COMMON LAW: Michael Ealy Interview (2012)

Michael Ealy

USA Network has a proven track record for packaging shows that sell characters. They have figured out that successful shows depend on characters that audiences will be attracted to, fascinating with and who draw them in to their stories each week. The latest offering is the new cop-buddy drama COMMON LAW starring Michael Ealy and Warren Cole, where they portray bantering partners Travis Marks and Wes Mitchell. After an incident where Wes pulls his gun on Travis after Travis fails to apologize, they have been ordered to participate in “couple’s counseling.” The thought is that it is through counseling that they will learn to be better professional partners that have each other’s backs and not so busy fighting with each other that they are failing to protect and to serve the community around them. In a recent press conference call, co-star Michael Ealy candidly talked about the new show and his character Travis.

What do you think the most interesting or entertaining part about your character, Travis, is?
MICHAEL: I would say one of the more interesting parts about Travis is his fear of commitment and abandonment. Those two make him a little bit more complex than he seems. So it was more interesting and fun to play him, because there were more layers than just what we see on the surface.

What is it that you look for when picking a role?
MICHAEL: Good question. For me, I’ve always wanted to play a role which impacts. If you look at a show like SLEEPER CELL, obviously Darwyn was the first African American FBI agent who was a Muslim, who infiltrated a terrorist cell, but his father was a Black Panther. It had so many layers and it was such a powerful show that was so timely when it happened that, ultimately for me, the role and the show just resonated with impact – and that’s what’s important to me. THE GOOD WIFE, it was important for me to step into a successful show, clearly, and play such a pivotal character. I didn’t come in as an associate. I came in as someone who was responsible for acquiring a firm in a merger and that was important. He shook things up in that office and that was important to me. So at the end of the day, it’s the same thing with COMMON LAW. For me, Travis, who’s a major part of this show and he is a part of the unit, I think ultimately he was a cop, but he is also a detective. He’s a hardnosed detective, but also has a lot of heart and he knows how to deal with people. And he is one of the most likeable characters I’ve ever played.

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It’s interesting to see all of his different run-ins with people he’s dated, just at work.
MICHAEL: Yes, I mean his dating life is so much more fascinating than mine. And he just a lot of that stems from, again, both his fear of abandonment and his fear of commitment, so kind of a Catch-22 with him. It really is. It’s so much more fun to play.

Between you and Warren, you both have a really great rapport on the show and you’re very funny. Did that come easy to the two of you? Did you kind of instantly click or did you have to work at that?
MICHAEL: I hate to say it. Yes, it came easy. We didn’t go on like a retreat, anything like that. We didn’t go play basketball for a week or anything. I mean we had nothing in common other than we were both from the Eastern Maryland-Virginia area, and we were both Redskins fans — it’s not like we went to a game together and hung out. We just clicked. I think there’s a certain connection that we both have to the material and our respective roles that end up somehow lining up perfectly and we just clicked. Hats off to USA Network for casting both of us together and recognizing the chemistry in the room, because it was a long process to find the character of Wes and to find the actor to play the character of Wes. And Warren and I, it was just easy. I don’t know how to explain it any other way. It just kind of happened. And so, yes, hats off to USA Network for that.

Was it an adjustment for you to be this funny, because usually your roles are so intense and serious. Was it an adjustment for you as an actor to be funny?
MICHAEL: It was an adjustment for me. Thank you for noticing. Two years ago I decided to diversify my body of work and it was important to try other genres. I did “Underworld.” I got into the sci-fi. I did “Think Like A Man,” I got into romantic comedy. And then COMMON LAW came along and it was an opportunity for me to broaden body of work in television because I pretty much done mostly drama in television. So it was a big challenge for me and the idea that [the role] was given to me is false. I had to audition for this role. I had to show the network and the studio that I could do comedy because no one really thought of me as funny, because I hadn’t shown it, really, in TV or film. So it was a job that I was actually able to earn and I’m proud of that. And the comedy has made it the most difficult job I’ve ever had. Because being funny five days a week for 15 hours is the most difficult thing anyone could ever ask of anyone. It’s so hard. It’s harder than any other job I’ve ever had. So I’m thrilled that you noticed. I’m thrilled that you thought I was funny. And hopefully people will begin to open their eyes and see that I have some range if given the opportunity I can show that.

Was there anything particular you had to in the audition process to show that you could be funny and you weren’t just intense?
MICHAEL: Well the good thing about the audition process, and I credit John Trove a lot for this, is the audition scene, at the end of the scene he said, “Feel free to continue.”
So I just improvised or I made up a story or I just kept it going. And I think a lot of that helped kind of sell the funny.

What do you find the most challenging about the role?
MICHAEL: I find that dealing, like for me, the most challenging thing was trying to play Travis’s fear of abandonment and his fear of commitment, trying to play it like a Travis way. And that’ll make more sense at the end of the season. But it’s does have some issues and those issues come out in therapy. It’s so hard to be vulnerable, especially when you’re a tough detective. But this show is about character. It’s about the characters and Travis has to open up and I think that was probably the most challenging, is to have those issues kind of just under the surface of every decision that he makes.

What’s it like as an actor to explore a character’s flaws directly in the story through therapy?
MICHAEL: Eye opening. I never thought therapy was for me despite maybe 80% of my actor friends do live in therapy. I never thought therapy was for me. I never really saw the value in couple’s therapy or any kind of therapy, personally, unless under duress or something like that. But I think that discovering Travis’s flaws or his weaknesses or whatever his issues are with his childhood and growing up in the foster care system, to discover them through the course of all these couple’s counseling sessions, it was eye opening to me. And ultimately, it had opened my eyes to therapy, and the value of it. I was under the assumption that therapy was you sat on a couch and somebody tells you what to think and how you’re all messed up. But it’s the complete opposite of that. And you kind of talk and talk and talk and they ask questions that make you talk. And ultimately you’re kind of able to see for yourself where you’re going wrong. So it was interesting and helpful, but definitely eye opening.

Since Travis and Wes are at odds with each other, how do you think the confrontation helps them on the job?
MICHAEL: Good question. I think both of them have pretty healthy egos. I think the confrontation grew competition. And anybody who has a job, including probably his other coworkers, Travis has an ongoing thing that he’s constantly competing for the attention of the captain. So it just kind of makes it fun, but at the same time, it does lead to them not getting along. They see things differently from time to time.

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What kind of research went into doing this role initially? Did you talk to any cops or therapists or people that have been doing couple’s therapy?
MICHAEL: We had a consultant with an LAPD detective, 25 years as a detective, who gave us all kinds of help and insight and he’s very helpful in helping us understand the difference between what a detective does and what a police officer does. Also the fun part of the research though was going back into the archives and watching all the great funny top comedies, action comedies, party comedies, from “Trading Places” to “Stir Crazy” to “Lethal Weapon” to “Bad Boyz” to “48 Hours.” It was non-couple’s. That was probably the most fun that I had in terms of research because that enabled me to grasp the funny. It enabled me to grasp the rhythm of funny and how you’ve got to keep the tempo up as an actor. You cannot get sluggish with the dialogue, because that’s not comedy. And as far as therapy is concerned I went in like a blank sheet of paper. I had no knowledge of therapy. I had my own hang-ups with therapy and I used that as like Travis’s hang-ups with therapy.

In the pilot and the first thing that we see is the two of you are sitting there and Travis volunteered to share. You’re not in a partnership, but everybody else is sitting there thinking that you guys are together. Where do you guys go from there?
MICHAEL: I think from the very first scene we’ve established that these two guys are drastically different. But it’s a big roller coaster from there. I mean to really answer your question the therapy sequences, and I didn’t know this when you shot the pilot, but the therapy sequences, and I learned this while we shot it the first week, it really does become the great chorus of the show. And ultimately it’s one big roller coaster for these guys and its therapy begins to affect the way in which they solve cases. And that just becomes a whole different monster. And I can’t wait for people to really see those episodes, you know? And the way that Travis is in that first scene, he doesn’t want to be there, but the therapist is hot, and that’s all he needs to put a smile on his face. You can’t go home with him. You’ve got a hot therapist. . . I must say as I said before, this show has opened me up to the possibly of couple’s counseling at some point down the line if I ever need it. But it wouldn’t hurt to have a hot therapist. It makes the hours go by a lot quicker. . . What I can tell you is Travis is pretty consistent. At a certain point we just had, like when you live in this character for 15 hours a day, 5 days a week the structure starts to come naturally. It really does. It just starts to come naturally and that was the joy of shooting this show, was I never really got out of character. So being consistent was somewhat easy. I can’t wait for you to see other episodes. I really do.

USA Network is really becoming known for its dynamic duos with shows like WHITE COLLAR and PSYCH. Can you talk a little bit more about your duo that you’re now a part of? For example, like what makes you two work so well together even at the height of their dysfunction or anger with each other?
MICHAEL: I think, I’ve got to say it’s a deep, dark USA Network secret. Chemistry is key. Chemistry is key, and I think the chemistry is what really makes the show. It just does. Even when we’re like at each other’s throats, if you’re still rooting for us, that is the USA way. So I don’t know how it happens, but somehow when you see the final product, I works. God bless them.

“Common Law”

In the pilot, it mentioned that Travis went through 18 foster homes. With this kind of background, what was your entry point into playing that aspect of him as an adult?
MICHAEL: The first thing you do as an actor when you start preparing for a role is figure out the character’s background. And one of the things that I do is work real closely with the producers in determining what was Travis’ background. And obviously the 18 foster homes was crucial. And one of the things that was explained to me is that we’re going to meet a lot of Travis’ foster family members, and that was just beyond exciting for me. Because I’ve never seen a character like that. I’ve never seen a character with that many mothers. I’ve never seen a character with so many brothers. And the scene with Money, his Samoan brother, that’s just one small portion of his childhood. And it makes for a much more interesting character, I think, to come from so many diverse backgrounds. The amount of languages that he understands and you might not be able to speak them all, but you can understand them because he was there long enough. All of that, to me, makes for a much more interesting, complex and compelling, but also lovable character.

What’s it like working with the amazing Jack McGee, Sonya Walger and Andrea Parker?
MICHAEL: Let me start off with Jack, because he is the king. Jazzy Jack is what I like to call him. He was a phenomenal cast mate and friend and brother to have on this journey because his seniority, his life story, all of that weighs heavily into who the captain is and who Jack is as a person, and his ability to have the set in shear hysterics in every scene that he does. I mean he just has everybody laughing, off camera and on camera, the outtakes of Jack are phenomenal. So I really as the lead of the show, I really, really enjoyed having him as kind of the senior guy. You know, he was Pops. He was the one who we kind of went to as our father figure. Really, we did, both on an off the show, and off camera. And Sonya Walger, words cannot express how I feel about this woman. This is our third project together. And I take pride in the fact that I was instrumental in her being on the show. She is a force to be reckoned with and she brought a certain amount of credibility and strength to this character these derelicts need baggage in their lives. So she helped give us balance and that was so refreshing. And then Andrea Parker, I mean Andy, that’s my girl. I mean she was just on fire in the pilot. She really was. So I hope to work with her again.

Sonya Walger as Dr. Ryanx

Can you share anything that Travis and Wes get into later on in the season in their therapy sessions?
MICHAEL: Sure. Ultimately, like I’ve said before, the therapy sessions really become kind of like the Greek chorus of the show, and we begin to work on our cases with whatever therapy is going on in our heads. Whatever therapy lessons are going on in our heads, and so that to me is the biggest impact of therapy on these guys later on in the season. And I feel like as far as the other cast mates in therapy, they’re very helpful in helping us kind of find our way. And there are times when we all team up on Wes, and it’s hilarious. And they end up there’s times when we have to choose sides, which is one couple. You have to choose a side and it just gets a little funny. It gets kind of funny, but it’s probably what people are thinking when actual couple’s counseling sessions that they just can’t say. But on this show we just blurt stuff out.

Can you talk about any of the guest stars we can see this season?
MICHAEL: Yes. Greg Germann. Henry Simmons, and Ed Begley Jr. Oh my goodness, and I think it’s later in the season, but he is a scene stealer. He just comes in and just blows us away — I mean we were laughing so hard. I am good at not breaking, when somebody does something funny. I was really good at it, but Ed Begley Jr. had me break up many times, to the point I felt terrible because I was ruining takes. And he is so funny.
Other guest stars, Jeff Fahey. Jamie Hector. Yes, that’s just to name a few right now. So those are some of the guest stars.

Can you share something funny that happened backstage, whether it was a prank or an out take or just something that’s fun?
MICHAEL: Yes. It’s been a minute. Let me think. Okay, one thing. Oh, goodness. I don’t know the name of song. . . . Oh my goodness. It’s a great song. I can’t remember the name of it. I’m sorry. This is one of the things that Warren and I like to do is dance, and sometimes we would make routines up and you know we were sitting in the precinct for so long that we were just the crew was getting a little tired so we try to perk them up with a dance or two. And whether it was a Kid and Play dance or we would do all kinds of like, I don’t know how to explain. It’s just silly dancing on set. And I remember one take we were in the midst of, we were in the middle of the take and we had the camera operator ring up that song that I tried to express to you and I can’t remember the name of it. But he had that ring on his iPhone and in the middle of the take, we had him play he song. And we both played it off like, “What is that? What is that?” And then all of a sudden it was like a flash mob. We just started dancing through the song. So it was fantastic. And that’s the kind of silly stuff that we would do with to have fun on set sometimes.

To see what comedic adventures Travis and Wes have, be sure to check out COMMON LAW which premiers on Friday, May 11th, at 10 p.m. on USA Network.

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