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Michael Cudlitz on Saying Goodbye to ‘Southland’ and Playing One of TV’s Most Enduringly Complicated Characters

Michael Cudlitz on Saying Goodbye to 'Southland' and Playing One of TV's Most Enduringly Complicated Characters

Michael Cudlitz is all charm, even as he talks about playing a man for whom things were anything but easy. After starring as Officer John Cooper on “Southland” for five seasons, Cudlitz and fans are now saying goodbye to the character and the critically acclaimed series, which was canceled by TNT last month. Created by Ann Biderman, “Southland” maintained a gritty aesthetic in its focus on a group of LAPD officers, giving nods to “The Wire” and Fernando Meirelles’ “City of God.” Characters didn’t aim to please and the writing was complex in a way that was unusual for a series that began on network television before making the move to cable.

Complicated and utterly dynamic, the gruff Cooper was a well of frustration, pain (both physical and emotional) and steadfastness, as he worked through a broken marriage, addiction issues and coming to terms with his homosexuality. The contrast between Cudlitz and the character he played is stark — the actor, whose Emmy buzz threatens to undo his self-effacing Twitter description of himself as “that guy,” is funny, light and articulate. Indiewire spoke with Cudlitz via Skype to talk about one of the most enduringly complicated characters on television, and what he considers to be the legacy of the show and that of the stalwart Cooper.

As a gay cop, the character of John inevitably has a larger impact on society — did you feel that impact when you were taking this role?

Not really. One of the reasons was self-inflicted and the other was just a byproduct of the show. Ann Biderman made these amazingly layered characters, and one of the layers was that John Cooper happened to be gay. Though we didn’t want to stray from that, when we were approached early on by some gay editorial magazines — After Ellen, After Elton, we chose not to participate because we didn’t want the show to be about a gay cop. We wanted the show to be about a cop who happens to be gay. It’s an important element of who he was, but it doesn’t define him. Through that hopefully we change some minds and lives about preconceived ideas of what it means to be gay man.

It does feel as though we’re drifting away from the idea of the “token character” in television. Writers are writing more dynamic characters, but there’s more room, people want to watch characters that they can relate to.

Yes, exactly.

Do you think that’s what makes John an effective character, the fact that he’s not defined by his “gayness”?

Yes. Last season he said, “I’ve got a lot of problems, being gay isn’t one of them.”

I love that line! That line is brilliant.

Yeah, I said that about two years ago in an interview and Chris Chulack (one of executive producers) saw it and said we have to use it because that line really does define him. The cool thing about that is that it does make him more accessible.

Has the show faced any backlash because of the character?

We don’t really know. Every time we’d have gay subject matter, even passively, we would get people who would comment, but very minimally. Then people would come to defend it, so you never know.

Did you do a lot of research before deciding to take the role?

We did a ton of research. We did multiple ride alongs with actual officers, we did a few days in a classroom and almost a week in doing these things called “sit-stims” (situation stimulations) What they do is they put you into a situation and you need to figure out what you’d do. You basically learn through failure.

We did these situations because your body remembers it better than if you, say, read it in a book. You learn very quickly to isolate, control, separate the people involved and always watch the hands. It doesn’t take long to figure out that hands kill. If you disarm someone’s hands — they cannot kill you! We also went to the shooting range, myself and Ben (McKenzie who plays Ben Sherman) went to a driving school. We went to aggressive and defensive driving lessons.

The general aesthetic of the show can feel like that of a documentary. Was that hard as an actor, to be so immersed? Because you’re not isolated?

It’s easier. You do takes less times. It can all be done in one shot and you tend to be a lot more active and fully participating the whole time, every time. When you’re living and working in that way it becomes very hard to lie. The truth just happens — lies take time to make. With our show the material is so immediate, so aggressive that the truth just takes over in a way.

Are you drawn to stories specifically with a purpose?

I’m drawn to good writing. Sometimes that’s fluffy and dumb, and that’s it’s purpose. I don’t know, maybe? I’ve had some really wonderful opportunities in my career, “Band of Brothers” being one of them. That’s material that can really make a difference, but I don’t think of that going into it — at least not consciously.

I’m a writer who’s drawn to sad, depressing stories, but now I’m feeling like “Maybe I want to write something light? Maybe I want to write comedy?”

Well, comedy is important! When you’re having a stressful day and you come home, you want to watch something that makes you laugh. Whether you watch something that you grew up with — it helps to escape. “Friends” and “Seinfeld” didn’t change the world. but…

…they brought people together, in common solidarity.

And in common ridiculousness! It’s like, “Did you see what they did last night? Kramer was pretending to be the voice of Moviefone!”

Do you think the show was shaped by creator Ann Biderman’s being a woman?

I wouldn’t even pretend to know. I think she launched and shaped it because she’s an amazing writer, but I don’t know if I subscribe to the idea that “she’s a woman and she has a unique voice!” I don’t discount that having a female perspective brings a uniqueness to a story. I just think everyone has a unique and specific voice.

What’s your interpretation of the finale for Cooper? Are you hopeful?

In my world, he lives, because I loved doing “Southland.” If we were to have had another season, he would be alive. That’s my interpretation.

Looking back at the series, what do you feel most proud of?

Good question. I don’t know if I have an answer. Maybe… staying true to what we set out to do from day one. We committed to “Southland.” In the end, it wasn’t changed by outside forces trying to make it more marketable or a different thing that they thought would bring in a bigger audience. We made “Southland” the way we set out to do it. We stayed true to the grittiness and the rawness of it right to the very end.

What’s next for you now that “Southland” is done — what would you like to be doing? Comedy?

I actually made a joke about that after coming back from “Band of Brothers.” I said to my agent, “I just spent 10 months in a foxhole, covered in sheep shit, around 50 guys. Now, I want to go to a cruise ship where I do a comedy with only women running around in bikinis!” I don’t know what’s next specifically. I have a film that’s being released in August called “The Grief Tourist” (or the “The Dark Tourist”). That will be released in Los Angeles and New York in theatres and VOD. It’s about an individual who is obsessed with serial killers as a hobby. It’s a very character-driven story — one man’s search to figure out what happened to him as a child. It’s really dark but it’s a lot of fun.

You’re playing the lead role?

Yeah and I produced it also.

So after this, no other plans yet?

It all comes down to the material and the storytelling. Right now, thankfully, I’m in a position where I can wait a moment and hopefully make the right decision to figure out what’s next and not rush into something. So, we shall see!

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