The Wildest of the 'Three'
Actress Julie Bowen is having just a little trouble distancing herself from Amanda Webb, the tough former con artist she plays on the new Warner Brothers series Three. "I just got back to L.A. after filming thirteen episodes in Vancouver, and I had to deal with the phone company," she growls. "Amanda would deal with the phone company with a large gun. Trust me, this morning I wished I was Amanda!"
Bowen, who seems to share Amanda Webb's vivacious, no-nonsense attitude, doesn't sound as much like "a ballsy, tough chick" as she describes her character - the Ivy League-educated actress majored in Italian Renaissance studies, and claims to be a bookworm. "I have really enjoyed playing Amanda, she's a very passionate person," says Bowen. "It's been strange to come back. After six months, it is a little weird not to just be able to say, 'Do what I want' all the time - that's what she would do!"
Three follows the adventures of a trio of former criminals - a jewel thief, a hacker, and a grifter - who are unwillingly recruited to work for a secret organization whose agenda is not clear to them. Amanda has the darkest past of the group: she doesn't have a family, and was abused as a child. Bowen considers herself fortunate to have gotten such a role, "instead of just being some chick on an action show," and says the bleak backstory gave her ways to motivate her character's angry behavior.
"Sex is one of Amanda's greatest weapons," the actress points out. "Luckily, she's written in such a way that they've justified that - often people who are abused as children, who are sexualized young, do feel that they have to use their sexuality, so it's not that she's somebody who gets off on wearing push-up bras." One review said that Bowen wasn't femme enough to play a femme fatale, which she took as a compliment: "I am more tomboyish than sexpot-ish," she agrees. "The way the character was written, they could have cast a really curvy model, and it would have worked. They were more concerned with finding somebody who could play the character."
Because Amanda dons disguises in her line of work, the role called for quite a bit of range - in one episode she impersonates a schoolteacher, while in another, she pretends to be a rich, bitchy society lady. "I had the most fun with Amanda when she goes undercover, which she does a fair amount, and she gets to wear wigs and funny hats," says Bowen gleefully. "It was great to get to do those different things, branch out a little, because Amanda herself, as much as I love her, is a pain in the butt! She's not the nicest person. Sometimes you get a little exhausted continually being the snotty one."
While the pilot emphasized action and violence to sell the series, subsequent episodes focus more on the character interactions: "They have to keep a certain amount of tension in it in order to keep it interesting, but the tension becomes more about the way we relate to each other." The producers did not want Three to become a Prisoner-like series about people trying to escape from the organization, so the struggle shifted more to stories about the protagonists - three characters who are not ready to trust anybody, yet who have to work together.
Though Amanda Webb was recruited in part for her martial arts skills, Bowen has little martial arts training, and laughs when asked whether she does all of her own stunts. "The actors who say they do all their own stunts - they're lying!" she exclaims. "For insurance purposes, you're not allowed to do all your own stunts. Yes, I fired the guns, and I did some crazy jumping off things that were relatively dangerous. But when it comes to getting hit by a car, they're not going to let me." Stunt work requires training which the actors don't have time for on the job, and "sometimes it goes awry - you can't risk ending up with your actors face down on the pavement."
Bowen was given some fight coaching for the pilot, but admits that she hasn't put in the time and training to do such scenes well. "They used a double in one part, but I've become much more the 'gun gal' than the martial arts expert," she notes. "They did want somebody who was relatively athletic, and I think they knew I have the stamina to learn things." A former regular on the short-lived ABC series Extreme, Bowen says that her acting is "not that method-y," which wouldn't work on a show with this much action, anyway. "There's so much going on that you have to pay attention - it can be dangerous, when you're carrying guns and running along the street with cars coming at you, to be lost in character."
Surprisingly, since the success of the show hinges largely on the kinship between the lead characters, the three did not audition together and had never met until they were all cast. Bowen calls the chemistry "fortuitous," adding, "It's the most mindboggling thing - within thirty seconds of meeting one another, Bumper, Edward, and I were pinching, hugging, laughing like brothers and sisters. If there's a problem on the set, it's that we have too much fun - it doesn't feel like work a lot of the time."
The 5'6" actress does have to do some work her costars are spared. "To quote Ginger Rogers, I have to do everything they do backwards and in four-inch heels," she laughs. "Trust me, they are so tired of hearing me say that every time we're running down an alley! They're in sneakers or street shoes, and I look at them and say, 'Try these!' The way I dress in my own life is not at all like that, I'm very schlumpy." She 'babed out' for the audition, wearing a tiny little skirt, but says, "I'm the first to admit, I stuff my bra. It's all about make-believe. I'm not going to have an operation and alter my body to be Amanda or to be anybody."
In general, Bowen says the treatment of women on her series is terrific, both in terms of the characterization and the treatment of the actors. "I was shocked when I found out that we were all being paid the same - I just assumed that the boys would make more than I did, and I was sort of surprised by my own reaction," she admits. "You're so used in this business to pulling in a smaller check, especially in action shows. But I'm extraordinarily grateful to be making a living doing this at all." Of television work in general, she says, "it's much steadier, it's lucrative, there are more opportunities for women," noting that in films, there are generally ten roles for men to one for a woman, usually "the chick, the wife or daughter or the girlfriend. You're in a very special position if you're like Winona Ryder and can ignore TV altogether."
Bowen's family expected her older sister to become an actress while Julie, the middle daughter, thought about becoming an artist. "Ever since I was a kid, we were putting on plays in the backyard, though I had gone through usual teenage insecurities about putting myself out there," she recalls. Though she did not have a lot of formal theater training despite being head of the drama club in high school, she found that she missed acting during a year as an exchange student from Brown University which she spent in Italy. Before she finished college, Bowen made an independent film, Five Spot Jewel, which got her an agent.
At that point, Bowen realized she'd better get some goods to bring to the table, so she moved to New York to study. "People say, how can you go from an ivory tower existence to this - and I say, I waited tables for two years - that will wipe academia right out of you!" she laughs. For three years she took classes, and spent the summers at Shakespeare festivals in Oxford, England and Lowell, Massachusetts.
Her increasing interest in performing caused some tension with her sister, who was drifting away from acting. "She was not happy with what she considered the commercialization of the great love of her life," Bowen believes. "She was much more of a pure artist, doing cockroach theater because she loved it and she was good at it; she hated the process of getting babed up and going into a roomful of guys and selling herself. So she stopped, which I respect enormously - I don't necessarily like that either, but I love working at this so much that if that's part of the process, then I don't think about it a whole lot."
She jokes about job drawbacks such as the prosthetic makeup she wore for her most prominent film role, Amy in An American Werewolf in Paris. "I'd go to work at 3:30 in the morning for a 9 o'clock call," she remembers. "The makeup guys were very funny and very sympathetic - there are times when you're sitting in the chair, and you're fine, and then all of a sudden you have an attack of, 'Oh my god, I can't sit for another minute!' and you have to jump around." The acting was extremely difficult because of the nearly-opaque contact lenses: "You're just praying that you're going to hit your mark and say your line at the right time. It is definitely a challenge. I was very impressed with Vincent D'Onofrio in Men in Black, because he was actually acting, doing a full character in all that makeup."
Bowen had to fast-forward through much of the prequel, An American Werewolf in London, because scary movies terrify her. "Movies transport me, I completely throw myself in, so I scream for Jesus!" Even in parts of her own movie, such as the scenes in the graveyard where her character gets killed, "they had this big puppet - the big stuffed werewolf - and there was one point where I had my eyes closed, and I opened my eyes and there was this big monster over me. I got the willies! But when I saw the film, I got the giggles more than anything, because I remember having all the fun while shooting it."
The actress enjoys both the darkness and the humor of Three. Of any current show, she says she would most like to be on Millennium, which also films in Vancouver. "I love that show, I love Lance Henriksen, I love how dark he is." She enjoys watching Chicago Hope: "Of all of those kind of medical/legal shows, the writing on that one is flawless and the characters are great." But she would also like to try situation comedy, which she has never done. "It's really hard! Nothing scares me more. But I was very pleased with the fact that, as the season progressed with Amanda, they wanted more lightness, more humor."
Bowen believes that in the long run, she might make a good director, "because I'm really bossy and whenever I'm on a set I see better ways to do things." But right now her emphasis is on acting, about which she says she still has a great deal to learn. She loved working with David Warner on Three, and adds that in general she prefers working with experienced actors. "The stories they tell during the down time, and what they bring to the scenes - they always seem to be doing nothing, and then you watch it and say, 'Oh my god, I look like the biggest hack over-actor and this guy's so subtle and so good!'"
The actress believes she needs to learn to pace her performances. "I have an overabundance of energy, and I have to learn to settle down - the older actors have the ability to be still." For Amanda Webb, however, that energy translates as spiritedness, and it's hard to imagine anyone with less verve or passion playing the role.