A Chance at Redemption
From creator Nancy Miller, TNT's new drama, 'Saving Grace,' is about a cop's last chance at redemption and stars Holly Hunter.
Holly Hunter and the rest of the "Saving Grace" cast
In TNT’s new drama, "Saving Grace," Grace Hanadarko (Academy Award-winning actor Holly Hunter) is a hard-talking, fast-living police officer who unexpectedly meets her last-chance angel, the wise-cracking Earl (Leon Rippey of "Deadwood"), after a night of heavy drinking, when she accidentally kills a man while driving--and then begs for help from God to change her life. Earl offers a chance at redemption, but it won’t be an easy journey for either of them.
Creator Nancy Miller, a practicing Catholic, sees "Saving Grace" as her chance to explore the ways faith, religion, sin, and choices intersect with each other. Her faith sometimes complicated her work on the show, she tells Beliefnet, in an interview that also touched on the angels she sees living all around us, and her belief that God is a healer, not a rule enforcer.
Grace is an unusual character, a kind of a wild woman who is pushed into asking for redemption. How do you think viewers will to relate to her?
I hope that they're able to see pieces of themselves in her--the pieces that are questioning, that are afraid, that have been shattered and aren't put quite back together yet. I also hope that they relate to her joy of life, her love of her friends and her nephew, and of fun, [like] when she takes [her nephew] for a ride in the police car. So it's all of those different aspects of Grace that I hope people see and relate to.
You have said that Grace is the worst and best of us rolled into one character. What are those best and worst parts that can be found in all of us?
I think that probably wasn't a good thing to say, because there are a lot of people who are a lot worse than Grace. But it’s about when we're hurt, when we're hurt by someone who we trust, who we respect in everyday life. There's a moment in our first episode, a little moment that we all encounter in our lives: She opens a door for a guy, and the guy doesn't say thank you. And it's those little things that we experience everyday that make up our character.
And Grace’s character as a human being is very good. I would trust Grace with my life, without a doubt. But she has struggled. And we all have struggles. The happiest person in the world has struggled. And none of us are perfect. And people can judge. There’s so much judgment going on. And I just don't think that's what God's about.
What inspired you to come up with the idea for this character and this show?
I wanted to take a look at God, faith, religion, and sin through the eyes of a woman who has pieces of all of us in her. Originally I was developing [the character of Grace] as a TV reporter, and it was Michael Wright at TNT who said, "Let's make her a cop." And once I started working that way, it was just perfect because of what she sees every day.
I know that reporters also see horrendous things every day, but they're observers. And Grace is an active participant and has to talk to killers and act like she's their friend to get the information. So the world of police work and a woman struggling with belief, I just think it's perfect.
These are really heavy themes that are being tackled in a one-hour drama. What do you want viewers to take away from it?
We don't try to explain anything, because we don't have the answers. I think Earl doesn't have the answers. He's an employee of heaven and God--whatever you want to think. And I hope it's a fun ride, a fun, surprising, wild ride with some depth. And I think a lot of us have thought about God. If I had God sitting across from me, what would I ask him? That's the sort of thing that we want to explore. But we're not going to have any answers because we don't know. And that has to be enough.
How could life be a test if we had all the answers?
Exactly. And I think that's what God wants. We need him, and we're so weak. I think he just cracks up and cries at some of the stuff we do. I'm from Oklahoma City, and there's a statue across from the site of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building of Jesus. It's called “Jesus Wept.” And I love this statue because it's a statue of Jesus with his head in his hand. And his sadness and his pain at some of the choices that are made here--that just breaks his heart.
What role does that faith play in your own life?
I'm a practicing Catholic. And faith is very, very important to me. It was pounded in my head as a kid, and I hated it. And I sort of lost my way in my 20s and part of my 30s, and then found my way back. And I don't know what I'd do without it. It's huge in my life.
I also think religion can have humor. And I don't think it's sacrilegious. I don't think it's wrong to make fun of some of the stuff that we think and we do. And we don't ever want Earl, Grace’s angel, to preach. That's not his role. He doesn't have a rulebook that he's walking around enforcing. He's a healer. And I think that's what God is.
Earl is unlike most visions of angels typically seen on television. What made you decide to make him the way he is?
I said, "What would I want my angel to be?" And this is the kind of angel that I would listen to. I'm not going to listen to Michael Landon or Roma Downey. But I will listen to Earl. And other people will listen to Roma Downey and Michael Landon. But for me, I can relate to Earl. I can relate to an angel who chews tobacco, who’s kind of smartass. Some people won't be able to. But that's who Grace will respond to, and that's why Earl was picked for Grace.
Yes, I do. In our simple minds, we have to come up with stuff. And this is what my simple mind came up with--I think that there are angels who do reach out to us. I believe in God. I believe in miracles. I think anything is possible from that point of view.
Have you ever been visited by an angel?
Not like this. But I have angels surrounding me in my life who have helped me. And I think that they come from God, too.
Earl is Grace's angel, but he's also a last-chance angel to a condemned killer on the show. What led you develop that kind of a relationship?
When I was writing this, I didn't know that I would be doing this. Grace led me to [the character of the condemned killer, Leon Cooley]. Earl led me to him. It really just came through my fingers onto the page. I had not planned that. It felt so right because, of all the people in the world, Earl leads Grace to a condemned killer. How interesting is that? And [the condemned killer] is just as important to God as anyone else. But we don't say that. We just show it.
That brings up the idea of people who have done big wrongs. Do they also have a chance at redemption? What is the show trying to say about that?
I think we're trying to say that we don’t know those answers. And I'm not sure we should try to have a judgment about that. That's God's stuff. I don’t think we're trying to say anything except that maybe it’s possible--that the angel Earl, or God, wanted a cop and a killer together. And as we go through the show, in episode four you'll find out a little more about what's going on with Leon Cooley and Grace--and it kind of turns her world upside down.
It's all an exploration. It's not anything definite. We just examine and explore. And all of us working on this show have different spiritual beliefs. My faith sometimes gets in my way. We're doing an episode about an atheist, and my faith got in the way of that episode. Luckily, I have an atheist on staff to help.
How did you get past that?
My faith kept getting in the way of telling that story. And then I finally had to wrap my head around Earl, what Earl would think of this, and what God would think of this. I don't think God's worried about atheists. So our own beliefs are very interestingly played out on the show, as well.
And it's very important to me to not say one way is the right way. I'm a Catholic. But my Jewish friends--I know God loves them every much as he loves me. And who knows? At the end of the day, we may be the one that's wrong. So it's not my place to make blanket statements. [The writers of "Saving Grace"] all have our personal beliefs, but we're not trying to convince anybody. It's just, "Let's explore this. Let's examine this." Do you think this is a sin? Well, wait a minute. Why in the hell do you think God worries about that? It's that kind of stuff. And then you can make your own decision.
The real drama in "Saving Grace" seems to be centered on redemption. Do you have some sort of criteria for Grace’s redemption? What is she to be redeemed from?
I think she has to open her heart. And Grace's heart is open in a lot of ways, but it's closed in a lot of ways, as well. And I don't know if it's actions--things that she's got to do—to be redeemed, as much as Earl wants to heal her. And we all need healing, to figure out our own way in life.
Was Holly Hunter your first choice for "Grace"? She really fits the role.
She was on a wish list, and none of us thought it would ever come true. We sent her the script on a Thursday, and we found out on Monday that she was interested. It was simply amazing.
It’s been reported that each episode has a biblical theme to it. Tell us more about that.
Some of the episodes do. Like, in our first episode, it’s the story of Cain and Abel--hopefully in a surprising way. But not every episode will have a specific biblical theme. Some episodes we wanted to base on the Qur’an, some on the Torah. But, it's interesting—there are so many similarities between all the scriptures [of these religions].
The backdrop of this show is also very interesting--it takes place right in the Bible belt, in Oklahoma City. That's where you're from, right?
Yes, and that was deliberate. I wanted this character to be surrounded by people who believe in God. Sometimes, it creates friction. In Oklahoma City, you see more American flags. You see more of that patriotism. And that's where I wanted this character. I know that city. I love Oklahoma City. The bombing is a big part of its character. And I also think Hollywood ignores that part of the country. They call them the flyover states. And that just makes me mad. I'm tired of stuff set in New York and Hollywood. There's more to the world than that.
What will be the hallmarks of success for this show? How will you know when you’ve accomplished what you set out to with this show?
There are two sorts of layers to that. There's a very personal layer. And then I'll know that it's a success if people enjoy it if they talk about it. I hope God gets a kick out of it.
Interview by Dilshad D. Ali