Michael Devine on HBO’s ‘The Undoing’ and fusing acting with law enforcement

Photo Credit: Dave Cross

Michael Devine is certainly a force to be reckoned with as Detective Paul O’Rourke in HBO’s new mini-series The Undoing. Michael stars alongside Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant. 

 “The Undoing is very difficult to explain. At its core, it’s a dark mystery, it’s almost Hitchcockian. It’s a ‘who done it,’ a psychological thriller. It’s a six episode miniseries. Nicole Kidman plays a psychologist, with a seemingly perfect life. Then there’s a murder and then she realizes little by little that what she thought was perfect, isn’t so perfect…It’s tricky to talk about. I look at it like a roller coaster. There’s so many twists and turns and nothing is as it seems. You can expect the unexpected.”

Michael is a recently retired NYPD Detective Sergeant and used that experience in law enforcement to prepare to play Detective O’Rourke. 

 “[O’Rourke] is partnered with detective Joe Mendoza who is played by Edgar Ramirez, and we’re the two NYPD detectives that are assigned to investigate the murder. So, we kind of find ourselves thrust into this world, determined to uncover the truth, which in The Undoing is not so clear. We find out that a lot is unearthed, and we discover, along with the other characters that some lives are built on lies upon lies. But basically our objective is to determine simply who done it.” 

Photo Credit: Dave Cross

“I just retired at the beginning of September. So, I was in the NYPD for 22 years and 12 of those years, I spent in the Detective’s Bureau. A lot of that time was spent in the Chief of Detectives office. So, with Detective O’Rourke being a member of the detective Bureau, in this case the 23rd precinct, I was able to draw from that experience. In fact, I was working in the Chief of Detectives Office the day of my audition. I was wearing the same thing when I went in and it was a nice way to keep the same headspace… I think that’s what they were looking for, a quintessential New York cop.”

So for Michael, which came first, acting or law enforcement?     

“100 percent acting. That’s all I ever wanted to do, from the school plays to high school and then eventually my degree. I went to college for and got a degree in acting. I had no interest in following in the family business and becoming a law enforcement officer, that didn’t come until much later. When I became an actor and I entered the real world, I fulfilled a lot of goals early on and I kind of thought ‘well is this it?’ But there was something in me and I honestly, I don’t know where it came from. My father was a cop, he was killed in the line of duty when I was just a kid, and my grandfather was a cop, so I come from a long line of cops. But as an adult, I began to see myself in these footsteps and I don’t know, perhaps that might have led to it, but I had showed no interest in becoming a cop. It came out of left field, I was 26-years-old and I said ‘well let me at least try it, and I’ll give it till I’m 30.’ That was 20 plus years ago. No regrets either.” 

“And I also went into the police department, knowing that I would return to acting whether it’s while I’m still in the police department or after. You know, acting is not the most stable business one can enter so I thought let me get my ducks in a row and get my life in order through a nice stable job, then I can be more experimental and take a crazy career like acting.”

Michael has played many law enforcement roles over the years, his most notable roles being in The Wolf of Wall Street, Law & Order, Blue Bloods, Mozart in the Jungle, American Odyssey, Orange Is the New Black, Big Time Adolescence, The Post, and Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us. He also played series regular in CBS’ Limitless as James Tech Padgett.

“The two careers complement each other more than one would think. Over the course of my time in the NYPD, I wore a lot of hats and in some ways you can say I played different roles. I started out as a Beat Cop and then I was a Sergeant and then eventually the Detective Bureau and then I was working in the press department. But even just as a police officer, on any given day you’re asked to perform a number of different roles. You could be someone’s best friend, their worst enemy, you’re a lawyer, you’re a medic, you’re performing a number of roles on any given day. It requires some acting, so I was able to take my years studying acting into the NYPD. And then my years in the NYPD back into acting.”

Photo Credit: Dave Cross

“And even like with detective work, it’s a lot about finding the truth and in order to find the truth, it’s a lot about asking questions. And it’s about give and take and it involves studying subtext and reading a person and above all, listening. So, detective work and acting complement each other very, very well. It’s an angle that most people wouldn’t suspect, but when I found myself at those crossroads, I realized just how well they work with each other.”

Michael was lucky in that he was allowed to balance acting with his work with the NYPD. He needed to put in the work to accumulate time off, and once he did, the department had no issues allowing him to pursue his other passion. He also says the other officers would get a kick out of seeing him on TV.

“I was fortunate in that I had very supportive supervisors, so if I did book a role, they would give me the time off. And it wasn’t until late in my career where something like The Undoing would come where I’d have to use up all my vacation days, that was four months of shooting. And so they were very supportive so thankfully they were able to give me the time off. But very 

early on, I think they were looking at me for Law and Order and I had to say no because I actually couldn’t get the day off. But toward the end, I was able to focus on both as much as need be.

Since Michael has lived the life of Detective O’Rourke, he didn’t need much training to prepare for the role, but he did need to prepare himself mentally and emotionally. 

“The scenes in The Undoing are extremely intense and they’re very emotional. It really called on everything I had as an actor just to keep the focus because of the gravity of the situation and then because I’m working with Nicole Kidman who is one of the greatest actors of our time. I had to deliver my A game at all times. So, it was mainly about the acting at that time. And as far as what I brought to the character, I kind of cultivated parts of Detective O’Rourke from cops I knew and I gave him a slight New York accent so I had to kind of keep that up all the time. The cops that I know talk like that so I had to stay in character as much as I could and keep all of those people in mind. But it took a lot of attention and a lot of focus.”

It also helped that acting as a detective is very dramatized and different from this role in real life. If it were exactly like real life, Michael says that’d get boring really fast.

Photo Credit: Dave Cross

“There are times where I would say ‘okay, it may not go in this direction’ but at the same time it’s not a documentary and I know that a lot of that is to make for a better story whether or not that may or may not happen. We had a really great technical advisor so it was very easy to say ‘okay, what are we going to do here, what works with the story versus what works in real life?’ But [writer] David E. Kelly is a master of this genre, so the path was already laid out from a technical and artistic standpoint. It really kept the integrity of what police work is all about at the same time, writing a good story. So he laid the path out, I just had to kind of follow it.

It is really interesting that Michael literally lived the life of some of the characters he’s played. He says that art is influenced by life and vise versa.

“Something I see all the time and I kind of roll my eyes a bit is when a person is read their [Miranda] rights. In real life, that’s not needed at an arrest, it’s very dramatic. The Miranda Rights don’t necessarily mean an arrest, it’s just really theatrical. And a lot of people in real life say ‘oh you didn’t read me my rights,’ but that’s TV. One thing I always thought was funny, and I don’t know where this originated, was when you put the bad guy in the back of the car, that whole putting your hand on their head to get them in. I don’t know if someone maybe in real life did it, or someone on TV did it, but it’s fed off each other and so I think real cops see that on TV so they do it, and TV cops see real cops do it but that doesn’t always happen in real life. I find that very theatrical.”

I tried to get Michael to tell us more about The Undoing but he says we really need to watch it for ourselves.

“The less said the better I think. I would suggest people just enter it with an open mind as if you’re getting aboard a roller coaster and, these people know what they’re doing, let them take you on the ride.”

The Undoing premieres this Sunday at 9:00 p.m. on  HBO and HBO MAX.