ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Jennifer Bean, an Albuquerque veteran court reporter, helped open the recent premiere of AMC-TV’s “Better Call Saul,” portraying a role she does best: being a court reporter.
“I wanted to be part of this, but I was worried about how I would be portrayed. It had to be ethical. I couldn’t play a sleezeball court reporter and then have my (real-life) judge see that and wonder what I was doing in that show,” says Bean, 60, a New Mexico certified court reporter since 1977 and owner of Bean & Associates Inc., a professional court reporting service.
Bean helped nail her role by providing her own prop, an authentic steno machine, circa the early 2000s, the time period of the AMC-TV series. “Better Call Saul” is a prequel to the popular and award-winning “Breaking Bad,” which was also set in Albuquerque.
For their part, executive producers and co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould say Bean worked out well for the 10-minute segment in the first episode, “Uno.”
“Albuquerque offered us quite a few good choices for the court reporter role. Our fantastic Extras Casting folks – Kathryn Wamego and her associate Dock Harris Jr. – tracked down several former court reporters who were interested in working with us,” they wrote in an email. “It was a hard choice, but Jennifer felt like the best fit for this particular episode.”
Bean’s character waits in a courtroom at her court reporting station, appointed with a Big Gulp drink cup, as silver-tongued defense attorney Saul Goodman, played by Bob Odenkirk, attempts to convince the jury that his three young defendants are innocent, portraying them as indiscreet youths.
However, the prosecutor, weary of Saul’s wiles, wordlessly responds by playing videotape of the teenagers committing and celebrating the grisly crime, a tape he clearly believes speaks for itself. The camera cuts back to Bean as she observes the courtroom antics.
“On set, she was everything we had hoped for – and such a sweet lady!” Gilligan and Gould write. “She played the role very nicely, and added both to the reality of the scene and the humor. That look of exasperation she gives the three defendants is priceless.”
Bean, who found the background acting role through White Turtle Casting, along with previous extra roles in television and movies filmed locally, says it was a little nerve-wracking waiting for the “Better Call Saul” people to call back. “It was over a week, but my daughter encouraged me. She told me to stick it out, because you never know.”
Bean, who has two daughters, Jessica and Arianna, says it was fun to share the experience with her daughter, Jessica Shea Alverson, who lives in New York City and is a member of the Screen Actors Guild.
Alverson is equally proud of her mother and happy to return the favor of supporting her mom in her acting ambitions, “My mom inspires me. She is fearless and courageous. I am so proud of her for being able to share her passion for court reporting with the world while bringing her acting and comedic skills to the table.”
Bean says while the pay is nothing to compare with her salary as a court reporter, it was fun to be on set and meet everyone. “Vince Gilligan was so cool. He was always smiling. He shook everyone’s hand.” She says she is always fascinated by how long it takes to film a scene that appears for maybe 10 minutes viewing time and “how many people it takes to accomplish the task.”
She says extras make about $10 an hour, while court reporters earn about $100,000 a year.
The Big Gulp drink cup is now autographed and staged in a place of honor in the home she shares with Dr. Dale Alverson, her husband of 30 years. The idea of the giant cup found its way into the scene via Los Angeles Superior Court, Gilligan and Gould explain.
When they did research in that California courtroom with the show’s writers, the court reporter there had a oversized drink cup that captured their imaginations and lent a lighter element to the scene, they say. “It was one of those details that just stuck in our heads.”
However, Bean says in a real courtroom, she’s never had a super-sized drink on her work station and she would never make a slurping noise in a silent courtroom. “That was not me slurping. They added that sound.”
Still when she got Odenkirk to autograph the cup, that’s what he signed, “Keep on slurping, Jennifer.”
Bean wouldn’t contribute to the noise in the courtroom, because her job is to be the professional listener, to hear it all and get it right, she says.
“I’ve seen so many movies where the court reporter is a total dingbat. It hurts me to see that. If people believe that, no one would ever want to be a court reporter,” she says. “I wanted to do the role so people could see that a court reporter is ethical and professional. The message is court reporters are not dinosaurs. We are invaluable to the legal system. Any lawyer worth his salt will tell you that.”
University of New Mexico law professor Barbara Bergman agrees, explaining that a court reporter is the guardian of the record. While making a voice recording or a video may seem like a way to save money, it would spell disaster if those court proceedings required review for an appeal, a right available in the judicial system.
“Audiotapes are hard to hear. It’s hard to re-create a record that will stand the test of an appeal with an audiotape. If you don’t get the particular word, you can’t re-create it,” Bergman explains. “A good court reporter is amazing. People like Jennifer are indispensable. She’s taking down precisely what’s being said.”
That means if someone has a thick accent, Bean will stop them and have them repeat what they said for the official court record. Bean says one court reporter’s tool that is frequently used is a real time feature, so that the words she types are captured and can be shared almost instantly through computer networks, allowing everyone to read the official record immediately.
Former Bernalillo County District Judge Rebecca Sitterly, who is now a nurse-paramedic in Michigan and maintains her law practice in New Mexico, says she and Bean started their professional lives in their 20s together.
“You know if you have Jennifer Bean in the courtroom, she’s going to get it right. You can have confidence and trust in the record she provides,” Sitterly says. “People think it is cheaper to turn on a tape recorder, but crucial things can go missing. It’s really a mess to turn on a tape and try to find something. If something you need doesn’t end up in the record, you can’t submit that to court. It’s so crucial, you may not end up filing your motion. A good court reporter can be the difference between winning and losing a motion.”