'Made in Jersey' creator Dana Calvo discovers her star in England

"Made in Jersey" creator Dana Calvo (left) with show's star Janet Montgomery (right) on the show's NewYork set.
"Made in Jersey" creator Dana Calvo (left) with show's star Janet Montgomery (right) on the show's NewYork set.
Posted: September 20, 2012

* MADE IN JERSEY. 9 p.m. Fridays starting Sept. 28, CBS 3.

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - There's apparently never a Jersey girl around when you really need one.

Which is how "Made in Jersey," CBS' new Friday night series about a Garden State-grown lawyer who goes to work in a Big Apple law firm, came to star as a former ballet dancer from a shore town nearly 3,500 miles east of Atlantic City.

Dana Calvo didn't plan it this way.

Calvo, who created "Made in Jersey" and as co-executive producer helped hire Bournemouth, England, native Janet Montgomery ("Black Swan") to star in it, is from Moorestown, N.J.

She's enough of a Jersey girl that "when I have to go to New York for work [she lives in California but the show is filmed in New York] I usually fly into Philly, spend the weekend with my folks and then [take] Peter Pan or New Jersey Transit up to New York."

A graduate of Moorestown Friends and someone who thinks her home state's been too often pigeonholed on television, Calvo said she'd hoped "we'd find the Jersey girl . . . whose life mimicked" that of the show's Martina Garetti, a striver from the Trenton D.A.'s office who refuses to abandon her working-class roots just to get ahead at her new firm.

"That's what I was gunning for. And it just didn't happen," Calvo said this summer.

In looking for Martina, "we saw so many young women [who] unfortunately they feel it's OK to speak like a Kardashian," Calvo said. "They have no theater experience whatsoever, so they talk like this," she said, imitating them, "the baby-sexy thing that Tina Fey made fun of in '30 Rock.' It's appalling."

But then, "170 women later," she and showrunner Kevin Falls met the 26-year-old Montgomery.

Via Skype.

"It might be one of the first times, I think, a network and studio haven't tested someone in person," said Montgomery, in a separate interview.

"I know that they were really struggling to find the girl. I was working on something else in London" at the time, she said.

"It's weird," she said of the online process, in which she had to work on establishing the character and a Jersey accent while receiving notes and directions from people thousands of miles away.

Ah, the accent.

With the possible exception of the character's hair (for which, Calvo said, there are established "parameters" involving both length - "to the shoulder seams" and height - "medium"), nothing in "Made in Jersey" seems to have come in for more scrutiny.

Calvo, a former journalist who's lived and worked all over since graduating from Swarthmore and speaks with no readily identifiable accent, said that "originally, as I conceived it, [Martina] was very conscious of her accent," and would try to tone it down in certain situations.

"Unfortunately, when the dailies were going back to the network, some scenes they'd be like, 'Well, why doesn't she have as strong an accent?' And we realized maybe our sort of experiment wasn't working," Calvo said.

Mark Waters, who directed the pilot, helped her find the accent, Montgomery said.

"He takes you to an extreme and then finds another place to go with it," she said, offering an example:

" 'Now, go huge with it. Go Marisa Tomei, "My Cousin Vinny." ' OK, that's not how I want to play it, but I trust him. And then he's like, 'No, two levels down.' And that's really helped me create this . . . from taking it to an extreme to no accent and finding the right balance."

It was Waters, too, Calvo said, who'd put in a call to his film- school classmate Darren Aronofsky, who'd directed Montgomery in "Black Swan."

"And Darren said, 'We offered the [starring role] to Natalie Portman the day before [seeing Montgomery]. I'm not saying we would have offered the part to her. But it gave me pause.' . . . He [told Montgomery], 'I'm going to create a part for you. And I'm going to see you in five years at the Oscars. You're a star.' And that's what he told us."

None of which stopped Montgomery from worrying about her first face-to-face meeting with the people who'd hired her.

"I thought,'What happens if it just doesn't work the same way?' And also, my personality is nothing like the character's. I get quite nervous. I'm very English about when I first meet people. I'm not like, 'Hi! How's it going?' . . . I keep my distance." But as the middle child of seven - her father's a postman and her mother works in a post office - Montgomery, who left home at 16 to study ballet on scholarship, said she can identify with Martina, who's the first person in her family to graduate from college.

Calvo, too, sees herself as a bit of an outlier.

Although it was her father, a hematologist, who was, she said, "self-made, son of immigrants, doctor . . . just a classic American journey of a story."

And then, "my sister did the right thing: went to Princeton, became a lawyer. And then I was like, I want to write books."

Maybe she's not exactly "the black sheep," Calvo admitted, but her parents "had no frame of reference. Nobody'd ever been a writer. You were supposed to be a professional. You know, my mom's still hoping I'll become a CPA or go to law school, like have a Plan B.

"They've always been very supportive. They just didn't know what to do with me. And we had a rule in our house: 48 hours after you get that diploma, you're out."

And so Calvo became a paralegal in Washington, D.C., "because I was trying to get a job at the Washington Post as a copy girl and couldn't." And within six months, she'd talked her way into the New York Times.

"I'd been calling every Tuesday at 10:30 the managing editor, 'Please. I'll come in for free,' " she said.

When "someone quit right before the holidays, they were like, 'Can you work Christmas Eve?' "

After 23 months, "I went down the street to AP, the Associated Press, and became an editorial assistant there," hoping for a foreign posting, based on her ability to speak Spanish. Told that she'd probably have to spend years on the overnight desk in New York, she balked.

"I'm like, 'I'm late for my destiny, man. I've got to prove something to my parents. I got to be Brenda Starr,' " Calvo said, laughing.

"It's that spirit" Calvo said she channeled for Martina. "I would do anything. And the editor said, 'Look, get yourself out to L.A. You can work on the border. We'll reimburse you over a couple of months for expenses.' "

She "had been west of the Mississippi once before. And was all alone covering drug trafficking and immigration on the Mexico border. And it was great," she said. "In those two years, the Arellano Felix organization went from being a local drug gang to the most violent narco-cartel in the Western Hemisphere . . . I was 23. It was amazing."

After that, Calvo talked her way into a job covering Cuba for the Fort Lauderdale S un-Sentinel. "And then," she said, "I fell in love" with another reporter, Scott Gold, whom she agreed to follow back to L.A., where they both worked for the Los Angeles Times. (The couple, who've been married since 2003, have a daughter. Gold still reports for the Times.)

Calvo's initial move into show business appears to have been less deliberate than her pursuit of a career in journalism.

Gold, she said, was posted to Houston to be a bureau chief and "the L.A. Times not so nicely said, well, you can go as his wife. And I'd covered two presidential [elections], was bilingual, I was an award-winning journalist with international experience. And I was essentially told to help him pack up the house," she said, describing it as "a real heartbreak."

Gold "was terrific . . . He held his ground [until] they guaranteed me a certain amount of work each year [as a freelancer] and guaranteed me I could come back on staff - I had to resign - when we came back."

But while they were in Houston, she had their daughter "and I was like, 'I can't get on a plane for a company that didn't know if they wanted me anymore.'

"And at the time, [ New York Times columnist] Maureen Dowd, who'd been my mentor in Washington, said, 'I want you to meet this friend of mine. His name's Aaron Sorkin.' And I met him. And he needed help adapting 'Charlie Wilson's War.' And I'd covered Washington, I was living in Texas, so that was sort of the segue" into a second career.

Though she's worked on several TV series since then, including Sorkin's "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" and Falls' "Journeyman," which starred Kevin McKidd as a time-traveling newspaperman, "Made in Jersey" is the first show Calvo's created.

She'd love to do her own newsroom show someday ("I've actually been wanting to sell journalism scripts forever"), but for now, she's happy that she and Falls have re-created in a different setting some of what she loved about newspapers.

"When there's good chemistry in a writers' room, it's like great chemistry on a breaking story at night in a newsroom. No greater high."

Contact Ellen Gray at graye@phillynews.com or 215-854-5950. Follow her on Twitter @elgray. Read her blog at EllenGray.tv.

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