An Ambitious Man: Interview with Murder in the First 's Ian Anthony Dale

By , Contributor

Gabriel Goldberg

Actor Ian Anthony Dale

It was a little over two weeks ago that the new TNT crime drama series Murder in the First premiered, and with it came not one but two (TV) murders. Are both incidents connected? Did the same person commit both crimes? Could more murders follow? A team of detectives at the San Francisco police department are busy gathering evidence and speaking with witnesses as well as suspects in the hope of putting the guilty party, or parties, behind bars. They are being led by Lieutenant Jim Koto, who is driven to solve the case for more than just the obvious reasons, as the actor who plays him, Ian Anthony Dale, explains.

“I’d describe Jim Koto as someone who’s extremely ambitious,” says Dale. “In fact, one of the first things that our writers shared with me is that he’s the type of guy who wakes up every morning, looks at himself in the mirror and says, ‘I’m going to be the mayor of San Francisco one day.’ So there is a bit of political calculation in every decision he makes, and that can sometimes be a little hazardous to his goals and relationships. If you’re so narrowly focused and ambitious, that can occasionally cloud your judgment and get in the way of your relationships.

“One of the [acting] challenges I saw right away with this character is how do I make him more than just a no-nonsense, by-the-book detective? Throughout the season, if ever I felt like I was coming across as too tough or too much of a disciplinarian and not being very likeable or relateable, I would have these conversations with our writers that always put me at ease. They told me that there is a reason for Koto’s somewhat uptight nature and that it would be explained later on in the season.

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“That certainly becomes evident in the second half of season one as far as why he is wound so tightly. There’s this huge case against a very high profile person and Koto sees it as an opportunity to get to that next rung of the ladder if he is able to get a conviction. So there’s a lot of pressure on him, and then on top of that, my character is in a relationship with a coworker. We’ll find out who that coworker is very early on in the season, but it’s a relationship that he has to keep secret and private. If it were to be exposed, the perception of impropriety would be enough to completely derail his trajectory and career. So for me, it’s a matter of finding all these different little juicy nuggets that make Koto three-dimensional and more than just your stereotypical order-barking police lieutenant in a homicide precinct. It was a season-long challenge and one of the many things that I love about my job,” enthuses the actor.

Angel, JAG, Las Vegas, Charmed, Surface, Bones, 24 and The Mentalist are among some of Dale’s previous TV credits. When he originally heard about Murder in the First, the actor immediately knew it was something that he would like to be involved with. “I‘d read about 30 pilot scripts the year that Murder in the First came along,” he recalls, “and to be honest with you, I put it at the very top of my wish list of jobs to book. It was a really interesting story as well as had a very interesting character in Jim Koto. The pilot was also being helmed by the great [producer/writer] Steven Bochco. Obviously when you see an opportunity to potentially work with someone like that, you make it a priority to chase after a project like that.

“So I was thrilled that there was a role in this that I could legitimately go after. I had a couple of strong auditions, and sometimes you’re the guy and sometimes you’re not. Luckily, this time around I was the guy, and Steven really championed my cause or my case through to the network. He then brought in Taye Diggs as the show’s lead. Taye and I have a history from working on [the TV show] Day Break together, and he was also a champion for me. Lo and behold I ended up getting the part and I’m so thrilled, happy and fortunate that I did.”

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In the Murder in the First pilot, SFPD homicide detectives Terry English (Taye Diggs) and Hildy Mulligan (Kathleen Robertson) begin investigating the case of a man discovered shot to death in a drug den. The victim turns out to be the father of rich and arrogant Silicon Valley prodigy Erich Blunt (Tom Felton). A drug dealer with a violent history named Chris Walton (Charles Baker), is arrested and considered the prime suspect in the murder. Then, however, the flight attendant working on Blunt’s private plane, and who he fired but then planned to rehire, is found dead at her home. Did she accidentally fall down the stairs or was she pushed? For now, the detectives are left with more questions than answers. As with all pilots, there was no guarantee this one would be picked up as a series, but Dale along with the rest of the cast and crew had a good feeling about it.

“There’s always a tremendous amount of energy and excitement when you’re doing a pilot,” notes the actor. “It’s kind of the great unknown, though. All you really know for certain is that you’ve got a good story and there are very talented people working on it, but there is so much that’s out of your control. All you can do is try to do the best work possible in the time you have. Again, there is always this frenetic energy, and it was no different with Murder in the First, but I will say that from day one, the people involved, including Steven, Eric Lodal [series co-creators/executive producers/writers] and Tommy Schlamme, who directed the pilot, all set a tone of professionalism as well as looseness on-set.

“We all had a good time and trusted that we were hired because we were the pieces of the puzzle that fit together as a whole. Everyone got to play and have fun. There was a sense of ease that kind of permeated throughout the shooting of the pilot and into the first season. I think that shows up on screen. When you enjoy working with the company you’re in and things go smoothly on set, that seems to translate into a good product, and I feel that was the case with Murder in the First.”

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What type of research did the actor do prior to stepping into Jim Koto’s shoes? “Research is fundamental to my preparation, and I did quite a bit of research about San Francisco law enforcement as well as politics,” says Dale. “In order to understand the psychology of law enforcement, I read the autobiography Turnaround by former LAPD chief William Bratton, who is currently the police commissioner in New York City. However, my most valuable resource for preparing to play someone like Jim Koto was my brother Robert Dale, who is a homicide detective for the Minneapolis police department.

“It’s such a luxury to be able to call him when I have a question about anything technical or when it comes to authenticity of the character. I even called him when I discovered this relationship that Koto is in. I told my brother about the occupation of this person that my character is sleeping with and asked him what would be the implications or fallout if they were to be discovered. He was able to tell me in detail what that might be. Again, it’s great to have this type of resource as it gives you an inside look at the way things really happen, and for an actor, that’s invaluable.”

As is true of most working environments, Koto has to walk a tightrope when it comes to balancing his personal interaction with those around him and his professional dealings.

“One of the interesting things about the dynamic between my character and the others is that Koto is younger than most of them and yet he’s their boss,” says Dale. “There’s going to be the occasional conflict that occurs because someone is likely thinking, ‘Why would we want to take orders from this guy? He doesn’t have the years and experience that we do.’ Also, there’s a lot of pressure on Koto’s shoulders from his higher ups. He’s always trying to please them so that perhaps one day he can have their job. If Koto is getting pressured from his bosses, then he’s bound to take it out on the people working for him, so that’s going to lead to some conflict as well.

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“Among the ways I was trying to find some likable aspects to bring out in this character was in how he treats his detectives. Yes, he’s their boss, but at the same time I wanted to make sure he showed a camaraderie and friendship with them. That’s a fascinating dynamic; there’s a desire on Koto’s part to be assimilated with his people, but a need as well to be the disciplinarian of the group.”

When speaking about those he has been working with on Murder in the First, Dale has nothing but high praise. “It’s so nice to be reunited with Taye,” he says. “We had such a wonderful time working on Day Break together, and I’m not sure if many people know this because he typically plays such serious characters, but Taye is one of the funniest guys I know. He’s always cracking us up on-set, so we just play, laugh and have a good time while still getting the job done. As for Kathleen Robertson, she’s such a talented actress and a sweet human being. There were times where we’d be doing scenes together and the camera would be on Kathleen’s coverage, and I would sometimes just become a spectator as I watched her work. I’d have to kind of snap out of it and remind myself that I was in the middle of a scene. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to work with Kathleen and I hope we get to do so again and again.

“With regard to Steven Bochco, he has such a wealth of knowledge and experience. Steven is one of the legends of our business, so I really relished any moments I had to listen to what he had to say and learn from him. As talented as Steven is, our other writer, Eric Lodal, has written something seemingly out of nowhere. This guy has a background in opera singing as well as running political campaigns in Washington, and now he’s a writer in Hollywood. Eric might just be one of those Cinderella stories where you come out of the gate swinging and have a success right away. So just getting the chance to work with a Hollywood legend in Steven Bochco and a really promising newcomer in Eric Lodal made for a terrific experience.”

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Prior to his current Murder in the First gig, Dale was most recently seen guest-starring in an episode of FX’s American Horror Story as well as playing the recurring role of Adam Noshimuri in Hawaii Five-0.

“Getting to work with Jessica Lange on American Horror Story was one of the highlights of my career so far,” says the actor. “She’s so compelling both on and off-screen. When I first read the script and found out that I was going to be making out with her character and then she sucks the life out of me through that process, I was kind of floored and excited at the same time. I mean, how many people get to do something like that?

“I remember when we were on set and blocking the scene before we shot it. We didn’t engage in any kissing or intimacy during the rehearsal, and when we finished the blocking, I went up to Jessica and said to her, ‘I just want to make sure that I don’t do anything that might be disrespectful or put my hands anywhere you might not want them to be. If you’d like to establish any ground rules before we shoot the scene, that’s totally fine with me.’

“Like the professional she is and someone who has done everything you can possibly imagine before in this industry, Jessica just looked at me and said, ‘Let’s just shoot it.’ I was like, ‘That sounds great.’ That was her way of basically telling me that I couldn’t do anything that would shock, surprise or overwhelm her. Let’s just have fun. So that’s exactly what we did. She was game, as was I, and we had a great time. It took me several days to come down from the high of that experience.

“As for Hawaii Five-0, that’s been one of the most satisfying and rewarding jobs I’ve ever gotten to do because of the people who I’ve had the pleasure of working with along with the relationships I’ve developed with them. I absolutely love Hawaii, too, and this role has given me the chance to go there a number of times and experience the culture and great outdoors. I feel so blessed having had that experience, and it’s also been another highlight of my career, that’s for sure.”

Keep up with the latest on Ian Anthony Dale by following him on Twitter and Instagram.

Murder in the First airs Mondays at 10:00 p.m. EST on TNT. Please note, all Murder in the First photos copyright of TNT.

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A native of Massachusetts, Steve Eramo has been a Sci-Fi fan since childhood, having been brought up on such TV shows as Star Trek and Space: 1999. He is also an Anglophile and lover of British TV. A writer for 35 years – 17 of those as a fulltime freelancer – Steve has had over 2,500 feature-length…

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