Lethal Weapon: Damon Wayans and Clayne Crawford on Bringing Riggs and Murtaugh to TV
As far as film-to-TV adaptations go, recent history includes the great (Fargo!) and the not-so-great (sorry, Rush Hour). But network execs aren’t stopping the remake train anytime soon, since familiar titles often bring built-in audiences.
First up this fall: Fox’s Lethal Weapon. Based on the iconic 1987 action movie starring Danny Glover and Mel Gibson, the small-screen reboot takes its own spin on what happens when by-the-book detective Roger Murtaugh (now played by My Wife and Kids’ Damon Wayans) teams with loose-cannon cop Martin Riggs (Rectify’s Clayne Crawford). “There’s a tremendous difference between these two guys,” says executive producer Matt Miller (Forever, The 100) of the bickering partners. “But like with any good relationship, the chemistry comes exactly because they don’t have the same characteristics.”
Another big difference: the level of violence in today’s world compared to the 1980s, when the film came out. But how do you go about making a crime drama responsibly without softening the fight between good and evil on the streets of Los Angeles? Fox chairman Dana Walden has said the network is conscious of keeping the violence in context. (To start, they removed guns from the show’s promotional poster.)
Just don’t assume that this Lethal Weapon will be a tame one. Expect action sequences that are beyond your typical cop drama, says Miller. In the pilot, for example, Murtaugh and Riggs end up in a high-speed chase that collides with an in-progress Grand Prix race on an actual Southern California track. “We were trying to figure out a way to create something nobody had seen before,” he says. Mission accomplished. Wayans and Crawford filled us in on tackling those wild action scenes as well as crafting what they hope will be TV’s next best odd couple.
What did you both think when you initially heard about the project? Any reservations?
Wayans: I went in to pitch Peter Roth, the head of Warner Bros. Television, a sitcom. And he said, “Before you pitch, let me throw out two words: Lethal Weapon.” So I put my idea on the back burner and said, “Send me the script.” I read it and just loved it. Then I met with producer Matt Miller and he told me how wonderful I was and that Sinbad had passed and would I do it? I thought Matt was really charming and had a very clever take on not just the stories but the characters.
Crawford: I didn’t want to know anything more about the project when I first heard…and then I read the material. Matt Miller did such a wonderful job with the script—it was a nice tribute to what [original screenwriter] Shane Black created so many years ago. It honored the movie without mimicking it, and I thought that was really, really special.
After being cast, did you immediately go back and watch the movie?
Wayans: No. I didn’t want any voice in my head. I mean, respectfully, I didn’t want to do that.
Crawford: It would be like doing A Streetcar Named Desire and going back and watching Brando. Why would I do that to myself?
As in the film, Murtaugh is the straight man. Damon, was that a tough fit for you since you come from comedy?
Wayans: You have to honor what was created, right? He’s definitely the straight man, but that’s OK, because I don’t think he’s a boring straight man. For me, I think, the challenge as an actor is to find the humor, not in the words but in the performance. He’s this high-strung guy who’s on the verge of another heart attack, and playing that is kind of fun.
Crawford: Right, we’re playing it dead straight. And the seriousness of those moments is where the comedy comes in, because the situations themselves are so ludicrous. That’s why Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau worked so well together. Not that I’m comparing the two of us to those greats, but they never played funny.
Riggs and Murtaugh seem like opposites on the outside, but do you think they might be more alike than even they want to admit?
Wayans: I overheard Matt Miller say something about an [upcoming storyline] where the characters may flip flop. I can’t give away what happens, but something is going to send Murtaugh over the edge and there’ll be a nice little arc of Riggs having to go, “Dude, come back!” So that’s an exciting prospect, to be able play my character a little edgier.
Clayne, you have some great action scenes in the pilot. You even get to ride around on the top of a car. Damon, do you wish you could get in on that?
Wayans: No. I’m too old for that s--t! My thing is I want to do a little bit of it but not like this guy [points to Clayne], who has to come in at 4 o’clock in the morning to jump off of trains and stuff like that. I like getting my sleep and coming in and going, “Hey! Get down from there!” [Laughs]
We will see the backstory into why Riggs has something of a death wish, but how long does that play out in the show? Will it go away?
Crawford: I don’t want to do the show anymore once he loses that element! Then we’re NCIS and we’re just solving crimes.
Wayans: So…what? Am I LL Cool J on NCIS? [Laughs]
Damon, Murtaugh’s family life is pretty solid. Will that get shaken up down the line?
Wayans: His wife [played by Keesha Sharp] is set up as superwoman. That’s great for women to see, but I think Murtaugh is a very old-school kind of guy, and he’s not so thrilled about his wife doing everything, because some things get left on the side and he’s the one who has to suffer, all right? For me, to see this happy couple that doesn’t have any problems is boring. It’s boring to play, so I’m trying to encourage the writers to let them argue sometimes. [Laughs] Let them not get along—if it’s just too perfect, then it’s My Wife and Guns.
What would you say Murtaugh can learn from Riggs, and vice versa?
Wayans: I think Riggs brings out the wild side in Murtaugh. Guys get married and they get bored. It’s like, now what? Your wife takes all the stuff that you thought was cool and puts it in the garage, then she hands you the baby and that’s not really exciting. [Laughs] Riggs is single and it’s this amazing dynamic because he’s coming in and saying, “Man, there’s some bad chicks out there.” And you just can’t wait to hear all these crazy stories.
Crawford: I don’t know if Riggs is in a place where he can learn anything right now. I think he’s just living moment to moment. He’s obviously aware of the beauty in life, but I think that’s just a reminder of what could have been for him. So he’s f---ing miserable. He’s pretty closed off, and everything’s a façade that he puts up to protect himself.
Do these guys have what it takes to be TV’s next great bromance?
Wayans: Yeah, and what makes it work is finding the fun in the dynamic of the characters and being honest—not manufacturing conflict, because then you’re just yelling at each other. I think that the pilot really helped us home in on some of the differences between them while finding some surprises, like when I start doing Riggs-like stuff and he starts doing Murtaugh-like stuff. Then it’s like, “Oh, OK. Now, it’s more like brothers and less of we’re just stuck together.”
Lethal Weapon, Series Premiere Wednesday, Sept. 21, 8/7c, Fox.