For any fan of the Law & Order franchise will attest that Assistant Chief Medical Examiner Elizabeth Rogers, played by noted actress Leslie Hendrix, is one of those characters you always look forward to seeing. Roger's bedside manner may, on the surface at least, be a little gruff but audiences are always drawn to her dry wit, intelligence and compassion. As well as being the longest recurring character on Law & Order Elizabeth Roger's is also one of only 5 characters to appear in all four of the New York based Law & Order shows.
Away from Law & Order Leslie Hendrix has had a stellar career in theatre and appeared as Kathryn in the TV series Gotham.
Hello Leslie, it's great to talk with you, how have you been keeping during these strange times?
Ooh, that's a loaded question, lol. It's been a mixed bag, how I've been doing during the pandemic, especially in that first nightmare year. I've got an underlying health condition, so we mainly hunkered down and were epically safe. Like, EPICALLY. I'm an introvert by nature and so is my husband, so hanging out in our apartment and keeping away from folks wasn't such a stretch---but too much isolation can affect even the most hardcore hermit, so there were times when I wept from missing my loved ones. I also wept when I got my vax, but those were tears of gratitude and relief. What scientists and researchers have done is damned near miraculous, and I bow low unto all of them.
Did this time offer you any new inspiration or opportunities to take up some long-dormant hobbies?
I didn't take up any new or old hobbies, but what I DID do was tackle the anxiety I've experienced all of my life head-on and WORK on it; I have Generalised Anxiety Disorder, and under "normal" circumstances I'm cool---or at least cool-ish, but then Covid roared in and said, "Hold my beer" to all my old catastrophizing, lol. It was really affecting my well being in a terrible way, so I took the bull by the horns and began searching out lots of different tools to use on my own, and finally found a therapist who specializes in it. The difference in my life compared to a year ago is profound, and I highly recommend seeking help if any of your readers struggle with it. There's such FREEDOM to be had, if you're willing to do the work and, yes, tolerate some discomfort in order to come out the other side. There's a lot of shame and self-judgement attached to anxiety ("How can I be 61 years old and STILL freaking out over stuff?" etc), which is completely useless and unhelpful; I think one positive thing to come out of the pandemic has been people's willingness to speak about their struggles and to finally bring the whole issue of mental health into the light.
One of your most iconic roles is as Law & Order's Medical Examiner Dr Elizabeth Rogers, when you got the role did you imagine it would lead to over 200 episodes across 4 incarnations and 1 TV movie of the Law & Order franchise?
Ah, dear old cranky Rodgers, lol. How I love her. When I got that role, I had ZERO ideas it would last as long as it did; I thought I'd do one episode and that would be it. A month or two later, my agent called to let me know she was in yet another script, and 19 years later, she was still slicing and dicing. What a GIFT of a cool part-time job THAT turned out to be! I loved going to work on all the shows, getting to work with so many fabulous actors. I remember seeing Jerry Orbach in Chicago when it toured; I think I was 13 at the time. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I'd someday be trading quips on a tv set with him, and grow to love him. I adored him. Life can be so trippy.
How did you go about your research into the mindset of a Medical Examiner?
I was fortunate that we had a consultant from the M.E's office on set, and if I had particular questions, I'd simply ask him. Everything from the nuts and bolts of the actual work, to the emotional/mental aspects of the job. How do you do your job and not bring it home? How do you manage to keep from becoming hard and unfeeling, and yet not let the endless parade of death affect you too much on an emotional level and send you into a permanent depression? At one point, a few years into the series, I took him up on his offer to let me observe an autopsy. I didn't get grossed out or freaked out, I just found it utterly fascinating. I'd actually learned just enough on set that I could guess WHY a couple of autopsies that I saw there were being performed and what the physical signs of an "unnatural" death were. It was actually a profound experience; up until that point, I'd never actually seen a dead body that hadn't been prettied up for a funeral, and what struck me most deeply was that our bodies really are just these containers that our souls inhabit. These folks' souls had flown, and it had a great impact on me.
"It was a fast gig; I literally flew in one day, shot the scene the next, then flew home to NYC the next day. "
For me it is the medical jargon that Roger's always delivered with crystal clear clarity that is incredible authoritative, how did you make it seem so effortless and as an actor did you have any tricks for remembering all the medical terms?
Rodgers' medspeak was, funny enough, something that came fairly easily to me. I think my past training in Shakespeare helped a lot, believe it or not, plus the fact that in my junior year of high school, I had to take a Latin class. Ugh, what a drag, right? It wound up serving me VERY well in the end, lol. When I'd get a script and see the latest mouthful I'd have to spout, I immediately went to Google (thank God for Google, man) and got the definitions and the pronunciations, so I'd know what the hell I was talking about and could make sense of it--and I knew how important it was for the AUDIENCE to grasp what I was talking about. When I'd have trouble with it on set, it was usually because I'd have to be performing some other physical actions and hitting my marks for the camera; it's one thing to be able to rattle off a lot of medical terms sitting in your living room, but when you add crossing to the sink and washing your hands, hitting your marks, etc? Sometimes it could make me stumble a bit. Most of the time, however, the lines I'd flub would be "normal human talk," much to my chagrin.
Do you have a favourite episode or exchange from the Law & Order series?
My favourite exchange with any of the actors on any of the shows has to be the "free javelins" line. Hands down. I tell Jerry and Jesse Martin that I have to go pull a javelin out of some guy's chest, and Jerry asks what made me decide to pursue this line of work. "Free javelins." That line deserves a chef's kiss. It's difficult to pick out favourite scenes, because there were so many--for me, the experience of being Jerry's secret pretend girlfriend on the Mothership, and then getting Eric Bogosian as my second pretend boyfriend on Criminal Intent made my doggone heart sing. (Boy, did Rodgers have bad luck in the relationship department.) Getting to work with them and Vincent D'Onofrio and Chris Noth and Katy Erbe and Julianne Nicholson and and and..hard to pick a favourite scene. But certainly, every time I got to swat a detective's hand away from a body in the morgue made me happy, lol.
Is there a possibility that Dr Rodgers will be returning to the Law & Order reboot?
I sure hope so---I'd love to take the old girl out for another spin. If she does show up, I hope she has her old dry, deadpan manner that I loved playing so much.
In one of the strangest (and funniest) episodes of Community you played a Botanist akin to your medical examiner role in Law & Order, it's not often an actor gets the opportunity to have a little bit of fun like this, what was this experience like and would it be something you would do again?
In a heartbeat. Community was SUCH a good show, and when I was asked to fly out to L.A. to shoot that scene, I was tickled as hell to do it. It was a fast gig; I literally flew in one day, shot the scene the next, then flew home to NYC the next day. I thought that episode was a BRILLIANT parody/love letter to L&O, and the writers on that show had the feel of the show down pat.
Have you always had a passion for acting?
Yup. My mama took me to the theatre a LOT when I was young; she'd get season tickets to the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, and to all the touring Broadway musicals (that's how I saw Jerry the first time!). I always felt sort of out of place socially at school, horribly uncomfortable in my own skin, but when I was in 8th grade, I got up the nerve to take a drama class and was in the play that year. I knew in my bones, just reading the script out loud, that I could DO this, that it came easily and naturally to me---and when I got up in front of an audience, it felt like I'd come home, somehow. I felt comfortable and capable, and getting my first laughs? PRICELESS. From then on out, I always had to do shows. HAD to. There's a corny old joke my mother used to tell: "How do you get an elephant out of a theatre? You can't---it's in its blood." I was that elephant.
What is it about a character that attracts you to a script?
Honestly? Wounded people and bad behaviour. Blanche DuBois will always be my favourite. I also have a particular love for characters who are self-involved and borderline horrible human beings, lol. They make me laugh out loud, their narcissism and obliviousness to anything other than themselves. Those are my favourites to play. In real life, I run from the room at top speed if I encounter someone like that, but I sure love playing them. I've never had much of a problem with audiences not "liking" me, but I also like the challenge of an audience being appalled by the behaviour of a character...and then flipping them to loving her in the end. A few years back, I did a production of Vanya&Sonia&Masha&Spike, and Masha was one of the most glorious trainwrecks I've ever had the pleasure of playing. I could've played her for years. I'd love to play Violet in August: Osage County. She's a magnificent monster, and I'd love to sink my teeth into her.
Where do you most like to perform, in front of a camera or to a live audience?
There's nothing like being in a theatre. The exchange of energy with the audience is so immediate and powerful, and it's never the exact same experience every night. That said, I like the nuance that is possible in tv and film; the subtle stuff that audiences might not be able to pick up on in a theatre. I was a theatre rat since 8th grade, so the fact that I've done so much tv work was not something I expected to happen. I love being on set. Love it.
Do you have a favourite theatre quote?
"Know your lines and don't bump into the furniture." I believe Spencer Tracy said that.
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from your work?
You know, I'm not a big celebrity, or terribly well known, but I will occasionally get fan mail, and what has struck me is that people have taken real pleasure from my work. That fact is so gratifying. I've always just thought of it as just me doing my job, the thing I do for a living. To read that viewers have enjoyed themselves watching me DO that job and that in some small way I've handed them a smile or added something positive to their lives is both humbling and wonderful. It makes me happy.