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‘State of Affairs’ stars Alfre Woodard and Katherine Heigl on Washington’s power women

Katherine Heigl as Charleston Tucker, Alfre Woodard as President Constance Payton in NBC’s “State of Affairs.” (Photo by: Michael Parmelee/NBC)

My colleague Hank Stuever is not wrong to call “State of Affairs,” which premieres tonight at 10 on NBC, a “nicely polished but plenty bananas CIA drama.” After all, the series gives “Homeland” star Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) a run for her crazy by introducing us to Charleston Tucker (Katherine Heigl), the daily security briefer to President Constance Payton (Alfre Woodard), shortly after her fiancé–who also happens to be Constance’s son–is assassinated. And this is before we get to the conspiracies.

“State of Affairs” is  following the path blazed by other shows featuring tough, even unpleasant, women who get things done in Washington, DC, but it has the potential to take some of these ideas further. Rather than showing women as the powers behind the throne, a la “Scandal” rivals Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young), or the people working to do work too dirty for the boys to handle, like Carrie in “Homeland”, “State of Affairs” puts a woman in the White House and makes another woman her most powerful national security aide.

And when I spoke to Woodard and Heigl this summer, they were eager to start a debate about what it takes for women to get power, and how they use it when they get the opportunity.

President Constance Payton both served in the First Gulf War herself and grew up in a military family. Woodard says this backstory was important to her both because it helped make Constance’s path to the White House more plausible, and because it gave her an opportunity to tell a fresh story about military women.

“Even Deval Patrick has to wait several cycles before he can run, because you’re not going to have an African-American president right after the first one when a good swath of the country hasn’t even accepted this president as the legitimate president. If we have not had a woman president all these years, we have to figure out how she got there before Hillary, or Kay Bailey Hutchison, or whoever else,” she told me. “We don’t want people to go, ‘Oh, this is just a token thing,’ or ‘This is just a fantasy, the way they did back when Geena [Davis] played the president some time ago” in the drama “Commander in Chief.”

“We haven’t had a military president since Ike, really. And that’s going to be a new thing that we’re exploring as well,” she continued. “All we’re hearing about women in the military, rightly so, over the last eight years is how they have had to be fondled and raped and silenced when they have been compromised….We need to know that they are not victims. We won’t make them victims, thinking of our women as casualties. We just had our first admiral, [Michelle Howard] and Ann Dunwoody [the Army’s first female four-star general].”

Heigl has put similar thought into Charleston Tucker’s background.

“In my mind, she grew up in the South, she grew up in a wealthy family, she had a mother who expected her to be a Southern Belle and get married and bear babies,” Heigl explained. Choosing a career and a life that diverges from those expectations “gives her a certain self-confidence that I don’t think she normally would have had if she’d done what her mother wanted her to do. In that, she’s found a certain freedom. But will that freedom be useful to her? Or detrimental to her?”

And Heigl felt that it was important to portray Charlie’s sexual exploits in the wake of her fiancé’s death in a way that reflected that rebellion.

“Someone said to me the other day that they felt that the character was sexually unapologetic. And I went ‘Oh, that’s really interesting.’ Because generally speaking, I have been, and most of my girlfriends have been, very apologetic about it our whole lives. Because that is the stereotype or what we live in. And if you’re not really thinking about it, you don’t buck it so much. You just kind of go along,” she said. “This is not the tale of ‘Oh, if you’re sexually promiscuous, bad things are going to happen here.’ That’s not the story here.”

By putting two women at the center of the show, and introducing the audience to them at a moment when they have both suffered a grievous personal and professional loss, “State of Affairs” is steering straight into stereotypes about women, emotion, and leadership. Woodard was quick to argue that men and women are equally emotional, but that women manage their emotions in a way that is leavened by practicality.

“The fact that you have emotion just means that you’re alive. But emotion is fuel. It doesn’t cloud judgement. It means you’ve got the energy and the passion to make that decision,” she insisted. “Constance and Charleston are in the positions that they are in because they had to have the peripheral vision and the canniness and understanding of human nature to hop all of those fences that they needed to do to get across the field to where they are. And so of course these are two women that are at the top of their game. So the idea that they would suddenly be your local nutritionist or any such thing is absurd. We get them at the height of their power, in powerful positions, and they’ve been wronged as Americans,” as well as in their roles as mother and lover.

Women may have to obey protocol and keep up appearances in tough situations, Woodard argued. But “We’re not going to be shrinking violets,” Heigl argued. Woodard agreed with her: “Someone is going to have to answer.”