Lexi Van Valkenburgh


Asking Amy

Amy Brenneman talks new projects and old memories on the Island.

Actress and producer Amy Brenneman has found her Island groove. During the busiest seasons of her career – creating memorable roles on beloved TV shows, from NYPD Blue to The Leftovers, Shonda Rhimes’ Private Practice, and her own executive-produced show, Judging Amy – she wasn’t always able to clock in as much Island time as she would have liked. But in the face of recent personal and global shifts, Brenneman and her husband, director and screenwriter Brad Silberling, are spending more time at their West Tisbury residence.

Here, she talks to Martha’s Vineyard Magazine about her decidedly un-professional childhood, her latest turn opposite Jeff Bridges in FX’s new hit series The Old Man, and how, after decades of putting down roots, the Island is now the place her heart calls home.

MVM: You were raised in Connecticut, went to college in Cambridge, and have lived for many years in Los Angeles. When did your Island story begin?

Amy Brenneman: My husband, Brad, actually has the more interesting origin story. I grew up in Connecticut; my parents didn’t have a second home or anything like that. But Brad, when he was eleven or twelve growing up in L.A., saw the opening day of Jaws. He didn’t know yet he wanted to be a filmmaker, but was deeply affected by that movie; it made him say, “I want to do that. I want to make people feel this way.”

Years later, part of how he wooed me when we got together was by bringing me here and giving me the Jaws tour.

MVM: It must have been a good tour. But it wasn’t until much later that you decided to buy a home here?

AB: We bought our first home here in Chilmark in 2000. I was seven months pregnant at the time and shooting Judging Amy. Brad wanted me to fly out to see the house. I said, “It just doesn’t make sense. We only get two or three weeks off a year, why don’t we just keep renting?” And he said, “When it’s midnight on a soundstage we’ll have this place to think about. This place is just going to live in our hearts.” And it turned out to be true.

MVM: Your parents were lawyers; your mom was a Connecticut state superior court judge and the inspiration for your character in Judging Amy. What did they think of you becoming an actress?

AB: I came to acting by being cast in a local production of The Music Man at eleven years old. As soon as I got on the stage, it felt like being home. My household was about as far from “pre-professional” as you can get. During Judging Amy we would see lots of kids coming through, and parents would always ask me how to get their kids into acting. Should they get a headshot and an agent? And I would always be like: “Do a play.” It was just an extracurricular activity that I loved.

In my house there was no way I wasn’t going to college – if I had said I’m moving to New York to find an agent? No way. So I went to Harvard, the one college where you can’t major in theater. Nobody told us how to do it, and there was something to that. Nobody told us how to do Brecht or Chekhov, we just did it. It was the sort of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind thing.

MVM: You and a group of Harvard collaborators founded a theater company, Cornerstone, which has been traveling and performing in marginalized communities since 1986. How did you get from theater to TV?

AB: I had no real interest in TV or film or the industry. I wanted what I still want, which is to create with other people. I’m a deeply collaborative person; I get lonely creating by myself, and I want to create things with some sort of social impact.

But I didn’t care about being a movie star or producer – I didn’t even know what that was. I was twenty-seven or twenty-eight before I got my first headshot. I’d come to New York after college and was trying to do theater, but I immediately started getting noticed for TV stuff. I was only there a year before I got NYPD Blue, which was a real game-changer. So, I sort of eased myself and my family into the idea that acting might be a permanent situation.

MVM: You seem to be just as involved in the causes you support – reproductive and women’s rights, for example – as you are in your career. Your latest project, The Old Man, is a critically acclaimed, nail-biter spy thriller series starring Jeff Bridges as a former CIA agent on the run – on the surface, at least: hyper-masculine stuff. What drew you to this project?

AB: Well, I’ve had a crush on Jeff Bridges for decades, and Jeff and [show creator] Jon Steinberg were already attached, and I knew that they were both these fully spiritually and intellectually present men. But there was a part of me that was a little bit worried, wondering: what are the women doing in this show?

I started thinking about another movie I had done a long time ago, Heat, which I was thrilled to get at the time and it’s a great movie and it’s Robert De Niro, so…but there’s this one scene where, as [De Niro’s one-night-stand love interest] Eady, I’m literally given no words. I just sort of fold into him. And at the time, the feminist in me couldn’t bear it.

MVM: And you wanted things to be different for your character in The Old Man, Zoe?

AB: I sat down with Jon and Jeff and they heard me and they said, “No, no, we’ve already talked about this, and we’re thinking about Zoe as being Eady evolved. Evolved not just in the culture, but also twenty years later in her own life.” Once I heard that, I was all in.

MVM: You’re active in the Island arts scene, performing at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse and The Yard. How does the Vineyard inspire you creatively?

AB: While I was doing Judging Amy and Private Practice, I’d have to work in the summer, so we’d come for a few weeks in May and June. It was all about dropping out and resting up. Then our schedules shifted. Now, The Yard is an incredibly important place to me. In 2010 I had a solo show there, Mouth Wide Open; it was a transformative experience for me. All these art makers come to the Island in July and August. Just like the insects and the birds in New England, we get these few months. My body reacts here; it’s like chemistry. Parts of my creative psyche get really playful here. It’s been a deeply creative place.