Michael Cudlitz may be television's most recognized law enforcement official. He's played cops, sheriffs, FBI agents, and even done voice work for the popular Call of Duty video game series. Currently, he's polishing up his LAPD badge for another tour of duty as Officer John Cooper on Southland, the gritty cop drama rescued from NBC and moving to TNT for its third season. Before Southland returns on January 4, Michael sat down with me to talk about coming back to the series and his long history behind a badge.

These last few months must have been a real roller-coaster ride for you, to be returning on a new network, but also being told your show's being retooled - and one of those changes is that your character is becoming more of a focus.

It's been good. It's been fantastic. It has been a roller coaster. We're in an amazing situation with the show where we were given a second life, which hardly ever happens. As far as the reworking of the show, I think that's what the show needed. I think that's the direction the show was headed. We were telling a lot of stories in the beginning, and I think it was difficult for the audience to track everything. That being said, we haven't lost any of the characters that everybody loves. They're all still there.

The fans have been very passionate the entire time.

The fans of the show rock. It's been really sort of eye-opening to connect in a personal way with the fans. These people love the show, and they take it personally when you take away their entertainment. They make their voices heard, and we heard them. To really realize that people care this strongly, that gives you pause, because these people put a lot into what you do. We don't exist if people don't watch what you're doing. These are the people who give up a lot to follow the show, so they deserve attention.

Southland seemed to get an unfair break; it was touted for its realism when NBC promoted it, and yet they cancelled it because of the harsh content of the second season. What is it like for you as an actor to deal with that kind of tough material on a regular basis?

It's pretty amazing, actually, because it's very realistic. I think it's easier to perform because you can really put yourself into it. The situations are all extremely emotionally charged. There's also some levity in between. It is very heavy, but there's an extreme technical element that goes with it - there are specific things that we have to do technically, and we rest on that to help carry us through the scenes. That's where the magic happens, because you're not in control. It's a lot of fun to do even though it's very heavy.

Your character seems to be particularly popular amongst the show's fanbase. What do you think is his appeal? Is it because he seems to lack a censor at times?

He's a badass with a heart. We just haven't found his heart yet. I'm sort of blessed in that they have written a character that I would compare in content to a Sipowicz from NYPD Blue. You don't agree with a lot of what he says, but you love watching him say it. You love spending time with him. He's completely unfiltered. He's a representation of how people wish they could move through life to some degree.

It's been said there's a big difference between a show's first season and subsequent seasons, especially in terms of character. Have you found that to be the case with Cooper?

I think we're all more settled, but a lot of that comes with just the repetition and the writers finding a rhythm. They're calling it a third season, but this first episode is going to be our thirteenth episode, which would put us in the middle of a season. I think we're all still finding our rhythm.

This is not the first time you've been cast in a law enforcement role. You've done several over the years, in shows like CSI, Wanted, Sleeper Cell, and Fastlane. Is that by chance, choice, or a combination of both?

It's a combination of both. I think my higher-profile projects have been military or service oriented, but I've done other stuff that is not. I attribute that to the press that those certain roles have gotten like Band of Brothers.

Speaking of those past series, I was a fan of Standoff (the 2006-2007 FOX series where Cudlitz played FBI team member Frank Rogers). Did you learn anything from that series that has helped you on Southland?

Standoff was a blast. I didn't learn a damn thing. It was so not the procedure. It was about looking slick and being funny. And that was the audience we were going after.

With so much experience in the genre, why do you think we have so many crime dramas? What's the appeal, in your opinion?

I think we've had them since the beginning of television. What it does is, it allows you to have a set of characters that you love, and you can put them in a completely different situation with high emotional stakes every week. That limits you to a very specific set [of criteria]. Police drama is one of them. What we're doing is we are going further back in time, getting back to character and story. In a way, it's reinventing them.

It almost reminds me of Third Watch.

The connection to Third Watch is Christopher Chulack. This is the show that he envisioned. He was talking to John Wells about doing a police drama in Los Angeles, and then they brought in Ann Biderman to write the script. This is a show he's been wanting to do for a very long time.

People may not know you also played a stuck-up prep schooler in 1996's D3: The Mighty Ducks. That must have been different.

Being a thirty-year-old man hanging out with sixteen-year-old kids was different.

What shows are you watching?

Dexter, I love Mad Men. I do find myself watching cable. Because I've been watching a lot of the [TNT] promos, I have been introduced to Leverage. It's a lot of fun.

My thanks to Michael Cudlitz for this interview. Be sure to catch him when Southland premieres on TNT January 4th at 10 PM ET/PT.