Arija Bareikis and Michael Cudlitz Of “Southland” Feel Like Real Cops

by | April 15, 2009 at 4:14 PM | Interviews

The realism of the new NBC cop show Southland is so authentic, the actors on the show are ready to make a Citizen’s Arrest if they have to. And so far, America loves it so much, it’s helped to ease the pain of the departure of ER- the show that dominated the Thursday 10 p.m. timeslot for 15 years straight.

And actors Arija Bareikis (Officer Chickie Brown) and Michael Cudlitz (Officer John Cooper) feel privileged to bring their characters to life, helped along by creater John Wells‘ penchant for provocative roles that mix fantasy with utter, bone-chilling reality. In Barekis’ case, she plays a single mom with a burning desire to become the LAPD’s first female S.W.A.T. team member. And for Cudlitz, who plays a 20 year veteran training officer, his character must deal with a hotshot rookie under his tutelage who kills a perp his first day on the job. Talk about hogging all the glory.

Watch the pilot episode of Southland here

On Southland, the human element of police work is a living, breathing monster raised on the gritty streets of a new kind of Los Angeles, and it ain’t always pretty. We caught up with the duo at a press conference just a week into a show that looks like it will enjoy a long, tumultuous career. Sort of like what any LAPD rookie can expect.

The pilot episode looks like the series has a chance at great success, because of its realism. But is there a lot of pressure since you’re taking over the ER timeslot?

Michael Cudlitz: I don’t know if we feel real pressure. We’re doing something we feel real confident about and we know there’s an audience there. Hopefully we’re gonna get back some of that Third Watch audience that has left. I just think that right now NBC’s in this wonderful transition period from a creative standpoint and I think we’re gonna be in a great position for what they’re trying to do right now.

Southland is set in L.A. and that’s unusual…

Michael Cudlitz: Yeah, I think the last time was High Incident but there’s been nothing on that’s stayed on, and nothing like our show which is a little bit different, because of the way we shoot it. There’s almost a documentary style to it, and the fact that we are on the streets of L.A., the majority of our scenes take place in real locations. We’re not locked away in some studio somewhere, and I think because of that there’s an open feel that you get when you’re in California. It’s not like a staged scene, where there’s palm trees and beautiful women everywhere…

Arija Bareikis: Hey! (laughs)

Michael Cudlitz: … it’s got this gritty, real feel that is much more open than shows in the past.

Arija Bareikis: And that’s great for us because it’s a great way to be working and it’s hopefully great for the viewers as well.

In a sense, then, L.A. becomes a character in the story. And that’s something that has been missing for a while on TV, not the way it has been for say, New York…

Michael Cudlitz: I think it infuses the human element, really going out into the streets. There’s something you can’t recreate. A lot of times the crew will go into an area and say “Oh, we love this area” then they’ll clean it up, bring in backgrounds and start shooting. It’s like creating a set outside. We’re trying not to do that. We are shooting outside and letting the environment affect us. If a garbage truck drives by, you have to do your lines over it. If a homeless guy pushes a cart through the middle of the scene, go with it. We’re really trying to elevate television to that next level of realism.

I noticed that in the pilot. It looks like real buses driving by, and real people, not just extras hitting their marks…

Michael Cudlitz: Absolutely, but that being said, we are creating background where it’s necessary, but for the most part, we just shoot what’s there.

Arija Bareikis: Sometimes the greatest stuff comes out of what’s happening there. And certainly, as actors, it’s very nice to have those variables. It really motivates. And the truth is, we did a lot of ride alongs, to train for the show with real LA police officers and their biggest concern is safety and they’re always looking around at the environment, so it’s always great to have that as part of our reality as well.

Tell us more about that. It’s pretty obvious you’ve gotten some training. What was that experience like?

Michael Cudlitz: It was fantastic. We did a two week boot camp, and then followed it up with a bunch of ride-alongs with real cops who are working right now.

How physical was that? Was it intense?

Michael Cudlitz: It was more technical than physical. The goal was being so familiar with the equipment it becomes second nature. A lot of times in TV shows, you’ll go to cuff somebody and they don’t show the cuffing. Here, you see the cuffing, and when there’s problems with that, the more familiar we are, the better reaction from audience members. It’s like we are actually cops. The more it becomes less about the equipment, the realer we look.

So at this point, you’re quite prepared to make a citizen’s arrest if you had to.

Arija Bareikis: Yeah, so watch out!

Do you find that creeping into your own life? Are you more aware of your environment now when you’re driving around L.A.?

Arija Bareikis: Absolutely. And I have to say I have a whole new appreciation for what it’s like to be a police officer. Every police officer I encountered was a very remarkable individual. They really cared about their job, and doing it well, and doing it safely.

Michael Cudlitz: Just look at what’s happened in the last few weeks with these officers who were killed in the line of duty. One of the calls they responded was about a barking dog. And they got ambushed. Who’s gonna go there, guns drawn? But in their minds, they know, there’s no such thing as a routine call. That’s what our show is going to deal with. How these things affect the officer’s mind.

Arija Bareikis: It’s really tricky because you’re dealing with human beings, but sometimes there are so many variables that things go awry. You have to use your training for keeping things safe. That’s the objective. But you never know what’s gonna happen.

We’re only a week in and the reaction across America seems to be they’re enjoying the realism. But what kind of reaction are you getting from real police officers in L.A.?

Arija Bareikis: We had such a wonderful privilege to do a screening of the pilot before it aired, and the reaction was pretty good. I wish we had a bigger understanding of how police officers feel here (Fancast contacted the LAPD about the reaction, but we got a solid “No Comment”) but we really hope that we’re bringing some reality to it and that they feel good about it.

Michael Cudlitz: I talked to our technical adviser on Monday and he said his phone has been ringing off the hook with people who are saying “You nailed it.” 99% of the response he’s gotten has been overwhelmingly positive.

That’s unusual because usually we’ll hear cops say “Oh, that’s not how it really is” so you must be doing something right. And I notice the bad guys are being portrayed realistically as well.

Arija Bareikis: Yeah, we’ve got some great actors on the show, so that helps.

Michael Cudlitz: And that feeds into John Wells and his production company, this pool of actors he’s used over the years who come in and play different roles, police and criminals, and that ultimately adds to the realism as well.

Tune in to Southland Thursdays at 10 PM on NBC and find out for yourself.

In the meantime, watch more video clips and full length episodes right here on Fancast.