All law enforcement, all the time. If it seems as if theres a
crime or courtroom scene on every channel, Amy
Brenneman cant complain. The law suits her. Or at least
it suits her television career. One of the original cast
members of the cop drama NYPD Blue, Brenneman
returned to prime time after five years to star in CBSs
surprise hit Judging Amy, which is based on her
mothers experience during three decades as a juvenile
court judge in Hartford, Connecticut.
Brenneman plays Judge Amy Gray, recently divorced
with a 6-year-old daughter. The two live with Amys
retired social-worker mother, Maxine, played by Tyne
Daly. We are meeting Amy Gray when things have fallen
apart, and she doesnt know why, says Brenneman.
She fell into this [judgeship]. This is where shes getting
reborn. The story of her rebirthas a judge, a mother
and a daughterresonates with working mothers,
daughters and maybe even a few husbands.
But even though she is the creator and executive
producer of the show, Amy Brenneman is no Amy Gray,
as a visit to the set this spring proves. In her trailer on the
Paramount lot in Los Angeles, the 35-year-old fuels up on
bottled water and handfuls of granola by candlelight.
Cartons of Chinese food go untouched. Theres Ani
DiFranco, Peter Gabriel and Elliott Smith in the CD player
and, stuck to the refrigerator, smiling pictures of her
husband, Brad Silberling, with whom she shares a
five-bedroom lodge-style house in L.A. (along with a
basset hound and a Labrador). Unlike the buttoned-up
and overwhelmed Amy she plays on TV, the real Amy is
opinionated, boisterous, confident, out there. [My
character] is hopeless in a certain way that Im not,
Brenneman says without hesitation. She doesnt have a
Her co-star Dan Futterman, who plays Amys skittish
brother Vincent Gray, a writer, sees another important
difference. Amy Brenneman is less prudish than Judge
Amy is. Shes more comfortable with crassness, which is
all to her credit, Futterman laughs. Ive never seen her
Listening to National Public Radio this afternoon,
Brenneman heard a report about a woman busted in
Ohio for taking naked photographs of her children.
Though she doesnt yet have children herself,
Brenneman is outraged. She took some pictures of her
10-year-old daughter in the shower and got arrested for
child pornography, she exclaims. Theyre talking about
taking her kids away. This, Brenneman knows, sails
right into the Judging Amy strike zone. The show
embraces controversial subjects and deals with them in
ways that dont underestimate the experience of its
viewers. A lot of people have been through custody
battles and figuring out money and visitation, says
Brenneman. A lot of people have been through
courtrooms like this. That familiarity can work for us.
The law runs in Brennemans family. Her mother,
Frederica, graduated from Radcliffe in 1947 and was one
of the first women to get a degree from Harvard Law
School, in 1953. She was appointed a juvenile court
judge in Connecticut in 1967, when Brenneman was 3.
Her father, Russell, also practiced law. Toddler Amy
attended her moms judicial swearing-in. The governor of
Connecticut was there. As was the entire Brenneman
family. Amy wore a sailor top, and for the commemorative
photograph, she looked straight into the camera and
made a silly face. I had this weird sense that I was
invisible, she recalls. This weird out-of-body moment
that has been captured for eternity.
Frederica Brenneman now serves as a Judging Amy
consultant. And an exacting one at that. Im a little
scared of her mom, Futterman admits. She comes to
readings and scowls, pretty much, and looks deeply,
deeply disturbed at what weve done with her life.
Brenneman was never drawn to the real legal world as
her parents and her brother Matthew, 39, who practices
corporate law in Maryland, were. (Another older brother,
Andy, makes interactive software.) At Harvard she
studied comparative religion and became a Buddhist.
Brenneman made the requisite under-grad trip to Nepal
and, like so many other actors and actresses, later took
classes with Robert Thurman, Uma Thurmans father, the
chairman of the religioun department at Columbia
University in New York and founder of Tibet House.
Brenneman saw a connection between religion and
theater. Liturgy felt like theater. Its theater with a
purpose. How do you lead people into a certain
meditative, cathartic state?
Also at Harvard, Brenneman founded the Cornerstone
Theater Group, which produced serious dramas and
traveled to small towns around the country to perform
them. Brenneman played Juliet to a black Romeo in
places such as Port Gibson, Mississippi. We had a
20-person gospel choir and original music. The first time
the white [actresses] saw me and Romeo embrace, they
s a banana. We had a whole bunch of white women
drop out. They said, Oh, its not us. Its our husbands.
Cornerstone still thrives today. Brenneman chairs its
board of directors.
If it seems as if Amy Brenneman likes to shake things up,
she does. At some point on her show, she wants to
pursue a homosexual story line. I have a girlfriend who I
want to come on, Brenneman announces with a big,
gleaming grin. Have us a little lesbian love affair.
Lesbianisms chic. No big deal.
As if to prove the point, when Futterman pokes his head
into her trailer, Brenneman fires off an impertinent
question: Are you going to have sex today?
Offscreen sex, Futterman reports.
You are! hoots Brenneman, banging five times on the
trailer door as Futterman retreats.
Brenneman famously became the first woman on
network TV to expose her butt, on the debut episode of
NYPD Blue. Her Blue character, detective Janice Licalsi,
consorted with the dour, disaffected David Caruso until
she offed two mobsters, which effectively ended her run
on that show. Brenneman met Brad Silberling when he
directed some of the series episodes. I always got
together with people I worked with, so it wasnt a big deal
for me, Brenneman explains matter-of-factly. Brad has
a better sense of morality than I do. The two were
married in 1995.
A tearful courtroom scene involving a custody battle over
a Serbo-Croatian boy finishes up on soundstage number
18. Brenneman slips off her black judges robe and
nuzzles the infant daughter of co-star Richard T. Jones,
who plays Judge Grays rock-solid courtroom aide.
Judging Amy being what it is, a recent episode found the
two smooching (if only in a dream sequence).
As Brenneman submits to a hairstylist, she discusses
Daly, her Emmy Award-winning co-star who has been
acting on stage and screen for almost 40 years. Tynes
the s, says Brenneman. In terms of TV mythology,
were both sort of known for not being female victims. We
dont carry that within us. Were both very fierce.
Brenneman is so fierce that she wanted to be Dennis
Franz on NYPD Blue. I wanted to have the lead. I wanted
to have what Dennis and [co-creator] David Milch have. I
wasnt going to be satisfied, on a certain level, as a girl
on that show. Pretty girl cops are a cliché at this point.
Theres a lot to overcome.
The decision for Brenneman to leave NYPD Blue was
made before Caruso departed to make movies.
Apparently the audience just couldnt deal with the fact
that I had killed people and was free, she says. I was
very sad to leave. It was not my choice. I was forced to go
have a movie career. A TV series is like a marriage. You
really cant do it unless youre ready to settle down. But
even though I was having a great time, I was curious
about what else was out there. I kind of wanted to have
So she did. In 1995s Heat, she played Robert De Niros
troubled girlfriend. She was Christina Riccis mother in
1994s Casper, Paul Reisers ex-wife [sic] in Bye Bye
Love and Aaron Eckharts frigid wife in 1998s Your
Friends and Neighbors before the new TV series came
along. This summer she appears in Things You Can Tell
Just by Looking at Her, an engaging story of the
intertwined lives of five women, played by Cameron Diaz,
Calista Flockhart, Glenn Close, Holly Hunter and
Her career has never been better. And yet this is a
moment when I can do things and all I want to do is take
big naps, she says. I have the ear of networks, but I
dont think like a mogul. I want to be interdisciplinary, but
I think about dropping out. Im very competitive in my
game, but the more Im in the game, sometimes I think,
just in terms of life balance, about dropping out. The
game is fine. The game is being played. And now its
Make sure you dont have a nervous breakdown and a
Her hairstylist finishes restoring the Brenneman cascade
of curls. She shrugs back into her judicial costume and
takes a seat on the bench. Some off-color jokes are told,
as they often are on the Judging Amy set, and
Brenneman has to try hard to muster her implacable
jurists face. Later tonight, shell get dolled up for an L.A.
awards ceremony. Then she and Silberling will enjoy a
quiet weekend together. Were not going off in these
wacky directions where the other cant follow, she says.
He was talking about directing a possible movie where
he would be in London for a year. That would be a trick,
Cause I aint goin anywhere, man.