When audiences first meet Erika Christensen's version of Angie Polaski in ABC's Will Trent, she is bluntly being called a drug addict to her face by a colleague. But that is just one of the very many layers to who she is.
Although her colleague (Franklin played by Kevin Daniels) doesn't sugarcoat who she is, he isn't judging her for it, nor is he uncaring about what she may be going through. He repeatedly asks her if she's been going to meetings because she has been working undercover to bust a drug ring as part of the vice squad, and that can be filled with temptation and triggers.
It's an important introduction to Angie because it allows the audience to immediately understand a few quintessential things about her, while also setting up that there is a lot more to uncover about the why of her past substance abuse and interest in this line of work.
"Her trauma ran really deep starting really young [so] it just makes sense that that there was substance abuse involved in her life," Christensen tells Metacritic. "And she's quite matter of fact about it, and her sponsor's quite matter of fact about it, and her co-workers are quite matter of fact about it. I just thought it was really nice to just say, 'Yep, this is what I'm dealing with, and I'm just also living my life — and I'm living my life with maybe not the proper amount of cautiousness but with an awareness of that risk that's there for me in certain circumstances.'"
Book readers of Karin Slaughter's Will Trent series of novels, on which this series is based, know a lot about Angie, and that source material means the character "is who she is" even into this new medium, Christensen says, even if some things are altered for the adaptation.
As in the books, Angie and Special Agent of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) Will (played by Ramón Rodríguez) have known each other since they were children and living in the same group home. While Will was there because he was an orphan, found in a trashcan as a baby, Angie lived with her own drug-addicted mother for her younger years. Because of their shared history and experiences, they know each other better than anyone else knows them, and their closeness crosses over into romantic territory. In the show, they are trying to keep the full nature of their relationship a secret from their colleagues because although they work in different departments, they're both in law enforcement. (And he's persona non grata — to the point of having his car tagged with "rat," "snitch," and "traitor" — after reporting bad behavior among his own.)
For Christensen, who broke out playing a teenage addict in the 2000 feature film Traffic and went on to play service women in film and television projects ranging from Law & Order: Special Victims Unit to Clover, a combination of years of experience, knowledge, and training, and a very special audition scene that featured Angie sharing her story at an AA meeting thrust her into the right place to embody such a complex character.
"It was the most vulnerable you would have seen her, which is still not completely vulnerable — she still had her self-deprecating sense of humor and little things that that were peppered throughout it — but it was quite genuine also," Christensen says of that scene. "It all just made me feel like it made sense that she's so prickly and yet she's in law enforcement for the right reasons."
Here, Christensen talks to Metacritic about Angie's arc in the first season of Will Trent, including separating her journey from Will's, how much her sobriety may be tested, and if Will's new dog Betty will come between them.
In the first episode, Will's case, as Angie puts it, ends up on her door as she is working a case of her own, but then at the end of the episode, she is at Will's house when the missing girl's father literally shows up at his door saying he shot the guy he thinks is responsible for taking his daughter. How much of Angie's story is going to be helping Will put together pieces of the puzzle of his cases that he can't quite figure out?
She's married with the job, and instead of compartmentalizing her job away from her life, she compartmentalizes her life away from her job. She just wants to be competent, she just wants to do her job and help the people that she encounters that she can potentially help, and with Will — you see in [Episode 2] — we're so trauma bonded, is this really right? But it's also inevitable because who else is there in my world except you? And so, they come to a really nice place. He says something wonderfully grown up and articulate in one of the upcoming episodes about their relationship that just makes it simple and logical that they should give it a shot — that she should. He's always willing to give it a shot and she's so touch and go about it and takes him for granted. And I feel like it's really so much more about him being comfortable to her then it is about her helping him navigate the world through his neurodiversity because he's really got it covered.
Using the term "trauma bond" might imply that no, they aren't necessarily right for each other long term, and book readers know the characters are exes. Does the trajectory of Season 1 begin to mirror the books more as episodes go on?
I think at the end of Season 1, it will get closer [to the books]. She's just doing so well right now in the first half of the season. There's a fall from grace coming, and I think that given a Season 2, that's up for debate all over again.
I have to ask how much you work with the dog going forward because Angie is such an important woman in Will's live, but now so is Betty; she's even on the key art of the show. Does she actually shake things up with them, or was that just something cute for the start of the series but then we move onto other things?
Oh, she's around! I feel like Angie feels like she's the other woman. Betty is all-consuming, and, unlike Angie, she will just take every bit of love and care that Will will give, so it's such a different relationship. When we were shooting the pilot and that scene near the end where Angie comes and interrupts them when they're having that that intimate moment, we had one of the takes where Ramón had looked over at her and improvised saying, "She's jealous," and I said, "Bitch." I wish that they had kept that because it's genuine. I think I summed it up with what I said [about Betty being] some creature that can accept love and care completely, instead of Angie, who has a really hard time accepting love and care for herself from Will. That relationship continues and has its own has own arc and has some real changes.
Within the first episode, she is also moved out of vice, which seems like a good idea because in theory it will mean she's around fewer drugs. But she ends up partnered with someone who she has a rocky personal history with, which could also threaten her sobriety, not to mention her relationship with Will. Do you feel she's in a place where she can handle triggers, or will her sobriety actually be threatened this season?
I do think that she will endanger herself, whether inadvertently or intentionally, because, like I said, she's in law enforcement for the right reasons, and so, putting someone else's safety before her own could come into play. In the pilot, she's got to put the mission before herself and then she's got to put the life of a young woman above the mission, that's the order of priority. She's third on the list — her own safety and sobriety. She's been holding on so far, but I believe she has a real challenge in the [later part of the season].
This isn't the first time you've played an addict, but recovery on television can be a sensitive subject and tough to get right. Do you feel a different responsibility now?
Honestly, I implicitly trust our writers, especially Liz Heldens and Dan Thompson, our EPs and creators and showrunners. No. 1, they're extremely thoughtful about things and sensitive to the way that they are portraying everyone and potential ramifications of that. And No. 2, they're extremely collaborative and always have their ears open and their minds open if we want to talk through something or massage something or or just you know something.
I don't want to put words in your mouth about which, but are there projects from which you've been able to pull lessons from similar characters or stories into how you approach this?
Those learning experiences like Traffic, of course, playing someone struggling with addiction, and also SVU, playing FBI and someone who also has a very personal relationship with their work, and in that case, it really clouded their work. And in this case — well it does; it's the same for Angie. I touch upon them in my mind, but I think that those lessons must have sunken in and then I trust that they're there. And and then there's little things. I played ex-military in this movie called Clover and also someone who had experienced a sexual attack, and so, I think that these these layers of familiarity with various specific elements like how to handle a gun end up becoming really useful when you drop me into a situation as Angie. The instincts are there, the knowledge is there, or at least the right questions come to mind for our GBI consultant who's there on set with us on Will Trent: "OK, what are the sequence of actions as far as this and this, versus securing the safety of the and my partner before the suspect?" All that stuff is just layers of experience and knowledge, and you can acquire it as quickly or as slowly as you like, but I've had the time.
You mentioned, and we've seen, how she puts her job ahead of herself already, but how personal do cases begin to get for Angie as episodes go on?
It is revealed that there's a sex trafficking ring that she's been aware of and been trying to get at for years in her vice days, and then it comes across her plate again and she can't ignore it. She knows that if she holds on to this piece of a puzzle it might actually lead somewhere important and and she keeps pulling on that string and has to follow it through, and that comes up in [Episode 3] where you start to hear about this.
I imagine there has to be a win there for her on a show like this.
It's a balance of acknowledging the reality of the real world and emerging from that with some help, too, because it's entertainment so we want to cover it and then emerge with some hope.
Will Trent airs at 10 p.m. Tuesdays on ABC.
Get to know Erika Christensen:
One of Christensen's best-known and most acclaimed early projects is Traffic (Metascore: 86), from which she went on to star in such films as cult favorite Swimfan (29), Flightplan (53), and The Perfect Score (35). On television she is best known for playing Julia Braverman on Parenthood (64), as well as a fictionalized version of real-life serial killer Carol Bundy on Wicked City (33) and opposite Kyra Sedgwick on Ten Days in the Valley (63). Most recently she appeared in the Disney+ remake of Cheaper by the Dozen (42).