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Columns
Ainsley role puts actress in tough spot

Wednesday, May 16, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Actress Emily Procter knew what to expect at the end of last week's "The West Wing," but she was shocked by the death of Mrs. Landingham anyway.

Procter, who has a recurring role on the series as White House lawyer Ainsley Hayes, watched the episode with a neighbor who was unaware of what was coming.

"I didn't tell her, and I kept looking at my watch because I knew it was happening," Procter said. "Then I thought maybe they changed their minds, maybe it's a trick. But then in the last five minutes I was shocked. I was actually sitting there with my mouth open catching flies. ... I think [series creator] Aaron [Sorkin] is just incredibly dramatic, and I think he knows Mrs. Landingham is wonderful, and he knows people love her and that's what makes good drama."

Procter's Ainsley doesn't make it to Mrs. Landingham's funeral in tonight's season finale, perhaps because she's busy dealing with the president's legal trouble for withholding information about having multiple sclerosis.

"Either that or she was just being rude," Procter said. "But I can't imagine that. If Ainsley could have been at Mrs. Landingham's funeral, I'm sure she would have been. But she's probably in the [White House] basement doing something. Maybe working on the climate control. Who knows?"

Though absent from "The West Wing" this week, Procter returns to NBC Sunday in the TV movie "Submerged" (9 p.m.), the true story of a U.S. Navy submarine that got trapped on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean in 1939. Procter plays the wife of the sub's captain who does her best to cheer other Navy wives as they await word on the success of a rescue mission.

Procter traveled to Malta, Italy, for the "Submerged" shoot, donning a red wig for the role.

"Unfortunately, I actually got very sick when I was there," she said. "That was challenging to work with the stomach bug I picked up. In one shot I was all pale and my wig was out of whack, but then I thought, it actually kind of works [for the character] because she's distraught."

Before agreeing to the role in "Submerged," Procter checked with her "West Wing" bosses to be sure they didn't need Ainsley. Repeatedly.

"I absolutely love the show, I love the cast, I love playing Ainsley. It's just such a great show to be involved in," Procter said. "But honestly, in the last episodes there was so much going on, so many characters involved, sometimes there just isn't room for someone else at the table."

As a recurring actress on the series, Procter is in a difficult position: Wait around to be called for work on a show she loves or take jobs elsewhere.

"As soon as my initial four-episode arc aired last year, I started getting a lot of other job offers that I sidestepped and politely declined," she said. "I would love to do that forever, but who knows if Ainsley will recur as often as she did this year. At some point you do want to have more work because it is what you do."

Then Procter begins an analogy that shows Ainsley's adorable verbosity isn't foreign to her.

"I explain it to people this way," she began, laughter creeping into her voice. "It's as if I am a ninth-grader and a senior has asked me out. We've gone out and had a great time and the senior likes me but maybe not that much, so he calls me occasionally and I wait by the phone for him to call me. But one day my parents look at me and say, 'You've got to date other people, this just isn't healthy.' That's kind of how I look at it. One day I may have to say I just need a real boyfriend. I need someone I know is going to take me to the prom."

By now the laughs -- by both interviewer and interviewee -- have reached a crescendo.

"I am in my own co-dependent relationship with 'The West Wing' that nobody knows about but me," she said.

The thirtysomething Procter was born and raised in Raleigh, N.C., and attended East Carolina University, graduating with a degree in journalism and dance. She worked as a weathercaster at WITN-TV in Greenville, N.C., but not long after graduation moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career.

Prior to "West Wing" she had small roles in "Leaving Las Vegas" and "Jerry Maguire," before landing larger roles in the HBO movie "Breast Men" and the feature film "Body Shots."

Now she's adapting to life in the public eye. Yesterday a crew from InStyle magazine was in her house for a photo shoot.

"It's this new thing where you talk about your home and wear overly dramatic clothes and lounge around," Procter said. "At one point I was wearing this gown -- it was such a great dress -- and I don't like having my picture taken, I'm not good at it. I can smile at the camera if my mom is holding it, but other than that, I have no real talent. And every picture they're taking, they're saying, 'Oh, that's great, Emily,' and I said, 'You know, it's the dress, right? You know it's not me.' And at that moment I decided I should own that dress and lounge around the house in it when I'm not feeling attractive."

In addition to welcoming photographers into her home and calling newspaper reporters for interviews, Procter has found herself chatting with real-life political figures. Ethel Kennedy invited "West Wing" cast members to Hickory Hill, her home in McLean, Va., for a fund-raiser for the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Fund.

Recently she also accepted an award on behalf of "The West Wing" from Women Against Gun Violence, "which is also very interesting in that I play the Republican on the show."

Procter said she doesn't always agree with Ainsley's stance on issues, but other times she does.

"I'm a true independent and that only helps me socially with 'The West Wing' because I can always find someone in the room I agree with, and it helps with Ainsley," she said. "I love that Ainsley is so fair and that on the show both sides are represented. It reminds us that at the end of the day, we all play for the same team. Whether or not we choose to make the same moves, we're all on the same side. Aaron wrote one of the best lines that Leo said in the first episode I was in: 'We should practice tolerance toward those who disagree with us.' "

Few will disagree about the power "The West Wing" has on its most ardent fans, Procter among them.

"I'll be watching tonight," she said, "with the other ninth graders who don't know what's going on."


Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.

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