Ben McKenzie and Michael Cudlitz Talk Southland Graduation Day

Ben McKenzie and Michael Cudlitz discuss the season 3 finale of Southland

TNT's electrifying hit drama Southland brings Season 3 to a close this Tuesday, March 8th, with Episode 03.10: Graduation Day. In this breathtaking final episode, Officer Ben Sherman (Ben McKenzie) faces his final day as a rookie and contends with his partner Officer John Cooper's (Michael Cudlitz) increasing dependence on painkillers. Meanwhile, Detective Sammy Bryant (Shawn Hatosy) is assigned a new partner.

We recently caught up with Ben McKenzie and Michael Cudlitz to discuss this climactic Season 3 ender and series game changer. Here is our conversation:


Spolier here....Ben, when you jumped over that building in the finale, was there a wire on you?

Ben McKenzie: The stuntmen all use wires. But I was there. I said, "I want to do this! By myself!" No. That's not true.

Michael Cudlitz: I threw him over!

Ben McKenzie: He did! There was a wire. But there was no netting below. We were about one hundred and thirty feet up. On a hundred and fifty-foot crane. That had a wire that was attached to my back. Then we had a couple of guys on a pulley. There was no one pushing me over, ready to catch me on the other side. But I had that wire, so I was safe. Even doing that was a battle with Warner Bros. They were none too pleased that an actor was actually going to do this. But it was a hell of a lot of fun.

If there is a Season 4, have the producers talked to you about what direction these characters might go in? It doesn't appear that Ben and John are together anymore.

Michael Cudlitz: They haven't gone into any specifics. I don't think they are sure yet. It depends on if we get picked up and how many episodes they decide to do. They are going to decide all of that later. I think the door has been opened for many changes, including, but not limited to, the ones you see at the end of this final episode.

Ben McKenzie: I think that is a perfect way to put it.

We've seen your partners' relationship really evolve over the course of these three seasons. How has your off-screen relationship evolved?

Michael Cudlitz: Probably a lot more positively than our characters.

Ben McKenzie: Probably. (Laughs) It's actually great to work with someone when things get so intense. They are in this together. We are acting out material that is as brutal as it can get between two people. There is a friendship to work that out on. So there is always a safety net below you.

Michael Cudlitz: On my end, it's the same thing. Its been about getting to know Ben McKenzie as an actor through working together. That has been a highlight of my career. I feel safe when we work together. And I think safety is the key for any performer to go places they are not comfortable going. If you feel safe in that environment, you feel safe enough to take those risks. I think both of us have done things on the show that we've never done in our careers. It has been a pleasure.

What excites you guys about playing these characters? Are there any challenges that you have to face?

Ben McKenzie: We face a variety of challenges on a daily basis. In a good way. That is the wonderful thing about the way we shoot the show, on location, all over Los Angeles. We go to practical locations, using the real equipment that the LAPD uses. From the guns, to the uniforms, to the cuffs and the radios. The cars. All of those provide great practical challenges while working out of a scene in which we may be in a car chase, that leads to a foot chase, that leads to a cuffing. All of those things challenge us as an actor, to perform dialogue as well as perform more visual, visceral things like driving a car really fast through on-coming traffic. Safely, of course. Chasing down a suspect and handcuffing him. There are challenges on a daily basis, which is what makes it so fun for us as actors. Instead of sitting in a studio, rehashing the same plot lines out over and over again, we are out on the streets where the LAPD is, solving problems that are immediate and visceral. It is a hell of a lot of fun.

Michael Cudlitz: Of all the things that make this job a challenge...Most people don't like challenges at work. Actors love challenges at work. Anything that is exciting and challenging about this show, and I speak for all of the actors in saying this, the things that challenge us are the things that excite us. So we hope to be challenged. We hope that the show delivers.

If the show doesn't come back for Season 4, what are your thoughts on this being the last episode of the entire series?

Michael Cudlitz: We produced the television series that we set out to produce. TNT has given us the opportunity to do that. Unflinchingly. We are proud of these ten hours that we have done. As well as the previous thirteen hours that we produced. But more so, these past ten hours. We will not discuss not being picked up any more.


Spolier here....Ben, you had a lot of fist fights on the O.C. They were your typical Hollywood fights. But this rooftop fight at the end of this finale episode was just brutal. I thought you might kill each other before it was done. What was it like to shoot that scene in particular?

Ben McKenzie: That is fantastic that you said that. I haven't seen it yet. I knew, when we shot it, what we had to do. We had a stunt coordinator, and he is also an actor. He was able to give me a lot of feedback. He choreographed this whole thing without me being there, because it was an elaborate fight. At first, it felt a little too choreographed for my tastes. So I said, "Why don't I just role around with this guy when he is not acting, and being a stunt guy." This guy was an MMA Fighter, he was used to wrestling. In real life he would normally kick my ass. But I thought we could roll around and fight, as long as we didn't kick or punch each other in the face, we would be fine. We rehearsed a little bit, but we pretty much fooled around. It was fantastic. It's a real credit to him, as a performer, that he was able to go for it and make it realistic without destroying me. I am excited to see it. I think it's more realistic to the way fights go down. Every fight I have ever been involved with in real life is not a choreographed brawl. I throw a left jab, and the guy throws a right cluck back at me. Then we fall to the ground. It's messy. That is the way a lot of fights are messy. I am excited to see it, so thank you for the compliment.

How do you think these two characters compare to you guys in real life?

Ben McKenzie: (Laughs) The way I think I would compare those two? They are two sides of the same coin. No matter how different they may appear to be. One is a seasoned professional on the face of it. He is an older, arguably jaded and bitter veteran officer who has a lot of personal demons. There are these decisions that he is making, which are probably not the correct ones. Versus this young, fresh naïve boot who has a lot to learn. They are quite similar. They are doing this stuff for personal reasons. They are passionate about the line of work they have chosen. And they are both working very hard to meet the end of the day. I think Ben Sherman has more going on than he lets on. I think that's the genius of these characters. Ever since the pilot, you have these two guys who couldn't be more different on the face of it, but they are actually more similar than either of them realize. You understand that as the series progresses. As far as how they compare to us? I will let Michael answer that...

Michael Cudlitz: As an actor, you try to put a little bit of yourself in everything you do. That being said, I think these guys are really far away from myself and Ben. It's further away than I thought at first. There is something about putting on that vest, and getting in that car that changes you. I don't know if its something that changes in you when you put on that uniform and you start doing that job. I am sure there is a chunk of us that is in each of these guys. But where I thought there was some of me in John Cooper, John Cooper takes off when I put on that vest. He changes from when I talk to Ben in the morning to when John jumps behind the wheel of that squad car. I cant put my finger on it. This whole experience has been surreal. I have worked in a way, and I think everyone on the show has worked in a way, that none of us ever has before. Not to sound vague, or like I am dodging the question. I don't know how to answer that question about how close we are to John and Ben. That is about as gray as I could possibly muster. Sorry.

Ben McKenzie: I think everything Michael said is true. As soon as you put on that uniform and that vest, and you jump in the car, you are immediately in another world. You can't help but put yourself in those circumstances.

Michael Cudlitz: We know who these guys are now. As far as everyone else, the way we fight for character choices is different than anything I have ever fought for before. The writers respond to it. They tell us why something needs to happen, or why they feel we are right. It's been a really interesting experience. I hope that partially answers you question.

How do you guys feel you are changing normal people's perceptions of the police officers who are on the streets, doing their jobs everyday?

Michael Cudlitz: For one, I think people around the country are getting a really great look at the city, and the vastness of the city. The challenges that present themselves when traversing something that is expansive and is not as dense as New York City, where everything is tight and packed. It's always inside of apartment buildings. Those are the perceptions we have of New York. Los Angeles is much more sprawling. There are vaster pockets of affluence amongst poverty. There are these wonderful, iconic images. And there is an openness to the city, and an openness to the policing. Hopefully, we are giving you an actual view of what it is like to be in this city if you were to come as a visitor. Not just a situation where you are on Hollywood Blvd, or the walk of fame. Los Angeles is made up of a lot of diverse communities. Hopefully we are giving people some insight into that.

Are you guys responsible for the new booths at El Siete Mares on Sunset?

Ben McKenzie: (Laughs) I have no idea. Maybe they did that after we left. I hope so. Well, I guess I hope so. I kind of liked it the way it was. If it's nice, then yes. If not, then no.

Michael Cudlitz: Our art department is extremely adamant about shooting the locations as the locations. We don't need to change something to make it nicer. It looks the way it looks. Filipes arguably looks atrocious, but that's what Filipes is. That's the charm of it. We don't go in and repaint Filipes because we want it to look the way it looks. We shoot things, found objects, the way they exist in these officers' lives. Consequently, being in that environment affects us as actors. That is the design of the show from the ground up.

How do you continue to keep the momentum of the show moving? When we see you running down the street at top speed, I mean, that must be the fifth time you've done that shot...

Ben McKenzie: Actually, no. The way that we do it is we don't run down the street twelve times. We run down the street three times. Maybe. We like to do the run just one time. Its like the unchoreographed fight that I engaged in with the guy I am chasing on the rooftop. We did it twice where we are rolling around on the ground. We did that for three minutes at a time. They used what they could. What we usually do is figure out how quickly we are shooting, and how low the budget is. So we have to shoot it fast and cheap. That fits the aesthetic of the show, it comes very naturally. We have to look at whether the chase fits the location. Then we suit up and we roll. The brilliant thing about the show is that the technology, the digital cameras that we use, allow us to go at this breakneck speed. The actors also show up prepared. That's something we all do. There isn't a lot of fussing around and arguing about script changes. All of that rigmarole that accompanies a television show. There is no lighting equipment. You basically show up, the DP puts the camera on his shoulder, and we role. We will only do it a couple of times. That allows you to keep the energy very high. That is my answer. We don't do it twelve times. We do it two times at the most.

If we aren't going to talk about not getting picked up for Season 4, can we talk about getting picked up? What are your Vegas odds? And where would you like to see your characters go?

Michael Cudlitz: I think the show is getting picked up. It's just a matter of how many episodes.


Spolier here....Ben McKenzie: In terms of my character, I think this season finale wraps up my storyline metaphorically and literally. Ben is done with his probation period. He has grow up, he has become a confident officer in his own right, and he had to face his training officer and tell him some hard truths. Ben is ready to go. The gloves are off for Ben Sherman. The world is wide open, and he could go in any number of directions. Which I think is very exciting. It's exciting for me, the producers, and the writers as well. This guy could go in any number of directions.

Michael Cudlitz: The great thing about every character on the show, and the future of those characters, is that everything is moving forward. John has gone through this point in his life, and you all know that I end up going in to get my back fixed. You are gong to meet a John you have never met before. You are going to meet a John who is healthier than before. He is healthier than he was in the pilot. Just as Ben moves forward, and all doors are open for him, all doors are open for John as well. You have never seen a healthy John Cooper. But you will. (Laughs) Maybe.

Ben McKenzie: I don't know about healthy psychologically.

Michael Cudlitz: I have not talked about that until now. (Laughs)

Ben McKenzie: The guy is a little off. We could compare him to you. How closely are the characters like us? Hmm? (Laughs)

Michael Cudlitz: Don't ask me those stupid questions!

With The Shield's first season, the LAPD said they hated the show...

Michael Cudlitz: Really? The LAPD hated a show that is entirely about police officers being corrupt. It's odd that you would say that.

But now, with Southland, it seems like you guys are getting a lot of help, using the same equipment they use. You have good cops and bad cops. How much cooperation do you actually get from the LAPD? And how upset do they get when you portray a bad cop on the show?

Ben McKenzie: We have a lot of cooperation. There are cops on our set literally all day. They are off duty, and they hang around and watch us shoot. They play cards in the background. As we've gone on, I think cops are rightly suspicious about that. Who comes on and portrays them. Especially a specific police department like the LAPD, because Hollywood is known for a lot of things besides being truthful in their portrays of police officers. Also, being positive in their portrayals is not something Hollywood has been known for. They are really on our side. Our side is looking at this profession in terms of what kind of hold it has on people in terms of the profession. How they go about waking up in the morning and working in a field that is incredibly hard on them physically and emotionally. There are going to be cops that fall apart. Cops like Dewey, who go in and out of being able to hold it together. John, also, ultimately has to get some of his problems fixed. There are many other cops who are handling this, and dealing with it the best that they can. They are good people who happen to be police officers. There will be plotlines where officers will screw up and make mistakes. Its not some grand conspiracy. It's a failure of their character. But that is not unique to them. Its inside all of us. We are all challenged on a regular basis to maintain moral integrity. Sometimes we fail. And sometimes these officers fail. There is just no grand conspiracy behind it. These are good people doing a hard job. Sometimes they are going to screw up.