TV Guide Magazine caught up with Forest Whitaker on the set of Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior, the CBS spin-off debuting February 16 in which he stars as FBI Agent Sam Cooper. He was happy to talk about his new procedural and also about Brick City, the Peabody Award-winning reality show that he produces about the struggles of Newark, New Jersey and its mayor Cory Booker. The riveting series — a sort of nonfiction version of The Wire — returns for Season 2 on February 6. (Sundance Channel, 8/7c)
TV Guide Magazine: How and why did you get involved with Brick City?
Whitaker: I had worked on the President's Urban Policy Committee. I began to understand that to rebuild troubled cities, we had to start with families, then go outward to the police force and the city government. That's how we can effect change. I was developing a few shows with Mark Levin (his co-executive producer) and we decided to bring this to Sundance and we got them to finance the project.
TV Guide Magazine: It really sounds important to you.
Whitaker: This project is about a city trying to rebuild itself and that's true of a lot of cities across the country. Maybe across the world. It's about the process of trying to reclaim your city, of trying to educate the kids, get the needed finances. It's a critical show about something that's really important to me. That's why I became involved.
TV Guide Magazine: Season 1 ended on a high note, the election of mayor Cory Booker. What's the thrust of Season 2?
Whitaker: We enter it with Cory trying to do urban revitalization. We follow Gary McCarthy, the police director, who tries to clean up the streets but has a lot of enemies who disagree politically. We also follow the stories of former gang members Jayda and Creep, a couple who are now mentors, and Jiwe, who's on trial for murder. We see these people try to rebuild their lives.
TV Guide Magazine: You're on the set of Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior as we speak?
Whitaker: Yeah, I'm on set right now in my trailer.
TV Guide Magazine: You've done lots of guest arcs on such shows as ER and The Shield and you won an Oscar for your movie work. Why take on the grind of a leading role on a TV drama?
Whitaker: A number of different things. The concept explores the duality of light and dark. That's really interesting to me. Sam Cooper is someone who deals with fringe characters — people who abduct people, who traffic in people. One of the things we try and explore is not just the symptoms but also the causes. We go deep into understanding the causes, so we can shed some light onto these individuals. My character in particular searches to see that light while he's trying to solve these crimes in the people that he deals with.
TV Guide Magazine: How is it so far?
Whitaker: It's been a good experience. We've got a great cast and crew. It is an offshoot of Criminal Minds, but it has its own story and character, its own focus.
TV Guide Magazine: How is the focus different from CM? Like that show, the characters are agents with the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit.
Whitaker: My character's highly spiritual. He's from the seminary. He experiences life sometimes in terms of myth. That's interesting for me. Sam Cooper believes that people can find redemption.
TV Guide Magazine: Who are some of the other characters?
Whitaker: Michael Kelly plays The Prophet. He was in prison, so has a different take on the way criminal minds think. He comes at it from inside out. Matt Ryan plays Mick Rawson. He's from Wales, a sniper Sam knows from Afghanistan. Janeane Garofalo's character, Beth Griffith, is whip smart, very capable and has major insight. Beau Garrett plays Gina LaSalle, who's fascinated by victimology. She wants to understand victims — how they became vulnerable; what happened to them afterward; and how they can possibly one day move forward.
TV Guide Magazine: Criminal Minds is known for its violence. How about Suspect Behavior?
Whitaker: Yeah, we're behavioral analysts. We deal with scenes of abduction, sexual crimes, serial killers, terrorism. So these things are on the darker edge. But that allows us to explore the duality of that — where the light might exist.