Ben McKenzie On Southland, Jay Leno, Playing A Cop
He graduated from The O.C. to a serious dramatic role as rookie cop on the critically praised Southland, which was canceled last fall to make way for Jay Leno. Now, with Southland returning to TV on TNT, Ben McKenzie speaks exclusively to Uinterview here.
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My reaction was ‘WTF OMG?’ And I said it that way. I honestly thought someone was kidding. I didn’t understand. I thought it was an elaborate gag or something because why would you renew a show, order 13 episodes, give it a time slot, wait until two weeks before it was about to premiere and then cancel it? Very peculiar. It was a bit of a frustrating situation. In part because shooting the show was a fantastic experience. I think the entire cast feels that way, but the drama behind the scenes has been bizarre and never-ending. No matter what we did, we needed to bear the brunt of a lot of changes in corporate strategy at NBC. But now that we are back on a different network, on TNT, I hope that it’s going to actually work out.
TNT bought the episodes from last year that aired on NBC and the new episodes that we had shot before we were canceled that were still ordered under the contract. We haven’t shot new episodes for TNT yet, but it will all depend on whether the ratings are good enough for them to renew it. In terms of the different content, well, part of the reason we were canceled is because of a disagreement between the network and the producers over what the show is and when we had to move to 9 o’clock to accommodate Jay Leno, they promised we would be able to write the same show, but as we got closer and closer to it and they started seeing the show put together. They started having a lot of problems with the content.
Yeah. Exactly. Although they were given the script, so I don’t know why they didn’t figure it out until that point. Anyway, I’m not going to get into that. There’s always a problem with content. Now that we’re on TNT, we can use whatever footage we have. We can unbleep some things now that we’re on cable. And I think the show doesn’t pull a lot of punches. There’s one thing that actually got us into trouble, interestingly enough, in that first episode. Shawn Hatosy and Kevin Alejandro do an interrogation of one of the gangbangers on a toilet. They thought that was way too crude. And, you know, things like that, where you and I would say, 'Who cares? That’s what you object to? Didn’t you see the rest of the show?' Things like that, where I’ll just say it’s a better situation to be on a network like TNT. Certainly, if we go forward and the ratings are good enough and TNT picks us up, I think you’ll see us fully push the envelope. I don’t think we’ve had to back off too much. Maybe that’s why we got canceled because we should have backed off more. But at the end of the day — I’m glad. If it was a choice between compromising the vision of the show drastically vs. getting canceled and risking not being picked up, I’m glad we didn’t compromise it. It certainly is unusual to be picked up by another network, and we’re fortunate. But in the long run, maybe it will work out for everyone. Our gritty show, maybe we’ll find somewhere for it to be on the air.
Yeah, I said something stupidly about why I felt the Jay Leno show failed, and I didn’t mean it personally because he’s actually a very nice guy. But what I was trying to say was that replacing five scripted shows with one talk show, thousands of people or so lost their jobs – actors, writers, directors, crew members, you know, go down the line. And that’s a bad thing for the artistic community, and I feel that as a member of that community that I can say that. It’s not gloating when it doesn’t work out. I’m relieved that it didn’t work out in a way for the sake of the community of which I am a member, that now [they're] buying all of these pilots, they are going to put a lot more scripted hours back in the 11pm hour and that means more artists have their jobs. I think that’s a good thing. It is kind of a funny situation. We were canceled in October. They’ve already paid a lot of money for a number of shows and then it comes around to January/February, and they need them. It’s like, 'You had them three months ago!'
I was not present for that scene. I actually ended up going down to set that day, but I wasn’t involved in that. I think that the show’s a fantastic description of the particular part of L.A. that we’re trying to tell a story about. I think some people who live here have said, 'Oh that’s not it, that’s way too over the top, that’s not L.A.' What they mean is: That’s not the L.A. that they know. And, quite frankly, that’s not the L.A. that I knew before I started shooting the show and before I started going on ride-alongs with the cops in a lot of the rougher areas where there’s no reason for me to go if I’m not on a ride-along. Now I’ve figured out a couple of places that I would go, like restaurants or cool community places, but I think L.A. is very self-segregated and everybody drives everywhere, so it’s really easy to contain yourself in one part and be completely oblivious to the other parts. So I think for the kind of stories we’re trying to tell which involve some of the more violent, rougher areas of town, I think we’re absolutely depicting those in a realistic fashion because we’re actually there. We don’t build a set and fake it. The folks that were in the scene are the residents of that street. We paid them to pretend as though they were mad at the police, but they have probably been mad at the police. If people have problems with our depiction of L.A., my only reaction is look in a mirror. It’s not going to be everybody’s understanding of L.A. because there are about ten million different understandings of it. But the stories we’re trying to tell, I think we’re doing a pretty good job of representing the truth and a large part of that in addition to how we shoot and where we shoot is the scripts themselves evolve often from real life stories of the officers who the writers talk to. Most of what they get is based at least in some significant way on a real story that actually occurred.
You just get a feel for different communities. How some parts of the town are really just hit a lot harder than others. Where unemployment is 50%. That’s kind of the way it’s been for awhile. It’s just a different way of living. When every other person is out of a job and everybody’s looking over their shoulder to see if anybody’s going to take whatever they have off of them, it’s kind of hard to trust. Within the community much less between the police and the whole thing starts to break down a little bit. There’s an episode in the first season where the lieutenant loses his gun, and it ends up being these two detectives trying to get the community to help them find the gun and the community won’t help them. I think that’s one of the problems with the rougher areas. The police are trying to foster a degree of, if not a lot of mutual love, at least mutual goals. Certain members of the community want things to be better and the policemen want things to be better. There are some really, really bad apples who ruin the whole thing.
It wasn’t that hard for me. I thought it was hard in the sense that I had to wait. I had to sit around impatient with what I was going to do with my next job. As soon as I read Southland and saw the people involved in it, I wanted it, and I went after it and they agreed to let me play a role which was nice. This show fits more who I am than the other show ever did. I am the son of a lawyer. I am from the upper middle class. I’m not the bad boy poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks. I went to college, I consider myself pretty well-educated, and ambitious and all that stuff.
I keep up with Adam Brody, a bit. And Peter Gallagher, but that’s pretty much it. Everybody else has gone in different directions.
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