In creating the new medical drama "Mercy" for NBC, writer Liz Heldens recalled a story that she heard on the radio during breakfast that sparked her creative juices. "I was kind of struck by a series they were doing on NPR," she said, "about returning veterans and their marriages and trying to keep a marriage together." Suddenly, she had two of the main characters of the show - married couple Veronica (Taylor Schilling) and Mike (Diego Klattenhoff). "I was really struck by what a difficult position both of these characters were in being swept up in history and swept up in this war."
Heldens recently spoke to our Jim Halterman on a press call about the series, as did co-star Schilling, who admitted to relating more than a little to the character of Veronica, who is not only from a blue collar background but has also just returned from fighting the war in Iraq. "I grew up in West Roxbury in Boston and my dad was, for most of that time, an assistant district attorney so he would always say he had the 'Law and Order' job where it was a lot of police officers and stuff and detectives and things like that around all the time. So the world that Mike and Veronica share and the world that Veronica has heard of... she's sort of seen beyond that world and she's seeing something new. I mean I get that, I really do; I feel like I understand the world that Mike and Veronica are living in."
Viewers saw the beginnings of a love triangle in last week's pilot when it's revealed that Veronica cheated on her husband during her tour in Iraq with a doctor (played by James Tupper) who has suddenly become her co-worker at Mercy Hospital. According to Heldens, she didn't want to make Veronica's husband merely the odd man out. "I really had a lot of sympathy for the character of Mike. I think it was really important to everybody that this triangle be a really fair fight and this guy absolutely has a point of view and [Mike is] not a perfect guy. He was unfaithful to Veronica [before she went off to war] but we really wanted to sort of represent his point of view and hopefully get you really invested in this marriage and make you really kind of root for these two people."
Was there any concern about how the audience will respond to a main character that is married and had an affair during her stint in the war? Schilling doesn't think the situation is that easily sized up. "What I was so struck by was this sort of triangle that Veronica is involved in. She was at war; she was in extreme situation where I think anybody is going to be kind of grasping at straws to find comfort and support and a way to get through the day and deal with these issues that are unbelievable. I would go so far as to say unimaginable for, I think, all of us [who] maybe haven't been deployed in a war zone. And so to look for comfort in another human being who understands her and supports her and makes her feel safe... that felt very honest to me and it felt really forgivable. It didn't feel like a morale issue it felt like a human issue. That's where it just really resonated for me. It's really hard to make it a black and white situation. It feels like there's a lot of gray in there."
Schilling also talked about how there are many parallels to her own life in playing Veronica on the freshman drama. "What is really cool about TV is that in getting these scripts, it feels kind of life-like. It's like I don't know what's going to happen in my life tomorrow as Taylor but I still know myself pretty well; I am me. But it's kind of cool because it's reflected in the process of TV. I understand Veronica and I get it but her path is unfolding as we go along. And it's kind of a great way to work as an actor. I'm kind of surprised by how conducive it is to doing the work. It's like it's a very pleasant way of working."
One thing Schilling knows about her character is that having Veronica be an Iraq war vet "gives her a different way of looking at the world," she said. "I think she carries with her perhaps a truth or a point of view that not only do the other nurses not share but not a lot of people share. I think that, you know, in our show she has another vet that she can kind of connect to sometimes and can understand her. But it's a way of being in the world I think that most people unless you've been there or experienced it's kind of like a trauma or an event like that don't understand."
Both Heldens and Schilling acknowledged that while there are several other medical dramas on television, they each seeing "Mercy" as taking a different approach to the genre. "For me what was interesting about this as a writer approaching the project was that it was a way to do a medical drama that was less about science and more about character," said Heldens. "It's like the nurses are the ones who sort of pick up the pieces after a diagnosis is made. It's the part that you usually don't see on television. And so for me it was just a way to do a medical show that was about people and emotions and not science."
Schilling agreed that the draw to the series is not the medical cases but "it seems like it's really about people. And it's hard to quantify in my mind... it is a medical show, it takes place in a hospital, but it's about people that I can relate to; real people kind of trying to get through their lives outside of work and inside of work. The hospital is obviously paramount in that's where their lives are taking place but it's more about the characters sort of navigating their lives, Veronica navigating her life."
Having just premiered and not knowing if the series will see a second season, Heldens has made a conscious decision to not look too far ahead. "I think we kind of think in batches of like three or four episodes and I think for me that's a good way to do it. And there's a few tent poles that we sort of know we're going to hit maybe at the end of the this season but when we talk about the second season it's sort of... I don't know... we're really focused on looking at this first season and letting the characters sort of find their way."
Asked about casting Schilling in the role of Veronica, Heldens said that it's the show that is reaping the rewards for having found the talented actress. "Taylor auditioned in New York on tape and we were reading people in LA. And I'd looked at her read and my husband looked at her read and we were looking at all kinds of people. And he kept going 'What about that girl in New York? What about that girl in New York?' So finally we were like 'Let's fly her in.' And then she just blew the doors off the audition. It was just really... she walked out of the room and we all looked at each other and it was over. It was just game over." In many ways, Heldens said, the show owes a lot to Schilling's take on the role. "She just found all these pieces and moments in the scenes that she was reading that I didn't even know were there," Heldens said. "I just think we wouldn't be where we are right now if it wasn't for her. She just has so much range and I really think that she's an actress who can go to some dark places with this character and people will follow her. And she's also just so facile with comedy. And I just... we were really, really lucky."
"Mercy" airs every Wednesday night at 8:00/7:00c on NBC.