The dearly departed TNT drama Southland had many a dark moment over it’s five year run, so when Michael Cudlitz, who played gay cop John Cooper on the series, tells you his new project, The Dark Tourist, is dark, he knows of what he speaks.
In the new film, Cudlitz plays Jim Tahna, a security guard and loner who holds a deep fascination for visiting notorious and vicious serial killer crime scenes. The film harkens back to dark thrillers like Taxi Driver and Monster, and Cudlitz takes on a role that would probably make even Southland’s Officer Cuddlybear shudder. And yet, the two characters aren’t as different as they might first appear.
We sat down with the actor last week to talk about the new role, what John Cooper would say if he met this ‘dark tourist’ and– never one to be shy with his words– Cudlitz explains why some of the brutal violence in the film shouldn’t be seen as discriminatory.
TheBacklot: The obvious first question, what attracted you to this film?
Michael Cudlitz: The script. I read the script and couldn’t stop thinking about it. I thought it was really well done. I thought the layers of the characters and everyone so damaged, so wonderful. It was something that I couldn’t pass up if I had the opportunity to do.
TBL: Cooper was a very damaged character and Jim [in The Dark Tourist]is definitely a guy who took the other, darker road.
MC: Exactly. What happens when you get help, or when you don’t get help, and what are the different scenarios when you don’t get help? Do you have to be on this trajectory even though you didn’t get help? No. Maybe you can self medicate. What are the coping skills that we all have, or don’t have? You know, because people always say, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t believe it, I knew him, he lived next-door to me for years.’ Or, ‘She lived next door to me, she seemed so normal.’ Well, you don’t know somebody. You don’t know them. It’s the fact of the matter.
TBL: There’s a line early on which is, ‘You put something in my blood, Pop. You made me a grief tourist.” What’s the back-story with Jim’s father? Because I kind of thought that that was where the abuse of this character came from.
MC: The interesting thing, in the original script, actually the father, and this is the back-story, the father used to take him to cemeteries, where he would have quiet time. Because they live in the city, there aren’t any parks, unless you live close to Central Park. There’s not a place to get away, where it’s quiet. The cemetery is about the best thing you can have.
The father was also, which is no longer in the script, because it’s not necessarily important, but the father was a crime scene photographer. And he used to take him to work, also. So, him going to these places where things happened, also, was a connection to his father. He felt closer to somebody, you know, it was the only time he felt close to his dad. So it was a way of comforting, and feeling that connection, even though he wasn’t with his father. It was something his father had sort of inheritably, genetically passed down to him.
TBL: Did you ever think you’d be smoking weed with Melanie Griffith?
MC: No, how about that? And grabbing her! I mean come on.
TBL: That’s also the scene where we really see Jim’s dark side explode. And I feel like that was the crossroads, because he could have just as easily decided to be with her.
MC: He’s fighting his biggest internal fight of is he going to commit to this potential relationship? This is the most intimacy he has ever had in his entire life. Entire life. And he has cracked that door open, because he’s not sure. She was not part of the plan. There’s a plan, this is the sixth time this has happened. You go to the town, Jim says that line when he’s in the motel, ‘You think it’s a coincidence I wound up here next to a transsexual whore?’ That was by design.
[Betsy, Melanie Griffith’s character] was unexpected…somebody touched him, and in a lot of ways, she is like his mom. So there’s a comfort that he feels with her initially. So it allows him to get closer, but then there’s a quality about her that really pulls him in that is so vulnerable and so honest. In a way, he gets judged all the time for what he does. But also in a way, she’s not really judgmental about it, she doesn’t get it. She’s sort of almost dismissive about it. It’s like, “What is that thing? I don’t know. What about that? I don’t get that either. It’s crazy. Whatever.” It’s not like, “Those people are sick, it’s horrible.” And he’s never had that kind of response before.
TBL: You’re in just about every scene of this. How was that for you?
MC: I am in every scene, except two. Well, I’m in every scene, except the flashback scenes and the stuff with Melanie and the mom.
TBL: How long was the shoot?
MC: 22 days.
TBL: That’s a long time to stay in something this dark.
MC: Yeah. I think that helped, that served the film. Ultimately, because there was no, once we were really into it and rolling, I was there all day, and I was very into it. And I’ve said this to you before, I don’t like to talk about process too much. But in this case, being in it, and not stepping out of it, you don’t have to reenter. So the crew guy doesn’t have to wait for you to get there because you’re there. So I think the short schedule serves the work and the really high impacted schedule serves the work as well.
TBL: Sometimes voiceovers in a movie will take you out of the movie but this one didn’t for me. Why do you think it was important that we have a voiceover in the film?
MC: Some of it is just by nature the fact that it’s an independent film. It’s a very small budget movie. And voiceovers are a really wonderful way to get a lot of exposition out-of-the-way really quickly. The thing that works really well for this film is that this film is about exposition. This film is about a man discovering information about another man through a book that he’s reading and all that’s happening in his head. How else are you going to do it? You want to literally hear the voices inside of this man’s head. And the more confused he gets and the more it evolves, and the more it becomes more than one voice inside of his head and the more that the two voices actually become one voice again. And that’s the chilling part of it.
TBL: There is some violence in the movie. And there are a lot of people who are very sensitive when there’s a trans person involved in that violence, even though that happens in the world…
MC: This is where I go, ‘You know what? Get fucking over it. Because transsexuals get fucked up all the time and gay men get their asses kicked all the time.’ And the more that we put our fucking heads in the sand and pretend that, ‘oh, everything needs to be shown positive, because we’re gay, and we need to be accepted and this and that.’ You know what? You want to be gay and accepted? Fucked up shit happens to you, too. The fact that it has absolutely nothing to do that she’s a transsexual makes it even more horrifying and that’s what people should be talking about…that’s the real story there.
TBL: There’s that quote at the end of the film that the camera just holds on. “From this void, no one returns.”
MC: Yeah. I think you need that time to sort of process and come down a little bit so you can get yourself. You don’t want to see [credits] start coming up, you don’t care about those names yet at all. You need a moment to look at that and go, ‘What does that mean? I still don’t know what that means. What does that mean?’ I’m thinking about what that means in regards to the thing, and what it is, it’s that void inside Jim and there is no return.
We miss you Southland! (Cudlitz with Regina King, Ben McKenzie and Shawn Hatosy)
TBL: What would Cooper say to this guy if they’d ever been in a room together?
MC: I think Cooper would quote Chris Rock, ‘I don’t condone it, but I understand.’ I think he would know that he’s a victim but he certainly has to pay for what he’s done. Because I think that Jim probably would be perceived by most people on face value as incredibly evil. And I think that once you’ve heard the story and where we take you on the story, you go, ‘Oh, man, he’s a fucking mess. Wow, he’s a fucking mess.’ That’s when you start to question and as he does, ‘Why didn’t I get any help? Why didn’t anyone help? What failed?’
Then it turns into a whole social commentary. What’s failing and what’s lacking in the social structure that we have now in mental health care? Why can’t people get the help that they need? It doesn’t excuse the behavior. But it certainly begs the question of, are there things that we can be doing differently to help people who’ve been traumatized? What’s going to happen to all these kids? What are the lifelong ramifications and scars of all these kids who are in these things that have to do with the Catholic Church that have to do with these sports scandals that are going on right now? It’s like, there’s long-term effects of this kind of damage. Obviously, not everybody turns into a serial killer. But what things does it damage? What is the damage? And I don’t know if we ever know.
TBL: Are you missing John Cooper? Are you missing that whole Southland experience?
MC: Well I was talking with my wife, when we do the ten episodes we wouldn’t be starting again until November or December anyway so I’m really not out of work yet. This would be when I would be down anyway. I always miss that work when I’m not doing it, but that’s the consequence of working with wonderful people doing stuff you’re proud of. And you know, that’s the memory I take away with it. That’s what I walk away with.
Do I miss working with the Band of Brothers guys? Yeah, we did an amazing project, but it came to its end. I have relationships that last a lifetime and I have a project that lasts then hours. So I have the benefits of both and I have something to walk away from both.
We’re real proud of Southland…we never really jumped the shark even though we had many opportunities and many sharks swimming next to us. I think we danced that line very, very well. And you know, we went out strong and went out with people wanting more, not, ‘Oh boy, they really shouldn’t have done Season 12.’