Interview: Michael Cudlitz Redefines the TV Cop in Excellent ‘Southland’

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CHICAGONBC’s loss is the TNT Network’s gain as the excellent police drama “Southland” re-emerges on basic cable with a premiere Tuesday, January 12th. Michael Cudlitz plays the conflicted veteran officer John Cooper in the show.

NBC-TV originally aired the series in April of last year. The highly touted and critically acclaimed show was deemed too “gritty” for the 9pm (8 Central) time slot preceding their Jay Leno show experiment. How is it looking now?

Regardless, the TNT Network has picked up this superior urban drama, set on the streets of Los Angeles. This is not your father’s “Dragnet.” The police are portrayed as human beings with the same challenges and flaws as all of us, trying to keep 500 square miles and 15 million people at bay on a daily basis.

The Sewer Shift: Michael Cudlitz (right) as John Cooper and Ben McKenzie as the Rookie Cop in ‘Southland’
The Sewer Shift: Michael Cudlitz (right) as John Cooper and Ben McKenzie as the Rookie Cop in ‘Southland’
Photo credit: © Mitchell Haaseth for NBC, The TNT Network

Michael Cudlitz, as Officer John Cooper, is the veteran who is taking care of a rookie in the pilot. His combination of sympathy and cynicism seems perfect for him as sort of a street mentor. Cudlitz spoke to HollywoodChicago about his role on the show and the essence that sets Southland apart from other cop shows. ‘Like driving through a sewer in a glass bottom boat.’ That was one of your lines in the pilot of Southland. How gratifying is it as a veteran actor to get your character around a line like that and work on such a well versed show?

Michael Cudlitz: It’s been fantastic. It’s a gift, that’s the only way I can put it. I mean that in the deepest and most profound way as an actor. The producing team, the writing team, the director and the other actors in the ensemble — everything about it is a gift. Everyone has a character that is multi-dimensional, there are not any stereotypes on this show.

When somebody mentioned to me that the characters on the show are messed up, I told him to look around – everybody is like that (laughs). There are nothing exclusive about the characters, it’s just that you don’t see that portrayal usually on television.

HC: Ann Biderman is the creator of the show. What type of individual would you describe her as, and what was her initial philosophy about police officers when relating to the issues pursued in Southland?

MC: I’ve heard Ann speak on this, which is helpful. Ann is probably one of the most wonderfully intense people I’ve ever worked with. Her attention to detail, her need to get it right, you can that’s what drives her. Situations are never easy, they are never just thrown away. They are very specific, and if changes are to be made they effect many other things.

She has a very interesting way of telling stories, so that they sort of circle back on themselves. You feel like you’re treading over things again, but what you’re really getting is a clarification, as if you feel you’ve been here before, but it is different. You really are getting more layers peeled back.

HC: - The pilot had a very naturalistic feel in the acting. At what stage of pre-production are you and the cast going to work hardest on this, and how does the director/production staff accommodate you?

MC: We had a very interesting situation. When we first did the pilot, the director was Chris Chulack, who had a hand in creating the show. There was a very long audition process, they got a group of actors they wanted. And through this process we were working the material with Chris. When we finally got together, everyone knew what the show was doing.

The Cast of TNT Network's ‘Southland’
The Cast of TNT Network’s ‘Southland’
Photo credit: © Mitchell Haaseth for NBC, The TNT Network

HC: The acting had a feel like you were in your third season, not your pilot.

MC: I credit that to the actors all being very seasoned, but the also the energies that the production team – Ann, John Wells [the producer] and Chris put together. They’ve all done large ensemble cast shows before. There is an energy they can tell with certain actors and there are others that need to be avoided.

Everyone understands it’s an ensemble, and the needs of the many outweigh the needs of a few, if I can go Star Trek on you (laughs).

HC: Cops are television tend to be unrealistic saints, sadistic sinners or a random amalgamation of both. How do you personally honor the thin blue line by your portrayal of John Cooper?

MC: We try to do everything that is specifically related to police work as accurately as possible. That itself gives the show an underlying credibility – because you can feel it. You can tell when something is done right or proper.

As far as the individual John Cooper, all the rest stems from that right procedure. If we know how it’s done right, as we were all trained, and we choose to veer from that, then that becomes a particular choice. So if in the show we make a mistake with something, with a procedure, then there is usually consequences. We try to make the jumping-off point for the show have the respect for proper procedure.

HC: Television drama keeps going back to the cop well every season, it seems. What was creator and production staff insisting on when separating your show from this endless parades of cop series?

Michael Cudlitz & Patrick McDonald, Jan. 5th, 2009.
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald for

MC: These words are bantered about a lot, but gritty and real.

Ann Biderman was approached by John Wells and Chris Chulack to create a police drama set in Los Angeles. Much like a ‘NYPD Blue’ for L.A. While New York City is more claustrophobic, L.A. has the roof ripped off, it’s all wide open.

So there were two ways to go with that. You could do ‘Pacific Blue’ with the palm trees, women with big boobs and shirt skirts. Or you can do this grittier side with the mega-city and all the different things it has to offer.

When they took this to Ann, she said let me think about it. She didn’t want to do it unless I can give a new voice to what already had been done. If she didn’t have anything to say, she didn’t feel a need to do the show. She spent some time interviewing officers in Los Angeles and one thing led to another. Obviously there is a ton of stuff to mine there, and she was then interested in doing it. It has been phenomenal how she has put it all together.

HC: Your character is gay in the show. In evoking characteristics within Cooper’s soul, how do you empathize with the struggle and triumph of gay men in America today?

MC: I think the only real concern that John Cooper has is that he is looking for the same things that everyone else is looking for – he wants to be happy and he wants to be in love. That’s about it.

Michael Cudlitz in ‘Band of Brothers’
Michael Cudlitz in ‘Band of Brothers’
Photo credit: © Home Box Office (HBO)

HC: ‘Band of Brothers’ is currently being rerun on HBO, in which you played Sgt. Denver ‘Bull’ Randleman. What connection did you make to that WW2 era soldier that still stays with you today?

MC: I was one of the fortunate ones. The veteran I was portraying was alive while I shooting the series. I got close to him and his family. He has since passed away.

It was an amazing experience in ‘Band of Brothers.’ I will never do anything that is more important that that. It was very humbling and it was wonderful to realize you could be involved in a project that actually went beyond just being entertainment. It meant something to the veterans, their families and to society.

HC: As a long-time working actor, did you or do you struggle to compromise living between paychecks versus taking a job that might not be the best thing creatively but will provide that paycheck?

MC: I have a family so I do what I have to do. Sometimes it’s for the paycheck and sometimes for the role. Most working actors who are able to support themselves will tell you the same thing. And there is something you can get out of every job creatively at whatever level.

HC: Finally, since this role has been essential in flexing your acting skills, what type of project would you love to take on as the character actor you are now?

MC: I want to do a Western. I haven’t done a Western yet.

Read the original review of ‘Southland’ from Brian Tallerico of HollywoodChicago

’Southland’ premieres tonight on the TNT network, Tuesday January 12th at 10pm/9pm Central, featuring Michael Cudlitz, Kevin Alejandro, Arija Bareikis, Regina King, Tom Everett Scott, created by Ann Biderman and John Wells Productions. senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2010 Patrick McDonald,

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