You may know Jodi Lyn O'Keefe from such roles as the ruthless assassin Gretchen Morgan from Prison Break or as the ultimate high school mean girl in She's All That; however in her latest film and backdoor pilot for Lifetime, Stalkers, she sheds her villainous persona and takes on the role of an ambitious district attorney fighting for victim rights.
Stalkers, based on the Rhonda Saunders novel Whisper of Fear: The True Story of the Prosecutor Who Stalks the Stalkers, is the story of a polished district attorney (O'Keefe) who teams up with a hot-headed police officer (Drea de Matteo) to bring a stalker (Mena Suvari) to justice.
With less than a week until the film's premiere date, I got the chance to chat with O'Keefe about the film/backdoor pilot and her hopes for its successful turn into a full-fledged series.
How did you get involved in this film?
I got the script and I was told that Drea de Matteo was already signed on to play one of the leads and I got very excited about it. Then, I read the script and then I actually read the novel that it was based on and I loved it, so that's how it all initially started.
Since the film is based on a book was there a lot of collaboration with the author of the novel during the filming?
No, actually the gentleman who wrote the script is named David Wiener and he did an adaptation of the novel and did a very good job.
It is also based on true story, right?
Yes it is a true story of a woman named Rhonda Saunders and it is her book and it is pretty fantastic.
So the film is based on the novelist's own true story?
Yeah, the show is basically a loose translation of her life. They took the idea of her and divided it into two characters, which are Drea and I. I am the district attorney and Drea is the detective. So, it is not exactly her life, it is just based on it.
What is it like to play one side of the novelist?
It was awesome, it was so much fun! I had a lot of chemistry with Drea right away, she is fantastic, super easy to work with and I loved her from The Sopranos for so long that it was really nice to work with her. And, to be the good guy felt really good. (Laughs) I am usually pretty terrible so to actually be on the side of maybe helping people was pretty great.
That is always fun! (Laughs) Is that what intrigued you about the character in the project?
It was. I love to be the villain but if there is a chance to play the good guy every once in a while, that maybe has some depth or something really cool going on, I am very interested.
Speaking of villainous characters, you were quite the villain on Prison Break.
Yeah, I was the assassin. I was the bad guy for three seasons; I killed everyone, so it's a departure. (Laughs)
Do you like playing the bad character instead of the good character?
I love it! (Laughs) It is so much fun; it is the complete opposite of who I am. I am very non-confrontational and I have to come so completely out of my own shell and out of my own body that it becomes a lot of fun.
Was it then difficult to have this "good guy" role?
No, I found that as we went along the things that were important to the character were also important to me and I could really relate to her identifying with the victims, which is what ended up happening to her. She is a district attorney and in the beginning it is more about politics for her and then as she moves along she starts to really identify with the struggle that one particular woman was going through, so it became very easy to relate to her.
That is great; a relatable character is good for both the actor and the audience. So, what is the story of this film about?
The story is about two women who are sort of an unlikely partnership and they come together and they are trying to change victim rights, so people who are being stalked they are there to try and help, make their lives easier, and put an end to having people become prisoners in their own home.
Did you do a lot of research on your role outside of the book?
I read a lot about stalking cases and I of course read the novel, and then I've had moments in my life where sort of similar things have happened just with fans and of that nature, so I sort of know the feeling of being stalked. It is not something that I really love to talk about, but there were so many things that I could relate to with what was going on in the script, not just this character, but with what was happening that it was something that I really wanted to be a part of.
Since there is that relatable aspect to the film, were there any scenes that were particularly hard to film?
No, actually I [wasn't in] anything that was really gory and sort of really scary, I am there mostly for the aftermath being the district attorney, so I was not up there in any of the real difficult filming that was really Mena Suvari, Lela Loren and Drea and they were all in the middle of it. So, for me I was mostly on the outside stepping in when I needed to, so for me it was a lot of procedural office stuff, there were a few scenes of crime kind of things, but there wasn't anything that was too hard for me to step into.
I know that district attorneys have a certain lingo, was it hard to get into the judicial language?
It was. (Laughs) I remember when we first started I was sitting at the read through and we were all buzzing through the lines really quickly and I started to stumble over some legal jargon (laughs) and I looked up and said "I will speak English by Monday, I swear." It is just a thing you have get used to, it is the same thing if you are trying to play a doctor or a lawyer it's like a foreign language you have to look up a lot of things in the dictionary, I found.
How was the dynamic on set with your co-stars?
It was fantastic; I was surrounded by such a fantastic group of women. Mena Suvari, she is fantastic, amazing and so creepy; creepy is the best word to describe her performance. Our very first victim, Lela Loren, it was the first time I have ever met her and she did such a good job. And then of course there is Drea and mostly with the four of us we had a lot going on and it was so nice to be surrounded by women that way and to have women that were excited to come to work and knew what they were doing. It was just a good experience all around for me.
That's great; it is always good to get a good group of people on set that all work together well.
It's rare too, because everyone sort of has to adjust to everyone else and everybody has their own personality. [We all] kind of come together all of a sudden and have very close quarters and are there for so many hours a day that it can go really badly or it can be really great and this experience was really great. And our director, Mark Tonderia, was awesome, he is known for House at the End of the Street, that was his first film. He set the tone [for Stalkers], he made it really dark and really scary, and he did such a beautiful job with it.
Is shooting a movie for TV different from shooting a movie for movie theaters?
It has a lot of similarities and a lot of differences. The similarities are that the schedule and the pacing is pretty much the same. The difference with TV is there seems to be a lot more people who are more hands on like every executive, every producer, and everybody from network, that kind of thing. It's a lot more people making decisions at once and sort of being a part of the process, whereas when you make a film that is in a movie theater I feel like a lot more of it is in the hands of the actors and director right then and there. With television, everybody is kind of there and having their hand in it throughout the whole entire time. We had our producers and everybody on set the entire time.
You have done many TV series and many films as well, which do you prefer if you prefer one over the other at all?
You know, I don't know if I can say I like one better than the other. Film is really interesting and fun because you go and you spend a certain amount of months on a project and then you are done, and you walk away and get to do something else. Where with series you are that character for, if you are lucky (laughs), 10 months at a time, every year. They are just so different, one just takes up your entire year and you are one character for a long time, and the other one you can jump from person to person. They each have their own charm.
Does that make getting into a character more difficult with film, because you jump from character to character as opposed to TV where you are used to that character when you start a new season?
Yeah, there is a familiarity with being on a show year after year with the person you are playing, so that's nice, that's a comfort. But, I actually really like jumping out of my skin and being different people, so I don't think I could pick a favorite I just really love what I do and feel very lucky that I get to do it for a living.
What should audiences take away from this film, since it is a true story and it's very relatable to things going on today?
We should really look at the accomplishments of this woman, Rhonda Saunders, and what she did and the way she was standing up for victim's rights. It is a very cool perspective and different world, and you get a taste of what she was like through these two women.
Did you guys get to talk with Rhonda?
I didn't. I talked to the gentleman who had the life rights for 15 years and I learned a lot that way. I am sure if there was more free time I would have loved to have talked to her, but it was such a fast paced thing, it was literally the job came up, I got interested and involved in it and the next minute I feel like we were shooting. There wasn't month and months before [filming] or a lot of prep time, we just all kind of dove in which is great, because we just jumped in head first. If there had been more time I would have liked to have [talked with Rhonda], or if this actually does go to series, which is what we are all hoping for, because it is a backdoor pilot for Lifetime they are going to air it then make a decision as to whether or not they want to continue, then I would love to spend more time [with Rhonda].
So Stalkers might be a television series instead of just a single film?
Yeah, they are calling it a backdoor pilot and that is what we all originally signed on for, so we all knew going in that it reads like making a television pilot with the extra added benefit that it's actually going to be on the air. It's great for us, because a lot of times actors make pilots and then if the series doesn't get picked up nobody sees it, in our case whether or not we are a series everybody is going to get to see what we did.
Where will the story go if it becomes a series?
I don't know, I have no idea. Actually I was just talking to some of the producers and they were saying that they were putting together some story lines for the future. But they haven't told me what they are and I keep saying, "Guys please tell me, please tell me." And they haven't told me yet, I think they are all keeping it a surprise.
Surprises are fun, unless your character dies then that is not fun.
No, no, no, then it is not fun at all. I'm hoping that that doesn't happen, I hoping this time that the good guy doesn't get shot. I got shot three times the last time I was a bad guy, so I am hoping my chances this time are a little bit better.
If it went into series, would it have the same cast?
Yeah, hopefully that is the plan. I know Drea and I [are in] for sure, beyond that I don't know contractually where the other actors are, I just know that that was the deal for the two of us. I would like to have everybody come back it's been great.
Yeah, it seems like you guys have a lot of chemistry on set.
I had so much fun. It was just silly, I mean we [Drea and I] are both from the East Coast and just got along fantastically from moment one. It has a good feeling, it is great when things are that easy and you can relate to another woman so easily.
Stalkers premieres on Saturday April 13 at 8 p.m. on Lifetime.