Catching up with Michael Cudlitz in time for SOUTHLAND S3

One of my favorite posts from 2010 was my Season 2 of SOUTHLAND chat with one of My Take on TV’s favorites, Michael Cudlitz.  Back in March, no one knew what would happen to the little show that could (having been a hit, then canceled on NBC, and then a steady ratings climber for TNT), and shortly after their shortened S2 ended, word came down that Season 3 would start in 2011.  Well, we’ve made it to 2011, and S3 starts tonight on TNT at 10/9c with another fantastic episode that finds our favorites dealing with personal issues while trying to do their part to keep the streets of LA safe.  The focus has shifted slightly this season, with more time spent on just a few of the people we love – John (Cudlitz), Ben (Ben McKenzie), Lydia (Regina King), and Sammy (Shawn Hatosy).  The show feels as fresh and exciting as ever.

In what I hope becomes a yearly thing (because SOUTHLAND will continue for many years to come if I had my way), I caught up with Michael to talk about what’s new for Season 3, what’s coming up for John and Ben, and why people should tune in.  Read on for more information and set those DVRs/VCRs/watches/phones/etc. for tonight’s Season 3 premiere (you can also catch my interview with Shawn Hatosy, posted earlier).

You know I’m a huge fan of the show.  I didn’t know it was possible to be more in love with the show than I already was.
Crazy, huh?  It just keeps getting better.

There’s almost a sense of the show pushing more boundaries.  It feels different but it feels like the same show.
Yeah, I think that we got a little more aggressive.  We know it’s sort of in our emotional DNA that we got nothing to lose.  We have a full season now.  We’re not going to be stopped in the middle of it so we’re going to do the show that we always set out to do.  I think that’s what TNT expects from us, I think that’s what the fans expect from us. The shackles have been removed, creatively, from the writer end of it, and they can do whatever they want.  It’s like “just go”.  And I think that we all feel that way.  It’s like, let’s just go, let’s do it.  That’s the feeling on set, and the feeling at the read throughs, the whole process has just been phenomenal.

I like the show more because I see how invested and involved you all are with the show.  It seems like this show is much more a part of everyone involved.
I would say that’s because we’re allowed to be.  I would say, this is probably, not even probably, the most creative process I’ve been involved with so far as from writing, acting, directing, and from shooting it.  The crew is extremely involved on the ground with the creative process.  Everyone involved is vital to what you see on screen.  There’s nobody walking around getting their lattes brought to them or their ass kissed.  Everyone shows up to work, everyone piles out of the van, let’s do it, and we do it.  I wouldn’t change a thing.

What can you talk about where we are in the season premiere, what’s happening in everyone’s life, specifically John?
John. A deceivingly simply question [laughs].  That’s like saying, “so tell me, what’s SOUTHLAND about?”  Cops.  We kind of take off sort of where we left off.  We’re a little further down.  Timewise, the pilot started when Ben was fresh out of the academy.  We came back, second season, which was Phase 3, which puts him at the six month mark.  Now, we mention in one of the episodes that we’re 9 months into his training, so I guess we’re 9 months in, in the physical timeline.  Where we are with everyone specifically in terms of what’s going on with their lives, John has his ongoing intermittent back issue.  John has a bad back.  He throws it out often.  He has good days and bad days with his back.  We’ll see as the season progresses, he’s going to have fewer good days and more bad days.  And then we’re going to see how he handles that with his prescription medication.  Now, he is prescribed these drugs, but he does go through them quicker than his doctor wants him to, which is why he supplements on the other end.  It’s not that he’s not being prescribed these pills.  There is a medical need for him to take his medication, it’s just that the amount he’s taking, when does he cross the line?  When is he not just using prescription drugs, but abusing them?  That’s going to be a journey that the audience is going on, to see when it stops becoming a back issue, and becomes an abuse issue.

With every season premiere, there’s a small establishing moment in the Ben and John relationship.  S1, they’re first meeting each other.  S2, they know more about each other.  John’s still the teacher; Ben’s still learning.  In tonight’s episode, there’s a friendlier sense.  They’re joking, John finds Ben funny instead of looking at him as his student.  Will that be a key thing that continues to grow as the season progresses?
Absolutely.  It’ll move forward and it will regress. There comes a point where the student becomes too comfortable, and thinks that they are allowed certain things and oversteps the line and has to be put back in his place.  I would say there are two relationships going on simultaneously, tracking each other, parallel.  The training officer, the FTO, the field training officer and the boot, who is the rookie.  That relationship is going on and has to be handled in a certain way. Aside from that, there’s another relationship going on, which is the friendship that is developing between Ben and John.  Ben and John need each other.  They both provide different needs and support systems for each other both emotionally and physically.  For Ben, underneath all the blustery John stuff, he sees a really good cop and knows he can learn from him.  What John sees in Ben is what he used to have, which is sort of this wide eyed innocence about the job.  He sees that he has the potential to be a phenomenal cop but he also sees that he could actually be better than John and John wants to see him reach his full potential and he wants to help him get there.  John takes his training really, really seriously, and there’s reasons for this, because there are consequences if you don’t have good training.  There are consequences even if you are well trained, and those things are talked about throughout the season.   The relationship does move forward, and the audience is going to be very, very satisfied with the fact that there is true friendship developing between the characters, yet we still maintain the idea that he is still working his way through this program, and he still answers to me.  The minute he thinks he has everything under control, I’m going to show him that he doesn’t.

What’s the biggest difference between the first batch of episodes (S1 and 2) and what we’ll see going forward?
I think it’s the focus and the storytelling with the characters that they’re really showing through my eyes, Ben’s eyes, Regina and Shawn.  They’re not trying to tell you know, 6 stories at once.  All of those characters that you love are still there.  They’re just there through a different capacity.  i think being able to infuse them with everything we did in the first 13, there’s so much more weight when Michael McGrady’s character comes in and says even one line, because you know him, and you love him.  You know what he’s capable of.  You back talk, he’ll bash your brains in, that’s the head detective, you don’t mess with him.  You don’t need to necessarily follow his story to a large extent.  I think that the focus in the storytelling is very satisfying and I think it keeps the episodes a lot more streamlined, so you feel like you’re moving through it faster, even though you’re not. You’re still at the same 42 or 44 minutes.  I think it’s more aggressive, and I think that’s a direct result of being on TNT, as opposed to anything else.  The writers are telling the stories the way they want to tell them and no one is getting in the way, telling them we can’t do that at 9:00 or 10:00.

Why should people watch the show?
Because it’s the best damn cop show you’re not watching.

People ask me why I enjoy the show so much and I start struggling to explain it other than to say I just do.  There’s so much to explain!
It’s hard.  It’s a cop show when you try to simplify it, but you sound illiterate when you try to get into it!  It’s that damn good.  If you don’t have 44 minutes that you can spend watching this show, then you’re probably not watching TV.