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Michael Cudlitz On Being a ’90s Dad, ‘Clarice,’ and Why Parents Need Scary Shows

"The best parent is just doing the best they can."

Getty / CBS

From The Walking Dead to Southland, to Band of Brothers, you know Michael Cudlitz’s face. He’s often playing somebody you don’t want to mess with; inside of a show that is super-intense, compelling, and sometimes, scary as hell. Recently, Cudlitz is back in frightening territory playing FBI agent Paul Krendler on the CBS drama Clarice. Yep, this is the show that is a side-ways sequel to Silence of the Lambs, starring Rebecca Breeds as Clarice Starling; a character previously tackled by Jodie Foster and Julianne Moore.

Clarice plays with the familiar chronology of this fictional universe, and also dives into the source material of the various Thomas Harris novels. But, make no mistake, this show is not about Hannibal Lecter or even Buffalo Bill, it’s about Clarice herself and the challenges she faces both within the FBI and without. Technically, Cudlitz plays one of Clarice’s colleagues in the FBI, but because this show is set in the ’90s, Krendler is not always the most enlightened guy. The show is gripping and scary as hell, just like you might expect from the source material.

But Michael Cudlitz? Well, he’s a freaking great guy. A father of two, Cudlitz has a lot to say about not only the 1990s but what being a parent means to him. Recently, he chatted with Fatherly about parents trying their best, how far we’ve come since the ’90s, and why parents sometimes crave scary TV shows after the kids go to bed. (No spoilers for Clarice ahead!)

 I was a child of the nineties. What is it like to do a ’90s period piece right now?

What’s really great is that our show is dealing with so many topics right now that are, you know, would be considered “current,” you know, topical things, but they’re just woven into the fabric of our show. We have an amazingly strong and resilient woman as our lead and our lead character who is operating in a male-dominated world of the FBI when women were not part of that world. So the show is dealing with women in the workplace. We also have the relationship of her and her best friend who also happens to be a woman of color, who, in the source material [the Thomas Harris novels] was also working in the FBI. There’s also Jen Richards who deals with the history and the legacy of Buffalo Bill and the trans community.

So it’s basically a progressive cop show set in the Silence of the Lambs fictional universe.

Right. There’s not “a very special episode of Clarice.” So, these issues are built into our storytelling because it is exactly what was going on at the time. None of it feels forced.

Is it hard to do a 2021 cop show set in the ’90s?

Well, a lot of this technology that we have now doesn’t exist. So there’s a bunch of actual detecting going on. There’s the physical, you know, it’s almost like a throwback to the shows that I watched when I was a kid as far as how the procedural stuff is handled. We have to go take fingerprints and we have to run them and we have to physically take things from one department to another, or we have to physically pull up the microfiche.

So, you were a parent of young children in the nineties —

Hey, late ’90s buddy, back off. [Laughs]

Fair enough! The question is, what did parents of young children now miss out on being a parent in the ’90s? What’s better for parents now? What’s worse?

I don’t know. I think k every parent out there from any decade, they’re doing the best they can. The best parent is just doing the best they can. And for the parent, I don’t think there’s any difference between the decades.

Did you feel like you had to immerse yourself in the ’90s? Like I dunno jam out to some Oasis or Nirvana or something?

Well, it’s mostly reading, I mean, obviously, I lived it, going back and remembering what was going on at that time. But we don’t do everything period-accurate. For the most part, we do. But, where we bend the rules is CPR. When we do CPR on the show, it’s the way CPR is done today. And we do that because people often learn CPR from TV. That’s just another example of the show have a wide-eyed awareness of itself.  I think that the network is being incredibly responsible when we deal with those things.

It seems like there’s a connection between Paul Krendler (in Clarice) and some of your other characters on Southland or The Walking Dead. Do you feel like there’s a “type of guy” you get typecast as?

I don’t know if the parts are quantifiable, but what I would say is you took any actor and you took their personality and you broke up their personality traits, and put those all in a column, and then compared those personality traits with every character you place, there’s always two or three things from the first column in the second. You take something that is a piece of you and you expand on that. They’re all versions of who we are. Then again, my wife used to say that when she watched Southland that I was unrecognizable to her.

When some people have said I play bad guys or military goes, I said part of it is just — to steal from Jessica Rabbit’s famous words — I mean look at me. I get it. I’m 215 pounds, I’m 6’2”. I’m not a small guy. I just appear capable and we associate that with certain roles. Whether or not that’s true or not is a different story, but I think when I play a cop, people buy it.

Clarice is a scary show. Walking Dead is a scary show. Why do parents stay up late and watch scary shows after the kids are asleep? 

Well, I think everybody loves to be scared. I mean, that’s the reason for amusement parks and rollercoasters and all those rides. Like, we, we love it. There are fun houses and, and haunted houses and Halloween, everybody. Like, we, we, everybody loves to be scared, you know, in a fun way. I think that some of my favorite times after the kids went to sleep was just sort of that escapism and, you know, reminding you of that, you are separate from your children. Not just always responsible for them. There’s a moment when you know that they’re safe, you know, they’re in bed. It’s time for you to sort of be yourself to have your own little escape.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Clarice airs on CBS and streams on Paramount+.