By M. Sharpe
As a new cast member in season two of Major Crimes, Nadine Velazquez says she was nervous about stepping into the role of Emma Rios. “I was surprised at the reaction,” Velazquez told MajorCrimesTV.net, of the initial backlash to the no-nonsense deputy district attorney. Now as the show approaches its summer finale, Velazquez says she is feeling a change in the character herself, and in the reaction from fans, but cautions, “I don’t want to soften Emma too much.”
Following the evolution of a character from outsider to beloved core member of the ensemble cast is a journey that viewers of Major Crimes are already familiar with, having observed Sharon Raydor, and to a lesser extent, Rusty Beck, already complete the transition. Though much of the initial reaction to Rios (and Sharon before her) had to do with issues of gender and perceived antagonism towards the lead characters, Velazquez is eager to explore Emma’s hidden vulnerabilities, and how those traits may help the character learn to better interact with the rest of the squad.
Finding the perfect balance of realism and likeability in her characters is nothing new to Velazquez, whose career has spanned roles from the TV comedy My Name is Earl to last 2013′s Denzel Washington film Flight. “I like the variety of characters that I’ve been able to play and I like that anytime I get a new role, I feel like I can make it different than something I’ve done before. I think this is something that comes naturally to me, and so I enjoy that process, I enjoy getting to take the role on and finding out how that feels inside and what comes out of me from that.”
Despite always wanting a career in the entertainment industry, Velazquez says she never considered being an actress herself, until, after working two years as an agent’s assistant in Chicago, her bosses encouraged her to give it a try. Commercials and voiceover work soon followed, as did a decision that would prove instrumental in both her personal and professional life. “I thought that maybe I would go to New York and become a trained actress on Broadway or get involved in the theater, and I went to New York for interviews so that I could move out there and that was the weekend before September 11th. And the very same weekend I met the man who would become my husband- we met that weekend and fell in love that weekend and a month later, he was living in Los Angeles and I motivated myself to move in with him in LA, and that’s what brought me to Los Angeles, but shortly after I moved in with him, everything kind of fell into place.”
It was her ability to take on wildly different roles that caught the attention of executive producer James Duff when he was looking to introduce a new character into season two of Major Crimes. “Apparently James (Duff) kind of had an eye out for me already, from what I know. He already was interested in me for the role because of other things that I’d done, and he liked that I could change characters. I think he said that he’d enjoyed me on My Name is Earl and then he saw me in Hart of Dixie and didn’t even know it was the same person, so he was curious to see what I would do with being a DA.” A successful first audition quickly lead to testing with the network, and within a week, Velazquez says, the role of Emma Rios was hers.
Introduced as an antagonist to Sharon Raydor, and perceived as another obstacle for long-suffering teen Rusty Beck to overcome, reaction to Rios both onscreen and off was inevitably mixed. Velazquez is quick to defend the actions of her character in the beginning, but also sheds some light on the transformation we’ve begun to see in the last few episodes. “I think Emma needed to come in kind of blazing because she didn’t want to be backed down, she didn’t want anything in her way. I think now though, she is becoming less aggressive.”
Velazquez is careful to point out that the changes we are seeing in Rios’ character are ones that would happen naturally in her kind of situation. “I don’t want to soften Emma too much, though I think it was necessary because she needed to become a team player, and when you become a team player you let your guard down, and you’re not so hard pressed to prove yourself. I think over time she’s learned cooperation. But I still don’t want to lose the edge that she does have.”
Velazquez credits Sharon Raydor – and co-star Mary McDonnell – for Rios becoming more relaxed with the Major Crimes squad, and why she herself has adjusted how she approaches the character. “Especially with how Mary’s character welcomes other characters, she’s very much not only a leader but she’s the chief there as well, she’s not out for herself, and I think Emma, and Nadine as an actress, just have had to learn to remain open to what’s happening in the moment. Not just what you yourself think your character is like- but being open to that changing once you involve the chemistry of the cast.”
Velazquez reveals that she’s been working with the writers to make sure that Emma doesn’t change completely. “The episode that we are shooting this week, I got some of that edge back in and channeled it more towards closing a deal, and the writers are exploring how we can keep it so that she can be cold with the deal, and razor sharp with the deal, and then she lets people in.”
Rios’s interactions with Rusty have been a particular point of concern for audiences who have grown especially protective of the troubled teen. Of that, Velazquez says that while Emma might not necessarily agree, she is coming to recognize Rusty’s importance to the squad itself. “I think Emma’s always going to be torn with Rusty because she does understand and have a sensitivity to his plight and what the squad gave to him, and because she’s really starting to adapt to the squad and by association Rusty, and he’s a good kid and he means well. I think Emma is making an effort to really consider that, though I don’t think Emma’s ever the kind of person who is going to bend the rules in order to satisfy somebody’s personal agenda, I think she’ll always be about the law first, but she has to learn as well how to have a little more compassion and understand the ways that both needs can be met.”
Velazquez is eager to explore her characters’ relationships with other members of the team, but points out that aside from Sharon and Rusty, Major Crimes doesn’t tend to show much more than hints of the characters’ personal lives. Even so, she is curious about the fledgling relationship that has been hinted at between Rios and Sanchez. “I’m interested to see how that gets explored. It had to be cut out, but in the episode where I yelled at him, at the end of that episode originally I had apologized to him, and I explained to him that I was recently divorced and sometimes I flew off the handle because of that, but they cut scene that out. It was a thing that helped me understand my character, because when you go through a breakup or something like that, it permeates your work relationships. So I like that idea that in the back of Emma’s mind, deep down, there’s a part that’s really broken.”
As for Emma and Captain Raydor, Velazquez still isn’t sure how the two strong women might relate to each other once the stress of the Rusty situation isn’t such an issue between them. “I think it’s still something that one learns about as I go along with her. We’ve done deals together, but I think as we do more and more, I’ll get to understand more that relationship.”
That Emma is not necessarily as put together as she likes to project is a part of the character that Velazquez is interested in investigating further. “She’s very ambitious and she’s gotten to where she’s at because she knows when to be ambitious and when to be cutthroat, so that helps me. And at the same time, there are stereotypical characters that are played a certain way and they never waver. I like that Emma has a vulnerability to her too and that we’re starting to see it, because I think it makes her human, and I like the idea of her having the ability to be as cutthroat as she needs to be but then having that painful reality of, when people are cutthroat in the world, it doesn’t feel good. We don’t like being that person, even though you might think that’s your go-to and your mechanism of protection, psychologically you know that no one ever feels good being that way, and there’s a brokenness to a person who needs to be that way. There’s a huge vulnerability somebody is hiding when they are that way. I like that”
Looking forward to the winter episodes of Major Crimes, and season 3 beyond that, Velazquez is eager to explore how the balance between boldness and vulnerability will continue to evolve with Emma, and her relationships with the squad. Following in the footsteps of the strong female characters already a vital part of the show, Velazquez is thankful for the opportunity to add Rios to the mix. “I’m so excited that I get to portray a character that embodies femininity and strength. It’s really cool.”