In September 2016, after departing “Suits” as its legal queen bee, Jessica Pearson, Gina Torres spoke about leaving a door open. But walking back through it, she now admits, was the furthest thing from her mind.
“I just figured, O.K., well off she goes, and I’ll revisit her every now and then, and that will be just fine with me,” she said.
Turns out it wasn’t.
Torres found Jessica haunting her daydreams and realized she wasn’t finished with the character after all. And then her obsession with the presidential election and its strange bedfellows took flight.
“I started thinking of Jessica in terms of a political fixer, and what would she do in that situation, and I started writing it down and sorting it out,” she recalled of the events that led to “Pearson,” her new drama, debuting July 17 on USA Network.
“And luckily for me, I wasn’t the only one that was interested in this project,” she said. “I wasn’t the only one that missed Jessica, and I wasn’t the only one that really wanted to pursue it.”
“Pearson” finds the beleaguered Jessica — disbarred in New York and her law license revoked in Illinois — sitting at the right hand of Mayor Bobby Novak (Morgan Spector) of Chicago.
It’s a cruel city with a deep divide over which the Louboutin-shod Jessica teeters: on one side, Pat McGann (Wayne Duvall), the thuggish developer who holds Bobby’s purse strings. On the other, the projects-dwelling family abandoned by Jessica’s father, including her defiant cousin Angela Cook (Chantel Riley).
Born in New York to Cuban immigrants, Torres attended the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts and landed roles in two crash-and-burn Broadway shows before moving on to kick-ass women in “Firefly” and “Alias.” She also appeared in the “Matrix” franchise and “Hannibal” alongside her former husband, Laurence Fishburne, with whom she has a daughter, Delilah, 12.
In a phone interview from Los Angeles, Torres spoke about bringing Jessica out of retirement and why we either love women like her — or love to hate them.
These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
You’ve suggested that Jessica has a little bit of Kellyanne Conway, President Trump’s counselor, in her. Do tell.
I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t. When I would see Kellyanne Conway — and she wasn’t the only one, let me just put it that way — I just kept trying to figure out, Who are these people, really? Like, are they true believers? Are they opportunists? Are they making a power grab? What motivates them? With Kellyanne, there were people that loved her, and there were people that loved to hate her. You just never quite knew which it was. And then I thought, Oh, she’s like Jessica. No one really knows at the end of the day: Can she be trusted? Is she a moral person or is she just about the power? And what I love about the new show is that we actually get to go behind the scenes to see what in fact motivates Jessica — that she does not [act] just out of spine of steel but also a soul and a tremendous heart. She really is interested in using her very specific skill set for good. How she gets there is questionable.
How does this Jessica differ from the one on “Suits”?
I remember talking to Aaron [Korsh, the “Suits” creator] about how do we expand this character? And he said, “I just need Jessica to be a superhero.” So that meant looking fabulous, flying in on a case, saving any given situation, making sure that the boys stayed on point. I thought my job was to keep Metropolis safe. And now [in “Pearson”] we’re seeing a fully realized woman. We’re not used to seeing Jessica not being sure-footed in every single thing that she does. She’s going to win some, she’s going to lose some. There is a price that a person pays to live that kind of a life and to swim in those waters.
This is your first time headlining a series as well as executive producing. Did you have demands for what you wanted Jessica and the show to be?
I love that — “demands.” [Laughs] Yes! I presented them with a list that was seven pages long.
What was it like trading Harvey Specter for Bobby Novak?
Easy — because Morgan Spector is an amazing actor. He’s fun and he’s funny and he’s just so good to work with. I often say we get to play pretend for a living, and when you invite other playmates into the sandbox and you see the kind of castle they can make, it just makes you better. You need a good toy. He’s got a really great paddle and I’ve got a really cool new bucket.
Jessica’s wardrobe is still something out of a “Suits” fantasy, but it’s been tweaked it seems.
Well, it can’t be what it was. One of our executive producers was very adamant about sleeve size. Sometimes I’d strut in on the [“Suits”] set wearing something that was pretty much just off the catwalk, that was always tailored within an inch of its life with these billowing sleeves. And so he was very concerned about sleeves in City Hall in Chicago. We had to adjust — but she’s still very much Jessica, and she could care less for what the dress code is. She will slowly ease City Hall into a new sleeve reality. We can’t give all that away in the first season, but she’s still pretty darn fabulous. And the stiletto shoes aren’t going anywhere.
Do you keep in touch with your “Suits” family?
Absolutely, yes, without a doubt. They’re a big part of my life for quite some time.
I have to ask: How was it attending the wedding of the century and watching Meghan Markle become the Duchess of Sussex?
[Pause] How do you think? [Laughs]
Well, true to Jessica, you wore a great outfit to the ceremony.
Why, thank you very much. Yeah, the outfit got a lot of play. I was very happy about that. That was just, Well, I’m going to be comfortable. There’s entirely too many other people — nobody is going to notice. And much to my surprise, everybody noticed.
You recently posted a clip of yourself singing Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s “Shallow” while wearing a clown nose.
You have been stalking me on Instagram.
It’s all part of the job. Do you ever dream about getting back to musical theater?
I did a lot of musical theater starting out, and so that is, and has always remained, a love of mine. I was just recently in New York and saw “Hadestown,” and I just ached, they were so amazing. To see André De Shields, who I grew up watching, out there doing it and still holding his face and his majesty in such a beautiful way, and all the young ’uns that are coming up. I’d sit in the audience and go, “Ahhh, I can do that part.” And I have no doubt that the opportunity will arise at the right time and I’ll get back on the horse at some point.
The last couple of years have been a time of great transition, and in April you turned 50. How’s that going?
So far it’s great. I feel like I’m having the best year of my life. It’s like that Sondheim song, “I’m Still Here,” and I feel so grateful. I have a tremendous amount of gratitude surrounding my birthday, surrounding this fantastic show that I’ve been given an opportunity to spearhead. I have my health, my family is good and intact and there’s a lot of love in my life. At the end of the day it really is just a number. Do I hurt a little bit more after my workouts? Yes, absolutely. After years of doing my own stunts, do I wonder if I want to get back in those stilettos? Yes, I do! But life is good — life is really good.
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