From Peg Bundy (“Married… With Children”) to Gemma Teller Morrow (“Sons of Anarchy”), Katey Sagal has played strong-willed characters before. But she doesn’t believe she’s ever played someone like Annie “Rebel” Bello.
“I know I’ve played some very hard women, but she’s hard for all of the right reasons. Her reasoning is to empower people to stand up and talk,” Sagal tells Variety.
In the new ABC drama “Rebel,” from “Grey’s Anatomy” showrunner Krista Vernoff and inspired by the real life of Erin Brockovich, Sagal’s title character is a blue-collar legal advocate — who doesn’t actually hold a law degree. In the premiere episode, though, she throws herself up against big corporation Stonemore Medical in order to fight for those who have been harmed by autoimmune symptoms from the company’s synthetic heart valve.
“She is incensed by the thought that somebody is getting screwed over and that nobody’s seeing it or nobody’s talking about it or nobody’s standing up and doing something,” Sagal says. “For my own backstory for Rebel, which I made up for myself, this is a person that probably struggled with a lot of injustice in her own life and she got to the point of, ‘That’s not going to happen again.’ So she really has that voice for people who don’t feel they have one.”
To better understand what her character would be up against, Sagal’s research process for the role included studying the Netflix documentary “The Bleeding Edge,” which suggests that medical technology may actually be doing more harm than good due to corporate cover-ups, for-profit practices and too-lenient regulations. She also dug into wider advocacy groups on the topic.
Sagal calls Rebel “super focused on what it is that she’s doing” and “very one-mind” when it comes to accomplishing her goal. In this case, it is to get that valve off the market. In having such tunnel vision, she “doesn’t necessarily take into account the feelings of other people,” Sagal continues. “She thinks, ‘Well, this is the way we should do it, and everybody should think the way I do.’ The thing about Rebel is she’s passionate about what she’s passionate about and at the expense of everything else, in a way.”
Although Sagal calls that Rebel’s flaw, it’s also where some of the “funny conflict and the push and pull with the family” will come into play.
Because, for all of Rebel’s “in your face” attitude, she does not have to go at it alone. At least one of her ex-husbands (who happens to be a police officer, played by Matthew Glave) and one of her daughters (played by Ariela Barer) seem eager to help her out, while her son (Kevin Zegers) is likely to come around. And she has a friend in Lana (Tamala Jones), her investigator who is both her former sister-in-law and an ex cop.
“To me it’s really, really interesting that her kids have a chip on their shoulders about the way that they were raised — because in so many ways they were neglected — but at the same time, they’ve all gone into service work, the way she has. So that to me is an interesting dichotomy. In their personal lives they have definitely struggled with some of the things you struggle with if you feel you weren’t being parented enough, but at the same time, they admire her and they’ve learned a lot from her,” Sagal says.
Sagal admits she has had to “put aside my more maternal instinct” to embody Rebel, who has a contentious relationship with her kids in many moments. “She doesn’t handle things the way Katey would handle things, so I’m constantly having to put aside some of my, ‘Well I’ll listen to your point of view’ — because that’s how I function in the world — and really, constantly remind myself she has a thing about justice,” she explains.
Rebel’s hard edge may help her stay steadfast in her mission, but her ability to laugh at herself is what will likely make her successful, even when standing up against such large, imposing entities, according to Sagal.
“You say no to her and she’s going to come in through the side door,” she says. “Rebel gets herself in situations and handles things that are messy, and the way she bursts in on people when they’re least expecting, it has some humor to it as well. I think that’s the way she’s going to dodge the bullets of corporations: she always has another idea.”
“Rebel” premieres April 8 at 10 p.m. on ABC.