The Partnership: Katey Sagal & Erin Brockovich On Bringing The Legal Advocates Life To The Small Screen With Rebel

In Rebel, creator Krista Vernoff has finally found a winning combination of a compelling central character, loosely inspired by activist Erin Brockovich, and lead actress Katey Sagal, who seems like she was born to play the role of Annie “Rebel” Bello. At times overbearing but always with the plight of the underdog at heart, Rebel takes on corporate, and sometimes individual, injustices while trying to juggle a messy personal life filled with ex-husbands and frustrated children. With a strong all-star cast including Andy Garcia, John Corbett and Mary McDonnell, the series manages to bring these elements together for a fast-paced entertaining narrative fitting perfectly into ABCs powerhouse Thursday night lineup of Grey’s Anatomy and Vernoff’s other showrunner gig, Station 19. In conversation with Stevie Wong, Sagal and Brockovich discuss the bringing together of Rebel and what a great adventure it’s been from the very start.

DEADLINE: What was the initial conversation with Krista Vernoff like about making Rebel into a series?

ERIN BROCKOVICH: For me I didn’t come in with expectations. I learned early on with the film, you can have these great conversations and ideas, but many times they don’t come to fruition. And so, when I met Krista, I became really excited but didn’t want to, because then I was like, “Oh, if this doesn’t happen, I’m going to be so disappointed.”

Krista is just fabulous. We had this great connection where we felt like soul sisters and understood the challenges that we’ve been through. I can’t speak for Krista but, she made it pretty clear that she didn’t think she could take on another project. But then she decided to, and I was like, “Yes.” And imagine my excitement when I heard that Katey Sagal was going to be involved. I dropped a bunch of F-bombs on that one.

KATEY SAGAL: I too have had many conversations about possible things that don’t happen. So you don’t really invest until it gets closer. And when ABC called me and said, “Would you meet with Krista” who I knew from before, she pitched it to me, and then sent me a script and it was just kind of undeniable. And then when I had lunch with her and Erin, it was like, a sister talk. Even though I had a lot of faith in Krista, I was a little skeptical, because she runs two other shows. So I was like, “Krista, can you do this?” And she was like, “A hundred percent.”

BROCKOVICH: Yeah, that’s probably the one thing you probably can’t do to Krista. Tell her she can’t!

SAGAL: That’s right.

DEADLINE: Katey, because Rebel is loosely based on Erin, were you observing her during your meetings?

SAGAL: Well, I don’t even know if Erin actually picked up on this, but I initially went in thinking, “OK, I want to know all about her history. I want to know about her upbringing. I want to know where she came from, what she was like as a little girl,” all the things that I need to do as an actor to build a character. And I started asking you those questions. And then when you went to the restroom Krista said, “We don’t need to know the childhood history, because we’re going to be inspired by her life today.” So I made up my own little story about why this person is the way she is. But definitely sitting there with Erin, her energy completely informs what I’m doing.

BROCKOVICH: Well you know what I picked up on really is the energy that I felt with Katey Sagal and with Krista Vernoff, they just get it. And that’s what excites me about Rebel.

DEADLINE: Erin, were you ever worried that the show was going to expose too much of who you are to the public?

BROCKOVICH: Well, yeah. I don’t know if that exists for all of us. I just get into situations where you’re so afraid of being vulnerable. This idea, that we’re just supposed to be perfect? I just get so frustrated that I just want to scream. But, so what? We make mistakes and we’re flawed and we’re humans and life is messy. We are so afraid to show that, but we got to drop that mask. Because I think when you’re real, somehow it’s easier and things change.

SAGAL: I don’t think any of the subject matter we’ve touched upon yet has been super autobiographical. But I totally agree with Erin, I believe we all have a shadow side and at a certain point showing that humanity is what opens the door for ourselves and allows for other people to show their humanity too.

DEADLINE: Katey, is it true that you think that Rebel is like no other character you’ve played before?

SAGAL: No, I haven’t really. I’ve played strong women with conviction, like Gemma (Sons of Anarchy), who was an outlaw, would use a gun, and was very secretive in her maneuvers. But I have never played somebody that is so inspired by the right, at any means. She’s not always using the correct approach, she’s not afraid to be impolite or get in your face or push you harder. What’s most interesting to me about Rebel, and what is most interesting that I think is also about Erin, is that they both empower people to stand up for themselves, because collectively we can do a lot when it’s more than just one person.

DEADLINE: Erin, when you watch a performance like that, how do you feel?

BROCKOVICH: God, I love this Rebel! Rebel will just tell you, in straight-on, simple language. It’s the moment where I look in at 200 frogs in green water and you’re going to tell me that it’s normal and I’m like, “Bullshit.”

SAGAL: I mean, look at what we have just come out of. There’s been a whole culture of people saying, “You do not see what you see,” and after a while, people are going to start thinking they’re not seeing what they’re seeing. But a character like Rebel, and of course Erin, is like, “No, don’t deny what it is that you are seeing. You are correct. This is wrong. Period.”

DEADLINE: What is fascinating about Rebel is that she’s so passionate and successful fighting corporate injustice, but sometimes to the detriment of her family life.

SAGAL: I think a lot of that’s a testament to Krista. For me, it was very fascinating to play a woman that has a big work life and also a big family life. Because that is a juggle. I know I do that juggle, and I know a lot of women that do that juggle, and we don’t do it perfectly. And shit happens. Children struggle and feel neglected through some of that. So in the show, you see the repercussion of a woman trying to juggle all the balls in the air. Something’s bound to bounce, right?

BROCKOVICH: It is a struggle. I’ve had a recent conversation with my own daughter. Somebody asked her if she felt like she’d missed out on something. And she goes, “Well, I missed my mom, but this is my mom. She’s like a hound dog. She gets on a scent, and she’s just going to go with it. She’s laser focused that way.”

I’ve always felt the guilt of not being there with my kids. But I was a single mom, and I had no child support. And I had to fight for them, and get out there and work, so they had food and shelter. I often times felt really very guilty. So it was a little bit of a relief for me to see that one of my children said, “I don’t fault you for that. I did miss you. But I know no one is perfect.” And that’s the thing, that we set up this idea that it’s all perfect, when none of us are perfect. I told my kids, “If you meet perfect and normal, as a family, I want you to run.”

SAGAL: That is so, so true. What’s interesting about Rebel is that as much as her kids have griped about being neglected, both her eldest son and middle daughter go into service work. They both wear that stamp of helping other people by being a doctor and a lawyer. So that is the real testament to her parenting, that a woman that fights the good fight and isn’t home for dinner every night, ends up having children who are also fighting the good fight. That’s a cool thing.

DEADLINE: It’s a real testament to the times that we have a primetime series created for a female lead with no special reference to her age.

SAGAL: It’s a testament to ABC to just say, “You know what? We’re not going to cast a 45-year-old to play a 62-year-old.” Especially in the world we’re in now, when you have so much conversation about diversity and equality. I think that ageism in women is another one of those tropes that needs to be dispelled, because it’s just not true. Krista was worried that Rebel’s age was going to be the biggest hurdle, and it ended up not being that at all. I’m in my 60s and I’m totally fine with that. I feel really happy and proud that I’m getting to play a woman that is this age and is vital, is funny, is sexy and smart. I have a lot of girlfriends my age who embody these qualities. So I’m hoping that the trope changes of older women not being able to lead the charge. I think that this is a step in the right direction.

BROCKOVICH: I totally hear all that. It is kudos to Krista. I mean, I know more hot, awesome, strong, can kick your butt, out-run you, out-think you, out-march you, women around my age. And you’re going to define it, and put us in a box because of our age? It’s like, “Yeah, no.”

Look, I began my work in advocacy when I was 30. I’m going to be 61 in June and I’m going to tell you, I could kick that 30-year-old’s butt. Because I have more wisdom, more strength, more perseverance and more focus on my health. I can be 61, but my body feels 35.

DEADLINE: Katey, I read this really interesting quote about how your career changed once you embraced the word “yes.” Can you talk about how saying yes has helped you in your life?

SAGAL: Well the willingness to say yes, to me, is a sign of humility. The willingness to say yes, is that you’re opening yourself up to other opportunities that may have not been your original plan. In my 20s, I had a lot of plans about how I was going to live my life, and this is how it was going to go. And only being humbled by certain circumstances in my life, did I realize, “You know what? I make plans, God laughs at them, so I’m going to just open it all up.”

And so, I started saying yes to certain opportunities. Number one, just being an actor. People asked me to come and audition for this or be on their TV show. And when, the minute I started to say yes, and not have to have my idea of how things were going, things just opened up. And I try to live my life that way, now. I try to keep an open mind. I try to remain humble to the fact, that I don’t know, necessarily, what’s right. And, it’s a great concept. It’s helped me in a lot of things. It’s helped me with my parenting. It’s helping me with my work. It’s helped me as a person.

DEADLINE: Has saying yes to things served you also, Erin?

BROCKOVICH: Yeah, absolutely. For me, saying ‘yes’ was definitely an inward moment for myself. I was never going to know if I didn’t try. I learned that early on, with my dad, going to college. I was afraid to leave. He’s like, “Look, you could always come back.” And, it was opening a door. I don’t like to be in a box, but at the same time, what was holding me back? My own definition of myself, or what others told me I would be. And I felt like I was just ripping all of that off of me, and shedding those burdens by saying, ‘yes’ that it opened another opportunity.

DEADLINE: Katey, you’ve has such a successful career but I always get the impression that you’re much more focused as a working actor than being a celebrity.

SAGAL: Well, yeah, I’m a working actor, and I have no illusions about celebrity. I’m always incredibly grateful that anyone ever asks me to do anything and I really feel like I have been blessed with all that opportunity. Some of it may come because I grew up in this industry. I grew up having parents that did this, and all I ever saw was my dad coming home after directing episodic television. And there was nothing super glamorous about it. It was a hard working job, satisfying. Absolutely. But hardworking. And, I don’t know. I just kind of feel like, everybody does something. Everybody’s got something special that they do, I just happen to do this, and it doesn’t make me that different from anybody else. I also understand the concept that, I am not my job. What I do is fun, and I am grateful enough to get to do it.

DEADLINE: How will Rebel progress if you make it to a Season 2? Will she finally be able to get her family life in order?

BROCKOVICH: It would be so great if we get to do another season. Listen, life is a continuum, and things are always unfolding and changing and happening. So I believe Rebel will be constantly evolving.

SAGAL: Krista with her great team of writers continuously surprised me. It’s always sort of different than where I think it’s going. So I think that, Season 2, if we’re lucky enough to get all that will just be more of the unexpected twists and turns, which makes for really interesting entertainment. Rebel will probably not learn any lessons though [laughs].

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