Amy Brenneman was a young actress with a great role on NYPD Blue, the groundbreaking 1990s TV show from Steven Bochco and David Milch, when costumers told her a young, good-looking director finally would be handling the next episode.
But, they warned, he also previously had been engaged to Rebecca Schaeffer, the young actress shot to death a few years earlier by an obsessed fan.
“I remembered [the murder],” Brenneman said. “’Oh, great, I thought, this cute guy is going to be super messed up, and that’s going to be catnip for me, and here’s my life.’ But really from the get-go, he was one of the mentally healthy people I had met. [Schaeffer’s murder] is something that happened to him, but it does not define him. It was very clear that he had chosen to stay open to life. [His] big balls-out move was falling in love with another actress with a big public persona.”
It is that far-too-common experience of living through crushing and unexpected loss, and Silberling’s ability to deal with and move beyond the loss, that makes up the first episode of Brenneman’s new podcast series, The Challengers, which launches today, on iTunes and other major distributors.
“I’m so glad Brad’s episode is the one we lead off with,” Brenneman said. “It’s quite a vibrant example of how something challenging, devastating can change us. It was clear he wasn’t hung up on her. He was absolutely available to be in a relationship.”
But Brenneman had her own challenging life history to deal with. Her mother, one of the first women to graduate from Harvard Law School, mostly raised Brenneman on her own while working as a family court judge in Connecticut. Her mother’s life would later inspire Brenneman’s Emmy- and Golden Globe-nominated role in her show Judging Amy.
Brenneman’s lawyer father was an alcoholic, though one who spent 35 years in Alcoholics Anonymous dealing with the disease before his death. He was the one who helped Brenneman unlock her unhealthy attraction to unhealthy men and be open to Silberling.
“I said to my father, everything is going great, but I can’t get over this idea that if [Schaeffer had] lived, he’d be with that person,” Brenneman said. “My father said, ‘If he continues to love you, you may feel grateful to Rebecca for teaching him how to love you.’”
A year and a half after meeting Brenneman, Silberling asked her to marry him. She said yes. Nearly 25 years later, the couple remain married, with two children.
And now comes The Challengers, which Brenneman said she created to talk about people dealing with the transforming, often unfixable, challenges that life dumps in our laps while we’re making grand plans for our future.
Partly it’s born out Brenneman’s experience with 12-step programs such as A.A., which so helped her father, and support groups, like the ones her family is part of because her daughter has special needs.
“It’s very hard for people to find a safe place to deal with problems—not fix them, but live with them,” Brenneman said. “I’m a big believer in healing talk. Just getting things out in the open, there’s a lot that can happen.”
Brenneman created the podcast with Digital Media Management, or DMM, whose other clients include Elizabeth Banks and her WhoHaHa comedy site, and Brenneman’s former Private Practice costar Kate Walsh and her Boyfriend perfume.
Together, they cast around for ways to extend what Brenneman does to a broader audience in a different medium than broadcast TV (When DMM asked if she had a fashion line, a typical celebrity brand extension, Brenneman said she told them, “No, I’d rather die.”). Given Brenneman’s background as the loquacious, Harvard-educated daughter of two lawyers, a podcast seemed a natural fit, a way to give voice to stories about dealing with the insuperable.
“It’s trying to identify people who’ve gone through what some would consider a challenging moment in their life, and have learned that challenge is going to be with them and that’s okay,” said DMM’s CEO Luigi Picarazzi.
Among the other guests on the show’s first six episodes will be Emmy-winning writer/producer Damon Lindelof, one of the creators behind such TV hits as Lost and The Leftovers, in which Brenneman starred, and the upcoming HBO graphic-novel adaptation Watchmen.
Brenneman also tapped lesser-known people from her life in Hollywood and beyond, including TV writers Nancy Neufeld Callaway and Susan McMartin, Lutheran minister and bestselling sex-manual author Nadia Bolz-Weber, and the two women who form Brenneman’s support system at her daughter’s special-needs school, Cynthia Griffiths and Dawn Hamilton.
“I talked to my husband about getting that call no one wants to get,” Brenneman said. “I talk to my friend Nancy, who was diagnosed with leukemia. I talked to my friend with a special-needs kid. What happens then? We live our lives plotting and positioning. That’s being a responsible person. We don’t incorporate frailty and challenge in a way that’s humanizing. ”
The general topic—especially that first-episode conversation between husband and wife about the murder of the husband’s previous fiancée—probably wouldn’t have been made a decade ago, Picarazzi said.
Years ago, a video conversation between the two probably would have been slashed to ten minutes of highlights, if that. It might have been a blog, but it certainly wouldn’t have found many sponsors, or even, perhaps, not that many readers. Now an insurgent and intimate medium is creating opportunities for new ways to tell compelling stories.
“To hear the intimacy of this conversation, I was just glued to it,” Picarazzi said of the first episode. “I commended them for putting it out there, but the intention is for people who are going through grieving and loss to hear that it’s going to stick with you for the rest of your life.”
And in these days of shifting expectations for brands, a regular conversation like that on difficult topics can actually find sponsors willing to back it, Picarazzi said.
“In the ad space, brands like Dove are empowering women to be themselves and not this perfect version of themselves,” Picarazzi said. “The brand space has changed. If you asked me 10 years ago, I would have said, ‘Forget it, don’t go near these kinds of subjects.’ But now we’re seeing brands rallying around these kinds of topics.”
Regardless, Picarazzi said the podcast will launch without ads for its first six-episode season, in part to learn what works with Brenneman’s audience and go from there.
DMM also created audiograms and an Instagram Live component featuring video highlights from Brenneman’s recorded conversations, to help with cross-marketing. DMM and Brenneman will work through her existing social-media audience (a modest 200,000 followers so far) to further amplify and extend the conversation with listeners.
“You have to build an audience first, see who’s listening,” Picarazzi said. “If you’re going to brands, you have to sell demographics, a bunch of data (about the audience), and we don’t have that data yet.”
So instead, The Challengers will focus on one old-school challenge, telling a good story well.
“This was born out of the intention of storytelling, first and foremost,” Picarazzi said. “Our main objective was to put a show out there that was born out of Amy, with a story she really wanted to tell.”