Going from the gritty, profane, FX policier The Shield to No Ordinary Family, an upbeat, Disney-produced, action-adventure family hour, Michael Chiklis has made one of the most head-spinning segues in TV history. In a rangy interview with Vulture, the actor decoded The Shield’s brilliant finale (and confirms that it was meant to leave the series open for a feature-film sequel), lamented the impact of the recession on indie film, and told us how those Superman wire stunts “can really wreak havoc on your lower back.”
With all its stunts and location shoots, No Ordinary Family seems like it’s even more draining than The Shield.
It’s been about 60 percent studio, 40 percent location so far. It’s essentially like shooting a 45-minute-long Marvel feature every nine days. But we’re pulling it off and we’re having a great time doing it; it’s just a big old bear.
How did No Ordinary Family come about? Was it built around you?
No, it was just an offer. I’d just opened myself up again for television since the end of The Shield. It was a very flattering pilot season in that there were a number of offers made. This came in from Greg Berlanti, and it was just so different from everything else in the landscape. Ambitious, too. My concern going in was the tone, because it’s the kind of thing that has so much in it — drama, comedy, action. Are we going to be able to do this in a way where everything works?
Were you sought for this series because of your superhero work in the Fantastic Four movies?
Honestly, The Commish had more to do with it. After the fact, I found out that he was a fan of The Commish when he was a kid, which was sort of a bouquet with a brick in it. I was like, “Oh, when you were a kid?” But I think it’s a combination of the two. My instinct is that you need someone who has an everyman quality but who can also be heroic. It’s a very demanding role in that you have to be able to go to a lot of different places. There’s the familial, there’s the superhero, and there’s the cop procedural, and I’ve done work in all those areas, but never in combination, so it’s fun.
How are you contending with the physical demands of the role?
I’m not a spring chicken anymore. I often joke that my career is ass-backwards: When I was in my late 20s, I was playing a roly-poly affable police commissioner, and now I’m well into my 40s and I’m playing a superhero. I’m really trying to take care of my health and stay physically fit. I’m on the Fresh Dining program; I eat my food out of a bag every day, and you do the things you can to keep your weight in check.
The very first shot on the very first day of the pilot, I tore my calf muscle. It was seven o’clock in the morning, it was chilly out, I had to do this sprint on a rooftop. I didn’t stretch out, I went into a sprint, and when I went to jump, I really threw a lot of torque into it and — pop, my calf just went. I had to shoot the entire pilot injured. So that made me brutally aware of how physical this gig is. My superpower is power and a lot of jumping and a lot of carrying people. The other day I was doing a lot of jumping with Romany Malco in my arms, and if you do twelve takes on that it can really wreak havoc on your lower back.
On The Shield, I did everything, partly because of the guerrilla way in which we shot, and the cameras were just up in your nostrils so you really couldn’t fool anybody with a stuntman, but I have to say I’m trying to be smart and defer to my stuntman, saying, “Hey, you do this one.” And on The Shield, I was kicking in doors and jumping on gangbangers and punching guys, and that’s physical, but that’s kind of fun. In this, I have been 110 feet up in the air on a wire. That stuff I’ll do, but some of it, I’m going to let my stuntman handle.
The Shield accomplished that rarity of rarities in television: a riveting and satisfying finale.
It means so much to me that across the board, this has been the reaction. We talked about it for three years. We were relentless. We knew from day one the quality of what we had, and we never wanted to stay too long at the dance, and we wanted it to maintain a certain level of excellence up until the last moment. And I think that kind of vigilance paid off at the end.
What should we make of the ending?
That show was always about the ambiguity of law enforcement in post-9/11 America, and the gray areas. Obviously, the cliché would have been “Top of the world, Ma!” and have Vic die in a hail of bullets or end up in jail. So we kept thinking, What’s the ambiguous way of doing this, where you have all kinds of things happen? So this guy literally winds up in a gray box, in a gray suit, in a purgatory. And I love that people got it.
But in the last shot of the finale he does get up and leave the office with a gun in his hand, so it had closure, and yet not …
We were trying to satisfy two things: We wanted to give FX a satisfying conclusion, but at the same time, you have an incredible character in Vic Mackey, and I think Shawn and I agreed that there’s tremendous potential for him in terms of the big screen. Down the line, I could definitely see that happening.
Vic’s confession scene in the penultimate episode was truly stunning. How did you approach playing that?
We were winding up this seven-year odyssey, and when I sat there, the whole of all of it just ran through my mind, and I started to wrestle and struggle with all of it, and [the director] just let the camera run, and it was all there. Sometimes it’s best to just let something that’s real and genuine just happen.
Were you as miffed as fans were that The Shield got no Emmy love for its final season?
I think I was over it by then, because there were seasons before — like season five, with Forrest Whitaker — that were deserving. I was always shocked that the writers didn’t get any Emmy love over the course of it. So you take a more philosophical attitude. Some people have said to me that we were the victims of our own success — that we came on so strong, so early, and I particularly did so well in that first year, that the academy felt we’d gotten their love. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t take anything away from what we accomplished. We got plenty of attention.
Like The Wire, which was also ignored, The Shield was violent and grim, and it seems as though that gives the Academy the heebie-jeebies.
That’s exactly right; it’s a content-driven reaction. I think season three especially dampened the Emmys for us. That was the year of the rape of Acevedo, and the strangling of the cat by Dutch Boy. I think it became very difficult for them to recognize us with content like that, although it remained a guilty pleasure for all, and they were right with us.
What did you do in that intervening year between The Shield and No Ordinary Family?
As soon as The Shield ended, I wound up getting a part in Eagle Eye, which my friend D.J. Caruso was shooting. His son speed-dialed me by mistake and D.J. offered me the role of secretary of defense. But 2009 was a frustrating year. I was trying to get some things going on my production slate. I was spending a lot of time developing a movie called Public House with some friends, and wouldn’t you know it, just as I get this thing up and running at a small production company, the biggest economic crisis in a hundred years ensues, and it ended up translating into me chasing my tail for six months. I still very much want to make it, and will make at some point. But the crisis precluded that from happening. House of Cards was another film I spent a lot of time developing, because at the time I had been a victim of a Ponzi scheme, and what happens six months into that situation? Bernie Madoff, and nine different reality series and documentaries, so Cards became something I didn’t want to pursue anymore. Then toward the end of that year, I was offered a straight-out stoner comedy, with Adrien Brody and Colin Hanks called High School. It opened at Sundance to great reviews this past year, and now it’s supposed to open in the spring, I guess. It’s very Fast Times at Ridgemont High à la 2010. It’s also the first cinematic stoner comedy that I’ve ever seen. It’s really well-shot.
So when The Shield ends, you’re thinking movies …
Well, you can’t play a character like Vic Mackey and just run back into another show willy-nilly, so I was thinking I’d take some time away from television and started to do more movies. Another thing that happened during the economic crisis was the tectonic shift in the movie business in that the studios essentially stopped making dramas. And that’s sort of my wheelhouse. The movies that I grew up with and that I aspired to make — The Deer Hunter, Taxi Driver — just ceased to be. So there are these massive tentpole movies that, in ‘09, they made two of apiece. So there was a real lack of work out there. I’m a person who doesn’t sit on their hands. If there’s nothing happening, I try to make something happen. But there was this crisis of finance, and if you didn’t have Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and nine other stars lined up, there’s just no money for it. So, we looked at the situation and said, you know what? The best work is on the small screen right now. I mean, you have Dustin Hoffman going to television [in HBO’s David Milch–produced Luck, set to debut next year]. If that doesn’t speak to the climate we’re in, I don’t know what does.
Did you have any hesitation about returning to the grind of lead work in a TV drama?
It definitely gave me pause, but hey, I love to work. I love being on set. I just needed some time to regenerate and look at things creatively. And, you know, to the general public it doesn’t seem like a lot of time, but it’s a perfect sort of transition — it gave me time and it gave them time. Happily, I had choices, more choices than I’d ever had in my career. There were a number of pilots that came my way, and the frustration was, when you’ve done something like The Shield, you get a little spoiled, so I looked at a sort of police procedural that felt a little mind-numbing and two-dimensional to me and some other things. There was just a sense of sameness in regard to network television. And as far as the cable universe, there just wasn’t anything that captured my imagination. To be sure, if there had been another dark drama that was written with the same acumen that Shawn wrote The Shield with, I would have jumped on it, but it just wasn’t there.
Now you’re going from a gritty, profane cable drama to a relatively light Disney-produced action show …
This show is broadly appealing. I’m a father, and what I see precious little of on television is shows that you can sit down with your whole family and watch it without me rolling my eyes. Everything is broken into niche now. So I thought, just me as a dad, that there’s a need for this. I’d love to be able to sit down and watch a show that I, as a comic-book geek, can enjoy sit down with my kids and get into as much as they get into it. I’d like to be a part of something that works that way. The challenge is that on broadcast TV, you can’t go as deeply into content issues.
It must have been a bit of a culture shock.
The challenge here is: Let’s try to entertain a mass audience. Sure, it’s pop candy, but it’s smart and fun and witty and charming and soulful.
If you’ll indulge me in a bit of Wikipedia fact-checking, is it true that you’re not bald completely by choice, that you burned off a lot of your hair follicles with grease paint off when you were 25, while working on a production of You Can’t Take It With You?
That’s actually correct. A lot of that stuff isn’t, though: I don’t speak three languages, I don’t own a home on the island of Lesbos, and I’m not married to actress Michelle Moran, but that story is true.
Is it true that you became a member of Actors Equity at age 13?
Fourteen, actually. I was interested in being an actor since I was a very young kid. And I had an opportunity to audition for summer stock theater at the Salem Town and County Playhouse, and that’s when I met Mark Kaufman, a young playwright. He was directing that season and really took me under his wing. He wanted to start a regional theater in the Andover-Lowell-Tewksbury area, so I helped him with fund-raisers and whatever else, and one year later he opened the Merrimack Repertory Theater, which is one of the most successful repertory theaters in the country, and I wound up in the opening production of Romeo and Juliet at the tender age of 14, which completely solidified my love of the theater.
You spent a few years in New York at the beginning of your career.
When you graduate, you go to either New York or L.A. Coming from a theater background, I chose New York. I moved days after I graduated in college back in 1985 down to Brooklyn. And I moved out of New York in 1990. I lived in Park Slope initially, and wound up out in Dyker Heights for a while — my friend’s mom had a two-family house and I could park my car out there. It was very Tale of Two Cities, the best of times, the worst of times: I was waiting tables, auditioning, and doing Off–Off Broadway theater at La Mama and other theaters like that … the natural progression. You get to New York, you’re 21, and you’ve got all this aspiration and excitement, but you’re dirt broke. I worked at a place called Formerly Joe’s in the West Village. Edie Falco and I worked together there, and when I got cast in [the 1989 John Belushi biopic] Wired, I was the first of us to get something, and I didn’t see Edie again for about twenty years, backstage at the Golden Globes, and we both had a statuette in our hand.
What was your social life like in those days?
Nothing incredibly exciting. I was very focused. My every waking thought was about getting a break, making a gig happen, so there wasn’t much time or money to be a big partier. I hung out a lot with a couple of my BU friends at Phebe’s writing comedy material. I remember working at a place called Comedy U Grand as a bartender and watching what were then relative unknowns do stand-up, guys like Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Brett Butler …
What does New York look like to you now when you visit?
I went back there in 1997 to do Defending the Caveman, a one-man show, for six months. That was kind of mind-blowing, because when I lived there in the late eighties it was gross, disgusting. I remember coming back in ‘97 and saying, Wouldn’t you know it? I left, and the place got nice. The East Village, where I’d spent a lot of time, had become gentrified … The only thing I hate about New York is the Yankees, and that’s because I’m from Boston. I think it’s the greatest city in the world. When you’re flying toward New York, as soon as you get in the air space, the energy hits you in the airplane and you can’t sleep; you sit up.
Ever thought of coming back for good?
My wife and I have discussed this many times — we could see a point in our lives where we move back and take an apartment and live out at least part of our older years in New York. I really like the lifestyle of going to shows, maybe being in shows, walking, walking, the restaurants. The other thing is, I’m interested in people, and one thing I really miss about the East Coast in general is being able to go to a local place and meet people from every walk of life and exchange ideas, and being able to talk to someone other than an aspiring something in show business. It’s wonderful to sit and talk to an architect or a salesman and hear about their world. When you work fourteen hours a day on a film set, you like to spend a weekend and chat with people who make shoes or whatever. As an actor, it’s really helpful and healthy to be in the world.