With a track record that includes Mariska Hargitay,Jill Hennessy and Elisabeth Rohm, no one has an eye for casting uber-competent legal eagle leading ladies like TV's courtroom king Dick Wolf. For his latest series "Chicago Justice," set in the world of Windy City state attorneys, he's made yet another charismatic discovery in Monica Barbaro.
Sharp-eyed TV viewers may recognize Barbaro from her stint on the second season of "UnREAL," playing Yael, the sultrier nemesis to Shiri Appleby's reality series producer, Rachel. Once a dedicated ballet dancer, now she's making motions as Assistant State's Attorney Anna Valdez.
And, as she revealed to Moviefone, she's been almost as excited to check out as real-life courtroom as she's been to show up to the soundstage version every day.
Moviefone: Were you nervous when the opportunity came your way, given Mr. Wolf's legendary status?
Monica Barbaro: Oh, 100 percent. Even in the callback, I woke up that morning -- I'm a really deep sleeper and I never wake up for anything at a weird early time. I was waking up every day throughout this audition process, and I knew that it was like the most important thing that had happened to me in my career yet, because this matters! This matters to me, like physically, to get this opportunity.
And then getting it, I was just completely floored. It was such a great experience to do a chemistry read with Philip [Winchester], and I knew he would be the perfect person to act across from, because he's so patient and wonderful and such a talented actor.
On top of that, I knew for a fact that all of the scripts were going to be so fully fleshed out. Having been a fan of "Law & Order" I knew that they work around that gray area so beautifully, of right and wrong. Just really complex and really beautiful scripts.
In your actor's skill set, what did you find that you had to really sharpen up and master for this particular role?
First off, it was getting used to the fact that a lot of the scenes -- I used to be a dancer, and on stage you have to act a lot without saying anything. And in the courtroom as second chair, I don't speak in our court settings unless it's a motion, pretrial something or other, so there was that challenge of being there and being present with every moment and listening fully; not being overwhelmed by the amazing performances in front of me, but staying in character and reacting fully in that moment without any words to help me along. That was interesting.
Have you sat in many courtrooms in real life? Been called to jury duty?
No, I haven't! I've always wanted to! I got a few summons in college but I was in new York and I'm from the Bay Area, the San Francisco area, and so I haven't. And yet in my fascination with the legal system, I've wanted to sit in a jury so badly because I just find that so interesting. But I think the responsibility would probably be fairly daunting.
I remember my mother told me about a situation with my grandmother being called to jury duty, and they made a decision and she didn't really talk about it much, as you're not supposed to, but you could tell she'd been affected, for a few weeks, and taken aback at what she'd experienced. So that's always been so curious to me.
Dick Wolf's shows are usually pretty front-and-center with process and procedure, but what are the little character notes that you still want to bring across as you play her, around all the legalese?
Anna Valdez is a real go-getter, she's a real firecracker. She's not afraid to stand up and say how she feels, even to the State's Attorney, Jeffries -- as well as Stone: she's interested in impressing him. She also wants to get her point across and has a lot of aspirations and passion for the law. So that's always the number one important thing for me to get across.
And then, on top of that, there are little nuances with the characters; we do know their personalities, and you'll find out a little bit more about her and her feelings on, say, marriage and privacy with phones and things like that with more a modern -- they would probably call it a millennial -- perspective.
Do you have any sort of role models among the many leading ladies of the Dick Wolf shows?
Oh my gosh, yes! My mother and I used to just like be in awe of all the assistant state's attorneys, and of course Mariska Hargitay! She's so amazing! We've been talking about, like, "Oh, maybe someday we're going to meet her! I can't wait until the crossover happens when she comes and sees us!"
That's the one thing that I can really say: they write such wonderfully powerful, intelligent female characters, and it is such an honor to be put in that position as a young female actress, to be able to say intelligent things, and have a real point of view, and make a point in a scene that is a correct one, and maybe Stone is wrong, is something that did not used to happen, really, so that's been a huge relief in my career.
How are you handling all the legal jargon? Are you finding little tricks to make it easier?
I love it. I've grew up watching "Law & Order"; I love legal dramas, and I find it really fascinating. So I kind of sink my teeth in -- I think it's a blast! It can be complicated. We were talking about something called a writ of replevin the other day, and we were like "Replevin ... replevin ... [gets tongue-tied] ... replevin!" So there are some tongue-twisters, but other than that, it's pretty good!
Are you starting to dole out legal advice to your friends at this point? Are you starting to think you know the system?
No! [Laughs] I would back away, like "Please, please, don't ask me! I'm not a lawyer. I just play one on TV."
What put you on this path and made you know that acting wasn't just something you wanted to try, but something you wanted to do?
Actually, when I was 12 I did "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in my middle school, and I was doing ballet very seriously at the time, and I also played a character in "The Nutcracker" named Fritz, who was the young girl's little brother -- and I was pissed off when I got the role, but it was such an acting experience to play this boy, and I got so feisty and mischievous.
I think that year was when I realized, and then I did ballet very seriously for another however-many years through college, and then I finally gave it a shot. I said 'It's now or never,' and I'm so happy that I did.
Is dance still part of your life?
It is, now and again. We're so busy it's hard to find classes, but I try to keep it fresh. My friend was saying the other day I Just, like, go up on relevé every once in a while, and people are like "Whoa, what was that?" I'm always told I walk like a dancer, so it's a part of me, and now I guess it's part of Valdez, too.
Put it in the show!
Yeah, a little stride!
"Chicago Justice" airs Sundays on NBC.