Mary McDonnell on Sharon Raydor, Sinte Gleska University and Balancing Her Roles On and Off Screen

By M. Sharpe

MURDER IN THE FIRST (TNT)In Part I of our interview with Mary McDonnell, she discussed the evolution of the relationships between the characters on Major Crimes, and how that on-screen familiarity has translated cinto a true off-screen camaraderie with her cast and crew. The strong behind-the-scenes friendships have been more valuable than ever this season, as the cast and crew have had to balance their longest season ever with their personal lives. It seems fitting then that balance has been revealed to be the theme of season five of Major Crimes, as in Part II of our interview, McDonnell reveals her own challenges in balancing the personal and professional halves of Sharon Raydor’s life. McDonnell herself has worked to find balance between bringing Captain Raydor to the screen, and continuing to deepen her commitment to her other passions, and for the first time discusses her charity work with Sinte Gleska University, a tribal college on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, which she first became aware of during the filming of Dances with Wolves.

Four years into her journey of playing Captain Sharon Raydor, McDonnell says her focus this season is ensuring that Raydor does not become complacent in her position now that she’s achieved stability and success within her role as the head of the Major Crimes division. “My biggest challenge right now is in finding ways to deepen her commitment to the workplace when sometimes the writing may or may not indicate that. She is discovering I think, the more she keeps this job, the more she likes it. And the closer she gets to the individuals she’s working with, the more she feels like this is the right place to be. And yet, she could retire. She has different things that have been offered to her. So it’s a very interesting thing for me, the actress, to focus Sharon’s mind into the work in a way that’s really fascinating and deeper. For me to help Sharon ask some bigger questions of herself, and find better ways to get the job done more quickly and more profoundly.”

While viewers have often commented on Raydor’s absence from the initial crime scenes, McDonnell says that is a conscious choice on the part of the writers. However, she notes that not being present for those scenes often confronts her with an additional challenge in how she is able to approach accessing the emotions of her character without that essential first encounter with the victim. “Sharon not being present at the crime scene is very accurate from what her position would be, and it balances out our ensemble in a very healthy manner, by giving Lt. Provenza the opportunity to utilize his position and longevity to run the crime scene, while she runs the division. But as an actress, not being viscerally present at the crime scenes – not walking through them, not being the first responder, not having the action sequences and the heart pounding, car chasing moments – as an actress then you have to fill that in. You have to fill in the connection to your victim, and your commitment to finding the perpetrator. You have to fill in your connection to the victimized, and the families.”

415-buzz provenza raydor sykes tao lrMcDonnell also reveals that by not going to the crime scenes, Sharon is also forced to rapidly catch up on the details of the case to get up to speed on the case. “We as viewers have to make the assumption that Sharon has the whole picture in her mind the next time you see her. She catches up a bit, they fill her in a bit. But she’s also has had to catch up on her own. She’s had to do a lot of figuring very quickly, then very rapidly move through the information. And sometimes it’s your instinct that solves a crime. And when you haven’t been to the crime scene and you haven’t seen the environment, your instinct isn’t necessarily operating at its highest level. So she has to find a way to have her gut operating at her highest level, and her instinct operating, but to start cerebrally and move closer, rather than starting viscerally. It’s a very interesting thing to contemplate.”

During earlier seasons, often the main crime story of the week would have a parallel in Sharon’s personal journey, particularly as it related to Rusty, and the challenges and dangers that he was facing. “In season two, and in part of season three, Sharon’s dilemma of the mother paralleled the story of the crime quite often. So I could play that connection, that awareness in both places, and one informed the other. This season that has not really been the journey. So the challenge has been to figure out philosophical ways in which this activity that Sharon Raydor is involved in, is going deeper for her, and to sort of project those into the work so that it stays connected, rather than a little bit removed crime solving.”

As Major Crimes heads into its fifth season, we note that McDonnell has now been playing Sharon Raydor for as long as she portrayed Laura Roslin on the award-winning series Battlestar Galactica. It is hard to avoid comparisons between the two characters, as Laura was beloved by viewers for many of the same reasons Sharon has connected with fans so strongly. McDonnell acknowledges that she finds the two characters alike in many ways, but that the external forces around them have led them into very different lives: “I think women in power share a lot of qualities. There are things that women develop in order to behave well in the top dog position that are compatible qualities that are similar. So they’re very similar in certain ways. The biggest difference to me, well, maybe not the biggest difference but is the most noticeable at the core is that Sharon Raydor is not dying, and she does not have that all-encompassing responsibility on her plate. She’s not trying to save the world like Laura was. She’s not trying to save the human race from extinction. And so she has a more detached position intrinsically.”


McDonnell as President Laura Roslin in Battlestar Galactica

According to McDonnell, that contrast between the characters has allowed her to find the experience of playing the women vastly different, even though at the core they share many similarities. “I think Sharon is more apt to have fun than Laura Roslin could have. She does have more fun. She has an easier life. Laura had a bigger sense of fate, and of things being fated, and a stronger sense of a kind of spirituality than Sharon possesses, at least in the way I have recognized her so far. Laura was operating on a lot of different levels, and Sharon is very much a woman of this world. You know, she’s very human, she’s very simple in a way. She’s complicated, as all humans are complicated, but she herself has not had a lot of complications in her life. And by her very circumstances, Laura’s life couldn’t have been more complicated.”

Now that Major Crimes has wrapped for the season, another role from McDonnell’s past has had a hand in filling much of her free time, as she has focused on fundraising initiatives for Sinte Gleska University. Located on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, McDonnell first became acquainted with Sinte Gleska during her time filming the Oscar winning film Dances with Wolves. It was her dialogue coach on that film, Doris Leader Charge, who introduced her to the tribal college more than 26 years ago, and since then McDonnell has supported the university and its work, and in more recent years, has become an active part of fundraising efforts.

Despite being an ardent supporter of Sinte Gleska, McDonnell hadn’t revisited the area since filming ended almost 26 years ago. “Even though I have been doing fundraising for them, and have been in pretty steady communication with the president and the development team of the university, I hadn’t been back in decades. But I’ve known that in order to be honestly fundraising and to grow the fundraising as I would like, that I needed to actually see and feel what was going on there myself. And I really needed to go back in general. It was a very important turning point in my life, and it’s hard to believe that decades have gone by without me returning.”

Several weeks ago McDonnell made her return to the Rosebud Reservation during Sinte Gleska University’s Founders week. “During Founder’s week they have a lot of seminars, meetings, tribal councils, a lot of things go on the university during that weekend, and it ends with a celebratory Pow Wow. So it was an opportunity for me to not only be on campus, but to sit in on things like meetings about the future, of the university, the tribe, the way things are going politically, the problems, the progress, etc. It was a great honor for me, to have them open their doors to me, and they kept inviting me into discussions and meetings about the future of the university and the community.”

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McDonnell visits the day care center at Sinte Gleska University. Photo courtesy Robert Zimiga.

While at Sinte Gleska, McDonnell toured the University grounds, which have flourished over the past decades. Even more meaningfully, she was able to tour the daycare center for the students at the university, which has been one of the primary recipients of the funds she has raised. “We had a wonderful time there visiting the facilities, visiting the students, visiting the teachers. And it’s very exciting because this year they were able to, through our fundraising, shore up the idea of bilingual education, so they have these little ones learning Lakota and English simultaneously. This seems to be a very central piece to the spirit of the tribe, that the numbers of fluent Lakota speakers have dwindled, which is not a good feeling for the spirit and psyche of the Lakota. So bringing in this very youngest generation and being able to educate them in a bilingual environment is a very hopeful and very progressive thing to do.”

Returning to the Rosebud Reservation also led McDonnell to reconnect with several people she had first met years ago while shooting Dances with Wolves, including the family of her late friend Doris Leader Charge. She also attended the 93rd Birthday Party of a Medicine Man who McDonnell first met while making the film, when he performed a prayer ceremony with members of the cast. McDonnell recounted that during the making of the film, Leader Charge was nervous about the upcoming filming of the Buffalo Hunt sequence, and as an extra protection she invited some of the cast to participate in a traditional sweat lodge and prayer ceremony to protect and keep the actors, stuntmen and cameramen safe during the filming of the buffalo hunt sequence.

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McDonnell as Stands with a Fist in Dances With Wolves

McDonnell recalls the experience fondly, and notes that for even some of the Native American cast of the film, it was their first experience with a sweat lodge. “It was quite a moving experience to be with some of my cast members for this. And I will say the next couple of days when we did shoot the buffalo hunt, we were all watching, and there was a moment where Kevin Costner fell off his horse. And everyone held their breath. And as was very emblematic of Kevin’s courage and the zone he lived in during that movie, instead of being brought in, he asked his wrangler to get off and he got on his horse and went right back into the fray. But he was safe. And we all took a deep breath. Life is a very magical event, and a very dangerous event when you’re shooting a movie.”

Of her time at the Founder’s Week event, McDonnell says that by sitting in on meetings with community leaders and administration from the school, she found a deeper understanding of the issues facing the university and the community, and how important that understanding is to developing ways to assist the local population. “There is a lot to understand, and there is a tremendous amount to be respected. You have to tread lightly going into other people’s worlds, because they’ve been dealing with conditions that have been appalling since the late 1800’s, and it has never really been repaired, and reparations have not been done. And the truth about all of it really isn’t something that most Americans live with consciously. So all of that becomes more vivid when you enter these worlds.”

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McDonnell attends the Sinte Gleska Founders Week Pow Wow. Photo courtesy Robert Zimiga.

Most importantly, McDonnell says, her visit allowed her to see firsthand the situations that the school and the population around it are dealing with and how she can continue to be involved with the school and its mission, as an ally to this community. “There are a lot of problems on both Rosebud and Pine Ridge, and there are a lot of good people fighting an incredible fight against terrible odds. When you meet very amazing Native Americans who are very aware of history and US politics and US policy and they are sociologists at their core, and spiritualists, and they are very aware of all this and living on the reservation and teaching on the reservation and are very powerful beautiful people, you have to say ‘I am truly and deeply impressed.’”

On the last night of Founders Week, Sinte Gleska honored McDonnell at its celebratory Pow Wow, and gifted her with a ceremonial star quilt in the colors of one of her other passions – the Green Bay Packers. Of the experience, and the quilt, McDonnell says, “they honored me so deeply that that I still don’t quite know what to do with that. Because I still feel like I haven’t done much for these people, but I’m trying.”

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Robert Zimiga poses with the Star quilt gifted to him by the Lakota tribe. In addition to being a photographer/videographer, Zimiga is a background actor on Major Crimes.

In addition to attending the events and visiting the community, McDonnell, with the help of photographer/videographer Robert Zimiga, captured footage of the events and the people, with the hopes of producing a short documentary in the future to aid in fundraising efforts for Sinte Gleska. Beyond that, she says she hopes to find other ways to support the school, and the community. “I’m still listening, days later, I’m still trying to stay quiet and listen, and process what I’ve learned. And then eventually I hope to envision how I can perhaps take this a step further, this support that we have all been showing them, and communicate with the fans about it so that we can all continue to learn and support them. It was a very moving event, and I was able to learn a lot, and I am still processing ways in which I think I may be able to help impact the education and the strengthening of the young people on the reservation.”

Another institution bringing hope to the youth of the Lakota Tribe is the forthcoming Pine Ridge Girls School, to which McDonnell hopes to help bring awareness and support. Pine Ridge Girls School is seeking to establish one of the first all-girl schools on the Pine Ridge reservation near Rosebud, modeled after the Archer School for Girls in Los Angeles, but adapted for the different world of the reservation. The school is scheduled to open its doors in 2016, and its supporters are looking forward to the new educational opportunities it will bring to young women on the Pine Ridge reservation.

In the short term, fans will have an opportunity to help support Sinte Gleska at the upcoming Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo (C2E2) on March 18-20, 2016, where McDonnell will be appearing as a media guest. Attendees will have the opportunity to meet McDonnell, and hear her talk about her experiences on Major Crimes and Battlestar Galactica (alongside her former co-star, Edward James Olmos), with a portion of proceeds from her appearance going to Sinte Gleska University.

Reflecting on how Dances with Wolves has continued to impact both her career and her life, McDonnell says she is cognizant of the trust that has been given to her by Sinte Gleska and the Lakota people, and is determined to continue to honoring that. “I wonder, what is that magic ingredient in movies and television and stories, that people project trustworthiness onto you. I’ve found that you either shy away from it, or you lean into it, and I try to lean into it as much as I can in my career. I don’t know why this is my path, and I really don’t know why I got that movie to begin with, but it is, it was, it did, I did. And the trust seems to be very strong. So they are allowing me to lean in and educate myself, and hopefully in that way, I will be able to help, and honor that trust.”

The Major Crimes season finale airs tonight at 9pm/8c on TNT. Check out Sinte Gleska University at their website,, where you can learn more about their programs, and become a supporter of the University.