Very few shows make it to their seventh season and even fewer manage to successfully spinoff into a new show sustaining their original premise and audience. But TNT’s hot series THE CLOSER morphed into the new series MAJOR CRIMES, taking a majority of its core cast with it. One of the lucky cast members who made the transition along with it was star Phillip P. Keene who portrays the show’s Civilian Surveillance Coordinator Buzz Watson. In an exclusive interview Phillip shared his insights into his stalwart character, as well as a few thoughts as to the secret to success of the new series.
All the promos for the upcoming season of MAJOR CRIMES look great!
PHILLIP: I think you’re going to love it. The writing for this season – I don’t know how they do it, but every year they seem to top themselves. We don’t rest on our laurels – the writers anyway. They are always trying to do better than they did before.
Having worked on both THE CLOSER and MAJOR CRIMES, does it feel any different working on the new series?
PHILLIP: No, because we have so many of the same crew. Our DP is the same, our camera operators, props, everybody in wardrobe, and all the same writers. So there is a great sense of continuity and consistency there. I think they made the transition as easy as possible.
Do you feel that they changed up the series so that the stories are accelerated in a way?
PHILLIP: I don’t know if that’s exactly what they did, but this is my point of view: before, the show was sort of a single POV [point of view]. It was called THE CLOSER for a reason because it was Brenda’s point of view and how she saw the world. So we got to see it through her eyes. And now that it’s called MAJOR CRIMES and I think we’re getting to see multiple points of view. Not that one is better than the other, it’s just a different sort of animal and everybody is getting a chance to play their instrument.
With your character’s name being Buzz Watson, do you ever feel like you’re the Watson amongst all these Sherlocks on the show?
PHILLIP: I’ve kind of thought that once in a while and the writers have been good to me, like letting Buzz maybe discover a few clues and things that are going on with the investigation when they get to a crime scene and pointing things out a little bit more than he had been in the past. So I think that plays into it a little bit. I would agree.
Have you talked with the writers about possibly expanding the role beyond just being the guy who holds the camera and monitors what everyone is doing at the crime scenes?
PHILLIP: Absolutely, I do. The only challenge in that is Buzz is not a detective. So I have to watch where my character goes. But that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have an opinion about things. So I have. I have talked with them about expanding the role and maybe finding out more about Buzz’s personal life. I know they discussed Buzz’s past family history. As we know, Buzz’s mother has a prescription for marijuana, so I think that would be kind of fun to explore. I suggested that maybe she could come into the squad room one day and light up and Buzz would tell her, “No, you can’t do that here!” And she says, “Oh, but its prescription.” I think that could be kind of funny. Then Buzz’s father disappeared when Buzz was a younger, so I’d love to explore that as well.
That might allow you to put on your Watson hat and say, “Hey, let’s find out where this missing guy may have gone off to.”
PHILLIP: (Laughs) It would! But I wouldn’t smoke the pipe because I don’t think the Standards and Practices people would like that very much. But I could certainly help out.
How do you think your role has grown from when you initially started out on THE CLOSER?
PHILLIP: When I initially started, I had only done one or two things prior, so I was green. I mean really, really green and the writers and producers were so generous to allow me to have this role, and as my confidence grew and my abilities, they expanded the role. I’ve still got a lot to learn. I’m always saying it takes a good 7-10 years for an actor to train and actually be good, and that’s not being great. So I hit that point now where I feel much more confidant, and I think you can see that on screen. If you go back to the first few years of the show, you can tell I was a little nervous and intimidated. I mean who wouldn’t be in their first job working with Kyra Sedgwick, J.K. Simmons and G.W. Bailey? Those kinds of people are seasoned veterans and know their game from front to back.
How would you describe who Buzz is now and what would you say you really like about that character?
PHILLIP: I really like how he has grown as a person and the amount of responsibilities he has been handed and how the squad has come to think of him as one of their own, and not just some civilian employee who they hand minor tasks to. He can actually speak up and voice his opinion and point things out during an investigation or as he is going through video. That he’s been actually assigned important tasks. I like that because he’s become a much more integral part of the squad.
One of the things I’ve noticed is that Buzz doesn’t say very much, but you never doubt for one second what he’s thinking, which is actually really fun.
PHILLIP: I think that’s a great observation. Buzz is a great observer, so it is a way for the audience to get into the show. Buzz is just a normal, everyday kind of guy that just happens to have a job at the police department. He carries a badge, but does not carry a gun. He is an officer of the police, and yet he’s not a police officer. So I think in some ways he might be a little bit more easy to relate to for the layman. Going back to old theater practices, he’s sort of like the Greek chorus. He’s telling a story in a way that he’s commenting on the action for everybody to listen to and watch. He almost narrates things in a way.
Do you actually get to choose where you stand in relation to the other characters when you’re holding the camera at a crime scene, or is that something that is blocked out for you?
PHILLIP: It’s a little bit of both. It depends on where the actual filming cameras are. Now there are certain things that the Director of Photography or the visiting director will ask for from that camera ‘cause we actually do use that, and our cameraman will be over my shoulder at times filming my camera’s screen to see what my POV is. As anyone who takes pictures or is an artist in any way, their perspective is going to be different than anybody else’s. You give two people the same coloring book and a set of crayons, and they are going to color that picture in a different way just because of their own experiences. So they allow me a lot of freedom to capture the images that my character would see. I think it’s interesting also in that because they rely on this during trial or exploration of evidence, so it’s important what’s on the film as is what is not being captured on the film. So that could be something to explore as well. I hope one day that Captain Raydor asks Buzz to capture something and he can say, “What about such and such?” and she’ll say, “Maybe not so much.” I think that could be interesting.
It is interesting to see who Buzz talks to at the crime scenes. I mean, Buzz is clearly taking direction from Captain Raydor, but it seems at times he gravitates towards certain people he feels comfortable working with. Do you find that is true or is that something you do naturally?
PHILLIP: The writers do a lot of that, so they have created a lot of these relationships beforehand. Initially, Buzz and Sanchez were sort of at odds because I don’t think Buzz appreciated how he handled things. He thought Sanchez was too much of a bull in a china shop. But he’s always admired Tao. They have that techie-gene in common, and may he looks up to Tao like he’s an uncle, with sage advice and a very calming effect. And Buzz loves Brenda. Very much so. Not in a romantic way, but he really did feel a great fondness for her. When Captain Raydor entered the scene, it was a little bit like the Wicked Stepmother coming in to replace “Mom.” But I think we’ve all kind of gotten over that and realized she’s not the Evil Queen with the poisoned apple.
Have you shared that imagery with Mary McDonnell? That’s a very funny way to describe her role!
PHILLIP: (Laughs) Yes, I have. As Raydor, she was kind of pushing all the rules saying, “This is how we have to do it. This is the way things are going to be.” Everybody was a little bit annoyed with her because we had a system that worked. But if you remember, in the beginning, nobody liked Brenda because she was coming in and instituting her rules, then the squad and the audience learned to love her. And now I think there is a similar situation going on with Captain Raydor. Initially in the first season of MAJOR CRIMES, they were not having it. They didn’t want her; they wanted Brenda back. There was a really poignant scene where Rusty walks into Raydor’s office and says, “Look, I don’t know you and I don’t like you, and I want to talk to Brenda.” To me, reading that script, Rusty was our entire audience, saying, “You know what? I don’t like you. I want Brenda back.” I could almost hear the audience saying, “Yes, yes!” And Raydor turns to Rusty and says, “Well, you’re standing at the end of a very long line.” So it was almost as if to say, “Either you can sit here and watch me, and you’re going to love me and get used to me; or tah-tah.” But I think everybody has grown to love her ‘cause they know she’s not an evil character. She is there to help everybody. She knows the rules and she can push them to the limits.
It felt like at the end of the first season of MAJOR CRIMES that everyone seemed to work together so flawlessly. They had assimilated as a team finally.
PHILLIP: That’s reflective of the cast as well. I don’t know if this goes on other shows because this was my first gig (though I had a few small roles like I said), but everybody has really joined forces. In the beginning there were these great experienced theater actors and as a result there’s a little “je ne sais quoi” to that working together, where you’re all synch. You seem to fly together and we’re all in it to support one another. And there’s a lot of relationships and friendships that developed over the years off screen as well. For instance, Michael Paul Chan, Raymond Cruz and myself, we get together for bike rides. We’ve built vintage Schwinn bicycles and we go through downtown and ride out to Long Beach or Anaheim. And Michael Paul Chan has taught me how to surf. So that sense of camaraderie that you see on screen exists off screen as well. All those relationships and things that we do together outside I think helps feed those characters when we’re watching them work together.
Do you have any fond memories or favorites scenes for Buzz in the first season of MAJOR CRIMES?
PHILLIP: It’s hard ‘cause they are all sort of blending together at the moment. But the relationship between Buzz and Rusty is something I really enjoy because I think it gives my character a lot more depth and there’s a lot more to play. Initially Buzz was annoyed to be saddled with babysitting Rusty, as it were. But now he’s really come to think of Rusty as a younger brother and become a mentor for him. I really like that. I love where that relationship is going.
So you’d want to see a Buzz and Rusty episode where they go off and have some kind of adventure or crime situation that they have to deal with.
PHILLIP: I think that would be great. Like if they had to use Rusty as bait and Buzz is in the surveillance van looking out for him and maybe he has to go in and save him. (Laughs) I don’t know. I think that would be fun.
I just recently found out from one of your co-stars that there is such a thing as a fly wrangler on the MAJOR CRIMES set and I had never heard of such a thing before.
PHILLIP: Oh yeah. When we’re doing dead bodies that have been decomposing for a long time, we have to have flies because we can’t do CGI. It’s way too expensive and I don’t think it looks as good. So they do. They bring these flies in and they are asleep basically because they have been almost frozen. Then they wake them up and they put them down on the bodies when they are still half-asleep and by the time the cameras are rolling, they are awake. The blood we use is a combination of corn syrup and food coloring. So of course they are going to love that and they stick around and they are flying up and down. So, yeah, there’s a fly wrangler. That’s his job. We’ve got bug wranglers, cat wranglers, dog wranglers – but the fly-guy is kind of interesting. It’s interesting to see all the different parts that have to come together for this to work. You tend to think it’s just the writing and the acting and the directing. But on our show I think there’s about 250 people that have to come together to make this whole thing work.
They make it look amazing, so obviously they are doing something right.
PHILLIP: That comes from the top in that the producers allow the heads of the departments to really run their departments. They have chosen people who are at the top of their game, who really know what they are doing, and they in turn choose really good people.
Finally, what would you like to tease about the upcoming season of MAJOR CRIMES?
PHILLIP: (Laughs) There are a lot of identity issues. That’s a little teaser. I can tell you that. Identity issues is going to be a big theme this year. So I’m going to let you stew on that for a little bit.
To see what kinds of mix-up identities and other issues arise to challenge the MAJOR CRIMES heroes, be sure to tune in for new episodes starting Monday, June 10th at 9:00 p.m. on TNT.
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