Camryn Manheim has had a very busy summer. In addition to shooting the new ABC series “Stumptown,” she sent her son to college, remodeled her mother’s kitchen and was just elected secretary-treasurer of SAG-AFTRA, the actors union.
“I think my mother is more proud that I’m running for union office than any acting I’ve done,” Manheim told the Journal in an interview before the election, and that says a lot. Her long and impressive list of credits include “Elvis,” “Waco,” “Ghost Whisperer,” “The L Word,” “Person of Interest” and “The Practice,” which earned her Emmy and Golden Globe awards for playing attorney Ellenor Frutt. She portrayed the same character on three other series: “Ally McBeal,” “Boston Public” and “Gideon’s Crossing.”
Her new role in “Stumptown” casts her as Lt. Cosgrove, a Portland police officer who has a challenging relationship with rule-breaking, PTSD-afflicted private investigator Dex Parios (Cobie Smulders), who is both an asset and a thorn in her side.
“She’s a sassy, smart, capable lieutenant and good at what she does. She’s an honest and honorable person,” Manheim said. “She sees Dex as a threat.”
Manheim applauds the series for having strong female characters and giving them more life than a procedural normally allows. “We never get to know their story. We don’t get to see their flaws. Here, we’re going to see what makes them tick,” she said. She described the show’s setting as “a very gritty and dark world, but it’s funny at the same time — and we need that. In so many of these procedurals, the humor and the pathos is not evident.”
Manheim, whose family owns property along the Columbia River outside Portland, has been to Portland many times. “I love the town, but there’s a very dark underbelly there, including neo-Nazi white supremacists, contention between different groups,” she said. “I hope our show will tap into those issues.”
Manheim obtained her master’s in drama from NYU and regularly has worked in theater, film and TV since the early 1990s. When she was asked to play a part in a summer camp production of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” “everybody stood up and clapped for me and I felt like the entire camp was now my friend,” she said. “Theater found me. It was bashert.”
The daughter of educators, Manheim was born in New Jersey but the family moved often as her math-professor father secured new positions. They lived in Michigan and Illinois before settling in Long Beach when she was in sixth grade. Her parents were liberal, cultural Jews, social activists who donated to the ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center. She happily follows that path. “Being an actor gives you a platform to try to effect change,” she said. “Being involved in social justice is the most amazing byproduct of what I do.”
Of German and Polish Jewish heritage, Manheim recently went to Poland, seeking her grandmother’s birth certificate as proof her family has a right to claim land in Israel that her great-grandfather purchased. She didn’t find it, but she did discover she had two great-aunts who were murdered at Auschwitz.
She visited Israel, and it was there she changed her name from Debra to Camryn during a multi-country, post-college graduation trip with her sister. After trying on a different name in each place, practicing signatures, she was convinced she heard someone whispering “Camryn” in her ear, validating the choice. “Camryn was born in a hotel in Tel Aviv,” she said.
She is the mother of actor Milo Manheim (“Z-O-M-B-I-E-S,” “American Housewife”), who was the runner-up on “Dancing With the Stars” last season. She beamed with pride watching him perform, and although she thought “he was robbed, he got as much as he could out of that experience. He was remarkable from start to finish and whether you go home with the trophy or not has no bearing on how incredible it was.”
As someone who feels strongly connected to her Jewish heritage, “It was important to me that [Milo] was educated in that world,” Manheim said, noting he had a non-traditional bar mitzvah at the progressive secular Sholem Community five years ago. “The topic of his bar mitzvah was why he felt Jewish, and it was beautiful, soulful and funny. He brought in history and humor. It’s one of a million reasons why he’s a mensch,” she said, adding, “I don’t know if there’s a secret to raising a mensch, but I feel there are things I did that put him on a positive road. I think it’s very important for parents to get involved with the parents of kids who are your kid’s age, and create a community of like-minded parents with the same values and morals.”
In addition to “Stumptown,” Manheim will appear in the dark comedy “Killing Eleanor” in a role she describes as “an ethereal modern-day angel,” and in the anthology series “Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings,” playing a midwife in a story based on Parton’s song “Down From Dover.” She had a bestseller with her book “Wake Up, I’m Fat” in 1999, based on her one-woman show of five years earlier, but isn’t sure she’ll write another book.
“Writing is so isolated, and I’m a people person. But I’m really glad I wrote it. If I do write a book, it might be based on the lectures I give to NYU graduate students,” she said. “Every year, I give a master class on how to get along in the real world and how to make the times between [roles] matter by doing service. It’s really meaningful to me to prevent young actors from going into a really dark place because the industry is so difficult.”
Manheim is proud of her accomplishments, “but the thing that stands out to me is that I’ve been able to use the work that I’ve done for social change and use my voice in arenas that would have been otherwise unheard, and give a voice to people who don’t have one.”
She said she is happiest “when I’m being the Gertrude Stein of the West Coast. My favorite thing to do is have actors and singers and songwriters at my house. I’d love to work with my son at some point, but who wants to work with their mom when they’re first starting out?”
Manheim feels fortunate to have led “one of the most blessed lives a person can have. Even though I have goals, I don’t want to wish for too much more than what I have. I’d feel selfish because it’s been such an amazing journey for me. And now, I’m on an exciting show that I’m so proud of. My life is full. I count my blessings every day.”
“Stumptown” premieres Oct. 25 on ABC.