She may be known for her gorgeous looks, her rambunctious sense of humor, her commitment to faith and family and her steadfast refusal to change her politics to fit the local fashion. But one of Angie Harmon’s strengths—her dedication to her profession—may have been underestimated: For the past few weeks, she has been filming her TNT crime series Rizzoli & Isles while walking around (and nabbing bad guys) on a badly injured ankle.
“I tripped over a C-stand [a piece of lighting equipment] on the set,” she explains when we meet for dinner in a noisy L.A. bistro. “To save face, I kept saying, ‘It’s fine, it’s fine,’ but inside I’m thinking, It’s bad, it’s -really bad. You know when you’re so hurt, you feel like you’re going to throw up? But they just said it was a sprain—until the seventh doctor, the one I just saw. He said, ‘We’re looking for a break or a bruise or a tear.’ Then he pulled up my X-ray and said, ‘You have all three.’ ”
It’s a development that could have been scripted for the sassy, self--assured detective she plays on one of cable TV’s highest-rated shows—and soon was. While another actress might have been down for the season, Harmon returned to production, with her character, the admirably athletic Jane Rizzoli, simply pausing to ice her ankle.
The series is based on Tess Gerritsen’s novels about Rizzoli, a tough Boston-based police detective, and her best friend, Dr. Maura Isles, a know-it-all medical examiner. Harmon’s goofball irreverence, folksy delivery and loose-limbed swagger make Rizzoli seem like a homicide cop who could actually exist. On the show, she’s the straight-up jock to the ultrafeminine Isles, played by Sasha Alexander.
When critics write about Rizzoli’s success, they often mention its stars’ winning chemistry—a rapport Alexander felt in her first audition with Harmon, who had already been cast. “Our humor completely clicked,” she says of a read-through that was so spot-on that she was dumbfounded when Harmon later came to her in the waiting room and solemnly announced that the powers that be wanted them to give it another try. “I looked at her and said, ‘I don’t think it can get much better than that.’ ”
But when the two actresses returned to the audition room, Alexander was greeted with a standing ovation—and a job offer. “She’d already played a joke on me, and we hadn’t even worked together yet,” says Alexander, who loves how her friendship with Harmon, just like Isles’s with Rizzoli, has gotten loopier over time. “We’ve had a lot of laughs over the cadavers,” she adds, explaining that the dead bodies on the series are played by real people. “They’ll fall asleep or start snoring, and Angie will go over and poke them.” As for the male crew members, they’re still unaccustomed to Harmon and Alexander’s playful way of punctuating a sentence—which the actresses refer to as “boob slapping.” “It’s girly humor—we’re very touchy-feely,” says Alexander. “We’ll make a joke or something, and I’ll just slap her boob. And the guys will be like, ‘Really?’ ”
A side effect of such fun-loving camaraderie is that a big part of the series’ fan base believes these two attractive women are friends with benefits. Last season the lesbian website After Ellen even ran a countdown of “The Top 10 Gayzzoliest Moments on Rizzoli & Isles.” Although both stars were initially taken aback when some of those admirers aggressively pushed for them to take their relationship to the next level—“It was like, ‘We’re not going to watch your show, because you won’t write them making out,’ ” Harmon says—these days they welcome and occasionally wink at their lesbian following, looking deep into each other’s eyes or brushing up against each other for no reason.
“Whether we’re gay or straight, it doesn’t matter,” Harmon says. “We’re all women. We all have the same wonderful situations happen to us, the same horrific situations. We all get our hearts broken. It’s a show about friendship. It’s a show about women holding their own and being amazing in their careers.”
If she prizes Rizzoli’s independent streak, perhaps it’s because Harmon is from the Lone Star State. The only child of Dallas models Larry Harmon and Daphne Caravageli, she was raised to be comfortable around firearms (“Everyone in my family had guns”), to reflexively say please and thank you and to believe calorie counting is for sissies. Today, after polishing off a big bowl of littleneck clams, Harmon goes to work on the contents of the bread basket, orders a second Bloody Mary, then wants to know more about the special of the day, smoked duck linguine. “Did she just say ‘duckling weenie?’ ” she whispers as the server walks away. “It must be a very small portion.”
“She’s got a Texas girl’s appetite,” says Harmon’s first cousin, novelist Kim Gatlin (her book Good Christian Bitches was adapted into ABC’s 2012 comedy GCB). “She will go to Snuffer’s with you,” Gatlin adds, referring to a Dallas joint famous for burgers and artery-clogging cheese fries.
Harmon’s parents divorced when she was 13 months old. She was following in their career footsteps before she could speak. “My grandmother had a clipping of me [modeling] in a car seat,” she says. At 15, she beat out 63,000 other girls to appear on the cover of Seventeen. “Everyone knew that there was something special about Angie,” says Gatlin, adding that genetics—Harmon’s mother is of Greek descent; her father’s ancestry includes Cherokee—played their part. “Her dad and mom are the most beautiful people you’ll ever see. They’re freaks of nature.” But Harmon set her sights on being in front of a different sort of camera early on. “She modeled by default; that was the family business. Modeling chose her—but she chose acting,” Gatlin explains.
“I wanted to go to Juilliard desperately,” says Harmon, who didn’t have enough money to pay for the acting program that helped mold such stars as Jessica Chastain. So after spending her teen years with her father and graduating from Highland Park High, she headed not for college but for her mother’s one-room apartment in Manhattan. For the next few years, she traveled the world, walking down runways for Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and Giorgio Armani. “I loved every moment of it,” she says. “It was glamorous and exciting and fun. I mean, I’m in Azzedine Alaïa’s factory and doing fittings and [talking to] Giorgio Armani—he was so interesting. I do wonder now,” she says somewhat wistfully, “if Karl [Lagerfeld] or Giorgio would remember me, because they’ve seen so many faces since mine.” But she’s happy that models in the ’90s weren’t as scrutinized as they are today. “You didn’t have to worry if you stumbled out of a club that the paparazzi were going to print horrible pictures of you.”
She was on a plane when she was spotted by David Hasselhoff, who offered her a role as Ryan McBride, a detective on Baywatch Nights, a spinoff of his global juggernaut Baywatch. That the show was deemed preposterous by critics didn’t matter to Harmon, who saw it as a training ground. The series ran for two cheese-filled seasons. But by the fall of 1998, when she made her debut as Abbie Carmichael, a hard-nosed, conservative assistant district attorney on Law & Order, she was ready to hit her mark alongside such esteemed actors as Jerry Orbach and Sam Waterston.
Waterston says what he remembers most about Harmon is “her spirit, clarity and energy—the freshness and readiness that she brought to work every day.” She also, he adds, can play a tough woman whom viewers find endearing, because that ferocity “comes from strength, not from anger. She doesn’t seem like an angry person; she just seems like she’s got a lot of spine.”
The Law & Order part gave her a chance to make viewers forget that megawatt model smile and beach-ready body and just accept her as a woman. “That’s what made her a star,” Rizzoli’s Alexander says. “The thing about Angie is that as beautiful as she is, she’s extremely relatable. She really communicates on camera.”
It was during her Law & Order years that Harmon met New York Giants cornerback Jason Sehorn. Despite her instant attraction, she says, she made sure they “had a relationship” before moving to the bedroom. Otherwise, she says, “that’s just setting it up for ‘God, I hope he calls me again.’ I am too emotionally distraught for that. I’d be a wreck. So I didn’t sleep with him for two months.” Less than a year after meeting, they were talking marriage. Still, Harmon was blindsided when, as she chatted with Jay Leno on the Tonight Show, Sehorn walked onstage, dropped to one knee and proposed. And even though Leno, guest Elton John and more than five million viewers were watching, Harmon remembers only the intimacy of the moment. “Everyone just disappeared,” she says, “and it was just him and me.”
In 2001 she walked down the aisle of Highland Park Presbyterian Church on her father’s arm dressed in a white satin Vera Wang gown and an antique tiara. Her parents’ divorce had left her with no fear of marriage, she says, “because I never knew what it entailed. It was like a fairy tale to me.” Twelve years and three daughters later, what she wants is to bring up her children—Finley, nine; Avery, eight; and Emery, four—in a traditional home. “I didn’t have that,” says Harmon, who lived with her mother in a series of apartments (“It was sort of latchkey”) until she moved in with her dad at age 11. When asked where she learned what it means to be a close-knit family, the kind she and Sehorn have formed, she shrugs uncomfortably and admits, “The Cosby Show.”
Three years ago, Harmon started worrying about raising children in Los Angeles. “It was too fast for my little girls,” she says. “They were coming home and talking about things that they had no business talking about”—things like making out with a boy. It was while she and Sehorn were visiting -NASCAR star Jimmie Johnson—Harmon is a huge NASCAR fan—in Charlotte, North Carolina, that she fell in love with the city’s wide, canopy-oak-lined streets. “It reminded me so much of Dallas when I was growing up,” she remembers. “I said to Jason, ‘Isn’t it beautiful? Can’t you imagine raising the girls here?’ And he stupidly said yes. So I basically bought a house the next day.”
During the nine months when Rizzoli is in production in L.A., Sehorn, now a commentator for Charlotte-based ESPNU, holds down their female--dominant fort. “He’s quite gifted as a father, very dedicated,” Harmon says. Every night she checks in on her iPhone via FaceTime. Or at least she tries to. “It’s hysterical,” she says, laughing. “The girls are making faces at themselves and looking at their little window and don’t even talk to me, and the next thing you know, I’m looking up somebody’s left nostril. I say, ‘Sweetie? Can you pull yourself just a bit back?’ And so they pull way back, and then I’m looking at the refrigerator. They’re all screaming and running and laughing. I think, OK. They’re happy. So that’s good.”
Whenever she can grab a spare day, she flies in for a quick visit; to gain more time together, the family sometimes reunites midway, in Dallas, where they stay with cousins or other relatives. But it’s clear that the grind of being first on the call sheet and child rearing at a distance takes its toll. When the guilt becomes overwhelming, Harmon turns to costar Lorraine Bracco, who plays Rizzoli’s outspoken Italian mother. “We talk a lot about parenting,” says Bracco, who has two grown daughters and recalls her own days of career-family struggle. Harmon, she says, makes it work: “She’s got more energy than anybody I know. She’s definitely a fun mom. Her girls are lovely. They’re incredibly well behaved, smart, charming. They’re little tomboys, too.”
Even with the commuting challenges, Harmon finds Charlotte a good fit. She likes its friendly vibe and churchgoing habits, which reflect the importance of prayer in her life. “The one thing I’ve learned is that even in my darkest moments, when I feel the most alone, I’m not alone. I can still talk to God and ask for help. I want my girls to know that,” she says, and she has enrolled her kids in a Christian school. But speaking to a higher power, Harmon adds, isn’t the only avenue for problem solving: “I believe in therapy. I don’t believe in staying in it for life. When you have an issue, you go talk to someone, get your issue taken care of, then you go live your life, and you’re armed with the tools to do it correctly.”
Charlotte’s diverse political climate is another plus. A few years ago, Republican Harmon was leaving an event when a reporter approached her. “He asked me, ‘Do you agree with the way the president is handling things right now?’ I said, ‘No, absolutely not.’ ” Though she’d always been open about her political allegiance—she and Sehorn even gave a joint speech at the 2004 GOP convention—Harmon says the remark triggered an Internet backlash: “The day after I said I didn’t agree with the president, it was posted that I was a gay-hating racist.” She spent the next year staging what she calls a “full-blown campaign” to clear up misperceptions, appearing on talk shows like Chelsea Lately and The View (where Sherri Shepherd and Harmon’s longtime pal Whoopi Goldberg defended her). “I’m a liberal Republican,” says Harmon, who is pro-choice and believes in marriage equality. “We actually exist.”
When she talks about the experience, her shoulders droop: “I was devastated. I had one actor friend tell me I was brainwashed and stupid. Here was this brutally intelligent person, and I sat there looking at the limitations of his thoughts.” But she remains unapologetic. “Call it naïveté or stupidity, but I didn’t know that unless you are a Democrat, you aren’t allowed to talk politics in Hollywood,” Harmon says. “It’s bizarre to me that the so-called tolerant party can be so intolerant.”
She talks about her life progress with equal frankness. “I gotta tell you, 40 was really difficult for me,” says Harmon, who hit that milestone last year. One way she celebrated—or eased the pain—was by buying a double strand of rose-cut diamonds that she’s wearing around her neck today. She also found herself entering “not a midlife crisis, but a midlife wake-up. I’m halfway done,” she says. “I still have some good years. But I see the clock ticking where I didn’t see it before.”
When asked what age has taught her to appreciate, Harmon doesn’t hesitate: “My health, the beautiful moments in life. I’ve learned to stop and remind myself to look around and notice who I’m with. Then I take that moment to really record what is going on and to make it a great memory—because it is all so fleeting.”
MARGY ROCHLIN profiled Lauren Graham in the May issue of More.