When "The Cleaner" premiered last summer on A&E there was no sure sign that viewers would tune in for a grim, scripted series about a recovering addict coming to the aid of other addicts to get 'clean.' Any uncertainties, however, quickly disappeared with solid ratings and a first season that would go on to attract more viewers than other high-profile cable series like AMC's "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" among the coveted 18-49 demographic. Starring Benjamin Bratt as William Banks, the series is based on the life of Warren Boyd and his relentless efforts to help addicts come clean while trying to hold onto his own sobriety. With the second season of the series debuting tonight, Executive Producer Jonathan Prince talked to our Jim Halterman about Banks walking a fine line of addiction, how guest stars like Whoopi Goldberg are sewn into the series' fabric and whether or not God will be listening when Banks really needs him.
JH: When the series was being conceived, was Benjamin Bratt always the person who was going to play Banks?
JP: No. When CBS Paramount and I pitched it at the very beginning, all we had was the real guy, which is Warren Boyd. There was no actor attached and, in fact, [writer] Robert Munic wasn't yet on board. It was just a pitch for this cool world and this interesting, bigger-than-life character. Once Benjamin read the script, he took a meeting with us and he said to Munic and I, 'I love the writing but I have a problem � will anyone believe this guy actually exists?' and we paused and laughed and said, "He actually does. You can meet him tomorrow." So Benjamin came on board having read the script and then having met Warren he was compelled to join in.
JH: William is often accused by those closest to him of dropping everything to help others but not really helping himself. That's a scary space for a recovering addict to walk in, right?
JP: Yes, without a doubt. He can't get out of his own way. As his wife (Amy Price-Francis) said in the pilot, 'You were addicted to drugs and now you're addicted to helping people.' So his behavior as a once-and-former-and-always-will-be addict gets in his way both in his relationship with his wife and his children and it gets in the way of blurring the lines in his relationship with Akani (Grace Park). It gets in the way of him doing things that are even less traditional to save addicts because the theme of the show is he feels like the only way he can get clean is by cleaning others. When you're that desperate, when the stakes are that personal... when a lawyer is either sleeping with or related to their client, their legal objectivity is compromised. Think of it that way. These people mean so much to him because they represent his ability to redeem himself to his wife, to his kids, in Gods eyes, that he may end up doing the stupid thing not for anything other than a lack of objectivity.
JH: Those less traditional methods are not always clear such as in the season premiere when he gives an addict (played by Gary Cole) alcohol to help him complete his job as a newscaster. How is that justified?
JP: That is neither black nor white. One might say that he's contributing to an addict's behavior, that's black and that's bad. Others might say if he doesn't give this guy what he needs to get through his show and he gets fired then his wife has no one to take care of her. There are other people involved because addiction isn't a victimless crime or victimless condition. There are other victims. There is collateral damage. There are the people who the addicts love or who love them and I think William did it out of that bond.
JH: Whoopi Goldberg appears in the season premiere and is going to remind a lot of people what a great dramatic actress she is. How did she come to "The Cleaner?"
JP: What happened was she cold-called me. I never met her in my life and she got my number from my agent. She said 'When you had 'American Dreams' on the air, I thought it was genius and I never called you and I realized that maybe I never called you because you could never write a part for me but I think you could write a part for me on ['The Cleaner.'] I think it's brilliant. It's my favorite show on television.' She said 'I'll come do anything. I'll sweep the floors. I'll bake. I'll cater. What do you want me to do?' I sat and talked with the writing staff and we decided the best role she might play would be to be this unlikely sponsor, William's sponsor, and they had a history. What she wanted more than anything was to feel like a member of the cast and not a guest star.
JH: Having seen the episode, she definitely accomplished that.
JP: Her goal all along was to say 'How do I blend in and not be Whoopi Goldberg? How do I just be me just as the way Ben is being Ben and just be a character?' We talked about the fact that by creating an emotional subtext or relationship between she and Benjamin's character that pre-existed, or that we weren't aware of, you can catch them mid-stream. And you later see that in the next episode, which I think airs fourth or fifth, once again, he comes to her for guidance and now instead of meeting her and its potentially hostile he comes to her and says 'I need your help' and in the final episode of the season we deal with their relationship. If she lived in LA or if we shot in New York, she'd probably have done 10 of the 13 episodes. She fit in perfectly. We didn't shoot her like a guest star or feature her like a guest star. We just tried to feature her like one of the cast.
JH: You did the same thing with Joe Don Baker in the second episode when he comes across as much more than a guest star. Who else is coming up?
JP: Christine Lahti just did an episode for us and you don't realize it's her episode until about halfway through. Same as Joe Don. I don't think you realize it's going to be about him. It quickly it becomes Michael Beach's story who, by the way, was brilliant but Joe Don breaks your heart because it becomes about him. I think that for us, the use of guest stars is to meet these character mid-stream, potentially fool you into thinking it's someone else's story and then surprise you with the fact that there is a tightly tied knot to this other guest star. We do an episode about the music business but not the way you'd expect [with] Steve Landesberg and Shirley Jones. They're like an old boozy lounge act like Steve [Lawrence] and Eydie [Gorme]. And Shirley and Steve Landesberg play alcoholics and it becomes about them. So we surprise you with guest stars because we find a tightly tied knot that doesn't expose itself until midway through the show and suddenly your heart is being tugged by a different string.
JH: Is Warren Boyd, who is also a Co-Executive Producer on the show, your primary source for research on the show?
JP: Of course he is. We had a scene where somebody was trying to pick a lock and he said, "I would just use a crowbar to open the locker." He's the guy. Last season we had a story where William was doing an intervention with someone with an eating disorder and the girl's trachea collapses and she can't breath and they're in a bakery and William grabs a knife to do an emergency tracheotomy and somebody said 'That's bullshit.' I said 'Warren, tell them what really happened." Warren said, " What really happened is I grabbed a pen, I pulled the pen and ink cartridge out, I had the plastic, I shoved it against the floor, poured some Jack Daniels over it and jammed it into her trachea.' That's the clean version of it. Warren is a guy who, in the morning, comes to our set and he has an office not ten feet from my office and we talk about television and editing and music and stories and then at noon he gets on two blackberries at the same time and goes to save people's lives all afternoon. He's multi-tasking in a very significant way.
JH: Another thing I noticed is that even though it's a dark show, you still manage to have those lighter moments. How tough is it to find that balance?
JP: For me, it would be very hard to do a TV show that had a lack of humor or was too earnest. I understand about "The Importance of Being Earnest" and that's a comedy so, for me, it's being able to distance myself enough to say that we cant take ourselves too seriously. Secondly, Robert Munic and David Hollander, who are running the writers' room, also have the same sensibility of 'Let's not be too earnest' but, finally, it's the actors. Benjamin's character and the way he plays him and having guest stars who look for the humor and the lightness... humor is a big part of it because each day when the cast and crew shoot the episodes there is a lightness here. They like being at work and they know that the stories that they're telling... whether the addict in the story lives or dies, they know that at least we're making somewhat of a difference.
JH: William talks to God often throughout the show. Is that his anchor or is it the way he helps people?
JP: Helping people is his anchor. If God were his anchor, then he would think that God is talking back with him. When we were shooting an episode, a director said, 'When William is talking to God, I want to shoot that scene from above.' I said, 'Why?' and he said 'God's point of view.' I said, 'you can't do that. I don't believe that God is listening. God is busy with the Israelis and the Palestinians. I think God is really busy.' But I think it makes William feel good to talk to God. When we first pitched the show, I said his relationship with God is one-sided. It's not 'Joan of Arcadia.' He's not getting the call from God. He just needs someone to talk to and what's challenging in his life is to have intimate, personal, revealing conversations with human beings, with his wife, with Whoopi Goldberg as his sponsor, with his son, his daughter... and if he can begin to take the God conversations and stop having them with God and start having them with people he'll be a healthier human being because his anchor is helping people.
The second season of "The Cleaner" kicks off tonight on A&E at 10:00/9:00c.