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After an untimely cancellation, the critically acclaimed Southland got a new life on a new network. Star Ben McKenzie talks about the show’s best season yet and the upsides of playing a police officer on TV.

 

When NBC canceled Southland in 2009 to make room for its (short-lived) prime-time Jay Leno experiment, the backlash was immediate. But Ben McKenzie, who plays LAPD rookie Ben Sherman on the gritty cop drama that debuted its third season earlier this month, let his Halloween costume do the talking for him.

“I found a Jay Leno mask, which wasn’t a perfect likeness, but they got the chin right,” he says. “When people didn’t think I was Richard Nixon, they got the joke.”

Luckily, the Southland saga ended happily when it was picked up by TNT. “There was always tension between the show we wanted to make and the show NBC was comfortable airing,” says McKenzie, 32. “Being on cable really frees us up to go for broke.” While the show’s storylines are often harrowing, the mood behind the scenes is anything but. McKenzie even admits to filming one driving scene, when actors are only shown from the waist up, sans pants. “I didn’t plan it very well,” the former O.C. star remembers. “The boxers I was wearing were bright red, and I have pale, pale legs. It was pretty striking.”

Despite the on-set antics, the cast is serious about getting the details of police work right. They go through intense training and use members of the LAPD as extras, who are happy to speak up if something’s amiss. “Yeah, the feedback loop’s pretty tight,” McKenzie laughs. “They are not shy about it.”

But McKenzie says it’s been fun to hear from people who aren’t typically fans of his work — people like the security guards at the theater where he performed in The Glass Menagerie last fall. “I don’t think they’ve seen The Glass Menagerie — I don’t think they have all that much interest in it,” he jokes. “But they’re big fans of Southland.”

Though McKenzie describes his off-camera life as “pretty quiet” — he likes to read, watch college football and hike with his dog — he admits that his affiliation with the show could come in handy should he ever find himself on the wrong side of the law. “Thankfully, I haven’t needed it,” he says. “But I’ve certainly kept a lot of business cards should a situation arise. They’re my get-out-of-jail-free cards — literally.”