Taking on the emotionally charged role of a mourning mother and doctor on the new TNT show “Proof,” Jennifer Beals speaks about her biggest acting crush, why sometimes you shouldn’t listen to an agent, and how she typically prepares for an audition.
Tell us about playing Dr. Carolyn Tyler on “Proof.” I feel like I’m always trying to balance these extreme polarities. For me, I started with focusing on the relationship with my son [on the show], who was killed in a car accident when I was at the wheel; I focused on my love for him first. Unlike me, Dr. Tyler is very adept at covering up the abyss and the grief that’s inside of her. The other side of that polarity is someone who’s so efficient and kind of caustic, whose hard outer shell is in response to this grief, in a way. On one hand she’s an open wound, and on the other side, I’m trying to put up as many shields as possible.
What have you learned about yourself while working on “Proof”? I’ve learned that I’m definitely a workhorse. I know the hours are very long; it’s 16-hour days pretty much every day, but by the end I was ready for 10 or 13 more. I was saying to Rob [Bragin], our show’s creator, “Let’s just do the rest of the episodes now!” The ways I’m like my character is that I enjoy work. I like the day-to-day aspect of preparing and the physicality of it.... You can’t pace yourself; you have to dive into every moment as fully as possible.
On whom do you have an acting crush? My biggest acting crush is Gena Rowlands. “A Woman Under the Influence” just changed everything for me; it changed the idea of what acting could be. It was like going to the mountain and getting the tablets or something.
How do you typically prepare for an audition? I try to get off-book and then I go in and see how much of a mess I can make. Not trying to say, “I’m going to be perfect,” because perfect is the enemy of the good, the enemy of art. I try to bring whatever ideas I have and yet stay open to suggestions.
What is your worst audition horror story? I went in for a film and my agent told me it was a comedy and I only had the sides, seven pages or something. And I’m looking at the sides going, “I don’t totally see the comedy in this, but OK, I’ll do what I can.” So I went in full-on comedy mode for this material. I so didn’t get it and then I remember seeing the film and it was, like, a comedy-drama. It was utterly embarrassing. That just tells you not to listen to the agent and just go with what you see on the page. Everything comes at the right time if you stay open.
What do you wish you’d known before you started acting? How to write. You can always create your own material, and also having a real visceral, craftsman kind of relationship to the story and to the words, you can be more helpful in the process of shooting. So often as actors we come across something that’s not working. We try to solve the problem and sometimes it’s not us. You beat yourself up about it but you may come to realize the writing is not supporting any kind of truth. You can get around it and make it better, always through emotional truth and the reality of doing, but wouldn’t it be great if the words were great? In “Devil in a Blue Dress,” I remember Denzel [Washington] and I were doing a scene, rehearsing and rehearsing, and it just didn’t feel right. Finally, Gary Goetzman, our producer and one of my favorites, he said, “It’s the writing. We need to shut down for the day and rework the scene.” We came back and boom, it worked and flowed beautifully. Before, it was like putting a square peg in a round hole; they changed it and it fit so well.
What was your worst survival job? I started working just to make money when I was 12—babysitting, walking dogs, taking care of people’s houses, whatever—and then when I was 14 or so, I started working at Baskin-Robbins in Chicago. I was trying to save up money for college because I knew my mom couldn’t afford it. And then I got “Flashdance” when I was 18. But I’ve also had acting jobs that felt like survival jobs. [Laughs]
Which of your performances has left a lasting mark on you? [“Proof”], by far. Even though we’ve only done one season, it has been engraved into my DNA already. One of the things we don’t talk about that much is how much characters give us. We always talk about what we bring [as actors], but there’s a time when the character brings things to you and demands of you to expand and enlarge yourself. Once you’re done, it doesn’t mean you can’t take that expansion with you. For example, I’m really shy—I used to be. And then after playing a series of characters that were more outgoing, far more commanding, people who could get up at a podium and make speeches, people who were grander than I am, certainly more articulate and sure of their abilities…by virtue of allowing myself to be their portal, I can then take on some of their attributes. If Jennifer needs to make a speech in front of 4,000 people, I can do that now, where before that would’ve been truly unthinkable.