No longer limited to victims or backstabbers, actresses now hold show's juiciest parts

To be a woman on the early seasons of “24″ meant playing a character who was either in constant danger (like Jack Bauer’s wife and daughter), duplicitous (CTU turncoat Nina Myers) or conniving (first lady Sherry Palmer), while the men went about saving the world.

“I certainly was conscious of allegations of vague misogyny, and I’m not sure I disagreed,” admits “24″ producer Howard Gordon, who served as showrunner this past season.

But this time around, the women emerged as the strongest thing about the show. After playing the victim for a year, Kim Raver’s straight-laced Audrey Raines came back willing to break the rules for the greater good, Mary Lynn Rajskub’s confrontational Chloe O’Brian used her wits to help Jack escape many a fix, and Jean Smart joined the cast as unbalanced first lady Martha Logan.

“I was very conscious about making a change from last season to this season,” Raver says. “I came back, and I cut my hair much shorter and dyed it much blonder. As a result of what my character had gone through last year, I made a decision that she was going to be stronger, and the only way to cope was to be really proactive.”

Of course, on “24,” the writers can decide to kill off a character or make someone a traitor in an instant. “Essentially everyone has a target on their back,” Raver says, “and I definitely felt that I had a double target because of my character being involved with Jack Bauer. Those women didn’t have a tendency to last long.” For a brief moment midseason, it even seemed that Audrey might be collaborating with the terrorists.

Raver groaned when she first saw that script. “I definitely didn’t want to go down that road because I felt that I had been building this momentum.” But when she talked to Gordon about the twist, he reassured her Audrey wasn’t going to the dark side, but that their emotional history would make the scene better. “Then I knew that Kiefer and I would have some really fantastic dramatic moments to sink our teeth into.”

And even though the writers ultimately control the characters’ fates, the actresses are more than just their puppets. “I would say they’re co-puppeteers,” Gordon insists. “Every single actor who reaches that kind of level of longevity on the show really is a co-author of that character.”

For instance, the writers embraced the humor Rajskub brought to her part — a rarity on the super-serious series — and expanded her character to include more of it.

Looking back on her career, Rajskub says: “I’ve always been brought on as the quirky oddball. Certainly in this case, the feedback was (to play it) sort of annoying, people didn’t trust me. Then they started writing me siding with Jack, and it sort of grew into this more multifaceted person.”

“We just love her,” Gordon says. “She’s like one of those football players — when you’re desperate, you throw the ball to her, and she somehow always makes it work.”

The fifth season found Chloe dodging assassins, driving getaway vans and taking down a corrupt commander in chief, not to mention dealing with the death of her closest co-worker. “That’s the cool thing about the show,” she says. “The whole season is only one day, but this is the most character development I’ve ever had in 10 years of working.”

After four seasons, Bauer’s character is long since established. The arc to watch this year has been Cassandralike first lady Martha Logan. At first, her cries of conspiracy seemed like manifestations of her lunacy, but as the season progressed, auds watched Martha’s predictions come true.

Where Penny Johnson had been methodically Lady Macbethlike as President David Palmer’s wife in earlier seasons, Smart is unpredictable. “I think the brilliant thing they did is that they set her up as someone who obviously has some emotional fragility,” she says. One moment, she’s cowering in her room, the next she’s standing up to the president (Gregory Itzin, with whom she had acted onstage 20 years earlier).

“It’s unlike any other job that I’ve ever done,” Smart says. “Toward the beginning of the season, Gregory and I had this whole idea of the history of our relationship. We were talking to (exec producer-writer) Joel Surnow, and we wanted to know, did we have children and this and that. He just looked at us and said, ‘We don’t really deal in histories. You go do your little actor thing — we’re in the here and now, and there’s not even a tomorrow.’ “

That flexibility allowed the writers to scrap the ending they had in mind for the season and rewrite a scenario in which it is Martha who ultimately takes down her husband.

“When you have a character that is that distinctive, I suppose it is easier to make bold choices,” she says.

PRECIOUS MOMENTS

Jean Smart

“It was one of the great introductions I’ve ever had, where she’s done up to the nines in this beaded silk suit, all made up and just doesn’t like the way it looks. She says, ‘I look like a wedding cake,’ and dunks her head in the sink. And then five minutes later, she’s outside with her hair matted screaming at a secret service agent that he’s gonna be eating dog food out of a can if he doesn’t get his hands off of her.”

Mary Lynn Rajskub

“I liked this season from the get-go, when I was in bed with somebody, and then I had to go on the run and shoot somebody in episode one.”

Kim Raver

“When I was in New York doing ‘Third Watch,’ we would talk to the paramedics and firefighters all the time. These people go into a fire when other people are running out. It’s such a level of selflessness that I admire so much, and so it’s great to see a little bit of it in me, and definitely in Jack Bauer.”

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