The Human Equation: Interview with David Sutcliffe from Cracked

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David Sutcliffe as Detective Aidan Black in Cracked

When it comes to its victims, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) does not discriminate. It does not consider your sex, race, religious beliefs or other factors before striking, and the cause can differ from one person to the next. Combat military personnel, those caught in a natural disaster or the survivor of a violent crime are among the prime targets for PTSD.

In the Canadian TV drama series Cracked, Police Detective Aidan Black suffers from PTSD, and, unbeknownst to him, has been deemed not broken but “cracked.” Funnily enough, the detective’s condition provides him with a unique perspective when it comes to performing his duties as a law enforcement officer. That, in turn, presents actor David Sutcliffe with a diverse creative palette when playing the character.

“I’d describe Aidan as an intense man who is very driven and focused,” explains Sutcliffe. “I think he’s also become very isolated and there’s a tremendous amount of loneliness there too. Aidan perhaps has some trouble connecting with and/or relating to the people that he works with. So he’s a bit of a lone wolf, but very sensitive as well. Underneath his tough exterior is a kind and gentle man who cares.

“The acting challenge with this type of role is to make sure you reflect all its complexities, and also portray a character with PTSD. That’s tricky territory for an actor to navigate. There are a number of traps and you want to make sure to play the character in a believable way. At the same time, you don’t want to overplay it or come across as just a crazy person. So it was a matter of grounding the character, and my approach is to try to bring as much humanity as possible to roles like this. For me, that means bringing to it my own personal experiences and then letting the audience see that.”

The actor’s character of Aidan Black in Cracked is a veteran Toronto police/SWAT officer and former member of the Emergency Task Force. He was involved in two fatal shootings, both of which were officially deemed “clean” and justifiable, but the experience left its mark on the detective in the form of PTSD symptoms.

Following a public breakdown, Black is reassigned to the newly-formed Psych Crimes and Crisis Unit, a team of police officers and psychiatrists that handle cases involving emotionally disturbed criminals, victims and witnesses. As if all this was not enough to attract him to this project, the fact that the series also is filmed in the actor’s hometown sealed the deal for Sutcliffe.

“I’m originally from Toronto and I’ve been in Los Angeles for 14 years,” he says. “I was beginning to feel a bit antsy when all of a sudden my agent called to ask me about possibly coming back to Canada and working on this very interesting project. I have a lot of family and friends here, so the idea of returning to Toronto was quite appealing to me. I was, however, really fascinated as well with the show’s subject matter and the concept of this hardboiled cop suffering a mental breakdown and having to be partnered with a psychiatrist in this new police unit.

“I thought it was a neat take on the procedural drama, and, of course, this character is a terrific one. Any time you’re playing someone struggling with something — in this case it’s post-traumatic stress disorder — there’s a lot of meat on the bone for an actor, and all actors are looking for those types of roles. So those are really the factors that led me to this project. They [the show’s producers] had been looking for a while for an actor to play this part. They watched my [demo] tape, liked it, asked me to come in to read for them, and then they cast me.”

Along with Detective Black, the Psych Crimes and Crisis Unit is also staffed by psychiatrist Dr. Daniella Ridley (Stefanie Von Pfetten), who has been asked by their senior officer, Inspector Diane Caligra (Karen LeBlanc), to keep an eye on Aidan. Comprising the rest of the immediate team is Detective Poppy Wisnefski (Luisa D’Oliveira) and her partner, Leo Beckett (Dayo Ade), a psychiatric nurse from inner city emergency rooms and urban mental hospitals.

In “How the Light Gets In,” the first season opener of Cracked, the team investigates the stabbing death of a young boy discovered with a lightbulb sticking out of his chest. Like most fledging TV projects, this one took a bit of tweaking before finally making its premiere.

“The truth is, the show evolved,” says Sutcliffe. “We shot the pilot and it had a certain kind of tone and approach. The network liked a lot of it, but there were parts of it that they didn’t like as much, so we wound up re-shooting about half the pilot, which really did improve it.

“I think the most memorable thing for me was the final scene where Aidan connects with the kid. My character can relate to and understand his mental issues. There’s this place that Aidan goes to and where he embraces his own issues. That, in turn, allows him to, again, connect with those people he’s investigating. I love that the thing that makes him ‘crazy’ is part of his genius, but that’s probably true of all of us, and there’s a real contrast there as well. You’ve got the light and the dark along with the good and the bad, and I thoroughly enjoyed playing all those elements in the pilot episode.

“Something else interesting about the pilot is that in it, Aidan has a breakdown, and maybe for the first time in his life he’s forced to confront his vulnerability. His mind is literally not working the way he is used to, and he cannot control that. That’s extremely scary for him, especially for someone who felt that they were in control and command of themselves, very good at what they do as well as very committed and probably got a tremendous amount of gratification from that.

“Now suddenly there’s some uncertainty, fear, doubt and anxiety, all of which Aidan doesn’t know how to make it go away. He has never been forced to confront this side of himself, but by the end of season one of Cracked there’s a point of acceptance with him. Just as someone who has a physical illness may have to live with the repercussions of that, Aidan suffers from a mental illness and must live with everything that comes with it, and that acceptance is a difficult journey for him.”

Given his prior experiences with psychiatrists, Aidan is decidedly leery at first when it comes to working side by side with Dr. Ridley. That, however, is another professional hurdle he must learn to overcome if he hopes to continue doing what he loves most.

“Aidan’s and Ridley’s relationship is primarily about trust,” notes Sutcliffe. “The Emergency Task Force/SWAT unit that he came from was a bit of a boys' club. Having to go from that and to a new unit where he’s partnered with a psychiatrist comes with, I feel, a lot of doubt for him. Aidan is probably thinking, ‘Can she handle all the things that come up when you’re doing this type of investigative work? Will she have my back? Is she analyzing me?’

“So I think my character is really testing Ridley throughout the first season, and you see that right off in the first episode. Again, because this is a new unit and he has his suspicions about it as well as about her and the effectiveness of what it is they’re doing. All that is part of the journey I mentioned earlier insofar as him coming to terms with his new job and what that is. By the season one finale, Aidan certainly sees the value in this unit and his partner, too. Ridley has something unique to bring to the table, and together the two of them are much better off than if they were working alone.”

At the time of this interview (late August), the Cracked cast and crew were busy filming the show’s second season. How has Sutcliffe seen his character further develop in the episodes he has shot so far, and what new acting challenges have accompanied that growth?

“It always feels a little weird stepping back into a role,” says the actor. “You’re wondering whether or not the character is still going to be there, if you know what I mean. Then, however, you step back onset and it’s like an old suit; you put it back on and there you go. Season two has a different arc from last season, and you find Aidan is more settled with who he is at the start of it. He’s in a much stronger place and is far more certain of what it is he’s doing and his relationship with the unit.

“As far as challenges, it’s funny, everyone who does this procedural type of material talks about exposition. There are story facts that you have to spit out and that the audience needs to hear. Well, some of that is oddly difficult to act out. It feels like you’re reciting information, so that’s a unique type of skill that you have to acquire, and to be honest, it took me some time to get it down pat,” jokes Sutcliffe. “I’ve done so much relationship comedy and work of that nature, which is really much more conversational, whereas this sort of show has a completely different tone. I’m kind of locked into it now, though, and have figured out how to do it.

“I think the other big challenge with a project like this is that the cases these characters are involved in are urgent. So there’s a constant urgency to scenes, and police officers have this kind of tough as well as intense exterior that they need to project. It took me some time to get a handle on how to ‘live’ in that type of energy as Aidan, and also how to pick it up and then put it down at the end of work and go home.”

Sutcliffe was born on June 8, 1969 in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada and grew up in Grimsby and St. Catharines, Ontario. Sports played a major role in his childhood, but acting eventually became a bigger part of his life.

“I grew up a jock and wanting to be a professional hockey player, but by the time I was 12 years old I realized that that wasn’t going to happen,” he recalls. “I subsequently went to the University of Toronto and began doing theatre while I was there. When I graduated, there wasn’t anything else out there that I really felt passionate about. So I went in the direction of the thing that I enjoyed, but not having any idea how things were going to work out.

“It took me some time to get going with my career, but I had a kind of intuitive sense that I could do it [acting]. You watch TV and movies, you go to the theatre, and you see what the actors are doing. I just had a feeling that I could do the same thing. Like I said, it took me some time to figure it out. I struggled for a long time and it wasn’t until my late 20s that I got my first big job in Hollywood.

“After that it got a bit easier, but, of course, you never know what’s coming next. There’s only so much you can actually control with regard to your career. Part of being an actor is you have to surrender and sort of wait and see what comes next. That’s part of the fun of it, though,” says the actor with a laugh, “and also part of what makes it scary. I’ve been very fortunate in that there have always been jobs out there for me. So I’m not wanting for work, but then it becomes about the type of work you want to do. Once you really get into it, it then becomes about making the right choices and wanting to be fulfilled. That’s sort of where I am at this point.”

The actor’s feature films credits include Under the Tuscan Sun, Break a Leg, Cake, Inconceivable, Misconceptions and the upcoming Hunting Season. On the small screen, he has appeared in several made-for-TV movies as well as guest starred on a variety of series including PSI Factor: Chronicles of the Paranormal, Forever Knight, Friends, Mutant X, CSI: Miami, Drop Dead Diva and Lie to Me. Sutcliffe also had regular or recurring roles on Private Practice, The Division, Cold Feet and The Gilmore Girls. For him, leaving an impression on even a single audience member makes his job even more rewarding.

“I’ve been lucky to be involved in shows like, for example, The Gilmore Girls, which was very well-written and I had the opportunity to work with amazing and talented actors,” enthuses Sutcliffe. “That show had a real cultural impact. The people who watched it lived it and loved it. They’ve seen every episode ten times and when you talk with them, you can see how much it moved them, how much it impacted their lives and how passionate they are about it. It’s incredibly gratifying to be a part of something that’s kind of become part of the fabric of pop culture.

“As I mentioned, I try to choose roles and projects that are fulfilling to me. You can’t always do that, though, and not everything works out. In the end, you realize that acting is pretty much like every other job. You go to work every day, you have a set of tools, you do your best, and then you go home. I think as I’ve grown older, I’ve become less precious about the work. Yes, I take it very seriously and I’m very committed to it, but at the same time it’s just a TV show, you know? At a certain point you have to put it all in perspective and, again, take it seriously and not take it seriously sort of at the same time.”

Cracked airs Friday nights on REELZ at 10:00 p.m. EST/ 9:00 p.m. PST. Please note, all photos copyright of REELZ/CBC.

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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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