Exclusive Interview: SOUTHLAND’s Michael Cudlitz

Michael Cudlitz

Boots are about to hit the streets of Los Angeles again with the third season premiere of TNT’s fantastic crime drama SOUTHLAND on January 4. A critical darling, Southland also has a devoted fan base who have been not so patiently waiting for the gritty show to return.

One of Southland‘s biggest fans is series star Michael Cudlitz, who plays the incredibly layered John Cooper, the veteran officer tasked with training Officer Ben Sherman (Ben McKenzie). Cooper is one of the most interesting characters on television: a tough as nails training officer who is devoted to his job but who is lonely in his personal life as he navigates his way as a gay man and becomes increasingly dependent on pills to deal with intermittent back pain.

Daemon’s TV recently talked to Michael about how Southland is different now that it is solely TNT’s, what we can expect from the John-Ben relationship, and how fans will have the chance to fall in love with John all over again this season.

Season three of ‘Southland’ finally arrives on January 4th, right?

Michael Cudlitz: January 4th at ten o’clock. I believe it’s ten o’clock everywhere, but they should check because if it’s the middle of the country it sometimes shifts an hour somewhere, but yeah, ten o’clock on Tuesday, January 4th.

I talked to Shawn Hatosy yesterday and Emily Bergl a few months ago and it really seems like ‘Southland’ isn’t just another project for all of you. What makes it special?

Michael Cudlitz: I don’t think I’ve ever worked on a show that’s more collaborative, from the producer end, writers, crew, everybody. Everybody is doing the show because they love it. We came back. When we shot the pilot for this show, it was right when everything was going in the town and a lot of the town shuts down because different work slow downs and the tail end of the writer strike and stuff was going on with SAG.

We got this phenomenal crew of people who typically work features. With all the changes, with all the schedule bumps, with all the drops in production that we’ve had and the weird stuff that’s happened with our show we’ve maintained our crew. They’re all making less money than they did when they started. They’re not staying around because the show sucks. I think everyone has found just this amazing, collaborative environment and they love it because it’s so rare that you find that. It does happen.

I’m not trying to say that this is the only place that I’d ever want to work, but we’re in a really fortunate situation where we’re doing television and it’s truly a collaborative experience. Then there’s the fact that we’re all doing it with John Wells who brings his amazing character driven ensemble dramas and being on a ‘Southland’ set is like being on no other set I’ve ever been on. I can’t explain fully what that is. But the energy, the creative energy is unmatched in anything I’ve ever worked on.

How hard was it to slip back into John Cooper’s uniform after such a long break?

Michael Cudlitz: Not at all. You put that bullet proof vest on and your life changes.

Shawn said that the freedom TNT is giving you guys means that ‘Southland’ is now the show it was meant to be.

Michael Cudlitz: Absolutely. I think that when people create a show, the producers and the writers, the creators of a show, they have a vision. Then they walk it into a network and the network says – have you ever seen ‘The Big Picture’ with Kevin Bacon? It’s exactly like that, like, ‘Oh, we love it. Two couples in a cabin in the snow. We love it. Could they be lesbians? Could they be on Mars? Could they be on the ocean? We love the snow, but could it be tropical and the sun is coming down?’ And by the time that you’re done, because you want your project to be done, you’re so far away from your original idea that you don’t even recognize what kind of show you’re doing. You may as well re-pitch it in two years. I think that with ‘Southland’ they pitched the show and to be perfectly honest the network said, ‘Yes.’ They said yes to everything and then when they started doing it they wanted to change it and there was the back and forth with creative which goes on all the time with networks.

Flash forward, we’re now at TNT. They ask if there are any changes they want made. Michael Wright says no. ‘We want you to make “Southland”.’ They turned in the outlines, just from what I understand, and they said, ‘Great. Go write them.’ They turned in the scripts. They get major notes like, ‘Tom Menedez. Can we call him Tom Smith now?’ ‘Sure.’ Nothing really affecting the DNA of what ‘Southland’ is. Right now I would argue that we are without a doubt producing the shows that we intended to produce and that the shows creators wanted to produce from day one.

What differences will viewers see now that it’s a TNT production?

Michael Cudlitz: I think, well, they’ll know what night it’s on. So there will be some advertising so that they’ll be able to find the show which is a good thing. We can start with that. As far as what people will recognize, I think they’ll find that it’s much more aggressive. I think it’s more of a feeling that they’ll have than something that they’ll actually see. The storytelling I think has gotten much more focused which is good because there’s a lot of stuff going on. It’s a very, very dense show. The show does revolve specifically around myself and Benjamin McKenzie, Regina King and Shawn, but we have not lost the other characters that everyone loves. Everyone is still around, but the focus of who’s point of view we’re telling the stories from has narrowed a little bit. That being said I don’t think you’re going to miss the other stories that were being told because I think that those were not the stronger stories in the show.

We left John Cooper in terrible pain. He was taking some very strong drugs. Where do we pick up with him?

Michael Cudlitz: The thing that you have to remember about John’s back injury is that it’s an ongoing, intermittent situation. He throws his back out. It’s not something where it’s at a critical point and John can’t move, that he’s going to be out of work or anything like that. John heals up and he has to be careful with his back. He goes in and out. He has good days and he has bad days. What’s going to happen over the course of the season is that his bad days are going to become more and more frequent. His reliance on his medication is going to become heavier and heavier. Now what I think is going to be wonderful for the audience is that they’re going to have deal with if this is a back problem or is it a drug problem and that’s what John is going to have to come to terms with.

In the middle of all of that he’s got a lot of personal stuff going on. He’s getting to the tail end of his training with Ben which he takes very, very seriously and he’s concerned that Ben’s not ready yet. So there is some really wonderful stuff that goes on where he tests him again. He’s very hard on him and he’s hard for a reason. Some of the tests he passes and some he fails. But it’s sort of an awakening process to let Ben know that he doesn’t know as much as he thinks he does. I would argue that John very strongly feels that your training is never done.

Hopefully, and we’ve talked about this in the past with the creators and I don’t know if we’re going to touch on it in this season, but John takes his training very seriously for very specific reasons. There are reasons why he feels that this training needs to be done a certain way and there are consequences to not being trained well. I don’t know if we really get into that by the end of this, but I know that it’s stuff that we’ve talked about and people need to keep in mind that these are unlike any other TV characters that you’ve met. There’s a lot of personal information that you get. There’s a lot of back history and very much like people you meet in real life, it’s a long process to get to know somebody.

How much of a strain will it put on Ben and John as partners when they get to the end of training and Ben isn’t where John thinks he should be?

Michael Cudlitz: That comes in the middle of our season this year. It comes as more of a disappointment for John, but it’s not something that can’t be surmounted. I think it tends to be typical at this point in the training. But he expected him to be better. So his expectations of him are so high because he sees such potential in him. Part of it is that he’s getting in his own way and John is getting in John’s way. So there’s a lot of balls in the air. I think that we start to realize that not only does Ben need John as his training officer, but John needs Ben to help him through a lot of the situations that he’s in because he has that sort of young, fresh perspective that at times John needs to be reminded about, why he became a police officer.

It seems that John doesn’t have much of a support system –

Michael Cudlitz: No, he doesn’t.

He seems like a lonely guy. I don’t know how much of that is because he’s not settled into being gay or if he’s even ready for any sort of relationship –

Michael Cudlitz: I would say the latter, but yes, all of that does bring loneliness. You can know exactly why you are alone, but that doesn’t help you from being alone. ‘I’m really not ready to be with anybody right now, but on a cold Friday night and you’re sitting there and you’re ass is in the chair and you’re the only one in the friggin’ room and the house is completely silent and the dog ran away you’re lonely.’

Will he open himself up a little more as he realizes that he is lonely and needs someone?

Michael Cudlitz: You’re going to see a lot of opening up from John. There are a couple of critical points that come for John in the season which I think are going to be really exciting for the audience to see because it’s going to make you fall in love with him all over again. He’s so much more than everyone thinks he is already.

What’s it like shooting ‘Southland’, going to all these locations all over L.A.? What’s that like as an actor?

Michael Cudlitz: Well, first, it’s an education of the city. I’ve been to places in the city that I never knew existed. I think the areas where I was told, ‘Oh, that’s a bad part of town. Don’t ever go there,’ and then you go inside those neighborhoods and there are these phenomenal little pockets of community and wonderful people and great places to eat and amazing views.

To be on the streets shooting as an actor–and we shoot ninety percent of what we shoot on the streets–it’s just been fantastic. I think it adds an authenticity to what we’re doing, actually shooting in these specific places. If we say we’re on Spaulding we’re on Spaulding. If we say it’s the dry cleaners at the corner of Highland and whatever we’re at the dry cleaner at Highland and whatever. So a lot of that takes a lot of the work away as well. It’s very easy to be standing there dressed like a cop, acting like a cop in the actual place, doing it on the street. The whole process has been fantastic and fascinating and an amazing learning experience for me.

It’s like no other cop show out there, and it’s too bad that NBC didn’t support the show, but it’s on TNT and that’s all that matters –

Michael Cudlitz: Yes. They have other issues that they’re dealing with and I wish them well.

You’ve had some great roles. Obviously, Bull in ‘Band in Brothers’ and also Bob in ‘Grosse Point Blank’.

Michael Cudlitz: Everybody loves Bob.

What is it that draws you to do a role?

Michael Cudlitz: What’s drawn me to roles–in the past it was people offering me jobs. I think that any actor that tells you, ninety nine percent of actors who have any other answer than that, they’re full of shit because you’re not in a position to choose really. The only power that you have really is to say no, as an actor, unless you’re Leonardo DiCaprio or Will Smith. I have a family. I work. If people want to offer me a role and I like it I’ll do it, but it’s not choosing type of thing. Most actors do not have the luxury to choose. You take what’s available and what’s out there and you try to make it as good as you can.

What roles have stood out the most for you?

Michael Cudlitz: Well, I had an amazing time on ‘Grosse Point Blank’. Obviously, ‘Band of Brothers’. I did a show called ‘Over There’. I did an episode of that. I had an amazing time and I got to meet Nelson McCormick who directed some of our ‘Southland’ episodes. ‘A River Runs Through it’. The first film I ever did. I enjoy working. And I enjoy the process of filmmaking. So I’m a very lucky man.

Do you think about doing stuff behind the camera?

Michael Cudlitz: I have done stuff behind the camera. I paid my way through school as a production coordinator, building sets and that’s how I wound up on the set of ‘90210’. I was the construction coordinator for that show for four and a half years after I got out of school. But in the break that we had prior to starting back on ‘Southland’ I produced and starred in a film that a buddy of mine wrote with Melanie Griffith called ‘The Grief Tourist’.

What’s that about?

Michael Cudlitz: It’s about a guy who has intimacy issues and he has a hobby of grief tourism and especially serial killers. It’s a very, very interesting character study. I saw a rough cut of it last Monday and it’s going to be an amazing movie. We’re excited about that and it should be out in the spring sometime.

Are there any television shows that you would love to guest star on?

Michael Cudlitz: ‘Dexter’ and ‘The Walking Dead’.

Do you want to be a zombie or on the other side?

Michael Cudlitz: The other side. I have to clean up these streets.

The third season of Southland premieres on TNT Tuesday, January 4 at 10pm eastern/9pm central. You can read all of our Southland coverage here.

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