From Darryl in Coming To America to Dr. Benton in ER, actor Eriq La Salle has made an indelible mark on the mainstream public for his acting work. After his career-defining work as Dr. Peter Benton on the hit television series ER, The Julliard-trained actor has been able to spread his wings with a series of high-profile guest roles on TV series as well as directing several. With his production company Humble Journey, La Salle has been pushing new creative ideas into the marketplace and his next series just debuted in the comics medium.
25 To Life is a three-issue series published by 12 Gauge Comics exploring an experimental FBI division that tracks down criminals by pairing themselves with incarcerated felons that share similar traits with their targets. Think Silence of the Lambs meets The Defiant Ones, with a hell of a lot more action. In this first case, they’re trying to align themselves with a imprisoned white supremacist in an effort to track down a murder targeting African American policemen. La Salle created and developed the idea, and after partnering with 12 Gauge they enlisted comics writer Doug Wagner and artist Tony Shasteen to flesh out the concept from La Salle’s filmatic view to comics form.
With the first issue scheduled for a debut this week in comic stores nationwide, we talked with Eriq La Salle about his book and its origins.
Newsarama: In 25 to Life, the revolves around an experimental FBI unit that uses incarcerated criminals to gain insight on outstanding cases. How'd this idea come to you?
Eriq La Salle: Well, we originally developed it as a television series with my production company. Once a month I charge my employees with certain assignments, and on one of these months it was to pitch ideas for a different take on cop shows - something that was fresh, original and inventive. Someone came back with the idea of a cop show where the police deal with criminals directly, so for the next year or so we fleshed that idea out and went really deep and came up with something interesting and fresh.
What we came up with as 25 To Life, and after we got involved with 12 Gauge it popped up as an ideal story to tell as a comic.
Nrama: What attracted you personally to the story that 25 To Life developed into?
La Salle: It's the age-old question, or curiosity rather of 'what exactly is the line between good and evil?' and 'what is the delineation between a cop and a criminal?' It seems like the best cops are in touch with the darker parts of their personality. You could say that their skill sets are similar to criminals; they say that the best criminals would make good cops, and the best cops would have made the best of criminals. It's a very interesting parallel which came forward as we developed 25 To Life. That theory is both provocative and thoughtful so it resonates well.
Nrama: Leading the team is Special Agent Gabriel Santana - a man with a lot of experience, and little time for bureaucratic red tape as it seems. He's our main man in the book, but who is he really?La Salle: He turns it on when he has to turn it on. With a mind like his, he's always thinking things through; very calculating and analytically. In the personal lives of Gabriel and the rest of the cast, they are all somewhat everyday people who have their own demons; even though they're the 'good guys', they have their own plusses and minuses.
So Gabriel is a great guy - very much a man's man; very strong, direct and ethical, with a very strong sense of what is right and what is wrong. He has through experience come to realize that you can't always take the high road though; in dealing with criminals who don't respect the rule book, a cop playing strictly by those rules is at a distinct disadvantage. Santana understands how criminals think, and when necessary, he does what has to be done. His first priority is catching the bad guy, so if that means he has to 'bend the rules', he'll do whatever it takes.
Nrama: Would you say it takes a special type of person to do these cases and turn these criminal interrogations into cooperation?
La Salle: Absolutely. Gabriel has a very interesting relationship with his father. Gabriel's dad was an amazing profiler who worked for the FBI but ended up crossing the line and becoming a criminal himself. When faced with that bureaucratic red tape you mentioned and knowing a criminal was going to go free, he killed him. In some ways, Gabriel is a ticking clock because he's not sure that whatever made his father do that isn't in Gabriel himself. He doesn't know that if at some point he'll snap and take the law into his own hands. His father was a top profiler at the FBI, and Gabriel has followed in his father's footsteps as a key part of the FBI. He's afraid of becoming his father, and that has influenced and shaped him and how he deals with criminals. The thing that makes him great is that inside him there's a criminal, and it allows him to think like them but it also pulls at him.
Nrama: In the case at the center of 25 To Life, three African-American policemen have been murdered and to get inside the killer or killer’s heads they try to mirror up with an imprisoned white militia man. This Pratt seems like a real character - is he a good guy, a bad guy, or what?
La Salle: None of the characters here are 'good guys' or 'bad guys'. With our characterization, we don't treat characters as black or white. Pratt is very interesting; he's not a dumb hick racist, but he's very clever and very smart, and has played the dumb hick when he needs to, to allow his enemies to think they have the upper hand. He's extremely clever and witty, as well as resourceful and dangerous. The way we approach this is that we feel that a hero is only as interesting as the villain he's pursuing. We want Gabriel and Pratt to feel like equals; they're both clever, original, resourceful and tenacious. That creates a great deal of anticipation as we lead into a climax between the two.
Nrama: This reminds me a little bit of the film you did Crazy As Hell, where you have a psychiatrist come into a state hospital to try to make some good - and you have this really amazing showdown between the psychiatrist – where all the issues boil down into two men in a room sparring verbally. Any chance for that kind of confrontation in 25 to Life between Santana and Pratt?
La Salle: Absolutely. I'm still young and developing my own body of work as a director, but when you look at filmmakers they revisit certain things. I'm in no way comparing myself to Martin Scorcese, but using him as an example, he repeatedly revisits certain things such as the gangster lifestyle, life on the streets, and the struggle of man. With any storyteller, they have certain strengths and certain things that continually fascinate them in life. So the concept of two polarizing characters is extremely intriguing for me, and the idea of putting those two in a room and have them to justify their actions and their needs, wants and objectives is interesting. To see how one attempts to shoot down the other, convert the other, with them being equally engaged in a mental, and sometimes physical, battle to win. That's high stakes, compelling storytelling.
Nrama: You have a lot of experience telling crime stories; you've directed several different crime shows, and recently did a guest spot on Covert Affairs as an ex-CIA agent. How did you built up your insider knowledge of law enforcement into what became 25 To Life?
La Salle: Well, I'm from the old school of thought where the idea is to create a world and a mythology, and then live in it. As long as you're true to that mythology you create, then it seems real. There are things we learned from reading, things we inherited from everyone's definition or interpretation of law enforcement in entertainment. All of these things shape you.
In 25 To Life, we called the incarcerated criminals that the team tries to work with 'mirrors'. Developing these key words or phrases unique to your story is essential to create a world for the story to live in; it gives people something to hold onto, something that involves them deeper into the mythology. Certain sci-fi projects do this extremely well, with just the scenery with two moons or two suns or whatever. With us, it's several things such as 'mirrors', as well as the idea of calling a newbie FBI agent a 'puppy'. We didn't get that from an existing cop show or from an agent or detective telling us that's how they refer to rookies, we simply thought it up as a credible term to what agents might call newbies. It's our world they live in, and it's up to us to make it.
Nrama: For this book, you're working with writer Doug Wagner and artist Tony Shasteen to bring your story to life. What's it like handing it off to them to fully realize?
La Salle: Well, we had a completed TV script that served as the bible for the series, and the working relationship with the comic crew has been literally flawless. There have been no hiccups; everyone respected the bible and improved upon it when necessary for telling the story in the comics medium. There were no egos holding up what the story could or should be. I respected Doug and Tony for their knowledge of comics and what works best in that format, and there were thins we needed to change up for the betterment of the story. But there weren't a lot of phone calls back and forth arguing story points; I can count on one hand the number of conversations we had about the content once we had the story broken down.
Nrama: Keven tells me the comic is already wrapped up, so with this project done creatively have you thought of doing more comics?
La Salle: Absolutely. As a matter of fact, this experience opened me up as a storyteller to the possibilities of comics. I'm developing several things that might work as comics, but I've also got several ideas that I want to do specifically for this medium. Doing the 25 To Life comic definitely got my creative juices flowing.What do you think of La Salle's new career move?