One of the most critically acclaimed series on television is TNT's Southland, but its climb to success has been an uphill battle from the start. After premiering on NBC in April of 2009, the series was popular with fans and critics for its honest, real-life portrayal of the lives of Los Angeles police officers. The series was originally renewed for a second season but before those episodes could air, it was quickly cancelled by NBC. With several episodes of a new season already produced, the series moved to TNT where the second season debuted in January of last year.
Premiering this Tuesday, January 4th 2011 is the ten-episode third season of the popular series, which will be the first produced specifically for TNT. We recently had an opportunity to visit the set of the popular show, which shoots at Los Angeles Center Studios in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. And we spoke with several of the cast members including Ben McKenzie, Michael Cudlitz and Regina King. They discussed the new third season, the show's move to TNT, how their characters have changed and how the show has changed since it was last on the air.
Upon arrival at Los Angeles Center Studios, which is not only home to Southland but Mad Men and Law & Order: Los Angeles as well, we were given a tour of the show's set. We first toured the massive police station bullpen that is used as the main set for the show, equipped with a real working jail cell. Then we made our way to the detective's office, which is connected to the conference room and the roll call room. We watched a few minutes of shooting, which involved actors Ben McKenzie and Michael Cudlitz walking a suspect through the station. There were many extras in the background playing officers and detectives and we were surprised to find out that most of them are actually retired or off duty officers themselves. After watching them film, we went into the conference room where we had a chance to speak with a few of the stars of the show.
First up was actor Ben McKenzie, who first gained attention for his role on the popular Fox series, The O.C.. On Southland, the young actor plays rookie cop, Officer Ben Sherman, who is now no longer a rookie. The actor began by discussing how his character is going to begin to change this season. "He's going to wrap up his probationary period by the end of the season," said Ben McKenzie. "So he is still a probe but his relationship with John is more peer to peer then mentor/mentee, but obviously not completely because John calls the shots at the end of the day. He has to approve of Ben moving on to becoming a full fledge officer so they just know each other better. They've ridden around together and they have a history. John trusts Ben a little bit more because Ben has obviously proved himself, I would argue time and time again."
We followed up by asking Ben McKenzie if the change in the dynamic between Ben and John has changed the way he works with actor Michael Cudlitz? "Michael and I have always had a good relationship and we see eye to eye on an enormous amount of stuff. So that actually frees you up to play the more aggressive notes that we might be playing this season between the two as the relationship, I don't want to say falls apart, but it transforms into a whole other thing," explained Ben McKenzie. "Obviously John is addicted to pain killers and medication because he has a big back problem, he has a lot of issues that he's really not dealing with. Ben is kind of forced to deal with them eventually at the end of the season and take matters into his own hands. So the roles are kind of reverse and in order to have the depth of that relationship I think it is good that Michael and I are such good friends. We can be blunt with each other. We can ask things of each other for scenes, we work corporately and it works pretty well."
A lot of Ben McKenzie's character's back-story has involved an incident that happened to his mother and we asked the actor if that would be delved into more this season? "In episode three the guy who raped my mom gets out of jail and that sort of tips off a pretty intense series of events," he explained. "So that will sort of be dealt with in a single episode this season and we are kind of delving into the back-story and wrapping it up in a way. It's about Ben understanding his past fully in a way that maybe he didn't before and coming to peace with it. Again, this show is always about dealing with uncomfortable truth. There is no black and white, we live in the grey and that's kind of what this show is about, the grey of what is right and what is wrong. What is not always clear and certainly what is done is not always right because we live in a world of moral ambiguity. That is what policing in Los Angeles is like in the 21st century and that is kind of what living is like in the 21st century. That is what we are trying to get across in these stories and the personal lives of these police officers. I think it is a chance to show finally, what we've been talking about endlessly, which is the core of what happened and show how Ben is a lot more fragile than he lets on," continued Ben McKenzie. "He has put up a wall his whole life because of what he thinks happened so when you see that wall start to crumble I think it is a very good episode. It felt good when we were shooting it."
We also asked Ben McKenzie if he can feel the difference in the scripts, now that the show is being produced specifically for TNT, and if he feels that gives him more freedom as an actor on the show? "Yeah there is great freedom for us. We have really great producers and we have never had any issues with being free on the set. They have always encouraged us to take what's written and take that as a jumping off point. The difference I notice at TNT is that with the moral ambiguity of what we are doing there is no problem. TNT, as far as I can tell, has no problem with us showing that, in fact they embrace it. They get that without the harder stuff, the dead bodies or a woman being raped, we don't tie them up necessarily in a nice bow at the end. It's just uncomfortable and that is kind of what we are showing. What we are trying to show is that it is a hazy world out there, people do things for crazy reasons and you are left feeling uncomfortable at the end of the episode."
Finally, we asked the actor if it is helpful to have all of the retired and off duty cops on the set working in the background? "Yeah we probably got a dozen guys right now just in that other room that are off duty either patrol men or detectives. That's great. They love coming here and being a part of it and we love the camaraderie and someone saying, hey buddy you need to button it like this or you wouldn't say it like that. They are constantly checking us and we love it." Ben McKenzie also discussed the hardest police procedure that he has to do on the show. "The handcuffing is tricky. It just doesn't come off as smoothly as you want and they have to save you in editing. They can always cut to the next shot but I am getting better at it, I think we all are but it takes practice."
After Ben McKenzie went back to set, we had a chance to speak with veteran actor Michael Cudlitz who plays Ben Sherman's superior officer, John Cooper. Cudlitz has been a mainstay on television for years and has appeared on such popular shows as Lost, Standoff and Life. We began by asking the actor just how John would be dealing with his drug addiction problem this season? "Yeah, John is dealing with his back issues, his prescription drug issues and it is ongoing. I think we are coming to a critical moment in his life where those things are starting to have more of an affect on his job than he would like. He's still not really aware that there is a problem with the pills. He thinks that he completely has it under control like any good addict does. But that being said it is still an intermittent problem. His back isn't always out but then it goes out. There are good days and bad days. I think what we are going to see with John is that there are less good days."
"There are incidents where it goes out sooner and it goes out easier," Cudlitz continued. "How he copes with it becomes easier, that line that he has to cross over to get his relief from gets blurred and that begins to affect his job and his relationships on the job. I think the audience is going to like to see that shift in the power in the car between Ben and myself. I will always be his veteran officer in the relationship. With that comes lots of power because I out rank him quite a bit, but there will be a point where I'm not really in charge of him anymore. He'll be his own officer, with his own file to worry about and his own responsibilities to take care of. So he's not as much under my thumb. At the same time we have a friendship growing between the two officers in the car and so the work stuff is separate from their lives. There are a lot of parallels between their lives and their relationship. So they need each other and they'll protect each other. I think the fans will really love seeing that relationship move forward, what they are willing to risk for each other personally and how that will affect them professionally."
Cudlitz continued to discuss the relationship between Ben and John and how John views his young partner. "I think John sees Ben as an interpretation of how he came in. With all of the positive things he has going for him and with all of the baggage and the damage, although that baggage and damage is different. It's parallel but it's not the same. I think that it is too easy to say he is a younger version of him because I think he is potentially better as a cop," explained Cudlitz. "Ben has the potential to be a better cop than John if he deals with his shit earlier, because John didn't deal with it till later and he knows how it held him back. Especially in that pilot episode, I think there are shades of that in what I wrote in his book. I know that if he can make it past the shooting his first day, this crazy thing that most people never have to deal with in their career, than he'll be okay. But I need to shake him of that to make sure that he realizes that he needs to really take this fucking seriously."
The actor also talked about a specific episode coming up this season where his character will be forced to face his problems. "There is one episode that is John centric and it will focus on a lot of what John is going through," Cudlitz said. "There is major stuff going on and building up in dealing with some stuff that is going on in his life with his past. Something happens where I specifically have to deal with something that happened in my past and how I've gotten to where I am now. It's funny because it causes a lot of friction in my relationship with Ben over a two-day period and what is awesome is that you realize very quickly that my problem is not with him. Which is really cool for him to process that. He realizes that there is something going on and there is an issue but it's not him. He's not screwing up. So you follow them on these different calls and that is what I think the show was always supposed to be about. How do these officers who deal with these amazingly high pressure situations, back to back, day after day, how do they go on these calls while they still have their lives going on? How do these people do it? It's not all horrible because they do make a difference but I think that is what the creators of the show wanted to bring to it. Its not just about solving crime, the show is about how actual humans deal with doing this job? I think we're doing a good job of showing that."
Since the series focuses on different types of police officers working on different cases, we asked Cudlitz if there is a chance that all of the main characters might come together on one episode this season? "That might happen and we might have shot it already," the actor said cryptically. We followed up by asking him if it ever feels to the actors like they are working on separate shows? "I think it did before and that is one of the things they concentrated on this season. They tried to pull the focus of the characters on the show by deciding which ones they were going to focus on. They have made the world a little smaller I think. I think that is very satisfying for an audience. You want to see your favorite characters interacting with each other. I think we have a little more of that this season but it is done in a very smart way. It doesn't seem gratuitous and we aren't just there randomly."
Next up, we spoke to actress Regina King, who plays Detective Lydia Adams on the series and is no stranger to television. While the actress has gone on to make a name for herself in such popular feature films as Friday, Jerry Maguire and Ray, she began her career as a teenager on the NBC sitcom 227. Lydia's partner, Russell (Tom Everett Scott), has been injured so she will be working with a new, female partner this season and the actress discussed the new team. "I think its good. The dynamic between having two woman partners I think is just good. Just to have these two strong personalities together that detect in two different ways, neither of them are wrong in their ways of getting their jobs done, but on the small screen that reads really well. It's just like a good rhythm together. We play off each other and it works so well."
King also discussed how Russell is handling being on the sidelines and watching Lydia work with a new partner. "Some real interesting things are going to happen. Russell is just not happy with the situation. So obviously when he sees Lydia out on her way to follow up on a case with her new partner it stings. I don't think at this time she knows how much it is going to change their relationship. This is the first time she is having a female partner so I think all of that gives more layers."
Since Ben McKenzie had mentioned that handcuffing is one of the most difficult police procedures to do authentically on the show, we asked King haw she handles it? "There is no way to handcuff smoothly if you are not doing it often. It just doesn't work. Everyone gets a little nervous when they read in the script that they have to handcuff somebody," the actress explained. "I think it's the hardest cop thing to do, to do it smoothly. Because you get in your own head and think that you are taking up too much time. For me handcuffing is the hardest. I had to handcuff a character on this weeks episode and I got it right but I think what helped me is that the actor I was handcuffing was actually a officer in Colombia for twenty years before he became an actor. He knew how to hold his hands in a certain way to make me look good."
We asked King if she can feel the difference in this batch of episodes, which are produced specifically for TNT, as apposed to the episodes that were produced to air on NBC? "I do, first off we've never had a legitimate marketing campaign. We've never had a photo shoot, so all those things that you expect to have with a new show we are just getting thirteen episodes in. So that is one big difference, and then the other is just as far as the writers and the actors having the opportunity to be, as apposed to a network noting you to death, which doesn't happen at TNT. They like the show they bought and they don't want to change the tone of it. So they are kind of leaving the producers along and letting us do our show."
Before leaving the set, we had an opportunity to meet with retired LAPD officer Chic Daniel, who is an advisor on the show. Daniel had laid out on a table for us all of the actual weapons that are used on the show. These are real, LAPD standard weapons that are featured on the series and on the table before us were several handguns, a shotgun, a beanbag shotgun, batons, handcuffs and a taser gun. Daniel agreed that one of the most difficult police procedures to replicate on the show is handcuffing but assured us that all of the actors have learned to fake it pretty well by this point. In fact, all of the main actors went through a rigorous LAPD training program before the series began and most of them continue some kind of training before each new season. Finally, Daniel taught us the proper way to fire a taser gun and even let us shoot a suspect, in this case a crash test dummy. It was awesome! There is nothing more exhilarating than the rush of electricity flowing through your arms as you unload one of these charges into a criminal. For one brief moment, it actually made us feel like real LAPD cops.