Awards Daily’s Megan McLachlan talks to Elizabeth Laidlaw from The Red Line on CBS about working with a predominantly female crew and why Chicago is a great city for storytelling.
An African American doctor is picking up milk on his way home from work and gets shot and killed by a white cop.
The Red Line on CBS takes an unfortunately common and familiar headline and puts a magnifying glass under it. Was the crime just a thoughtless action from a white cop or fueled by racism? The series sparks a lot of uncomfortable conversations.
Elizabeth Laidlaw plays Officer Vic Renna on the series, who is involved in a cover-up with her partner Paul Evans (Noel Fisher). I had a chance to chat with the Chicago-native about how to have an opinion on a character without showing it and why the show’s tragedy is almost Shakespearean.
Awards Daily: This series shows a variety of aspects of one crime. There are no heroes or villains. Was that something that drew you to the project?
Elizabeth Laidlaw: Absolutely. I also should say, as a caveat here, I’ve known our creators Erica Weiss and Caitlin Parrish for a long time. We all know each other from Chicago, and I had seen the play that the pilot of The Red Line was originally based on. It was a play called A Twist of Water. It’s quite different from The Red Line, the main difference being in ATOW the father is killed in a car accident and none of the issues of race and police shootings are present in the play. What I loved about The Red Line pilot is that they had updated the story and made it more relevant. It was really exciting to see them make a wise decision about an already terrific play and turn it into a wonderful idea for a pilot.
AD: Your character reveals that she did something illegal to protect her partner. What do you think drove her to do that?
EL: There are a few factors that I let trickle into my thinking. First of all, it’s pretty well known in the training to become a police officer, you protect your own, you protect your partner, you always have your partner’s back. I think that’s really strenuously drilled in to police officers. So that’s a true thing, just in general in police culture. The second thing is, I think Vic herself has grown up with a lot of men around her—brothers, fathers, uncles. She’s grown up in a police family herself, with all these men around her all the time. I think she grew up taking care of men, cleaning up after them. She has two sons. She has an ex husband. Her entire life is about cleaning up after men she loves. I think she feels that way about Paul. They have a very brother-sister kind of relationship, almost closer than a brother and sister, since the family you choose you’re often closer to and open with than the family you’re born with. I think as partners they became the family you choose. I think when she sees her partner do something really stupid, and she assesses the situation and makes another snap decision, neither of which were thought out particularly well.
AD: This is a show audiences will clearly have differing opinions about. Is it hard not having an opinion about your character? And if you do have an opinion, is it hard not reflecting that in your character?
EL: As an actor, you really look for these challenges, to get inside someone else’s head and have compassion for them. If I read this story as breaking news, I would be like, ‘They both deserve to go to jail!’ I would have a very strong opinion about it. But you can’t play that. I can choose as an actor whether to play Vic as someone who absolutely has no regrets about her behavior, but I don’t think that’s very nuanced and that wasn’t in line with the story we were trying to tell. What I’m trying to do is show someone who’s really wrestling with this moment and knows she’s made a terrible mistake. In her heart and in her mind, her intentions were good. She wasn’t acting out of racism or bias, she was acting out of love, for someone that she knew. We are tribal creatures and we will defend someone we love over a stranger. That’s why her racism is so complicated. It’s not coming out of this place as, ‘I hate that guy on the floor.’
AD: I think she would have done it even if it was a white guy.
EL: That’s the question! You don’t know what she would do under another set of circumstances.
AD: Oh that’s interesting, I’d like to think that if she were to protect her partner, she would do it at all costs, not just because of race.
EL: I think Vic would want you to think that, too. At the end of episode 2, she says, ‘I’d do it again,’ and in her mind, she’s thinking she’d do it no matter what happened. Vic likes to think that way, but who knows—we don’t know.
AD: You’re right. Shifting to behind the scenes, there are a lot of women working on the show. What was it like working with a lot of women?
EL: It’s great. Also, I should say that all of the men that worked on this show are great. Having women like Caitlin and Erica lead means that everybody they’re choosing—men, women, trans, nonbinary—is willing to work in a collaborative room. The people at the top are creating a really good environment for collaboration. That’s really the main difference is that you have two people who are very conscious about the potential for exclusion. When you have women in charge of things, they have been excluded sometimes or have had people try to exclude them; they are very conscious of that feeling, so they create spaces where everybody feels heard and included.
AD: I know you live in Chicago. Why do you think the Windy City is a good setting for storytelling?
EL: It is not as old as the cities on the East Coast, so it’s a little more spread out. It’s a gorgeous city to shoot with all these different neighborhoods. Every part of Chicago looks different from every other part of Chicago. Architecturally and visually, if you’re shooting it, there are all these opportunities. Chicago has such a fascinating history. It rose up so quickly. It was two buildings, and then suddenly it was a city. The corruption. The fact that it’s burned down not once, but twice, and then rebuilt itself. Its character of reinvention and regeneration makes this city really interesting and complex.
For this story in particular, for as diverse as this city is, it is so strangely segregated. There’s a scene in The Red Line where you see the complexion changing as the trains head south or north. There’s such a color line, and it’s a great tragedy about Chicago. I think it was Erica or Caitlin who said if we could try to figure out how to fix the problem and division in Chicago, we could probably figure out how to fix the division in this country. To me, Chicago has always felt like the most American city.
AD: Wow. You’re also Shakespearean trained. After talking to you, I feel like in ways, The Red Line is kind of Shakespearean. Different families and ‘houses.’ Do you see that, too?
Yes! It does have a certain feeling of a grand sense of scale in terms of having a woman running for political office and her birth daughter is part of a family who lost this man in this huge landmark case. It feels larger than life, but at the same time, that’s why we’re looking at these people, because we’re finding these people in an extraordinary confluence of events. That’s when things really matter, when things get big, almost too big to handle, and how you handle those moments that are too big is where we learn lessons and get smarter and get better. It’s big moments that show our mettle as people.
Megan McLachlan is a freelance writer that lives in Pittsburgh, PA. Her work has appeared in Buzzfeed, Cosmopolitan, The Cut, Paste, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Thrillist, and The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @heydudemeg.