Without reservations

Erin Cummings is playing a medical examiner in Detroit, which should ensure her plenty of screen time. When the actress arrives on ABC (Channel 7) Sept. 21 — as Dr. Abbey Ward in our very own prime-time cop series, Detroit 1-8-7, which began shooting in and around the city last week — she should instantly supplant Sasha Alexander of TNT's new Rizzoli & Isles as the hottest M.E. on TV.

The lovely young Louisiana native, whom you may have seen Sunday as Candace on the season premiere of Mad Men, and whom you will see in a featured role in Season 2 of Spartacus: Blood and Sand on Starz, has spent the past few weeks steeping herself in the mojo of Motown. She dined with Michael Imperioli (The Sopranos), James McDaniel (NYPD Blue) and the rest of the cast at Roast downtown; enjoyed breakfast at the Fly Trap in Ferndale; toured the Wayne County Medical Examiner's office to pick up some official-sounding lingo; shopped at the annual Royal Oak garage sale; tossed out the first pitch at Comerica Park, and earned her first Detroit parking ticket ("The guy was so nice about it!"). With a recent day off between scenes, the delightfully chatty Cummings took a few minutes to assess her new surroundings.

Metro Times: Erin, welcome to Detroit. First impressions? 

Erin Cummings: I was born in Louisiana and raised in Texas, so I really respond well to humidity. And I've missed it, living in the desert of Los Angeles. Being in Detroit, being able to walk out and feel that humidity, it feels good. It makes me want to walk around and do things. It brings me back to my Southern roots. I love it. The nights here are absolutely beautiful. I think it'll be quite a transition when we get into wintertime, but right now I'm definitely enjoying the summer.

MT: How did you learn about this role? 

Cummings: There was a lot of buzz going on in Hollywood about this project, because the script for Detroit 1-8-7 was one of the more exciting scripts to come out this season. When it came my way, the role of the medical examiner interested me because I've always had a fascination with human anatomy and biology. My mom was a nurse, so I spent a lot of time in hospitals when she was working, and my I-don't-want-to-work-tables job was as a massage therapist at a chiropractic center in Los Angeles. 

Then also, working with ABC, it's a really fantastic network. They are incredibly supportive of their shows. And to be able to work with some actors who are just so iconic in our industry, like Michael and James. These are people I've watched for years. So it was really just an incredible opportunity for me, to not only get to play a role I found challenging and exciting, but also on a show that was already getting a lot of buzz, and to be working with people I really admired and respected. It was sort of a no-brainer.

MT: Any reservations about working on location in Detroit? 

Cummings: My entire career has been working on location! I worked in Hawaii for six weeks; I lived in New Zealand almost nine months working on Spartacus. I take it as an exciting challenge because you're away from home. Even paradise gets old after a while! You just want to hang out with your friends and be in the same time zone as your mom. But the way I choose to look at it is that it's a new place in the world, and having an invitation from your job to go there is a great way of experiencing something with a purpose.

My initial reservations about coming to Detroit were really based on ignorance, just not knowing anything about Detroit. But when I was letting my friends and family know I was coming here, everyone who was from Detroit said, "You are going to love it. It's one of the most beautiful places you'll ever go, and the people are amazing." My aunt and uncle, Joyce and George Blum, George has been a pediatrician in Detroit for 50 years and they both said such wonderful things about the city. That really excited me. 

I don't care what people who've never been to Detroit think about Detroit, because they don't know. But if all the people from this area are this excited about me coming and visiting their hometown, there must be something special to it. And whatever it is they're talking about, I want to find it. One of the things the cast and I noticed, and I was actually calling friends back in L.A. to say, was, "Man, this city really knows how to welcome people."

MT: Tell us about your character, Dr. Ward. As the M.E. on a homicide drama, you should have a lot to do. 

Cummings: The writers [led by former ER executive producer David Zabel and Bangkok Dangerous screenwriter Jason Richman] have done a fantastic job of integrating my character into the storyline. Having her show up at the scene of the crime, being in the war room discussing possible causes of death, seeing her in the morgue.

And one of the things I really responded well to is that she's a little quirky. She wears these sexy cat-eye glasses and funky jewelry, and she has an after-work hobby of playing roller derby, which I talk about it in the pilot. I think that adds a dimension to her. This early in the season, you have to make specific choices about your character, but you also want to leave a little bit of a door open. I don't want to say, "Oh, she's hard" or "She's really tough," only to find out that's a shell she puts on for the first few episodes. 

As I've gotten a chance to explore Detroit, I've made decisions for myself on where she might have grown up, the kind of bar she might hang out in. But until they're actually working the storyline I won't share any of those personal actor decisions just yet. I do think she's going to be a very interesting and exciting character because she's not your typical medical examiner. She's very cool. 

Jim McFarlin is a media critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]