CBS series offers unique spin on COVID-19-related lockdown
Behind the Screens with Joshua Maloni
New entertainment options have been limited of late, with production on TV shows and major motion pictures shut down due to the outbreak of the coronavirus. Series have come to an abrupt halt three-quarters of the way through their planned storylines, as actors and crews can’t get together in this time of physical distancing.
Not content to sit around and wait to see what happens next, or when society will reopen, the showrunners of CBS freshman series “All Rise” opted to shoot an episode where the characters are dealing with the state-imposed quarantine. ... Just like the rest of us.
As the network described it, “With Los Angeles under a mandatory shelter-in-place order and trials piling up, Judge Benner authorizes Judge Carmichael to preside over a virtual bench trial, a case regarding a dispute between brothers over a car.”
This episode also sees these characters, who work in an essential field, experiencing the challenges of romance and relationships, food availability and hunger, and maintaining health guidelines in a pandemic.
“Throughout it all, unknown dance party DJ Tailwind (guest star Dorian Missick) offers a comforting, irreverent voice for all Angelenos in lockdown by sharing his music and thoughts via his laptop at home,” CBS added.
The “All Rise” virtual table read. Pictured, from left, top row: Ruthie Ann Miles, Joey Beto, Audrey Corsa, Brent Jennings and Paul McCrane; second row, from left: Marg Helgenberger, Simone Missick, Wilson Bethel, J. Alex Brinson and Jessica Camacho; third row, from left: Dorian Missick, Lex Scott Davis, Lindsay Mendez, Lindsey Gort, Executive Producer and director Michael M. Robin; from left, bottom row: Mo McRae, Patricia Rae, Peter MacNicol, Reggie Lee and Ryan Michelle Bathe. (Screen grab ©2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All rights reserved.)
Jessica Camacho, who portrays defense attorney Emily Lopez, explained, “It was pitched to us in a Zoom meeting. We were all gathered together at the request of our showrunner, our producers. And once they had us all gathered together in this virtual meeting space, they're like, ‘Hey guys, we just pitched an idea for the next episode to CBS using this exact technology and other virtual meeting spaces just like Zoom, but this is how we're thinking about shooting the next episode. Are you guys game?’ We're like, ‘Yeah; sounds great! (Laughs)' We were just like, ‘How does this work? What are we going to do?’
“And they basically sent us this very basic lighting equipment … and they're like ‘You're gonna clip this on your device, and then we're going to just hit record and we're going to do these things.’ We’re like, ‘Great; we're in!’
“You know, we were just excited. I mean, I'm a big TV fan. I love this industry; I love the history of broadcasting; I love all of the different stages that it's taken. And to know that our episode was making TV history, I mean, that to me is mind-blowing. It's such a cool thing to be a part of something historic.
“And we all felt that way. We all felt very lucky to have the ability to do something so innovative and cool, but also lucky to just be able to work. You know, there’s so many people right now in our industry – and in every industry – that just want to work – and that was not lost on us. We just felt very, very fortunate, very blessed and very appreciative.
“There were learning curves, and our equipment would go out, and signal would drop, and we'd have to dial back in. There was a lot of reconfiguring and stuff like that, but it was, I believe it's gonna come out really, really cool. And I think the raw element and the fact that it's not all glossy, it's in our living rooms and our bedrooms, and it's with these very basic recording tools, I think there's something very, very simple and raw, and very human about that, that our audience is going to really appreciate. I think the audience is going to appreciate seeing these characters go through that.”
Even in quarantine, Judge Lola Carmichael (Simone Missick) presides over her courthouse: Joey Beto (Edwin Hodge), Emily Lopez (Jessica Camacho), Mark Callan (Wilson Bethel), Sherri Kansky (Ruthie Ann Miles) and Sara Castillo (Lindsay Mendez) (Screen grab ©2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All rights reserved.)
Now, while shooting a TV episode from home is a daunting task with myriad opportunities for imperfections not often seen on camera, Camacho said, “I’m excited to see the finished product. But, I think regardless, the fact that – if I was worried about how doing my own makeup came out – all of those things pale in comparison to the gift of our audience – our dedicated audience – being able to see characters that they love going through something that is so difficult and is so real.
“It’s more, to me, about, really, we’re all in this together. It’s seeing people struggle with it in different ways and find light in it and different ways, and find challenges and deal with the isolation. I just think it’s more important for the audience to see the characters going through that, as opposed to it being this perfectly polished product – which hopefully it will be! But it’s more about just grasping the opportunity to say, ‘Hey, we are all going through something, and we’re going to get through this together. So, let’s put messages of hope out there into the world for everybody to latch onto.’
“That, I think, is at the core of why we’re doing this episode.”
Camacho is the breakout star on a series that also boasts Simone Missick (“Luke Cage”), Wilson Bethel (“Daredevil”) and Marg Helgenberger (“CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”).
Normally, that description is reserved for a newcomer. Camacho isn’t new to acting, having co-starred on NBC’s “Taken,” ABC’s “Last Resort,” and Damon Lindelof’s HBO series “Watchmen.” She rose to fame on The CW’s “The Flash” and appeared in Denzel Washington’s “Roman J. Israel.”
But she is a breakout in that A) her work is a revelation on B) a major network C) where she’s both a star and on screen in front of perhaps her largest audience to date.
In the “All Rise” pilot, Camacho's Emily Lopez is introduced as something of an underdog public defender – one who recently kicked her husband to the curb. She seems somewhat out of place in life, and in the courthouse, though she tries to give an appearance of stability.
Emily is in a relationship with Luke (J. Alex Brinson), a bailiff-turned-DA’s office intern who is noticeably supportive, sensitive and smart. She’s roommates with her BFF, Sara (Lindsay Mendez), a stenographer, workout buddy and all-around shoulder to cry on. Lola (Missick) admires Emily, as does star prosecutor Mark Callan (Bethel).
J. Alex Brinson as Luke Watkins and Jessica Camacho as Emily Lopez on “All Rise.” (CBS photo by Michael Yarish/2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All rights reserved.)
Interestingly, as the series moves toward its 21st episode, Emily has morphed into a Perry Mason-powerhouse – even as her personal life has unraveled. She is haunted by her ex-husband, whom we’ve learned was abusive, and channeling her up-and-down feelings into getting her clients off.
“I definitely knew that I was drawn to it. I knew that. Of course, I didn't know all the ins and outs, twists and turns that this character was taking. I absolutely did not know that – but I knew that she was dynamic; and she was really smart; and that she was capable; and passionate – and when you have all of those characteristics poured into a character, it's promising terrain,” Camacho said. “I definitely didn't know all the kind of places that they would take her, but I knew that it was fertile ground; and I knew that it was going to be a challenge to play her. And I was right! (Laughs) She is a challenge! She keeps me on my toes.”
Though Emily has been able to excel professionally, she finally admitted her personal struggles and sought treatment – with support from Luke and Sara.
“I think, as a person discovers more about themself, as a person gains a deeper kind of appreciation for why they do the things they do, if they start healing different places in themselves that they needed to heal, I think you gain a certain confidence, or you learn more about yourself,” Camacho said. “And I think Emily's journey in no longer hiding from her personal experiences that have been painful and, instead, turning to look at them and face them and giving them air and growing from them, I think that that naturally will reflect in the other areas in her life. And I think that, certainly, she's competent; she's smart; and maybe something that held her back and made her more timid was not dealing with the different parts of her own personal pain. And maybe finally dealing with them allows her to unearth her true ability and capabilities and her voice, and to become more assertive, and become more dogged, as she finds this newfound personal strength. Maybe it has something to do with that.
“And maybe also it’s the fact that, regardless of her pain, or regardless of what she was going through personally, she's always been able to pour her heart and pour her mind into her work, because she believes in it so fiercely.
“I think maybe even during those moments of like real struggle, when she was hurting emotionally, maybe she used her work as a deterrent. You know what I mean? ‘Let me just focus on my work; let me just stay the course when it comes to what makes sense in my life, because with all this other stuff, and all this pain and all these things, I'm having to navigate through this, and figure out what it means and what I need.’
“And what does make sense to her, and always has, is her bend towards justice, and her part in it, and pouring herself and her focus into that.
“I think there's a million different reasons why we see different parts of her starting to become more and more revealed and refined and sharp, but I'm just happy that it keeps happening in such a really cool, definite way. Because as an actor, it's so fun to continue delving deeper and deeper and farther and farther.
“It's just been a challenge and a joy. Honestly, every episode, I'm like, ‘Whoa, we're going there! OK. (Laughs)’ ”
Camacho has often come on board TV series already in progress. With “All Rise,” she was given the opportunity to start from scratch with a concept, a character and a cast.
“That was definitely a first for me. And that was really exciting,” she said. “You're seeing this whole, brand-new world come together – this whole brand-new family comes together. And, I mean, a family with our cast, fellow cast members and our directors and producers, but also the greater crew – all of our lighting people, and sound people, and every department, craft, and you all become moving parts to this one big whole. And I think, starting from the jumping-off point is a really exciting thing for everybody involved. You're all in this new journey together.
“So, it was just this huge level of excitement, and you just have this sense of exploration, like ‘All right, guys, let's figure this thing out.’ And then as you start filming, you learn more and more the music of the characters as they interact; the music of the show; and then, I think, as a performer, you start refining. You know, your first day on set, it’s the first pilot, it may be a little more awkward, it may be a little more stiff. You're trying to figure out the tone of the show as a whole, but you're also figuring your very own character out. We were all test-driving these characters.
“And then, as you move along, you realize what their strengths are – you as a performer, but also how that relates to your presentation of the character – what that means in terms of who this person starts to be formed as. It's like you're molding clay: You're starting to see this sculpture, or whatever it is that you're working on, come together and take shape, and then you kind of you keep following that shape; and maybe it ends up turning into something that you hadn't anticipated – and that's so beautiful.”
After a near breakdown, Emily (Jessica Camacho) arrives at a sobering conclusion, and Lola (Simone Missick) suggests she find professional help in order to get healthy on the April 13 "Merrily We Ride Along" episode of “All Rise.” (CBS photo by Erik Voake/2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All rights reserved.)
Camacho said they key is, “Don't be unbending; but rather be open to where this story and where the world of the show and where the character wants me to go. And as an actor, it means staying flexible in your craft; it means staying open and accepting and not resisting – and all of those things.
“I think, as a performer, it's so cool to not know, ‘OK, this is the kind of character it is.’ I had no idea that Emily has so much strength in her, so much fierceness, so much pain in her, when we first did the pilot. I had no idea. And we couldn't have jumped from the pilot to seeing all of that happen right in episode 2, right? She had to go on this journey to uncover all of those things before she could get to that place where it makes sense to see her expose that part of her.
“So, yeah, seeing this character and this storyline through from start to finish, at least in the first season, has been such a revelatory, exciting journey; and I feel very lucky to have built it from the ground up, from the first stage.”
“All Rise” airs at 9 p.m. Monday on CBS.
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