David Lim on the action, heart, and humanity of TV’s S.W.A.T.

Photo: Jonathan Davino

First a TV show (1975) and then a movie starring Colin Farrell (2003), CBS’ reboot of S.W.A.T. (premiering tonight at 10/9c) finds inspiration from the past while forging ahead with its own identity.  From Shawn Ryan and Aaron Thomas, with a pilot directed by Justin Lin, S.W.A.T. centers around “a locally born and bred S.W.A.T. sergeant who’s torn between loyalty to the streets and duty to his fellow officers when he’s tasked to run a specialized tactical unit that is the last stop in law enforcement in Los Angeles.” Even with a cast that includes Shemar Moore, Stephanie Sigman, Alex Russell, Lina Esco, Kenneth Johnson, Peter Onorati and Jay Harrington, director Justin Lin still felt something was missing.

Having remembered his original audition for another role, Shawn, Aaron, and Justin came together to create the series regular role of Victor Tan for California native David Lim. I spoke with David Lim this week to preview the series, similarities to the source material, and working with the cast and creative team.

What a journey for you in this show from doing the pilot and then becoming a series regular. How exciting that must be! 
It’s been quite the journey. It seems like it just keeps getting better and I’m having the time of my life. Gosh, it seems like forever ago that we shot the pilot. It’s just been seven months and we’re just two days out finally. 

So tell me who Victor is? Who is Victor Tan?
I’m trying to figure it out. [laughs] You know what’s funny is they created this role for me. It was never written in the pilot script and so before I got the part, I had no idea who this guy was. I didn’t even know he existed! But when I found that they created the role, it’s like, “Oh, okay. Great.” The only description they had for him, for all the other characters, there were  long drawn out descriptions. A lot of them are loosely based off the movie which is based off the television series from the seventies. But, they really didn’t have a long description for me. It just says “Grew up in Venice Beach, surfer/skater…” I was like “Okay, I can work with that.” As the episodes went on and we went into filming, we really didn’t address any of the “surfer/skater”, I think the writers kind of saw what I was bringing to the role. And also, I was not a series regular … he had me in the first few episodes so I think they were … they didn’t quite want to delve into my character yet because they didn’t know if I’d be gone after that!

Once they promoted me and they knew they had me locked in, that meant I wasn’t running off to any other shows, then they could really start delving in and writing for my character. Here we are, we’re filming the … I believe what’s gonna be the ninth episode of the season when it starts to air. We’re just now getting into some of Victor Tan’s backstory, which is very interesting and very cool. It revolves around former criminal informant CIs who may or may not also have been love interests and now that ties into a case involving motocross gangs, taking down weed dispensaries. So you can imagine the intriguing storylines. But, I’m so excited with where they’re taking this character and it’s like each script that comes out, I’m getting new information that I’m logging in my memory, “Oh okay, now I know this about him.” And I have such trust in our writers, starting with Shawn Ryan from “The Shield” and “The Unit” and Aaron Thomas from “The Get-Down” and “Friday Night Lights,” I’m just so excited, I feel like I’m in very good hands.

That’s quite a pedigree, I love Shawn, such a huge fan, so it was great to hear he was taking this on.
Oh my gosh, he’s such a great guy, and he’s so humble, and when I talked to him, he’s like “Yeah, I remember when I was starting out, and I like to try to make other people’s dreams come true.” He’s such a great guy, what a talent.

Photo: Michael Yarish/CBS ©2017 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved

You obviously mentioned it is from source material that we’ve seen before. So, how similar or what will we expect is the same or different from the original TV show, from the movie? What is the relationship to that source material?
You know, really, I think the only thing we are going to share with the original TV show is the theme song. And ours is going to be kind of an updated version of the theme song from the seventies. As Shemar says, “It’s the theme song from the seventies with a little spank on it!” [laughs] And really, that’s about it with the television series. With the movie, I think we have some of the same character names. Obviously, Victor Tan is a new thing that was added specifically for 2017 for this series. But other than that, we’re not gonna share … and obviously the title, S.W.A.T., i t’s gonna be its own updated take and because it’s 2017, it’s not … I think the movie came out in 2003, right? Because it’s 2017, we’re gonna deal with issues that are largely happening today and are relevant and are topical. So, I’d say it’s its own thing. We got the same name, we got the theme song, but everything has been updated, it’s the 2017 version and we’re so excited to share it with everyone.

What was the training process like? I know as you guys were shooting the pilot, a lot of cast was posting pictures of tactical training. What was that like to get into this role?
That was a lot of fun. I think ever since I was a kid, I was probably running around with toy guns and Nerf guns. A lot of us grew up playing sports, so to get a role like this where you get to be … essentially, we all get to be action heroes. One, it’s just a dream role, and two, we were just so excited to get into the training and meet these SWAT officers and see what they really do, how they prepare and how they train and just kind of learn. That’s one of the coolest things about this job is that you get to learn things you might have never learned in your life, or might have never even thought about. So getting to spend time with real SWAT officers and learning how to deal with the weapons, how to correctly and tactically clear buildings and rooms, or neutralize a threat. To me, it was just so cool and such a respect for the guys, the real guys who do it for real and actually put their lives on the line and don’t know if they’re gonna get shot at. Or if they’re gonna come home to their families. So, it’s all been really exciting. And the training, to me, was more fun and soaking it all in.

What are you saying to people when they’re asking … What is going to happen on a weekly basis on S.W.A.T.? What will we see day in and day out for this show? I mean, is it serialized? Is it standalone? What is it going to look like?
Oh my gosh, I think people … I was at Shemar’s place over the weekend and we were looking at a couple of the rough cuts. And when I went home, I was still processing what I had seen and still thinking about it, and still wondering how they could fit what I felt was like a two hour movie into one of these episodes, into 40 minutes. I was like “Oh my gosh, the story lines and everything that’s happening and the action, oh my gosh!” I think that could very well be some of the reactions that we get every week. Obviously, you’re gonna see action and that’s first and foremost. I think that’s gonna excite people. You have Justin Lin doing the pilot, so you know what he brings from Fast and the Furious, from Star Trek: Beyond. The action, of course … Some of the action sequences are very cinematic. I think it’s stuff that you haven’t really seen or necessarily see on network television. Tomorrow, for example, we’re rappelling off the side of a building that’s supposed be sixty stories up crashing through windows. So, I think the action is just going to be awesome and really get people interested. And then, I think it’s so much heart and the humanity of the characters and I think a lot of procedurals or network television shows, maybe they don’t get as much into the characters’ lives. 

And here, that’s something that Shawn Ryan and our team’s writers, that’s what they really want to explore. I really think that’s what gonna hold audiences and get them to relate and care about these characters. So, you’ll see that and as I mentioned before, you’re gonna be dealing with issues that are very real from the get go. It’s “Black Lives Matter” then we get into an episode about human trafficking, then we get into an episode about cyber bullying. So, stuff that’s really relevant and I think it’s just going to be a fun and entertaining kick-ass show with a lot of heart. And I think people are really gonna really enjoy it.

Justin has such a great energy. What’s it like being directed by him?
That was very surreal, because I’ve known about Justin since “Better Luck Tomorrow,” which was one of his first, I think it might have been his first solo directorial debut. And, to be directed by a guy who really is a big time movie director … When we did the pilot, it did not feel at all like we’re doing a TV show. So, we are on the set of one of his movies, he was the captain and it was just really an honor and a privilege to work with him. And I’m thinking “I don’t know if I’m ever going to be able to … I don’t know if he’s gonna come back and direct an episode. I certainly hope he does, but I don’t know if I’m going to be able to work with him! I’d love to on another project down the road, so this might be my one shot to work with Justin Lim.” It was such an honor and I had to keep pinching myself, but at the same time, he’s also just a very humble … if you didn’t know who he was, you’d just think he’s a normal guy. You know, who likes basketball. He and I actually went to the same college. We both went to UC San Diego, and I think he transferred to UCLA, but just a cool guy who’s happens to be a great brilliant director.

Have you guys in the cast been able to bond? What’s that process been working with these guys and kind of forming that bond?
Yeah, I think when you go into a new show, you never know how the personalities are gonna mesh, and I think we got really fortunate in the fact that we all bonded right away. It was kind of that privilege and it started with Shemar, from the get go, he brought us all together. We all got on this text thread and there were no egos and he really has kind of set the tone for how he wants it to be. And we really just have had great chemistry and I think it really translates on screen because we’re portraying a team that has supposedly been together for years. But really, in real life, we had just met each other a week ago. And it really was effortless. I wish I could say there was some jawing and arguing and fighting, but there wasn’t any. I hope that audiences see that kind of on screen chemistry between the team. But like I said, it all … to me, all the credit goes to Shemar and how he sets the tone and leads by example and how hard he works. For us, we just kind of follow suit. I look up to him a lot. He’s been doing this for twenty plus years, all on CBS I think. [laughs] Which is crazy, and he’s been on very successful shows that has long runs and I think we all hope SWAT is in a long run. So we kinda … he leads by example and we follow suit.

Is there anything else you’ve been working on in between your downtime from S.W.A.T. that we have coming up or to look forward to?
Not since S.W.A.T., we’ve been so busy. And the hours have been crazy, but I’m telling you, it’s gonna pay off when people … when you see these episodes, you’re gonna see all the hard work and I think the episodes are gonna turn out great. And above it all, I think there’s these great messages of unity and bringing people together and even know there is violence, I think there’s messages of love, which I think is something that we all need right now. But in terms of other projects, the only other thing … I shot an independent film a couple years ago called “5th Passenger”, like this cool kind of original Sci-Fi feature. And that’s supposed to be released soon. I don’t know where, maybe in a couple small theaters around LA. But, we’re gonna do a screening of that in December called “5th Passenger”.

S.W.A.T. airs Thursdays at 10/9c.
David can be found on Twitter here!