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The Craft

Playing Cops (and Robbers Too)

Playing Cops (and Robbers Too)

Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I played a police officer on stage. I immediately discovered why cops walk in that funny, lumbering way: It's the holster. It gets in the way of holding your arms straight down at your sides.

Of course, there's plenty more to know about playing police officers -- handling firearms, modulating your voice, and so on. Actors who audition for and play these roles do lots of research. And in Los Angeles, the Aaron Speiser Acting Studio offers a special class in police tactics. "With so many cop shows on TV," says Speiser, "actors are auditioning and not handling themselves physically in the right manner." One of his students, Lew Callihan, a retired LAPD officer and kung fu master, was the ideal person to teach police procedures.

Learning From the Real Thing

Callihan teaches exactly what he taught rookies at the police academy, with a few adjustments. For example, he says, "The physical, hands-on self-defense stuff in the police academy can get a little rough, so I tone that down a little. I change the combat to stage combat, so I can teach the students how to make it look real. The arrest, the handcuffing, the 'Don't move, get on the ground' is exactly the same." So are lessons on how to search and clear a room, how to disarm a suspect, and more. The classroom guns aren't real, of course, but they look and feel exactly like real guns. Callihan sets up staged robberies, has students investigate a simulated crime scene with gloves on, and describes the trajectory of a bullet. Sometimes a student hides in the building and everyone searches for him. Callihan also stages vehicle stops, homicide investigations -- "as much as I can cover that will help them onscreen."

He also sometimes joins in, playing a cop. He worked undercover for years and has been in some "hairy situations," he says. "I bring that as my sense memory into class. I do an arrest exactly like I did it on the street. That can be frightening. They say, 'Lew, you look so intense when you're doing it.' I say, 'That's because it's real to me. And it has to be real to you.' "

Some of the students don't know how to sound like cops. "When I put a gun in their hand and tell them to yell 'Freeze!,' for so many their voices either go way high or nothing comes out," Callihan says. "Their voices leave them under pressure." He steers those students to the studio's speech and voice classes. Do stage actors have better vocal control than those who've worked mainly on camera? Callihan says stage actors can project more loudly, but they sometimes sound, well, stagy. And on the street, if a cop is yelling, it can escalate a bad situation.

Speiser says some students have tiny voices when they start the course. Later, when he's in his office and hears those same actors down the hall, it's actually frightening, he says. And "to hear small women yell, 'Down on the floor, motherfucker!' is hilarious." What's the hardest thing for actors to master? "Walking up on a suspect when the bad guy doesn't want to do as he's told can confuse even a real rookie cop," says Callihan. So he trains actors to use repetition -- for example, to say "Get on the ground!" over and over. He also teaches "verbal judo": A small female cop can't throw a big guy on the ground, so she has to talk him into the handcuffs.

But Callihan doesn't neglect the bad guys. He teaches actors how to rob, how to feel as if the gun at your head is real and you might die. When playing the criminal, "if you don't look the part, the audience won't believe the cop either," he says. "I tell them to think back to the scariest thing they've ever been through. Let me see that fear on your face!" If a student claims to have never experienced anything like that, Callihan might suddenly grab the student by the head, "put the fear on them," he says. If a student just can't go there, he says, "you probably won't play the part until you do."

Studying on Your Own

One of Callihan's students, Letizia Florez, aspired to play a cop. "I am tough," she explains. "I like to portray a strong woman, a no-nonsense person," and she felt she could bring those qualities to a police role, which requires a certain masculine-type assertiveness. "You have to have dominant qualities [so that] people obey," she says. Florez was the eldest of five children and had to tell them to do everything, so it wasn't difficult for her to turn that experience into coplike behavior.

In class, she learned to keep her vocal pitch down while keeping the volume up. Untrained actors, she says, tend to let their pitch rise along with their volume, and it's not a pretty sound: "The criminal would look at you like you're a joke!" Florez has taken three of Callihan's classes and says that when she played the criminal role, she could feel the adrenaline and fear creeping into her body -- big fun! Now her résumé says she's had police tactics training, and it has opened lots of doors. Recently she got to handle weapons as the bad girl in an industrial video.

Her classmate Tui Ho Chee has attended all the sessions Callihan has taught so far. "I wanted to walk and talk like a police officer so I could just worry about what was going on in the scene," he says. He was surprised about the body language required to play a cop and realizes now how important the voice is in getting someone to listen to you, whether you're yelling or talking calmly. He hasn't had any auditions for police officers yet, but he's been called for criminal roles and recently shot an indie film for which he needed to know how to handle a gun -- which he now does.

When Callihan's students graduate, he takes them to a shooting range, where they fire different types of guns. "That was such an adrenaline rush!" exclaims Florez. "You can feel the energy of the gun. You get instant, 100 percent alertness. Feeling how it pushes back when you pull the trigger -- it jolts you. Even just talking to you about it makes me excited!"

Some big-city actors may feel they have enough real-world experience not to need a police tactics class. New York actor Robert Kirk has played his share of cops and has some familiarity with the profession: A good friend is a detective, another friend's father was a homicide detective in Harlem, and Kirk's grandfather worked for 1930s New York gangster Dutch Schultz. Kirk remembers neighborhood gunfights from his early childhood in the South Bronx. "For someone without the life experience, I guess a class would be helpful," he says, noting that there's always an ex-cop serving as tech adviser on the sets of films and TV shows involving police officers.

For another New York actor, Mark Doherty, preparing to play a cop was more a matter of research. In addition to police roles on daytime shows, he recently played an NYPD officer in a Sundance Film Festival award winner, Adam. He has studied the way cops put their hands on their utility belts, the way they hold their arms, the assertiveness of their language. For Adam, he consulted a scene partner who was an actual police officer. "The costume always assists," Doherty says. "There's a sort of magical thing when you put on the uniform and gun holster." He adds, "As actors we have to watch the right films and TV shows, and also the real thing" -- for example, the cop on the corner. In fact, Florez rode along with an officer for an entire shift; and on a ride-along in a Sheriff's Department helicopter, she was the first to spot the dead body they were looking for. (You can apply for a ride-along at your local police station.) Watching certain shows -- Callihan recommends The Unit and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation -- and perhaps interviewing a neighborhood homicide detective can also be helpful. Otherwise, contact the affable Callihan at


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