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"A lot of people are finding a voice, and I found that for myself, where I was like, 'Oh wow, I've been complacent,'" Makin tells EW. "I woke up one morning and I was watching the news, and I was like, 'I can't do this. I can't go play a cop on a show and not talk about the fact that I'm a Black cop.' My character hadn't addressed any of that."
He adds, "I had that conversation with Alexi [Hawley], our showrunner, and he was extremely gracious and he totally understood everything I was saying. I did come to that point where I was like, 'If you want to write me out, I politely receive that. I would rather be written out than ignore the reality and not be able to tell the story.'"
Byron Cohen via Getty Images
But Hawley and his team weren't interested in ignoring that reality and were intentional about addressing Makin's concerns. The result, or at least its beginnings, came in Sunday's episode, "La Fiera."
While Nolan, Lopez (Alyssa Diaz), and others dealt with the fallout from cartel boss La Fiera's visit to Los Angeles and a possible attempt on her life, Jackson faced off against a more insidious foe: systemic racism within the police force.
Back out on patrol, Jackson's new training officer, Doug Stanton (Brandon Routh), continued to ramp up his casual micro-aggressions and prejudiced approach to policing. Things came to a head when Stanton tackled and arrested a young Black man who West knew didn't remotely match the suspect they were on the lookout for.
The situation quickly spun out of control as Stanton escalated the encounter, assaulting the young man and pulling a gun on his entire family as they ran out of the house to defend him. Jackson called for backup, which conveniently came via Bradford (Eric Winter) and Lucy (Melissa O'Neill), who helped calm everything down in the nick of time.
Horrified by the events, Jackson decided to report Stanton to Sgt. Grey (Richard T. Jones), backed up by Bradford. Grey countered that the best he could do is put Stanton on desk duty while they conduct an investigation, but Jackson pushed him to do better, later telling Bradford, "Silence is complicity."
We called up Makin to discuss potential fallout from Jackson's decision to speak out, why this episode was essential for restoring his confidence, and just what Grey might decide to do about Stanton.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: In a panel ABC hosted before the season started, you said you really struggled with coming back to the show in light of everything that happened in 2020. Can you tell us more about that self-reflection and whether this story line played a role in your decision to stay?
TITUS MAKIN: It was a bit of a bigger situation than I was able to fully describe at that time. Because it starts back for me, even just playing a cop in the first place, which was a hurdle [with] where I'm from and how I viewed the cops growing up. To play one, I already was wrestling with, "Oh man, people are gonna think I'm Team Cops." And the reality was I was struggling.
But even more so recently when we were about to come back for season 3, with everything that was happening in the press that we were seeing, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, all those things going on. It really helped me find a voice within myself that I think a lot of people are finding right now. I've been somebody who wants the better good, but I've never really vocalized that. I've never really said anything. I've been scared to ruffle feathers. I've been scared to go against the grain.
Thankfully, our showrunner is amazing and has a huge heart. I was like, "This could get me fired, but I know for myself, as the man I'm becoming, that I need to say something, and I don't feel right about going to tell a story about a cop [and] not addressing the reality of what that cop may be going through." [Hawley] was like, "What if I do this? What if I work up the story arc and let you see where we plan to go?" We had a nice Zoom call with the entire cast. He asked all of our opinions about how we felt about things going on, playing a cop, what's going on in our heads, and how we could apply that into the story line? Then he sent me my story arc and said, "Hey, take a look at this. Tell me if this gives you any more peace as to what you're about to walk into." And it did. He was amazing and willing to attack all those topics that I was afraid wouldn't be touched by this character. So this season is going to be loaded with those for Jackson, and it definitely did play a factor into my return.
I'm extremely grateful that ABC and The Rookie has given us a platform and have been so willing to tell these tricky stories. It's something that they very well could have ignored, but they don't want too. They've been great about like, "Let's go for it. Let's create the conversations. Let's open up the floor." I'm just thankful to be a part of the show that's willing to do that.
We've steadily watched Stanton get more egregious, from offhand racist comments to racial profiling to escalating arrests. Is it going to get worse before it gets better?
Oh, of course. There's where good TV and reality line up. You got to beef it up to really get it to its peak, so we can see where it ends. What the show is doing a great job of is honestly depicting that reality; the way we see Doug slyly make those little comments is the reality that so many Black and Brown people deal with all the time. Whether you're walking up to somebody and they're like, "Yo, what's up brother?" And I'm like, "You don't have to code-switch for me, you can say hello." The small things are things that I'm happy they're even touching on because it's such a strong reality for so many people. And then obviously, within the bro code of the police force, you can feel, especially as a rookie, that you have to take the back seat to the ways of your training officer. Because who are you to tell them that they're wrong when you haven't even been on the street? I'm happy they're showing it all. I'm happy that Jackson is growing into his own and is putting the foot down, and this is worth the risk of his job.
You have this very tense scene where Jackson and Stanton tackle the wrong kid and quickly end up in a standoff, which Jackson helps defuse by calling for backup. What was it like emotionally filming that scene?
It honestly was as difficult as you would imagine it to be. It was so surreal. It was a really bizarre juxtaposition there where I was trying to do my job, but also extremely defeated where I was like, "This is the reality. This could be me tomorrow in a situation like this. This could be me tonight in a situation like this — just from the color of my skin." But then on the flip side, I was extremely proud that we were tackling this issue and letting people see the reality of what happens way more often than what we just see in the news. This is a daily thing. I'm happy that we're finally willing to tackle the reality like this.
If Jackson hadn't called for backup, how much worse could that have been?
So bad. On top of that, it would have been Doug's word versus mine. And of course, he would probably win that due to his standing; his rank is higher than mine. But yeah, that backup, in that moment, Jackson cowers, and he hasn't been the best about putting his foot down. Actual Titus is like, "Get in there! I don't care if he's a training officer or not, step in and figure it out. You know better." But that's where policing, trying to abide by what you're taught mixed with putting a foot down, you get to see that war in Jackson's face at that moment. There's so many elements that come across in my face in that moment that I was feeling in real life.
The family involved in this incident calls Jackson out, calling him an "Uncle Tom sellout." What was your reaction when you first read that line?
When I read it, I was actually on the side of the family. Would I call somebody that personally? No. But in that moment, I understand the family's perspective. Honestly, I was more so on the family side with "Why aren't you doing anything? You're a young Black man, you're watching a young Black man get assaulted wrongfully, do something." But as far as how I felt personally on set when that line was said, I felt the full gravity of it. It was just all too real. There's just no other way to put it.
I can imagine emotionally for you too, given the paradox you felt you were facing before you came back this year, that was difficult to swallow.
Oh yeah, absolutely. My exact fear is something like that. Like it happened in the scene. But that is my fear in real life — is to be not understood for the choices I'm making, even by being on a cop show in general.
The family members say they're going to file a complaint. Might Jackson and Stanton face any outside backlash from this incident?
What the show does well in general, and what they are leaning more towards with this specific situation, is the aspirational aspect of the show. We're trying to lean everybody in the direction of what policing should look like and what it could look like and what it does look like for some, but trying to push them to a new way of policing. A better way of policing. So we really get to see this unravel within the precinct, within police policing each other. Instead of the public response, we get to see what happens within the police station.
At the end of the episode, Jackson decides he can't let this stand and goes to Sgt. Grey with his concerns. Jackson pretty much lets Grey have it, rebuking the idea of standing on Grey's shoulders and insisting that putting Stanton on desk duty isn't good enough. Do you think he intends to go in there and say all that, or does it just spill out?
I think it spills out in the end. I think his intention was to go in there, say this, and of course an African American police officer would have my back and fully see this. That's what I feel like my expectation was, that he would be blown away and [want to] do something about it right now. But because that's not the response I got, I had to switch tactics. It's the same thing that's happening right now — there's still people that we have to wake [up], even within our own community. I was one of those people. If this is not a problem anymore, why am I still underwater? Why am I still reaping the effects of this systemic issue if it's not a problem?
Bradford backs him up and it's clear Grey agrees with him, at least privately, but what kind of consequences might Jackson face for having the guts to report Stanton?
Expulsion. He could be very much relieved of his duties by going against a training officer. Just as a rookie, it's typically a no-no. There has to be a lot of evidence for you to not be the wrong one as a rookie. Especially for calling out somebody who's been on the force for many, many, many years. It's beautiful to me that they have Eric's character, Tim, siding with me, because I think that is an important angle to show too, that not every cop is a racist cop. There are many cops who fully agree with the movements happening and that things need to progress.
Jackson has been told that benching Stanton is the only recourse for now. But what might lie ahead?
We can fully expect it to come to a head. It's not disappearing. It's not something that ends here. Jackson continues to find his strength in the situation and speaks out even more. Which is a beautiful message to send, especially with that line "Silence is complicity." Jackson is no longer silent. He's like, "If I'm going down, you will see the wrong, and we're taking him down as well."
It also feels like Bradford and Grey are realizing they need to step up. What's in store for them?
I can only say what I would hope would come because the reality is we physically haven't even shot a lot of that stuff yet. I hope we get to where both parties, both Grey and Tim, align with Jackson and it becomes this new kind of allyship, of weeding out the bad seeds.
Jackson has a lot of really heavy real stuff on his plate going ahead. But the show has done always done a great job of mixing that with more lighthearted moments. Might Jackson have some some more fun ahead as well?
What the show, and Alexi, does great is the balance. So as much as we are touching on these heavy, real topics, we also do keep the through-line of the show, which is aspirational. There is a lightheartedness to it. It's definitely more future love for Jackson. And there's definitely more of those beautiful camaraderie moments between me and Nathan and [Melissa] and the rookies. It filters in and out really nicely. After we bring awareness to [this issue] on the show, we do give everybody a little breath before diving into something else.
Can you tease the next episode?
We take up from where we left off, as far as my story line goes with Jackson and Doug. We take it to the next level, and that one conversation fuels Jackson to go even further and really catch this guy in his tracks and make sure Sgt. Grey and the entire world can see what's happening.