A blazing 'Grace'

Cable's newest cop heroine lives large and hot, a character Holly Hunter warmed to right away.

Posted: July 19, 2007

Grace Hanadarko, a lapsed Catholic, mates like a minx, smokes like a Vatican chimney, spews obscenities, and is on a first-name basis with Jack Daniel's.

All that before breakfast.

So naturally, when Holly Hunter read the script for TNT's audacious new drama, Saving Grace, "I certainly didn't want anyone else to play her."

The diminutive Hunter, 49, who's made an Oscar-winning career portraying strong, complicated women, has landed a doozy for her first series.

Saving Grace (Monday, 10 p.m.) opens with Grace, an Oklahoma City detective, burning the sheets with her married partner, Ham Dewey (Shield alum Kenneth Johnson).

Afterward, she flashes the guy next door. Later, while on the job, she cold-cocks an obnoxious stranger. Twice.

"Holly can do damage," says 6-foot-1 Johnson, 43. "If she gets me in a wrist maneuver, I guarantee I'm going down. It hurts like a mother."

Hunter labels her passionate lifestyle as "white-heat living." We call it "All About Id."

"Grace is inebriated by the chaos of being alive. She gets off on it," says Hunter, also a producer. " . . . She is very elemental - she is driven by her desires and the fulfillment of those desires."

At the same time, the unmarried Grace is surrounded by those for whom such wild impulsivity is not a virtue.

"They live by codes - social codes, moral codes, ethical codes, religious codes," Hunter says. "This is somebody living by her own code. This is the 'Code of Grace.' "

Enter Grace's code-breaker, a nondenominational, tobacco-spitting, twang-talking angel named Earl (Deadwood's Leon Rippy).

Before you start flapping the wings on your remote, creator Nancy Miller (The Closer, The Profiler) wants to make clear that Grace is not a cable remake of Touched by an Angel.

"You say angel and people roll their eyes," she says. "In my mind, this is not a religious show. It's about a woman trying to find something to believe in other than the pain in her life."

With good film roles scarce for women in their 40s, they're turning to the small screen. Like Glenn Close in FX's forthcoming Damages and Kyra Sedgwick in TNT's smash The Closer, Hunter was drawn to cable.

"Cable has taken a giant step toward being iconoclastic," she says. "It has defined itself as a seeker of human behavior that's not judged or encased in moral standing."

To Hunter, Earl's role is to persuade Grace to recognize a higher force than herself, a god with a lower-case g. "He doesn't care if it's Muhammad or Allah or Jesus or the Virgin Mary," she says.

You might say Grace has some autobiographical echoes. Miller, 52, an Oklahoman, was raised in a strict Catholic family. An uncle was a priest; an aunt, a nun. (One of Grace's brothers is a priest.) Miller says she didn't know anyone who wasn't Catholic until she attended the University of Oklahoma in the mid-'70s.

Miller "went wild" in her 20s and 30s, "drinking like crazy" and dating lots of men.

At some point, "I just think I grew up," she says. "I got focused. I stopped wallowing around in all my crap. . . . If I get drunk now, I have a hangover for three days."

Like Grace, Miller still bristles at the church's rigidity and its concept of sin.

"The Catholic Church is run by a bunch of men who have made up the rules. Many of them are outdated; many are wonderful and will be there until the end of time.

"But they're men. I'm much more interested in what God has to say than the Catholic Church."

Her faith is still a large part of her life and she attends church every Sunday, she says. "I'm there because I want to be. It's an authentically spiritual experience."

In Miller's original script, Grace was a TV reporter in L.A. She became a cop because it presented a different sense of authority and ethics, according to Miller.

The locale was moved to the Bible Belt "because it was hugely important to surround this woman with God-fearing people," Miller says. Also, the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995 plays a role in Grace's character.

Fun fact: Many of the characters' last names are based on real Oklahoma burgs - Earl, Dewey, Ada. Grace's handle, Hanadarko, is derived from Anadarko. (You can look it up in your atlas.)

Contrary to the show's title, Hunter says Grace doesn't need saving.

"In many ways, she lives in the ultimate of gracefulness. When you are in touch with your own vitality, that is a state of grace."

Amen, says TNT.

Contact staff writer Gail Shister at 215-854-2224 or gshister@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/gailshister.


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