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Michael Cudlitz on Clarice and Looking Back at Southland

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From executive producers Alex Kurtzman and Jenny Lumet, the CBS drama series Clarice digs into the life of FBI Agent Clarice Starling (Rebecca Breeds) as she navigates life back in the field, one year after the events that occurred in The Silence of the Lambs. With whip-smart intelligence and brilliant instincts, she’ll have to address the trauma she’s experienced if she’s going to continue to uncover what hides in the shadows.

During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Michael Cudlitz, who plays FBI Agent Paul Krendler on the series, talked about being a huge The Silence of the Lambs fan, that the Clarice pilot was one of the best scripts he’s ever read, finding the balance between the crimes and the personal dynamics, and shooting in a COVID world. He also talked about his experience on Southland and what it was like to work alongside Regina King, as well as his own transition into directing on The Walking Dead, and how he’d be game to reprise his character in that world again, in some way.

Collider: When this came your way and you learned about the show and that you could play a character from this world, what was your immediate reaction to that? Was it something that you were intrigued by, or did you want to run for the hills?

MICHAEL CUDLITZ: First, the script gets submitted to me and they say that they’re interested in me for something in it and I should give it a read. They said, “We think it’s good, so check it out.” I’m a huge The Silence of the Lambs fan. The idea, straight off the bat, of a sequel following the Clarice character intrigued me. Everything about The Silence of the Lambs movie was people trying to find out more information about her. The doctor was digging, and kept digging because he was intrigued by the information that he was getting from her. The event with Buffalo Bill brought up a lot of stuff with her past, so the idea of taking her forward in her career trajectory seemed like a no brainer to me. Here’s this amazingly strong, competent woman, and we were introduced to her with Jodie Foster, and there were all of the Academy Awards that the film earned. The way it was written, with such a strong woman at that time, who wouldn’t wanna know what happened to her? I was intrigued by it, and I was not let down. I thought the script was wonderful. I had no idea about any of the rights issues, going into it, which is great because I personally didn’t miss anyone that we’re not allowed to talk about. I really didn’t. It’s her story. The world has changed a little bit because of those specifics, but not in any way that affects her trajectory or her storytelling.

Michael Cudlitz as Paul Krendler from Clarice
Image via CBS

RELATED: ‘Clarice’: Rebecca Breeds Goes Deep on Bringing the Legendary ‘Silence of the Lambs’ Character to CBS

You’ve been in this business for awhile and I would imagine that you’ve read quite a few scripts in that time. Where is your bar set for what needs to be there in a project that you’re signing on for, especially when it’s a TV show that you could be doing it for a long time?

CUDLITZ: Hopefully, it’s high. I am thankfully in a position where I don’t have to take a job, knock on wood, just because of the money. I just don’t. I have enough work that comes to me and I’ve been fortunate enough to be directing. I’ve been extremely fortunate. So, I will not do anything unless I’m in love with it. This is one of the best scripts I’ve ever read, this pilot script, so far as a TV show. There’s no qualifier on that. It just is. When I read it, I fell in love with it. I asked my wife to double-check. She’s my litmus test. She said, “What is it?” I said, “It’s a sequel to The Silence of the Lambs.” She said, “Who’s doing it?” I said, “CBS.” And she was like, “Oh, God!” I said, “No, seriously, read it. Maybe I’ve talked myself into something, but just read it.” So, she read it and she had the same response. She was like, “This is really terrific.” From that moment, I was in. I’m drawn to story. I’m drawn to character. I never approached this as, “Oh, I know what the Starling story should be,” or, “If I was gonna do it, I would do it this way.” I take everything that is submitted to me and read it for what it is, and I thought the storytelling was wonderful and the characters were layered and multi-dimensional, right off the bat. I couldn’t be happier.

When you read the pilot script, did you also see the potential there, as far as what it could be going forward and how this character could continue to grow in this world?

CUDLITZ: Yes, and maybe we had a little bit of a leg up on that because of COVID. The conversations started right before COVID, and then COVID hit and shut us down, but the conversations continued with the creative team. We knew where things were headed. Early on, we knew it was gonna be much more serialized than episodic, although there is an episodic element that factors into some of these episodes, just by nature of the storytelling. It definitely has more of a serialized feel and there’s much more of a slow burn, which is very appealing to me. We’ll see how that plays with the current typical CBS audience. It’s a smart show. Some people are gonna miss things and that’s okay. It’s not for them. We’re after an audience that we know is out there and we’re excited for them to see it.

Your character is a character that has existed in this world, with other actors playing the role and in The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal, but I would imagine that still doesn’t have the pressure that taking on the role of Clarice has. What’s it been like to work with Rebecca Breeds and to see what she’s bringing to the role?

CUDLITZ: Rebecca’s fantastic. She’s a formidable scene partner. She’s a hundred percent present and a hundred percent in her character. She’s making this character her own, for the moving forward portion of it. It’s huge shoes to fill, if you wanna look at it that way. I don’t look at it that way. We are not a movie. We’re a TV show, which is an incredibly different beast. We are true to what we set out to do, on our mission. Sink or swim, we will have done what we set out to do. I’m honored to be with the rest of these guys. Every day at work is a blast. Everybody is there to play, the scenes are multi-layered, and everybody brings it, every day. We’re in a weird time. With the whole COVID thing, everything is so intense. We’re living and breathing the show. We come home, we eat, we go to sleep, we wake up the next morning, and we go to work. It’s about the show. We’re all away from home. We’re not with our families. We’re just doing the show. This is a unique time. Probably no other season of this show will be like this one.

I love how this show finds a balance between the crimes and the personal dynamics, which can be a tricky thing. What have you enjoyed about that aspect of the show?

CUDLITZ: We’re a new show, and we’re working out some dynamics. Usually, there’s a pilot that’s done, and then they sit on it for two or three months before they shoot the first episode, so if there’s any tweaks that need to be made, they go back and maybe reshoot some of the pilot and expand some of the other stories. There’s a process that takes place. We were condensed, all into one. It was all happening at the same time. We went right from the pilot into Episode 1, and then Episode 2, and as it was going, they were tweaking and finding where our strengths are and what the strengths of the storytelling within the media are. To me, it’s very reminiscent of when I was in Southland. It’s not about the crime of the week. That is not necessarily what is pulling us through the story. What’s pulling us to the story is that these characters have these jobs, and they have these emotional lives that are active and interactive with each other. What is happening in their personal lives affects how they’re handling the crime, and conversely you’ll see how the crime is affecting them personally and what they have going on in their lives. We’re gonna take deeper dives into all of our characters. It’s very much a character driven show. Clarice’s eyes are our entry point, but very quickly, you realize that you’re getting a very deep look into a lot of the other characters, and it’s gonna be everybody. We’re looking into everybody and everyone has some kind of major thing that they are dealing with from their past, like everyone in life. These crimes and these work situations are gonna bring those things out. We will either deal with them properly or not, but you will see that in real time. To me, that’s exciting storytelling. It’s fun to watch my characters go through things that I didn’t expect them to go through. We’re shooting in two-episode blocks, and they’re really staying true to that format. It was incredibly important to bring everyone up to speed and really get a sense of the relationships, especially the dynamic between Ruth Martin and Clarice. Not everybody has seen the movie, and we are not the movie. We don’t wanna be the movie. The movie was amazing. We are moving forward from the movie.

Michael Cudlitz as Paul Krendler from Clarice
Image via CBS

I’ve been a big fan of Regina King for many years and I’m so happy to see her receiving all of the acclaim and recognition and awards that she’s deserved for a long time. What are your memories of working with her on Southland?

CUDLITZ: Fantastic, across the board. We always joked that, if I wasn’t married, I would be married to Regina. She is a dear friend. She is a creative force. She is incredibly giving, as an actor. I worked with her briefly as a director on Southland, and she’s giving as a director, as a well. She’s a wonderful storyteller. It’s like the Tom Hanks thing. I worked with Tom Hanks on Band of Brothers and people say, “So, tell me about Tom. Is he really that nice?” And I say, “No, he’s not really that nice. He’s fucking nicer!” There’s no negative to Regina King. Not in my life. And everything she has, she deserves, and it’s gonna keep coming her way because the world is paying back what it owes. She’s wonderful. I look in my phone, the past couple of years, and the text chains that go back and forth between all of us – myself, Ben McKenzie, Shawn Hatosy and Regina – and all of the awards and accolades and amazing things that have happened, seeing it noted in text, it’s wonderful to look back. It’s all deserved, and it’s wonderfully varied projects. There’s nothing that she can’t do and I could not be more proud.

Much like she directed an episode of her own show for her first directing gig, you also directed an episode of your own show for your first directing gig, with The Walking Dead. How does it feel to try something new like that, but to do it in a situation where you are so familiar with it and how it’s done?

CUDLITZ: Well, the interesting thing about the directing thing is that I’ve always wanted to direct. I almost got the opportunity on Southland. Regina, myself, Ben and Shawn were all gonna direct. Regina was the first one. Had we come back for another season, I was gonna be the next one. The rest of us were gonna all direct because we wanted to try it out. We’ve all been in situations where we’ve been poorly directed and wonderfully directed, and that sparks an interest and makes you go, “I’m a storyteller. I’m an actor. How would I fair, being in charge of the whole story?” Southland got shut down before that happened. And then, I went over to The Walking Dead and, in one of my early interviews meetings with Scott Gimple, we talked about our careers and he asked me what I wanted to do, down the road, and what projects I was interested in, just really getting a feel for me. And I told him that eventually I wanted to get into directing. I said, “Not necessarily right away with your show, but if down the road, we realize that we’re on the same page from a storytelling standpoint, I would love to examine that.” And he said, “Yeah, we could absolutely talk about that. Sure. Who knows?” We hadn’t even started our relationship yet.

As it went on, we found that we clicked, story-wise. When I was leaving the show, I told him that I did wanna come back and direct, if possible. At one point, there was a conversation about whether I wanted to make it a contract point. I had to renegotiate my contract when I was leaving the show because they wanted me to keep quiet for a year, so they were paying me not work for a year, in a way. There were certain things I could do and certain things I couldn’t do. If I took a job as a series regular lead on another show, then everybody would know, so they were trying to limit what I was doing. In those talks, we talked about directing and I said, “I would never wanna make it a contract point because I would only wanna do it, if you all wanted me there to do it. I would never use it as leverage, especially because it’s my first time.” And he was like, “Okay, great.” We kept in touch about it, and a year and a half after I left, they got back in touch with me, specifically about that and said, “Are you still interested in coming back and directing because we’d love to have you.” And I was like, “Holy crap, yeah! I would totally love that.” That was a very protective situation because I was with a crew that I knew and a cast that I adored, so my first experience was amazing. When you have an experience like that, you don’t really know if it was truly amazing because of what you did, or truly amazing because everybody was so focused and making sure you didn’t screw up. In my mind, there was a lot of hand-holding going on. And then, they called me back and asked me to do another one, the next season. At that point, I was like, “Well, that’s just a self-inflicted wound, if I really sucked and they didn’t want me back.”

Because of that invitation, I got a little bit more confidence. When I went back and started doing my prep again and was talking with the crew, apparently everybody was very happy with me. I had done all of my homework and I did have a voice, and it was appreciated. I got called back for all of the right reasons. I’ve since done a total of three of the mothership, as they call it – the original The Walking Dead – and I went out two falls ago and did two episodes of The World Beyond, which was fun because that was a completely different crew. I knew nobody. I didn’t know the actors or the crew, so that was really a test of, did I know what I was doing and could I hold my own without somebody holding my hand. Every time I went back to The Walking Dead, I always felt everyone’s given an extra percentage of attention and care because we all love each other, and I would do that for anyone else doing that in my shoes. And I’ve had the conversation with Alex [Kurtzman], when I came to Clarice. If the time is right and if we continue for years to come, I absolutely see myself directing, when the time is right.

Michael Cudlitz as Paul Krendler from Clarice
Image via CBS

RELATED: ‘Clarice’ Review: ‘Silence of the Lambs’ Spinoff Leaves a Bad Taste Despite Its Impressive Star

With the way that the whole The Walking Dead world is evolving, and now there’s going to be movies and the anthology Tales of the Walking Dead series, could you ever see yourself returning to that character in front of the camera?

CUDLITZ: Oh, sure, yeah. Over the years, there’s been talk of all of that. Who knows what’s really gonna happen, ultimately, but absolutely. Abraham was a blast. I had a great journey when I was there. I was fine leaving when I did., but that would be a lot of fun to go and revisit, in some other way. It would have to be a prequel, to see some of the origin and backstory, and even some of the other characters, like Eugene and Rosita, which would include me. I don’t know how they would choose to enter the story, but it would be fun. It would be very much in keeping with graphic novel history, where they have these worlds and alternate universes, and origin stories and alternative origin stories, and what if stories. There’s a lot of permission that you’re given, with a property that happens to be a comic book, and the fans love those things. What if Negan and Abraham held power together? There are a million ways to take it and a million different stories that can be told. I love those guys over there. I love our fan base. Fan bases are fantastic. People get lost in them and they care deeply about them and they’re very protective of them. I love it. I respect everybody who is a part of any fandom and is respectfully defending it.

Clarice airs on Thursday nights on CBS.

KEEP READING: ‘The Walking Dead’: Negan’s Victims Say Goodbye to the Fans in Farewell Videos

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