ABC drama helped Canadian actor learn American politics

Rick Bentley
Tribune News Service

Los Angeles — One of the biggest mid-season finales among all the network programs was the ABC drama “Designated Survivor,” where a deadly car crash took the life of First Lady Alex Kirkman (Natascha McElhone). When the series returns to original programming Wednesday, 10 weeks will have passed and President Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland) and his senior staff are continuing to deal with the grief.

Italia Ricci portrays the president’s chief of staff Emily Rhodes in “Designated Survivor.”

One of the key members of his staff pushing the president to get some help is his chief of staff, Emily Rhodes (Italia Ricci). She, like most of the cast and crew, knew McElhone was planning on leaving the series, so her death scene wasn’t a complete shock. What was more upsetting to Ricci was news had been released about McElhone’s future acting plans to star in the Hulu series “The First” before the dramatic episode aired in December.

“I think once people saw that she had signed on to do another show, that was the real punch in the gut. It would have been nice if the news hadn’t gotten out until January,” Ricci says during an ABC party. She’s hanging out with Ben Lawson, whose role as MI-6 operative Damian Rennett on “Designated Survivor” has taken some interesting twists.

Generally, when a show takes a break, something as dramatic as the death of a major character is played as a cliffhanger. Ricci explains that was never the case, especially with the scene that shows Kirkman collapsing after getting some news. She also points out that the scene where Lawson’s character drags himself out of a freezing river after being shot was planned as a cliffhanger, but a last scene was shot to reveal Lawson’s character had survived.

Neither Ricci nor Lawson know what big events are coming for their characters until they get the script with those scenes. Ricci jokes that future scripts could have her be a double agent or be related to Lawson’s character. For now, she has no idea what the future will bring.

“You read it as it comes,” she said. “And, I think it is as exciting to read as it is for the viewers to see it,”

Before joining the team that was put together to rebuild the federal government after an explosion leveled the Capitol and killed a majority of the top officials including the president, Ricci had a short run on the series “Supergirl.” She played the evil Siobhan Smythe, better known as Silver Banshee.

“I have never had to play pretend so much. I would be standing there acting like I am screaming and nothing would be coming out of my mouth. I knew I looked ridiculous, but I just went for it. The only advice I can give is that you have to believe what you are doing for it to work,” Ricci says.

Part of the fun of doing “Supergirl” was she got to do many of her own stunts, including a 60-foot fall. There were some concerns about letting her do the stunt despite being firmly fasten to a harness, but Ricci’s response when any concern was addressed was to take the fall higher and higher.

Doing the five episodes of “Supergirl” gave Ricci a better appreciation for those who work in comic book-inspired television projects all the time. She likes that with “Designated Survivor,” her character is a relatively normal person doing a relatively real job.

Ricci has never been a big follower of politics before landing the role on “Designated Survivor.” She’s been using the excuse that she’s Canadian, so American politics is a bit of an alien world. Ricci has been exposed to enough American government news that she says at this time the political world is a little more strange and unusual than the comic book world.

One thing that has helped Ricci become more immersed in American politics is the sets where “Designated Survivor” shoots. Traditionally, each room would be a stand-alone set scattered through one or two soundstages. The sets for the ABC political drama are linked together so actors can move from room to room without missing a beat.

“It gives you a sense of being in that space and not really turning it off,” Ricci says.

The actor — who started performing at the age of 9 — has rolled up a long list of credits to use as a comparisons to her current job. Her past work includes starring in ABC Family’s “Chasing Life,” where she played a young woman dealing with leukemia through the support of her family and friends. Before that she guest-starred on “CSI,” “Greek,” “House” and “How I Met Your Mother.” Her film credits include “Resident Advisor,” “Don Jon” and “The Remaining.”

She’s back to work now in the White House for the second half of the season for “Designated Survivor” and ready to see what big events are in her future.

‘Designated Survivor’

10 p.m. Wednesday

ABC (Channel 7)