Emmy Watch: Michael Cudlitz on being handcuffed in his underwear for 'Southland'

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Image Credit: Trae Patton/TNT

Between now and June 28, the deadline for Emmy voters to submit nomination ballots, EW.com will feature interviews with some of the actors and actresses whose names we hope to hear when nominations are announced on July 18.

On TNT’s Southland, Michael Cudlitz and an ensemble cast delivered some of the most consistently raw and lauded performances on television. And if nothing else, he’s proud that the show, which was canceled in May, leaves behind that legacy.

“Some shows just go away — and that’s fine. They serve their purpose and their entertainment value, but there are shows that touch people in different ways and that they remember. I think this is definitely one of them,” he says. “It’s definitely a character I will never forget.”

And after last season, it’s easy to understand why. In a Q&A with EW, the actor, who many consider in the running for an Emmy nomination, relives John Cooper’s most compelling moments from the last year.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Despite heaps of critical praise, Southland has yet to get recognized by Emmy voters quite like it should. It just hasn’t happened yet. Do you think it’s going to happen this year?
CUDLITZ: I don’t know. It’s kinda strange. Look, people go, “Who are these Emmy voters?” and I’m like, “I’m an Emmy voter,” you know? I don’t know where the disconnect is as far as a more global context of the show. I’m very surprised the show has never been recognized for cinematography and direction. I mean, there are some things we’re doing on the show, the way we were telling these stories, that are completely cutting edge and had never really been done before. So I’m more surprised by that.

You, specifically, have so much to be proud of this year …
I agree! [Laughs]

What were some of the highlights for you?
The writers were amazing. That’s my one regret of my Critics’ Choice Awards [acceptance] speech — that I didn’t recognize the writers. But it’s okay, I was a mess. They have always — from day one — done an amazing job creating these characters. … I have no complaints in the area of the writing and only praise for those guys. The whole story line with myself and Gerald McRaney was just amazing. Just amazing seeing the ghost of Cooper’s future, what he could become and seeing his life on the exact same trajectory. … I think that a lot of these things are more fun, if that’s the right word, and more of a journey for the audience to go through if they see what Cooper doesn’t see by watching Cooper. Every week, without fail, there was wonderful stuff for me to play an, I don’t know, I feel like the luckiest dude in the world. I don’t even know where I’m going to go from here, which I think is the most terrifying thing. How could my next job compare to what I’ve been allowed to do on this show as a character actor? It’s just stuff that you just don’t get to do.

Cooper is going to be hard to top.
But I gotta say, I said that after Band of Brothers. “Nothing is going to compare to this project.” And it only took seven or eight years and I found something else that artistically challenged me equally — if not more.

How challenging was this season for you? I feel like the penultimate episode — where Cooper was kidnapped and his partner killed — was one of the most intense hours of TV this year. And it looked exhausting.
It was pretty cool, huh? It was wonderful. Everything had grown and pointed in that direction. All the seeds were laid. Those guys were so phenomenal as the crackheads — Ryan Dorsey and Tobias Jelinek, two terrific guest actors who just destroyed, in a good way, just crushed it. It made it easier for us to do what we had to do. … The show bases a lot of what happens on the physical reality of the situation. So we are handcuffed, in our underwear, in the desert, freezing our asses off, and getting smacked around. Everyone’s safe, but there’s an element of knowing you’re on the edge; things can go wrong. We shot in sequence, so everything did build on itself. Anthony [Ruivivar] was just phenomenal. Everything really came together and Chris Chulack directed.

I gotta say, we had a sense that the season and the series might be coming to an end because we knew the numbers weren’t fantastic, but they were coming close to what they were the year before. And we knew we didn’t have to do much more than that because they’d picked us up with those numbers before, so if we were doing better, the thought was we’d get picked up. But we knew there was a chance [we wouldn't]. So everything was on the line. Every scene, every moment was as if it could be our last. And it was. It added a lot of realism to the scene. There are not a lot of shows that will abuse one of their main characters as much as we did. I think that hurt the audience, more so than if it was a character we’d barely met. It basically left John Cooper completely powerless, and that’s not how we’re used to seeing John and we do not like seeing John like that. Plus, the show has been known to kill off main characters. Aside from killing off Anthony [in that episode], in season 2 [we killed] off Nate. So I think the audience had that feeling of, “Holy sh-t, they’re going to kill Cooper this season. They’re going to kill him this episode.” So the writers set up the scenario that this could end up horribly. I think all of that playing into it made for a stomach-churning, satisfying hour of television. I only watched that episode once, to be honest.

I felt like the penultimate episode and the finale were this amazing one-two punch. First the kidnapping, then in the finale, Cooper went down in a hail of bullets. I was screaming, “Are you kidding me?!”
[Laughs] We had talked about it. We had talked about a lot of things. We had talked about suicide by cop, we’d talked about all of the wrong things going right — meaning the stars aligning and Cooper getting himself into a situation where everything he did was the wrong thing. So there was debate back and forth as to what that would really be, then we decided what it was going to be. This is Southland, so we don’t editorialize. There’s not a soundtrack playing behind it telling you what to think. We let grown-up adults watch the show and draw their own conclusions. It was amazing to see all the crazy stuff people thought was happening — “He did suicide by cop,” “It was an accident,” and then the whole idea of, “Well, if this is true, there’s no way he can still be a cop. Maybe it was a dream. He must’ve been laying in bed thinking about the baby and thought about all of this.” It was really, really intense.

What’s next for you?
There are a couple of things. I produced a film a couple of years ago with myself and Melanie Griffith called The Grief Tourist. It’s really dark, really dark. It’s a character-driven psychological thriller. But my passion lies in amazing, complex characters and really well-written stuff — not to say I wouldn’t want to do a comedy if the right comedy came along. … I’m an actor in Los Angeles and I have a family I have to support. So I hope I’m afforded the opportunity to have my next choice be about the material and hopefully being on the series for a few years has given me the opportunity to wait that out if I have to, but if I can’t, I’ll do what I have to do. Sometimes the job’s about the work and the material and sometimes it’s about the money. It’s not about just being able to choose material you want to do because that’s how you’re driven as an artist. I think a lot of high-profile artists like to make people think that. “Oh, I’m trying to choose my next project.” This is a job. Sometimes your next job is so you can provide for your family, your kids are 16 and getting ready to go to college. They’re not always based on arc and choice — as we’d like them to be. … Unless you’re Brad Pitt or Will Smith, you’re not really calling the shots. All you have is the ability to say no to something you don’t care to do, which is still a lot of power.

Read more:
Emmy Watch: Sigourney Weaver on getting Presidential on ‘Political Animals’
Emmy Watch: ‘Rectify’ star Abigail Spencer on the importance of chemistry (and nail polish)

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