‘Bull’ exclusive: Freddy Rodriguez on joining new CBS series, playing Benny, and watching TV evolve
Earlier this week “Bull” premiered on CBS to impressive ratings and a warm reception, and for those of you looking for a deeper dive into the world of jury analysis and these characters, you’re in for a treat. Tuesday night’s new episode will expand the show further beyond Dr. Jason Bull (Michael Weatherly), and one of the biggest recipients of that story is none other than Benny Colon (Freddy Rodriguez), a man with established personal and professional ties to Bull and also someone with plenty of courtroom experience as a former prosecutor.
Being that we’ve enjoyed Rodriguez’s work on shows like “Six Feet Under” and “The Night Shift,” it was a thrill to have a chat with him earlier this week about playing this part, the interesting relationship between Freddy and Bull, the presence of executive producer Dr. Phil McGraw on the series, and also the pride he feels in watching the evolution of cable TV in the years that followed the exemplary “Six Feet Under” series finale.
CarterMatt – So now that that you’ve seen the reviews come in and also the ratings, how are you feeling? I imagine the mood with the cast is very positive.
Freddy Rodriguez – Oh, we’re feeling incredibly positive. Michael and I were talking yesterday, and he describes it best: It’s one hurdle after another. In this case, the first hurdle is making the pilot, the second hurdle is getting the premiere date and the pilot coming out, and then the third hurdle is us maintaining our viewership for the next couple of weeks that will hopefully establish our core audience and our show as a glorified hit.
I want to go back to when you first signed on to the show. Was there anything that you were specifically looking for, and what made you interested in this?
It was pilot season, and every pilot season I’m lucky enough to get sort of approached by different writers and showrunners about participating in their pilots. I was going through the various ones at my table and deciding which one I want to do. This one in particular came up, and first of all I had worked with CBS before on something else and had a really great experience with them. Then, Rodrigo Garcia, who directed the pilot — I’ve known Rodrigo since 1994, I did my first film with [him] called ‘A Walk in the Clouds,’ Alfonso Arau directed it. Emmanuel Lubezki was the [director of photography] on it, and Rodrigo was close friends with him. It comes from that circle of friends. I’ve known Rodrigo since that time, and he was also ‘Six Feet Under’s’ top director, and I worked with him for five years on that.
The [role] came about, he contacted me and wanted me to be very much a part of it. I thought it was great. I’ve never played a lawyer in my entire career, and that was the first thing that attracted me to the role, and the possibility to be able to explore that and do something different [was exciting]. It was also an opportunity to work with Paul Attanasio, the co-creator of the show. I’ve loved Paul from ‘House’ and ‘Homicide’ and his films ‘Donnie Brasco’ and ‘Quiz Show.’ So the combination of Rodrigo, Paul, the character, and Amblin, having Steven Spielberg producing it, was great and it made it something I should be a part of.
To date, how much have Paul and the writers told you about Benny? Do you know a good deal, or have you found out more as the scripts have come out?
When I received the script for the pilot, and you’ve seen the pilot, Benny is hardly in it. That’s pretty normal for a pilot, since the purpose of that is establishing the show and setting the characters up. Rodrigo and Paul made a note to tell me that Benny would be a more prominent character as the season progressed, so they told me not to be dismayed by his lack of presence in the pilot. I trusted them, and lo and behold as the scripts came out, they were right. So you get to see who Benny is, where he comes from, and what his background is. That’s what is revealed in next week’s episode.
One of the interesting things to me about this character is that he is Jason Bull’s former brother-in-law, so is it fair to say that he has a more intimate knowledge and understanding of him than maybe anyone else?
Oh definitely, and you’re absolutely right — Benny does know Bull in a more personal way than anyone else because he is his ex-brother-in-law. There’s an ongoing joke where we say that Bull got Benny in the divorce (laughs). What’s great about that is that the show is not all procedural, and we get to enjoy the charter aspect as the season progresses. That’s one of the things that attracted me. Going back to the 23 years of my career I’ve never done a procedural per se; I’m more attracted to the character stuff, and that is one of the things that attracted me to Benny. You get to discover that Benny is an ex-prosecutor in the D.A..’s office, that he was fired, and you get to explore why he was fired and how he ended up in Bull’s office and the dynamic that comes with being his ex-brother-in-law. So the audience should expect more character-driven storylines.
Before the show came out, I didn’t actually know that this particular subject matter in trying to read juries and make predictions / analysis really existed. Were you aware of it, and how much of a crash course did they give you?
I had absolutely no idea that trial science [existed], and that was what made this show so interesting and separated it from every other legal drama that anyone has seen on television. Then having a chance to sit down with Dr. Phil [McGraw], who is a great storyteller, and with Michael and getting to hear [Dr. Phil] tell stories about his days as a trial consultant were fascinating. If we can get a fraction of the stories he was telling us on-screen, I think the audience is in for a treat and something they’ve never seen before.
It’s also really timely. We just saw with ‘The People vs. OJ Simpson’ a lot about trial science, with the selection of the jury and what goes behind selecting the jury members. Obviously our show dives deeper, but I think it’s a great time for the show to come out.
So how involved has Dr. Phil been in production to date?
He was more hands-on in the pilot, and was there every step of the way. He co-wrote the pilot with Paul and was on-set every single day. Now that the season has started, I think, and I may be wrong, he is busy with his own show. So physically he cannot be there every day on set, but he is still a presence in the writers room.
You and Michael both have this experience of being a part of these long-running shows. Is it exciting now to be back at the beginning helping to see some other actors start this process for the first time and impart some wisdom into how to make it work?
It is! It is weird being back at the beginning stage of a show like this, and it’s also gratifying to see other actors go through this for the first time, and I’m really happy for them. [With] every other actor who is a part of this cast, Chris [Jackson], Geneva [Carr], Annabelle [Attanasio], and Jaime [Lee Kirchner], although Jaime has been part of other television shows, it’s been great to see them go through this. For Michael and I, we’ve been through it enough in the past to be aware of all it entails. We’re more realists after what the journey is. For example, while the pilot episode retained 100% of the ‘NCIS’ numbers and we got 15-16 million viewers, we’ve been around the block a few times. We’re happy, but we’re cautious at the same time. We’re waiting to see what episodes 2 and 3 do, and see if we retain the same audience.
It’s also weird to be the veteran along with Michael. I’ve always been the young guy or the new guy, so now cut to 23 years [later] and I’m the vet. So that’s kind of weird — and a reality check (laughs).
So a couple more quick questions. Can you speak a little bit about what’s coming up on the next episode?
Well, there’s a lot of my character next week, and I believe that next week’s episode is the episode where Benny is activated as a lawyer and not just a consultant. It’s his first time in two years that he gets to try a case. It’s great. You get to see him be nervous, but execute it well. But you get to see a lot of my character and what he’s all about.
The last thing I wanted to talk to you about is something that I’ve thought a lot about over the years. We’re in this era of finales, especially series finales, being heavily scrutinized and reviewed by the internet, and to me ‘Six Feet Under’ had one of the greatest series finales of all time. Every show ends, and hopefully ‘Bull’ lasts long enough so that it doesn’t end for several years. Is there anything to take away from that finale that you think shows today could take and apply?
The only thing I can really say is that [‘Six Feet Under’ creator] Alan Ball is a magical storyteller, and I don’t think there is any other magic formula that other showrunners or shows should follow to come up with an [end] like we did. I think it just organically evolved as the show went on throughout the years. It evolved to that end. I don’t think it was intended to be anything other than the organic ending it was supposed to have.
The other thing I will say to that is that it’s great for me as an actor to be a part of that show, and see how cable television and streaming television has evolved. I feel like I was a part of the component that pioneered what we see today. I get really proud to see shows like ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘House of Cards’ or anything that I’m watching now, and I’m proud I got to be a part of all that. You gotta think that back then there was only us, there was Showtime — and they only had a few shows on — and then FX had like ‘Nip/Tuck’ and ‘The Shield.’ But that was it. There was no AMC or Netflix or Hulu. There was none of it. So to see what we created at that time and to see the evolution of that is gratifying.
A special thanks to Freddy for being generous with his time, and you can check out the next new episode of “Bull” Tuesday night at 9:00 p.m. Eastern time.