Officer John Cooper is my favorite character on “Southland.” I’d like to believe street cops have the common sense to just handle business before it gets out of hand. In the season three premiere, Cooper stops a fight between a convenience store customer and an owner by paying the customer $3 out of his own pocket, the difference the store won’t credit her. Honestly, getting all violent over three dollars?
Michael Cudlitz speaks with the same practical authority on the phone as Cooper does on the streets. He said, “Look, this is the interview I’m doing and I’m telling you all the answers so don’t f*ck with me.” At least that’s how I read him. Cudlitz reflected on the season premiere and looked ahead for us in a phone interview we did before the holidays.
Q: I love John’s practical approach to police work. What’s your take on his attitude?
Michael Cudlitz: I just think he’s a beat cop who’s been doing it a really long time. The books were written by people who weren’t on the streets. The only thing I can sort of equate it to is I’ve spoken to people who have studied what it’s like to be in war and then actually been in war. I’ve spoken to soldiers who talk about that and they say it’s nothing like the way they teach it. So I think there’s sort of a scholastic element to it that does not translate to the actual practical application of it. Law enforcement is full of a lot of gray. It isn’t black and white. John says that but there’s a lot of truth to that. There’s a lot of discretion that can be used when applying the law. Is it the letter of the law on the spirit of the law? That’s left up to interpretation in the moment. We deal with a lot of that actually this season on the show. Not everybody who gets caught doing something wrong in taken in. Sometimes they’re just taken out back and given a good stern speaking to.
Q: I’m glad he’s more about the spirit, but even John can’t believe that convenience store customer.
MC: Oh, I think there just comes a point where he’s just like all bets are off and he’s just had it. He’s just, “How stupid can one person get?” He knows he’s in a position to impose his authority if he needs to. He would rather not but he knows in his world, the buck stops here.
Q: What would the law say about paying $3 out of pocket to settle that issue?
MC: It has nothing to do with it. It’s my choice. I’m sure it would be against department policy but it defused the situation. It’s whatever. I think ultimately they’d be like, “It’s your money, whatever.”
Q: Is it getting harder for John to keep those situations cool?
MC: Yes. Yes, it is. Things are building up for him. As the season goes on, he will have more and more difficulty keeping a lid on everything.
Q: You and Ben (Ben McKenzie) get the craziest crimes. What other ones are coming up?
MC: We have an incident dealing with a snake. There’s a big incident that happens on Hollywood Blvd. which is fantastic because we shut down Hollywood Blvd. for a while and that was amazing to do. We have burglaries, a lot of domestic violence.
Q: You’ve worked on the real streets throughout the show. How does it change things to get to that iconic street and incorporate it?
MC: I just think everything is better outside. They say everything’s better with bacon. Everything’s better outside. When you’re doing a crime show and you’re actually tracking people down, it’s so much better to be in the actual streets with real traffic than it is to be in some back lot with some manufactured traffic and manufactured everything. It’s all real. We have to react to it. A bus drives by and it’s really loud, you talk louder. These are things that are not possible on a set that’s been sterilized just for sound purposes. It’s like, “Oh, we’ll put the bus in later.” You can put the bus in later but these people won’t be speaking louder when the bus drives by. The bus’l drive by and we’ll just be able to hear everybody talking at the same level. It adds a texture to it that is indefinable but I think you feel it in the way the show looks and the way it affects you emotionally.
Q: How is the back problem going to develop for John?
MC: Well, his back’s going to get worse. He’s going to have much more of a situation where his bad days outnumber his good. His use of prescription drugs to help deal with that is going to affect everything in his life.
Q: For a guy who wants to keep control, what’s your take on his dependence on painkillers? That would seem like giving up some control.
MC: Well, not in his mind. As far as he knows, he’s in complete control and he can handle it. There’s no problem here. That’s an addict.
Q: How is his relationship with Ben going to go?
MC: Well, Ben’s getting to the end of his training. There’s some interesting stuff that goes down between them partner-wise, in John sort of testing him to see if he is ready to move out on his own. There’s some funny stuff and some very serious stuff that happens between that. Throughout the season, I think we’re going to see how they have grown to depend on each other.