Antagonist/Protagonist – Both Sides Now: A Conversation with Major Crimes’ Mary McDonnell

Mary McDonnell
Photo by Grace Moss

Actress Mary McDonnell has once again returned to Dragon Con after a few years away. While she may always be Battlestar Galactica’s President Laura Roslin to many fans, I’m really enjoying her work on TNT’s Major Crimes where she plays Captain Sharon Raydor. McDonnell always brings a quiet power to the roles she plays, often embodying women who are commanding and unquestionably in charge without having to raise her voice above the seemingly tranquil tone that’s become her hallmark.

In addition to her two panels, McDonnell is also signing autographs on the Walk of Fame. She’s donating all of the money she collects to Sinte Gleska University, and that was the first thing she wanted to talk about when we sat down for this chat.

Mary McDonnell (MM): Sinte Gleska University is housed on the Rosebud Sioux reservation in South Dakota. The tribes from the Rosebud and Pine Ridge reservations in South Dakota are where all the beautiful Native Americans who were in Dances With Wolves as extras came from. At the time a very good friend of mine who taught me to speak my lines–our language coach Doris Leader Charge–was already very involved in Sinte Gleska. I learned about it then. She took me out to the reservation and, at that time, it was a small college housed in trailers and there wasn’t a lot there. But they have since grown and they’re now a university, and they have amazing teachers.

I recently became very passionately interested in the university again. I’m at the beginning of another fundraising campaign to support and keep Sinte Gleska strong and protected. It’s a phenomenal place. I just recently raised some funds they were able to use to open a daycare center. A lot of their students are parents who can’t always afford daycare. Now they have a daycare center with a teacher who is teaching the little ones Lakota. A centerpiece of Sinte Gleska’s degree program is the Lakota culture and language and making sure that it is central to the student’s education.

This university is like lifeblood to that particular corner of South Dakota. That’s why I’m here. Everybody that comes to my table knows that they are helping out in a major way an outstanding institution.

Daily Dragon (DD): Are you enjoying being back at Dragon Con?

MM: I just love Dragon Con. I haven’t been here in a few years, and I think it’s just the best con, without a doubt. It’s so much fun and so spirited and it just gets bigger every year.

We just did the first ever Major Crimes panel. We didn’t know if it would be big or small; we just thought we’d get the ball rolling. So many people came that they had to move us to a bigger room. Right on, Dragon Con!

DD: That’s great to hear! I’m a big fan of Major Crimes (and The Closer before it). One of the things I love about it is the relationships between the characters, especially between Captain Raydor and Rusty (played by Graham Patrick Martin). In the show, all the characters really do move forward and grow instead of standing still and rehashing the same beats over and over.

MM: That’s a very good way to put it. The characters do move forward–they change with life. And they try to live. I appreciate that none of the characters are seriously disturbed, and that’s refreshing to me! I just love the humanity of the interactions. That’s why they work.

DD: Was it hard to make the transition from being a guest star on The Closer who was first brought in as an antagonist to becoming the protagonist in the spin-off?

MM: Oh, it was very difficult and very challenging. But it was exactly that idea that made me want to try it. Because I think that we all have an antagonist and a protagonist in us at any moment. And quite often we will be perceived as an antagonist by others, but they’re only seeing us at a very specific moment in our lives, or seeing a specific action. They don’t know us at all. And we’re very quick to judge people. I wanted the opportunity to take “Darth Rader,” as the characters called her, and open her up so people would go: “You know what, I was pretty quick to judge that woman and I didn’t know a thing about her.” And that’s what happened. And I’m thrilled with that.

DD: Anything you can tell me about what’s coming up in the second half of Season 3?

MM: Oh I can’t tell you. That would be spoilers! I can say that the relationships between characters will get a lot deeper and more complicated. And there are a couple of heavy duty crimes that you’re going to see.

DD: What other projects are you working on?

MM: I’m getting ready to do a play in Philadelphia with my daughter, Olivia Mell, and David Strathairn. We’re doing The Cherry Orchard at the People’s Light & Theatre. We’ll be performing it all the month of February.

Don’t miss Mary McDonnell’s second panel, “BSG: May the Gods Watch O’er Us,” Sunday at 4pm in Centennial II-III at the Hyatt.

If you don’t get a chance to get an autograph in the Walk of Fame but want to support her cause, you can send donations directly to Sinte Gleska University through their website.

Author of the article

Tempest Bradford is a science fiction and fantasy author by night and a technology journalist by day. When she's not geeking out over the latest phone, coolest tablet, or most useful laptop, she spends her time absorbing, analyzing, and writing about genre media. Oh, and writing fiction, too. Her published stories and random thoughts can be found on her blog and website at