Dedee Pfeiffer as Denise Brisbane on Big Sky

September 08, 2021

Quirk in Progress

Dedee Pfeiffer, who plays Denise Brisbane on Big Sky, says, “I’m into all the mysteries of the universe.” It’s an opportune outlook, because mysteries abound on the unpredictable ABC drama.

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Jennifer Vineyard

If you visited the offices of Dewell & Hoyt in Helena, Montana, you'd probably be greeted by Denise Brisbane (played by Dedee Pfeiffer).

Of all the characters on ABC's Big Sky, she's the one who knows the most about your business — "gossip is her currency," says Pfeiffer — even though we know the least about hers.

Still, like good detectives, we can piece together a few clues. For one thing, we know Denise had a special bond with the recently departed Cody Hoyt (Ryan Phillippe). And she has odd ways of showing affection (remember when she dropped a banana on Katheryn Winnick's Jenny Hoyt?). She also named her truck Root Beer. So, is quirky Denise anything like Dedee — who turns out to be a little quirky herself? Let's find out.

You started shooting Season 1 in New Mexico just as shutdowns from the pandemic started happening...

We started hearing these rumors, "Hey, there's a pandemic maybe coming..." We were like, "Ah, that's hyperbolic." We all had that attitude, right? I was preparing to fly home because I wasn't filming for two weeks. I just wanted to make sure my teenagers weren't going to burn down my rental, make sure that we had enough dog, cat, and bird food, and I'd come back.

I was literally in flight when a friend said, "When you get back, buy toilet paper. People are going crazy." So I went to Costco, and I was traumatized. I've never seen such scary, desperate, fearful people in my life. We shut down. And then we went to Canada, which was a very interesting way of shooting. I never met any cast member unless they were in a scene with me. It was a little discombobulating, but we did it!

And we were able to make that look like Montana. Now that we're back in New Mexico, I'm actually curious how they're going to make parts of New Mexico look like Montana. I'm really interested to see the clever movie magic because I have not a clue.

I never have to worry about blowing storylines, because I'm the last to know. I'll know when I get the script. And I know that the integrity of the show will be the same as the first season when it comes to amazing storylines and incredible guest stars. We'll invite you on, but we might kill you. Or you might kill each other! None of us are safe.

Well, some might think your character is. After all, creator David E. Kelley is your brother-in-law...

(Laughs) Everyone says that, but are you kidding me? That would make amazing ratings if they killed off Denise, although it would also make for a very interesting Thanksgiving dinner. Can you imagine? So, I watch my Ps and Qs. But if they do have to take Denise out for the ratings, that's okay. Just give me another show on ABC. A spinoff! Bring her back. Give her an alien encounter!

I'm into all the mysteries of the universe. I gave Denise that same kind of open mind. I asked, "Hey, can Denise be reading the book Chariots of the Gods?" It's about the theory that a lot of stuff that we thought was one thing — the pyramids, Incan ruins, lost cities — are something else. Like, "Wait a minute, could these actually be from extraterrestrials from other universes?" When I asked about the book, they were like, "Sure." So, we have Denise being a believer. That's exciting for me.

I told them they should have Denise be abducted by aliens. Then Denise goes to work and tells everybody, and they think she's completely insane. (Laughs) Dewell & Hoyt still keep Denise, because she's really good at what she does, and they just kind of ignore her insanity. (Laughs)

This is why I don't produce. This is why I don't write. And it's another reason why I don't talk shop with my brother-in-law! know that sounds odd, but we just don't. I've never talked shop with David before, and I'm certainly not going to start now. He's probably like, "Leave the writing to me, nutty." (Laughs)

What other aspects of your personality did you incorporate into Denise or her backstory?

What's so fun about Denise is that she's in every episode, but you don't know a lot about her, so I was given a lot of room to fill in the holes. I always want to come in with a full character.

So, when I started the show, I talked to the other producers, and I said, "I'm going to fill Denise up and put a bunch of Dedee-isms in there." I mean, not completely. Denise has not been divorced three times, nor does she have a bunch of rescue animals that I'm aware of. Or maybe she does. Maybe we'll find out!

But I made her sober, like me. Back in the day, she would have chugged wine or tequila, but now she chugs coffee, because that's what you drink at AA meetings. Especially with Cody Hoyt having a drinking problem, it made perfect sense that Cody and Denise were like sober brother and sister. When you're an addict in recovery, you have a partner.

I talked to Ryan Phillippe and I was like, "Dude, I think this is where their friendship started. I was sober ahead of you, and then I helped you." It was never mentioned in the script or in the scenes, but it was played.

There was a scene between Ryan and me that was unfortunately cut out, where you could see their bond through their sobriety. Cody struggles with relapses, which Katheryn Winnick's character Jenny Hoyt mentions, and how Denise had the ability to be a rock for him. Denise then became the rock for everybody else in the story.

That's what you do for your clients, too. How do you bring your social worker lens or your clinical skills to Denise, and how does that dynamic work with your scene partners?

She's a hard listener. She knows when to come in and defuse a situation with humor at just the right moment, to lighten things up a bit. She's a good one to talk to because she's not going to judge you.

I'm the last person to be judging other people, so I gave her that quality. I'll use an example with Katheryn because she was so gracious. Jenny was in a lot of pain from having lost Cody, but she was running from that pain in the scene, just running from it. That's what was written, and she was playing it beautifully. But I thought, "I'm going to challenge her a little bit, and ask her to go to another level of pain."

So, I didn't throw the line at her as quickly as we had rehearsed. I paused. When we were done with the scene, Katheryn said, "Hey, can you do me a favor? Can you pick up that line? I'm kind of waiting for it." And I said, "Let me ask you a question. How did it make you feel when I didn't pick up that line as fast?" She said, "Uncomfortable. Vulnerable." And I said, "Aha! Let's go with that. Maybe that's what Denise is doing on purpose."

I had to give her my secret, but I wasn't doing it to trip her up. I was actually doing it because that's what a good therapist would do in that moment, when they see that someone is running from their feelings. It leaves some space for that person to sit in that painful moment. It might feel like you're going to die, but you're not going to die. And it says, "I'm here for you."

What I did was allow her to go to another vulnerable place. It was an amazing moment. She was like, "Oh, now I know how Dedee plays." And I'm like, "That's right, girl. We're going to play some ball!"

What was Kylie Bunbury, who plays Cassie Dewell, like as a scene partner?

Don't get me started! (Laughs) I love that woman. So ... I have an issue with my memory, and I don't know if it's because I'm sober, or because I'm 57, or because I might have had Covid. I had symptoms, like some hair falling out. It came back. It's okay. I'm not bald. But I was like, "What's happening?" So, I was having some issues remembering one line, and that's not like me. There was no reason for it not to be retained in my brain.

I couldn't explain it. It could have been a plethora of things, but it kept going out of my mind the minute they went, "Rolling!"

Kylie could see the fear in my eyes: "Something's wrong with me." I thought she would think I'm the most unprofessional actor! But she looked at me and she mouthed me my line, so it was right there in my short-term memory. When she saw me start to write lines on Post-It notes to leave on my desk, she was like, "Girl, you do what you got to do." Because I'm not going to blow a take because I have some weird residue Covid symptom.

It's not that I don't come prepared. So, Kylie threw me a lifeline, and I love her for it to this day. "I got you, girl."

David E. Kelley also threw you a lifeline. When he offered you this part, you had taken time off from acting to pursue a new career in social work, and the acting world wasn't exactly serving up a lot of parts for older women...

Oh, yeah! And girl, I'm 57, playing someone who is 50, so I'm playing a younger woman. I love saying that. It's just so funny. Denise is well aware that she's no longer in her 20s, and she's finally comfortable with that. I love representing that population of women because if we're lucky enough to grow old, you have two options. You grow old gracefully, or you grow old kicking and screaming.

Some days I'm kicking and screaming, don't get me wrong. "What is going on?! More wrinkles?!" But most days, I try really hard to grow old gracefully.

I was doing my internship at the Department of Mental Health, finishing up my last year of a master's program in social work at UCLA. The whole journey had taken 10 years, and I had taken a year off in between the two-year master's program to get sober, because it was something I could no longer run from. But I had no idea how I was going to cut it, financially. Single mother of two teenage boys, tons of rescued animals and on a social worker's salary?

Out of nowhere, I get a text from David. I didn't know he had my number because we only speak on holidays. "Hey, it's David. I was wondering if you're still acting. I'm doing a pilot, and I think I have this role that's perfect for you." I almost dropped the phone. I was so taken aback with emotion and shock. Of course, my reaction was, "Yes!"

And then I called my sister Michelle. "I think he offered me a role? I'm not sure. Do I have to read for it? I haven't read for a role in 10 years. Did you know?" And she goes, "Well, he's been talking about it for months, but I couldn't tell you, because he swore me to secrecy."

According to my sister, David had his eye on me for the role of Denise when he first optioned the book. When he started putting his David-isms in it, changing things around. And I was like, "Do you know that you guys have saved my life?" I'm going to cry, just telling you about it.

So, I'm able to go back and be one of the few older actresses who I like to consider as recycled. I'm recycled. I got a comeback, and in a way that's more than just being able to entertain people. I also hopefully get to help people, to let them know that they're not alone with their addiction. They're not alone when it comes to feeling isolated from trauma.

I'm able to use the platform of Denise to reach out to people who feel isolated and alone. I get to show what recovery can really look like. I tried to tell David thank you without breaking down. I just thanked him from the bottom of my heart. It's a rebirth on top of a rebirth, in a sense.

My sobriety gave me a rebirth, another chance at life with a different lens, and the ability to play Denise with this incredible cast, producers and writers is another rebirth. I hope I represent hope for other people.

I hear that tomorrow is a very big day for you, your three-years-sober birthday?

Wow! Thanks. Yes, it's a big sober birthday for me. I'm here in Albuquerque with my 15-year-old son and my cockatoo, my Rottweiler, and my cat, and we're just acclimating to the climate. I haven't figured out what to do here to celebrate. Maybe I'll just buy myself a big bag of chips, a big Coca-Cola and watch a bunch of alien stuff! Maybe I'll go to Roswell. Maybe I'll see an alien. Maybe I'll get abducted. Can you imagine? (Laughs)

For more on Big Sky, click HERE


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