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'SouthLAnd' star Michael Cudlitz on the show, sharing a squad car with Lucy Liu and more

TNT's "SouthLAnd" (Tuesdays at 10 p.m.) makes the convincing argument that there isn't a better cop show on TV and there hasn't been one this good in quite a while. The crew for this show is constantly moving from location to location across Los Angeles, bringing recognizable scenes to our TVs every week. This is a show that tells its stories from street level, from inside the squad car and from the homes of the officers and detectives portrayed in the series.

Series star Michael Cudlitz has been there from the beginning, playing the seemingly solid Officer John Cooper, the most experienced character of the ones we follow on the show. "Seemingly" solid because last season Cooper's regimen of self-prescribing medication for a bad back led him to stealing painkillers or scoring them in the lavatory of the local cops' watering hole.

This season, the fourth for "SouthLAnd," Cooper has returned to the force, looking trim and very fit after a stint of physical rehab to repair his damaged back. But Cooper appears very cautious, dare we say vulnerable, as he resumes his duties. He's now teamed up with Officer Jessica Tang, played by Lucy Liu, who joined the ensemble as a handful of characters were written off the show during its most recent hiatus.

As the show airs, you will see Cudlitz on Twitter, week in, week out, promoting his show, just as he has from its first season, and during production Cudlitz continues to tweet away from curbside scenes across Los Angeles. Cudlitz has been vocal about supporting the show, particularly during its somewhat tumultuous transfer from NBC to TNT between the first and second seasons. [NBC made two seasons of the show, but only aired one. TNT bought the show and the rights to air the second season.]

"SouthLAnd" is one of a handful of shows that not only made a transition from one network to another, but have done so successfully and continue to expand upon that success. The addition of a superstar like Liu, who has been excellent as Officer Tang, should help this gritty show continue to succeed. We spoke to Cudlitz by phone last week.

SCPR: A couple weeks ago we embarked on the second season of "SouthLAnd" on TNT.

Michael Cudlitz: Correct, it's the second season on TNT and the fourth season overall. 

You're back as Officer John Cooper, after a falling out with your partner, Officer Ben Sherman [played by Ben McKenzie], and there are some big changes. Cooper had been in a lot of physical pain but his method of self-medicating had not been working…

Michael Cudlitz: Yeah, that was not working. [Laughs]

So from the premiere episode a couple weeks ago, you play a very changed man. Physically speaking, you look great!

Michael Cudlitz: [Laughs] Thanks! A lot of work went into that!

So was that a good thing for you, in your personal life as well?

Michael Cudlitz: Yes! Obviously, it's always a good to be in shape and to be fit. We had made a decision last year in the show that John was going to really spiral out of control and manifest that physically. So I kind of went off my diet and decided I wanted to put on some weight and from episode 5 on, I cut out the cardio, and by the end of the season I had put on about 12 pounds. That combined with the way I carried John and I think in episode 8 or 9, when you see him sitting in the car, he's a mess, he's disgusting.

Contrast that with the pilot episode where he says "Look sharp, act sharp, be sharp." I was about as dull as they come at that moment last season. The showrunners came to me about two months before we started and we decided that John would be completely fit when he comes back. We're not going to follow John through rehab and we're going to push all these relationships forward.

They wanted to see what John Cooper was like as a fully fit and active officer. We wanted to see what that re-entry process was like for him within the force. So the time frame has been moved forward about eight months since the end of last season. It was a really great excuse to crank it up at the gym, we rarely get those incentives in life. I've got to say my wife is really happy! [Laughs]

The big new dynamic John has to deal with is his new partner, Officer Tang, played by Lucy Liu.

Michael Cudlitz: John is very on edge. To sum up everything, John left the force, took a leave of absence, and got his back fixed. He knows people talked, he knows that he has become everything that he despised in an officer. What's happening now is that rumors are circulating, he knows that Ben is the only one that knows about the drugs, specifically, but because of the rumors he doesn't know what everybody knows.

He has a re-entry period and he's very much on eggshells. He had been the guy in charge, he was the go-to guy, he was the most tightly wrapped officer in the division. Then he became... not that. So when he's coming back he doesn't get all the privileges he had before so he has to re-qualify.

Officer Tang is put in there to make sure that he is ready physically - but since they don't know anything else, they don't come into play, so that's all in John's head. John is physically fit but John, mentally, is still dealing with what kind of officer he is going to be. He is extremely disappointed in himself, so we'll see how he moves past that, or if he even does.

How does John perceive his new partner? Is he going to trust her? What about the mistakes that haunt her past?

Michael Cudlitz: Her big mistake [of getting assaulted while arresting a suspect] was one that John made in an earlier season, he let someone get the jump on him. But since he isn't tiny like she is, it wasn't as bad for him, but it's the kind of lesson you learn once, for obvious reasons. There's no judgement in that.

But I'd like to use this interview with you as an opportunity to clarify something because some people had posted to my Twitter account that they thought it was disgusting how the cops were making fun of her and the dash-cam video [in which we see her assaulted] because they were calling her Pootie Tang "because she had been beaten."

These two things are very separate: she is being harassed as a woman because she is a beautiful woman who happens to be a cop; but the comments the cops make about the videotaped beating, about it being "mindblowing," it's mindblowing because she was almost beaten to death on camera.

The comments that the cops are giving her have absolutely nothing to do with the tape - they are giving her those comments because she's hot. There were some people who were upset because they thought those things were connected but that would be misconstruing what had happened. But ultimately I was impressed by how upset people were because that means they care about the characters and the show.

Let's talk a bit more about your partner - how did it come about? How has it been working with Lucy Liu?

Michael Cudlitz: It came about because even though we're a TV show, we're trying to closely mirror the mechanics of the LAPD. The LAPD does have their own divisions and we have ones that loosely kind of mirror them. Within the actual mechanism of the LAPD, there's this thing that they call "wheeling out," and that's when you've served enough time within the division and then you move on to another division.

This is done, from what I understand, to prevent any sort of Rampart-type thing, to make sure that corruption isn't happening. Wheeling out can really help cut down on things like favoritism or people being stuck in certain neighborhoods.

Cooper's old partner Ben has served his time as a trainee and is wheeling out to another division. So I had to have a new partner, and this is something that is also very common in LAPD, it's not as big a deal as they make it out to be on television.

But when the show mentioned that Lucy might be coming on as my partner, I didn't really know all of her work. I knew about "Ally McBeal," the Kill Bill movies, and a couple other things but not enough to say "Oh, great!" or "Oh, the horror!" I was just like, "OK, a high-profile name, that can only help the show," and I was excited to be paired up with a female officer because it was going to bring out a different dynamic in John.

She's been fantastic, she jumped in, and it's a hard show to jump into. We have a long history, there are many people that fought very hard for the show and to have an outsider come in, because we lost a lot of people who were close to us to get the show to where it is, to lose these people and to bring in somebody new is a hard thing to do. But she did it extremely well, with a tremendous amount of humility, and did everything she had to do to take her rightful place in the cast.

I think she's doing a great job and I think she's happy with the work and she's doing some really cool stuff, and I think it's stuff that she hasn't done in a very long time. I guarantee you that this is not the glamorous Lucy Liu that we've seen in ads for Kill Bill or Charlie's Angels. It's much grittier and much more grounded situation. I've spent a tremendous amount of time with the woman and I've been having a great time with her.

She's got the hair pulled back, a bulky bulletproof vest, a utility belt—

Michael Cudlitz: And somehow, yet somehow: she's hot! She's doing great, and I don't mean this in a condescending way, as somebody that's been doing this for four years and knowing how rough and demanding this show can be physically, she's doing just great.

It also seems that what's been written for her doesn't seem to be scene-stealer content.

Michael Cudlitz: She's become part of our ensemble, there's no focal light shone on anybody except for when their story is being told, and she will have time for her story, just like everyone. We're never going to have, "Tonight, on a very special episode of 'SouthLAnd'..." We are an ensemble.

You mentioned the work you guys had to do to keep the show going and more often than not, you seem to be associated with the ongoing effort to keep the show in the public's mind: keeping it in front of people on Twitter, responding to fans, talking to everybody who is interested in the show, doing interviews like this one...
Michael Cudlitz: I was the first one from the cast on Twitter and now, ironically, Ben McKenzie and Regina King have surpassed me in terms of Twitter followers. In a very real way I have been completely eclipsed by the numbers of people that follow them.

But way back in the beginning I was the only one on Twitter and I made a point of taking a stand about what NBC was doing - they were putting out misinformation about the show. I had no problem with the show being cancelled by NBC but I had a problem in the way that it was being cancelled and the kind of statements they were making about the show.

We had all worked so hard, as anybody does in any show, but we produced the show they asked for: don't say the show was darker than you ordered when you were the ones who were approving the scripts that we were doing. You can't make that up, it's not the truth. Just say it's too dark and you don't want it.

The lifespan of any show is to end in cancellation. We will, at some point, no matter what, be cancelled, and that's no surprise. But it was the way they did it at the time, so I went on to social media and I said that there was a chance that the show will be sold so let's get behind it.

I told people to find articles written about the show and to post on them, let people know that you are upset about the show being cancelled so that potential purchasers will hear about the fanbase of the show. I don't know what is attributed to me, I'm just happy we are all working, I just feel a passion for this project that we are involved in.

A lot has been said about the reality of "SouthLAnd" but there is this element contained in the characters that you've created, the empathy, there are people that we like to watch, in order to see what's going to happen to them, and there's characters we don't like, but that we still want to see.

Michael Cudlitz: I had the good fortune of being in a miniseries called "Band of Brothers." We had done a lot of footage of "war," a lot of buildings getting blown up, a lot of big things going on. That just served as a backdrop, there is no real emotion in watching these buildings blowing up. The emotion comes from people, people's faces, people's eyes.

All of this cop stuff that we're doing, all of this tension that we're building doesn't mean anything if you don't care for, or hate the people that we're following. You want to go on a ride with these characters and the show is not afraid of changing things up. It leaves the judgement of good and bad to you.

I want to remind people that there is no soundtrack in "SouthLAnd," there is no scored music or soundtrack telling you what you're supposed to feel. You are shown something and are left to interpret that however you are going to interpret it. There must be a lot of different interpretations across the country because of this. You're going to experience something form what you see and you will be left to interpret it yourself. I don't know if we're the only show doing this, but it's not typical and I love it.


"SouthLAnd" airs on Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. on TNT.