One thing everyone should know about Nathan Fillion: He’s happiest making TV.
When asked to lead the new crime procedural The Rookie, he said yes, even though it’d been a little over a year since the end of his last crime procedural, the eight-season-long, 173-episode behemoth Castle. Work just isn’t daunting to the guy who’s gone from geek god to household name on the small screen. Long hours? Who cares! Intense schedule? No problem! Filming in 90-degree-plus heat north of Los Angeles in a wool cop uniform? He’ll do it! (Hey, he aims to please, not to misbehave.)
“On my worst day, there’s no place I’d rather be,” the 47-year-old actor says, sitting in his (air-conditioned) trailer after a day of shooting in mid-August. “I saw the pieces of this puzzle coming together, and it had the people I wanted to work with involved again, so why would I say no?”
He easily could have. When Castle executive produce Alexi Hawley approached his former leading man about starring on a drama inspired by the oldest trainee in the LAPD, there wasn’t even a script. And besides, Hawley figured Fillion would rather take a break. When the actor’s name first came up, “I thought, ‘Uh, I don’t know that he wants to work that hard right now,’ ” the Rookie EP admits, laughing. “Nathan had gotten to a place where he didn’t have to do a lot of work.”
Luckily, Fillion was ready to return to the top of the call sheet following a string of guest-starring and recurring roles post-Castle. With the star on board, ABC gave the project a straight-to-series order last fall. The result is the story of John Nolan, an unmoored, fortysomething, small-town divorcé who pursues his dream of becoming a cop after realizing he needs to hit reset on his life. Once he joins the force, however, it’s hard for his colleagues to look past his age, something they consider a weakness — even though it’s not.
“John Nolan’s strength is that he has lived for [40-plus] years,” Hawley says. “He’s a rookie police officer with an empathy 25-year-olds don’t have. Nathan was the perfect embodiment of that.” (As for what Fillion himself has learned from age? “Patience,” he answers — and then immediately retracts. “Actually, I’m not patient, I’m grumpy,” he jokes. “I’m an old man.”)
Capt. Zoe Andersen (Mercedes Mason) is the only one who doesn’t see Nolan as a man in the midst of a rather dangerous midlife crisis. “She understands that once you’ve lived your life, you’re going to see problems differently,” Mason says. “The other cops don’t always look outside the box.”
Even so, those other cops — Nolan’s fellow rookies Lucy Chen (Melissa O’Neil) and Jackson West (Titus Makin), along with training officers Angela Lopez (Alyssa Diaz), Talia Bishop (Afton Williamson), and Tim Bradford (Eric Winter) — have journeys as unique as Nolan’s. Each hour sees the officers and their trainees patrolling the L.A. streets, with multiple adrenaline-pumping cases informing the relationships at play and showing what it’s like to be an officer. “Part of what we try to do is give you a fun way in on the reality of police work,” Hawley says. “I wanted to do a modern version of a throwback cop show.” Or, as Winter puts it, “It’s Grey’s Anatomy meets Hill Street Blues.”
Plus a healthy helping of optimism. Hawley says that while the drama could explore issues surrounding police officers, the show is more invested in character work and what it means to wear the badge. “We’re doing this big, fun, emotional network cop show, and so there are certain issues that we could just never give the respect they deserve,” he concedes. “I want the show to be aspirational. I want to see our cops act the way we would want police officers to act.” Adds Williamson, “It makes us fall back in love with the idea of cops. I see how hard it is.”
Fillion hopes the strategy will resonate — and last beyond one season. After all, he wouldn’t have taken the job if he didn’t think it would. “My perspective [on the projects I take] has changed,” he admits. “Is the story an engine that can keep a show running, keep it moving for years? You’re not trying to make a great season of TV; you’re trying to make multiple great seasons of TV. This, I think, had all the right ingredients.
“I think this is really, really well-timed,” he continues. “This is a cultural shift we’re seeing, where people are starting their lives over halfway through. Not everybody can relate to being cops, right? Just cops.” He chuckles. “But people can certainly relate to a do-over.” Or, for him, a do-again.
The Rookie debuts Tuesday, Oct. 16, at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.