There’s a new Chicago-based limited series premiering this month that’s not your regular cop show. Broaching the topics of systemic prejudice, crime and local politics, “The Red Line” follows three families as they navigate a troublesome murder at the hands of a policeman.
At the center of the emotional family drama is Jefferson Park resident and actor Michael Patrick Thornton, who’s been hailed for his work at Steppenwolf, Second City and his own theatre company, The Gift. Playing the role as wounded and resentful police veteran Jim Evans, Thornton’s own paralyzing trauma back in 2003 left him asking the industry he loves to fairly include the minority he found himself a part of 16 years ago.
Ahead of the series premiere, Thornton opens up about the defining real life moments that led him to the heartfelt, honest and eye opening role as a Chicago cop.
What were the conversations you had personally and professionally to prepare for the role? I was really lucky to meet with a Chicago Police Officer, who had been shot in the line of duty and we would get together at my place and just unpack [what’s] going on with [the city]. My grandfather, my father my cousins are all cops, so there’s over 200 years of service in the family. I would text them when I had a questions — whether it was a technical term or something I wanted to double check. The nature of accuracy [seems to be] flying out the window. If we’re really going to ask everyone to take an honest, long look in the mirror, [it has to be right].
On St. Patrick’s Day in 2003, you suffered a spinal stroke that left you in a wheelchair. How do you approach that anniversary? For the longest time, there would be a real dread and terror of it — fearing that it would happen again or something. I would just sit by myself in a bar somewhere and wait until the anniversary [passed]. Slowly over time, it became a chance to celebrate the fact that I am still here and I worked extremely hard to return to doing what I love and somehow Humpty Dumpty got put back together. My character does not do that. My character has a trauma happen to him — he is unable to do anything other than blame. And I get it. That’s a gear that people get stuck in.
How did you decide to stay on the same career path after your circumstances changes?
It was abundantly clear to me that the industry had no idea what to do with me. I was working as an actor before I got sick and then afterwards, it was crickets. Steppenwolf has been, throughout everything, the one champion. You kind of come to a crossroads and go, ‘Well am I just going to throw in the towel and say that’s it? Or am i going to keep doing what I love until it kills me?.’ Working with people who believe in you — that makes a huge difference.
You co-founded The Gift Theatre Company back in 1997. How have your goals for the company shifted? It’s been really unbelievable to watch it grow. Not only did it revitalize that part of the city, but also the neighborhood is different for those folks growing up now than when I was there. You had to go downtown to access [theatre]. That teaches you something; it teaches you [that] you’re not quite worth your own museum or your own theatre. It’s been our own revolution.
How do you see your own life in “The Red Line?” The title “Red Line” from a literal perspective, is one of the [Chicago] train lines. If you ride it from the south side to the north side, [you] see how the city changes pretty drastically. For me to get to the studio [to film], I would take this one street that went through so many different pockets and neighborhoods. I passed where I did my first play, I passed where I went to high school, I passed where my mom grew up. Life has this really amazing and baffling way of bringing things full circle. As an artist, there’s burning fuel sources and when it’s appropriate when you need it, you go back and open one can up and use it for whatever character you need.
“The Red Line” airs Sundays at 7 p.m. on CBS.
Photo: Janna Giacoppo