it leads back to this and this, you know, it’s actually genius. It’s really clever and really intricate.”
Tune in to NBC on Monday nights at 10pm EST/9pm CST to find out more about Bethany Mayfair, Jane, and the mystery of Jane’s tattoos.