Benanti played Denise, the wife of Michael Imperioli’s misogynistic Det. Ray Carling, ABC’s short-lived adaptation of the BBC (kinda) period series. “I wore a really long wig, because my whole storyline was about me wanting to cut my hair and him not letting me,” she recalls. “In the middle of one scene, I could feel it slipping off my head. [Laughs] I was like, ‘Somebody needs to pull my helmet hair back on, please?'”
The Playboy Club
The short-lived NBC series — another retro drama — found Benanti playing Carol-Lynne Cunningham, the original Playboy Bunny (and eventual Bunny mother to the rest of the warren). She says that the area of Chicago where the series shot was “not great… so when all of the gangster guys figured out there were a s—t-ton of bunnies hanging out in an abandoned warehouse, it started to be loud, lots of low-riding cars and bass,” she adds, laughing.
Turns out, the Matthew Perry-fronted NBC comedy about a support group sometimes seemed anything but supportive, at least to outsiders. Benanti and Sarah Baker, who played cat-mourner Sonia, “had a bit with Tyler [James Williams, who played grieving teen Owen] where we hated him. Everything he would say, we’d be like, ‘Shut up, Tyler!’ What we forgot was, every episode was a new director, so they’d show up and we would do that, and they would look at us like we were monsters. We’d be like, ‘No! It’s a bit!’… and then Tyler would deny that it was a bit.”
“I remember that when I got the breakdown for the character, it said, ‘Shelby Shackelford, age 40,’ and I wanted to shoot myself in the face,” says the actress, who’s in her mid-30s, as she laughs. “But I was like, ‘I’ll do it anyway!'” She wound up having a great time. Plus: “I got to hone my southern accent, and that’s coming in handy now [on Nashville].”
Benanti played Anne Barker, someone from Holmes’ past; the part offered her a chance to work once more with Johnny Lee Miller, whom she’d acted alongside in Eli Stone. “That was a really complicated character to play,” Benanti says. “She is a martyr. She is somebody who did something wrong. But we all really empathize with why she did it… Honestly, that episode is one of the things on camera I’m most proud of.”
The Sound of Music: Live!
“It was really full-circle for me: My first job on Broadway was The Sound of Music when I was 19 years old,” says the actress, who made humanizing Elsa Schrader her top priority in NBC’s musical event. “I wanted the audience to be like, ‘I don’t know who I want the captain to go with!’ I wanted it to feel like more of a fair fight.” The Carrie Underwood-starring, live-theatre-on-television experiment rated well but had some detractors; Benanti embraces it all. “I know the critics had stuff to say, and I understand that, but overall, the fact that it reached so many homes and so many hearts is a real triumph.”
The Good Wife
“You know what’s hilarious?” Benanti asks, regarding her performance as Renata, the unhinged love of Dylan Baker’s Colin Sweeney. “Dylan Baker and I did The Winter’s Tale together at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and he played my father-in-law… I went from being his daughter-in-law to his wife!”
Law & Order: SVU
When Benanti started recurring as Amaro’s wife, Maria Grazie, the character was fairly sympathetic. Then, “all of a sudden, my character became this monster!” she says, laughing. “Every script I would get, I would be like, ‘Oh good. I’m being a total bitch again. That’s awesome.'” Still, “Anytime I get to go on that show and be horrible, I’m happy to, because they’re such a great group of people.” She adds that she’s never sure whether she’ll get another episode, but “until someone kills [Maria], I’m hoping that I’ll be back on there.”
In a neat bit of coincidence, the Showtime dramedy re-teamed Benanti with Dominic Fumusa, who played a mysterious man in Maria’s life on SVU. Nick Amaro “thought that we were having an affair — and clearly he was right,” Benanti jokes, “because we got married on Nurse Jackie!”