Brett Cullen explains what drew him to the ‘what if’ of Big Dogs

Brett Cullen in Big Dogs. Image Courtesy Choice Films
Brett Cullen in Big Dogs. Image Courtesy Choice Films /

Brett Cullen discusses his new crime drama Big Dogs.

Big Dogs puts Brett Cullen in some familiar territory. The new series, streaming on Amazon Video, is the latest TV crime drama on Cullen’s impressive resume.

The actor, who’s well known to genre fans for his performances in everything from Criminal Minds to Narcos, portrays Captain McKeutchen in Big Dogs. Though McKeutchen is the boss of Santiago and More (Manny Perez and Michael Rabe), in a dystopian future, he doesn’t have as much power as he should.

Precinct TV connected with Brett to discuss what intrigued him about the series and how he was able to develop his character. Learn more about Big Dogs in our interview, then stream the full first season on Amazon Video now or visit the show’s official website.

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Precinct TV: How did you first become involved with Big Dogs, and what made you want to play McKeutchen?

Brett Cullen: Summer [Crockett Moore] and Tony [Glazer], the producers, called and asked me what I was doing and if I’d be interested…I said send me the script, which I read after I had a call with them and the director and the other producers, Adam [Dunn] and Alan [Neigher].

They asked me in the interview, have you done Shakespeare? I said yeah, I’ve done a lot of Shakespeare, why? And then I read the script and I understood why—because I have monologues that just go on forever.

But what I found interesting about the script itself was…to me, it was a what if scenario. 2008 was the [economic] bailout. If that hadn’t happened, what would the world look like? That was intriguing to me. So now living where we’re at, you kind of see there’s something real about the show, and a comparison [between] the world we’re living in now to the world that the characters live in.

PTV: Supervisor roles such as this can often be thinly developed in many TV crime dramas. How did you approach Big Dogs so that your character was fleshed out?

BC: I think far more complicated than most police shows. For instance DiBiasi, [played by] Jeff Kober, and me both being captains in different units. That is a little different because we’re in more turmoil than a normal police captain would be in.

What inspired me was that when I showed up in New York and I sat down and I said, I need to speak to Adam, the writer of the source material. I said, I need to know one thing from you, which is kind of key to me…I need to know what this guy’s soul is. What is the one thing in his heart that matters more than anything in the world? And he said, well, it’s his son and his son’s dead and all he has now is the police department.

I took that on and Manny’s character, Santiago, I think [he’s] sort of a symbol to him of his son and what his son had have done had he lived and not been killed in the Gulf War. To me, that was the central theme. Everything I did, everything I felt, everything I explored in the character was based off of that emotional connection.

PTV: For you personally, you’ve played just about every part you could play in a TV crime drama from cops to agents to suspects. How much does your experience inform a role like Big Dogs? is it easier to play the boss when you’ve also portrayed the guy on the other side of the desk?

BC: It is from my perspective. It’s helpful that I’ve been on the other side of this character’s emotional life; how he deals with his policemen is important to me. But the thing that was unique about [Big Dogs] was, he’s in charge but yet he’s not, because of the scenario that they’ve created in the show.

They had to find someone to support them so that they could continue to police the city. That to me was different than normal. He has bosses. But he also has an owner, as it were, who calls the shots. So it’s an interesting dichotomy to be the boss of these guys, when he knows he’s really not in charge. He says in episode eight, “More’s in charge. This is his deal, not mine. I’m just a name on a door.”

It’s complicated. That’s one of the reasons why I embraced it so wholly and deeply was because of the complexity of the characters, the complexity of the situation. That’s what drew me to the piece itself.

PTV: All of the characters exist in this very grey area.

BC: We have a lot of really great actors in there, but you don’t really know who is bad and who is good, or whether they all are, or whether that’s just life.

You get in scenarios where you don’t know if you’ve made the right choice and if the right choice hurts somebody else. And that’s what this show is about. It’s like where do you draw the line? In his mind, it’s his family, which is these men. And you have the bad boy and you have the sweet, innocent, dedicated cop, and then you got the jaded military man. These are the guys he’s having to deal with.

It’s like a dad where you have a bunch of children and you’re trying to somehow raise them correctly or teach them correctly, which is what I think McKeutchen’s job is, is to keep them in line and to try and teach them the value of being a police officer, the value of protecting the city and the value of being true to yourself.

PTV: Did you have favorite moments from Big Dogs that you’re particularly excited for TV crime drama viewers to see?

BC: Three really powerful scenes in my mind. The opening monologue is really interesting, from an acting standpoint, and also just because it is a lot of information about how the Roman Empire ended and the parallel of the New York Police Department as that last garrison protecting the people of New York. That’s really great.

My most satisfying scene was the one in the police department, where he chews them out after the big shootout happened in the club, where he talks about his job. You’re hired to do a job. And you do a job. And it goes on so many levels from anger to pain. I call it the Knute Rockne speech. He’s trying to get them to understand that it’s a job and you have to do it. And if you don’t, you got to get out of here because you’re not in the right room. I think it’s like six minutes long. Hardly anyone else speaks; I think there’s like four or five other lines thrown in here and there.

But it’s a pretty powerful scene, not just from my perspective but from everyone’s. And what was great was that every one of the people, all the extras and stuff, they were so respectful of the work. You don’t see that a lot when you’re doing a show. These people were in it. They were in the moment in the scene. When I was berating them, they felt it. You could see it on their faces. That was great to have experienced.

PTV: So what did you take away from Big Dogs, as an actor or personally? Is there something that’s going to stick with you?

BC: Jeff Kober, who plays DiBiasi, is an old, old friend of mine. His first film he did with my wife, and that’s when I met him. I’ve known him for years. Our relationship is a little like it is on the series, where we’re sarcastic and funny but there’s a lot of love there and respect. [We have] a scene in the last episode at the high school gym. That to me is the key to my character, the key to who McKeutchen is and what he feels and how he sees the world they live in. I really don’t talk about it much, because it’s really emotional to me, but I think it’s really powerful.

To be able to be given the opportunity to explore through pain, through love, through just truth is always an honor as an artist. Tony and Adam and the producers have put together something that I think is quite special. I think it’s going to grow. I hope to be back at some point…because I’d love to go back and explore this character some more.

More on Big Dogs with star Michael Rabe. dark. Next

The complete first season of Big Dogs is streaming now on Amazon Video.