GREEN IN BLUE

Cal­gary’s O’Neil hits the mean streets of L.A.

Windsor Star - - YOU - ERIC VOLMERS

Don’t blink.

This may not seem like the most pro­found or tech­ni­cally com­pli­cated piece of ad­vice for Cal­gary na­tive Melissa O’Neil to ab­sorb as she ne­go­ti­ated a steep learn­ing curve for her new role as Lucy Chen in the Amer­i­can po­lice drama The Rookie. But it has ap­par­ently stayed with the ac­tress as she films the se­ries in Los An­ge­les. It’s one of the hard-and-fast rules she learned, even if it sounds a bit “silly” on the sur­face. “Cops don’t blink,” the 30-yearold says with a laugh dur­ing a break from film­ing in late Septem­ber. “They are con­di­tioned to keep their eyes open when they are be­ing shot at. We had this crazy scene that in­volved an AK-47. I’m telling you, even with blanks, that is a wild ex­pe­ri­ence to be on the other side of and not one I would rec­om­mend. But it’s def­i­nitely been quite the learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.” O’Neil is the first to ad­mit that think­ing about such things is not what she would have pre­dicted for her­self even five years ago. But since early March, she has been run­ning around the streets of L.A. shoot­ing guns, not blink­ing and dodg­ing AK47 fire with fel­low Al­ber­tan Nathan Fil­lion, who has the star­ring role in the much-hyped new ABC ac­tion­drama. For a per­former who first gained promi­nence at the age of 17 as the win­ner of the third sea­son of Cana­dian Idol, play­ing a cop on an Amer­i­can TV se­ries was not some­thing O’Neil saw in her fu­ture as she spent her ini­tial post-Idol years pur­su­ing a ca­reer in mu­si­cal the­atre.

“The big craft, I think, in this pro­fes­sion is to live life fully so that you can be a well-rounded per­son and al­low that to in­form any part that comes down the pike,” she says. “The more you ex­pe­ri­ence, the more you al­low your­self to be, the more you can por­tray in other spa­ces. I cer­tainly didn’t imag­ine at any point that my life would take me down this road.”

The Rookie, which de­buts in Canada on CTV on Tues­day (Oct. 16), ex­plores the ex­pe­ri­ences of the new­est mem­bers of the Los An­ge­les Po­lice De­part­ment. Cre­ated by Alexi Haw­ley — twin brother of Fargo cre­ator Noah and a for­mer writer-pro­ducer on Fil­lion’s ABC se­ries Cas­tle — The Rookie is a fast-paced and well-acted drama that seems a bit of a TV throw­back to the pre-spe­cialty ca­ble golden era of ma­jor net­work cop se­ries. The LAPD has a unique cul­ture all on its own, but the tri­als and tribu­la­tions of rook­ies be­ing put through the paces by of­ten un­sym­pa­thetic train­ing of­fi­cers pro­vide plenty of ex­tra op­por­tu­ni­ties for height­ened drama. O’Neil’s char­ac­ter is one of three rook­ies in­tro­duced in the pilot episode. She is de­scribed as the trio’s “hot­shot,” the sort of new­bie who nabs her first ar­rest on her first day be­fore even mak­ing it to head­quar­ters for roll call. Ti­tus Makin Jr. plays Jack­son West, the over-achiev­ing, by-the-books A-type whose fa­ther is a high-rank­ing In­ter­nal Af­fairs of­fi­cer.

But the hook of the se­ries is Fil­lion’s John Nolan, a 40-year-old di­vorced dad and for­mer con­struc­tion worker who de­cides to ful­fil his dream of be­com­ing a po­lice of­fi­cer af­ter a life-al­ter­ing epiphany dur­ing a bank rob­bery.

To pre­pare, the would-be rook­ies spent hours on the shoot­ing range, learned the proper way to cuff sus­pects while mak­ing an ar­rest and, in gen­eral, took lessons on how to walk, talk and stand like an LAPD of­fi­cer. Still, un­like the ac­tors play­ing their train­ing of­fi­cers, they did not go on ride-alongs. The pro­duc­ers wanted O’Neil, Fil­lion and Makin to seem au­then­ti­cally wide-eyed and green for their first shifts on the L.A. streets.

In the pilot episode, all three find them­selves mak­ing mis­takes and suf­fer­ing the wrath of their train­ing of­fi­cers.

Nolan also be­comes the tar­get of Sgt. Wade Grey (Richard T. Jones), who thinks this new re­cruit is sim­ply go­ing through a mid-life cri­sis and presents a bad prece­dent for the LAPD and a real dan­ger to the rest of the force.

O’Neil’s char­ac­ter has also been de­scribed as Nolan’s love in­ter­est. She is re­luc­tant to re­veal too much about what will clearly be a key story arc for the se­ries. But she does say the idea of two rook­ies be­com­ing ro­man­ti­cally in­volved is a com­pli­ca­tion for both, but par­tic­u­larly the woman. “That’s some­thing that con­tin­ues to evolve even as we’re shoot­ing,” she says.

“They are con­stantly in the writ­ers’ room as they de­velop scripts and I would say that it is some­thing that ebbs and flows. There’s a lot of things to jug­gle and deal with. Not the least of which is that, from Lucy’s per­spec­tive, she is a young woman who re­ally wants to ex­cel in her cho­sen pro­fes­sion. I think, as any per­son can re­late, it’s not al­ways a great idea to be a woman and to date a co-worker, es­pe­cially when you are try­ing to make first im­pres­sions.”

If that’s not com­pli­cated enough, Lucy is also sad­dled with the de­cid­edly un­pleas­ant Tim Brad­ford (Eric Win­ter) as her train­ing of­fi­cer, whose hos­til­ity to­wards his young charge seems cu­ri­ously over-the-top in the first episode. All of which works to weaken the hot­shot rookie’s con­fi­dence lev­els — a dy­namic O’Neil was keen to ex­plore af­ter spend­ing three sea­sons play­ing the lethal and ge­net­i­cally en­hanced space war­rior Por­tia Lin in the Cana­dian sci-fi se­ries Dark Mat­ter.

O’Neil landed the lead in that show in 2014 de­spite hav­ing nextto-no tele­vi­sion ex­pe­ri­ence. Most of her work af­ter her 2005 Cana­dian Idol tri­umph had been in mu­si­cal the­atre and as a Juno-nom­i­nated record­ing artist. In fact, she was set to un­der­study the role of Epo­nine in a Broad­way pro­duc­tion of Les Mis­er­ables, a role that had won her a Dora Award in Toronto, when her man­ager con­vinced her to do Dark Mat­ter in­stead. Does she miss trod­ding the boards? “I do miss it very much, but I don’t miss be­ing hun­gry in New York,” O’Neil says. “I don’t miss the laun­dro­mat. I don’t miss hav­ing cau­li­flower for lunch for the eighth day in a row. But I do love the craft very much.”

For­mer Cana­dian Idol win­ner Melissa O’Neil, left, has moved to U.S. net­work tele­vi­sion — seen here with TV part­ner Eric Win­ter — to play of­fi­cer Lucy Chen on the ABC show The Rookie.

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