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Becki Newton Talks The Lincoln Lawyer, Playing Strong Women, And Her Favorite Former Co-Star - Exclusive Interview

Becki Newton first rose to fame on "Ugly Betty," playing Amanda Tanen, the hilariously stuck-up receptionist at a fashion magazine. The actress followed up that role with noteworthy turns in the beloved sitcom "How I Met Your Mother" and the HBO dark comedy "Divorce." Now, for her latest small-screen outing, Newton is taking a turn for the dramatic with Netflix's "The Lincoln Lawyer." Adapted from Michael Connelly's bestselling books, the series centers on Mickey Haller (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a down-on-his-luck defense attorney who prefers to work out of the backseat of his Lincoln as it's driven around Los Angeles. Mickey's fortunes start to change when he inherits a colleague's law practice and finds himself taking on a high-profile case that could make his career, if it doesn't lead to his demise first.

Newton plays Lorna, a vital part of Mickey's law practice and his second ex-wife. While Lorna could be portrayed as a shallow stereotype, she's far more nuanced than that. An expert at law in her own right, she's not only an effective assistant to Mickey, she's also one of the people he cares about most in the world — and the feeling's mutual. Yet, there's no jealousy between the former couple, and anyway, Lorna's moved on with Cisco (Angus Sampson), another member of Mickey's team. In the show, Newton brings a sharp intelligence and emotional openness to Lorna that makes the character an endearing stand-out.

In an exclusive interview, Newton spoke to Looper about why she wanted to be part of "The Lincoln Lawyer," as well as working with Neve Campbell on the show, and the "Ugly Betty" actor she hopes to re-team with in the future.

Trading comedy for drama

Were you familiar with "The Lincoln Lawyer" books by Michael Connelly before you joined the show?

I was, absolutely. The books and the Matthew McConaughey movie.

Why did you want to be part of the show?

For me, more than anything, I was really drawn to the character of Lorna and the idea of playing this character within a legal dramatic context. I thought that would be a different type of tone than I'd ever done before and something I really wanted to tackle, and I'm really glad I did.

We know you from comedies like "Ugly Betty" and "How I Met Your Mother," but this is really a pure drama. How did you feel about doing a show where you didn't have to worry about setting up a joke?

I was grateful for the writers and producers that they allowed Lorna to be colorful and a little wacky and a little different. So I was able to bring a lot of myself and what I like to do into this character, but then ground her in this world, in the context of this law office. So it was really neat to be able to still be colorful, still be bold, but in this very, very strong female character.

Understanding the character of Lorna

Your character Lorna is the ex-wife of the title character, Mickey Haller, and she still works with him, but she seems comfortable with that. How did you understand her?

I had previously done a show called "Divorce" in New York where I started to explore the complexities of marriages once they've ended, how those relationships progress. So, for me, it wasn't an absurd thought that Lorna and Mickey were married and now they're not, but they still work together and this idea that the love is still there, even though they're not married. She still wants him to win and to do well, even though their marriage didn't necessarily work out. It was a really cool, modern take on a different path a relationship can [go], even if the marriage part didn't work out.

We don't really learn a lot about the backstory of Lorna and Mickey's relationship, why they got married, why they got divorced. Did you have any more information than what the show covered?

Not necessarily, which I actually love. I love when I can fill in the blanks with my own conclusions. That is something to be explored later if the show were to continue — why did they get together, and why did they break up? I think there's obviously a lot of affection between them and a lot of respect. And Mickey has also had a lot of struggles in his life over the past couple years. So I'm sure it's many, many factors. But I did really appreciate that underneath all of it, there is a real support there for each other. I know Lorna wants Mickey to do well and Mickey wants Lorna to succeed as well. They're very supportive of each other.

When you were doing your character development, did you write any backstory yourself?

I always do. I talked with [creator and showrunner] Ted [Humphrey] quite a bit, and we had some really great discussions. And he told me right in the beginning about some of Lorna's history, particularly in the context of law school, and her desire to become a lawyer one day, and some of the struggles she faced leading up to where we are in the show. I really appreciated that because I was able to fold a lot of that in right from the beginning.

Balancing Lorna's loves in the show

Lorna has moved on romantically with someone else that Mickey also works with, but she's cautious about telling Mickey about her plans for the future. How did you balance Lorna's caring for Mickey but also having other romantic interests?

For me, it all stemmed from Lorna who seems like a character that, most of the time, is unselfconscious in the way she dresses, in the way she walks, in the way she talks — but maybe her weak spot is Mickey. She's seen him go through a really hard time in the last couple years and wants him to get back on his feet, wants the law practice to do really well. 

The idea of her being in a relationship with someone he's also very close with is something she wants to handle delicately. And we see this in his response, he just wants her to be happy [too]. That's something she had to get off her chest so that she can continue to live in her bold and fearless way, even within the office with her ex-husband and current boyfriend.

The fun of a legal drama ... and having a pug co-star

This is a show about a lawyer, so Lorna spends a lot of time looking for evidence in cases and going to court. What did you enjoy about that aspect of the show, and were there challenging parts about it?

No, I loved every part of it because I'd never done anything like that before. And a lot of times I was looking for legal files while that cute little pug was running around my feet. So every part of it was delightful for me. And I loved that Lorna, even when all she had to do was find a file, put together the most fabulous outfit I'd ever seen. So it was always this fun adventure no matter what I was doing. I loved being part of this particular story and how it was told.

I love your non-human co-star.

Who doesn't love a pug? All you need to do is zoom in on a [dog], and the audience will smile.

We don't see a lot of characters on TV shows who have dogs that they care about and they spend a lot of time with.

I've noticed it more, though. There are so many people that bring their dogs to work and it's no big deal. The dog's on their lap while they're doing work, especially after the pandemic, when everyone had to work from home. Lorna and that pug are way more normal than we realize.

I love the fact that the show is bringing that out. But I did wonder, since the dog doesn't really understand hitting its mark, were those scenes extra difficult?

So this is where sometimes my comedic background gets in my way. When I have a really serious scene where I'm discovering something about a possible murder and there is a pug breathing heavy and wheezing next to me, it is so hard to keep a straight face because I have a tear in my eye trying to talk about this discovery, and this pug is making so many weird snorting sounds that I'm trying to ignore but can't. A few times I had to really keep it together so I didn't ruin everything by laughing.

That would be hard.

It really would. But yet there was one particular scene where the dog's sitting there on Lorna's lap and it's not a big deal and she's looking for information and it looked very natural. So I actually really enjoyed it.

Keeping the courtroom dynamic intact

David E. Kelley created this series, and he's well known for developing some very popular lawyer-centric shows. Did he have any advice he passed on to you about making those lawyer scenes work?

All of the directors and Ted, the showrunner, are all so familiar with David. There was such a clear understanding of how to shoot particularly the courtroom scenes. I wouldn't even know where to begin to plan those out, but they knew exactly what they were doing, where the cameras needed to be. And it was so efficient, especially considering it was a first-year show. I marveled at the efficiency of it. Particularly, imagine a huge courtroom with a — What is it called in a courtroom? Not the audience. I don't know what they're called. I'm clearly a performer, if I think everything has an audience — but there's the jury, there's the judge, there's so much to cover, and they did it seamlessly.

In real life, court rooms are very staid environments but the show makes them seem more dynamic. Did being in those environments help your performance?

I think it did. There's a certain fish-out-of-water element with Lorna — when she walks into a courtroom, she doesn't look like someone who would spend a lot of time hanging out [there]. But I started to really enjoy that about her. When she pops in and tells Mickey something, there's something kind of sparkly and interesting and fun about Lorna wherever you put her. There was one episode where I was wearing a bright pink plaid suit and I walked into a very serious courtroom, and I thought, "What a cool aspect to this character, Lorna, that she is completely comfortable in any situation wearing bright pink plaid." 

Working with Neve Campbell

Lorna is not Mickey's only ex-wife. Before Lorna, he was married to Neve Campbell's character, Maggie, who's also still in his life. How would you describe the relationship between Lorna and Maggie?

This was one of my favorite days of filming. I even think it was my first day. I was on set and there was a scene between Maggie and Lorna, so Neve and I. I've been a fan of Neve forever. I couldn't believe I got to work with her. And there was a scene where we're both awkwardly standing with each other talking about Mickey. And Neve right away said to the director, "I don't want this to be about two women bitching with each other. I want this to be about two women who are trying to help Mickey." Right away, she didn't want the dynamic to be two ex-wives having a problem with each other. She wanted it to be more complex than that and smarter than that.

I was so grateful that Neve had thought about it so much, because it's much more interesting to have these ex-wives who are able to communicate, to talk about what's best for Mickey, to talk about what's best for Mickey's daughter, and with all of it coming from good intentions, as opposed to cat fighting. I was so impressed with Neve, with her thoughtfulness, and grateful that someone that I'd idolized for a long time, in addition to being that talented, was that smart.

Playing a strong, supportive woman

That brings up one of the things I appreciated about the show. Even though the title character is a man and that's who is driving a lot of the action, the people that are supporting him are primarily these very strong women.

Mm-hmm. And women that, in different ways, he can't live without. He leans on them and he's not afraid to say it. It's a really great cast of really strong female characters.

From your perspective, how did you go about bringing that strength to someone else while also keeping it for your own character?

I have to give the credit to the writers because Lorna is this funny, bright, bold secretary, but right away, they planted the seeds that she had gone to law school, and very quickly they showed that she planned on going to law school again with the support of Mickey. I love that they didn't make Lorna a secretary in a short skirt and not much else. She has this fierce intelligence, this loyalty to Mickey, but none of it gets in the way of her own ambition for herself.

We don't see Lorna with Mickey's daughter a lot, she has one scene where she shows what a good stepmother she is. It's this other dimension of the character that's very inspiring.

Yes, it's unapologetic. And that's what I really love, that these women all can support Mickey and the family and the law office and each other. It's a very supportive group. The writers and the actors did a good job of not making it competitive or petty.

Drawing on personal experience to play a mother figure

I haven't actually seen you playing a mother all that much, or a mother figure...

Oh, that's true. I never thought of that. Somehow I don't play mothers very much, but I am a mother of three in real life. So maybe I'm getting my fill at home.

How did you feel about being able to draw on that for this series?

I've been lucky because, as the years have gone by, my personal experiences have helped the characters I play. I noticed it when I did "Divorce" with Sarah Jessica Parker in New York. I felt so lucky to be exploring a more adult version of characters I'd played in the past. And in the past, I was maybe looking for boyfriends and playing characters at a very different stage in their lives. But, in the last 10 years, I've been really lucky to play characters that have become more complex with age. And it has reflected some of the things I've gone through in my own life. I am a mother of three kids now. I'm a married woman. And to play these complex, intelligent women with so many layers has been so great. I feel so lucky that I've been able to evolve in that way.

The hopes for a Season 2

As you said, Lorna is not just a secretary. She's someone who knows the law and aspires to be a lawyer. If there is a Season 2, what are your hopes for where she could go?

There's so much to be explored. I would love to know more about her backstory with Mickey, what got them together, and where they went wrong. I'd love to know more about Lorna's ambition outside of the law office. What does she want for herself? Does she want her own practice one day? How would that be? I'd love to know more about what Lorna wants down the line. [The show] started touching upon that in the later episodes, [showing] that she does have this great ambition for herself.

You've played a lot of interesting roles. Is there one that's a dream role you wish you could play?

Every job that I've [had] has been a gift, [to play] these women that are complex and they're cool. I've been able to grow and age and continue to explore different aspects of being a strong woman, being a vulnerable woman. I've been so, so lucky. So, I've already played all my dream roles. And every subsequent job feels like icing on the cake.

I'm really, really lucky. "Ugly Betty" came along so early in my career, and it checked off so many boxes for everything I wanted to do, and everything since has been this amazing surprise. I've been able to work with so many talented people, and on every set, there are all these surprises that I wouldn't have expected. [In "The Lincoln Lawyer"], Manuel [Garcia-Rulfo], plays the lead, and his first language is Spanish, so I got to speak Spanish to him every day. I hadn't been able to do that in years. I was a Spanish major at the University of Pennsylvania, so I was able to actually speak Spanish at work every day. And that was this incredible surprise I never would've predicted.

[That's] part of Lorna's character that they reveal in one of the episodes, too — that she does in fact speak Spanish. So that's something I'd love to explore later, why does Lorna speak Spanish, and how much do she and Mickey speak Spanish together? That's an interesting angle that could be really fun.

A dream co-star Newton would love to work with again

You've worked with some incredible actors, as you mentioned, including Sarah Jessica Parker and Neve Campbell. Is there any actor or director you haven't worked with yet that you would like to?

When I go back to the list of actresses, it started with Vanessa Williams, Judith Light, America Ferrera [on "Ugly Betty"]. And then on "Divorce," it was Molly Shannon, Sarah Jessica Parker. And now it's Neve Campbell. I continue to be inspired by these women who've been in the business for a long time, have so much integrity, such great work ethic, and are so talented. I can't even imagine who I could work with next, but I'm sure I have so much to learn from everyone I work with in the future. I've been so lucky in that way to have so many inspiring women on sets with me.

You and Michael Urie became a beloved duo on "Ugly Betty." Is there any possibility that we will see you two in a project together again?

I just saw him yesterday. He's a dear, dear friend. We were about to do a show together right before the pandemic with Michael Patrick King. And it would've been a dream. We would've played brother and sister. I do believe Michael and I will re-team. And I think it will be sooner rather than later. So he's my dream co-star. I would say if I had one dream co-star for the future, it's Michael Urie.

I'll keep my fingers crossed that you'll re-team soon.

We will. I know we will in this lifetime, for sure.

The 10-episode first season of "The Lincoln Lawyer" premieres May 12 on Netflix.

This interview has been edited for clarity.