The apocrypha Interview: Lorraine Toussaint
By Kitteridge

Shambala Green. A name to send shivers down the spine of even the most practiced District Attorney. As "Miss Sham-ba-la Green," as Michael Moriarty's Ben Stone once referred to her, Lorraine Toussaint became one of the best-loved recurring characters on Law & Order. Though she only appeared in six episodes (Subterranean Homeboy Blues, Indifference, Secret Sharers, Skin Deep, Jurisdiction, and Sanctuary) Toussaint made the character her own. Brash, feisty, willing to lay down her life for her client and her cause (in that order, mind you), she took on anyone who crossed her path. Which, in most cases, happened to be EADA Ben Stone. The two clicked, just as Green snapped her audience to attention whenever she walked in the room. Whether defending the seemingly-indefensible client, or handing important information to the DA's office because "it was the right thing to do," Shambala was always the attorney we'd want representing us, if we needed her. And the great thing always was that we knew she'd be there for us.
Lorraine, calling from her new home on the Left Coast, was kind enough to spend a few minutes with apocrypha a few weeks ago. Fortunately, there was no cross-examination allowed.

Do you still hear from people about your appearances on the show?
Oh, yeah. I don't get as many letters anymore, but going through airports or malls or just -- oh, because the fans seem to have divvied up into two camps. There's the new camp and the old camp. The A&E camp, and the network camp. And so I get a lot of feedback from the old boys, the old A&E folks. I'm actually quite amazed.
What do they say?
They love the show, they adore the show, they think it's one of the best shows on television. Which I actually agree -- the fact that it's won an Emmy after how many years of being on the air? I get that they love Shambala Green.
Yes, I miss her terribly.
(laughs) They just love her and want her back. And honestly, she's one of the funnest characters I've ever played. She's so righteous and so wrong half of the time.
You think so? The way you portray her, viewers end up thinking, 'well, maybe she has a point there.'
Well, absolutely. The energy I put into my arguments, you'd think 'well, anybody who feels that strongly must be right!' But you know what, as I step back, as Lorraine steps back and I look at some of her arguments, I think 'oh, my God...she's so flawed.'
You were on five episodes, correct?
Four, or five? Four, maybe? As few as four? But they also wrote Shambala Green into the short-lived show Feds. In the pilot, Shambala came back, which was really kind of neat.
Which obviously means Wolf's got some affection for the character.
For the character, yes. Certainly.
Is there a reason you haven't been on more episodes?
I don't know. There are a bunch of new producers, it really is an entirely new cast and maybe even new concept, and a lot of it has been based on my availability. They have called a couple of times, when I literally had not been available, because I've been doing my own shows and all that stuff. So a lot of it -- I just haven't been available.
What is it, do you think, about her that stands out to the fans?
I fight for the underdog. And the disenfranchised. And if there's a cause, call Shambala Green. I just love fighting for the guys who I think have no voice, have no chance in the system. So I think there's something in all of us which responds to anybody who's willing to go to bat with the vehemence and to the extent that Shambala Green does. Every life, every case is about life and death. I always feel like 'if I lose this case, I'm going to die.' Because everything is really life and death for her. I think if I needed a lawyer, I'd want somebody like that. I think we also have -- my frustration is -- clearly early on in the series I decided that this character was not necessarily interested in law, but always interested in justice. And they are not always one in the same in the system. So if I have a choice, I will always fight for justice, and I think there's something in all of us that wants to believe that justice actually exists, and may even exist through the law. But I think my character Shambala is very clear that there's one and then there's the other. And she often has to choose, and she will always choose justice. And that was one of the wonderful things about Stone, the Michael Moriarty character. He would always choose law, because law meant order to him. Because far as I'm concerned, can also come at the price of extraordinary chaos. But in law, there is order.
There always was a great chemistry between you two when you were on the screen together.
Wonderful chemistry. Because we loved each other. I just loved working with him.
Really? A lot of people have said how volatile he can be....
But look at Shambala Green! (laughs) I mean -- Michael was never difficult with me. Never, never, never. We had the best time. Just...I mean, you know, when the cameras weren't rolling we'd be in the corner talking about his music or his jazz or metaphysics or God concepts. We had a great time. I found him to be extraordinarily generous and sweet and sexy. Not many words he would use as Michael. There was a point where we were actually ... I think it was actually taken to the producers that there was possibly a love interest that was going to develop between Stone and Green. Because there was just so much chemistry between us.
I guess at that time they weren't considering that sort of thing as part of the plot.
No, they weren't interested in the personal lives of the attorneys or the cops. It really was about the cases.
So who brought the idea to them?
Michael did.
How did you get the part in the first place?
I was living in LA at the time, and they just called and made me an offer.
Did they give you a character sketch?
They did, and if I remember clearly ... she was ... tough ... the words were ... feminist came up in the description, and I remember this specifically -- 'feminist, tortoise-rimmed glasses, Berkeley attorney.'
That's not very much to go with.
'Tough, Berkeley, feminist, horn-rimmed' kind of thing. And I thought 'oh, my God, who are they describing? They want Angela Davis?'
So that's not exactly what you ended up giving them!
No! And they said, 'Well ...' and I said 'but you're hiring me, so there!'
Did you base your character off of anyone in particular or did you make it up as you went along?
I made it up as I went along, but I also wanted her to be passionate and impulsive, and in terms of -- if anything, I wanted -- because the writing is so good, the writing is so good, that it was never completely wrong. Even if I was off in my argument or my stance, it was worthy of ... you had to think about it, because I also spoke truth. And I loved the fact that really, truly, oftentimes Michael represented law and I really represented justice, which so oftentimes goes against law. And law's primary interest is order.
The writers usually had some political or social views they wanted to bring through the cast members. Do you think those agendas were effectively drawn through the dialogue you were given?
Oh, sure. I was quite happy. And when I wasn't, the writers were very open to my input. I remember one episode, specifically, the race riot episode, the final one I did -- [Sanctuary] where we really did work so closely with the writers. Because it really was issues of deep racism and I remember sort of going to bat around the table, and writing and rewriting and restating and actually trying to state how complicated that particular issue was. I remember us working to bring out as many layers as possible so you could go away saying 'you know, he's right, but you know, she's right, too.' And that's tough to do.
Do you still watch the show?
You know, I don't. I don't watch television, I don't have time. I watch 'Nick at Night' for about a half hour, and that's it.
I've found in later episodes that without any African-American cast members, they tend to have to deal with race issues from an outsider's viewpoint, and that's not always as effective.
And that was the thing about Shambala, when you brought her in, you got it from the inside out. And -- as I've said, she wasn't always right or politically correct, not at all, but I think that's what the fans liked about her. Some of them love to hate her! I've had people say 'oh, God, you make me so mad!' and I say 'well, good. I've made you think.'
You've said about Moriarty, but do you remember anything about working with the other actors?
They were lovely. I worked mostly with Michael at the time, but I also worked with Richard Brooks, who was a lovely, lovely actor, and brought an essence and a presence to the show which I certainly missed when he left. Lynnie McCormick who was just on Cracker was terrific, too. And what was the other woman's name who came in after Lynnie -- Michael's assistant.
Jill Hennessey.
Jill. Exactly. It was wonderful, really, very much a family. And I was there under Joe Stern, and he really adored actors. Actors really had free reign in terms of creative input and he respected actors. And I'm sure it's the same way there now, but I primarily worked with Joe Stern.
Did you ever want it to become a more permanent character?
I did, because I loved doing that show. And I loved the writing. At the time -- it isn't that way anymore, thank God -- there was nowhere else in my career where I was given those kinds of words. And those kinds of issues to present as passionately as I was given the opportunity to do so. It was an exciting role to bring to life. It challenged me, which I adore. I love being challenged, because oftentimes they're very stereotypical -- and I have a hard time with that.

Lorraine Toussaint is currently working on a pilot for Lifetime television called Between Friends, which should air in March or April.

whaddya think?