Interview: 'Detroit 1-8-7' star Michael Imperioli
One of the more intriguing pilots I watched earlier this summer was for ABC's "Detroit 1-8-7," which debuts Tuesday at 10 p.m. Focusing on a Homicide unit in Detroit, the drama had two things going for it: a mockumentary format that actually added to the sense of atmosphere, rather than feeling like a gimmick; and Michael Imperioli's performance as inscrutable, frustrating lead detective Louis Fitch.
After the pilot was shot, the real city of Detroit banned camera crews from following cops around, and because of that (and, I suspect, because too many other ABC shows also have characters talking to the camera) the format was ditched. And with it went a lot of the show's character. The original pilot felt a bit like a 21st century version of "Homicide," focusing more on the cops than the cases, where the new version - particularly the second episode, which was filmed after the docu concept was ditched (where the final version of the pilot still has weird traces of it) - feels more generic, even with the Detroit location filming.
But Imperioli is still in it, and still strong. Because of him, supporting player James McDaniel (putting on a badge again in his old "NYPD Blue" timeslot) and the promise I initially saw in the pilot, I'm going to give "1-8-7" a few more shots. But in the meantime, here's an interview I did with Imperioli back at press tour, where we talk about other cops he's played, the appeal of this show to him, and, of course, "The Sopranos" ending.
What I find myself missing most about "Life on Mars" is getting to see that mustache every week.
I still have it.
That was a wonderful thing. So that was not a real mustache?
No, no. I’m kidding. It was real, you know. I was ready to wear it for 7 years if I had to. Well, that kind of defined the character for me. To be honest I can’t imagine doing that character without that.
I know that even contemporary cops still wear those. Was there ever any thought to doing one here or perhaps you can’t get away with one for the lead?
I don’t know. That (mustache) specifically I don’t see on many contemporary cops. No, no, no. It’s a different character.
All right, so what was it that drew you to Fitch when you saw the script?
There’s a scene in the pilot when he’s interrogating this guy and he just sits there and stares at him. That pretty much sold me on it. I thought that expressed to me someone who understands criminal minds. Someone who has a certain degree of empathy and a certain degree of control over themselves and I thought that was an interesting character. Those are interesting character traits.
He’s kind of a difficult guy, at least for a new partner, to get a read on in the pilot.
I was doing some research and I spoke to the detectives and they all felt they hate working with new people. There was like 2 or 3 of them that they all said the same thing: that having to train them and having to put up with them making mistakes and learning and stuff like that that it’s always a pain. But I think he’s a difficult guy not only because they’re new; he’s very much of an enigma. We don’t know much about his history. We don’t know much about his present and his personal life, which I like.
You talked about doing research; what exactly did you do for the pilot?
I’ve done a lot of research. I mean I’ve played homicide detectives before, several times so I’ve done a lot of research, and I’ve met a lot of detectives. I spoke to a couple of guys I knew in New York and then I met some Detroit detectives when I came here and rode around with them and spoke to them and asked them questions. We attended an interrogation course by a retired detective who trains detectives in interrogation techniques. He did that for us, which is interesting.
So what was something that surprised you about that? Because we’ve seen a million fake interrogations on TV.
Well, he’s a very, very successful detective, this gentleman who taught the class. And he was able to get almost all the people he interrogated to confess. And he said people want to confess. He said the act of committing a crime is almost a confession in itself because it’s a cry for help, which I thought was very interesting. The other thing was, he said the reason why he was good is "I care." He doesn’t just walk in and see a criminal. He sees a human being. He sees someone who was raised by parents. Because of his environment and because of certain causes and conditions he went a certain route and he’s able to see beyond that. It’s not just a matter of getting the bad guy.
Having followed New York cops and Detroit cops, obviously a cop is a cop, but is there anything maybe anything sociologically different about one group vs. the other? Like certain traits that they had in common that New York guys didn’t?
Far more similarities. Far, far more. It’s the thing about being a big city detective, you know? There is a certain pride that they have. There’s a certain responsibility that’s on their shoulders and you know I saw a lot of similarities.
I’m curious when you’re around cops, how long does it usually take before Christopher comes up?
Not long. Pretty immediate.
Okay. And what do they tend to say?
How much they loved the show and the character, you know? It’s good.
When I’d talk to you guys in the later years of that show the subject that it was so iconic and how hard it might have been to find parts afterwards, and you’ve obviously worked a lot. Did you find in the first couple of years after that there was any sort of Christopher baggage when you were going to read for things?
No. Not really. I think that problem is more about the actor. I think what can happen when you have a big success like "The Sopranos," there's a danger of only wanting to choose another success or trying to climb the ladders. "Now I have to be the star of the show," and if you start to make choices based on that, I think that’s where you get in trouble. We’re trying to find something that’s a hit rather than just finding another good script with a good character. And I’ve been fortunate enough to keep working.
And you went to "Life on Mars" and you were the third lead in that. Ultimately it didn’t work out, but the part…
Good part. I had a lot of fun on that show. That was a blast.
What did you think of the ending of that?
I thought it was a very creative way to end the show. It was a very wacky premise to begin with, and I thought, "I kind of like the idea." A lot of people thought it was kind of - I don’t know. I don’t know how else you can end something like that or explain the fact why this man was traveling back in time, but I thought it was pretty cool.
You’re going to have to re-shoot a decent chunk of the pilot. How did you feel about the documentary approach in the original script and are you okay with them taking it out?
Well, I thought it was an interesting take on the police drama. And it was one of the things that attracted me to the script to begin with. But I think they wrote really big characters and the actors they got to play are very strong and the chemistry between them is very strong. And the writing of the show is very intelligent and smart, so I think the feeling was it could easily turn into a gimmick that’s hard to sustain or alter in time. And just say, "Hey, we have a great cast and we have great characters, we have really great writers and a very interesting city with a whole lot of interesting stories to tell. Let’s just have faith in those things and not have to put a spin on them." And I think it’s going to work.
I’ve also heard it suggested that cameras being there might limit your character particularly in what you might be willing to do.
Yeah, I mean like I said in the pilot it’s interesting because a lot of times when something’s new, it’s interesting. And it’s like, "Yeah, it is interesting," but then you get to episode 15, is it going to turn into a one-note thing for Fitch? And here’s Fitch hating the camera and "Get out of my face" and how many times then can you tell the camera then to go get out of my face. And I see that there definitely could have been limitations with that. And it’s not like "The Office." Having a documentary crew in front of a bunch of police officers opens up a whole can of legal can of worms and things you don’t want the public to see. There’s a lot of things going on and police investigations and arrests and things that you’d rather not people see, you know? So although it was an interesting departure for a cop show, ultimately I think they’re making the right decision.
Now as somebody who’s also a writer and especially on a project where you are not doubling and doing both jobs, does that change in any way the way you might look at a script?
No, I’m pretty clear about that. I’m working too much to write for the show. I’m working every day. I have no time.
So you’re going to have to move to Detroit for this?
Well, I’m in Detroit now. It’s like I’m taking things a step at a time. They ordered 13 episodes and my family’s with me for the summer. They’ll go back to school in New York in the fall and if it looks like we’re going to have long legs then they’ll come out and go to school there. If I’m going to be there 9-10 months a year, then we’ll relocate but I’ll wait and see. There’s no need to just make drastic changes. Maybe we will.
Have you liked what you’ve seen of the city so far?
Yeah, I’m living in a very nice section of town called Royal Oak, which is very pleasant and very mellow and almost like living in a small town, but still has a city feel to it so you can walk around a lot, which I’m very much used to because of New York. And so people are very friendly and I’m pretty happy.
Detroit has a reputation now, and that’s even sort of talked about in the show, and people wouldn’t necessarily think of parts of it as nice enough.
A lot. I mean it has sections that have been ravaged by urban blight and fall of the auto industry or whatever happened there. There was once a ton of money in that city and a lot of it left. And there’s devastation. A lot of sections looks like how New York was in the 70’s. Abandoned buildings and burned-out buildings and stuff like that. But there’s a lot of sections that are not nice. And some of the architecture there is incredible. There’s buildings that were built in the 20’s and 30’s that have just rivaled stuff you see in New York.
You spent all those years filming in Jersey and that show, even though it was about a bunch of bad people, became beloved by locals for showing, "Hey, that’s my town. Hey, that’s the pizzeria I go to."
What was your experience like over those years when you’d do location filming?
We were the home team. People loved us. I’d go and people would invite me in their house. I would go in people’s houses sometimes and have something to eat and stuff.
Yeah. I’m very much like that. I could see that happening again. I think the people in Detroit, they’re a little bit wary of what we’re going to do. They don’t want us to exploit and make it look like it’s just hell on earth and stuff like that. Obviously, it has its problems like every big city does. Maybe it has a bigger share than most, but I think it’s had its worst days and there’s a very much a feeling of "Okay, let’s make things better. Let’s turn this around." Part of the tax incentive to bring production there is to get businesses happening and people are very happy that their jobs are coming in. And I think ultimately it’s not a show about killers. It’s a show about these people who dedicated their lives to making the city a better place and it’s also about the people who’s lives are affected by what happens in the city. So I think it has a potential to be a pretty well-rounded portrayal of the city.
I know I'm the millionth person to ask, but I'm curious what your reaction was to "The Sopranos" finale.
I thought it was brilliant. I thought it was genius. I loved it. I thought it was a very smart way to end the show. I mean, at the time when I saw it I felt what you’re saying, you know, that in this world there’s so much uncertainty and that’s the way we all live with this amount of uncertainty in it and the important thing is to keep whatever means the most to you close to you and to go on. And that’s what I felt it was. I think any kind of finality or closure would have been not as satisfying anyway. People felt they wanted closure but I guarantee you, whatever closure you would have given would not have made everybody happy.
And yet there’s people convinced that Tony’s dead.
I think he is dead. I didn’t think that at first but now in hindsight I think he is dead.
Okay, what made you come around?
Something about when I saw it again, that it seemed what they were trying to show was like the last things you see before you die. You know these little pieces of something, you know, and then everything goes black. But who knows? Only David Chase knows, I guess.
How did you feel about the way Christopher went out?
I thought it was great. I thought it was a brilliant way. I think it really showed the blackness of Tony’s soul, you know? And just how narcissistic and egomaniacal he had become.
So what was that night like for you and Jim filming it?
In a lot of ways it’s like any other scene because you still have to do everything. You still have to mechanically do everything. The camera’s there and you have to do your lines and you have to figure it out, but it wasn’t the last scene I shot. The episode wasn’t shot in sequence.
What was the actual last scene you did?
I think the last scene I did was the scene with Jim and Frank Vincent we were like on a waterfront somewhere.
Was that tough? I mean obviously the show was ending anyway but…
I’m pretty good about moving on. I think the show had its perfect run. I think it was the right time to end it. I had the best experience possible but I was happy to move on in a way. I wasn’t sick of it. I was very satisfied and I knew I’d see all these people again, and I still see them. But I have just so many just fond memories of everybody. It’s just the greatest experience. And in hindsight, once in a while when I do catch a rerun and look at it. I’m very impressed at how good it is. I really am. I’m not saying that about me but the quality of the writing on the show and the level of detail that David committed to it I think is most impressive to me.
Well, I often hear from actors that they can’t bear to watch things that they’ve appeared in because they’re judging it. Do you feel that way about like the episodes you wrote?
No, I don’t really like watching myself so much. The last couple of years I don’t do it at all anymore. I stopped doing it. And I don’t like looking at the pasts, like I don’t looking at photos from the past and stuff. I don’t know, it might be an Aries thing because they’ve always got to look forward. Like if I look backwards in a car, I get motion sickness. So you really see the passage of time is another thing. But I’m happy when I see everybody. I still see them a lot and some more than others but very happy.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com