Six years after moving to New York and becoming a Broadway star, Milena Govich found herself back in her native Norman this summer, pumping bullets into a firing range target.
The 29-year-old singer, dancer and actress needed to know how to draw a 9 mm pistol, so she turned to her uncle, retired Oklahoma Highway Patrol officer Jerry Green, and her cousin, Sgt. Blake Green of the Norman Police Department.
Her new job required it because, as an announcer has told viewers since 1990:
“In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police who investigate crime, and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders.”
This is Milena Govich’s story.
On Sept. 22, Govich debuts on NBC’s “Law & Order” as Detective Nina Cassaday, the first female detective character (S. Epatha Merkerson has played the captain of detectives since 1993) on the longest-running current drama on television. As part of her new duties, she will be peering around corners in tenements and pursuing suspects on foot, so Govich needed to add a few more skills to her long list of talents.
“I sing. I play instruments. I never dreamed I would be going to my Uncle Jerry and my Cousin Blake for coaching,” Govich said in a phone interview from her Manhattan apartment.
“She’s a very fast study,” said Jerry Green, a 31-year veteran of the highway patrol who is now the executive pilot for the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety. “In two days, she was at the point most people are at in two weeks.”
This seems to be a pattern. Her parents, University of Central Oklahoma professor Marilyn Govich and the late University of Oklahoma professor Bruce Govich, were both performers and voice teachers, and they exposed their daughter to arts at an early age. The young Milena and her brothers, Mateja and Nikola, would frequently be in the house when her parents’ doctoral voice students would show up for lessons.
“I learned so much just from osmosis just by being around young actors and singers,” she said.
Her mother would arrange for Milena to attend ballet recitals. “She had a tutu and a diaper,” Marilyn Govich said in a recent interview. “She was always captivated by it.”
All three Govich siblings became successful stage performers. Milena joined Norman Ballet Company in elementary school, learned piano and violin, and took voice classes from her father, who sang the National Anthem at Sooner football games for 22 years. She said that Bruce Govich taught her how to use her voice and also how to conduct herself professionally.
“If I wanted a voice lesson with my dad, I had to schedule an appointment,” she said. “At the time, I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ But it was to make sure I was serious, that I was committed to learning and I wasn’t taking it for granted.”
Govich double-majored in performance and a premedical track at UCO, with minors in dance and violin. In 1997, two years before she graduated, she joined the Lyric Theatre ensemble, where she appeared in “Man of La Mancha” - her mother performed in a 1971 Lyric production of the same play.
After graduating with honors from UCO, she had to decide between performing or pursuing a medical career.
“But there just came a point where I said, ‘In spite of all these things ... I have to give performing a try, or else I’ll probably regret it,’ ” she said.
When Govich was growing up, she heard plenty of New York stories. Many of her parents’ students had bought one-way tickets to New York, hoping to get their names in “Playbill” and become stars of the Broadway stage.