By Ian Spelling, New York Times Special Features
Amy Brenneman likes to live dangerously.
She once called Robert De Niro a "goober" in an
interview. And she lived to tell about it.
"It either didn't bother him or it really did, because he
never said anything to me about it," says Brenneman,
who acted with De Niro in Heat (1995), with a mischievous
giggle. "I called him all sorts of things on the set,
As that anecdote suggests, the former NYPD Blue star
tends to speak her mind. So it almost feels like
typecasting that her latest project casts her as a
And Brenneman herself created her new television series,
Judging Amy, which runs on CBS.
"I've always said whatever I want to say," the 34-year-old
Brenneman says by telephone from her trailer on the Los
Angeles set of Judging Amy. "I've started to realize,
though, that when people are listening to you it's a whole
"Some people listen to actors," she adds, "but everybody
has to listen to a judge. You have to parcel out your
comments a little bit, be more careful and pretend to be a
grown-up at times."
Brenneman, she of the big eyes and cascading curls of
hair, grew up in Hartford, Conn., with a father who's a
lawyer and a mother who is - believe it or not - a
As a kid, Brenneman often watched her mother work. But
it wasn't until three years ago, when the actress spent a
few days in her mother's courtroom, that Judging Amy
sprang to mind.
She hooked up with writer/producer Barbara Hall and,
much to everyone's surprise, the show sped from notion
to reality in record time.
No one was more thrilled than Frederica Brenneman,
"I think I've trained my mom not to get her hopes up about
anything I do out here," Brenneman says. "You don't get
everything you want, and when you get something it
doesn't always work out.
"When I told her about Judging Amy, she thought it was a
wonderful idea," she adds. "I said, 'I don't know if I can
sell the idea,' and it sold. I said, 'I don't know if it'll get
picked up,' and it got picked up.
"She can't quite believe it's true, but she's happy that the
kinds of stories we're planning to tell, about the court
system, about being a judge, about families, will be told."
Brenneman stars as Amy Gray, a single mother who
relocates from New York to Hartford, moves in with her
often-imperious mother (Tyne Daly) and offbeat brother
(Dan Futterman), and lands a job as a judge in a juvenile
And no, she insists that the show isn't as
autobiographical as it may sound.
"It doesn't go excessively into Brenneman family secrets -
otherwise I wouldn't be welcome home for the holidays,"
says Brenneman, whose parents are still married after 48
years and who lives in Los Angeles with her husband,
director Brad Silberling. "It's really more about the people
I met in my mother's court, the probation officers, the
social workers and the attorneys general. I was just really
touched by them.
"I thought of that when we developed the show," she
recalls, "and also the fact that I am the daughter of a very
powerful woman. We've come far enough in Hollywood to
have a strong female lead, but how about two? What
happens when there are two?
"So we fictionalized the story, found Tyne Daly, who is
wonderful and definitely not a shrinking violet, and here
And where is here? What will audiences see on a weekly
"We have a tone on the show that I've never seen on
television before," Brenneman says. "We've got a bunch
of overly educated, somewhat neurotic people trying to
do their best, and trying to do their best in a family setting
and a professional setting.
"About half the time, you'll see the work venue, with cases
that involve neglect, delinquency and families coming
together and apart," she adds. "The other half of the show
will be on the home front, with me dealing with my mother,
my daughter and my siblings.
"There's a lot of verbal sparring between all of these
people, so there's a lot of drama and some very funny,
very real moments."
Unlike many of her peers, Brenneman draws no
distinction between acting venues, insisting that she goes
"where the good parts are, be they on television, film or
the stage." Her big-screen credits include Bye Bye Love
(1995), Casper (1995), Daylight (1996), Your Friends and
Neighbors (1998) and The Suburbans, an ensemble
comedy set for limited release on Friday.
"It's a cool movie," Brenneman says enthusiastically of
The Suburbans. "Jennifer Love Hewitt plays this very
scary, young, MTV-generation music exec whose bosses
are Ben and Jerry Stiller.
"She decides it would be kitschy to have this
one-hit-wonder band from the 1980s reconvene in the
1990s," Brenneman continues, "and they do. I play the
girlfriend of the main guy (director/co-writer Donal
Lardner Ward), and I've been with him since the
"I'm sort of the Yoko Ono character, because I'm very
doubting of the whole thing. I don't trust Jennifer Love
Hewitt - and with good reason."
"I love the character," she says, "and we had such a good
time making it. I ruined a lot of takes just laughing."
The double-header of Judging Amy and The Suburbans
might very well put Brenneman back in the glare of the
spotlight, just as she was when NYPD Blue blasted out of
the gate in 1993, propelled in part by Brenneman's sexy,
sizzling chemistry with David Caruso.
If it happens again, great, the actress says - she's ready
"I was ready the first time, too, because I got a reflected
light of the hype," she says. "It wasn't focused so much
on me. I was on this intensely popular show, and I got a
nice, big bump out of it, but it never got to a scary point
"I've had a number of moments in my career where
people said, 'This is going to change your life,' and
nothing has ever really changed my life," the actress
adds. "I don't know if that's because I'm stubborn,
ignoring it or just not that famous.
"Lovely things have come out of my moments," she says.
"I've gotten better and better work opportunities. I met my
husband. I can pay my bills."
This time around, however, one thing is different:
Brenneman is throwing the party.
"I feel like a parent now, whereas on NYPD Blue I was the
child," she says. "I had a great time, but the dads ran the
show, and I trusted them and loved them.
"On Judging Amy I'm one of the parents, and my
perspective is totally different."
Brenneman stops to collect her thoughts.
"I'm very happy, very pleased," she says. "I have a lot of
friends whose fame has overtaken the joy. The
pain-in-the-ass factor becomes bigger than the joy factor.
"I get to have a lot of fun and still be anonymous enough,"
the actress concludes. "That may change. Right now, I
get a little bit of the glamour and get to do the work I like
and want to do."