Phillip P. Keene
Giving the Buzz on Major Crimes
by Jay S. Jacobs
It’s hard enough to find a good role in a hit series in modern Hollywood. Phillip P. Keene knows that he has gotten an extraordinary opportunity, to play the same fan-favorite role in two different series now, for over a decade.
Keene has been playing Buzz Watson – a CSI videographer who works for the Los Angeles police – through much of the run of The Closer and the entire run of the show’s spin-off Major Crimes. The two series – the first featuring Kyra Sedgwick and the second starring Mary McConnell – have many of the same cast members, but are very different in most other ways.
The character of Buzz has steadily progressed over the years and the shows. Keene is proud that his character has emerged from the background and gotten bigger and more important storylines, such as this past season where he was involved in an arc investigating the cold-case murder of his father and uncle when he was a child.
Keene has been involved with Major Crimes (and The Closer) show-runner James Duff since 1993 – they married in 2013 when same-sex marriage was legalized in California. However, despite the fact that he is so close to the boss, Keene is proud to have earned the role on his own. In fact, he has said that Duff initially was against the idea.
A little over a decade later, Keene – like his character – has proven himself to be a vital part of the Major Crimes team. As the fifth season was winding down, we sat down with Keene to discuss his character, the shows, his life and career.
You have been playing Buzz for over a decade on two series now. Does the character still surprise you?
Yes. You know, he does. Buzz is still very… I don’t want to say naïve, but let’s just say he still sees the world through a little bit of rose-colored glasses. I always make this comparison for him. I remember a quote – I’m paraphrasing – from the Anne Frank diary: “No matter what I see, I still believe that people are good at heart.” I think that’s true for Buzz. He sees horrible crimes that are being committed by people, the bloodshed and just horrific situations, and yet he still thinks that everybody deserves a chance.
Major Crimes changed a good deal from The Closer, and not just because Mary replaced Kyra. How do you feel the vibe of the two series are different, and how do you feel it is similar?
It’s similar from the basic concept. We have most of the same cast. A couple of our players have gone on to do other things. I think the biggest difference would be that The Closer was a fantastic show in that it focused the storytelling through a single lens – through the eyes of Kyra Sedgwick as Brenda Johnson. Now, Major Crimes for me has multiple lenses. We get to see everybody give their own point of view on what’s going on. It’s a much more character-driven series, in the sense that there are more people getting to tell their stories.
This past season had a running plotline of Buzz investigating his father and uncle’s murders with the help of Rusty. It was a devastating thing for Buzz. How interesting was it to play such a meaty subplot as an actor?
That was a really great thing for me, especially to see that the writers had that much confidence in me to be able to carry that story. I think I’ve paid my dues, starting basically as a novice in the beginning. After, like you said, over a decade of playing this role, they allowed me to run with this story. I’m proud of what I did.
In recent weeks, the show has been hinting that Buzz is feeling guilty about devastating the family of the man who murdered his father. Will that plotline continue and deepen the end of this season and the upcoming season?
I think it’s definitely going to have an impact on his life and the way that he looks at things. There’s going to be some surprises at the end of this season, with regard to that. Since Buzz was past with doing this interview that Provenza allowed him to do – he had to get permission from the Captain and Provenza – I think they rely much more heavily on him now and his duties will expand.
I’ve got to tell you, I like pretty much everyone in the squad room, but I’ve always been been particularly fond of Provenza. Between that role and Rizzo on M*A*S*H, GW Bailey has always seemed like sort of the perfect curmudgeon. Is he at all really like that in real life, or is that all an act?
I think it is sort of an act, but he uses it in his real life as well. (laughs) He’s one of the funniest men I’ve ever come across. And he spends a lot of time working with children with cancer. So, he balances out that with dark humor. Yeah, there are some aspects of Provenza that bleed into GW, and back and forth.
What other actors are most like and unlike their characters?
Oh, wow. Well, Sanchez as a character is a man of few words, and Raymond [Cruz] as well (laughs), if you’ve ever seen any interviews with him – monosyllabic answers. But he’s a very, very caring, genuine person. He actually stopped a woman on the street. He forced her to pull over. I think she was terrified. The reason he did this was that her tire was about to blow up. It was so low as she was riding. So he insisted she pull into the gas station. It was raining, and he got out and fixed her tire, put more air in it. At the end of that, she was very grateful. But you wouldn’t expect that from him, just to look at him on the outside, playing Tuco [in Breaking Bad] and these creatures that he plays like in Cleveland Abduction and things like that. He’s a much nicer person.
It is interesting to me that this season there has been a subplot with Camryn Manheim about who will be in charge, because there was a similar political battle in season six of The Closer. I spoke with your husband and Kyra the season that was going on, and he said “I’ve never been in an apolitical work place, even when I was tending bar.” Particularly in this politically charged world atmosphere, why do you think this kind of storyline is intriguing to viewers?
Because it shows real live conflict. We’re not just a procedural. We’re dealing with people and their feelings and workplace issues. I think that rings true for a lot of people. It’s something they can connect with. You don’t always get along with your supervisors. It’s always a struggle for power and for advancement. Camryn Manheim’s character is bringing that to life, very much like Mary did with Kyra. She’s our new antagonist.
Like you said, Major Crimes, and The Closer before it, deals with stand-alone cases, but they also have running personal threads throughout the seasons; you looking into your dad and trying to become a policeman, Andy and Sharon’s growing relationship, Tao’s sideline on the TV series, Sanchez’ attempts to adopt. Why do you think it is important to delve into the officers’ personal lives rather than mostly be a straight procedural like Law & Order or CSI?
As individuals, as real people – and that’s what we try to reflect on the show, that there are people – it isn’t a procedural, these are jobs. These are people that have jobs. People have lives, have personalities and have struggles of their own. It’s important to show the human side of all of this. We’re not just robots punching a timeclock. The stories that go on between the characters very often are reflected in the case that is going on. There are aspects of personal struggles, and stories that are tied directly to the particular cases that we’re working on. The writers are great about incorporating them.
How is Buzz like you in real life and what aspects of his character are hardest for you to get a grasp on as an actor?
The most challenging part for me, honestly, is that Buzz is so much younger than I am. His innocence, if you will. There are moments when I do find that a bit of a struggle to wrap my head around. Some similarities are that we’re both always trying to do better. We’re always… what am I saying, we? Buzz and myself. (laughs) Always trying to gain more knowledge. Not to rest on our morals, if you will. Always trying to do better and to see ways to improve.
Do you have a fantasy storyline for Buzz that you hope they will take on some day?
Yeah, I would love for the audience, for the rest of the crew, to meet Buzz’s mother. She sounds like quite a character. A card-carrying medical marijuana user. I just think there would be some great comedy moments that would be available, especially with Provenza. Maybe she’s coming in, vaping on one of her little medical marijuana things, and I’ve got to stop her. And she goes, “What? It’s legal.”
You are married to the showrunner, so do you get to make suggestions of plot ideas for Buzz? Or, for that matter, do the cast in general get to discuss their characters with the writers? You’ve been playing them for so long, if you have an idea, do they listen?
The writers are very open to our ideas and suggestions. They don’t always get implemented, but they are always open to notes. Not criticisms, but maybe looking more closely into aspects of the character. Because the actors have been playing them for so long, like you said, I think we know these people very, very well. Maybe there’s a turn of phrase, or a word that doesn’t quite fit in our mouths, so they allow us to collaborate with them. We’ve been suggesting for years that Buzz have a love interest of some kind. It still hasn’t come to fruition. (laughs) I’ve been lobbying for that for years, so we’ll see what happens.
I hate to bring the real world into this, but after the last several years of LGBTQ progress, suddenly Trump/Pence get in office and it looks like things may go backwards. As an out actor, do you think this is just a bump in the road or do you think that civil rights are in danger?
They seem to be in danger in certain states. It is worrisome to me. I’m always on social media championing causes. It’s important that we all as citizens of this country enjoy the same civil liberties as everyone else. I don’t think there is any such thing as the gay agenda. I think if you look at it closely, what it is that we’re after is the right to marry the person that we love, the right to live where we want to live, and not get fired from our jobs, simply because of who we are. These are all things that everyone else has without question. And these are things that we’ve had to lobby for.
Buzz is obviously in sort of a special position on the force, because he is not a policeman, though he is trying to become a reserve, he actually has a very separate skill set. Did you ever over the years speak with officers or CSI videographers to get an idea of the world they inhabit?
All the time. Last year I went on a ride-along with a couple of officers and one of our producers, in an area of Los Angeles that is notorious for gunfire. The night that I went out was very, very quiet, but…. So I do get to do things like that. One of our consultants, producers and writers is a former robbery homicide detective on the LAPD for 25 years. So we get a lot of real live stories on how things should be handled. We also have Gil Garcetti, who was the district attorney for the county of Los Angeles as a consultant-producer. So we keep everything up to the letter of the law as much as possible, and grounded in reality. I think our storytelling is a little different from some of the other shows that are just as popular. It’s more of a reality-based show than some of the others.
You come from a family background in restaurants, and in college you studied history and art history, you even spent some time as a flight attendant. How did you decide you wanted to get into acting?
It was something I’d always wanted to do, but because I started work so early and… well let me see. I think it was really because I had been working so long already at that point. I had a series of what I call “survivor jobs.” The idea of pursuing that dream never really seemed a reality to me until much later, where I thought if I’m ever going to do this, this is the time to do it now. I had just graduated from UCLA. I went to college in my 30s. Just through a series of very fortunate events. I’d also been training and studying with Howard Fine, and a couple of other fine acting teachers in Los Angeles. And I had friends in the business. I just let people know what it was that I was doing and the progress that I was making, and they gave me a chance. Here I am, twelve years later.
I was reading a few places that you were a flight attendant and now collect memorabilia and paraphernalia from the old airline Pan Am. How did that collection come about, why are you fascinated with that world?
Yes. I worked for them. A lot of people who work for a company, after the company has gone bankrupt or they quit or left or whatever, that chapter has closed. But for me, it just continued and continued. I fell in love with the history of the company and the ideas they were trying to promote. They were a master of marketing, before it really became effectively an event. So many firsts. I just love aviation. I love flying. I started collecting matchbooks and advertisements, because they were inexpensive. Then as I got a little bit more cash to play with, I started collecting bigger pieces. Now it’s become sort of an obsession. I have about 3,500 pieces in my collection. It’s so cool.
Not as an actor, but just as a person, are you into mysteries? What kind of shows do you watch just for fun?
Well there’s a number of shows that are on that I love to watch. I’m a huge fan of Game of Thrones. I’ve been watching The Crown. Victoria. I love historical drama and period pieces. I loved Mad Men. I love film noir. I love old Hollywood films. I think that is where my love of acting was rooted, watching old films and thinking “This is something I’d like to do one day.” And eventually I would. I would love to be able to do a film.
Your first film part was in a movie called Role of a Lifetime. I know it wasn’t a huge part, but it brings to mind a question: what would be your role of a lifetime?
Oh my gosh. I would love to play a bad guy. A serial killer. I don’t think looking at my face you would expect that kind of thing. I’d love to play against what is typically type.
What things about you would surprise people?
Let me see. That I’m restoring a 1955 Chevy Bel Air. Restoring an old car. I play golf. I surf. I ride bicycles. And I love to do demolition. (laughs)
Copyright ©2017 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: April 9, 2017.
Photos © 2017. Courtesy of TNT. All rights reserved.