Sarayu Rao heard recently from a friend back in her hometown of Madison who was leafing through the current issue of Vanity Fair and suddenly came across something unexpected: Rao’s face.
It was an ad for “Monday Mornings,” the new medical drama that starts airing on TNT on Monday, Feb. 4, at 9 p.m. Rao plays the feisty Dr. Sydney Napur on the show, and ads featuring her and the other cast members floating in midair, suspended over a line of giant scalpels, have appeared in magazine ads and on billboards and in bus stops for months.
“She’s like, ‘Do you know how weird that is?’ ” Rao said in a phone interview last week from her home in Los Angeles. “I was like, ‘You’re telling me.’ ”
Rao, a graduate of Madison West High School who has been a working actress in Hollywood since 2005, said her Facebook page and Twitter feed have been inundated with friends and fans sending photos of her face on billboards and posters.
Which she’s delighted about, because that means the network is firmly behind the show and working hard to make it a hit. With the first 10-episode season filmed last fall, she’s spent the last few weeks doing press interviews to promote the show, and waiting to see how audiences respond.
“There’s so much positive buzz around this show, which is so exciting,” Rao said. “At the same time, I have been in the industry long enough to know that you just never know. It’s hard. We’re all really attached to it and behind it. We’re all hoping that it is what we think it is.”
The show was created by David E. Kelley, whose long list of television credits includes “Picket Fences” and “Ally McBeal,” and CNN correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta. It’s based on Gupta’s novel of the same name about the surgeons at a Portland hospital.
“Monday Mornings” will definitely appeal to fans of “E.R.,” “The West Wing” and other ensemble dramas featuring flawed but admirable characters in high-pressure situations. In an era of more radical-minded television dramas like “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men,” the show’s traditional structure feels like a bit of a throwback, but in a satisfying way.
“We didn’t come here for the bells and whistles,” says one doctor (played by Ving Rhames) in the pilot episode. “It’s the personnel.” He could be describing the strengths of his own show.
Rao’s character Dr. Napur is described as a “rogue pitbull” by one fellow doctor (Jonathan Silverman) who she harangues into properly caring for a patient with a mysterious ailment. But if Napur is a pitbull, she’s a likable and nuanced one, throwing herself into her work after a broken-off engagement. By the end of the second episode, she has amusingly browbeaten Silverman’s character into asking her out.
Rao said the involvement of Gupta ensures that “Monday Mornings” is as authentic about the details of hospital life as possible, from operating room procedures to the way surgeons interact with each other. Sometimes, though, medical reality and television drama are at cross-purposes.
“During the pilot, (actor) Jamie (Bamber) was doing a surgery and they were shooting the scene,” Rao said. “They got the take and (director) Bill (D’Elia) was so excited and so thrilled. And then he looked over at Sanjay who was looking so depressed. And Bill was like, ‘What’s the matter? We got the shot!’ And Sanjay said, ‘He just killed the guy.’ ”
But what really differentiates “Monday Mornings” from every medical drama that’s come before is the regular inclusion of “morbidity and mortality conferences,” in which, if a patient dies, the attending doctor has to go before his peers and defend his decisions in the operating room.
“Sanjay talks about how intense those meetings are, how doctors are sweating and shaking and nervous,” Rao said. “These meetings are so incredibly confrontational and so confidential. There are no lawyers, there’s no anybody. There’s just your peers, which gives them the freedom to truly call you out. These doctors are truly brought to their knees.”
In a television landscape full of television characters who seem infallible, from the doctors on “House” to the detectives on “Elementary” and “The Mentalist,” it’s refreshing to see a drama that hones in on its characters’ flaws and failings, Rao said.
“So often, we see these doctors as superheroes,” Rao said. “And in this show, we’re seeing the humanity and the vulnerability. I love that, to see how flawed and human they are.”
Rao caught the acting bug when she was a sophomore at West High, auditioning for a part in “Pippin” under the director of the school’s longtime drama teacher, Rebecca Jallings.
“For me that was it, I just never looked back,” she said. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do, annoyingly so for my poor father. I always equate it to dating. I feel like I fell in love at 15 and got married and wasn’t interested in anybody else.”
After graduating from West, Rao got her Masters of Fine Arts at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. She moved to Los Angeles in 2005, getting small guest roles on television shows like “The Big Bang Theory” and films like “Lions For Lambs.”
By 2009, when she had a recurring role on the FX comedy “Sons of Tucson,” she was able to make a living just from acting.
“I was talking with a friend the other day and he was talking about figuring out what he wants to do. And I said, ‘It’s hard for you, because you’re good at so many different things.’”
Rao then laughed. “See, I never had that problem. It was either this or I was screwed.”