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Interview: Terriers' Michael Raymond-James

Back in June I was given the opportunity to visit the set of the new series Terriers, which premieres tomorrow night at 10pm E/P on FX, down in San Diego. Present while they were shooting the final episode of the season, I can’t really talk about what I saw, lest I ruin the show for everybody (which I have no intention of doing). While I am limited in that arena, I also got interviews with the cast of the show, the first being Michael Raymond-James. True Blood fans will remember him from his role as Rene in Season 1 of the HBO vampire drama.

In a drama about two men, one a disgraced cop and the other a retired criminal, Raymond-James plays the latter, a charmer named Britt. Check out the interview below in which the actor discusses his character’s inner demons, how San Diego plays a role in the show and his living arrangements during the course of shooting.

How do you and Donal, as characters, connect? How do your characters hook up?

My character used to be a small-time, non-violent kind of a criminal, [breaking and [entering] thief. Donal’s character, Hank, has a drinking problem and was kicked off the force for that amongst other things. We had had a minor run in some years past, so when he got booted off the force my name popped into his head as someone who could potentially help him with the private investigation thing because of my ninja skills. [laughs]. So that’s kind of where it started for Hank and Britt.

Care to elaborate on your ninja skills?

Man, they haven’t invented a jail that can keep me. I break in and break out of just about everything, every apartment, the houses, in the pilot there was the Lindis break-in, I broke into his house. I’m very stealthy and sneaky.

You and Donal worked together on an episode of Life together. Was that the only relationship you had with him before they cast the show?

That’s where he and I met, and then I found out also that his sister Karina, who is also on our show for about five episodes, was in the pilot of a show that I did called True Blood. So we worked together on Life, he was carrying around a book, Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur that he was doing an adaptation for a screenplay, and when I saw that we sort of hit it off and just started discussing the beats, Kerouac, and [William S.] Burroughs and [Allen] Ginsberg; it was always very easy and we became fast friends – and we moved in together down here.

Was it just a coincidence that you both were cast in the show together?


The title of the show is never really explained, but what’s your personal interpretation of what Terriers means?

I think that terriers are not really the prettiest dogs, but they’re scrappy and they’re loyal, and they get it done, you know what I mean? There’s some point in an episode where we sort of explain a little bit of it where we’re talking about getting business cards and I suggest that maybe we have a logo to go on it and neither of us have any ideas. It’s something that is tenacious and stubborn once it’s on a case. It won’t stop until it gets results. And I think that sort of informs the title.

You’ve already shot most of your episodes for this year, do you have a particular favorite?

That’s an interesting question. I guess the easiest answer is whichever episode we’re working on at the time is probably your favorite. This has been such an intense shoot, it’s hard, sometimes, to see the forests for the trees. So when you’re in it they way that we’ve been, with these hours and this kind of schedule, it’s hard to sort of step back and take a look at it in those terms. Whatever scene I’m doing right now is probably my favorite scene, my favorite episode if that makes any sense. I know that sounds kind of weird.

The tone of the show seems reminiscent of the detective cop shows of the 80s and 90s, or “Let’s just be detectives because it sounds like a fun idea!” Are there any other shows that kind of gave you inspiration in that respect? Or how would you describe the tone of the series?

I would describe the tone of the series as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, only in 2010 in San Diego. As far as inspiration, I get plenty of inspiration from the scripts and working with the other actors, mainly with Donal. I can’t point to any TV show in particular, and point to it and say, “That’s been an inspiration for me on this show.” Maybe the writers had theirs, but once I get the script they are inspiring. I just go with it.

How much of your character is completely from the script and how much have you been able to add your own essence?

It’s been a really collaborative process on this job, which has been great. We’ve had meetings with the writers and every time a script comes out I’ll call up Ted [Griffin] or Shawn [Ryan], or Tim Minear and talk about some of the things in the script, maybe flag a scene, “I’m not sure this makes sense in the context of where I’m going with it, maybe I’m wrong.” They sort of built this world and we’re just kind of playing in the sandbox. But, at the same time, to use another analogy, they built this ship and we’re out here sailing it, we’re six months from port. Things come up sometimes, when there is an iceberg in the water we have to go around it. God, I sound like a fucking idiot [laughs]. But in those terms it’s been really collaborative. We call back and say, “I don’t know about this.” They are such a great team and are so great at what they do, it’s really been a blessing to have the lines of communication open. It’s kind of rare.

Can you talk about your love interest on the show? You’re not married to her, correct?


But you have this relationship where maybe she wants to have a baby with you if you ever grow up, which is unlikely, and she lets you crash and she cooks you dinner…it’s an interesting relationship. Can you talk about that?

I think Katie [played by Laura Allen] for me is the main reason I went straight. Leave the life of crime behind. Her apartment was the last I broke in to as a burglar and I saw pictures of her on the refrigerator, and instead of stealing the television I decided to try to steal her heart. And I discovered check stubs and so on and so forth, so I found out where she worked, it was at a bar, and I just sort of happened to show up at the bar…

So you stalked her?

Well, stalked is a strong word [laughs].

Okay, so you broke into her house and then you stalked her.

I broke into her house and wanted to see how far my version of charm could take me. And since then I gave up the [life of crime].

But does Katie, the character, know that you did this or does she think that you just waltzed into the bar?

She does think I just walked into her bar until I come clean to her.

Can you reveal her reaction?

[Laughs] It’s fucking great. In 102, which is the third episode to air, which is right after what you guys watched [Editor’s note: prior to the set visit we watched the series’ pilot and first episode] it’s made clear. That’s when I come clean.

Were you a motorcycle guy or did you have to learn for the role?

I’ve ridden motorcycles for years, but completely unlicensed [laughs], and the network insisted that I have my motorcycle license for show. So now I’m fully sanctioned by the state of California.

So there aren’t many PI shows that take place in San Diego, or a variation there of. Can you talk about how that informs the stories?

Well San Diego is a major character in this, particularly Ocean Beach, which is the sort-of scruffy, scrappy, blue-collar beach community. And it fits Hank and Britt to a T. There are a few places around the country, north shore of Oahu would be one that I would point to, where people really look out for each other, it’s a real local sort of a place and once you’re in that sort of ohana, or that family, everybody kind of looks out for each other. So it’s definitely a major character. Shooting down here, we couldn’t have gotten that sort of feel or that sort of vibe if we had shot it in Santa Monica.

So do you shoot at Balboa Park or are you staying strictly in this area that you’re talking about?

We’ve kind of been all over San Diego. We’ve been to Balboa Park several times, downtown, the harbor, but it is based in Ocean Beach and so we do a lot of our experience here. The show is based in OB, but OB is a community within the city of San Diego. We’ve sort of taken it and made it its own city within the San Diego area. We have the OBPD which doesn’t really exist, but for our purposes it works. But it’s tied in to the greater San Diego area within the show as well. We’re in downtown San Diego, we’re Padres fans.

You’re filming the season finale now, how have you seen your character develop over the course of the first season? Can you see into the future where your character can go?

For the first part, the way that the character’s been allowed to grow, the writers have been great. There’s certain scenes that may be written in a particular way, but then when the rubber meets the road, when we’re down here, it’s performed a little bit differently, maybe a little bit darker, as opposed to light and goofy. And sometimes it’s the opposite. It’s worded kind of darkly but you can find places to add an element of humor. As the season has wore on I think each episode has gotten better and better. We peel back the onion and discover the depth to all these characters.

As far as where it’s going, seeing as the season finale hasn’t been completely finished yet, I mean in script form…I know where it’s going to end for the season and where I’m headed, starting with season two, but beyond that we don’t know.

Would you say that the show is a comedy with splashes of drama or a drama with splashes of comedy?

I would say that it’s a drama that’s funny. There’s too much heart in it and too many things, we deal with some serious stuff in this, aside from things like violence or mental health issues and things that come up in the first season, and it’s dealt with by not making fun of it. It’s done pretty seriously, which doesn’t mean that there aren’t opportunities to laugh along the way. But I would definitely call it a drama with an infusion of comedy. Hopefully you’ll laugh.

What sort of serious topics do you handle in the series?

Well there’s violence and mental health issues, alcoholism is big, fidelity and infidelity – it’s a broad range of topics.

What are your character’s fatal flaws? He stalks, he’s charming but in a pathological way.

I wouldn’t say pathological. I kind of like the girl, you know, and I happened to notice her where I noticed her and those were the circumstances. Certainly if I had gone there and she was like, “I’m not interested at all,” I wouldn’t have continued, I wouldn’t have pursued. It often comes up, “You guys didn’t do anything illegal, did you?” “Well, not immoral.” We have strong morals, and violence against women in particular is something that I think both of the characters are very sensitive to and I know that both Donal and I are as well. We both have sisters that we’re extremely close to. I don’t think that I’m a pathological stalker, and almost never ever a violent criminal, the character.

Let me rephrase it – what are your character’s flaws?

My characters flaws are maturity issues, I would say. I want to be in Neverland, I want to be Peter Pan. I think that there is a draw to the dark side for my character, I think that I’m probably an adrenaline junkie, and I’m an emotional character. There are times where it’s hard to shut off for the good or bad. Once your heart is full or your heart is broken, impulses are allowed to take over and sometimes it gets me into trouble.

Is your heart broken this season?

My heart is wounded, for sure. Did I just ruin it? Well, it wouldn’t be a very good 13 episodes if something like that didn’t come up. There’s certainly heartbreak on different levels throughout the season.

What was the part in the pilot where you knew that you wanted to be part of the show?

Well, the moment in the pilot where I really knew that I was really part of the show was when Craig Brewer called and said, “Welcome aboard.” I wanted to be part of the show when I read the script and thought was great. And knowing Craig, I’ve worked with Craig before as well, he’s one of my favorite directors of all time.

What scene stood out to you when you were reading?

Well, I particularly like the opening scene where we’re stealing the dog. And right off the bat you know that this is two guys who have great chemistry and it’s not going to be a show that’s going to be the same thing every week. And it’s also going to be a show where there’s not one way to play it, you can go in any number of directions. You can play it totally over-the-top funny or you can play it straight and let the comedy come out of the writing. Soon as I read the script I knew that I had to be a part of this.

Do you consider yourself naturally funny?

NO! But Donal is hysterical, I kind of just ride along with him. I wouldn’t consider myself funny. And I’m not sure that’s something you can say about yourself. “I’m funny, yeah.” [laughs] That something somebody needs to say about you, I think.

Do you see yourself in your character at all?

Sure, absolutely. In the sensitive, rowdy – and by sensitive I don’t necessarily mean Hallmark card, but I mean someone whose emotions are on his sleeve and is susceptible to impulses, good or bad. I would say that’s the main thing.

FX has such a great reputation for shows, The Shield, Nip/Tuck, Rescue Me…where do you feel this show will fall in with those?

I hope it ranks up there with those shows, I hope that it’s mentioned along side Nip/Tuck, The Shield, Sons of Anarchy, Rescue Me. That’s an honor. All of those shows were pretty groundbreaking and fantastic. I don’t know if we’re groundbreaking or not, to be honest with you. I have no idea how it’s going to be received. I’m not sure that’s for me to answer. We do our job and then in September it’ll be put out for the world to decide how good it is. I have no idea. I had no idea that True Blood was going to be the phenomenon that it was. I knew it was good, but I had no idea. I just grab my lunch box and clock in.

Is there anything interesting about where you’re living down here?

Not really [laughs]. No, Donal and I share a house down here on the beach.

Does that help for the characters or do you get sick of each other?

Donal and I are very, very close. We got lucky that way, that doesn’t always happen. He’s a great, great guy and it’s been effortless for us. It’s so important for the characters. And that was a concern for me initially when we decided to live together, whether or not this was going to, maybe, take away a little bit from what we could do on the show together, but it’s never been that way ever. In fact, we’re so busy down here that it’s really beneficial for the show because everyday at the end of work we grab the call sheets for tomorrow and we go home and we read lines together. And we do have two twenty foot posters of our headshots right out front [laughs]. So everybody knows that we’re here.

Has anything happened at the house where you guys thought, “Oh, we need to incorporate that”?

Sure. When we run lines at home I don’t want to say we write but ideas pop up. It’s part of a workshop kind of thing. And so we come to work the next day and kind of pitch whatever ideas came up for us and usually they take it and sometimes they are like, “Ugh, that’s not going to work.”

Terriers premieres Wednesday, Sep. 8 at 10 PM E/P on FX.

Read our review of the first few episodes of Terriers here.

NJ native who calls LA home; lives in a Dreamatorium. A decade-plus CinemaBlend veteran; endlessly enthusiastic about the career he’s dreamt of since seventh grade.