A chat with Skeet Ulrich, Skeet Ulrich interview, Law & Orer: Los Angeles
Skeet Ulrich

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Being a lifetime resident of the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, I don’t generally get that many chances to secure interviews by playing the hometown card. When such an opportunity presents itself, however, you can bet that I jump on it.

As soon as I heard that Skeet Ulrich had been cast as one of the leads in NBC’s latest addition to the “Law & Order” franchise – “Law & Order: Los Angeles” – I immediately remembered our previous conversation and the brief moment of bonding we shared over our connection to Chesapeake, VA: I’ve lived there virtually my entire life, and while Ulrich himself is more of a North Carolina boy, his uncle is NASCAR legend Ricky Rudd, and many of Ulrich’s cousins attended the same high school that I did. I quickly dropped a line to Ulrich’s publicist, mentioned the Chesapeake connection, and asked if there was any way I’d be able to secure a few minutes one on one with him at the NBC all-star party during the TCA Tour. She wrote back almost immediately, assuring me that she had let Skeet know that I’d be there and that he’d be looking for me.

Not long after the party began, I spotted Ulrich sitting by a fountain, indulging in a bit of fried chicken from the not-insubstantial buffet. I wasn’t going to interrupt his meal, but once I saw someone else do it, I decided, “Okay, well, I can at least make my presence known, I guess.”

I walked over, introduced myself, and told him that I’d swing back by after he’d had a chance to finish his dinner. He immediately shook his head and patted the spot next to him. “Absolutely not,” he said. “You’re from Virginia. You know the importance of fried chicken. Just hang out. I’ll be done in just a second.”

And so he was.

Bullz-Eye: So how long has been since you actually lived in Virginia?

Skeet Ulrich: I’ve been back here since “Miracles,” in…2002, I guess. Late 2002. I left Madison County. Do you know Madison?

BE: Yeah, I’ve been up that way.

SU: I miss it. A lot. I go back to North Carolina a lot, because most of my family’s there. Ricky’s there. But I do still have family in Great Bridge and that area.

BE: My parents still live in Great Bridge.

"Man, having a job is the greatest thing in the world. The tough part is trying to get a job. The auditioning and all that crap is brutal."

SU: Oh, do they? Yeah, I see them less…but in case any of them are reading this, hello, family! (Laughs) But I miss it, though. You can’t take it away. It’s in your blood, you know? My kids were, fortunately, born in Virginia, and they feel the same way. Yeah, I love all parts of Virginia, but Smith Mountain Lake in particular. What a beautiful, beautiful spot.

BE: I can still remember how weird it was to talk to you last time and, when I mentioned being from Chesapeake, you immediately cited the name of my high school!

SU: (Laughs) Hey, it sticks with you. My family…you know, Al Rudd Auto Parts, which is out in Suffolk, has been there forever. My grandfather has since passed away, but his family…I mean, you’re talking generations of Virginians, and I’m very proud to be from there. As most Virginians are. (Laughs) I talked to (Robert) Duvall a few months ago. And, you know, Scott Cooper, who directed “Crazy Heart,” is a Virginian. I knew his family very well, because he came through NASCAR as well. His family are the McClures, who owned the #4 car forever. Last season and this season are the first seasons they haven’t been in the sport in forever.

BE: I actually went to my first NASCAR race as an adult a few months ago, the Coke Zero 400.

SU: Yeah! That was a good one! But by the way you phrased that, you must’ve gone to some when you were little.

BE: Yeah, my dad took me to see one in Richmond.

SU: Back when it was a half-mile, right?

BE: I believe so. And I went to school in Danville, so I was right down the road from Martinsville. Basically, I’ve been around racing most of my life, whether I was following it or not.

SU: Yeah, I was going to say that it doesn’t sound like you’ve really followed racing recently, but Ricky won Martinsville in ’97. I remember the day because it was my first summer in my farmhouse in Madison, and it must’ve been 103 degrees that day, and his cool suit went out early in the race. He won the race…and then he passed out on Victory Lane. (Laughs) But, hey, that was part of the Iron Man status that he earned!

BE: So how did “Law & Order: Los Angeles” come about? Were you actively looking for a new gig?

SU: Very briefly, yeah. (Laughs) Basically, the pilot we did with John Wells wasn’t picked up by CBS…

BE: Was that “Back”?

Skeet UlrichSU: No, that was the year before. This was Sissy Spacek and I, Amy Smart, Michael Beach, and Rachelle Lefevre…who just left, actually. Just an unbelievable cast. John Wells was behind it, like I said, and it was a medical show about…I don’t know if you know the group RAM, Rural Area Medical, but it was essentially about them. But it didn’t go. I found that out on a Wednesday, and on Friday, I get the word, “Dick Wolf wants to meet with you.” So it happened quick, and it was an extraordinary change. I mean, your career is a rollercoaster in and of itself, but within those two days, it was the most extreme rollercoaster I’ve ever ridden.

BE: During the panel, you mentioned that you aren’t really even that familiar with the franchise.

SU: That’s right. I mean, I’m aware of it, of course, but aside from one episode that I watched for Vince (D’Onofrio), I really haven’t seen any. So I certainly won’t be derivative. (Laughs)

BE: Are you going to try watching any episodes to get a feel for it?

SU: I don’t think I need to, really. The writing…I mean, it’s so well done. The rhythms are there, the characters are there. I don’t know what watching it would give me that’s any different than what I feel for it innately. I could be way off, but that may be what makes it unique and different and my own. So, no, I’m not compelled to go back and look at it. Maybe down the line, after we get a few episodes under our belt or something, and I know exactly what it is I’m doing. I mean, a lot is going to be determined when we start rolling. You can do whatever you want in terms of prep…and I’ve done a lot of research: I’ve followed homicide groups and I’ve seen homicides…but it’s dictated by the chemistry in front of the camera, and characters are revealed in the moment. You can say whatever you want – he’s this, he’s that, he’s from this, he’s from that – but it doesn’t exist unless A) it’s spoken about or B) it’s in the physical portrayal. So I don’t know that it would really help me. I don’t necessarily think it would hurt me to go watch it, but I don’t really get to watch much TV, anyway, so… (Trails off)

BE: It’s pretty amazing that you’ve got Alfred Molina and Terrence Howard as part of your cast.

SU: Yeah, that’s incredible. I’ve been fortunate in TV to wind up with really amazing actors with me, and, man, it makes the experience so great and really film-like. Those two guys are unbelievable. I mean, they’re incredibly talented individuals, and it just ups the prestige of the show right away. We’re extremely lucky to have them.

BE: So, now, help me with the timeline: I know you’ve done these pilots, but when “Jericho” ended, did you try to jump into another TV project immediately, or did you take a bit of a break before getting back in the game?

"I think there could’ve been different things CBS did differently (with 'Jericho'). Marketing it differently, certainly. I’ll never understand marketers. They live in these buildings and have no idea what they’re talking about half the time, and it’s very frustrating that they get as much say as they do in what we do. It’s definitely a sore point of TV. You don’t have marketers on film sets telling you how stuff should go. I think they need to mind their own business, quite honestly."

SU: Well, I did “Armored” right after, and then...well, no, I wasn’t really looking to take a break. I guess I’m picky in some ways. There was some stuff offered to me that just didn’t feel right, and there was some stuff that I auditioned for that I wish I could’ve gotten but didn’t get. You know, it’s a very competitive field at the moment, just like it is in every industry in America. The economy has affected our industry as well. I guess that’s part of why we get a guy like Terrence Howard. I don’t know whether he could get whatever he wants right now or not, and he’s obviously interested in the piece, but, you know, it’s a tough, competitive field right now. I was looking to work, obviously, but I love my time with my kids, and as long as I’m wise with my money and save, then I don’t have to take jobs just to work. But I did the pilot with Mark Pellington (“Back”) that CBS called back that was very unique and, in hindsight, there was no way it could ever become a television show. It was just too dark and too emotional, I think, for network television. It would’ve been a great cable show, though. And then I pursued some things that didn’t come through, and I was attached to some things that ended up losing their financing. I did a little bit of the “CSI: New York” thing for that arc, and then I had the other pilot that didn’t end up going, and…well, now I’m here! (Laughs) Man, having a job is the greatest thing in the world. The tough part is trying to get a job. The auditioning and all that crap is brutal. It’s brutal.

BE: Well, I’m sure you know that I’ve got to ask you a couple of questions about some of your other series. Were you happy with the way that “Jericho” wrapped up?

SU: No. I mean, they expedited it. I would’ve been happy if it didn’t end. That was such a great experience. I mean, I can tell you right now that my phone is full of texts from Michael Gaston, Kenny Mitchell, Alicia Coppola, Lennie (James)…we all stay in touch.

BE: Your dad (Gerald McRaney) is at the party somewhere. He’s on “Undercovers” now!

SU: Yeah! I saw him earlier today, and he gave me the greatest hug. He’s one person who had not seen or talked to since then, but it was like we never missed a beat, seeing him earlier today. Is he actually here tonight?

BE: He’s supposed to be. He’s on the guest list, anyway.

Skeet UlrichSU: Yeah, that was an extraordinary group of human beings. Aside from the talent that they all brought and all that, they’re just amazing people, and I’m very lucky to consider them all friends of mine. I was sad to see “Jericho” go, and I was certainly sad for the fans the way it wrapped up so quickly. But we knew when they said,” You have seven episodes to finish it,” it was going to wind up that way. I don’t know, I think there could’ve been different things CBS did differently. Marketing it differently, certainly. I’ll never understand marketers. They live in these buildings and have no idea what they’re talking about half the time, and it’s very frustrating that they get as much say as they do in what we do. It’s definitely a sore point of TV. You don’t have marketers on film sets telling you how stuff should go. I think they need to mind their own business, quite honestly. I may bite the bullet on that one… (Laughs) …but that’s how I feel. That really frustrated me. We had the viewers, you know? But then they decided early on that they were going to take that hiatus in the middle of the season, and that killed us.

BE: Yeah, I remember, believe me. I was blogging the show every week, and when it took that huge break, I was, like, “Talk about a momentum killer…”

SU: It really was. It was unbelievable. They modeled it on “Lost,” but that had been a successful show for a few seasons at that point. We were just getting started. (Sighs)

BE: I was also a huge “Miracles” fan, another series that ended before its time.

SU: Oh, yeah, that was such a compelling show. It had such a great opportunity. It was ahead of its time a little bit, but again… (Hesitates) That was my first venture into TV, and it was extraordinary. That pilot to me…I can now go back and look at it, remove myself from it and watch it as a piece of work, and it’s really good. But, you know, not a lot of people got to see it, unfortunately. It ended too early. But that was a great group of people, too. Angus (Macfadyen) was a great actor, and obviously Hector Elizondo as well. Yeah, that was a great show. Very interesting. Some of them were not as good as others, but, still, for the most part, they were really, really compelling.

BE: I was pretty much hooked from the moment of the “God is now here / God is nowhere” moment.

SU: Oh, yeah, me, too!

BE: Last one: what’s your favorite project that you’ve worked on that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved? And since we’ve already talked about “Jericho” and “Miracles,” maybe pick something else. (Laughs)

SU: “The Newtown Boys,” I guess. I love that story, aside from it being a film or not. I just think it’s an interesting story, and that time period in American history is fascinating. I got three, really. “Ride with the Devil,” Ang Lee’s movie, is another one. Not enough people got to see it. They were scared of telling the story about a black Confederate soldier…well, they weren’t afraid to tell it, but the marketers were scared of releasing a story about that.

BE: Those damned marketers again!

Skeet UlrichSU: (Laughs) I know! And the other one is “Touch.” It was really my first lead role, but it was just a fascinating part, and it’s another one that I don’t think a lot of people got to see. But “Newton Boys,” I guess, would be my top one. I loved that cast, I love that time period.

BE: How was Richard Linklater to work with?

SU: Unbelievable. Very, very good. He is a filmmaker / artist in every cell of his body. That was his first foray into studio films, and…it was tough for him to be dictated to in some ways by other people. He was used to the independent world. But he’s still just a great man, a great filmmaker, unbelievable to us as actors, and very respectful of what it is we do and knew how to help us get there. So, yeah, he was incredible.

BE: And, lastly, to bring it back to “Law & Order: Los Angeles,” what are your hopes for the series? I mean, you’ve got a franchise behind you, so that’s got to be a plus.

SU: Well, I mean, obviously, you hope it lasts, that it continues to tell compelling stories. But I guess my biggest hope is that we go around the city and LAPD goes, “Thank you! We finally have someone showing what it’s really like to be a detective.” Or what it’s like to be a D.A. in this town, or whatever. It seems like…not knowing the franchise, but talking to Dick (Wolf) about it, it seems like realism is a big part of it, and I hope I live up to the expectations of the people who have been gracious enough to share their time, the homicide detectives I’ve been lucky enough to follow and go to scenes with and who’ve talked to us. I hope they’re proud of what we’ve done.

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