Mary McCormack scratches her nose, illustrating a point about the kind of actress she never wanted to be.
In 1995, she worked on an episode of the short-lived CBS courtroom drama “The Wright Verdicts,” starring Tom Conti, and was chastised for making a similar move.
“I remember the director saying ‘Don’t touch your face! Why would you touch your face?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know. I just did it because it itched. It just didn’t occur to me not to scratch an itch!”’
She’s glad she didn’t take such advice, and has remained natural in her approach to acting rather than turning into “a scratchless, itchless, posey person.”
Dressed in jeans and a floppy pink blouse, McCormack certainly doesn’t project any sense of formality or pretense as she chats about her latest project, “Traffic: The Miniseries,” which airs on the USA Network beginning 9 p.m. ET Monday.
Inspired by Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 film “Traffic,” about the international drug trade, the miniseries uses a different group of characters to reveal not just the inner workings of heroin smuggling, but also how it’s linked with the trafficking of illegal immigrants, arms, and chemical and biological weapons.
McCormack plays Carole McKay, wife of a drug enforcement agent working in Afghanistan. Left home in Seattle, she has to cope not just with her teenage son’s flirtation with the local drug scene, but also the possibility that her husband has been corrupted.
McCormack likes the way the series doesn’t try to suggest solutions to the problems it exposes, yet brings the tragic consequences so close to home.
“It’s interesting that throughout the show, many characters say, ‘I’m just the middle man.’ Through our apathy we are all middle men — every time you hire someone to cut your lawn who you don’t pay benefits to, you are a middle man. We are all sort of responsible. I thought the show did a really amazing job in pointing out how we are all complicit.”
Shades of gray
McKay evolves from someone who trusts in simple truths to someone who understands greater complexities. “Gray is the most interesting color,” says McCormack.
Before signing on, she had a long conversation with producer-director Stephen Hopkins, whose previous work includes Fox’s “24,” spelling out her concerns about some things in the script that felt “a little wifey.”
“My antenna tends to go up for things that are a little pat,” she says.
Elias Koteas, actor who plays McKay’s husband, Mike, gives McCormack credit for “creating” a character much more complex than first written.
“Mary’s got a point of view. She’s vital ... She has great ideas. She worked really hard to get (the character) to what it became,” he says.
Acting is something “I just always did,” says the 34-year-old New Jersey native, whose first big part was as the little boy in a local production of “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” As an adult, she played Sally Bowles in the Broadway revival of “Cabaret.”
Her film credits include playing Howard Stern’s wife in “Private Parts,” Soderbergh’s “Full Frontal,” and the David Spade comedy “Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star.”
On TV she was attorney Justine Appleton on Steven Bochco’s drama “Murder One,” and most recently, political consultant Maggie Morris in HBO’s fact-and-fiction political series “K Street,” devised by George Clooney and Soderbergh.
“I loved it. I love working with Steven Soderbergh. I love improvisation,” she says.
She’s disappointed but not surprised that “K Street” ran only 10 episodes because she always knew it was “an experiment,” and that Soderbergh had always been philosophical about the outcome.
“He was like, you know, ‘They’ll get it, or they won’t,”’ she says. “He sort of likes the audience to have to work hard.”