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The project marked the first time Fillion ever pitched and sold a show to a network without having a pilot written. He jokingly likens the experience to selling a sandwich.
“If I told you I was gonna make you an amazing sandwich — the bread’s gonna be fresh, it’s all your favorites, the tomato’s perfect, the shredded lettuce — you haven’t tasted it yet, but you know it’s gonna be a great sandwich,” he says of his blind confidence that the show would work.
Fillion’s character, John Nolan, is based on a “kernel of truth” — the true story of a cop who changed career paths in the middle of his life, leaving his construction job to become the oldest rookie on the LAPD. And it’s not easy playing a cop.
“Here’s what they don’t tell you,” he says, launching into a description of the police “costume” he wore to play a rookie officer. First of all, the garments are made of wool — not ideal for shooting in the L.A. heat. Plus, he had to wear a belt clipped with “heavy equipment that they’re wearing around their waist,” like a gun and a four-pound walkie talkie. The belt alone gave Fillion “a big purple bruise.”
But the biggest challenge, he says, was playing a police officer in a respectful and accurate way in a time when police face so much criticism in the media.
“Unfortunately, police doing their jobs and doing a good job…it doesn’t make for good news stories,” Fillion says. “When everything goes wrong for us, that’s when we call the police. That’s a heavy burden. You have to want to help.”
The show is inspired by the real-life story of ex-NFL player Spencer Paysinger. Diggs plays Billy Baker, an ex-football player-turned-coach, who becomes a father figure to a high school football player (based on Paysinger) from South Central, who grapples with his conflicting roots when he is recruited to play for Beverly Hills High School.
Diggs says he is grateful to be able to relate on a personal level to so many elements of the story. Whatever personal experience evades him — like having played football, which he never did — he’s able to draw from speaking to Paysinger himself.
Diggs also spoke fondly of having the unique privilege of bringing his own personal experiences to the writers’ room.
“A lot of the shows don’t want the actors in the writing room,” he says, expressing how grateful he felt to have his input valued. “We sat for an hour just talking about our own personal situations and similarities to the stories of the characters.”
For Diggs, those similarities come because he is a father in real life as well as on the show.
And he has seen several hot button issues already brought up in the script for future episodes, including class, race, sexuality, identity, police brutality, and locker room culture. “I’m continuing to be impressed and amazed and proud that CW, the writers, the actors, producers, are all leaning into it because I think we need all of this now more than ever,” Diggs says.