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A&E Has Original Take on Interventionist's Story

July 9, 2008 10:49 PM

Cleaning Up Co-executive producer Warren Boyd, left, and actors Amy Price-Francis and Benjamin Bratt of "The Cleaner" describe the A&E series' origins.

When Benjamin Bratt read the script for A&E’s new drama “The Cleaner,” he loved the writing and his character, but was concerned that the show’s concept of an “extreme interventionist" might seem far-fetched.

But those concerns vanished. “They chuckled and said it was based on a real guy,” the actor said Wednesday at the Television Critics Association summer press tour in Los Angeles.

The series is based on the life of Warren Boyd, an ex-addict who works with a group of other ex-addicts to aggressively push people to get clean. Mr. Boyd is serving as an executive producer for the series.

“The Cleaner” is A&E's first original drama series in years, and the network wants its fiction series to ring as true as its reality series, such as “Dog the Bounty Hunter.”

Mr. Boyd said the pilot episode of the series, which premieres July 15, “was really close to matter of fact,” capturing details such as his wife flinging a bowl at him during a fight. “And with Benjamin, it’s like he was watching my life,” Mr. Boyd said. “He even pulls off the mannerisms.”

Series co-creator, executive producer and showrunner Jonathan Prince says having Mr. Boyd on set can be daunting at times. .

“He’s not warm and fuzzy. He always looks like he wants to kick the shit out of you,” he said. “When Warren lets you know you did good, it’s the best feeling ever.”

Mr. Prince thinks Mr. Boyd may have helped persuade the network to pick up the project. During the pitch meeting, Mr. Boyd was furiously working two BlackBerrys, keeping track of his addicts.

At first, Mr. Prince thought that was not good behavior for the situation. Then he concluded that Mr. Boyd’s concern for his subjects sold the pitch in the room, he said.

There’s a school of thought that an addict can only quit if he really wants to, but Mr. Boyd believes people sometimes need a hard shove.

“I have learned that [the answer when] asking someone who is stark raving mad on cocaine what they want is more drugs,” he said. “You have to get them in a position where they can think straight.”

The issue of whether extreme measures work better than traditional rehab is addressed in an upcoming episode in which guest star Isaiah Washington plays a traditional therapist who differs with Mr. Bratt’s character’s methods. They discover they have similar success rates with their treatments—somewhere in the 20% range—which means in most cases they fail.

And the program will show cases in which the intervention team fails.

“It wouldn’t feel real if it didn’t happen. It’s not ‘Touched by an Interventionist,'” Mr. Prince said.

Another guest star is Eric Roberts, who plays an FBI agent who gets hooked on crystal meth while undercover with a motorcycle gang dealing drugs.

Having people from differing backgrounds with a variety of addictions could be an interesting feature of the show, Mr. Prince said. One episode will be about a jockey hooked on diet pills, while another is about a housewife addicted to OxyContin.

The gritty series has had issues with the language its characters use to express themselves.
A&E’s reruns of “The Sopranos” have had much of their bad language edited out for basic cable, but Mr. Prince said, “I’m good with the 'shits'—there will be no bleeping.”

He described having to negotiate to figure out what the network will permit in terms of language and the tradeoffs that have to be made, from how many times the word “shit” can be used in an hour, to being able to say “ass” but not “asshole.”

The language helps made the drama feel real.

“There is that sort of rawness to the character Ben’s playing," Mr. Prince said. “If he says, ‘Oh, shoot!’ you’re not going to believe him.”

The members of Mr. Bratt’s team are all ex-addicts. A character played by Esteban Powell, who starts off as a more lighthearted character, later in the season will fall off the wagon, creating "deeper, darker drama.”

Mr. Bratt’s daughter in the series is played by 14-year-old Liliana Mumy, daughter of Bill Mumy, who’s been acting since she was 7.

Acting is no big deal because everybody in the family does it, she said. Her father, himself a former child actor, did have some advice for her: “Just listen to the person when they’re talking to you, don’t look at the camera, and have fun,” she said.

Mr. Prince said Ms. Mumy has had only one request since the show started shooting: She wants to be involved in casting the new character who’s going to kiss her in an episode that hasn’t been shot yet.

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