Michael Cudlitz as Michael Cooper

The man in blue | an interview with actor Michael Cudlitz aka Officer Michael Cooper

After being dropped by NBC, the gritty Los Angeles cop series “Southland” has resurfaced at TNT. That’s great news for the series’ fans — “Southland” is absorbing and one of the harder-hitting dramatic series on television.

Michael Cudlitz portrays John Cooper, a veteran cop who is the voice of wisdom and a source of stability in unstable situations. Cooper also is gay, a subject that’s treated with respect and realism in the series.

I spoke with Cudlitz when he was in Chicago for a fan-appreciation screening of “Southland.”

Gregg Shapiro: Has playing a police officer in “Southland” had any effect, one way or the other, about your opinion of police and law enforcement?

Michael Cudlitz: Absolutely. I had no idea what they did. We think we all have an idea of what it is to be a police officer. You think, “Oh, it’s dangerous, and this and that.” The training that we did for the show (included) some ride-a-longs. (Co-star) Ben (McKenzie) was giving me a hard time about this, because he says I’m addicted to them. …I’ve done a total of eight or 12, I think. Because my character has been in the force so long, he would have transferred from many different divisions. They only keep you for about four years and then, depending on where you are in your career, (that) determines into what division you transfer. A lot of guys like to retire out of West L.A., but when they’re younger they want to go into South Central and do the heavy crime suppression stuff. … Prior to all of this, I thought that you went through boot camp, you were a patrol officer and then, if you were smart and lucky, you became a detective. It has nothing to do with that. It’s your choice. You can choose to stay a patrol officer. You are not out-ranked by a detective. You are out-paid by a detective.

GS: So it has nothing to do with your experience.

MC: It has nothing to do with that. There are minimums that you have to do to go into it. But if you show a certain expertise in something, they can pull you as a rookie into assisting in a special group or task force. You may be a really good young guy or woman and they want to use you undercover in a gang unit. You can then move into detectives very quickly.

GS: So the police definitely earned your respect.

MC: Yes!

GS: I’m glad that you mentioned the fact that Cooper’s been on the job for a long time, because he comes across as the voice of reason, responsibility and experience, and at the same time, he peppers it with a great sense of humor.

MC: I think a lot of what you see is that gallows sense of humor is a coping device. It’s like the old TV show “M*A*S*H*,” the idea of breaking the tension in that humorous way is the only way you can deal with it. You see it, day in and day out, and you can’t process it as, “These are just normal people.” No, they’re not normal people. There are horrendous circumstances, people doing horrendous things to each other. And how do I say, “Oh, it’s OK”? You don’t. You go, “that guy’s a fucking idiot.”

GS: Cooper’s got some great lines.

MC: The best! I love how Ann (Biderman) writes for John. She’s a genius.

GS: “Southland” also makes good use of an ensemble cast, including Regina King, Ben McKenzie and C. Thomas Howell…

MC: … Michael McGrady, Kevin Alejandro, Shawn Hatosy. I’ve said this before and it bears repeating, you could take any three people and make another show and it would be phenomenally acted.

GS: There’s a scene at the end of the pilot episode, where John is in a gay bar and he sees the male hustler who had been busted earlier in the day, and they start to have a conversation. It’s the first indication of John’s personal life, and it’s handled with great subtlety.

MC: And the camera pulls back, and you’re like, “Hey!” There’s more of that. It’s handled the same way that it’s handled meeting someone for the first time in real life. Not in some bullshit TV-land way. The same way that people don’t walk in and scream, “Hi! I’m heterosexual.” John doesn’t walk in and say, “Hi, I’m gay.”

GS: Will there be a love interest for John?

MC: Yes. John was previously married to a woman. He’s still dealing with that, and he’s close to his ex-wife. It’s a very realistic relationship. He’s still figuring out everything. He’s definitely gay, there’s no question about that. But he’s figuring out his relationship stuff. There are really amazing family issues that come up with John. There’s a history of abuse and relationships in his life that have not been what you expect. It’s very interesting the way he and Ben Sherman — they’re almost polar opposites when you first meet them and, as you get to know them, you realize how much they are similar. The relationships do unfold, and you get to know them in a very realistic way; and you are left to interpret, as an audience member, what you’ve just seen. You’re never beaten over the head with anything. There’s not going to be a big coming-out episode for John, a very special “Southland.” I don’t know if it’s something that’s never been done before, but it’s definitely not the way that these relationships are handled on television, and it’s about time that it is. But there’s always a long way to go with these kinds of hot-button issues with the general society. (It’s good) to be having this discussion about this kind of gay character on a major network as one of the regulars, not a superficial character.

GS: “Southland” is being given a second chance on TNT. But do you remember how you reacted when you first heard that NBC had canceled it?

MC: Oh, yeah! I was pissed off, really pissed off. It was just sort of out of nowhere. We were blindsided, and a lot of people were put out of work. That being said, that’s over. Obviously people lose their job and get pissed off — that’s a no-brainer. If anyone’s confused or surprised that I was pissed off, they’re an idiot (laughs). But TNT has embraced it wholeheartedly. They have put so much into the launch of this. Worse case scenario: the six episodes that we shot are going to be aired.

GS: Were you aware of the efforts being made by “Southland” fans to save the show?

MC: I was one of the ones who was very aware, because I was active on Twitter. …We had finished filming, they were still airing episodes, and we were still doing press to promote the first seven (episodes). I had about 700 followers at that point. The show got cancelled, I said some things on my Twitter that got picked up by The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, and overnight my Twitter more than doubled because of the fans. I got on and said, “Great! You guys are obviously excited about the show, go post on all these sites, tell people you are pissed off, let them know.”

GS: Finally, is there anything you want to say to fans of the show in the GLBT community?

MC: Just keep watching. I think you’re going to be very happy. It’s a very interesting position to be in. I say you’re going to be happy, but it’s not going to make everyone happy. At times, within itself, what I’m learning is that it’s a very split, (factionalized) community, but all I can say is that the role of John Cooper, from my standpoint, is that I’m very aware of my place in this new arena that I’ve entered and I’m going to handle the character with love and care.

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