Ben McKenzie and Michael Cudlitz Talk SOUTHLAND Season Finale

SOUTHLAND wraps up its stellar third season Tuesday with the gripping “Graduation Day” finale that finds Officer Ben Sherman (Ben McKenzie) tackling his final day as a rookie while watching his partner John Cooper (Michael Cudlitz) continue to succumb to his painkiller addiction. Partner issues abound through the episode as Lydia and Josie clash while Sammy teams up with someone new.

Daemon’s TV was there when Ben McKenzie and Michael Cudlitz summed up the season, talking about shooting on the streets of LA, working with the LAPD, and the challenges they face playing their characters. They also discuss a couple of events in the finale and look ahead to what a season four might look like. There are some spoilers.

On Cooper and Sherman

As different as Cooper and Sherman seem to be on the surface, they are remarkably alike at their core. Ben said, “I actually think they are two sides of the same coin. Cooper is an older, arguably jaded and bitter, veteran officer who has a lot of personal demons making decisions that are probably not the correct ones. Sherman is more a young fresh naive idealistic rookie who has a lot to learn but is very sort of Type A. As far apart as they appear to be, they are actually quite similar. They both chose law enforcement for personal reasons and they both feel passionately for the line of work they’ve chosen.”

Just because Cooper is the one battling a drug problem doesn’t mean Sherman is emotionally whole. Ben explained, “They’re both working very, very hard to kind of keep their various demons at bay. I think Ben Sherman has more than he lets on so I actually think they are closer than they appear to be. The genius of the pairing of the two of them is that you have two guys who couldn’t be more different on the face of it but are actually more similar than either of them realizes and they start to sort of understand that as the series progresses.”

On shooting in Los Angeles

Southland looks different from most police dramas because it shoots completely on location all over LA, and Michael thinks this realism gives both the show and its viewers tremendous advantages. He said, “People around the country are getting a really great look at the vastness of the city and the sort challenges that do present themselves with policing something that is so vast and not as condensed as say New York City. Los Angeles is much more sprawling and it’s much more these pockets of affluence amongst poverty. There are these wonderful iconic images but there’s an openness to the city and there’s an openness to the policing and I think that, you know, hopefully we’re giving you, you know, an actual view of what it would be like to be in this city.”

Southland makes sure to show all of Los Angeles with no embellishment, giving the show its unique look. Michael explained, “[Executive producer] Chris Chulack is extremely adamant about is that the locations be shot at the locations. We don’t need to change something to make it look nicer; it looks the way it looks. We shoot things, you know, found objects the way in society the way they exist in these officer’s lives and consequently being in that environment affects us as actors and designs the show from the ground up.”

On working with the LAPD

Shawn Ryan has spoken more than once about the lack of help he got from the LAPD when he was shooting The Shield, something Michael thought was hilarious. He laughed, “Really the LAPD hated a show that was entirely based on police officers being corrupt? That’s so strange you would say that.” Southland, on the other hand, is the recipient of much LAPD cooperation. They use real police equipment and get technical advice from off-duty officers who are constantly on set, many of whom appear on the show as extras.

Ben thinks the focus of Southland is what makes the LAPD so willing to contribute. “Our show is looking at the profession in terms of the toll it exacts on specific members of the profession. How they go about waking up in the morning and working in a field that is incredibly hard on them both physically, emotionally, and psychologically. I think what we are trying to do on the show is portray them realistically and honestly.”

Southland shows both the noble and ugly sides of police work, but it doesn’t oversell either. Ben said, “There are going to be cops who are going to fall apart get torn apart at the seams from working at a hard job. You see cops like Dewey who go in and out of being able to hold it together. And, Michael’s character ultimately has to get some of his problems fixed, but we also have many other cops who are handling it the best that they can and they’re good people who happen to be police officers. Part of what’s interesting about it is that they do fail, there’s just no grand conspiracy; they’re good people doing a hard job sometimes they’re going to screw up.”

Michael thinks it’s important that there is a reckoning for the Southland cops who fall short. He said, “Usually in our show when people screw up they have the actual consequences that would happen in that situation. Dewey doesn’t search for a gun in the pilot episode and gets shot. Russsell steals the photos and it takes some time but he gets caught. You know, there are usually typically consequences for improper actions and that I would say is actually more of a positive than showing somebody who is doing something negative or inappropriate because there are consequences for bad behavior. Obviously for TV shows sometimes those things are drawn out, but I would argue that we handle it in a much more accurate way than, you know, has been handled in the past on television.

On the challenges of playing Cooper and Sherman

Because Southland shoots on location and uses as much real equipment as possible, the actors and crew face unique challenges every day. Ben said, “That’s the wonderful thing about the way we shoot the show, on location all over LA in practical locations using the real equipment the LAPD uses from the uniforms to the guns to the hand cuffs, the radios, the cars. All those provide practical challenges working out a scene in which, you know, we may be in a car chase that leads to a foot chase that leads to a cuffing. We actors have to perform dialogue as well as engage in some more physical and visceral things like driving a car really fast through oncoming traffic. We’re not sitting in a studio rehashing the same sort of plot lines over and over and over again. We’re out on the streets just like the LAPD is, you know, solving problems that are immediate and visceral so it’s a hell of a lot of fun.”

Michael said it’s the challenges that make both the show and his job so great. “Most people don’t like challenges at work. I would say actors love challenges at work so everything that is challenging and exciting about this show. I would speak for all of the actors and I feel comfortable speaking for all of them. The things that challenge us are the things that excite us so we hope to be challenged every week and the show delivers.”

On Ben’s stunts in the finale (spoiler alert)

Sherman has an extensive chase scene across rooftops in the finale that culminates in a brutal fight. When asked if he used a wire for a leap from one building for another, Ben joked, “The stuntmen all used wires, but I said, ‘I want to do this by myself!'” Michael then teased, “I threw him over.” In truth, while there was no netting below him, Ben said, “There was a pulley on a crane 130 feet up with a wire on my back so I was safe. Even doing that was a bit of a battle with the Warner Brothers safety officers who were none too pleased that an actor would actually do this, but it was a hell of a lot of fun.”

The fight scene is down and dirty–something Ben said he had a hand in. He explained that the original choreographed version felt too elaborate, so he went to Chris Chulack and said, “‘why don’t I just roll around with this guy,’ who is, when he’s not acting and being a stunt guy, an MMA fighter so he’s used to wrestling. In real life, he would totally kick my ass but we can roll around and fight each other. So we sort of rehearsed a little bit but we pretty much rolled around and it was fantastic. I think that’s more realistic to the way fights go down. It’s messy and that’s the way a lot of fights are messy.”

On season 4 (spoiler alert)

Once again, the cast and crew of Southland must sweat it out as TNT decides whether to order another season. Fortunately, Michael seems confident about the show’s future. He said, “Well, I think the show is getting picked up. I think it’s a matter of how many.”

Whatever happens, Michael thinks it has been a great ride so far. “I would just say that we have produced the television series that we set out to produce and TNT has given us the opportunity to do that unflinchingly. We’re very proud of the ten hours that we have done as well as the 13 previous hours that we produced. But more so specifically though the past 10 hours.”

“Graduation Day” both wraps up current storylines and opens up new avenues for all of the characters. In terms of Sherman, Ben said, “I think this finale really completes the journey for my character literally and metaphorically of being a rookie. So he’s finally done with his probationary period. He’s grown up – he’s become a confident officer in his own right, more than competent and he’s had to face down his returning officer and tell him some hard truth. So he’s ready to go out into the world. I think the gloves are off for Ben Sherman and the world is wide open and he can go in any number of directions which I think is very exciting.”

Michael also sees the finale as a game-changer. He said, “I think that door has been left open for many, many changes including and not limited to the ones that you see at the end of the episode. I think that the great thing for every great character in the show is that everything is moving forward. Everything is moving forward, everybody is moving forward.”

The third season finale of Southland airs on TNT Tuesday, March 8 at 10pm eastern/9 central.

You can read all our Southland coverage here.

Follow me on Twitter @michstjame