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Film star Bassett checks in to final season of ‘ER’

Sarah Rodman | 9/24/2008, 6:50 a.m.
Actress Angela Bassett arrives at the 2002 Glamour Women of the Year Awards on Monday, Oct. 28, 2002 in New York. The acclaimed film star joins the cast of NBC’s drama “ER” for its final season, premiering tonight. AP /Jennifer Graylock

Like a lot of people thinking about taking a new job, Angela Bassett talked it over with some friends.

In Bassett’s case, those friends just happened to be Forest Whitaker and Eriq La Salle.

The work that those men did on “ER” convinced the Oscar-nominated actress to join the cast of NBC’s long-running medical drama for its final season, which kicks off tonight at 10 p.m.

“I thought it was intriguing,” Bassett told reporters this summer in Los Angeles, describing what it was like to get the call from the producers.

“It was a show I always enjoyed. I knew they had a standard of excellence. One of my dear friends was one of the original characters,” she said of LaSalle, who portrayed the prickly Dr. Peter Benton during the early years of the series.

Befitting a woman of Bassett’s status, she comes into “ER” as the boss, portraying Dr. Cate Banfield, the new chief of the emergency room. (In a fun bit of casting, Bassett’s real-life husband Courtney B. Vance will play her on-screen husband, Russell.)

According to Bassett, the boss isn’t immediately popular at Cook County General Hospital.

“I think she has very high standards, but she’s the new person in the room and there’s some folks that are not able to appreciate her style,” said Bassett with a laugh. “She’s trying to bring up the level of excellence and she’s butting heads with different personalities early on.”

Producer David Zabel said Bassett’s character won’t just be a hard-nosed taskmaster, however.

“You’ll see, as you watch the season progress, a slow sort of unfolding of the reasons that this character is just tough and as strong as she is,” said Zabel. “She’s kind of a dual character. We see a very strong side most of the time, but we also see a vulnerability just peeking out at the beginning.

“And as we get deeper into the season,” he continued, “there’s actually a really very powerful — I hope it will be powerful — reveal about where this character is coming from, what has made her the person she is right now in her life and what she’s going to do moving on into the future. And that also involves who she is as a doctor, who she is as a woman, everything.”

All of which excited Bassett, who hadn’t done episodic television since her recurring role as CIA Director Hayden Chase on ABC’s “Alias” in 2005. The actress has carved out an impressive career on the big screen including her Oscar-nominated turn as Tina Turner in 1993’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” and the beloved chick flicks “Waiting to Exhale,” and “How Stella Got Her Groove Back.” Next year, she’ll return to multiplexes as Voletta Wallace, mother of slain rapper The Notorious B.I.G., in “Notorious.”

For right now, though, Bassett agrees that TV is enjoying a storytelling renaissance that is attractive for feature film actors.

“With a movie, it’s a shorter period of time,” she said. “You’ve done it, and either you hit the bull’s-eye or you didn’t. You did the best you could on that day in that moment.

“… I always say that in six months, I’ll know more than I did six months previous. I’ll have grown and experienced [more] as a woman, as a person, a human being, and I could bring that to the moment, but I don’t have that [time on a film],” she continued. “So I have to give what I have today. So that’s exciting about television that you have that time, that journey. It lasts a longer period of time. So I’m really looking forward to it.”

Sarah Rodman is a staff music critic at the Boston Globe.