How do you take your basic Joe and turn him into a cop? How do you make actors look like they know what they're doing? How do you make it look real? Well, this is how we do it: Southland Style.
The first thing we (Regina King, Ben McKenzie, Shawn Hatosy, and myself) do is go to "Police Academy." Well, our version of a police academy. When TNT's Southland first started, our technical advisor, Chic Daniel (retired LAPD), took us through a week of intensive training. We started in a classroom covering many of the things we would be required to do on film as cops. Including how to properly position your car during a traffic stop, how to cuff, how to clear a house, defensive tactics and all kinds of other things a cop would need to know. Like: how to gain control of, or advantage in, a situation just by your attitude and the positioning of your body.
After about two days in the classroom, we moved to the field for some situation simulations or "Sit-Sims" as they call 'em (because situation simulations is, well, a mouthful). In the Sit-Sims we are put into a fairly straightforward improvised situation, something that officers encounter every day. I mean, c'mon wer'e not really cops, so let's start small. We're all fairly intelligent, so a routine situation should be easy. ....Right??.....Wrong!!
Even something as simple as reporting to a location where the only description you have is, "couple arguing in the park," can be tricky. On the surface, that might seem fairly innocuous and not a big deal. But this "simple" call can literally be anything from a couple "just playing around" to a couple arguing over "where to bury the body." You immediately begin to understand that what seems simple to us, could be extremely complicated for a cop. Not only complicated, but deadly. As actors, we are only scratching the surface of what cops experience in the training we receive. Of course, in these exercises we have no idea what we are really supposed to do, so we screw it up horribly. However, the act of going through the motions and learning from your mistakes is an amazing learning tool. When you take something that you have learned in a classroom situation and then go through it physically, it somehow gets inside of you.
The best training day we have as a group is the last one: Weapons Training! We all have a great time at the range. It's an amazing feeling to actually shoot the weapon you carry in the show. My character, John Cooper, carries a 9mm Smith & Wesson. Having that weapon in your hand reminds you of the power that officers are entrusted with and the great responsibility that comes with that power. Working on the range is extremely helpful and a friggin' blast... (literally). Plus, it's one of the few days we all get to spend quality time together. When we film the show the cast is broken up into the various partner pairings and aside from script readings we don't spend a lot of time together. So weapons training is like a crazy family reunion. The day is filled with friendly competition: running, shooting, driving nails into a pole, stopping bad guys and licking lollipops.
Our Southland police training culminates in a "ride-along." A ride-along is where you ride along with an officer on duty in a patrol car (hence the name... in case you didn't get that already). We do this to experience what actual officers deal with first hand, from roll call to end of watch. And let me tell you: The emotional experience of this is almost indescribable. I personally love the ride-alongs and find them to be one of the most valuable parts of our training. For me, this is the best way to experience what an officer goes through on a day-to-day basis. One thing that stands out during the ride-along is this: the call over the radio is rarely the call you respond to. Just like in the Sit-Sims the officers rarely know what is going on when they show up for a call. All they really know is that something is WRONG. When you sit in a patrol car, you immediately experience two diametrically opposed feelings: one of power and one of helplessness. It's very strange. Power because you see how people look at the car and helplessness because you see how people look at the car. People avoid the car. People fear the car. Before you even leave the parking lot, the radio reminds you how much people need the car. For some people, the car brings help. For others, that same car is a threat. Think about it: You are driving around in a slightly armored vehicle that is painted black and white and has flashing lights on top. The bad guys can see a typical police cruiser coming a mile away. That car makes you a target.
In meeting the officers you really get the sense that they truly love their jobs and want to make a difference. Watching them handle situations and interact with the public in real life is the most important part of our training. It reminds us that we are representing actual people even though the characters are all fictitious. In my opinion, the more accurately we can depict the job, the more dynamic our characters can be. The more information that we can take in as actors, the more we can make it an active part of what we do in the scene. The more it becomes second nature to us, the more realistic we appear.
In the pilot episode of Southland, training officer John Cooper tells fresh out of the academy, Ben Sherman, to basically "...forget everything they taught you at the academy..." What he's really saying is: Don't think about what they taught you at the academy, just do it. As actors, we try to take the same advice. We have to trust that the information we have been given by our advisors will inform all the choices made on set.
Look, we are not real cops and I am not here to tell you we do everything on the show by the book. Hopefully, we do enough things correctly, and are able to give the audience a little insight into the world of law enforcement.
Audiences are automatically inclined to feel a separation between themselves and law enforcement, even on TV, so giving on-screen cops and detectives real-world problems helps to instantly evaporate any disconnect. "The Shield" had some of the most flawed cops in the business and L.A.'s finest on "Southland" aren't exactly perfect either. The worst of Dr. John Cooper's (Michael Cudlitz) addiction to pain meds might be behind him, but that doesn't mean he'll ever be perfect.
People often complain that there's not enough diversity on TV, but if you're trying to capture a realistic glimpse at life on a police force, diversity is key. "Southland" already boasts a pretty varied cast, but it's even more so this season with the addition of Lucy Liu, Dorian Missick and Lou Diamond Phillips to the cast.
Realism is key, and the stakes don't ever feel real if no one's life is truly on the line. Yes, people get wounded in action, but more believable than that is having a major character die in the line of duty. "NCIS" killed off Agent Caitlin Todd (Sasha Alexander) in a shocking Season 2 finale and "CSI" left Warrick Brown (Gary Dourdan) shot to death after eight seasons on the show. "Southland" took a page from that same book, saying goodbye to Det. Nate Moretta (Kevin Alejandro) last season after a shootout.
In real life, the bad guys don't always get caught, and "The Wire" was one of the best examples of that. Omar Little (Michael K. Williams) killed Stringer Bell (recent Golden Globe winner Idris Elba) in Season 3, and finally got his due when he was shot in Season 5, which meant that neither of the show's career criminals got locked away as punishment -- they died on the streets they ran. "Southland" has shied away from larger story arcs in recent seasons so the antagonists aren't nearly as well known, but they do make a point to show cases hitting snags or cops catching the wrong guy every now and then.
We didn't often see Det. Elliot Stabler's (Christopher Meloni) home life on "Law & Order: SVU," but when we did, it always reminded us why he was so good at his job, and also why he and partner Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) could never be together in real life. Same goes for "Southland" -- what keeps these characters from being too one-note is seeing them out of uniform. Knowing that Cooper is still coming to terms with his sexuality, Ben is a bit of a playboy, Lydia is romantically challenged and Sammy will always have drama with Tammy makes us worry about these cops even more when they're on duty.
"The Shield" worked for six seasons not because viewers thought the cops at the Barn were in the right, but because they felt like a part of their investigations, chases and crackdowns. "Southland" uses some similar techniques to get that same reaction, including a generous dose of shaky cam during the more intense, adrenaline rush-inducing scenes. If you feel nauseas watching it, imagine how cops feel living it.
We may not know what a 417 is, but the second we see a perp holding a gun, we can pretty much guess that it means someone's brandishing a weapon. (It does.) The beauty of good cop shows is that they don't try to dumb things down for audiences. (You'll see plenty of "Code 7" calls in the "Southland" premiere -- Liu's character, Officer Jessica Tang, loves a good meal break.) Some complain that "Southland" is too fast-paced in that regard, but in our minds, that's what keeps it smart and interesting.