Ahead of the May 11 series premiere of Common Law, starring Michael Ealy and Warren Cole, actress Sonya Walger and executive producer Karim Zreik talked about working on the USA Network set in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Back in December of last year, The Deadbolt was invited to the set of the upcoming USA Network series Common Law in New Orleans, Louisiana. Although the action, comedy and buddy cop drama within Common Law is set in Los Angeles, New Orleans beautifully doubles as the City of Angels. In Common Law, actors Michael Ealy and Warren Cole play detectives Travis Marks and Wes Mitchell who are forced into couples therapy by their Captain, played by acting veteran, Jack McGee. Once in therapy, after their differences get in the way of their police work, Marks and Mitchell are required to work out their issues with therapist, Dr. Emma Ryan, played by former Lost actress, Sonya Walger.
Executive produced by Jon Turteltaub (National Treasure, Jericho) and Karim Zreik (Harper’s Island, Jericho), Common Law was written by the husband and wife screenwriting team of Marianne Wibberley and Cormac Wibberley (aka The Wibberley’s) who wrote Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, Bad Boys II and also worked with Turteltaub on National Treasure. To say the least, Common Law comes to USA Network with a creative production team with a proven track record of success in both film and television.
After touching down in New Orleans back in early December, it didn’t take long to kick off the Common Law experience. Pressed for time, it was into a taxi and off to the hotel where I only had minutes for a quick shower, a change from plane soiled clothes to warm weather digs before meeting a few reporters in the lobby. It was late afternoon, sunny and mild, and the New Orleans air smelled like a custom recipe of gumbo, barbeque and swampy creole cuisine with a hint of bourbon.
The first night of our Common Law set visit was a casual after-dinner sit-down at Le Foret restaurant in New Orleans with actress Sonya Walger (Dr. Ryan) and executive producer Karim Zreik. Although Walger was on her way back to L.A. that evening, Sonya took a seat at the head of the table to speak with reporters about her time on the Common Law set and playing therapist to two cops. During the two-hour chat, Walger and Zreik talked about everything from the characters in Common Law and working with both Michael Ealy and Warren Cole to the tone of therapy sessions with the two male leads, and what it was like to watch real couples therapy in action prior to the start of production on the USA Network series.
Afterward, however, I managed to steal Karim Zreik for a few minutes to explore the therapy from a different angle since the concept was so different. A few minutes earlier, during out time with both Zreik and Walger, I couldn’t shake memories of the last time I saw such a unique therapy concept. “Who’s the Metallica fan?”, I asked Zreik, who looked at me as if I was some kind of fortune teller from Bourbon Street. “I am, ” he replied. “How did you know?” Although Common Law was not inspired by anything from the 2004 documentary, Some Kind of Monster, in which the band mates of Metallica went to therapy to resolve their issues, the concept of Common Law therapy with two cops reminded me of a unique and unorthodox approach to people working together. Usually couples therapy is for … well, couples rather than cops.
As you’ll find out from our Common Law time with Sonya Walger and Karim Zreik, the therapy angle works on many levels of comedy and drama.
How much research did you do into psychotherapy and couples therapy?
SONYA WALGER: I did a fair amount. I’ve never had any experience in group therapy and it’s very different to couples or individual therapy. So I got hold of a group therapist and they went into it for a few hours and he recommended some books that I and read. But he also came up with this genius idea.
He said at the end of this two hour session that we had together, “I’d really love it if you could watch us at therapy session, but you can’t because it would compromise anonymity. But if you want to bring eight actors together, I’ll do an improvised session for you. So I went and pitched that to that to the creators of the show, who all agreed this would be a great idea. So a few weeks ago we went, I got a hold of eight actors.
From their house or just from here?
WALGER: No, I did it back in L.A.. We went to Manhattan Beach Studios and we got actors and the entire writers team. So we had the inner circle of the actors pretending to be in group with the therapist and then this outer circle of all the writers observing. We did three hours of fake group therapy. It was intense. Very intense.
KARIM ZREIK: It was super helpful to me to actually watch a group therapist in action and see how much they listen and how much they intervene, how much they sit back and how the situations evolve. I think it was really helpful to the writers to see how the dynamics work in a group because how you think they work is not actually how they really operate.
Your character sort of interjects quite a bit and has a sense of humor and a sarcastic edge. Do you think she’ll ever maybe help the guys on a case? Do you think she’ll leave her little office?
WALGER: Yeah, I do leave the office in an episode. I’m not sure where it’s going to fall in the actual order.
ZREIK: I think it’s the next one. Next one up.
WALGER: I say to the boys that I can’t help them and they say observe them in their session. Usually, with a couple, then I would go to their home and observe them in their home situation. And since their home is their work then I go and ride along in the episode. So I’m in the back of the cop car for the entire episode watching them. It was great. It was hilarious.
It was hot as hell in the back of a cop car. At one point, I was like this is no fun anymore. I wanted to get out because you are in the back of a cop car that you can’t get out of. But it was great and really, really fun just to get out of the community center and actually be with them in their world. It was fun.
Does it feel like a change of pace? Was it fun to do something so different?
WALGER: I’ve done such a lot of heavy and not so heavy. What’s fun is to be the therapist. I’ve done two therapy shows, I’m always on the other side of the couch. It’s really fun to be the one that doesn’t have the problem. It’s really fun to not be the one with the problem.
It’s fun as an actor just to get to listen honestly. You usually are so busy driving the scene and having all these heavy emotions and sobbing down phones and talking about tears in the space time continuum. It’s so fun just to sit there and be like, “Oh, you’ve got the issue. You talk about it.” It’s a real pleasure. It’s a real relief to have that actually.
Michael is known for his dramatic side but you see a much lighter side to him. I thought he was hilarious.
WALGER: Actually, this is the third time Michael and I have worked together. We did Sleeper Cell and we did Flash Forward together, so he’s an old friend. He was part of the draw, I’ve got to say.
ZREIK: He called you.
WALGER: He did.
ZREIK: I was having dinner with Michael, and he said, “who are you guys trying to get?” I told him Sonya. He said, “Sonya? That’s my girl.” I said, “call her, please!” And he called you.
WALGER: He called, and here I am. It’s just fun to work with Michael again. He’s such a dedicated actor. He takes his work so seriously. And when we first met on Sleeper Cell, he was always serious. He’d done ton of research and he was very involved and amassed in that. So it’s really fun to see him be liberated and playful and having such a good time with work. He’s also fantastic.
Was there chemistry like that right from the beginning between the two of them?
WALGER: From what I’ve seen, yeah. They’re like puppies. But then, actually, that’s not fair. I feel a little bit like …
ZREIK: Oh no, they play.
WALGER: They just won’t leave each other alone. They really don’t. It’s so great because the improv that happens, there’s a ton of it. Most that you’re not even seeing. It’s really funny.
Do you get to do that?
WALGER: I don’t tend to. I have in the past and I’m happy doing it, but it’s not my role in this. My role is much more to observe and keep it. And also, why compete? They’re really good at it. I’m just going to let them run with that.
What’s it been like filming in New Orleans? I know they’re trying to make it look like Los Angeles.
WALGER: I couldn’t have loved it more. I’ve never been here before and I just adore it. Adore it! The fun of doing that ride along episode was not just to do it, but actually getting to stay here for an extended period of time. I usually fly in and out and shoot my therapy scenes and come back to L.A.. So to actually get to be here for ten days and hang out and try different spots and wander around the Garden District and the French Quarter, it’s the people who really have sold me. I cannot get over the warmth of everyone here. It’s really something.
Are we going to see more of a personal side to your character?
WALGER: I don’t know. There’s talk and there are ideas. We’ll see what comes. The show is very much about the boys and their dynamic. So, we’ll see.
How does Dr. Ryan bring out the inner therapist in you?
WALGER: I like digging in. I like talking about feelings. I like talking about things that are actually really going on. I’m much more comfortable with that and talking about that than I am talking about haircuts or something.
Have you learned anything from her?
WALGER: I’ve learned a lot from researching groups and how groups work. We replicate in a group the dynamic that we have in our world that we often bring into group who we are with our brothers and sisters, or who we are with our parents. So the research side of it, I’ve loved. I found it really, really fascinating. In terms of learning directly from her, no, I learned from the boys.
Is there any history between your character and the captain’s character and do you get into that at all?
WALGER: Yeah, we do get into that a little bit in a way that’s really fun. I mean, Jack [McGee], he’s not called Jack is he?
ZREIK: Captain Sutton.
WALGER: Captain Sutton. Captain Sutton and his wife have hit a road bump in their marriage, which is why they come to me. I help them in quite a profound way, hence him being so touchy feely in his meditation tapes and all of that. So he now swears by me, which is why he sends me the boys to fix them. We’ve just shot an episode where he actually comes back and we have a lovely scene together and we talk about other stuff. There’s a nice history that he and I have.
Was there an adjustment fitting into that sort of style?
WALGER: For me, not really. As an actor, I don’t look at who the network is and what style they have. I’ll just come into a role and I don’t care if it’s ABC or HBO or USA, the role is the role and I fill it to the best of my ability. If it matches what they are after then presumably that’s why they cast me. If I’m bringing something other than what they want then I don’t get the job.
Can you tell us what you first thought when you read the script?
WALGER: My first thought was, as any actor will confess, if he’s honest enough, it’s always about your role. You rarely read the script and think, “oh, interesting script.” You read it and you go, “oh, nice scenes.” That’s what I read, interesting therapy scenes. If the work I’ve done over the years has got any common thread, it is that I really like doing stuff that is essentially about relationships. I really like playing the truth of how people talk and speak and miss each other and hurt and all of that.
I have not played a cop probably for that reason because I’m not terribly good at that stuff. I’m much better at the emotional side of things. So I read the script and just loved, loved the absurdity and brilliance of these two being sent to couples therapy. It felt, like I say, both preposterous and wonderful and appropriate and this huge comedy goldmine hasn’t been tapped before. So that was how I read it. I read it as a therapy show. Nobody else. Everyone else knows it’s a cop show.
Is it always that light therapy or was the first session dark?
WALGER: No, it is light. Definitely. Certainly, as the season progresses, it goes to the heart. They get skewered by me, by other people in group, by each other obviously. I think it does this great job of turning this fine line between nailing them on their stuff and then sending it up in this lovely light – light way. The fact of it being group is great because it stops it from becoming in treatment, that’s not the point of the show. You learn as many lessons laughing as you do in bloody tears. So I think it does that really well.
Are we going to see more about how they got into therapy in the first place?
ZREIK: There’s a big incident as to why they’re here and we’ll slowly play that out as we get into it. We started episode 106. It’s called “The Ex Factor.” It’s when Travis’ former partner shows up and he’s now Beverly Hills PD and he comes in with his, what we call the Travis 2.0. So it’s the new Travis. Now Travis’ old partner and his partner have to work with Travis and Wes on a case. And it’s the dynamics of having to work with your ex, boyfriend, girlfriend, whatever it is.
So everybody starts analyzing them and trying to figure out why is it so weird between the two of you, you guys should figure out your problems. It’s cute. It’s part of the show that the producers want to explore, how men communicate with each other because it’s such a different dynamic than women. These two men have been working together for seven years, have their own way of talking to each other and communicating. And when things go wrong, how do men handle it? Do men talk it out or do they shut down? It’s just something that we wanted to explore from the beginning. I think we will as the episodes go on.
Will it be addressed in therapy, the difference between how men and women communicate versus how men and men communicate?
ZREIK: Absolutely. I think one of the funny parts in therapy is they’re the only two men, straight men, in this group. As the season goes on, Dr. Ryan explains to them, you guys are like a married couple and you’re going to have married couple issues. And you guys, whether you know it or not, have hit the seven year itch, it’s natural and you’re going to hate each other and you’re going to figure it out and you’re going to talk. You’re going to talk through it with one another.
So Dr. Ryan does that for them. I don’t think they like to hear that because they’re we’re not married. They fight it. We’re not married. But the more she explains to them, yes, you are, you’re going through married couple stuff like an ex coming back into your life, or having financial problems, all that stuff we explore in the first season.
What inspired that in the first place?
ZREIK: It’s a great story. I have one third of Junction Entertainment and that consists of Jon Turteltaub, Dan Shotz aand myself. Every year, every development season, we sit around and we try to figure out shows and what writers want from laughter and what topics we want to explore. About two years ago, we sat around and we were hitting a wall. I was throwing out ideas, they were shooting them down, they were throwing out ideas, I was shooting them down, and at one point I was like I hate you guys.
The back story is, we’ve been working together for 13 years, the three of us, and I’m like, “I love you guys so much, but I cannot deal with you.” And someone said, “well, what if we all went to therapy and talked it out?” Ding! Buddy cop show, guys get sent to therapy, and see the dynamic of how that would work out.
We pitched it to CBS, which we were under and overall deal with CBS studios, and they bought it right away. We called the Wibberly’s who we had done work with on National Treasure, which was our feature under Junction. I mean, you pitch them a logline and they flip for it, because they are a married couple working together. They get these feelings every day, like I hate you, I hate you. But you can’t go anywhere because you’re in the same house.
So they took to it right away and created these characters that Wes, Travis, Dr. Ryan, Captain Sutton and brought it to life. We had it at CBS for a year, we developed it there for a year, and the direction they were taking the show in was just a little different. It was more procedural. It was sort of losing the the character stuff. Thankfully, they gave it back to us after passing on it for a year. We were at the same studio, CBS studio, and literally the next day we sold it to USA.
This feels like such a USA show. Was that the tone already?
ZREIK: No, this is USA. This is all USA. No, this is the stuff we wanted to do from the beginning, which was taken out of the CBS script. The CBS script was more let’s look under the microscope, whose blood is this. So we were happy that it landed at USA.
When you were developing this series did you talk to anyone on the cop stuff?
ZREIK: No, we had advisors on set. But there’s not a lot of cop stuff. It’s more character. All the cop stuff, there’s some element there, but it’s more character between the guys. And I think that’s the way we want to keep it.
The guys are going into therapy. Is it going to fix them? Are they going to get better?
ZREIK: It’s a good question. I don’t know if you ever get better. From the people we’ve talked to, people still go to therapy. Things are fine, they just go to therapy. They have to check in and do their thing. But one of the important notes is they didn’t volunteer for therapy, they got sent to therapy. It’s part of the job requirement. I mean the psychology is that if you don’t go to therapy you’ll lose your job. But there may be a 10% chance in there that they’re kind of liking therapy and it’s helping a little bit. And the opportunity to see Dr. Ryan and get her advice helps.
WALGER: There comes a point in, certainly as far as we’ve gone, that they’re showing up to therapy because they want to be there. They’re like first in the room. I’m barely in the door and they’re like, “okay, we have an issue,” and I become suddenly the arbitrator. I suddenly become the judge and jury in their battles.
Is there any kind of mandate about how long they have to be in therapy?
ZREIK: No, it’s literally until you get better. Until you show signs of getting better.
WALGER: My feeling is that the guys really do quite quickly stop resisting it. It wasn’t because that’s a boring note to play over and over and over just as actors and then as writers you play that scene, it gets more interesting because they actually start becoming invested in the group and in other people’s reactions.
In what’s very common in the group I observed is winning allies within the group. So it becomes imperative that you get the guys on board to your side. And then they get freaked out, suddenly the realize they’ve actually got all the women on board and not the guys. What’s that say about them?
Can you talk about your character saying you don’t have to like the same things, but you do have to hate the same things? Do you agree with that?
WALGER: That’s a good question. I would disagree. Just thinking of my marriage, I know it helps that we like the same things. It’s a given that we hate the same things, but we hate different stuff, too. I feel like it helps to like the same stuff.
There are a couple of references as to how well they used to get along. Are we ever going to get a peek at the past? Not necessarily visually, but someone talking about it?
ZREIK: I think you’ll see a piece of that in every episode the way they solve crimes. When they have to figure something out, they work well together. It’s the other stuff. It’s the personal stuff. Travis eats like a pig and makes a mess everywhere and he makes a mess in Wes’ car which drives him bonkers. It’s that stuff that they can’t figure out. But the Captain will not split them up because when they’re working on cases, they’re brilliant. They work off of each other. You’ll see that, but then you’ll also see the mess.
WALGER: You also see, which is really sweet and it’s very lightly peppered in the episode we’re shooting now, that actually when the chips are really, really down, if someone else comes in and dares to knock the other one, they will leap to that one’s defense. Not if that one is in the room, but if that one is missing then it is a really lovely moment where Wes turns around to one of the cops and goes, “I can say that stuff, but you don’t get to.” He absolutely shoots him down. So there’s a real loyalty there.
Will you see them progress as individuals at all?
ZREIK: There’s a great episode coming up, it’s called, uh, “Role Models,” where Dr. Ryan suggests that in order to better understand your partner, start acting like each other. So they start acting like each other. Oh my, God.
Who is most likely to make you laugh during a scene?
WALGER: I’m not even being diplomatic when I say it could be either one of them. It really could. Michael and I go so far back that he can just look at me in a moment and I’m like, “oh, here goes.” Then Warren will do some bit, or he’ll suddenly do an Irish jig or pushups or something in the corner, he’s just endless energy. I’ve never known anyone with the energy of Warren Kole. They both, for different reasons, are likely to ambush me in the middle of a scene. It takes a lot to make me go there. It takes a lot.
Why did you guys choose New Orleans to film the show?
ZREIK: Good question. First of all, financially it sort of helped us with the type of show we wanted to do. Also, something about doubling L.A. for New Orleans felt that it was easy to do. Just walking through downtown you can see that with the buildings and the skyrises. That would be fun. The streets are easy, neighbors, it’s all access here. And something about just giving back to New Orleans helped as well. This city has bounced back. There are five movie coming to shoot, one of them being Quentin Tarantino’s movie. Russell Crowe is here and Mark Wahlberg is here now.
It’s a thriving city. I keep telling everybody that this city has bounced back like I’ve never seen a city bounce back. The money and the business coming in here, especially in film, is booming. It’s amazing. It’s amazing to be a part of it. The people, the hospitality, amazing. Southern hospitality, it’s no lie.
Why should we watch the show? What do you think is the biggest selling point?
WALGER: I think it’s really, really entertaining and I don’t think there’s anything on TV like it. I don’t know there’s a show out there where you’ve got two guys who have to work together and have to go talk about why don’t get along. I think it’s really fun to watch men struggle to be articulate. I think it’s fun to watch them have to have to talk about their feelings. It’s fun to watch them be answerable to a woman who I hope is not the ball-buster but is there holding them accountable in a way that they can’t wiggle out of. And as cops, you shouldn’t be able to flash that badge and get out of every situation. Here’s a situation where the badge doesn’t count for anything.