Gritty is a word generally reserved for cable, but Jennifer Lopez and Ray Liotta instead hooked up with a broadcast network, NBC, for their gritty new cop series, Shades of Blue, with the promise that it be every bit as edgy and “envelope pushing” as anything on the cable networks. Lopez is a single mom and NYPD cop who gets enlisted by the FBI’s anti-corruption task force. Liotta plays the complicated and vice-fuelled lead detective of the team. Right off the bat the chemistry between these two stars was apparent, and the level of drama matches anything the cablers are serving up these days. In a wide-ranging conversation, they explained why they signed up, and what the magic formula is to make this show stand out.
This series feels risky in its portrayal of characters who aren’t exactly model cops. The title Shades of Blue is very apt.
Lopez: Yeah, it is. Shades of Blue is a cop show, but it’s really a show about human nature. It’s about people; it’s about what they would do when put to the test on certain things, how you can be a good person and really do fucked up things. And we do all the time.
Watching your powerful chemistry on screen, it’s surprising to note this is your first time working together.
Liotta: Yeah, a lot of people say that. Everybody says it.
Lopez: It’s always a natural thing I find with actors, if you have chemistry or not. And I always say you can create some, but innately, there has to be a rapport, an easiness, a respect. I feel like we were willing to open up to each other and be those people to each other.
Liotta: Personally, I think that it starts from that; we’ve all done things where you’re supposed to like somebody and you can’t stand the person, but in this case, as soon as I met Jen, she’s so open and honest, and we both respect each other’s work, and just let it rip.
You’ve both had very successful careers in film. Now, going into network television, perhaps with the expectation of new creative restrictions, what was it about this series that made you want to take it on?
Lopez: What’s funny is, the network, when we were developing this, wanted us to push the envelope. They know what they’re competing with out there on cable.
Liotta: And [NBC chairman] Bob Greenblatt was the head of Showtime, so he’s always played that game.
Lopez: And he knows what that is—and they’re like, push, push. We wanted to bring a cable show to network TV; that was our goal, and I think we’re doing that. And even with the restrictions, you see a lot of it’s left to your imagination. You just have to lead them down the path.
Liotta: I grabbed a guy’s dick in a scene, and when we were doing the shot, I figured, well, I’ll go with the belt, or I’ll go with the hair. They say, no, they want a close-up. I said, “Get the fuck out of here. There’s no way they want a close-up.” But they asked for a close-up, and so I said, “All right.”
A lot of times with television, there’s an expectation of where a series is going to be five years down the line. Ray, I read somewhere that you were initially just looking for a 13-week gig.
Liotta: I’m 61, so when I first started out, if you were doing a television show, it was the end of your career, and then things just changed about 10 years ago. They were casting people who were doing these 13-episode shows. I was happy with what I was doing, but you just want more as an actor. I just wanted to keep working with the best people, the best scripts, and that seemed to be the way it was going. Either you fight it and you just say, “Oh, I’m never going to do TV,”—and then you just sit home—or you play the game to beat them at the game. And this had the ingredients to do it.
Jennifer, were you always going to star in the series when you were developing it?
Lopez: No, no. Elaine [Goldsmith-Thomas] brought it to me for us to produce together. When we went into NBC and pitched it, they loved the whole idea, and they were like, “You’re not playing this role?” Bob Greenblatt said to me, “You play this role, we’ll do it right now.” This is an amazing role, and it really made me think, okay, this is something that I want to happen.
How do you balance your work on the series with your other commitments, including your Las Vegas show?
Lopez: While I was shooting Shades, I was doing American Idol on the weekends. But we were also planning my Vegas show at that time. Then I went home and rehearsed for five weeks, and then we were live on the show. So it was a challenging year. It was a lot of work for me, but I just tried to stay focused when I was on set.
Liotta: Yeah. You’d never know that she was doing two other things.
Lopez: I just tried to be grateful for the fact that, at this point in my career, I have this much going on. But the truth is the quality of the work, of the writing, of the actors, of Barry [Levinson], of the producers, of the writers room—I felt like, this is my best work, you know? This was how I started my career. This is who I am. I always saw myself as an actress who danced and sang and had those talents as well, and I made my records later in my career. I didn’t make my first record until I was almost 30. So the acting was always the first thing. That was where people got to know me.
You had police officers as consultants on the show. What research was involved for you both in crafting these characters?
Lopez: I’ve played about 10 cops in my career.
It’s a fairly dicey portrayal of police officers.
Liotta: I’ve played so many cops that were bad, and the first people coming up to me would be cops. They know it’s make believe. They’re not offended. They know it’s entertainment; we’re not indicting them in particular.