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The Rookie: Melissa O'Neil and Eric Winter Open Up on Chenford, One of TV's Best Ships

The duo share their favorite moments and break down Winter's fantastic TikTok

Max Gao
Eric Winter and Melissa O'Neil, The Rookie

Eric Winter and Melissa O'Neil, The Rookie


Melissa O'Neil and Eric Winter never expected Lucy Chen and Tim Bradford to get together on The Rookie. When the ABC police procedural debuted in 2018, Chen and Bradford were paired up for the first time as rookie and training officer, respectively. And while they have both made strides professionally, a growing legion of fans began clamoring for them to become more than just colleagues — so much so that creator and showrunner Alexi Hawley pivoted to a slow-burn romance.

"When this all started, there were these hashtags, and it's funny because we, as actors, threw around #Tucy and #Chenford early on, but it was really us playing with the fact that we were partners," Winter told TV Guide in a joint interview with O'Neil. "The fans truly grabbed onto it from Day 1 and said, 'They're a couple! This needs to happen.' And we're like, 'How?! I'm so mean to her. I'm bossing her around. I'm a jerk all the time.' I don't think it really set in for us until they entertained it."

There have certainly been a few close calls for "Chenford" fans over the years — including a fake confession scene, where O'Neil and Winter were convinced that Hawley was ready to pull the trigger on their characters' relationship.

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"At that point, [the chatter] was really happening online, and we thought for sure that maybe there was subtext," O'Neil recalled of shooting that scene. "We were asking [Hawley]: 'Is this a true confession that she's masking as a thing?' And he goes, 'No, it's not. This is a joke.' So I don't know when it clicked. But I was surprised because even at that point, it was not a thing."

The fans finally got their wish in Season 5 of The Rookie. Now heading into the show's sixth season, which premieres Feb. 20, Chen and Bradford's work-life balance will be put to the test — and fans definitely won't want to miss the milestone 100th episode.

In their first in-depth interview, which took place during the Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena, O'Neil and Winter chatted about the evolution of Chenford, how they work together as scene partners, and Winter's unexpected love for TikTok.

Let's get one of the most important questions out of the way: Who do you think fell first?

Winter: I get asked this all the time. [To O'Neil] I'm sure you do, too.

O'Neil: I don't get asked this.

Winter: I always say Lucy.

OK, let's say Lucy fell first. Can you pinpoint a specific moment when you noticed a shift in this dynamic?

O'Neil: The first time Lucy ever played it — or that I intentionally played it as an actor — was definitely at that kiss moment. He was so cruel to her so many times that she was like, "I have nothing to do with this dude." And then there's that moment where there's physical intimacy, and then chemistry does what chemistry does, and now she's looking at him in a way that she didn't before. But there's always been love.

Winter: The only reason I say Lucy fell first is Tim has so many walls up, and he went through such a bad situation with his ex-wife. Tim had to let a lot more down to go: "I'm going to really let myself get to this place again with a partner and somebody I'm in the force with." I feel like that's my only justification, but I don't think either of us really know.

O'Neil: Yeah, there's not a point I can pinpoint from an actor perspective. And even when I think about all the times that Lucy was going out of her way to express her care, I really think that's just her character. The only time I thought it was a little weird — and I tried to fish around to be like, "Why is she behaving like this?" — was when she followed him. I think it was in the pilot or shortly after.

Winter: When I'm going to his ex-wife's?

O'Neil: Yeah, I show up, and I'm like, "What are you doing?!"

Winter: But I do think that was an early part when fans started to go, "There's something there. Why is she, as a rookie, going so far away out of her way to protect this guy who's such a jerk to her? What does she see in him that she might like?"

O'Neil: You know what's a fun tidbit? The first time that Chen and Bradford got into a fight — it was the first fight where she's saying that she's going out of her way to try to save him, and he's giving her shit for it, for suicidal ideation or something like that. She's like, "I was trying to protect you." [Richard T. Jones, who plays Wade] was like, "I saw right from that scene that you guys were going to be something." And we were like, "What are you talking about?" Richard's the original Chenford person!

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When you play work partners who eventually become romantic partners, there's an important shift in physical and emotional intimacy that has to occur. Compared to last season, do you feel like there is a difference in the way you approach these "Chenford" scenes this season?

O'Neil: I'm super conscious of a lot of those choices, because personally, as a woman, I am very different with my romantic partner than I would ever be with a work person. So I've actually really enjoyed having the opportunity to play that difference. It's been really fun to figure out how to layer in that kind of intimacy in a work environment that's not obtuse and on the nose. But if you know what's going on between them, you're like, "Oh, that was cute, the way they looked at each other at work."

Winter: We've been very, very mindful of trying to be true to what it would be like to be them at work as a couple. Also, [we're considering] Tim's past, her past, and how that bleeds together. It's something we do take very seriously as far as trying to keep it as authentic as possible. As actors, I think the only way it's shifted is that we're more aware of it.

As characters, I think it's part of the fun of the storyline — the fact that it is awkward at times, or maybe we're trying to be a little bit affectionate out in public, but then we pull it back. We have to do our job, and we have to take our jobs seriously. [As Tim] I can't treat her differently. Even though she's my girlfriend, I'm a sergeant, and she's supposed to follow my command. There's a lot of things that you can play with.

After 100 episodes, you are certainly two of the only cast members I can think of who are still in a lot of the scenes together. What do you think you bring out in each other as scene partners? What do you think are the keys to fostering that sense of trust?

O'Neil: Eric and I are both dragons. This is our [Chinese zodiac] year. I am saying that because we learned that about each other on the pilot. We've always had a shorthand, and we're very open to collaborating. Or rather, I would say, Eric's very patient and gracious [laughs] with me when I'm like, "Hey, can I pitch you something?" But he's always down to workshop a scene, and I really appreciate that.

As their relationship has unfolded, we're navigating a lot of different things that require a certain degree of familiarity and intimacy — even just relationally. We recently shot a scene [in episode 606] that was super vulnerable, and I really feel like our friendship has facilitated the ability for those scenes to go deep in a way that's honest and true.

Winter: We both care a lot about the show and these characters. So we collaborate well together. She likes to pitch me a lot of ideas.

O'Neil: [Laughs.] He's so patient!

Winter: She wants to run my lines all the time before I've learned them. [O'Neil laughs.] I'm patient with that, because we learn lines very differently. But look, at the end of the day, we had a big scene this season with each other, and she said, "Hey, can I talk to my scene partner for a second? I want to talk to you about something." So that trust is important. But you're right. I didn't even think about what you just said, but it's true: We're the only two characters that have been together since Day 1.

O'Neil: Oh, wow.

Winter: [Alyssa Diaz's] Angela lost her rookie, [Nathan Fillion's] Nolan, as you know, has obviously moved on with different people, and [Afton Williamson's] Bishop is no longer here with us, so there's a lot of changes. Listen, we've been so fortunate that they're crafting such good strong characters for us that it hasn't ever gotten boring. I could sit in the shot with [O'Neil], and we're doing the pod car scenes, and every time we have a blast. It always feels fresh and new.

What new layers are you finding in your characters — both individually and as a couple — this season?

Winter: What we're gonna see, and what I like, is a lot of authenticity about a couple learning how to navigate these waters of growth in career and as a couple. I just know that in real life, in my own relationships, it's not always easy to navigate changes in careers and relationships. I'm not saying changes in respect to [Chen and Bradford's relationship specifically], but it could be a different position, like being detective, whatever it is. These are jumps in a job that can take a toll on a relationship, and given Tim's past with his ex wife, it's a lot. So I think it would have been a shame to not feel them go through those challenges and try to navigate that as a couple, because that's what you want. You want to see real couples have real problems and figure it out. Her being a detective is a tough thing for Tim to go through.

Tim diving more into his past is always an eye-opener for me to know why he is the way he is and the challenges he's always kept everybody away from. We're diving into a lot of that to understand more about him as a person, and [Lucy] is helping to bring out a lot of the best in Tim to help him navigate that.

O'Neil: This season, Lucy's going through a set of circumstances that we've never had the opportunity to see her go through. Even as the actor who's going through the paces with her, I'm doing things and feeling things that I have not explored prior. Half the time, I'm like, "How am I going to feel when I get there?" And I don't know, because I haven't even been in a lot of these situations myself. So [as an actor] you want to get squeezed in that way, and I've enjoyed it. In all transparency, I have also felt really vulnerable at times, because some of the stuff that we're touching [on] are things that I don't think I would ever elect to show my co-workers, let alone a bunch of human beings watching it at home.

Eric Winter and Melissa O'Neil, The Rookie

Eric Winter and Melissa O'Neil, The Rookie


What can you tease about the 100th episode?

Winter: We dance! We have a good dance with a nice little confessional of information. Tim opens up to her a bit during the dance.

I don't think we ever saw any of the other characters react to news of their relationship.

Winter: We've talked about that, actually.

O'Neil: Yeah, I do feel like that's a bit of a loss that they didn't do that.

Winter: And by the way, I don't think Tim knows about Nolan [previously secretly dating Lucy] either.

That was going to be my next question!

Winter: I think that would be an amazing episode. And I would love for that episode to come out!

O'Neil: I mean, I feel like it would have to be a flashback at this point.

Winter: Because I think there's so much gold to mine in that discomfort, just as a guy in my own life —

O'Neil: Wait, wait! With where they are now though, I feel like it would have to be a flashback. She must have told him by this point..

Winter: Nope.

O'Neil: [Looking slightly horrified but also unable to suppress her laugh.] Are you serious?

Winter: It's never easy for a guy to find out that he's dating someone that is his current friend or coworker's ex that he didn't know for all this time. I think that's the beauty of it. You didn't know how to tell me about it, and Nolan definitely is not going to tell me about it, and there's so much fun to have with that story. Just an episode of it would be so fun.

O'Neil: Yeah, that would be funny.

What are some of your favorite Chenford moments?

O'Neil: I love the false confession. I think it's hilarious, and we had a blast shooting it. I will never forget watching playback and watching his face respond. The way that he was responding made me laugh even harder. I thought that scene was just so well-executed. Anytime we're in the pod car, we're knobs, we always have so much fun, and it's fun for everybody else. It's a blast.

Winter: It's called Pod Car Karaoke when we're in the car. We're goofballs. We sing constantly.

O'Neil: So loud! The second they yell cut — and sometimes even when they've already yelled action, we're still listening to the radio lip syncing. It's bad.

Winter: There's been so many great, fun Chenford scenes. I loved saving her in the barrel.

O'Neil: That's a stunning moment.

Winter: That's a great scene. That was such a great episode for her, and I think it was just such a pivotal moment again for them and for the fans. Me giving her the ring back, which was one of her pitches.

O'Neil: That was a pitch! I pitched that!

Winter: She said, "If we could bring the ring back, it'd be such a cool thing because he found it out there." I don't want to get in trouble for that, but that was her idea.

O'Neil: We did that on the day though. I'm always pitching stuff!

Winter: And that was a great one!

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Eric, you recently joined TikTok and have become a bit of an overnight sensation with fans. What made you want to join the platform now? And when will we get another Chenford TikTok?

O'Neil: This guy used all of us to make his TikTok huge. [Takes the phone recording the conversation off the table and puts it in his face.] Tell them why. This is the time to plug.

Winter: [My wife] Roselyn [Sánchez] pushed me to do TikTok, no question about it. I have never been [more] negative on a platform about my life. I was like, "Never will I join TikTok ever."

O'Neil: He thought it was cringe. [Puts phone down.]

Winter: I'm launching a rum in April, and I was like, "I want to be able to reach my fans and talk about things I'm doing." I feel like maybe it resonated because I was so anti-TikTok, and then my first TikTok was very much about me caving. What I've noticed that the fans respond to [is content that] is so opposite of Bradford. They're so confused by what they're seeing. A lot of them are going, "I don't know if I can look at Eric the same way anymore." They're seeing this goofball side of me, but on the show, I'm clearly not. On Instagram, I don't do any of that.

O'Neil: Instagram is his family Facebook page.

Winter: It's like, "Here is my life. These are my friends! This is what I do!" And then I'm just a weirdo on TikTok. But [Melissa] loves TikTok.

O'Neil: I had burner accounts. I wouldn't go public with it because he teased me so hard that I was like, "I don't have a TikTok."

Winter: Yeah, I would tease her. Jenna [Dewan] is obsessed with TikTok. And now I get a lot of credit for recruiting Mekia [Cox] and Alyssa.

O'Neil: You did recruit Mekia and Alyssa because they're in their mom era, and they were both like, "Why is Eric doing TikTok?!"

Winter: Because they knew I was so anti-TikTok! They were like, "There has to be a reason!" So I recruited them. [points at O'Neil] I didn't recruit her to the platform, but I did inspire her to start doing more and get back on. Inspire might be a big word, but I got her back on.

O'Neil: I haven't found the right audio yet to do a Chenford TikTok, and that's why we haven't done another one.

Winter: I'm trying to get Tru [Valentino] and Richard on. But I'm glad you're enjoying my alter-ego.

I would ask who is better at TikTok, but I think Eric is in the lead right now.

[Winter laughs maniacally.]

O'Neil: He is in the lead because he's just using everybody!

Winter: Did you see my latest one? Did you see my jail one?


Winter: I'm actually proud of the jail one. I came up with the jail one myself. I found this [audio], and I was like, "I think I'm gonna do this, and it would be really funny with Alyssa because we're like besties on the show, and then she's telling me to calm down." I'm actually not just doing them. Sometimes, there's a thought process to what I'm putting out there. [Laughs.]

The Rookie Season 6 premieres Tuesday, Feb. 20 at 9/8c on ABC. Episodes stream the next day on Hulu.