“I’m a terrible politician. I’m not good at being politic. I’m way too straightforward. I want to fix things. I don’t want power. I don’t care about power [except] to the extent that it helps me be able to make things better. I believe in collective action and if I think somebody is acting irrationally or is being a jerk and their ideas are bad, I’m going to say… I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
Amy Aquino was talking about her time as SAG-AFTRA’s secretary-treasurer, a position she held for many years. But she might well have been speaking about her current role as Lt. Grace Billets in Amazon Prime’s Bosch, based on the best selling books by Michael Connelly. Like Aquino, Billets speaks her mind, supervising dedicated yet often controversial homicide detective Hieronymus (Harry) Bosch, played by Titus Welliver. Bosch began its second season March 11, available for live streaming on Amazon Prime.
While Billets was featured in several Connelly mysteries, particularly Trunk Music, on which season two is partially based, Aquino has managed to lift Grace from the pages onto video and make her a more complicated flesh and blood character. As Bosch’s superior officer, Billets was always in his corner, but in the Amazon adaptation, the relationship between the two morphs into a friendship, albeit one where the lieutenant constantly reminds the detective that she’s the boss.
At the Bosch Season 2 Premiere Screening at the Silver Screen Theater at the Pacific Design Center on March 3, 2016 in West Hollywood, CA (Bigstock photo)
“It’s a challenge for her because she has to always balance the friendship and that she is, in fact, his boss,” said Aquino. “We had a moment in season two when Titus said, `I don’t know if I would say that to her,’ and I said, `well, I think you probably would. I am in fact the boss of you. For all of that, for all the familiarity, I am the boss of you. I can get you fired.’” Aquino said that she was drawn to Bosch, even though in the past she had shied away from doing police procedurals. “I’ve done them, but never as a series regular,” she said. “I never really wanted to commit to it, but because this was Michael Connelly and because it was Eric Overmyer (the executive producer and creator for the series), and because this character has all these layers and I knew going in that she would have all these layers, and this relationship, and it wasn’t the typical,” she said, transitioning into Billets – `dammit Bosch, if you do this sort of a situation…’ [I knew] that it was going to be fun.”
Despite her enthusiasm for the series, Aquino admitted that she was not familiar with Connelly’s books before she was cast as Billets. As a biology major at Harvard, she spent more of her time in labs and had less time available for leisure reading. “I finally discovered about ten years ago that I needed to read before I could go to sleep,” she said. “I hadn’t read all the classics, so I started with that first.” When she finally turned to Connelly’s books, she was impressed. “I love him and have read a bunch of his books,” she said.“I have been so pleased and inspired that when I mention that I’m doing this show, people will say, `I love Michael Connelly.’ Surely I was missing out on a major trend.”
As often happens with a well written series, the characters begin to seem real, certainly the case with Grace and Harry. “They had known each other a long time,” Aquino said.”They came up through the ranks together. They’re about the same age and they both started as beat cops together. Then he continued on the detective route because that’s all that drives him and she had a kid and, because she’s much more left brain, went more towards the administrative end, climbing the managerial ladder. She knows his secrets; he knows hers. So it makes it a lot more interesting.”
Even thought Billets is married with a daughter, she has an affair with a young African-American detective, Kizmin Rider, played by Rose Rollins. “In season one, I’m wearing a wedding ring and we just don’t hear about my husband,” she said. “I didn’t know until pretty soon after we got that script that we were going to go ahead and dive in there. But I was very interested in it and I liked it because it’s a very human struggle.”
Like Harry Bosch, Aquino went through a love-hate relationship with Los Angeles. She was born in New Jersey, grew up outside of Philadelphia, graduated from Harvard and the Yale School of Drama, and eventually moved to New York. “I always say that I didn’t move to Los Angeles; I ended up here because I got work and the job was here,” she said. “My furniture had to follow me. So I was very resistant to Los Angeles for a really long time. I am now a big supporter because I think that Los Angeles has changed dramatically in the almost 25 years that I came out here. It’s a world-class city, it understands itself, it offers opportunities that a lot of other cities don’t. I still adore New York; it’s where my heart is. I lived in Hells Kitchen. That’s where I became an adult. I still love to go back there, but it is a very changed city. It’s kind of lost its edge, where L.A. has gained that edge. It’s become a place where a lot of cutting-edge stuff is happening.”
Trunk Music was first published in 1997, six years after an African-American taxi driver, Rodney King, was stopped following a high-speed chase, dragged from his vehicle, and beaten by police officers. Captured on video, the case made national headlines and tarnished the reputation of the LAPD, something the city has worked hard to turn around. “I think the LAPD is doing a tremendous job addressing issues in ways that other police law-enforcement agencies in other cities haven’t yet because they hadn’t had that light shone on them,” she said. “That said, it still happens.”
The actors playing law enforcement personnel in Bosch prepared by attending training sessions arranged by the LAPD. In a room with a large screen, the actors were put through a series of lifelike situations. “You’re given a gun, a laser gun but with heft so it feels like a regular gun,” she said. In one scenario, Aquino found herself in an all too common situation for a police officer – pulling over a motorist. She walked up to the car projected on the screen and asked the woman for her license and registration. “I thought she was reaching into the glove compartment and instead she’s got a gun under her hip, under her thigh, and she pulls it out and shoots me,” she said.
In another scenario, the assailant had a knife. Aquino was asked how close someone had to be to constitute a threat. She said five feet. “No, they could be 15 feet away and they could still kill you with a knife,” she said. “The reality is that you have very little time.”
In the first season of Bosch, Harry shot and killed a suspect in the middle of a rain storm in a dark alley. An LAPD investigation cleared Harry, but he was sued in civil court by the widow. Aquino’s experience in the training sessions was fresh in her mind. “We were actually shooting one of those scenes where we were awaiting the verdict in the trial when I say to him, `look Harry, about this trial. Nobody else was there, nobody else knows, nobody saw what you saw. Everybody wants to second-guess the decision that you had to make in the blink of an eye.’ And it’s true. We’re not paying these people, these cops enough to go and do suicide missions everyday. [The training session] was really telling and I have to say that I have a tremendous amount of respect for our police officers and I have a lot of sympathy for this situation that they’re in and what they face. But the LAPD has been doing a lot of work. I’m really impressed. They’ve changed a lot since Michael started writing books.”
Although she was a biology major at Harvard, Aquino found herself spending 50 hours a week doing theater. “I was voting with my feet,” she said. “So I decided that I had to at least give it a try or I wouldn’t forgive myself.” She had decided by the end of her junior year, that if she did continue to study science, she wouldn’t go into medicine, but would probably go into public health. “I was really interested in public advocacy,” she said. “Because I didn’t do that, I channeled it into union and politics and being a union officer. I spent 20 years as an officer at the Screen Actors Guild, trying to make a difference in a broader sense rather than a micro sense. So that’s where I put my left brain action.”
While the entertainment industry has been under fire recently for its lack of diversity, particularly behind the camera, Aquino said that she has seen enormous progress during her own career, something she reflects on when speaking to the gradating classes at USC and the Yale Drama School. “When I started in the business in the early 80s, I was considered really, really, really ethnic; you know the girl next-door and the Philly wacky best friend because I was clearly not pretty enough. I wasn’t blonde, upturned nose,” she said. “You just needed to look a very specific way. And that has changed so dramatically, it’s extraordinary. I think there’s been a lot of progress in front of the camera. It has not been reflected behind the camera yet. It just hasn’t. And I think the recognition of that is really important.”
A 2014 survey by GLADD praised Amazon Prime’s Transparent and Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black for giving the world complex trans characters. “I’m very proud of the fact that when they did the diversity survey, Amazon and Netflix came out on top,” she said. “You’re good! The fact that they are trying to differentiate themselves and they are not weighed down by any history of what we’re used to, what audiences are used to, it may be helping them. I think it should help the other more established outlets move along.” She compared that forward-thinking to what often happens with California leading the way for the rest of the nation. “California as a state has made decisions long before the country has and ended up being a bellwether, sort of a beacon and a model for the rest of the country. So I think these models, Netflix and Amazon, will help raise the bar by being new and different and looking at the world in a fresh way.”
Aquino said that she tries to get back to her first love – stage – whenever she can. “I love working on the stage. I really really do,” she said. “I did my first Shakespeare last summer in San Diego and just loved it. I love the regularity, having a place to go everyday. I love the relationship with the audience.” She said she’s been pushing her management team to find her more stage work. “Especially in New York. I’d love to go back and do and another show.” Her stage credits include Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles, which won the 1989 Tony Award for best play and was recently revived on Broadway.
Aquino has worked steadily in television, having recurring roles on ER, Brooklyn Bridge, Picket Fences, Felicity, and Judging Amy, as well as guest spots on The Mentalist, Glee, Monk, and many others. While her film roles have been fewer, two of her film roles are often mentioned to her. In Moonstruck, she played hairdresser to Cher’s character, Loretta.
But playing Melanie Griffiths’ secretary in the final minutes of Working Girl remains memorable. Did she realize that scene would become a fan favorite? “I really did not,” she said. “I was thrilled to get it. I was right out of drama school at the time. When I went to audition for it in Mike Nichols’ office, I said, `can I put my feet up on the desk and grab the phone?’” For her one day’s work, Aquino earned $600. “Melanie Griffiths was so sweet,” she said. “She brought me into her dressing room and invited me to lunch. It was an otherworldly experience. Look, if you’re only going to have one scene in a movie, let it be the scene where the beloved lead character finally gets her dream. That was part of what made that special.”
Bosch photos courtesy of Amazon Prime