Actors In 'Detroit 1-8-7' Live It Up In Motor City

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The ABC network drama "Detroit 1-8-7" unnerved some officials in the city of Detroit. The program, titled after a former police code for homicide, is shot from the perspective of a documentary film crew tasked with shadowing Detroit homicide detectives. City officials complained the program gives a negative image of the city as dangerous and crime-ridden. Host Michel Martin speaks with two of the show's stars: Michael Imperioli and James McDaniel.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from member station WDET and NPR News.

Coming up, an addition of our occasional feature In Your Ear. Today, it's Detroit native, the soulful singer and songwriter Kem. We'll have that for you in just a few minutes.

But, first, the city is known for producing cars and for creating hit music with the legendary Motown sound. But now the city is trying to transition into movie town. Hollywood has been lured to Detroit partly because of some generous tax incentives. But the city can also serve as an intriguing character in and of itself, as evidenced by the new ABC police drama "Detroit 1-8-7."

With me to talk more about this are the two of the show's stars, Michael Imperioli and James McDaniel. You certainly know them from their previous award-winning television lives on "The Sopranos" and "NYPD Blue."

Welcome to you both. Thank you so much for joining us on your day off. You both look a little tired, actually.

Mr. MICHAEL IMPERIOLI (Actor): Do we really?

Mr. JAMES MCDANIEL (Actor): Look tired?

MARTIN: You've been working very hard. You're working hard.

Mr. MCDANIEL: I feel pretty good.

Mr. IMPERIOLI: You look good.

MARTIN: All right. Well, thank you. So I understand that the series was first originally shot in part in Atlanta, but later moved on location to Detroit. And Mr. McDaniel, I understand that you played a role in that. You were a strong advocate for doing that.

Mr. MCDANIEL: Yeah. I was, you know, when I say advocate, it's not like I can twist anybody's arm. It was more putting it in the guys' ears that I would really like to go to ground zero. I'd like to go to where this show would really live, with no hopes of it actually happening. I thought it was a pipe dream, because it's never happened before. So, yeah, I was a cheerleader for that.

MARTIN: Why? Because it had never happened before?

Mr. MCDANIEL: No. Because, you know, you want to go, as an artist, to where the action actually is. You know, you - this backdrop of this city is just absolutely stunning and incredible. You can't get this in Los Angeles, New York. You just can't get it. And I like the authenticity of being here. I like the feel of being here. Little did I know that I would love the people and just the environment.

MARTIN: And Michael Imperioli, it's nice to see you back on the right side of the law.

Mr. IMPERIOLI: Thank you.

MARTIN: Of course, people will remember you from "The Sopranos."

Mr. IMPERIOLI: Right.

MARTIN: And I want to talk a little bit about your character in "Detroit 1-8-7." And 1-8-7, what is that? That's a...

Mr. IMPERIOLI: It's a code - police code for homicide.

MARTIN: Is it used in Detroit, actually?

Mr. IMPERIOLI: I don't think so.

MARTIN: I thought it was a California code.

Mr. IMPERIOLI: I think it is, but the writer felt it sounded cool.

MARTIN: It sounded cool. Well, I must say that initially, some of the initial feedback from some of the Detroit television writers that I talked to said it's a little too New York. Apparently, one of the characters asked for a slice, which is - of pizza - which is a New York thing. There was some unhappiness. There was a request for soda and not pop. Presumably, you're fixing some of those.

Mr. IMPERIOLI: I hope so.

MARTIN: Yeah.

Mr. IMPERIOLI: I mean, my character's from New York, so I don't worry about those things.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: 'Cause you would want a slice, right?

Mr. IMPERIOLI: Exactly.

MARTIN: Let's talk about your character, Louis Fitch, Detective Fitch, very dedicated to his job, not very interested in people rooting around in his personal life. I just want to play a short clip from an exchange between you and your rookie partner on the program. They get into it over your partner touching a paperweight on your desk. Here it is.

(Soundbite of show, "Detroit 1-8-7")

Mr. IMPERIOLI: (As Detective Louis Fitch) Did you touch my scorpion?

Unidentified Man: No.

Mr. IMPERIOLI: (As Detective Louis Fitch) Well, somebody did. When I left, Stinger was pointing north, and now it's the other way.

Unidentified Man: Fine. I picked it up.

Mr. IMPERIOLI: (As Detective Louis Fitch) Why would you do that?

Unidentified Man: Look at your desk. You got a computer and a phone, not a single personal artifact. Then that thing appears, how am I not going to pick it up?

Mr. IMPERIOLI: (As Detective Louis Fitch) You control yourself like a grown man.

Unidentified Man: Come on.

Mr. IMPERIOLI: (As Detective Louis Fitch) If you touch anything on my desk, I will chop off your hands. I'll lock them in the gun safe.

(Soundbite of banging sound)

Unidentified Man: Roger that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay, well, I'll be - I won't be touching anything on your desk.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I'll just - point taken. So tell me about the character. Why were you drawn to it?

Mr. IMPERIOLI: He's, like you said, he's very dedicated. He's very, very good at his job. He has one of the highest rates of solving murders in Detroit. There was a scene in the pilot where he does an interrogation and he basically just sits very still and stares at this suspect who's really posturing, trying to be this very tough, hard street guy, and sits, just stares at him for a really long period of time. And the guy goes through a lot of different emotions, and eventually kind of starts telling him about his life story and confessing. And that scene just - I thought, that's very creative, you know, I mean, both from a writer's point of view, but from a character point of view and from a person's point of view to - there was something about his center of gravity that I felt was very kind of peaceful, yet severe at the same time.

MARTIN: How is it for you, working in Detroit? What's the experience been like for you?

Mr. IMPERIOLI: For me it's been as an actor, it's really helps - I think there is a sense of osmosis that happens between the location and the project itself. It's like "The Sopranos," if that was shot on a studio back lot in LA, it never would have been what it was. I mean the fact that we shot some of the locations, and were built in studios, interior stuff, but most of it was on location in New Jersey. And being on location here in Detroit, you really get a sense of the life of the city and the lives of the people, and what they go through on a day-to-day basis and what it's like, and I think that really has a very positive impact on the work.

MARTIN: James McDaniel, I want to ask about the whole question of shooting a crime drama here in the city which, of course, experiences is crime. But there are those who feel that Detroit's taken enough hits in the national consciousness and worry that...

Mr. MCDANIEL: Sure.

MARTIN: ...a lot of people are leaving, I've been reading the message boards and listening to the comments that people are making. People are saying I love looking at the landmarks. It makes me feel at home. I love seeing, I like telling people about this place or that place. But there is that sort of lingering fear, do we really need something that talks about murder in a city that's already taken a lot of hits. Do you have any thoughts about that?

Mr. MCDANIEL: Well, I'll do you one of my little secrets. For my character and for me, James McDaniel, it's not a detective story.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCDANIEL: It's a story about people living their lives with very very high stakes. And when you have to high stakes, strange things happen. And it's sometimes it's like watching a car wreck or something like that. You really want to stop and look because people are stressed and that's when the worst and the best comes out of people. And to me, when I show up at the crime scene, it's not procedural in my mind at all. It's about what happened to these people and what's going to happen to the survivors and things like that, the backdrop. This could be a fireman show. I could be a cowboy. I could be a lot of different things.

MARTIN: I'll play a short clip of you, if you don't mind. You're Sergeant Jesse Langford - Longford. And in this scene you're speaking to the character played by Aisha Hinds. And in this exchange you are expressing some pleasure in having to tell this big time defense attorney that his son may have been the victim of foul play. Here it is.

(Soundbite of ABC network drama "Detroit 1-8-7")

Ms. AISHA HINDS (Actor): (as Lieutenant Maureen Mason) There's our John Doe.

Mr. MCDANIEL: (as Sergeant Jesse Longford) Any relation to the defense attorney, Leon Edmundson?

Ms. HINDS: (as Lieutenant Maureen Mason) His son.

Unidentified Actor: (as character) His father is a bit of a blowhard, right?

Ms. HINDS: (as Lieutenant Maureen Mason) With a very high acquittal rate.

Mr. MCDANIEL: (as Sergeant Jesse Longford) Yeah, we bust him. He gets them off.

Ms. HINDS: (as Lieutenant Maureen Mason) That attitude - it's not going to get in the way now will it?

Mr. MCDANIEL: (as Sergeant Jesse Longford) The man just lost his son. I think I can table my feelings for a death notification.

Ms. HINDS: (as Lieutenant Maureen Mason) All right. Let's get to it.

Mr. MCDANIEL: (as Sergeant Jesse Longford) (Foreign language spoken) What God wills, I will. (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Actor: (as character) Honestly. Honestly. 24/7. I swear, 24/7.

MARTIN: Nice accent, by the way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCDANIEL: Oh, thank you. I was criticizing it when I was listening.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I saw that. Could I ask how you are, you've played many roles. Many people have seen you in "Malcolm X" and in other things. But, of course, "NYPD Blue" is a role that many people identify with you. You played Lieutenant Arthur Fancy. Any concern about taking on another I know you said this is not a detective story; it's a human story, but taking on another police role and being typecast, and what are you doing to switch it up - make it its own thing?

Mr. MCDANIEL: I don't see much of a comparison between the two characters. And then the other thing is you have to take in account, how many years ago was that? I don't know. But, you know, I've done 30 things since then, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCDANIEL: That was just, it may be something that a lot of people know me from, but it's just - that was just another character in my canon of work, you know. And, you know, don't forget, I'm always on the stage, you know, I'm doing movies, I'm doing other TV shows and stuff. It's just that was just one of the guys...

MARTIN: So you don't go off on your private time and try to arrest people? You know, it's not imprinted your consciousness or anything?

Mr. MCDANIEL: Yes, I do. And after this interview...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCDANIEL: ...you will be locked up.

MARTIN: Oh, dear.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay. Well, I'll see. But, you know, my husband is a defense lawyer so maybe I think I might, might be able to get a little help with that.

Mr. MCDANIEL: Might survive. Yeah.

MARTIN: I might be able to survive the experience, so.

So, Michael Imperioli, tell me a little bit more about the, as we said, that the message boards, people are starting really enjoy the experience of both watching you, of course, you've got your fans, and you and getting into Detroit and seeing Detroit on the big screen. Can you just give us a little bit of a hint of where you want to take the series next your character next? Give us some hints.

Mr. IMPERIOLI: Well, the show has been getting more and more into the personal lives of the detectives, which I'm really happy about, you know. I mean we do have our crimes of the week, but it's not really a procedural show. It's not just, I mean, it's not just about solving crimes and the methods used to solving crimes. And I think the more we go on, were going to see more of these characters personal lives, and that to me is golden, you know. I mean, I don't find procedural stuff, to be honest, very interesting. I think it's, I like human interaction and human drama and revelations about people's characters and relating to people that way. And I think you're going to see more of that, more of the history. I mean very little is known Fitch's backstory, but we're starting to, we're going to start to uncover more of that as we go along, and I think for the rest of the characters as well and I'm really happy about that.

MARTIN: Can I ask you a little bit about that whole question of representation in how police are portrayed in the world? As you, of course, remember, that some people were uncomfortable about "The Sopranos" because they felt gee, Italian Americans, they've had enough too.

Mr. IMPERIOLI: Right.

MARTIN: They've had enough being portrayed as monsters...

Mr. IMPERIOLI: Right.

MARTIN: ...and, you know, enough of that. Could we get a president maybe, please? Or something like that.

Mr. IMPERIOLI: Right.

MARTIN: Did you ever feel any of that when you were with the Sopranos, and do you have any...

Mr. IMPERIOLI: No, I didn't feel that.

MARTIN: ...relate, do you relate to that concern now?

Mr. IMPERIOLI: I felt it was an unfair criticism. I felt like it's a show about - it was a show about Mafia people. So if anyone had a right to complain it was the Mafia, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IMPERIOLI: It wasn't meant to represent...

MARTIN: You know, I didn't think to ask about their opinion and I'm sorry. I missed that.

Mr. IMPERIOLI: For the most part, they really liked it from what I heard. But it wasn't a show that was meant to represent the entire Italian-American experience. Nor do I think it is fair to every time you do something, to shoulder the responsibility of a whole group of people. It's a work of art. I mean it really is. It's not politics and it's not meant to be. And if some people get their feathers ruffled, I think that's okay, you know. They have a right to say whatever they want, but I think we as artists have a right to portray what we want.

As far as police, I've done a lot of research. I've played several detectives and I've done a lot of research both in New York and here in Detroit for this job, and I have a great deal of respect for what they do. I think it's an extremely difficult job and an unselfish job, and I will bring that into my portrayal. But obviously, you're going to sometimes show not so great colors to these people, and that's okay too because it's, you know, the world is not perfect.

MARTIN: Michael Imperioli plays Detective Louis Fitch in the new drama, the ABC network drama "Detroit 1-8-7," which airs on ABC on Tuesdays at 10PM Eastern Time. He was here with us at the studios of WDET in Detroit, along with James McDaniel, who plays Sergeant Jesse Longford. And they were both kind enough to take some time off from their very busy schedule of filming to join us here.

And thank you so much for speaking with us. Good luck to you both. And please don't arrest me later.

Mr. IMPERIOLI: Thank you.

Mr. MCDANIEL: Thank you for having us. No, you're under arrest.

Mr. IMPERIOLI: We'll think about it.

Mr. MCDANIEL: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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