03/20/2012 09:44 am ET

'Southland' Finale: Michael Cudlitz On The End Of Season 4, What's Next And Renewal Chances For Season 5

"Southland" has had one hell of a season. In fact, it's easily been its best yet. So how will the most intense cop drama on TV wrap up such an insanely strong season?

I caught up with star Michael Cudlitz, who plays the ever-in-flux Officer John Cooper, to get a tease for what the Season 4 finale (Tues., Mar. 20, 10 p.m. ET on TNT) will bring for our ladies and gentlemen in blue. We know that this will be the last we'll see of Cooper's partner this season, Jessica Tang (Lucy Liu was only signed on for one season, and she's got a new gig that ensures she won't be back), but Cooper's next assignment is just one of the big questions to resolve. Will Lydia (Regina King) have her baby? And will Ben (Ben McKenzie) and Sammy (Shawn Hatosy) survive the latest volatile turn in their partnership?

Cudlitz talked openly about his reaction to breaking apart Cooper's three-season partnership with Ben, welcoming someone new into the fold and how he wouldn't say no to a fancy new partner each season, "Dexter" style, or to going back to training. He also discussed the odds of the show getting a fifth season ("I expect a pickup"), some storylines he'd love to see next, why he's proud that the show allowed him to play gay against stereotype, and why a "21 Jump Street"-inspired storyline wouldn't be such a bad idea for his old partner Ben Sherman. He also teased the big season finale: "You know what? You better be ready because 'Southland' will break your heart."

Keep reading for more, then tell us: What do you want to see next on "Soutland"?

Congrats on an amazing season -- it's been the best season yet!
Yep. Absolutely. Agreed! There have been some pretty spectacular moments, and we're so proud of it. We don't get to sit back like a lot of shows with 22 episodes ... every episode, we do it like it's our last episode. And there's no reason to not do that. That's how much we love the show, and how excited we are and how passionate. You've been on set, you've seen. Everyone's into it. You spend 10 minutes on a "Southland" set and you just go, "This is not like anything I've ever been on before."

When I was there last, one of the sound guys was saying that there were more than 27 locations for the next episode!
[Laughs.] Yep.

You should laugh because that is freaking insane!
That's just the way we do it! [Laughs.] That's totally "Southland" style. "Just f------ get in the van and shut up! Know your lines? Great - let's go!"

I think the best compliment of the season, beyond the breakneck pace of it all, was that I liked Cooper and Tang together, and a lot of people were really worried about splitting up Cooper and Ben when it was announced. Were you concerned about it too, before you read the scripts?
I was just concerned from an acting standpoint and from a selfish standpoint. It worked -- me and Ben worked, you know? He's an actor I trusted, and he trusted me, so you're able to go places that you sometimes guard. And, interestingly enough, when you look at the way that we sort of pushed everybody back into the cars this year, I would say 99 percent of my scenes were with Lucy this year, and I think she only had a handful of scenes without me. The bulk of all the work was with her. So giving up your partner who you are completely satisfied with and completely comfortable with for an unknown? In year four? Really, are you f------ kidding me? Who wants to do that? On paper, that's like a totally shitty deal. But you step back and say, "Yeah, let's grow. Let's see what we have." The story had been told with me and Ben, as far as where we were in that part of our relationship, so why not shake it up?

They paired him up with somebody new [Sammy] to learn a little more about him, and paired me up with someone completely different. You see a new world through Cooper's eyes, and the fact that he's healthy now ... So many changes happened to John Cooper this year, it was literally like playing a completely new character, with the same roots. And as an actor, you never get an opportunity like that.

No, and it's all actors say they want -- the stability of a show you know and love and have been living for the past few years, with something totally new to tackle.
Yeah, it was wonderful. I had such a good time doing it, and I believe it was successful. And I think the audience is going to be really satisfied. It's going to be one of those finales where you sort of stand up and go, [yells] "Mother------! YES!" at the end of the episode. There's a confrontation with Tang outside the bar which is not gonna go down the way people think it's gonna go down. John questions a lot of what he's doing because he f----- up, and he knows that you can f--- up. But what is the cutoff point? What is the point of no return? When are you dead to him? And it's a balance of what are you expecting of others, and what are you expecting of yourself ... How does that translate into the real world, into the force and into long-term ramifications?

I'm a little sad that Lucy won't be back for more, but the Tang relationship definitely came full circle, and this opens things up for Cooper to partner with someone entirely new, which we've learned is good for him.
There was a comfort that he had working with Tang early on, because he thought, "Wow, here's a fucking squared away cop who knows her shit, and I don't have to watch my back ... this is what all cops should be like." And then he realized, "No, it's just the same shit, and we all have the same shit." So his job, that he takes extremely personally, is to make sure that this shit doesn't happen, as much as he can. And we all know that it's impossible to completely stop up the dam, but you do the best you can to try to weed out the worst and make the best of the best.

He had some major issues with Ben last year, and he didn't do the best he could. You had someone who is incredibly psychologically damaged from his past ... did he do the best he could with that? Who knows. These are all people, and only on television do people do what they say they're going to do, as your favorite characters. In real life, people don't. They try to do what they want to do. They try to say the right thing, but life kicks in and you wind up doing shit you say you'd never do. You wind up making choices you didn't think you'd ever have to make. You try to do the right thing, but that's why our characters are so exciting to watch: They really do imitate life in so many ways. They're not your stock characters like f------ Grissom on "CSI," who's always gonna do the right thing and always going to come through. It's like, "You know what? Sometimes your favorite character is gonna kind of s--- the f------ bed! And you're gonna have to deal with that."

I started to worry -- again -- when Tang was talking to Cooper about taking that next step and being too old for patrol that he would get ideas and want to move on. Do you think that would ever be a possibility?
I don't think John ever wants to be a detective, although last year in episode 8 ["Fixing a Hole"], we saw him be a pretty damn good detective. I've been talking with them about the other possibilities ... like in the pilot when we meet the undercover vice cop, and I told Ben, "I trained this crazy chick." What other areas can John train in without taking himself off the streets? There's a whole world of policing and law enforcement that has never been on television -- sometimes because those worlds are so seedy that there's not a way you'd want to spend any length of time there. But our show has the ability to move between those worlds. We took Lydia off of being a detective and threw her into a uniform for an episode ... as long as we explain why things are happening, the audience will go with us.

You're right -- and like you said, that leaves it open to so many options to mix things up, either for an episode or two, or a full season.
Totally. I think it's exciting to see where these officers can go. And this is nothing that's been talked about at all -- this is me making this up -- but like "21 Jump Street." If they wanted to take Ben and throw him into a college thing undercover, they could. The force does that, [like] "You can infiltrate this thing, so we're going to borrow you and put you on special detail." These things happen.

OK, that would be amazing. Or Cooper going undercover with some badass motorcycle club, "Sons of Anarchy" style!
Exactly! [Laughs.] They borrow officers all the time. If you're a cop, you're a cop, and you're used for whatever assets you have. It's exciting. Nobody has any idea -- in a good way -- where we will head from here. The writers are always talking about different possibilities, and things come up when they research ... there's a million things that could happen.

Assuming you all get a fifth season, what would be your dream scenario for Cooper next season?
I would like to see him train, and I like the energy of him with a female. It'd be interesting to see him with a female rookie, someone who's very capable. I'd like to see a strong woman who doesn't fail -- another Lydia, like when she was young. And I'd like to see John a little more stable in his personal life, whether it be with his dad, or stuff with an actual relationship. I think they've done a nice job of, as a character, keeping him gay. This gets dicey to talk about, because people take offense when you say the wrong thing, but I'm prepared for that because I really don't care.

Some people say John's not gay enough, and I say, "Perfect." Because John isn't the stereotypical gay guy on television -- get f------ over it. That's what's most appealing about him right now, to me -- you can't put a label on him, and it's gonna keep the conversation going, and as long as people are talking, people are learning.

The episode this season with the gay teenager was so powerful because John had a "It gets better" moment, but it was so different coming from him.
It's a more realistic message. My experience with people who are gay has been that they are not the stereotypical image that the media has put out there. The gay people in my life are gay somewhere fourth or fifth down the list -- they're brothers, sisters, mothers, friends, family members, and they happen to be gay. It's not the soundtrack for "Glee." Oh, "Glee" is always my whipping post, and I always feel bad when I say that. I love "Glee"! [Laughs.] But there's more of a stereotypical take, and that is their door into that world. But I take nothing away from them, because whether you're educating people through showing them that everyone's just like you, or you're educating people because you're entertaining them, I think both are valid. I just think there's not enough of what we're doing. And you know what else is f------ great? "Spartacus"! Those dudes just drop down and get it on, then walk away. Why? Because people didn't talk about it and it was accepted, and that's life. "Oh, I'm about to b--- him." "Well, why don't you go b--- him in the other room?" [Laughs.] Everyone wants their version of gay or it's unacceptable. Well, guess what? We're doing our version of gay and you can watch or not. It's your choice.

Any word at all about a Season 5 pickup?
No. They don't say anything to us other than they're really looking at the numbers. Last year, they let us know on the 11th of this month, but this year, we started two weeks later, so I would not expect to hear anything until the end of the month. They like to get all their numbers in before they make their decision. We don't start shooting until October, if we go back, so there's no rush, from a corporate standpoint, other than letting people know and having them get excited about it. But the show is doing better than last year, so based on that, I have to say, unless something changes between TNT and Warner Bros., business-wise, I expect a pickup. I'm just not sure how many episodes.

Oh, who cares! I know everyone wants more than 10 because 10 is too few, but if 10 means they can still all be these awesomely action-packed episodes ... maybe that's the sweet spot.
I'm hoping for more than 10, but yes, I'd rather have 10 than none. I get that. Maybe it is better to make everybody want more and not get it until next year, you know? I don't know ... it seems to be working.

And more episodes might just kill you. When a season ends, like this one just did for you guys, are you immediately thrown into decompression mode?
Yes. There's a purging that happens. [Laughs.] It's been a rough go ... especially for John, there was a lot of complicated stuff to balance. It's, at times, exhausting, but it's so much fun.

Do you have someone you'd love to come on to play Cooper's new partner or new boot or new whatever?
No, not really. But you know what might serve the show? I have no idea if this is their thinking, but I look at this and say, "You know what? What if we do like a 'Dexter' thing, and every year we bring in a little bit of a namey name, somebody who's a really great actor who wants to come play with us for 10 episodes? Do that and bring some more fresh eyes to the show who may or may not have been there before, and create a little buzz, but also get a great established actor in who is excited about the show?"

Do you think we'd ever see Ben and Cooper back together?
I don't know. I think there's definitely a possibility, just because I don't rule anything out. What would happen if we saw John and Lydia in the car together?

That would be amazing ...
[Laughs.] Yep! Who knows?

The "Southland" Season 4 finale airs Tues., Mar. 20, 10 p.m. ET on TNT.

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