Interview with Benjamin Bratt and Warren Boyd of "The Cleaner" on A&E - Primetime TV Show Articles From The TV MegaSite

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By Suzanne

Interview with Benjamin Bratt and Warren Boyd of "The Cleaner" on A&E 6/22/10

I was privileged to speak to actor Benjamin Bratt, who stars in A&E’s “The Cleaner”. Also with him was Warren Boyd, the person who inspired his character, and co-executive producer of the show.

Normally I would just give a little summary and then post the transcript. However, they did want us to post the transcript this time. Hopefully, I have done enough paraphrasing to make them happy. This was really long.

Benjamin Bratt seems like a really nice, modest guy who loves his family and cares deeply about people. He does not sound like your typical showbiz guy or conceited Hollywood actor. I really enjoyed getting to speak with him.

Tim Malloy from TV asked how close the show is to Mr. Boyd’s real life and which dramatic liberties they took. Boyd answered that the mechanics are close to his real life as it was about 13-14 years ago. They try to keep things as authentic as possible, but there is also a lot of influence from Mr. Bratt and the writers. He also asked Bratt how much he had to follow him around get into his head. Bratt admits that it didn’t take too much research because just meeting him gives you an insight on how to play him. He said, “He's a motor head, he's buffed, he wears black t-shirts and jeans and black boots, he rides a Harley. He'll knock you out as soon as he'll smile at you and so with that first impression it gave me a really fine starting point, which combined with the script in the final words of Robert Munic from the pilot, gave me a really clear approach on how to portray him.” Bratt also added that there’s a lot of subtlety to the man, as well as some mystery. He said, “There's an aura of gravitas to him and a little bit of mystery that you can't really penetrate.” Bratt said that he is totally different from him, so it has been nice to put on his clothes (and his skin). Malloy also asked about the funny guest stars this season and asks if any of them get to be funny. Bratt diplomatically answered that while Whoopi is just a very funny lady, she is also an amazing dramatic actress who did a beautiful job for them. She will be a recurring character in at least three episodes this year. He also mentioned guest-star Gary Cole, who has a comedy background. He says that Cole “did a remarkable job in the premiere episode playing a nationally recognizable newscaster who is strung out on speed and in desperate need of help. He happens to be married to a woman who’s suffering from terminal cancer and he’s spinning out of control. His performance required him to run naked across the beach as well as being, you know, tied down and sedated forcibly and he did it all with a smile and a lot of bravery in his performance. I think people are going to be surprised.”

I don’t know the next reporter’s name or where he was from because it was not mentioned in the transcript besides just "Dasick". He asked Bratt if he ever had any experience with substance abuse problems and whether it made the character more intriguing. Bratt answered that he has a large family and many friends in San Francisco, implying that he has known many people with substance abuse problems. He said he has some tragic stories about it in his own life. However, he said that what drew him to the project was how it was focused on exploring getting a second chance in life. He contrasts the show with procedurals like cop shows and medical drama, saying that while the structure is similar to those shows, the subject matter makes the stakes literally life and death. He doesn’t think people were willing to talk about that subject on TV even ten years ago. He thinks, based on his hearing from other people, that it resonates with people who tune in because of the prevalence of substance abuse and how it affects people.

Dasick also asked, “Now you work on series both on the networks and on cable. Obviously your first series was a procedural show and a very structured one at that. Do you find that working on cable opened you up to do certain things that you couldn’t necessarily do on the networks?” Bratt answered, “Absolutely, I mean I’m a proud alumnus of Law and Order, a show which is as you all know, has just been picked up for its 20 season, which is a remarkable record and is a good show. But what I did as an actor on that show was really sort of as an expositional tool. The difference here, and the difference is extreme, for as much as I loved that job, what I’m afforded the time and place to do on this show is to create a three dimensional character who has the complexity and dimension of someone from real life because it’s based on someone from real life. so while you have at the center of our story, William Banks, a man who was chosen as his location, the job of saving lives, which by all consideration, is a heroic feat. You have someone who is deeply, personally flawed, who in the balance of succeeding at work, fails miserably as a husband and often times as a father. And to me, I just thought that was an interesting tension to play against and one that, you know, I sometimes can relate to as an actor who works out of town.”

The next reporter was David Martindale from the Star-Ledger. He asked if playing a suspicious person on this show, someone who looks for drug use in everyone, has made him that way in real life. Bratt laughed that his wife gets on his case for playing detective, since he was one on Law & Order for four years. He theorized that maybe he was always a bit suspicious and paranoid, which lent itself to being a detective. He did admit that what Boyd does (and what Banks does on the show) is similar to what detectives do, based on their own personal experiences. Martindale enjoyed the recent scene where Banks gets a sample from the toilet by turning it off so it wouldn’t flush and figured that was classic detective work. Bratt replied, “Boy, I’m glad you picked up on it. The great news is that, you know, we’re in a situation where art is imitating life and the source from which the life experience is drawn from is as colorful as anyone you can imagine. Hopefully you all will one day get a chance to meet Warren, he’s quite a character.” Martindale also asked if Bratt knew who the typical viewer of his show might be and whether they are more or less likely to be people whose lives have been touched by addiction. Bratt told us that the show is pretty popular with everyone, but he thinks it skews higher with women 30-40. He doesn’t know if it’s because of the subject matter or just because they’re “ succeeding at creating compelling drama.”

Natasha Burton from Fancast asked them what they think of all of the celebrity rehab shows. Boyd answered that “everything has a mechanism in it that can help and those shows, you know, God bless them because they are helping people…. I don’t count the numbers or anything like that but I have thought that anything that can be out there on a grand scale that can touch people and help people and hopefully that’s what’s going on with those shows and I think it is.”

Next I was happy to ask my question, “I was wondering, do you think that your character and his wife will ever get back together (or his ex-wife)?” Bratt replied, “Good question, I won’t answer it directly. I will say that just like all relationships that have, at its core, real love between the two individuals, there is always going to be an effort to try. At the end of the first season, William Banks was kicked out of the house by his wife because he was spending more time on the job and not doing the things that a good husband should do. And so at the opening of Season 2, he’s sleeping in a dilapidated back room of the shop where he holds the lease in that auto building - that motorcycle building. Over the course of the second season, they will still relate as they need to because they’re co-parenting. Then my son takes a job at the shop during his summer vacation and hopefully by the end of the season, you will have a much clearer answer to your question so stay tuned.”

To follow up that question, I asked, “What other things can you tell us about the rest of this season- anything that you can let us know about what’s going to happen?” Bratt answered, “We have a really impressive roster of guest stars who come to play with us on the show. Everyone from Christine Lahti to Joe Don Baker, Michael Beach, Shirley Jones, Rebecca Gayheart. A lot of actors who are very familiar to audiences everywhere who really just want an opportunity like most good actors to do good work. And what that really means, what that translates to is that the writing is strong enough to draw this kind of talent a television series, which, you know, I think up until a short while ago, was considered like a disastrous career move. But I think the good news for everyone, both actors and viewers alike, is that the level of the game, the level of work being done on television is often times far superior to what you’ll find in a movie house. And as a result, you only need to look through your local TV listing to find a lot of movie actors now populating the television landscape as series regulars. I think that says a lot about the quality of the work that’s being done on television these days and we’re hopefully following in step with that.”

I added one final thing: “ I just wanted to pass on that my mother-in-law, who’s 81, is a humongous Law and Order fan, and when I told her I was going to talk to you, she said, ‘Oh, he was so handsome” so she said to say hi to you.” Graciously, Bratt replied, “Tell your mom I said thanks.”

The next reporter was Jim Halshman from Progressive Television (if the transcriber got that name right, I don’t know, they did a bad job with many of the names). He wanted to ask about “William’s kind of one-sided relationship with God and how he often talks to God.” He asked if that came from Warren’s experience and asks Bratt how he approaches playing those scenes. Boyd replied, “I think that’s carried off really well by Ben in the series and, you know, of course honestly I do a lot of praying and I do a lot of what I call contact with God and I think that the way it comes off in the series, is very honest. It’s a very honest way for him to let that out there and, no, I don't stop and exercise, you know, my voice talking to God every day out loud. It's not quite like that. But it is the same thing.” Bratt’s take on it was, “What we've taken from Warren's life and now are actually utilizing as a thematic structuring for the show is this one-sided conversation to God. So and that's part of the reformatting of the second season in how we're both focusing more on the story of the guest star and their particular dilemma and using that opening monologue of Williams to God as the theme of what will follow. You're right. It is one-sided and that's part of the fun in doing it and part of the fun, I think, for the writers in writing it is that like with most of us who feel like we do have a relationship with a Creator, it remains, as far as we know, one-sided. We're not necessarily certain that He's up there listening. I mean, what's funny is you'll - sometimes you'll have directors who come in, guest director of the week and they'll want to put a camera way up in the corner of the room like 12 feet up. And William, you know, perform the scene from down below. And Jonathan Prince, the Executive Producer and shell run of the show is fine with saying, well, we can't do that because, you know, we're not sure God is listening. You can't have God's perspective because otherwise it means that He's listening. And so that's part of the fun really that we're poking fun at is that in that way Banks and his relationship with God is - it's not so heavy. There is levity in it because you're not necessarily sure He's there.”

Halshman told Bratt that he does a great job but also mentioned that he has a “much darker role in this movie you did with your brother, The Mission.” He asked, “I wonder how did you approach that because I know that character is antigay and like throws out his son and all this. Can you talk about that a little bit, how it's different from William and how it was to play that?”

Bratt replied that he went from shooting the pilot for The Cleaner directly into pre-production on the film that he co-produced with his brother, “La Mission, which is about the Mission district in my hometown of San Francisco in a neighborhood that I'm quite devoted to, as is my family. And then as soon as that film was wrapped - literally we wrapped on a Sunday and I was meant to be at work the next day on what was then to be the first season of The Cleaner. So there wasn't much breathing space in between. And thankfully, both characters required a beard. But, you know, my job as an actor is to render the most accurate, most complex portrayal of whatever's written on the page. Thankfully, in both cases, there are elements to each of the characters' respective qualities, however dramatically different they are that I could relate to. Both are fathers, you know, both have come from a school of hard knocks. And yet both are extremely and utterly devoted to their respective families. That's how I am in real life. As much as I love work, as much as I really love the responsibilities I have as a producer and as an actor on The Cleaner, my number one priority is my family. And, you know, that push, pull that exists with the lead character William Banks succeeding at work while failing at home. I understand it very clearly. It has resonance for me. And rather than dwell upon it and bemoan it, I actually try to use it in the work. But I'm excited about The Mission, La Mission. We're slated for a 2010 release. We premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this January and then went on to open the San Francisco International Film Festival to a sold out house at the Castro Theater. We've since played at the Seattle International Film Festival. We'll open on July 9 at the L.A. Outfest, which is the largest gay film festival in the country and then we'll follow that up with the opening night at the Latino Film Festival here in New York on July 28. So we have a very busy festival circuit schedule going and are very encouraged by the responses we've been getting for something that really amounts to a small story that has kind of global resonance.”

Halshman asked Bratt how he thinks the gay community will react, or how have they reacted so far (to his role). Bratt said that the he thinks the film has an ultimate message of  “tolerance and acceptance” which is resonating with everyone, “whether you're gay, straight, white, black, brown. It doesn't matter. And what we're finding is that across genders, across orientation, across cultures, across age, the film is ultimately about family and that's what people are responding to. You know, the center of our story is a man who's a reformed bad boy, a former OG who is into low rider cars and now's just a humble bus driver and he finds out that his 18-year-old son, his pride and joy, is gay. And he has a violent response to it. And it's not just a little ironic that this occurs in one of the most progressive liberal cities in the country. And yet those social taboos are still in place in communities of color, in particular, the Latino culture and within the African-American communities. And so what we've noticed happily is that there's been a very lively debate that occurs after the film is played to sold out houses everywhere. And that dialogue is ultimately healing. So we've been very gratified by that. Thanks for asking.”

Halshman wished them best of luck and said that he saw the first two episodes, which are phenomenal. Bratt asked, “Hey, how was Joe Don Baker? Did he break your heart?” and Halshman replied that he did. He added, “I mean, I wasn't expecting that kind of performance from him and it just - I was in tears by the end.”

The next interviewer was Hugo Martinez from Extra Chicago. He asked if they knew of any former drug addicts that had been touched by the first season. Boyd told him that he had gotten contact from a lot of people either through the web site or in person that said, “how they were so easily able to relate to the episodes because of having an afflicted family member or an extended loved one of some sort that this problem took place with. And thought, you know, all the feedback that I got was it was very authentic and it really, you know, really touched - comments like it really touched my heart and I had the same similar situation going on. And because of the authenticity that was carried out throughout the season, people continued to call and those calls still continue to grow.”

Bratt asked Boyd how many people have been in touch through the website, so Boyd said there were hundreds that they had done placement for (I believe he means people who were getting help for their drug problem via the website and being placed in rehab facilities). He added, “And still today there were about three that came in this morning that I was contacted about early this morning when I got in.” Martinez asked if they had used any of their stories in the show. Boyd assured us that he does not feel comfortable doing that. What he has done instead is taken bits and pieces from his past 18 years of stories, cases that he’s been involved with, and put them into the show. He told us that they are trying to put together a database “so that people who want to reach in because we're really getting a lot of it. When people want to reach in and be able to have a database that they can go to and really try to get us to help them with placement and, you know, counseling and things like that.”

Martinez asked Bratt how he felt when he learned that the show had been picked up for a second season. Bratt said that he was thrilled, especially given how grim it is out there (meaning the world of acting and job hunting). He said gratefully, “I count it as a major victory to not only be on a series that's had a full season run, but to actually be on one that's gotten picked up for a second season. I think the biggest leap for new TV shows is from Season 1 to Season 2 and then from there it gets a little bit easier certainly up to, you know, at least a fourth year. So hopefully the chasm will be less wide in the leap from year two to year three. But that said, yes, it was a little bit of time before (Amy) made the decision. But I think that they just really wanted to be sure that what we were doing had resonance. I mean, their new motto is real life drama and as a flagship dramatic hour of television for them this show seemed a perfect fit. And they were really encouraged, I think, by the initial response to the show. But they really were intent on having us get it right. And so with a little bit of research and then in a very open, creative discussion with ourselves and the head writers, there was a refocusing of the show and reformatting, which by all accounts on this side has lent itself to a much improved series. So as good as it was last year, I think it's dramatically improved this year. And that increase in qualitative level has resulted in bringing some really accomplished performers on board to play with us. So I'm really excited about the start of the season. I think that anyone who was a fan of the show will be impressed by what they see in the coming episode. And anyone who's not been familiar with it will make The Cleaner a part of their regular viewing.”

The next questioner was Russell Trunk from Exclusive Magazine. He stated that he was surprised that the first season didn’t show how Banks got to be where he is today. He wondered if they will ever do a show about that. Bratt replied that toward the end of the first season, “one of my team members falls off the rails and starts using Meth again, there were a few little flashbacks of William when he was in the throws of addiction. That was about as close as we got to sort of imagining what that history was like. That's actually a very good idea and one that hasn't really been discussed yet. But I imagine, as we go forward, you know, the first season and the pilot episode, in particular, is very much an experiment. You know, you have a bunch of great ideas and a bunch of interesting notions about what would make a compelling hour of television. You throw it all together and you - and then toss it against a wall and hope it all sticks. But I would say by Episode 10 or 12 of last year we had a pretty good idea of what was working and what was not and, thus, the restructuring that I spoke about. So we'll take that key. We'll take that note. That's something to discuss. Actually, it's kind of interesting to me because it would be fun to play, certainly. I probably have to shave, which my wife wouldn't like, but all in sake of the art.”

Trunk made a joke about Bratt’s goatee, saying that it has a life of its own. Bratt laughed and said, “Yes, I'm having a couple of tenants in there, yes. No, you know what's interesting about that is, you know, it actually became a lively discussion between myself and the powers that be as to whether or not I as an actor should wear a beard. And one of my arguments was that in recognition of - and this is not a scientific fact, but I call it a fact nonetheless, that most addicts I know, most people in recovery I know, including Warren Boyd here sitting next to me have facial hair. And if we allow the drug addiction or drug abuse on some level is a masking of emotions or deep seeded pain, then I would argue that in the face of recovery the need to mask continues and we do it in other forms. And I think the facial hair - I'm using it anyway as a part of my character makeup as something to hide behind.” Trunk made a few more jokes about the beard. Trunk then mentioned, “While you were starring and airing in Law & Order you actually appeared in four The More You Know public service announcements of topics aside from reading that were very cleaner-ish, substance abuse, family communication and violence prevention. Perhaps you were destined for this role.” Bratt, surprised, asked, “You certainly have done your homework haven't you?”, so then he said, “Never ever anything, you know, predetermined. I guess I’m a do-gooder at heart, man. What can I say?”

Trunk, pressing his luck a bit, had one more question. “I hope you take this with a pinch of salt that it's meant to come across as. They say in the industry when a show starts to bring in guest stars each week that it's heading towards jumping the shark. Any thoughts on that?” Bratt said that he thinks it’s far too early for that. “The writing is top notch and like all good actors you can't really be a - all good actors understand you can't really be good if the writing's not good to start with.”

The next reporter was Kenya Jones from ACED Magazine. She asked about William’s team on the show. “They basically play a cop, kidnappers, therapists, et cetera, when they're doing their job. In this season, can we expect more consequence for their sort of rogue manner of working with their clients?” Boyd answered the question, “I think that we - there, you know, we did have consequence. I have had consequence like, you know, some lightweight consequences for some of the antics that were used to stop people from killing themselves. And some of those have already come to light. And, you know, you might see a few more things of - there's a lot to this show that people don't know about yet because we're really growing this show. The good thing is, is that we have about 18, 19 years worth of material that we can pull through. And there's so many really cool things that people haven't seen yet that I'm sure that all of this is going to shake out into a sensible fashion for the audience. William's struggles with his own demons as far as his addiction aren't truly over. Can you discuss any possible temptation that he - that might come his way during the second season as far as that's concerned?” Bratt added, “Well, I think it's, you know, I think it's important to remember and this is fact and I think that Warren would substantiate this, is that once an addict, always an addict. And as far as, you know, far as high regarded as William can be held for what he does, he is at the end of the day an addict. He's a recovering addict, but he's still an addict. And like any true addict he's replaced one addiction with another. In this case he may well be addicted to the high he gets from walking the high wire of saving people's lives. He - in something - and down to something as superficial as continuing to smoke, which at every opportunity when we have it on screen we're trying to - for the negative connotation to because it is a nasty, bad habit and will kill you. So - what was the question exactly?” He laughed then.

Kenya Jones then asked, “In this season can you discuss any possible temptation to that or allude to it in any way?” Bratt replied, “Specifically as it relates to episodes that we've got coming up? No, not specifically, but what I will say is that he like anyone else is human and in that he's human he's given into temptation just like you or me.”

Kenya stated, “Right, a lot of people including the people that he's saved consider him Warren William to be a hero and how refreshing is it Benjamin and challenging is it to be able to play a real-a person based on someone who lives real fallible, flawed yet as heroic as Warren Boyd Bratt told her, “Thanks for asking that, it's a first for me and it makes it a joy to come to work in all honestly. I've had a lot of great television gigs, but none that comes close to this in terms of its complexity and enjoyment level because he's drawn from a real person because the person I'm portraying on television is so complex and often times grouchy, I'll just be straight up. You know, he's got - I kid him he's like the candy bar with that crunchy outer, you know, outer shell with a gooey center in the middle. You know his makeup is compelling to me because again if you saw Warren in person and his persona, you know, the cover belies the inside on some level because, you know, he would argue against this. But I think what he does in his real job and not to say that his, you know, executive producing abilities on the show is not a real job. But what he's really exceptional at which is helping people comes from a truly earnest and organic place and that to me makes him beautiful. And when you combine that soft center if you will with an exterior that's been in part hammered by the school of hard knocks that makes for a really pretty interesting character to play and to know.”

Kenya asked Boyd, “Is it all hard for you at times to relive some of things whether it be in writing or filming or just watching the episode? Is it at all difficult for you?” He answered that he was really glad she asked that question. “What I can tell you about that it's actually sharpening my pencil to be honest with you because as I see these episodes and know that some of that stuff is drawn from the truth and in fact quite a bit of it. It actually just really takes me back to school for a minute so I can, you know, so I can sort of sharpen my stick a bit. And no I don't have problems, I do feel emotion behind a lot of it, but I pushed it into an area where this is just a tune up, it's a tune up for me.”

Next was Lisa Steinberg from Starry Constellation. She asked Bratt why he thought the show drew so many viewers. Bratt replied, repeating himself a bit, “That its good drama, I mean that's the short answer I think we're making good TV. The writings good, I think the construct of what the series is, is unique. I think it has enough familiarity in terms of the procedural elements that exist to draw people in, but also a unique enough take on its exploration of the human condition to keep people coming back. And I think we talked about it a little bit earlier is that the subject matter at the center of the series is fairly new in the public discourse. And as far as I know, I haven't, you know, done any research about it. But as far as I know we're one of the first if not the first one hour dramas to have at the center of our show a discourse on substance abuse and recovery. And again we have over 22 million addicts in this country and if you extrapolate those numbers into the numbers of lives that are affected by these addicts and their behaviors that's a whole lot of people. And so I think there's real resonance out there and that's partly why people are tuning in is that they're being moved by the drama, but maybe they're seeing a bit of themselves or their own people in their families in their lives being played out.”

Lisa pointed out that there is great chemistry between him and the other members of the team. She wondered how they continue to work on that. Bratt replied enthusiastically that they’re wonderful people and that they all love their jobs. He added that it was no exaggeration and that they loved doing scenes together. He went on to say, “More and more this season I've found myself alone or with the guest players, but the days when Esteban and Grace come to the set and we get to work out scenes together and go at that banter with one another are some of my best days.”

Lisa asked if there’s anything he’d like to say to his fans. Bratt said, “Tune in, you're going to be pleasantly surprised at the new and improved version of The Cleaner.”

The next reporter was Mike Ryan. He asked if there was any one episode that affected either of them in a big way, more than the others. Bratt readily replied, “For me the episode that has affected me the deepest and that I feel is the best work we have done collectively so far is an episode that will air second in our lineup. And it stars Joe Don Baker and Michael Beach it's called Last American Casualty it'll actually air Tuesday on June 30 at 10 pm. And it's a very simple story and I think that's what allowed the show to be so compelling that the story telling was simple and elegant. It's about these parallel lives two struggling alcoholics who come from very different backgrounds, very different socioeconomic makeup's. And yet the devastation that alcoholism is wrought on their respective lives ties them together in a form of brotherhood. And I won't tell you what happens in the end, but Joe Don Baker and Michael Beach both killed it and they will break your heart, I promise you.”

Mike asked if the story ever affects Bratt to the point where he wants to change something in the episode. Bratt replied, “Yes, the good news is that, you know, I don't develop the stories, but when the scripts are finally rendered actually the writers and the other producers they listen to the input I have. Because I like to say that there's no one that knows my character better than me and that's the way it should be. You know, I share a lot of a ideas with Warren he shares a lot of ideas with me and again the templates for how I play this guy is right here in front of me almost daily. And so, as long as I'm being true to who that is, you know, the words at times are not necessarily even relevant sometimes.”

Mike asked Boyd if he had ever done the toilet bowl trick that was mentioned earlier. Boyd admitted that he did it just last week. Mike asked a funny follow-up question, “Has anyone ever come up to you and like apologized almost because they're like, ‘Warren I don't know why but every time you come over, my toilet breaks I'm very sorry about that.’” Boyd went into technical details about it, saying, “It's a temporary disablement of the toilet and some toilets you can't do that to you have to actually get inside the wall from the other side and it's really difficult but, more to be revealed.”

The final reporter was Jay Jacobs from Pop Entertainment. He asked Boyd if he ever had a particular actor in mind while developing the role (besides Bratt) and whether it was weird to see someone else playing his alter ego on TV. Boyd said that he didn’t know who to picture in the role, but, “I believe that everything with this TV show came together almost from a higher power to me. Because I can't imagine anybody else playing the role at this point then Ben. I - it's not fathomable to me I don't know - I feel like he was suppose to do it and I feel like when he stepped on that that's when everything changed and it all started to become real because of his interest in keeping things authenticate and, you know, and not trying to do a Spiderman show.”
Bratt joked that he thought Boyd’s “ prerequisite really was that of whoever they casted needs to be taller and better looking.” They laughed and Bratt, always the nice guy, made sure to tell us that he was joking about that, even though Boyd added that it was true.

More info about "The Cleaner" found on our Primetime Forum, including more pictures, clips, info, etc.

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