“Southland”‘s Michael Cudlitz Shoots From the Hip

When the producers of Southland went looking for an actor to play John Cooper, a tough, outspoken, no nonsense Los Angeles cop, they knew they had found their man when they met Michael Cudlitz. After all, not only is Cudlitz a first-rate actor, he’s also just as outspoken and no nonsense as the character he plays.

In fact, after spending the better part of an hour talking with Cudlitz following a panel for the show at last summer’s Television Critics Association tour, it seems like the only traits the strapping actor doesn’t share with his character is Cooper’s bad back and the fact he’s gay.

That isn’t necessarily true of course, especially as we really don’t know that much about Officer Cooper yet since NBC aired only seven episodes of the series before abruptly pulling it off the air weeks before it was due to return to the lineup last fall. Things looked grim for the gritty cop drama until TNT stepped in and rescued the critically acclaimed show.

AfterElton.com: Not everyone in the gay community has loved Cooper so far. Does that bother you at all?
Michael Cudlitz:
Why would everyone in the gay community like this character just because he’s gay? That’s ridiculous. Maybe in the past, because that’s all you had to hold on to because it was so rare. "Oh my God, he’s gay! He’s not my kind of gay, or he doesn’t live my lifestyle, but it’s being depicted. Even if it’s wrong, they’re screwing it up, whatever, at least it’s there."

Now, it’s more mainstream, not completely mainstream obviously. I feel like the same struggle that’s going on at a societal level is happening on television. It very much is a mirror. Obviously, the gay community would want more representation on television, but they’d also like to get married in most states and they can’t. That fight is still going on.

I’m heartened more than I’m disheartened by the response from people, and even people who don’t care for the kind of gay character that John is, because they’ve come to the point where they’re allowed to feel that way now, and that’s fantastic.

AE: I’m not going to ask you if you had any concerns about playing a gay character because that’s been asked a million times, but did you have any concerns about playing a gay character as different and complicated as John?

Absolutely not. This is one of the most exciting roles I’ve ever offered, if not the most exciting.

AE: What makes it that?
Everything. From the fact that he’s homosexual to the fact that he’s the most badass cop on the force, those two things being juxtaposed against each other so far as public perception goes. The fact is these guys exist whether you do or don’t know about them. Public perception of an officer on the Los Angeles Police Department whose tough as nails, really good at his job, a guy’s guy, a sort of John Wayne kind of character, comes in and kicks ass and takes names, and then you find out, oh, and he’s gay. That makes a lot of people’s head spin. I love that.

What it’s doing, what the show did by the way that they revealed, was they got people to fall in love with John as a character, and then they revealed his sexuality, and then it’s your decision at that point whether you’re going to abandon John or embrace him. Whereas early on, depending on your feelings about that or how you live your life, you might just say, "Oh, he’s gay. I know gays. I’m not even going to waste my time on him."

AE: Said in an Archie Bunker voice.
Yes, Archie Bunker voice. A really horrible Archie Bunker voice.

AE: I still got it.

I love it that they got sucked in first. Very much the same way the world has been educated. When you’re outside of something looking at it and judging it, it’s very easy to attack it no matter what it is. To take it to a whole other segment of society, compare it to a racial thing. "Oh, I’ve heard this and that about black people."

And then you hear someone say, "You know what? I lived next to a black person, and they’re not all that bad."

It’s not that they’re a black person and they’re not all that bad. It’s that you finally got to know them as a person and you didn’t judge them on either their skin color or their religion or anything. It’s just ridiculous.

The audience gets to have an experience, that in my opinion is very much how you would actually meet somebody. Nobody meets somebody at a party — depending on what circles you travel in and what lifestyle you live — and says, "Hi! How you doing? I’m gay!"

AE: That’s very true, but what I think what’s invisible to a lot of straight people are the very subtle ways in which that information is communicated. You wear a wedding ring, or you walk in with your wife and take her coat, or you have a picture of your spouse on your desk.

Ann was talking about that when I spoke to her, saying "I’m not underlining anybody’s sexuality." And it’s true, but that’s because you don’t have to underline a heterosexual person’s sexuality.

: Parenthetically, Michael, I’ve been with my wife for 24 years and I’m not wearing a wedding ring.

AE: Congratulations![laughing] What was the casting process like?

I actually went in for a different character. I read for the character that Tom Everett Scott actually got.

AE: Aren’t you glad you don’t have that role now? [Note: Scott’s character was shot in the last aired episode.]
No, because at the time I read it, the storyline was going in a different direction. So I don’t know. Had they had a different actor, maybe the storylines leading up to that would have been different. Not that Tom got shot because of anything he did as an actor, but we’re very different kinds of actors.

AE: What was going on with Cesar at the end of last season?

Building a wall. [laughs] Building a wall, drinking a beer, and watching the fireworks. [laughs]

AE: Is that your answer?

That’s my answer and I’m sticking to it. Cesar is, uh…we’re…we’re…

AE: Inspiring a lot of discussion and debate.

Yeah, yeah. No, let’s just say Cesar does not work for me.

AE: Are we going to see more of Cesar?
I don’t know if we’re going to see more of Cesar. We’re going to see more of other people.

AE: Other people in a romantic way?

Absolutely. I’m not trying to cagey. Well, I am but for
the show, not the character. There’s definitely going to be some
relationship stuff. Honestly, I don’t know how good John is at dating
one particular person, getting that close to a person, how much he
shares with one person, or how intimate he gets. I think it’s more
about satisfying needs at this point.

AE: Are we talking emotional and sexual?

Emotional and sexual. He’s working through all that.

AE: Did you know at that point that he was a gay character?
Absolutely. I knew from day one. That was the heterosexual joke. When I thought I was playing Russell, I was like, "Yes! I get to play a detective and wear great shoes and nice suits and I get the girl, a different girl in every episode."

And then they say, "You’re playing John." I’m in a car all day with another dude, in a vest, in the uniform all day in the middle of summer, and I don’t get the girl. [laughs] And not only do I not get the girl, I get the guy! [laughs] I was like, "Come on! That’s not fair! That’s not what I signed up for!" But all that being said, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I hope that they continue in the way they are advancing. I hope that they use a very realistic moment of confidence or something that happens, so that when it does come out to the audience that he’s in a relationship or there’s some issue with that, I hope it comes across in a very natural way, and not contrived. "Tonight we’ve got a very special Southland, where we find out about John Cooper. John Cooper’s past catches up with him."

And I don’t think they will. From everything I’ve been told, we’ll find out about the thing that made him who he is as a person, and the things that got in the way of him realizing what his sexuality was, the things that stopped him from not even exploring, the things that didn’t allow him to deal with it. The things every kid dealing with his sexuality deals with in Middle America. The feelings he was having, not knowing what those things were, having such an abusive father, and having that aggression in the house, and what it meant to be a man in his house. So much of his emotional world had to be shut down.

AE: So we’re talking about John’s backstory now?


AE: John’s health issues, we saw him take that medicine out of the cabinet. What can you tell us about that?

The interesting thing about the show is everything plays, we’re dealing with Ben’s perspective of that scene. What we don’t see is John’s decision to not take the pills from that house. That was actually a huge moment for John, and a huge moment for Ben. As filmmakers, they have to choose which story to tell. You can’t tell both at the same time. They’re happening simultaneously. I’ve pulled open the door and I’m looking at the pills thinking, "This is what I need. This is what kind of pain I’m in. I can’t do that. That’s wrong." And it’s done. But I got caught in the process of that.

Now we could have told that differently, but the way we tell our story is they move a lot faster and it’s really one person’s perspective at a time really in a scene. We can’t flash back and see it from John’s perspective.

The drug/back issue obviously needs to be dealt with. We can’t have a cop who’s completely on drugs half the time. God forbid anything goes wrong, any case that he processed from that point back would be in question. Was he on drugs at the time? I think the main thing is that we’ll know more clearly how the drugs are affecting him, and what his perception is if why he’s taking them and how he’s justifying it. We’ll learn that early on, so it will definitely dealt with.

AE: How long was he married and how long has he been divorced?

We’re still playing with that. We’re playing with how fresh John’s acceptance is, being true to himself. He was married to his wife who he loves dearly because she really understands him, so much so that, I always played it that when we broke up, and I told her, she was like, "Of course. That explains everything."

And may have even known all along, but they still complimented each others needs in some way. A lot of this is stuff that I’ve created and not necessarily been backed up with Ann, but that’s how it works with television. You go with what you think until it’s been written that it’s something else specific. As an actor, you have to fill those blanks in.

AE: How would you describe John as a cop and as a gay man?

As one informs the other, or as two separate things?

AE: Two separate questions. Tell us what kind of cop he is, and tell us what kind of gay guy he is.

That’s a great question because the two answers are completely different, but I’ll answer them together because I think one informs the other. He’s a great cop, and by great cop I mean he knows what he’s doing, he’s very experienced, he has really good instincts, he’s been trained well, and he’s had prior military experience. He’s not a super hero.

One of my favorite moments in the show is when the guy with the tattoo knocks him on his ass. He doesn’t pull some fancy move and get out of it, he actually gets himself in danger because he’s so cocky because he’s going to give this guy shit that he actually forgets for a moment and does something stupid. And you know what? Good cops, and good people, do stupid stuff all the time.

It’s our mistakes that make us who we are. That’s what makes us real. You’re able to follow these characters and see, "Oh, he’s not a Horatio on CSI who’s just infallible, or William Petersen on the other CSI who has all the answers and is just going to solve every crime." When you watch some of these procedurals, the serial killer has been running around for twenty years, but somehow our hero is going fix all this shit in the last ten minutes, and all of a sudden the killer becomes an idiot and I’m like a superhero. "Oh, well I’ve put it all together!" That’s not how it works. Good cops don’t necessarily solve things all the time. It’s their training and instincts that they fall back on, and their passion for their job.

Now, the fact that he’s gay, the gay thing, relatively speaking, is new to him as far as negotiating the waters of a relationship. He’s so well-trained at shutting off those feelings, calling those feelings wrong initially because his whole life, his father told him it was wrong. "That’s not right! A real man wouldn’t do that."

So his initial thing, I think, when there is an attraction or a connection or closeness that’s happening, is a lot of doubt. There’s a lot of examination, and self-worth examination, because he still hears his father in the back of his head. It’s not like, "Oh, I went to see a psychiatrist and got rid of my wife and now I’m a gay man and everything is cool. Man, look at me! I’m in charge!"

It’s one of those places he feels the least in control.

AE: So in a way, he’s still coming out.

To himself, yeah. I would say yeah. As a heterosexual person, from the moment you hit puberty you know. "Oh my God, the math teacher! Oh my God!"

You’re processing all this stuff. You have from whatever time, 11, 12, up until you turn into a complete asshole at 21, and you’re really doing it wrong with your expectations of relationships and other people, so you’re talking many years of discovery and figuring out how to do it. I’ve been with my wife for 24 years and I’m still figuring shit out.

I can’t imagine someone who has been told something — either directly or indirectly — that the way you’re feeling, or I imagine, it hasn’t been established, but I imagine my father commenting on "that lifestyle," and all the vulgarities and the negatives and everything that comes with that, and I imagine that I still hear that in my head. There is an element where I’ve said screw him, I’m taking charge of my life, and there is an element where he’s comfortable with himself at this point. The relationship stuff he’s still figuring out.

AE: I know Ann and everyone did a lot of research for this show, talking with cops and the LAPD. Did you talk to any gay cops?
I did. I had conversations with a couple of gay cops. Very informative. Very respected officers. I think the most interesting thing I got out of that was on the surface, the gay thing — and this would be something I would equate to doing Band of Brothers and doing a lot of military research and working specifically with men in uniform — is that you’re in life and death situations.

I may give you a hard time, and do this, in my redneck, whether I’m from a city or the country, my redneck way, you might be a f***ing faggot, but if you’re a good soldier or a good cop, that trumps everything, because you’ve got my ass. You’ve got me covered. You’ve got me protected. You’re a good soldier or you’re a good cop, and that is more important than anything that’s going on. I’ll give you shit, I’ll give you a hard time, but that’s just me giving you shit and giving you a hard time.

What really matters is are you going to be there when I need you there? With these cops, what they got across to me, was that their sexuality was completely secondary if not farther down the line. They were good cops, and once they were established as good cops, and the other officers knew they could count on them being there, that was it. I’m not saying they were always accepted, they were still given a hard time, but they were respected in the job.

AE: Is John worried about that at this point?

AE: Ben doesn’t know at this point, or doesn’t appear to know, so John isn’t concerned about that at all?


AE: Regina is black so she’s playing a black detective…

She’s black?

Regina King

AE: I know. It’s a shock. Kevin Alejandro is playing a detective who is Hispanic. Those guys are not dealing with the same sort of scrutiny you are with a gay character. Did you know that was part of it or did that come as a surprise you?

I thought it was funny. The interesting way with which people talk and comment on something, you know, they say, "They better not screw this character up, he better be a great character, better represent, and I’m tired of being represented a certain way in the gay community, and people don’t know how we really are, and this is bullshit, it’s about time we got some respect…Oh my God! I hope it’s Ben! He’s got a great ass!" Your readers can look that up. Okay, really? That’s your story and you’re sticking to it? You can’t have it both ways.

But you know what? You can. It’s the same stuff that goes on in the heterosexual community. I thought it was really telling about how far everything had come, as we were talking about earlier. It’s common enough now in television to have a gay character that the gay community can be disappointed with the characters. Not just satisfied that "Thank God, at least I’m being represented in some way." I think that’s cool. I’m not going to make everyone happy. I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who wish it was the Latin Kevin Alejandro, “Oh I wish he was my pool boy.”

I’m sure the majority of the people who don’t post, who just read the site, are just cruising around, either out or not out, living their life, doing whatever job they happen to do, and you know what, that’s more representative of how an actual gay man would be living their life. Just living their lives day to day, sometimes it’s affected by their sexuality and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it seems like it’s all about the sexuality, and the months go by and it’s not even an issue, like everybody else.

EDITOR’S NOTE: I had the chance to chat with Michael a second time earlier this month about the fallout of NBC’s canceling the show, moving to TNT and more.

AE: The two things folks are most curious about are your relationship with Ben and what we might learn about your personal life in the new episodes.
MC: What I can tell is that obviously our relationship grows and deepens and we learn more about each other. My sexuality is nothing that we’ve been hiding from, but we just haven’t gone in that direction. They do go a little more and it really does unfold like it did in the first season.

You’ll see. I think the one thing that will happen that you’ll see, it will be very clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that John is gay. Because there are apparently some people out there that are still unaware that John Cooper is gay. Which is pretty hilarious that they think. Because yeah, that’s a cop bar and that’s John’s buddy.

AE: Looking back over the whole NBC experience and how outspoken you were about NBC axing the show, do you have any regrets about what you said?
I wouldn’t take anything back. Maybe I’d clarify. What really pissed me off about it wasnt that the show got canceled. It was the way it was done. My biggest concern at the time was the crew. I paid my way through school doing construction and I understand how the crew works. And to be blindsided like that is completely uncalled for.

AE: Did you get any negative feedback?
MC: No, a lot of people said they were glad I gave them hell. I don’t think I said thing that everyone else wasn’t feeling. I’m not in a career position where I really have to worry about that. I’m not some delicately perched leading man riding a media created crest. I’m just a working actor and we got screwed by a specific circumstance and by a specific organization. And I got pissed off. 

AE: What kind of reaction have had from gay folks about the character of John?
MC: I’ve gotten emails and messages where people have told me in passing about how people wish when they were growing up that there were gay characters like mine on television. When I was growing up the idea of someone gay on television was with a capital "G" and they were singing showtinues and that was how you were gay on television. Thankfully, it’s evolved.

I personally don’t feel like I’m a maverick doing something that hasn’t been done before, but I do feel like I’m part of a growing minority of characters that are actually representative of society. Gay people exist in many different forms and a majority of them from my experience you don’t know [they are gay].

AE: How excited are you to be over on TNT.
MC: We’re very very excited and optimistic. With all of the push TNT has given it, if we don’t pull the numbers that we need that we don’t deserve to be on television. That being said, I’m absolutely certain we will. 

Southland airs on TNT Tuesday nights at 10 PM.