As Southland fans anticipate tonight's third-season finale, I sat down with two of the TNT drama's stars, Michael Cudlitz (Officer John Cooper) and Ben McKenzie (Officer Ben Sherman), who rejoined me to discuss how far they'd come since our chats at the beginning of the season (viewable here and here), and the potential for a fourth season. Warning: there are spoilers ahead for tonight's episode.
Over the course of the show, and this season in particular, we've really seen your characters' partnership evolve. How has your relationship as actors evolved as your characters have grown?
Michael Cudlitz: Probably a lot more positive than our characters.
Ben McKenzie: It's actually great to work with [him]. You are not worried about anybody’s stuff. You’re kind of doing it together, even though you’re acting out material that is about as real as it can get between two people. That's a safety net for you.
Michael Cudlitz: And on my end it's the same thing. It's just been getting to know Ben. It's been a highlight of my career absolutely. I feel safe when we work together and I think safety is the key for any performer to go places they’re not comfortable with going. You feel safe in that environment, you feel safe enough to take those risks. And I think for both of us have done things in the show that we’ve never done before in our careers and it’s just been a pleasure.
Ben McKenzie: Amen to that.
Ben, you have an amazingly brutal fight scene in this episode. Can you talk about what it was like to film that?
Ben McKenzie: The stunt coordinator, who had choreographed the whole thing without my being there, was kind of elaborate [and it] felt way too choreographed for my taste. So I just said, why don’t I just roll around with this guy, who is, when he’s not acting and being a stunt guy, he’s a MMA fighter, so he’s used to wrestling. In real life he would totally kick my ass, but we can roll around and fight each other, as long as [we didn't] punch or kick each other particularly to the face. We sort of rehearsed a little bit but we pretty much rolled around and it was fantastic.
You know, I really think it’s a real credit to him as a performer that he was able to go for it and make it look realistic without destroying me. And I’m excited to see it. I think that’s more realistic to the way fights go down; certainly every fight I’ve ever been in in my own personal life is not choreographed. It’s messy and that’s the way a lot of fights are.
And you're jumping from rooftops as well. How was that?
Michael Cudlitz: I threw him over.
Ben McKenzie: There was no netting or anything below but there was a wire. There was a hundred and fifty foot crane that had a wire attached to it, that was hooked to my back, and a couple of guys on a pulley. There was no one pushing me over or catching me on the other side but there was a pulley there [and there] was a wire on my back so I was safe. Even doing that was a bit of a battle with the Warner Brothers safety officers who were none too pleased that an actor would actually do this, but it was a hell of a lot of fun.
Your characters are not typical Hollywood cops. We see their flaws and we see their missteps. Is it as different for you to play such complex characters as it is for us to watch them? Because they're not what we're used to seeing.
Ben McKenzie: Our show is looking at the profession in terms of what hold does it exact on specific members of the profession. How they go about waking up in the morning and working in a field that is incredibly hard on them, physically, emotionally and psychologically. There are going to be cops who are going to fall apart, get torn apart at the seams. You see cops like Dewey who go in and out of being able to hold it together. Michael’s character ultimately has to get some of his problems fixed. But we also have many other cops who are dealing with it and handling it the best that they can, and they’re good people who happen to be police officers.
There will occasionally be plot lines where officers will screw up and make mistakes, and there’s not some grand conspiracy; it’s a failure of their character, but that is a failure that is not unique to them but is inside all of us. We’re all challenged maybe not as often as these guys are but we’re all challenged on a regular basis to maintain a certain amount moral integrity and sometimes we fail and we’re not going to say they never fail. Part of what’s interesting about it is that they do fail, sometimes they’re going to screw up.
Michael Cudlitz: And they have the actual consequences that would happen in that situation. Dewey doesn’t search for a gun in the pilot episode and gets shot; there are people who say "A seasoned cop would never not search a gang banger," and you go, "What would happen if he didn’t do that?" Well, he gets shot. There are consequences for improper actions and that, I would say, is actually more of a positive than showing somebody who is doing something negative or inappropriate, because there are consequences for bad behavior. For TV shows sometimes those things are drawn out. I would argue that we handle it in a much more accurate way than has been handled in the past on television.
Presuming that the show is renewed, have you given any thought to where you'd like to see your characters go? This finale really seems to bring a great deal of closure to the established story arcs.
Ben McKenzie: I think this season really completes the journey for my character literally and metaphorically of being a rookie. He’s finally done with his probationary period. He’s grown up - he’s become a confident officer in his own right, more than competent and he’s also had to face down his [training] officer and tell him some hard truth. I think the gloves are off for Ben Sherman and the world is wide open and he can go in any number of directions.
Michael Cudlitz: The really great thing about the show, the future of the characters, is that everything is moving forward. Everything is moving forward, everybody is moving forward. I think that door has been left open for many, many changes including and not limited to the ones that you see at the end of the episode.
My thanks to Michael Cudlitz and Ben McKenzie for dropping in for another chat. Catch them both in tonight's season finale of Southland at 10 PM ET/PT on TNT.