by Jeanine Plant
photography by Alison Dyer
For a moment, Michael Chiklis balks at a question about the state of American political life. Then, without hesitation, his response evinces solid self-possession and a whiff of disdain.
“I am an actor, not a politician.”
From our conversation – we spoke on the eve of the debut of his new ABC show No Ordinary Family starting this fall – this reaction aligns with what he describes as his lifelong ambition to act since he was six.
“There are too many voices out there. We need to be a lot less polarized and a lot more centered. We could do well with quiet reason and common sense and common ground. That might sound like some big kumbaya, but it is real. The political world is so awful; everybody is out to get everybody else. The fact of the matter is that if you’re in a room with people, they are people, and I don’t care what side of the aisle you’re from, we are people first.”
“We need to be less political and more human.”
Such quick improvisation, so extemporaneously thoughtful and eloquent, you would think that Chiklis, at one point or another, might have flirted with the idea of moving from actor to politician, the way others have done in seamless career transitions – Ronald Reagan, say, playing a cowboy or performing in his role as president, Arnold Schwarzenegger, now the governor of California. But Chiklis sees his fundamental purpose in life as an actor to entertain, a humanistic role he regards with reverence. For him, it seems, political life is simply less moral.
“When I was a little kid, I would go to the theater or watch a television show, and what excited me was that those mediums were incredibly powerful, and gave actors the opportunity to entertain people. That made me so excited, the power to make people feel something, make them laugh or their guts wrench, and hopefully have, as a byproduct, a conversation. I feel just as excited today as I did when I was seven.” Acting has been the driving force in his life. Chiklis honed his craft at the Boston University College of Fine Arts, which was “very important” in his formative years, and he made it, as most people know because he is a household name, all the way to The Shield, the blockbuster runaway hit on FX, which had an seven-year run, and in which he was highly praised and earned an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama and a Golden Globe. Chiklis says The Shield was the pinnacle of his career, the “defining moment.”
Despite his Hollywood success, which he says he had to fight for, Chiklis comes across as truly down-to-earth, and attributes many of his achievements to sheer willpower. Unlike many ambitious people, he didn’t have to suffer through his college years and early twenties wandering in the stark land of finding himself. By dint of his unwavering self-knowledge, he had a leg up; his success is in many ways attributable to that lifelong goading desire to act. And because of his appealing sense of modesty, he realizes this: “It’s really wonderful. I have always known what I wanted to do. I am very blessed in that way.”
Perhaps Chiklis is grounded because of his humble roots. Born in Lowell, Massachusetts, Chiklis’ father ran a hair salon and his mother worked as an administrative aid at a hospital. They were also evidently very supportive of his ambitions: Chiklis worked in regional theater productions early on and joined the Actors’ Equity Association at thirteen. And his career has been one of swift, albeit hard won upward mobility. After he graduated from Boston University, he starred in the lead role of the controversial biopic Wired, and then made the obligatory rounds in guest appearances on popular TV shows: Miami Vice, L.A. Law, Murphy Brown, and Seinfeld. Chiklis first garnered acclaim in his role as a police commissioner in upstate New York, The Commish. And he secured his reputation as a serious actor in his role as the rogue cop, Vic Mackey, in The Shield.
The Shield, understandably, was “the best experience of my life,” Chiklis reminisces warmly. “When you finish a run like that, you want to do something where you haven’t covered that ground. You go for quality first, and those are hard to find. You have to find the diamond-in-the-rough.”
And Chiklis feels he’s found that with No Ordinary Family. “It’s a family show at its core, wrapped in a police procedural, wrapped in a super hero show. It’s a hybrid, three show archetypes wrapped into one, therefore it is totally new and therefore different. It is for a mass audience, and there are not a whole lot out there like that, most pieces are niche-oriented and targeted, and on that level, I felt it really was challenging. It’s a broad palette,” he said, demanding his wide emotional skill set. There is romance, comedy and action for him to experiment with, and so in that way, “it is exciting.”
When we spoke, he had just come off an 80-hour work week on No Ordinary Family, in which he acted in three wedding sequences. “It was daunting. A wedding sequence is extravagant and a tremendous amount of work – it’s a lot to pull off.” But he said he is thrilled with the show, and loves working with the writers and producers, of which he is one, “mainly to have a strong voice both on set and behind the scenes.”
And in terms of choosing this show over other opportunities, he’s sure he made the right decision after serious deliberation. “You have to think long term when you’re choosing a TV show,” he said. “It’s different than a movie.”
Beyond his all-consuming work schedule, Chiklis makes time for family and charity. His mother is afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, and he has become very active in foundation work around that cause. This charity work makes the most sense in terms of Chiklis’ impulse toward humanism – and not the political realm – in all facets of his life and work. When I expressed condolences about his mother, he spoke compassionately and matter-of-factly: “It is a part of life and no one is immune to life – to its glorious wonders and its horrible tragedies.”
Indeed. And so Michael Chiklis shared a piece of wisdom with me, a diamond-in-the-rough maxim unearthed in a conversation about a new TV show.