Cable television's grittiest cop series is back. Southland returns with all new episodes on Tuesday, January 4 at 10 PM ET on TNT. Two of the show's stars, Ben McKenzie and Regina King recently held a conference call to discuss the new season. Here's what the had to say below:
I find it interesting that over the past decade or so - decade of CSI and the forensic crime dramas that - you know, squad officers and detectives and crime shows have kind of taken a back seat while many of the crime scene analysts and medical examiners and their techniques have taken over. It's almost like the powers that be determined that cops stopped being interesting and Southland is, you know, one of those rare shows that confers that, yes, actually cops still are very interesting. Do you think the show is offering a unique point of view in that way? Do you get feedback from your life counterparts that suggest they feel like they've been kind of - had their thunder stolen by the CSI-types and so on?
Ben McKenzie: I think that's a good point. I think you're right. I think for whatever reason, I don't know if that's - they simply think the technology has evolved enough to where they can make a show like CSI with all the sort of fancy graphics and computer angles and stuff, camera angles, interesting, whether that's the reason for it or whether the template of the old, you know - shows about black and white and, you know, two guys and a police cruiser were getting stale but whatever the reason is I think that Southland is fairly unique because it's very much the antithesis of those kinds of shows that are more focused on the visual. This is really about on the ground, kind of boot level view of policing a big, crazy city like Los Angeles in the 21st Century and how kind of a grittier, rougher look at what it's actually like on a pretty human scale and how what the cops see affects them in their personal lives. I think that's the other thing that's missing from, like, CSI and Law & Order is it's much more about the crime, solving the crime, and catching the bad guys at the end of the episode and every kind of - being able to turn off their TVs and sleep soundly in their beds. And Southland doesn't really do that ever. Often, we don't catch the bad guy if there is a bad guy. And even when we do it's such a disturbing ride that you're not exactly sleeping quietly home at the end of the episode. It's a brutal look at the kind of rough world that the cops encounter. So I think it definitely has a place in society and I think it's not going to appeal to everyone. I don't think we'll ever get the kind of numbers that CSI or Law and Order get but it's not really the point. The point is to build kind of a slice of life for - what cops go through and I think that will appeal to certain sort of sophisticated viewer who wants something that's a little more honest in his portrayal of Los Angeles and police officers.
Does playing a cop make you more vigilant, more cautious, more paranoid even about putting yourself in dangerous situations in daily life?
Regina King: I don't think paranoid but I definitely would say that - I think all of us are a little more aware of our surroundings and aware of things that are going on when you're not paying attention. People have - what we've learned in all of our boot camp and training that we've done or just with officers and detectives, how they solve a lot of their cases, how they end up in situations where they've caught a criminal before an actual report was made. It's just because they have this ability that they were trained to acquire to check out body language and tones of your voice. And all those things help an officer determine, you know, whether a person is guilty and just kind of speak to those gut feelings that you have as an officer. And I wouldn't go as far as that, you know, we've got this gut feeling that this lady that's in the car next to me is, you know, a criminal but I would say that when I am in public situations I am more aware of - like, I don't know about you Ben, like you can catch somebody that you can tell is high that you might not have paid attention to before - before we started this whole two-year journey on Southland.
Ben McKenzie: Right, right. I agree with that. I think you're more aware of your surroundings and a little more - just more aware there's bad stuff out there.
Detective Lydia Adams, the physicality that you're bringing to her is pretty amazing. It looks like we're going to get more of that this season. What I'm wondering is if we're going to see traits of her that are maybe a little less perfect because she seems so perfect. It is, you know, super fit. She is chasing people down. She's always trying to do the good thing but it seems like compared to the other characters she's so perfect. Are we going to see some chinks in that armor?
Regina King: I think you're definitely going to see a less-perfect side of Lydia but I think what's interesting about how the writers have - how they're playing it is that you see a less perfect side as she discovers the less-perfect side of herself.
We're seeing, you know, you doing this amazing stunts this season in the opener at least, which was what you were doing in all of last season, just really getting this kind of physical perspective of doing the job. Was this part of your training, the boot camp that you're talking about?
Regina King: No, that part of it - the boot camp, most of the training that we were doing - that was gun handling, handcuffing, and just the overall command presence that law enforcement has. I think - what's been kind of like the added plus, I think where the studio got more bang for their buck is that they got an entire cast that is pretty frickin' fit. We kind of, like, make a joke, like, if there was a competition of us against another show we'd take anybody down. You know, we've got a really, you know, conscious group of people. Like, we're always on the set, like, looking at the treats. Like, I'm going to walk away from that cupcake. Somebody pull me away. But I think that's just, like, an added benefit.
Ben, we saw a little hint you made in the season opener, a little allusion to the past season I think with a cousin getting married. Are we going to continue to see Ben Sherman try to burry his privileged past this season or are we going to have it encroach on his police work?
Ben McKenzie: You'll see his past but only really - in terms of what we've already shot, what I know. In Episode 3, the guy who rapes my mom gets out of prison and that affects me pretty severely and I go a little haywire because of it. But in general, no. In general we're not really going to dig. I think the producers made sort of a collective decision that what's most interesting - the original intention of the show was to talk about cops on the job and have a little bit of their personal lives sprinkled throughout but to be very focused on the cops, what they see on the job, and how it affects them and only them in their personalized. And not focus too much on sort of secondary, kind of more atmospheric stuff about, you know, for my character, you know, my sister who's getting married and, you know, my father who's a jerk and all this - high-profile defense attorney, all this stuff that's a little secondary to the specific focus of the show, which is cops and what they see on the job and how it affects them. So I don't think we're going to get at too much of the kind of Brentwood-cocktail party circuit. I thinking we're going to stick to boots on the ground and police work.
Were both of you shocked by the fact that TNT picked it up? Did you think after the first season that it was dead and gone or did you think it had that second life, that someone would see it and go, we've got to get this back on the air?
Regina King: I felt like we were - that it was not the end. I always felt like there's just no way that all of these people, and I say all of these people I mean the crew as well and the people behind the scenes that make it a possibility to put this much work into something that turns out so great - that has turned out so great, that that just be it. I just don't feel like the universe works that way. I feel like the universe wants, you know, good to prevail. You know, I kind of have a fairytale mind like that. So I never thought that.
Ben McKenzie: I don't know. Maybe I'm not as optimistic as Regina. I just - at the end of the day it was out of our hands so I just sort of...
You were kind of thinking the worst.
Ben McKenzie: No, not the worst. Just that, you know, I have no affect on the outcome of this situation which is the truth of the matter. And the truth of the matter is that none of individually on the show did. You know, John went around and shopped the show. TNT went out of their way to express interest in it and came up with the best offer. And we're very grateful that they did. And I think quite frankly it's due to TNT's interest and the interest of the fans who were pretty vocal who expressed themselves online and in letters and, you know, all over the place. That's why we're back.
Have either of you actually gone out with actual cops and driven with them, spend any time with them on the street?
Ben McKenzie: Yes.
Regina King: Yes.
And what was that like?
Ben McKenzie: It was fun. It was really fun and I've been to different parts of the city, a Newton division which is a pretty rough area in South LA, then in the Valley and in West Hollywood or West Latte as a lot of the cops like to call it, not particularly tough. And each different ride-along - each ride-along was different and each gave me a different perspective on kind of what the cops do. And yes, I got something out of each of them.
Regina King: I got the chance but mine was not as colorful as Ben's. Ben got the opportunity. I think everyone except for myself and Shawn got a chance to kind of see some interesting things and you heard Ben refer to West LA as West Latte and that's where Shawn and I went so we kind of got to see a more laidback...
Cleaned up side.
Regina King: Yes.
And so this is 13 episodes we're seeing?
Ben McKenzie: Ten.
So the subject matter of your show is obviously much, much heavier than a lot of network cop-dramas these days. And I'm wondering - I mean you're in your third season, does it ever get any easier for you when you open that script and you read the case that you're going to be exploring?
Ben McKenzie: Sometimes it does actually. Sometimes the thrust of each episode will almost always be the A-storyline on any tab so it's almost always going to be pretty hard-hitting and pretty - kind of brutal. But there's often a B and C storyline that are much lighter and much more funnier that is there for comic relief. And there's a lot of humor in what cops see and do. I mean they are such crazy situations all the time that - some pretty bizarre, funny stuff happens. And it sort of rotates amongst the cast who has those bylines but I think we've really found a lot of humor in the show. I think what's interesting about it - and I think this will be very evident in the episodes that will air on TNT this year but there's a lot of unexpected humor, you know - a serious situation that has a really, really funny thing at the heart of it. And I think it's funnier than a lot of the, you know, sitcom stuff out there because it's more honest and more disturbingly funny that - you know, there's a scene that you're aware of - I'll just talk about it. I'm not sure if I can or not but what the hell. I show up with Shaky, I'm running off a female cop with a guy who's bleeding from his arm and he says his girlfriend has cut him. And they - where she's just in the car down the block, and we go down, and it's a blow-up doll. If you want to say a little crazy and he says he got in a "argument" with his girlfriend and they were arguing about the outfit that she was wearing and all these guys looking at her. And he's clearly fine and he cut himself. And, you know, there's funny stuff in that but it's also - sort of disturbing and I think that's kind of the line we walk on this show a lot.
Do you find that when you get your script you're hoping for those scenes, the ones that do many have those comical elements or do you want the gritty, A-story hard drama all the time?
Ben McKenzie: I don't want either all the time. I don't know about Regina. Do you?
Regina King: I totally agree. I don't think the audience wants either all the time.
Ben McKenzie: Yes, balance is good.
In the season premier, there's that great scene done with you where you guys are coming up to Hollywood and Santa Monica and there's a shooting. And what you did with the car, the way you put the vests over the windows and everything, I felt like - that was, like, the essential inside look at how these officers would work in a situation like that. And I'm wondering, how much prep work goes into that? Did you rehearse that with actual officers on the day of the set? What kind of inside-look did you guys get in terms of making that scene as real as possible?
Ben McKenzie: Right, that is a tactical maneuver that the LAPD does employ in certain situations because the body of the car is bullet-proof but the windows can't be bullet-proof completely so you do throw the vests over in order to bullet-proof the entire side of the car when you're driving and trying to pick up an officer who's down and trying to bullet-proof an entire side of the car that's taking oncoming fire. So we have worked on that before. We actually - all of us collectively, ran through an exercise. Was that first year, Regina?
Regina King: God, I want to say it was second year, Ben.
Ben McKenzie: But we've done the thing together.
So it's almost second-nature now that you guys are comfortable.
Ben McKenzie: Yes, well, actually we haven't done it in a long time so I was a little bit nervous about it but it actually - even as complicated as you think, basically, you know, take off the shirts to get down to the vests and throwing the vests over the windows, overlapping the vests so that there's no holes in it and shut the door. I mean it's actually not as complicated as it may look. I don't know if it even looks that complicated but it's actually relatively straight-forward. The trick is, you know, you're doing it while you're being fired upon so you have to be, you know, a little bit - you know, you have to play the reality of that situation.
Regina King: I think the beauty of that particular scene that you're talking about, the fact that it shows this brotherhood that law enforcement has, you know, and the sacrifice that they're not only making for us, civilians, everyday but the even extra mile that they'll go to sacrifice - you know, to put themselves in jeopardy for one of their one.
Where do we pick up your characters and how do you feel about what time is past since the last season?
Regina King: I think, you know, when you come to this season it is definitely clear that some time has past but not much. I have a feeling that only a few months have past, you know, like, six or seven months have past since the last time you've seen our heroes. And I think we kind of pick up - I think especially for specifically Ben and I, our characters, because we're so by the book and we so want to do our job well, you start - in this season, are going to see how we are a little more flawed than what you might have thought in the prior seasons.
What are some of those flaws you're enjoying exploring?
Regina King: For Lydia specifically, that she may not be the easiest partner to work with contrary to her belief. And you kind of see her discovering that through this new partner that she's working with.
Is there a pivotal case for Lydia this year?
Regina King: Yes, there is. There's one that takes place that starts out seeming to be like it's going to be another murder case that she's picked up and turns out to go way beyond just being a murder case.
And Ben, were you mentioning a new partner for your character?
Ben McKenzie: No, no, I don't have a new partner. I'm running around with John still, my last state of probationary period. By the end of the season - the end of the season will mark the end of that period. But no, I'm still running around with John Cooper. I guess - sorry, the one episode I referenced is one episode we switch partners. I ride with Shaky and a female cop and John rides with Dewy because nobody will ride with Dewy so it ends up being the short stick having to ride with Dewy. But for my character, it's kind of what Regina was saying that you're going to see both Lydia and Ben more human than perhaps seen them before. Ben has an episode, like I said before, where the guy who raped his mom gets out of prison and we finally talk about that, forced to talk about it. And I think it will shed some light on who this guy is deep down underneath a lot of the armor that he puts up. You know, I think most of what you see is a pretty stoic guy out there, kind of just observing the world and taking John's flack - taking a lot of grief from John, but inside there's a lot of other stuff boiling underneath and you'll see that come to the surface in that episode. And that will probably - should inform more of who this guy is. He's - I mean he's almost sort of obsessed with the notion of justice and that's kind of what he's been pursuing his entire life. And when that changes in his episode you see him kind of change and grow up and mature a little bit into a different kind of cop.
Well, it sounds like great, intense stuff that we love from Southland - and that blow-up doll story, that's classic.
Ben McKenzie: The blow-up, yes - I mean, you know, there's a lot of stuff - yes, there's just a lot. And almost everything's taken from actual cop stories. You're dealing with just a lot of strange situations. I'm trying to remember what. I know you've had...
Regina King: You guys have a lot more than the detectives do and that's just because of the nature of the position. You're the first ones there.
Ben McKenzie: Right, right. Because you have an episode that we just shot where you're having to deal with two detectives who aren't very good at their jobs and you're having to shepherd - you're basically having to baby-sit two grown men who are just terrible at their jobs and you're having to, like, fix it for them. And, you know, that kind of stuff - there's a lot of humor in that and it's also a very, unfortunately, very realistic. And I think more of that in the show is a good thing. We're not trying to be an oppressively, down-beat show. We're just trying to open up a whole new world that isn't really shown on law enforcement shows out there. Not everything is sort of beautifully shot, clean, crisp, you know, CSI-file, law enforcement. In fact, that's not real at all.
Regina King: I'll say it, not real.
Ben McKenzie: And even in Miami people don't look like that and it's not always shot on an 85 millimeter lens.
Regina King: But it's great. It's great to be on TV and have both. And that's what we're offering. We're offering, you know, a side that's a little more gritty and honest.
What is it like working with the other cast members on the set? Are there - is there a certain cast member that's the joker of the group?
Regina King: It's kind of like an hour later, that was a joke, right?
Ben McKenzie: Right, right. Regina and I are just two bumps on a log taking it all in.
Regina King: Taking it all in, making them feel good about their jokes.
Ben McKenzie: That's right, we play the audience.
Regina, can you tell us a little about Lydia's new partner this seasons and how the dynamics between them are going to work out?
Regina King: Well, Lydia's never worked with a partner, with a woman before. And it's - the character is a woman that's been on the force longer than Lydia. She's a bit older than her so there is that dynamic that - it's not said but the tension is felt where you have one person that, you know, is really good at their job and feels like, you know, I'm this good because - I've reached the level of success that I have because I've been this good. And then you the other one that's like, I've been here longer - it's kind of like - a little similar to what goes on with John Cooper and Ben Sherman but the only difference is Lydia's been around longer than Ben Sherman's character so she's a little more vocal about not liking the way her partner does her job. Like, Ben Sherman definitely does not agree with all the stuff that he or John Cooper say but it's his training officer so you kind of catch his disdain for some of the things that Cooper expresses in his looks where Lydia actually is more vocal.
Ben, what was your favorite thing about playing your character? Was there something specific that you like about him?
Ben McKenzie: Yes, I just think he's - I think he chooses his words very carefully and he says less than he feels. And I think that kind of reserve nature is powerful on camera, not that he doesn't see a lot. He's a pretty sharp guy. He takes in a lot. He just doesn't speak his mind. He's not glib. He doesn't speak his mind all that much and he can't because of the nature of the dynamics between a training officer. He has to bite his tongue a lot. But you'll see a lot of opportunities in this upcoming season for him to be funnier I think, be a little bit - take that piss out of himself and John, kind of mess around a little bit. And I think that's a good thing. I mean I think if you spend 12 hours a day for a year in a patrol car with somebody else you - at some point you get a little punchy and you just want to crack up a little and you want to just, you know, have some fun. And I think John and Ben felt that kind of comradery. They already laugh at certain situations that situations are that absurd. So I don't know. I think there's always new ways to play those scenes because Ben's growing up and evolving and their relationship is changing.
I just wanted to find out - you play a character, a woman, who's on the police force. What do you think some of the challenges are, the stereotypes that may persist about a woman working in a male-dominated profession?
Regina King: Well, I think, luckily, we're where we are now. A lot of those barriers and challenges that women on the force had to face has been overcome, a lot of - there are more men on the force now that believe women - it's necessary to have female and male officers that law enforcement is stronger with both because women have a certain sensibility that men don't have and vice versa. And that reality is shared with more officers now than, you know, even 15 years ago. So I think that that's one of the things that's kind of great about doing this type of show in this day and age because we are not dealing with all of those male versus female things, that's kind of a story that, you know, we see that a lot in all industries and it's not something that's - I think it's only been like even a C storyline for us, maybe even once. And when I say a C, more like a C- storyline. It was just kind of touched upon, that one officer, you could tell, has - and actually he comes back with it still. He still has that idea that women should not be officers. But we don't hit the nail on the head. And I think that that makes - it's a better representation of how law enforcement is now.
What do you enjoy most about your role as a detective, Lydia Adams? What has she taught you as a character?
Regina King: I guess right now I've just - I enjoy as an actress playing her, the idea of getting to know her more. I'm still at the place with the character that I'm anxious to see where she is going to go. There are - the thing that's really cool about all of these characters, that they're - you get just a little bits of them each time you see an episode that one of us may be a little more heavy in. That gives you more of a window, that opens the window more to who these people are. And it's really interesting. It's going to be really interesting to see Lydia, you know, eventually have more fun. You know, she's a pretty uptight person now so just how that journey - how she'll get to that place is interesting to me.
Regina, a few months ago, you posted a letter to the Huffington Post about the disparity of acknowledgement for actors of color who weren't being nominated and for a couple other grievances you had around that time. Do you feel that this TV season is sort of on its way to correcting that? Or do you feel that - like, say with the demise of that series Undercovers, are we still going to end up in the same place with the 2011 Emmy Awards?
Regina King: Well, I mean I think the reality is, you know, Univisium is the number one network in the country. So that being said I think that the future of TV and movies - being more the way real life is, you know, being more of a mirror-imitating life is probably more a reality that we'll see sooner rather than later just with, you know, that statistic alone I think is a good indicator that - I, people of color, are not the only ones that feel that way.
Southland premieres on Tuesday, January 4 at 10 PM ET on TNT.