Role Recall: Amy Brenneman Talks 'The Leftovers,' 'Private Practice' Babies, and That Famous 'NYPD Blue' Nude Scene

Amy Brenneman in 'The Leftovers'
Amy Brenneman in 'The Leftovers'

The Leftovers star Amy Brenneman is fine with the fact that you don’t need to watch more than the NYPD Blue pilot to know that her first big TV role, the one for which she earned two Emmy nominations, was quite revealing.

But she says that controversial nude love scene between her Janice Licalsi and David Caruso’s John Kelly in the 1993 series premiere was nothing compared to what was left on the cutting room floor.

“The love scene stuff was interesting,” Brenneman, who “had been playing St. Joan at Yale Rep in February and then in March I was naked in Hollywood,” tells Yahoo TV. “Coming from an experimental theater, half of my twenties I was naked on stage. The nakedness didn’t freak me out that much, although we shot that scene for like a day and a half. We overshot it, as you do, but we especially overshot this one because they were going to really push the network.

"A lot was shown, but then there’s a ton of stuff [still] out there that I think must be on Swedish television somewhere,” she says with a laugh. “Like, where is that stuff? There’s a lot more stuff than they could show. But it was a very intense and wonderful time. I met my husband [director/producer Brad Silberling] on that show, and I always think that was the beginning of my life in California, which has been a wonderful one. It was an awesome role. Michael Mann [who directed her in Heat] wanted to meet me because of that. It was a really great calling card.”

After several more memorable TV series — including Judging Amy, the show inspired by her mother, Frederica Brenneman, a retired superior court judge in Connecticut — Brenneman is now front and center (and silent) as The Leftovers’s Laurie Garvey, a woman who left her husband and children behind to join the cult-like Guilty Remnant after the Sudden Departure mass disappearance that is at the center of the HBO drama.

[Related: ‘The Leftovers’ Star Carrie Coon Talks Nora’s Gunplay and Couch Dancing, Plus 'Gone Girl’ and Getting Married in a Hospital]

Brenneman says she was looking for a great cable drama role after Private Practice ended its six-season run on ABC in 2013, and when she met with The Leftovers series co-creator Damon Lindelof, they had an instant connection. “He’s like my brother from another time,” she says of the Lost Emmy winner.

Tom Perrotta, Liv Tyler, Justin Theroux, Amy Brenneman, and Damon Lindelof
Tom Perrotta, Liv Tyler, Justin Theroux, Amy Brenneman, and Damon Lindelof

"We did the table read last year in New York, and Damon said to me, ‘Let’s walk around Central Park.’ We walked around for about two and a half hours. We spun Laurie’s backstory, and it was the most fun ever. He just sort of acknowledged that OK, now that we have the people embodying these characters, let’s write to them. That’s how [Private Practice creator] Shonda Rimes works, too, which I also love.”

Much of the storyline and character motivations on The Leftovers remains a mystery, though Brenneman assures viewers will definitely have a better handle on Laurie by the end of Season 1’s 10 episodes. And in honor of Sunday’s newest installment — which features some new developments for Laurie — the actress went through her tube résumé with Yahoo TV and shared memories of her favorite roles.

NYPD Blue (1993-94)

(On what she thinks became of Janice Licalsi, who was sentenced to jail time for manslaughter after she was blackmailed into committing crimes on behalf of the mob.)

"I think she’s probably dead in the gutter somewhere. No, I don’t know, because she was sent away. I think if Caruso hadn’t left, I might have… I was released from my contract, don’t get me wrong. But I think they might have brought me back as a recurring or something.”

(On great conversations she had with series co-creator David Milch.)

“I think in later years he wrote more on the fly, but I knew him as an extremely prepared person who had had these characters in his mind for a long time. And I had these great conversations with him, daily. As deep as you’d wanted to go, he’d go. It was never, ‘Just say the words.’ I studied religion in college, and I feel not only was it a great major, but it really did set up this way of thinking for me, where I think in terms of, ‘What does heaven look like for this person? And what is hell, and what is their moral code?’ Questions that were so applicable to NYPD Blue, and I treasure the conversations I had with David, because he was always up for it, and I always learned stuff from him.”

Frasier (1998-99)

(In which she played lawyer-turned-pastry chef Faye Moskowitz, a Frasier Crane love interest.)

"I don’t remember much about how I got [the role], although the minute I got there, I thought, ‘This is fantastic!’ That was when I was developing what would become Judging Amy. I remember coming home to my husband and saying, ‘Brad, I made a mistake. I want to do comedy. This is so incredible.’ He was like, “Yeah, totally, it’s great, but you gotta know, these people are at the top of their game.’ Who they were, and how they worked together. Then the writing, especially on that first one [“Merry Christmas, Mrs. Moskowitz,” which won an Emmy for outstanding writing]…

Kelsey Grammar directed it, so it had a very fun, playful quality. Everyone involved with that show… and Kelsey and David, that they were incredibly sophisticated and totally goof balls, that’s just a delicious combo.”

Judging Amy (1999-2005)

(On what she thinks happened to Judge Amy, who ended the series by quitting her judge gig to run for the U.S. Senate.)

"I think she’s President! She was such a political person anyway. So that felt extremely organic to me. I see her as a Hillary Clinton, moving into different venues and different professions, if you will, all increasingly in a leadership position. That whole last storyline with the underaged girl who died in prison… Amy couldn’t support that system [any longer], so she had to try to change the system.”

(On whether or not she saw the potential of co-star Jim Parsons to become the multiple Emmy winner he has become on The Big Bang Theory.)

“I think I did. Jim is a very special person. I think if you’re around him for two seconds, not only is it his skill, but you also know he’s just a warm, deep, neat person. He’s one of those people… I read the other day that [the BBT cast] is making a million dollars an episode next season, and I’m like, that is awesome in every way. Not only is he great, but you want great things for him, because he’s just a wonderful person.”

See Parsons on Judging Amy:

Private Practice (2007-13)

"At times, for sure, it was emotionally exhausting playing Violet. The thing with Shonda is, she really has a talent for letting things steep. That whole situation with my belly being cut open and the baby being born, that was just the end of one season. Then we came into the next season, and pretty immediately, I gave the baby to the father, because I wasn’t ready to deal. I thought, ‘Alright, that will last a couple of episodes, and then I’ll reconnect with the baby… it wasn’t until the end of the season that was resolved, which was correct. That was tough, but yet not unrealistic. Shonda let it steep until it was kind of unbearable. That was hard also because I am a baby person, and in between takes I was canoodling with the baby, but then [Violet] couldn’t look at the baby, had a hard time looking at the baby. That was strange, that was uncomfortable.”

Reign (2014)

(For which she may return in Season 2 to play Mary’s Queen mama, Marie.)

"Honestly, they asked my friend Kate Walsh first, but she couldn’t do it because of her NBC commitment with Bad Judge. [Then they asked me] and I wanted to do it because I think it’s just an amazing combination of very popular entertainment, and history, and a bit of pretty exciting gender stuff. The men on the show have great roles, but the women… I play a woman who got to run Scotland, you know? It’s kind of fun, because of tradition and yet complete feminism at the same time.”

The Leftovers (2014)

Ann Dowd and Amy Brenneman in 'The Leftovers'
Ann Dowd and Amy Brenneman in 'The Leftovers'

(On portraying a character who doesn’t speak, and isn’t supposed to show any emotion.)

"We’re still figuring that out, and it’s still a challenge. I’m playing this woman who’s trying to adhere to this very tough, stoic life, in which part of the goal is to not demonstrate what you’re feeling. So I thought, ‘Wow. I don’t have lines, and now I’m being asked to not have full expression in my face.’ Then that evolved, and so Damon and I realized what you’re really watching is Laurie trying to do this and not succeeding particularly. You see this woman who’s filled with feeling trying not to show what she’s feeling. That is interesting.

(On whether or not she practiced her penmanship, since Laurie writes down everything she wants to communicate to others.)

"No, although I kind of should. On Twitter somebody said, ‘I couldn’t read it,’ and I had to explain what [I had written]. I thought, ‘I should work on my penmanship.’ We did, I think in the third episode, realize that we needed a Sharpie versus a ballpoint pen.”

[Related: 'The Leftovers’: The Familiar Faces You’ll See in HBO’s New Drama]

(On how people are most curious about why Laurie left her family to join the Guilty Remnant, and the show’s dark tone.)

“I think by the end of the season, you certainly have much more information than you had at the beginning. At the same time, especially if we are lucky enough to get a Season 2, I think where Damon is really masterful is not showing everything upfront. Because, a, that’s not very interesting storytelling and, b, that’s the way life is. In some ways, Season 1 is this incredibly intricate poem about grief. In Tom’s book, there’s more humor. I know HBO really wanted a certain intensity, I think partly that Game of Thrones, True Detective thing. I’m not saying that it wasn’t the right decision or that Tom and Damon didn’t decide to do that as well. At one point I said to Damon, genuinely, ‘Maybe Laurie is very happy with her choice. Maybe it was a struggle to join the GR, but it’s actually been the right choice for her, and there’s some sort of ease.’ Damon looked at me and he said, ‘No, I think she’s pretty much uncomfortable all the time.’”

The Leftovers airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on HBO.