Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: A theater-trained actor with an almost 40-year career in Hollywood, Amy Aquino is perhaps best known for handily delivering as a seemingly endless string of doctors (psychologists, oncologists, gynecologists, et al.) and legal professionals, including but not limited to detectives, defense attorneys, district attorneys, and judges. (She’s played a judge on at least eight different shows in recurring roles.) Sure, she’s also ably played mothers and hairdressers, nosy neighbors and hard-edged troop leaders, but for whatever reason, producers always call her up when they’re looking to cast a smart woman in a position of reasonable authority.
Her latest role is, again, as a therapist: Dr. Christina Raynor, the military-trained professional working with Bucky Barnes on Disney+’s The Falcon And The Winter Soldier. It’s a smart and necessary role—if anyone needs a therapist, it’s a guy who fell into a fugue state and became a trained killing machine for 70-odd years—and one that she plays with sassy aplomb. The A.V. Club talked to Aquino about her foray into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, her love of Felicity’s Dr. Toni Pavone, and the 15 years she spent popping up on ER.
The A.V. Club: How did The Falcon And The Winter Soldier come about, and what did you like about doing it?
Amy Aquino: It is not a genre that I typically get called for, although I have played that kind of a role. I’ve played psychiatrists and doctors and judges and lawyers, so I get a lot of those authoritative people. But, the [Marvel Cinematic] Universe—let me say, I did not know it was a universe. I thought it was a franchise, and it was fascinating for me when I told people I was doing it, how crazy excited they got and how many people just live and die for the next Marvel event. So that was fun to just in the sense of, “Oh, okay, this is a part of American life that I really didn’t have any personal sense of.”
The director [Kari Skogland] was extraordinary. She’s so in control and calm, like what I would imagine a military commander would be, but in the best possible way, because she was available and was super clear on what she wanted. Then when I saw it, I was just blown away by the the way she shot it and the angle that she was using. I knew where the camera was, but I had no idea that that’s the way she was going to go with it.
For a woman, especially at my age, it was not an opportunity that I ever thought that I was going to have in my career, so I’m totally delighted that I had it. On top of that, everybody I worked with was so nice. And considering how huge they are and how much pressure is on them and the expectations for the show, they could have been anything, but they were extraordinarily generous and welcoming and so that made it that much lovelier.
It was adorable watching [Sebastian Stan and Anthony Mackie], because there was an element of me just watching them during [their] therapy scene, because that’s kind of what the characters are doing. So it was fun to be able to sit back and be Amy and be the character watching these two guys go at it. That’s hilarious and it’s wonderful to be alive.
AVC: Also, if anyone needs therapy, it’s Bucky Barnes. He’s been through some stuff.
AA: Exactly. What was important to me—and there’s just a quick reference to it—is that Raynor was in the middle of it herself. Which is why she really does see it as a life and death situation with him because she knows how bad it was for her, the PTSD, and she knows because she’s treated a lot of guys and women with PTSD. And then you look at Bucky’s experience where he was literally programmed to kill people, because he’s still a human being—his arm may not be, but he’s still underneath. He’s a human being and he’s lost his best friend. So, yeah, if anybody needs therapy, it would be him. And that’s why she doesn’t pull any punches.
AVC: As you mentioned, you have played a number of therapists, including Felicity’s beloved Dr. Pavone. Why do you think people think of you when they’re casting a therapist?
AA: With a therapist, you want them to show authority and courage, not be afraid to confront difficult situations and difficult realities, and you want someone to be in that place with you. I think I have come off, obviously, as a strong personality, and I think for whatever reason, I come off as as intelligent and helping, and certainly with Felicity, that helped a lot.
It helped in [The Falcon And The Winter Soldier] as well, which was unexpected on some levels. That’s what’s great about Marvel: They wanted humor in there, so they needed somebody who was who was able to bring the humor to the situation as well. So I suppose things worked out.
AVC: On Falcon And Winter Soldier there’s also an element of you being a woman in that space. There’s a lot of testosterone in that room, and you can bring it down. With Felicity, there was also probably a comforting element there for her, with you as a woman.
AA: With Falcon, I think what you’re seeing a bit is almost a nurturing that [Bucky] doesn’t get anywhere elsewhere. [Dr. Raynor] doesn’t seem like the most nurturing person, but she does have that side to her. She wants to take care of these boys and girls—but a whole lot of boys—in therapy who have been through these terrible things. They need to relate to her on some level, going way back to that mom who said, “No, I know something’s wrong. Don’t lie to me, you’ve got to tell me.” So that that may be a part of it,
For Felicity, it’s almost the opposite of that. [Dr. Pavone] was definitely a top five character that I’ve been able to play. She was such a wonderful group of contradictions, and she was just such a mess. So it just took all the pressure off of me because I feel a lot of pressure—Thank you, Mom—about how I look. So I put that to one side when I was auditioning for her and when I was playing her. If anything, I just wanted to make her be just as big a mess as she could be.
One of my favorite moments was when the cigarette ash accidentally falls down. She’s a woman who has cigarette ashes falling on her on her chest, and there’s very little she can do about it. I love her. I want to be that person.
AVC: She also seemed like such a typical New Yorker—like, she was brash and took no shit.
AA: People talk about New Yorkers, and I lived in Brooklyn and New York for four, five years and go back there all the time. People would say, “New York, they don’t care about anybody.” I say, “No, I’m sorry, have you been there?” Here’s what they do. I would be living there, and I would watch these people. There’d be a man with a briefcase walking very fast to get to work, and then there’d be a couple of tourists there struggling, looking at a map, and he would just stop and say, “All right, where do you need to go?” He didn’t say, “Hey, where are you from?” He didn’t have time for that. But he did ask, “Where do you need to go? Okay, here’s what you want to do…” I saw that all the time.
New Yorkers are used to living in very close quarters and used to being around other human beings. They understand that everybody needs to pick it up because that’s how it all works. I think it’s more of a problem with people who don’t live in big cities sometimes not caring about other human beings. There’s an interest in other human beings that New Yorkers have and that caring comes from that interest.
AVC: Speaking of New York, you played the mom on the critically acclaimed series Brooklyn Bridge, which I don’t think was actually shot in New York.
AA: It was not. A lot of New Yorkers were in it, although Marion [Ross] was not a New Yorker, but we shot it in L.A. Paramount had just rebuilt their backlot after they had a big fire, so we were the first people to shoot on New York Street on their backlot, and it was very exciting. The only time they really had a problem was—and I remember this distinctly—when they were shooting Coney Island and they used the Santa Monica Pier. They had to come in and recolor the sky, because the biggest difference between L.A. and pretty much any city in the United States is that because of the desert the sky gets washed out between the really brilliant sun and the ocean’s effect on the atmosphere. They needed it to look like the sky in New York, which would have a really blue sky, believe it or not. So that was the one big change they had to make.
On that show, we were doing a fantasy of this idyllic life growing up in 1950s Brooklyn. So if we had shot in New York now, you would have had a very different feeling for it, for what it was, because New York at that time, 30 years ago, was very different from what Brooklyn was in the ’50s and certainly what Brooklyn was in the ’50s in Gary David Goldberg’s memory, and that’s what it was. It was a memory.
That was one of the biggest challenges I had with Brooklyn Bridge, in fact. Gary and his mother had a horrible relationship right up to the day she died, where she literally was lying on her deathbed, and he was already a zillionaire by then and had all these successes, and she looked at him and said, “You disappointed me. “ It had to do with him being very smart and getting into Bronx Science, which was for a kid who couldn’t afford to go to a private school, that was the path to Harvard, Yale, etc. And he didn’t want to go because he didn’t want to be away from his friends, and they had a terrible sports program, as you can well imagine. She just literally never forgave him. And so he had this weird thing where, when he was writing the show, he kept forgetting to put my character into things because his memories in general of growing up were so lovely and warm and rosy and and soft and affectionate, and his mother was not a part of that yet because she was so angry with him. It was really hard and he really struggled with it. He was very open about it, and it was a great thing about him.
Eventually he ended up writing what started out as one episode but became two episodes covering that incident in his life with his mom, where the son gets into Bronx Science but decides he doesn’t want to go and they have this huge blowout about it and it gets really ugly. And then his father intervenes and they resolve it. We were able to resolve it on camera in the show, in a way that he hadn’t been able to resolve it in his life. Once we did, the character of his mother in the show was suddenly everywhere. She could be a part of this world because they had gotten through it. It was fascinating. Suddenly you saw her job, you saw her friends, you saw her interacting. She wasn’t left out of everything where she had been in the beginning of it. And so I give him a ton of credit for recognizing that and being very gracious about it and self-effacing and dealing with it. That job became so much more fun and richer because she was a great character, an unusual character for that time, because she was working.
I ended up making wonderful friends on that they stayed friends for, like Matthew Siegel, who has a little one now. Actually, he just had a second child. Peter Friedman is a dear friend. I actually set him up with a woman he ended up marrying. They’ve been together for I guess, 10 to 15 years now, and I set them up. She’s fantastic. Marian [Ross] and I are super close as well.
It was kind of a beautiful thing for me to get involved with, especially pretty early in my career.
AVC: Did you first meet David E. Kelley when you were working on Picket Fences?
AA: Probably, yes. He’s got a company of people that he likes to bring back, so then I was on Boston Legal and The Practice, and a couple of other things as well.
AVC: You were on about a dozen episodes of Picket Fences, which was already an established show. What’s it like to come on as a recurring character on a show that’s already up and running? You’ve done it quite a few times.
AA: With Picket Fences, it was a little different because they had decided they were going to bring this character on and create this character. My scenes were primarily with Kathy Baker and she’s become a dear friend. She’s the loveliest person and professional as hell, so good, so self-effacing and funny. So she made it super easy for me.
I’ve done a lot of shows where I just popped in a lot. At one point I described it as doing “repertory television.” There was a point in my career when I was recurring on four different shows as completely different characters, and I actually loved it. On some level, I preferred it to being locked into one role. It was when I was doing Felicity and ER and Judging Amy. They wouldn’t bring me in unless they really had something for me to do, so I’m not sitting around. I’m not just kind of coming in to do one bullshit little thing. If they’re going to bring me in, I actually have a thing and I get to work with all these different wonderful people and I get to be all these different wonderful characters, so I never get tired of any of them.
That’s the joy of being a character actor. It also contributes to my longevity, I think. That’s why so many character actors go on and on, because we’re not defined as one thing. We’re also not being hired for our beautiful looks, which then go away as we know they will.
So, you know, it wasn’t the picture that I had of where I’d go, but in the end, I think the career I’ve had has been wonderful and continues to be wonderful because of all the people and characters I’ve gotten to play, because I was trained in the theater. In the theater, you do one character for two months or six months, maybe a year, and then you go and you find some other character and you dig into that person and figure out who that person is and you do that. That to me is the fun part of doing what you do as an actor as opposed to being locked in.
AVC: Speaking of long-running recurring characters: You were on 15 seasons of ER, in 26 different episodes. You were there for the whole run of the show, so you did get to spend some time with the character, but not in a way where you might have gotten bored of her.
AA: Absolutely. She kept evolving, which was kind of great. I mean, it was hilarious. In that last season, Maura Tierney’s character was in in recovery, and I was so pleased that before it was over, I got to go to Chicago to shoot, because they would go once a month to shoot in exteriors in Chicago. And so they actually brought me out.
Anyway, we were having lunch in some rented lunchroom, whatever. And the the UPM [Unit Production Manager] calls out to me, “Hey, know what? You were a drunk in seasons one through seven.” That’s because it just came up in season 14, 15 that I got sober. [Aquino’s character] Janet Coburn says, “Oh yeah, I’ve been sober for four” or six years or something. And we all did the math, so I was a drunk during the first seven seasons.
So my relationships got to evolve as well. My relationship with Maura evolved tremendously from the first time until the end, 10 years later. We went through a lot of things together. The characters went through a lot of things together.
I have been very, very lucky and I’m very grateful for a lot of it. Also, by the way, because it wasn’t just about being brought in every day, 15 hours a day, I had time to pursue the other things that I did with the other part of my brain. I did union stuff primarily, and now other nonprofit stuff and I’m the chair of a board of a great nonprofit. And I’ve done a lot of other things, like I bought a hotel at one point and and restored that and got it up and running. So I can’t complain.
Freaks And Geeks (2000)—“Mrs. Schweiber”
AVC: Your role as Mrs. Schweiber in Freaks And Geeks was so pivotal for Neil’s character, played by Samm Levine.
AA: That was another one of these kind of magical things. I auditioned for it. I hadn’t seen the show. I contend to this day that the problem with that show was the goddamn name because, you know, looking at the name Freaks And Geeks, I thought, “I don’t need to watch that. It sounds like it sounds like a horror movie.” But I could be wrong.
The atmosphere they created, though, everybody involved with it knew they were doing something really, really special. But not in way that made you feel uncomfortable at all; it just made you feel honored to be there and to be included.
When they did a Vanity Fair photo shoot for some anniversary, you looked around and everybody showed up, one after another. These people were just walking up. You’d say there and go, “Oh, it’s James Franco.” I mean, the people that were discovered and launched, just from that show. It was before its time and it had such a short run. Now we’re used to things having an extremely short run, but they did so much in that one. Everybody still talks about it.
It’s one of the things for millennials especially that I get recognized for pretty consistently. Then for older people, it’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, which is fantastic that I was able to participate in that as well.
Curb Your Enthusiasm (2002)—“Susan Braudy”
AA: They literally do have you improvise on that show, which is very cool. They write a prose description of what happens in the scene, but they don’t write lines. The first time you’re saying words is when they roll the camera. Even in the camera blocking that you do typically before you shoot, typically you block with the words, but on Curb they don’t want you to open your mouth until the cameras are rolling. So you just rehearsed this thing, like “now I walk over here and then I see Larry across the room and I wave to him and I walk over here to say hi, whatever”—that’s as much as you would do, just so the cameraman has some idea.
But it was it was fascinating. It was a little like guerrilla filmmaking though because everything was on location. I’d say, “so where’s my dressing room?” And they’re like, “Yeah, the bathroom’s over there.”
Working Girl (1988)—“Alice Baxter”
AVC: You were in both Working Girl and Moonstruck, which hit pretty much back to back. What do you remember about that period?
AA: That was when I was right out of school. I had a really kind of hit the ground running coming out of graduate school. We had to audition for all the casting directors, and I made a very crazy and bold choice and it worked. So I was on this huge high after graduate school, because suddenly I was much in demand, which was a little weird and hard to take. On some level, I figured I was going to get found out.
So I was going out for a lot of stuff at that point. I was so self-confident. When I auditioned for Working Girl, they brought me into meet with the casting director and [director] Mike [Nichols] in his office. I went in and chatted with them a little bit and they said, “Well, let’s see the scene.” And I said, “Can I use your desk?” They said sure, so I went over to Mike’s desk and I put my feet up on his desk and I pick up his phone. I don’t know if I would do that now, but I fucking did it at 30. I’m just like, “Yeah, I’m an actress and that’s what I do. That’s what I need for my process and I’m going to do it.” And so, of course, they bought it and then I went and shot it.
I was so green because I had not I done hardly any film or television at that point. It was all theater, so in this one scene we were going to go into an office and we were shooting in an actual office building and using an empty office. It was in a part of this floor that wasn’t occupied, but the rest of it was. So we’re just walking past people’s desks to get to the set. So we start shooting, I’ve got my feet up on the desk and I’m looking out the window and the crew and the camera’s in the doorway and they’re all out in the hallway. I’m on the phone and I do one take. Mike Nichols cuts, and he says, “That was great. That was terrific to see, but we’ve actually got a microphone hanging over your head so you don’t have to worry about your voice carrying out into the hall. We’re totally getting every word.” And I mean, it was the dumbest rookie mistake a person could make.
He was so lovely. I could have felt so awful. Instead I was like, “Oh, yeah. You’re right. Okay. That’s how this works.” It was adorable, and then I could keep going and not feel like I did not deserve to be there.
Melanie [Griffith], you know, was going through a hard time at that point; [her ex-husband Don Johnson’s] relationship with Barbra Streisand was all over the news. And so she invited me into her trailer to have lunch and said, “I feel so bad. I know how hard it is to just come in to do one scene. I was going to call you ahead of time so we could talk.” It was so, so sweet. So a situation, again, that could have been really, really just terrifying and awful ended up being quite lovely because of her. So I only have fond memories of that.
For Moonstruck, I forget the audition for that, but I know we shot it up in Toronto, and I love Toronto. It was a really fun experience for me to go up there and do that, except we were shooting in December, and I only packed an unlined leather jacket. Of course, I get up there and it’s fucking freezing. So I ended up going to this cool little section of town, and you know how they say you should never go food shopping when you’re hungry? You probably shouldn’t go clothes shopping when you’re freezing. But I got this amazing coat that was in this little boutique. This woman had designed it and made it herself, and it was actually great. I still have it. I will never give it up. When Cher saw it, she said, “Oh my god, where did you get that?”
That [movie] was fun because, again, I’m playing this big character and I had been doing that already, coming from the theater. The movie was very operatic, so there was a place for me to use that bigger than life theater training there, and it wasn’t a problem at all. I think it just added to it.
I did actually have to pluck her eyebrows, but what they did so I wasn’t actually plucking her eyebrows was her makeup artist came in and glued separate little eyebrows into her brow so that those were the ones I was supposed to pull. He said, “Okay, it’s here and here and here,” and I was like “this one?” And he said, “No, not that one.” I said to Cher, “I just want to apologize ahead of time if I end up pulling hairs from one of your brows. I hope it’s not going to be bad.” She said, “Well, it’ll probably make me cry because I love my eyebrows.”
She was having a very hard time because she was going movie to movie. She had no break between that and the one before, and her boyfriend wasn’t there, and so that was a whole issue. But in the end, it was totally fine and it was a super fun experience to have, obviously.
To be in two iconic movies like that was pretty special. Then my agents just decided that I should be only on television, because they can make money easier that way, and and that’s what ended up happening. I mean, they literally stopped representing me for film. They did not really work at promoting me for film at all. And I think I probably could have done a whole lot more than I did, having had those two experiences in big, big movies, but that’s not the direction they were going, so…
Law & Order (1990)—“Defense Attorney Erica Stohlmeyer”
AA: It’s funny, when people think they recognize me, they’re like, “Wait a minute. How do I know you? Where did you go to high school?” and they go through this whole thing. Now I just cut to the chase and say, “I’m an actress. I’ve been in your living room, but we haven’t been introduced.” A lot of people say Law & Order is what they know me from, though it was only one episode and it was early, like right at the top of the series, with Michael Moriarty. It was the very first season.
I was living in New York, a few blocks away basically from where they shot it and. I remember being super pissed-off when I auditioned because I went in, and I’d fought my way down there. I walk in and I see there’s a lunch delivery guy behind me. I sat down and they’re like,”They’ll be with you in a little bit”. And then I have to wait for 15 minutes, and still when I go in, they’re actually eating lunch in front of me, which isn’t a good sign, really. I did [the lines] once and they said, “Look, can you do it a little less angry? “ and I was like, “I’m not entirely sure that I can.”
But yeah, it’s fun to be able to say, “Yep. I was in the very first season of Law & Order when it was just a baby show nobody knew.”
AVC: Maybe that’s why you’ve gotten so many roles as D.A.s and judges. People saw you there, and they just knew.
AA: Yeah, there is there is a road that you go down when you start out in in the legal field. You do a defense attorney and then you’re an A.D.A and then maybe you’re going to be a D.A. and then eventually, at a certain age, you become a judge for the rest of your life. You are the judge as long as you can remember five lines or can glance down at the desk in front of you and and see them without anybody noticing.
It’s not a bad job. The biggest problem with being a judge is those black robes can be problematic for women because sometimes they have trouble lighting you. So I have gotten very good at spreading white papers out in front of me on my desk so that they reflect properly.
AVC: That’s the stuff you have to know as a TV judge.
AA: Yeah, well, just in general, I’ve had to do a little bit of that. I had to do a little of that with Bosch because I was the only woman of a certain age on that show. So I had to do my own lighting some of the time. The real challenges of working when you’re older.
But look, the fact is, because I’m a character actor, it’s not nearly as hard for me as it would be for a lot of women who were always hired for their beauty. There’s a very specific standard for beauty, and that’s very, very hard. I’m not nearly as subject to that as they are because nobody was ever hiring me because I was gorgeous, and that’s just fine.