Angela Bassett turns 60 next year and she’s determined to act her age.
So she’ll be starting the year getting shot at and assaulted by bad guys, and defending herself accordingly. It’s all part of her role as an L.A. street cop named Athena Grant in “9-1-1,” a new series about first responders that premieres Wednesday at 9 p.m. on Fox.
While Bassett says she was attracted to the part because of the character’s story as well as the police work, it’s definitely not a passive role.
“I love doing action,” says Bassett. She laughs. “Since I’m not 21, there’s some, ‘Let me get to the gym so I can do it.’ But I love to defy expectations. I want people to see this is what 59 can look like, what 59 can do.”
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“9-1-1” has some elements of the traditional procedural drama, where good guys face challenges every week from bad guys or terrible events.
Bassett points out that it also doesn’t follow the straight traditional procedure path — which is no surprise given that it was created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, whose names pop up on TV shows with the same frequency that Starbucks pops up on urban street corners. The pair is responsible for shows like “Glee,” “American Horror Story” and “Scream Queens.”
The show draws together three branches of first responders: the Police Department, where Athena is a prominent player; the Fire Department, where we focus on a small firehouse squad led by Bobby Nash (Peter Krause); and the 9-1-1 emergency team, whose point person is the woman who takes the calls, Abby Clark (Connie Britton).
Following Murphy’s ensemble tradition, they aren’t the only characters we’ll be following. Nor will we only be watching them in professional action.
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“One of the things that most appealed to me about the show is that it’s also about the characters,” Bassett says. “These are people we call when we need help, and we see here where they need help themselves.
“It’s about the Sturm und Drang of life, all the things that happen to people. The great and the inane.”
In the first episode alone, we learn that Bobby Nash has struggled to overcome years of substance abuse, that Abby Clark is 42 and single largely because she spends most of her time caring for her ill mother, and that Athena Grant’s husband is about to deliver a life-changing revelation to their two children.
Abby is heard at times in voice-over and at one point she muses that she often finds it easier to cope with the life-and-death emergencies posed by 9-1-1 callers than with the mundane details of her own daily life.
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Bassett, who over the past 30 years has played an impressive line of real-life characters from Rosa Parks to Tina Turner and Betty Shabazz, says she doesn’t approach fictional characters differently.
“With Athena, it starts when I put on the uniform,” she says. “Just the way it fits. The belt. The gun. The weight of it. I can feel the character.”
Still, she suggests she might not be here if it weren’t for Murphy, with whom she previously worked on several seasons of his “American Horror Story.”
“I was absolutely not looking to do series TV,” Bassett says. “But when he showed me the ‘AHS’ characters, they were so phenomenal that I couldn’t say no. He challenges you on every level.”
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But Murphy’s got so many balls in the air.
“I don’t see him as much as I’d like,” Bassett laughs. “But we’re in touch through email and other ways. When we need him, he’s there.
“And when something isn’t just the way he wants it,” she says, laughing again, “he’s definitely there.”
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