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A New Riff in the Squad Room

New cast member Idara Victor brings a fresh style to TNT's Rizzoli & Isles.

Debra Levine
  • Photo courtesy TNT
  • Photo courtesy TNT
  • Photo courtesy TNT

It’s been a year since Idara Victor, a richly gifted and poised young actress, joined the close-knit crime-busting team of TNT police series Rizzoli & Isles.

Playing the tech-savvy crime-scene analyst Nina Holiday, Victor displayed grace under pressure as a mid-series replacement for actor Lee Thompson Young, following his unexpected death.

In an unusual primetime-t.v. balancing act, Victor concurrently appears on the Revolutionary War period drama, Turn: Washington's Spies, just renewed on AMC.

A graduate of the Wharton School’s undergraduate business program at the University of Pennsylvania, Victor parlayed an acting avocation into gigs at serious New York City addresses: Lincoln Center, The Public Theater, and the Roundabout Theatre.

Her coloratura vocal prowess earned high critical marks in the Scott Joplin ragtime opera, Treemonisha. Chatting with TelevisionAcademy.com, Victor imparted her values and aspirations.

Your Rizzoli character, Nina Holiday, mashes the names of two legendary jazz singers.

[laughing] I noticed it immediately! Nina Simone and Billie Holiday are both artists I admire. When I read any script, my first stop is the character’s name—sometimes it gives an essence. I asked [Rizzoli executive producer] Jan Nash about it when I started working. She said they were looking for a grounded force, a certain quality of soul ... and that I brought that at my audition..

Nina is an analyst; she’s a brainiac. She has the facts and information. But she also has an innate understanding of the group; she feels the undercurrent.

Starting this season [season 6], you’ll see her interact more with people personally. Jane and Maura [Rizzoli leading characters played by Angie Harmon and Sasha Alexander, respectively] call attention to each other when they are not completely present or are emotionally challenged. That is rooted in their characters’ close friendship. Nina finds clever ways of doing this through work.

And does this relate to jazz for you?

It does! Nina is improvisational; she is constantly providing what’s needed without anyone having to guide her or specify. She is fitting in well.

Have you grown with Nina?

I like her character. And especially this season, as I am seeing more personal interactions in my scripts. For my first season, it was hard on everyone when Lee passed. They were easing this new person into a role—and they tried to introduce her in a non-threatening way.

Mainly she was showing her usefulness and how well she could get along. Slowly, everyone is getting to know who she is. Now, the team trusts her.

Every Rizzoli episode opens with a pretty shocking act of violence, usually a brutal murder. 

I do have feelings about the brutality. During the season opener, there was a tweet from our show’s Twitter account before one of our airings that said "A bizarre death unlocks a secret worth killing for," and I remember having a moment where it hit my gut like, “Mmm, I don’t like that.”

But to be fair to the audience, we’re not only looking at murder, we’re talking about death; all of it is difficult material. 

It speaks to my belief about being an actor and an artist. Our task, as artists in our medium, is to provide a mirror for society.

We not only show society for what it is—even the terrifying, scary, and painful parts—but we transform it into entertainment. It’s a way society can process and test difficult subjects.

I think, on Rizzoli, we’re showing that a larger force operates: love, joy, and connection. There is something very healing for all of us, taking something terrible and showing that there is love, and that things can be solved. 

The role of police in society is a big subject right now.

Playing a cop is something I have reconciled for myself. As for playing a black cop, I actually kind of like it. It puts me in the middle of things! When we are dealing with cops versus citizens, and adding racism to the mix, we can be awakened to certain facts, things that are not unfounded.

But I move into the space of changing, or healing, so it doesn’t lead to more distress. My playing a black cop blurs that line of white cops versus black people.

Simply being a black cop and playing it as a character people can relate to counters that sense of difference, or separation, like, "This person is not like me. They are my enemy." Just my presence on the team begins the process of diffusing that. From there, we still all have a lot of work to do.

Do you think television can be a force for change?

Orange is the New Black, is a good example, the way it has brought out transgender issues and prison issues.

Growing up as I did in Brooklyn and Long Island, in a lower middle-class area, I became acclimated to the world beyond my neighborhood by watching television. Even in my personal experience, television has played a very powerful role.

Rizzoli has some strong female characters. Angie Harmon is such an unusual actress. What do you think about her style?

Angie feels very familiar to me. I believe we wind up working with people similar to us! But Angie’s quirkiness is definitely Angie; she is fun, and funny, in a no-holds-barred way.

What’s interesting is that she’s not playing what you’d expect from a beautiful woman. There’s a little tomboy, a strong independent woman, and a jokester; it’s a mix of things. Every time I play a character like that, I love the freedom to be silly.

To be honest, I am a bit of a wild child in my personal life; but with acting, there’s a limitlessness. 



What about a character on the quiet end of the spectrum? Does that have appeal?

Definitely. A character that is really buttoned up is something I would find a great challenge. I believe a lot in quiet power; a lot is achieved by people who are not the loudest. The Dalai Lama is an example. There is steadfastness in that type of character that I admire … and would like to portray.

I heard you admire Cate Blanchett playing Elizabeth.

I love the idea of playing royalty, and in particular look forward to playing a black queen. That would create a new paradigm, because we are not accustomed to seeing many stories that delve deeply into the lives of black women who have held outwardly celebrated power positions. Going back to that steadfastness, many of these women had to reign with a quiet power, a quiet dignity.

So you do not feel frustrated, or pigeonholed, as a black actress?

I hear a lot of people complaining about the dearth of black female roles, and I know where they are coming from.

But I feel I know where I am headed as an actress. I’m excited about my career - in terms of the times that I have stepped into, the kinds of roles friends of mine and I have been getting, and looking at what’s coming out of the creative people I have around me. I see so much change, and don’t subscribe to the current paradigm.

When I think about my life—going to business school, then into theater, then into musical theater, considering all the paradigm shifts I have gone through. When I think about what’s possible, I just feel excited.

You have dual nationality; you were born in America, but you also hold a Nigerian passport.

I was talking with a good friend of mine, Uzo Aduba, who is in Orange is the New Black, about first-gen Americans growing up with Nigerian parents. It’s almost its own sub-culture.

We are not quite American, but we are also not wholly Nigerian (as my sisters and I were reminded when we’d go “home” and the folks from town would call us “milk babies," because we seem so well fed and pampered).

Growing up, I developed in the amazing culture of my American friends and my environment, but it was still clear that many of my values were being formed by the Nigerian culture I received at home.

I find this is to be true of those born here with Caribbean or African roots—and African-American culture is getting all that influence.

To be black now in America is not just what was born out of our extraordinary artistic achievements that were cultural responses to slavery or the Great Depression, and the vestiges of Africa that we held onto. But it includes the culture brought over by new immigrants that were not part of those events on these shores.

I’m hearing Nigerian and Caribbean music on hip-hop radio stations, and EVERYONE is watching and loving Nollywood movies; all this has become a part of black American culture today.