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