Southland's Michael Cudlitz Keeps it Real

It’s a safe bet that no one has ever called Michael Cudlitz a diva. Lots of actors may play blue-collar characters, but the star of TNT’s Southland supported himself by building sets for years before his career took off.

His role as Officer John Cooper is bringing the veteran Band of Brothers actor new attention, yet he has never lost the perspective of a guy who knows what it’s like to work crew and live paycheck-to-paycheck. Especially after he (unhappily) watched NBC pull the plug on Southland to make room for the ill-fated Jay Leno Show.

I got a little bit of insight into Cudlitz when I interviewed him earlier this year at a press event. He'd been doing promotional interviews for about six hours. Just minutes after we'd wrapped up our session, I got a phone call. It was Cudlitz, explaining that I had been his last interview of the day: “When I realized that I said, ‘Whoah, let’s get you back.’ I’d rather do a whole interview than a partial interview.”

Here’s what he had to say about Southland, his career, and working in Hollywood.

What drew you to Southland?

The fact that it was a John Wells-produced project. We all know from growing up with TV that John Wells shows are usually very large ensembles with amazingly written characters. He tends to redefine the way stories are told in a specific genre, whether it’s China Beach, The West Wing, or ER. They aren’t new stories to television, but they’re definitely told in a new way. I knew the fact that it was shooting in L.A. and it was a cop drama. And I thought that this guy, he’s going to do something new with it. He’s going to do something cool with it. It didn’t even seem to be about the crime. I thought, 'This is going to be amazing, it’s going to be a show that focuses on characters who happen to be in law enforcement in Los Angeles. Who better than John to do it?' We didn’t even know at the time that it was going to be shot the way it was shot. Or using the digital format that we’re using. All that was sort of unveiled to us as we went on and it just got more and more exciting.

What kind of challenges did playing John Cooper present to you? On one hand, he’s this iconic veteran cop. But he’s also gay and has all of these other surprising dimensions that undermine the veteran cop stereotype.

I think the fact that he turns out to ultimately be the biggest badass on the show and then turns out to be the gay character just stands everything on its head. You just go whoa, wait a minute. You’ve just completely destroyed the stereotype. 'Oh yeah, he’s one of those stereotypical badass gay dudes.' That stereotype doesn’t exist yet.

  Clichéd characters are clichés because they’re people being described by people who are on the outside. If you take two sentences from anybody and reduce them to just that, that’s what you’re going to get. That’s the interesting, wonderful thing about how Ann Biderman writes the show. You don’t just spend two seconds with these guys dealing with one specific thing. You actually go home with them and you see the different dimensions of all of these people… Nothing is as it seems on the surface. Nothing.

Did you talk to any gay cops as you tried to create the character? What did you learn?

I talked to two gay cops. They’re both really good cops, well-respected officers. And I’ve since bumped into people who were like, 'You know what, you remind me of that guy.' And I think, interesting, because I talked to that guy. What I found was there’s the same mindset that there is in the military. Whereas we talk about it as the public and the reporters report on it and the generals talk about what they think. But it’s not what’s going on down in the field. What’s going on down in the field is, 'Can this dude save my ass? Yeah? Then I want him next to me. Is he a good soldier? Is she a good soldier? Then I want them right next to me.' They could give a crap less what your sexual orientation is... When it really comes down to it, the job you do is more important and is more representative of who you are than your sexuality or anything else that you have going on in your life.

I read that you built your own house. Were there any parallels to acting in terms of building a character, or was that a complete departure for you?

I paid my way through school doing set construction for film and television. I’m a member of Local 44. I was a construction coordinator on Beverly Hills 90210 for 4 1/2 years and ran their whole construction program. I did two other pilots as a coordinator for Aaron Spelling. And then I worked as a day player for the next eight or ten years, kind of until Band of Brothers.

What kind of perspective do you think working construction gave you on the business?

I find it’s good getting out of that acting environment and that world where everything is so, and I don’t mean this in a bad way, but where it’s so egocentric. You really have to—like in any job that you want to excel at or where you go job to job to job—you gotta be worried about you. How is this affecting me? What do I have to do for my press? What do I have to do to get my job, my pictures, my reel, my next job? Everything is me me me me. You want to put a bullet in your brain after a while. Being around those people? I much prefer the company of the crew, the sort of 'blue-collar working person.' I much more have that sensibility than what the public perceives as what a typical actor would have. I can only listen so long to someone bitch about whatever they’re going to bitch about.

What about the cast of Southland?

We all show up to work. This is not an ego contest. This is not who has top billing. This is not who has more scenes or who is prettier. Or who has got the bigger muscles. We’re there to work, we’re there to tell these stories. Everyone on the show is phenomenal and has a track record. And it can be argued that it’s one of the best groups of character actors ever cast in a show.

How different has this experience been from other projects you’ve done?

I would put it up there in terms of the work and the way we’re approaching the work in the same category with Band of Brothers. Because we’re going with a level of honesty and the acting style is very similar. It’s really reacting to everything that’s going on. And Band of Brothers was the same way. Some of the most powerful moments were the personal and interpersonal moments, not the building exploding. It’s the connection between the men.

There are going to be characters that take off in the show and become audience favorites. Characters that people love to watch every week. And that’s happening. But when you really get down to it, there’s no one on the show who is acting like they’re more important than anyone else. I don’t know if the readers will understand the importance of that statement. It’s very important. It happens all of the time whether it’s because someone feels that they have reached a certain level in their career and they’re coming to work different than everybody else… It did not and will not happen on this show. We are all in this together, working together, and we all show up to work.There’s not a rotten apple in the bunch. And man, you have no idea how much that adds to the work environment.

How has it been working with Ben McKenzie?

It is great and it is easy. I get along really, really well with him. He’s a very hard worker and he’s a really wonderful actor. I’m kind of enjoying the whole… people don’t even know what to do with it. They’re just like, 'He’s the kid from The O.C. Oh. He can act. He’s really good.' Well yeah. Get over it. You got to remember that’s what he was doing. He didn’t write it. He didn’t create it. He was playing a character. And you know what? He’s got a lot of people following him because of that. Good for him to make the transition from what is considered that sort of teen soap opera idol thing to working for one of the most powerful men in television who does some of the most amazing drama and character-driven television in the history of television.

You've talked about the idea of breakout actors and characters on television series. What if that’s you and John Cooper on Southland? Any concerns?

To a degree, I have been. I was sort of shying away from saying that earlier. There are a lot of aspects of the character that have done just that. And against the odds because of the track record of a lot of people on the show. I just attribute that to the writing. They’ve done a phenomenal job putting this group together and these characters together. And I don’t have a fear of it because I’m not that guy who is going to become a jerk. I’m not going to shy away from it. I’ve worked a long time in my career to be able to enjoy some of the benefits, work-wise. It’s going to open up other opportunities, so I would be a fool to shy away from it. But I will not get sucked into becoming somebody I’m not because I read an article and believed it. That’s not me.

People get things too soon. And by soon, I don’t mean early in their career. I mean too soon for them. I don’t think success in any area turns anyone into an asshole. I think people are assholes. And success just enables them to become the complete asshole they always were.

Southland airs Tuesday nights at 10pm on TNT.

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