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U-M alumna moves smartly between legal, military roles

by Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

As an actress, Michigan native Toni Trucks realizes she has to live with a degree of uncertainty and discomfiture.

“The biggest thing with committing to being an actor in the entertainment industry is you have to be comfortable with your discomfort and accept the fact that no matter what you’re doing, jobs end,” explained Trucks. “They do… My parents said to me, ‘You’re constantly unemployed!’ I was like, ‘I know.’ For me, it’s what I signed up for. I know that it’s the construct of my career, where most people have a job where they stay 20-30 years if they can. Whereas me, I know if I do a TV show, the TV show will end. If I do a play, the play will end.”

Born in Grand Rapids and raised in Manistee, Trucks attended the Interlochen Arts Academy in northwest Michigan and the University of Michigan, where she earned her undergraduate degree in musical theater.

Currently, Trucks appears on the new CBS drama SEAL Team with David Boreanaz. Previously, she’s appeared on the legal dramas Made in Jersey and Franklin & Bash, as well as Barbershop, The Mentalist, Veronica Mars, Grimm, CSI: NY, and NCIS: New Orleans. She also co-starred in 2012’s The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2, based on Stephenie Meyer’s best-selling series of books.

“I always wanted to perform – that’s what a lot of performers say. I was just always up in front of family members, doing shows in front of my cousins – I really loved that. There aren’t any performers in my immediate family. My dad would often say I invented myself – ‘I don’t know where she gets it,’” she said, laughing. “At a young age, I saw a play with him at the local community theater. I saw that there were kids in the play and it dawned on me that this is something you can do for a job, not just something you can do in your backyard. I was just hooked. I was about 6 or 7. I never, ever wanted to do anything different.”

After graduating from U-M, Trucks moved to New York City and performed in regional theater on the East Coast. She was in the chorus of Two Gentlemen of Verona when the female lead damaged her voice. Trucks took over for her. At the same time, she auditioned for Barbershop, based on the film series of the same name, eventually landing the role of Terri, which was her first TV role.

“I was just in shock over the whole thing. I had two weeks to move to L.A., it all just happened so fast. I went from hoofing it on the regional theater circuit to the female lead in a TV series; it felt very Cinderella-esque at the time,” recalled Trucks.

When Barbershop ended, Trucks auditioned for 2006’s Dreamgirls. While she didn’t get the role she auditioned for, she helped director Bill Condon with screen tests, given her musical background. Condon wrote her a small role, which didn’t make the final cut.

“I was just so devastated. I’ve never been cut out of a movie; the whole thing was traumatic and exciting. He promised me he’d put in the deleted scenes on the DVD, which he did. Cut to five years later, I audition for Twilight and it’s Bill Condon. He remembered me and said, ‘I owe you one. Let’s get you in this movie.’ He’s such a lovely man,” said Trucks.

In 2012, Trucks played Cyndi Vega, secretary and best friend of attorney Martina Garretti (Janet Montgomery, Entourage) in Made in Jersey. The premise of Jersey has Martina, who comes from a close-knit, blue-collar Italian-American family in New Jersey, making the jump from the state prosecutor’s office in Trenton, N.J. to a posh New York City law firm called Stark & Rowan. There, she must endure her fellow lawyers’ skepticism as she defends her clients.    

Jersey co-starred Kyle MacLachlan (Twin Peaks), Erin Cummings (Detroit 187), Donna Murphy (Spider-Man 2), and Stephanie March (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit).

“I was attracted to Jersey because it seemed like a lot of fun,” said Trucks. “I loved shooting in New York with Kyle, Janet, and Donna – the cast was really great. I really loved creating Cyndi Vega, although – ultimately – we didn’t get to see a lot of her. It was fun to walk around in her shoes for those months… just the way she saw the world. She was a colorful hipster who loved life and I liked that.”

Unfortunately, despite the ensemble cast, Jersey was cancelled after two episodes. However, CBS aired all of the eight episodes that were filmed before the end of 2012.

“I don’t presume to know the inner workings of network executives. A lot of that stuff is above my pay-grade and beyond my control. It comes down to numbers. And not only the size of numbers, but the kind of numbers. They don’t just want the highest numbers, but the youngest, cushiest audience. If you’re not both, your show’s gonna get cancelled; that’s just the way the cookie crumbles,” said Trucks.

Fortunately for Trucks, several Jersey producers also produced Franklin & Bash, the 2011-14 legal dramedy starring Breckin Meyer (Clueless) and Mark-Paul Gosselaar (NYPD Blue) as the titular attorneys. Trucks played lawyer Anita Haskins in the final season.

“That was another fun role,” recalled Trucks. “Anita was this ambitious, hungry, young attorney. There was such an element of fun and play on [Franklin & Bash] with all of those actors, so it was a good time going to work.”

Dana Calvo, who created Jersey, also created Anita.

“So our unfortunately short-lived show later parlayed me onto [Franklin & Bash],” said Trucks. “I was handed that role and it was so perfectly timed for me. It was just luck having worked with producers who knew me, trusted me, trusted my talent, and said, ‘We got just the thing for you.’”

Cummings has high praise for Trucks.

“After such a short stint together, it would have been simple to drift apart. However, Toni’s vivacious spirit and energy are intoxicating and our friendship has remained steadfast through the years. She is a disciplined and talented actress, so it’s no wonder that there’s not a season in which she isn’t featured on a TV show. Her work on SEAL Team is strong and captivating,” said Cummings.

From there, Trucks was offered the role of Deputy Sheriff Janelle Farris on NBC’s fantasy drama Grimm.

“Grimm sparked this trend in my career of being in uniform,” explained Trucks. “I felt like I went through different phases. I was everyone’s assistant; I was everyone’s secretary for awhile. Then I graduated to the legal assistant, and then moved up to attorney. I jumped over to Grimm where I was a deputy, then I went to The Mentalist where I was the sheriff. From there, I went to NCIS: New Orleans where I was in the Coast Guard Investigative Services. And now, I’m on SEAL Team. That’s the chapter I’m in right now: If (the role’s) got a uniform, they’ll probably call me.”

Trucks had a recurring role on NCIS: New Orleans from 2016-17 as CGIS Agent Joan Swanson.

“I’ve met Coast Guard members in that area who were invaluable to being able to have my character be portrayed as authentically as possible,” she said. “The Coast Guard is such a small contingency of the military that they are so loving and supportive when they are represented in any capacity on TV and film. I’m just showered with love and attention and support from that branch of the military still to this day.”

On SEAL Team – which stars Boreanaz (Angel, Bones) as Jason Hayes, leader of a team of Navy SEALs – Trucks plays Petty Officer 1st Class Lisa Davis, the SEAL team’s sniper and only female member.

“I was very intrigued by the characters and also so thrilled to portray such a strong, intelligent woman in the military. (Lisa’s) able to be smart and beautiful without compromising one for the other,” she said.

 Trucks enjoys working with Boreanaz, who’s also a producer and is slated to direct future episodes.

“David’s awesome. David arrived on set and changed the energy and the chemistry of our cast immediately and permanently – for the better,” she said. “He’s always been a joy. It’s been nothing but love since we met him. Honestly, we’re just so grateful to him for choosing to lead this team. You couldn’t have asked a better lead and a better team for SEAL Team. Any time we do a press event, or when an episode airs, or even just randomly, David’s always tweeting ‘I’m so proud of us.’ He gives us physical and cyber hugs all the time. Despite the seriousness of the show, we have way too much fun on the set.”

Trucks continued: “I was very grateful to get the role and the pedigree of the people involved is so high – the show-runners, the writers, the producers – their résumés were so attractiveto me. You can see what’s on paper and hope for the best, but when you are padded with such accomplished, talented, creative visionaries to execute that, you can really feel safe and excited as an actor. I still feel to this very day that my work is going to be presented in the most polished way; that frees me up to do my best work.”

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