Diane Neal Reveals The Details Behind Circle Of Deception - Exclusive Interview

Lifetime's ripped-from-the-headlines drama Circle of Deception finds actor Diane Neal making her grand return to television after nearly five years away from the small screen. While Law & Order: SVU and NCIS fans remember Neal for her red hair, authoritative voice, and signature Casey Novak stink eye, her latest role finds her firmly planted on the other side of justice as one of the psychopathic murderers her characters are usually trying to put behind bars.

Neal portrays Peggy Sue Thomas, who was sentenced to eight years in prison for assisting in the murder of her best friend's husband Russel Douglas, bringing a biting mix of humanity, hilarity, and hellishness. Bouncing between Thomas' infectious vivaciousness as a former beauty queen and the real-life convict's rougher edges, the Suits alum found herself playing a character that challenged her even 25 years into her acting career.

However, as Neal revealed in an exclusive interview with Nicki Swift, just because this marks one of her first jaunts as a villain doesn't mean she hasn't experienced evil up close and personal. Technology and Zoom glitches aside, Neal spoke candidly with us about her experiences with domestic abuse, how that informed her portrayal, why Lifetime and its female-centric mission made for the perfect gig, her newfound love for cats, Friends, and more.

Diane Neal talks about the importance of working with female directors

How has pandemic life been treating you? What's it been like working in the entertainment industry doing all this press virtually?

Honestly, it's been really weird because it takes over part of your house, it takes over part of your place. But it's been really fun. It's really fun to be able to promote Lifetime. I know it sounds super cheeseball but they've been so good to me and they're so nice. Unfortunately for so many women, it's [typically] hard in the business. And really the only thing that separates people that make it and people that don't is opportunity and [Lifetime] is kind of at the forefront of providing opportunities for women behind the camera and in front of the camera.

And they do all kinds of amazing stuff too. They have this program ... called Broader Focus where they get women to direct, so my director was [actor] Ashley Williams. I don't know if you know her. She's an amazing actress.

Yeah, this was her directorial debut, right?

It was her debut. She was incredible, and it was one of those things [where] you never would have known that she hadn't directed before. As you probably know, all these people [are] like, "Oh, yeah. I could be a journalist." And you're like, "Just because you read the paper doesn't mean you could do it." So, just because you're in a lot of TV doesn't mean that you can do it. And Ashley was incredible. She was so commanding but at the same time really kind, and she was hyper prepared but then had this natural ability, as well. So, it was like the best mix of everything.

You've done some directing yourself too, as well.

I have, yeah. I really like it. It was really funny. [Actor Elizabeth Röhm who directed Lifetime's Girl in the Basement] was like, "Oh my god you guys. Just ask [the head of Lifetime Tanya Lopez] if you can direct." ... That would be really fun to do one day. I'd love to direct a Lifetime movie.

Has working with female directors and crew been a big goal in your career recently?

It's one of those things that you don't realize what you're missing until it happens. Years ago, I started on Law & Order: SVU when I was about 24, which is insane that it's been like years. It blows my mind ... The first female director that I remember [working with was] on SVU. And it [was] Helen Shaver. I don't know if you know her. Holy crap, was she unbelievable. She was so good and so incredible. And there was a total meltdown [in] one department on set and she gave this Crispin's Day speech. And the way she kept everything together. She directs unbelievable things. She [directed eight episodes of Vikings] ... She is a master.

I didn't really realize what was missing until I got to experience having that lady director for the first time. And ever since then, especially because it's such a rare thing for women to be able to be given the opportunity, I try and be as supportive as humanly possible. And you know, the truth is I've never been disappointed by any female director. [Circle of Deception's Ashley Williams was] the last lady director I've worked with, she was shockingly good. And [production was tight] ... They're really difficult schedules. It's like basically three weeks of shooting for an entire film, which is nuts. We were all joking about [it] too because we were like, "That was a lot easier when we were in our 20s doing 16-hour days." It has to be so well-oiled and just go off like clockwork. Ashley made that happen and it was pleasant the whole time, too.

Portraying real life convict Peggy Sue Thomas was 'fascinating' for Diane Neal

I loved your character. One of her first lines talks about how everyone always underestimates the former beauty queen. Your character Peggy Sue Thomas is a real person. Approaching that as a character, did you prepare any differently?

Well, it was wild. I did as much research as I could on Peggy Sue. One of the things I didn't do that she had in real life was this voice. This kind of put-on weird voice where she's just [imitates a whispery tone] ... And I'm like, "Okay, I don't know if I can pull that one off." But the rest of it, it was fascinating to watch her. And [like] so many people that do really atrocious things, she really did not believe that she had done anything wrong. I find that fascinating ... It was really fun to play someone that was pretty A-moral, to be honest.

Right, we know her as the beauty queen killer but we definitely see this side to her where it's not what the media's showing and she's got a lot going on behind-the-scenes. She's a very nuanced woman.

Yeah, the whole time she was subtly evil and I think that's kind of the beauty in a lot of that is in Ashley's direction. And that's kind of how evil takes place in real life. We've seen it. It's not usually the crazy things. It's not just like charging the Capitol. It's never usually that big. Real evil tends to be subtle, and slow, and deceptive, and misdirected. Just that little stuff. And it's so hard because when I was reading the Ann Rule book [Practice to Deceive which the film is based on] and the whole killings of Whidbey Island, it was just staggering to me what motivation they found acceptable to carry out these things. I mean, who are these people? And that's the crazy part is the world is full of them.

She had a scapegoat up until the end for pretty much everything. Do you think things worked out the way Peggy Sue Thomas planned all along?

You know what? I think they probably did, considering she did very little time in jail and she is out and about now. So that'll be interesting. Someone asked me today, like, "What if you get a call from her?" Oh my god. I don't know what I would do. What would I do? ... So, it's just fascinating that she had a justification for everything she did. She really didn't believe that anything she did was wrong, which was a really fun thing to play. Like, "I'm sorry, your husband's dead. I didn't do anything."

Circle of Deception marked Diane Neal's very first sex scene

Your character is always "on," focused on her appearance and giving the full show. Was that fun to play up more than your previous roles have allowed?

Yeah, it was wild because [in real life] I put on a bunch of weight because I was sick recently. So, it was funny when Ashley called, I was like, "Listen, Ashley. I'll let you know. I'm not tiny Diane anymore. I've got a few pounds." She's like, "Oh, that's perfect. Peggy Sue was, like, bigger."

First of all, for Lifetime to be like, "Yeah, sure. Anything you want. However you look, go for it. We're regular women." I'm like, "Thank you." And then on top of that, to be such a hyper sexualized woman in a bigger body was unbelievable. I'm not kidding, in my 25 years acting almost nonstop until of late, I'd never done a sex scene or a romantic scene in my entire career. And my first ones are in this movie and as a bigger chick. As like a real woman. Like a woman-woman.

I have to be honest. I've never been self-conscious in my life. I don't have any of that ... [but] I got really nervous about [doing these scenes] and Ashley made me super comfortable and [co-star Tahmoh Penikett who portrays Thomas' lover Jim Huden] was like, "No, you're gorgeous." And everyone made me feel A-okay. But it was wild. You can tell as I'm stuttering trying to say it. That was the hardest part for me to play is like the super sexy diva deliciousness parts.

The evil parts were really fun because I have had a little too much real-life experience with evil. So, I was like, "I finally get to be on the other side of this in fake life. This is so much fun to get it out." But, yeah, to be, like, super sexy and have to feel it and be that kind of chick that's just always into it, it was really hard. I have to say that was the hardest thing for me.

Parts of Peggy Sue Thomas' story hit close to home for Diane Neal

You touched a bit there about experiencing some of these evils on your own. You've been very open about your past experiences with domestic abuse. Did that factor into your decision to take the role?

It absolutely did. I'm a survivor of some pretty extreme domestic violence. Evan Rachel Wood came out recently and, man, do I feel for her because I know what it's like. And it's hard too, because you get victim shamed a lot and everyone makes you feel like it's your fault and that you put up somehow. It's this really weird thing and you're dealing with people who are either sociopaths or psychopaths. The idea of getting to play a psychopath or sociopath, especially after having so much information [was inviting.] Because when everything is collapsing, all you do is try and find out everything that you can find out because you need to feel better. And why did this happen and what can I do to prevent it from ever happening again? And so, you start studying as much as you can.

In my case, it was great because I still had access to my [Harvard] school library so I was reading everything in science journals and on J-STOR [an academic digital archive] about psychopathy and sociopathy, anything I could find. And then to be offered a part where you get to play one, man, it was cathartic. It was really cathartic. I really enjoyed it. But then it was so hard too, because you go back to the motivation and you're like, "Why? Why do these people do ... Why?" But they have their own motivation, and that's part of it is that you'll never know. You'll never really know.

I love these Ripped From the Headlines films because you get to the ending, and you're like, "Was that deserved? Who won? Who lost," and when the movie ends, it's like, "Well, that's real life baby."

Well, it was crazy because even when things were going down in my own life ... It was so outside the realm of normalcy and things that were possible. And even my closest friends were like, "How?" And I'm like, "I don't know, but I guess this happens enough. There are all those Dateline episodes and Lifetime movies. It's got to come from somewhere." And yeah, sure enough.

But it's fascinating. I like the ripped from the headlines [films] because everyone can go back and do more research. So even after our show, which [aired] on March 6th, [they showed a] program called Beauty Queens Gone Bad [about more true crimes involving beauty queens.]

If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233 or TTY 1−800−787−3224. You can also find more information, resources, and support at www.thehotline.org.

Diane Neal still gets recognized for her Law & Order and NCIS roles

You have so many credits on a lot of different TV shows and films. What do you get recognized for the most?
It's really weird. I started my career as a DA on Law & Order: SVU, right? And obviously the show goes on forever and I spent forever there. So, I get recognized, which I find fascinating, even at this bigger size. Even with my COVID mask on, people will be like, "Novak." And I'm like, "How?" A lot of times I think it's my voice but I'm not really sure what it is.


So, I get a lot [of] "You're the lawyer." And the other day I got this, "You're the lawyer from Suits," and I'm like, "That is true. I've just never been called out for that one before." That was interesting.

People who tend to be big NCIS fans [recognize me], because I play like the lady Mark Harmon so I'm the head of the Coast Guard, which is so much fun because I just do an impression of him the entire time I'm there — I just squint a lot and go up on my toes — I love it. And then, I [had] to speak a lot on Law & Order [so] usually it's those two. But I've had so much fun. That last season on The Following with Kevin Bacon was crazy fun. That was the first time I got to dabble really into being an evil duplicitous b****rd, for lack of a better word. It was good.

How Diane Neal became an 'accidental cat' person

I'm sorry, I'm totally laughing. I don't know if you heard that. That was the cat using the toilet.

You have a cat that uses the toilet?

Yeah. I have two dogs, as well. So, one dog, the very barky dog, had to go to my friend's house [during interviews]... and then I have Charley ... who I would love to teach to use the toilet. But yeah, I'm an accidental cat owner.

I'm definitely a dog person but I get it. They're just such easy pets.

It works out and he's really smart. I had no idea because I'm crazy allergic to cats so I never thought I'd have them. But this one [found me] when I lived up in the woods ... It was like when we had this stretch a few years ago [when] it was like negative 20 degrees for like two weeks and it was just horrible out. I'm like [to the cat], "Dude, if you can make it out here in the middle of nowhere, welcome in. Just come on in, lady," and I took her to the vet. It turns out she was pregnant. And I made these birthing centers all around my house. I researched everything you could research about cat birthing and was just like loaded up on Benadryl constantly. Anyway, she ended up not using any of the birthing centers that I'd made but ended up giving birth in my evening gown closet.

Of course!

You know, as you do. Placenta everywhere. It was amazing. I was in there with her. I've been in the room with lots of my friends who have given birth. I'd never been in with an animal ... [And my current cat Velvis is from] that liter. He's ... the tiniest peanut and he was born with alopecia so he was like a peach. Even if you're super allergic, I take a zillion allergy pills a day [but] he makes me laugh so hard and he grew up with only dogs so he's pretty funny.

You guys had such a bonding experience.

He's a funny guy. We did, I mean, he was such an adorable little nugget. I don't know what he would do without the dogs. He does this really weird thing where he likes to do parkour and just jump over the dogs all the time. And it drives them insane but it's really funny.

Does Diane Neal keep in contact with from Law & Order: SVU costars?

NCIS and Law & Order: SVU are also ripped-from-the-headlines crime dramas. What was it like being on these high profile shows that were offering some commentary on how these cases are handled in the real world?

It was crazy. In real life, this was the really hard thing that I learned ... Because what happens, especially when you're on a crime show forever, you're like, "Oh, yeah. This is going to be solved in like 44 minutes. This is not a problem. There's tons of evidence, we've got this." And then in real life you're like, "Oh no. Stuff takes a really long time."... That's why all the real life, the ripped from the headlines [stories] are so fascinating, especially the way Lifetime does it because you get to see that kind of progression and how it takes a long time. It's more of like an, "Oh wow. This is pretty difficult" ... [There's] valleys of the investigation and everything else as well. It usually comes down to people slipping up.

Do you still keep in touch with anyone from Law & Order: SVU?

Yeah, Stephanie March [who played Assistant DA Alexandra Cabot] and I keep in contact which is really fun even though we were only in one episode together. I took over after she left and then we were kind of back and forth. And [Ice-T] and Coco. I love everyone that's been on the show. You know, Mariska [Hargitay] and I had a chat recently. To me it was like my college years, almost. You know when you're young and it's your first gig, and it's so wild. So, it's kind of like the defining era ...

[Law & Order: SVU alum Tamara Tunie is also in Circle of Deception] and she's one of the world's coolest women. Even when I was young, I was never going to be young and hip. I'm just not a cool person. And it was so funny, Tamara Tunie ... was always just cool as a cucumber. And she has this voice, and she's this Broadway diva, and she can dance. I mean, she's just like the coolest chick ever. And I love Tunie and so getting to be with her in this Lifetime movie was like heaven on earth.

Oh I bet.

We had so much fun. We had so much fun off-screen and on screen. And off screen we'd go on little adventures around Vancouver [where we filmed]. And it was wild because they really had mastered control of COVID there, so once we got out of quarantine, which by the way, two weeks in a hotel room that you have to clean yourself and no room service or anything [was awful].

[But] it was really nice because they're Canadians and they're friendly. I was like, "Maybe there's going to be a fight." Nothing. But once you get out, nobody was wearing masks, you could go eat in a restaurant. Tamara and I could go and sit and have a meal. It was unbelievable.

From comedy to politics, Diane Neal has done it all

So, Circle of Deception is certainly a drama, but we've seen you on 30 Rock and Ed and you've done stand-up. Do you have a secret comedic side?

Oh my god, comedy is my favorite thing on earth. The way pilots used to work back in the day, the way they would book them 20 years ago [was] all the drama pilots would book first and then the comedy auditions would happen. So, once you booked a drama pilot that was it. It was over. I never [made] it to the comedy [auditions.] So, then I just resorted to doing stand-up which was incredibly fun because it's one of those things that ... even when it's bad it's really fun. It's almost, like, delicious. Even if you're just like crashing and burning, it's like. "I'm going to take everybody with me." I don't know how to explain it. Every time I see a stand-up comedy, like a stage, I'm like, "Oh, let me up."

It's kind of like American Idol- good, bad, or ugly, you can't take your eyes off of it.

No, you can't. Lots of times it is like watching a car wreck in slow mo but it's fun. It's really fun. I don't know how to explain it. It's kind of the most fun thing you can do, for me anyway obviously. Mostly I talk about things that interest me, right? Like science and politics and things in the New York Times. So, it depends where you're doing stand-up too. In LA, I'm like, "All right, let's talk about Goop." And in New York, I can be like, "Did everyone listen to NPR this morning?" It's a different crowd.

You've lived in Hawaii, you do comedy, you are this bad*ss agent in different shows, you play Peggy, you've dipped your toe into politics. What else is on your list? Do you have something else or are you just going to take the crown of the world's most well-rounded person?

The toe into politics. [laughs] Running for Congress was like the dumbest smartest thing ... It was the most insane thing I've ever done. Because I'm like, "I'm going to do this and I'm going to go as high brow as humanly possible. Nothing negative. I'm even going to get rid of all party affiliation because we're too factionalized." And I'm like, wow, [what an] error in judgment. It was like the ultimate smack down every day. The upside of it was I think I registered 75,000 people to vote in my district. It was like the biggest voting bloc. It was mind blowing. It was like people that could be registered that weren't registered.

And then, getting to almost use those little comedy bits, because especially the progressives are really terrible at breaking down complicated policy into sound bites. I found really fun, easy ways to talk to them because I got rid of the party thing. NRA (National Rifle Association) would ask me to come speak for them. It was wild. I got to go everywhere.

All I want to do next is honestly just keep working. Although I like [Elizabeth Röhm's suggestion] about directing at Lifetime. That would be really fun.

You might be surprised to know Diane Neal just watched this show

True crime has been a big comfort TV go-to for people. Do you have any favorites that have been getting you through staying inside a bit more?

I've exhausted [television] ... especially because I was a bit sick, as well. So, between COVID and everything else, I've been trapped inside. I was like, "Wow, this is my first [time] really getting into TV." And it's not like I'm anti-TV. I love TV. [But] when you're on TV, you don't have a lot of time to watch TV because you're working. It's weird. And you tune in if you know [someone] is doing something really special or you want to see how that explosion went down. But other than that, you don't really have a lot of time for it. And then I've always been at school for the last 12 years too, so there's no time.

So, I literally watched every single television series that has ever been created. Although I'm about to start watching Warrior on HBO Max — which is like a Bruce Lee tribute show, which I'm a huge fan of kung fu. I love martial arts so I'm so excited about that. But yeah, I've watched everything. I have to say my favorite show of all time though is The Borgias. It was on Showtime.

Oh yeah, Showtime's got some hidden gems.

But I'm always like my go-to is Family Guy. What have you been watching?

Oh wow, I've never had my question turned on me! I never watched Friends so I've been watching that from the start.

Oh my god, me either. And I totally watched the whole thing. I did that with Community as well. I'd never seen an episode of Community and I was like, "Oh my god, this is fantastic." The funny part is I'm like, "Oh look, it's Childish Gambino." That's the only way I know him. I love that you rewatched Friends. I'm glad we both got sucked into the Friends thing.

Me too, because there's kind of this anti-Friends sentiment going around.

I'd never seen an episode of Friends [and] I was a little bit like that. And then [I started watching and] I'm like, "Oh god, it's really ... I'm quite enjoying it."

There's so much Friends merchandise out there that I was like, "If I was a Friends fan, I'd be so easy to shop for. Maybe I should become a Friends fan."

There's a lot less Borgias merchandise or even The Leftovers!

This co-star gave Diane Neal the best advice when she was just starting out

So, we talked about how you still keep in contact with Ice-T. What was one thing people would be surprised to learn about working with him, because he just seems on Twitter like this impenetrable type of guy who tells it like it is.

Well, that's kind of the beauty of Ice is like he's an incredibly complicated human but also in his simplicity. You know what I mean? That's who he is. There's no fronting or pretending. There's no anything. Ice is exactly who you think he is ... This is something that nobody knew, if I needed advice about anything because I grew up in Littleton, Colo., I [didn't] know anything about the business ... Everything I knew about the business I learned from watching Entertainment Tonight. So, it was just like not the greatest place to get your information.

And then all of sudden [I was on Law & Order: SVU], one of the most popular shows on earth. I'm like, "I don't know what I'm doing," you know when it comes to money or this or that. Anything I had a question about I would go to Ice for advice. And he would give me the best advice ever usually punctuated with something totally insane, but overall, the advice was perfect.

That's good to hear.

Because I could always trust him because there's nothing fake about him. And he would always have your best interest at heart. He would tell you exactly what was going on, what you needed to do and what was best for you.

Diane Neal has surprisingly fallen in love with creating Cameos

[I just] looked at my phone. It was just like a Cameo alert, which by the way, I thought they were going to be full cheeseball doing Cameos. It has been so beyond fun to hang out with fans. Like today I get to do a wedding proposal.

Oh, that's so fun!

Two lovely fans I know that are getting married. Little ladies getting love. Who gets to do fun stuff like that? Like you get to help people propose. That's as good as it gets. It's really fun. And I tell you this week I got really lazy. I did like every Cameo, not in a gross way, but from the shoulders up. Don't be scared. I'm in the bathtub with my shower cap on. It was just like, "All right. I'm in the bath. Let's go. What are we doing?" But today is the proposal one [which] is very special. So, I was like I'm going to do it today while I have hair and makeup done, and I actually look like a human.

Oh yeah, you've got the full press look on.

I was just in the bathroom. I'm not going to half *ss that.

Circle of Deception is now playing on Lifetime.