‘Vegas’ actor Michael Chiklis on playing heroes and villains

Michael Chiklis of the CBS series "Vegas."
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Michael Chiklis, who scored an Emmy and Golden Globe for playing corrupt cop Vic Mackey in “The Shield,” stars as mob casino boss Vincent Savino in CBS’ “Vegas.” The freshman series takes place in 1960, as Las Vegas was growing into its role as Sin City.

Vincent Savino is on the same spectrum as Vic Mackey.

Vic Mackey was an idealist who spiraled into corruption because he looked at [his world] and felt the only way he could effect change was to get down and dirty, and he justified it in any number of different ways. [Vincent Savino] is a guy who grew up in the mire and is trying to ascend from it. That was a common theme with those guys at the time. They sought legitimacy.


PHOTOS: Celebrity portraits by The Times

[Las Vegas Sheriff] Ralph Lamb, who’s Dennis Quaid’s character, was a real person. Is your character based on anybody in particular or is it a composite?

He’s a composite. [“Vegas” creator and “Goodfellas” screenwriter] Nick Pileggi has a number of relationships with some of these guys. He’s been around a long time. He’s taken from here and there and developed this composite character in Savino. But some of the common threads are this notion of trying to legitimize. And the guys who came to Vegas in particular saw in Vegas an opportunity to really, really be able to do it, once and for all. Interestingly enough, gambling and prostitution and alcohol were all legal and encouraged. So their whole vision for it was to create an adult Disney World.

But now we’re two generations removed from this time period we’re talking about, and the grandsons and daughters of these men are now Ivy League-schooled American kids who are part of the establishment. So we know the end of the story. They were successful. There’s a lot of collateral damage, though, along the way. Whenever you have a situation where you have a town with a population of 15,000 and in a 20-year span of time it becomes a population of 3.5 million and hundreds of millions of billions of dollars flow into a place, there’s going to be collateral damage. People are going to see this power flow into an area and want to vie for position. Hence, the boneyard, which is rather full, to my understanding.

Why do you keep getting cast in these violent …

I’m going to quote Jessica Rabbit: I’m not bad, I was just drawn that way. I think part of it has to do with my look. If you looked at the first half of my career, I was being cast as white-hatted, affable, roly-poly nice guys. I was frustrated by that because I felt like I could do a lot more than that. Then I got the role of Vic Mackey, and it really was a life-changing opportunity.


Where does that come from in you, that kind of murderous intensity?

I’m a trained actor, I grew up in it. I believe I’m a behaviorist — someone who studies human behavior — and an empath. Just getting into the way I work. … OK, I’m playing Vincent Savino. I try to envision the way they see the world through their prism, and I walk a mile in that man’s shoes. Then I embrace their point of view while I’m working. That’s it. And I’m able to compartmentalize that because I’m never not aware of the fact that I’m Michael Chiklis. There’s never any doubt of that. Anybody who tells you they sink into a character to the extent that they lose themselves is full of baloney. And if they do, they need to be institutionalized. Otherwise, I’d be playing murderers and I’d be killing people on set.

Have they re-created Fremont Street in Santa Clarita?

They built about a 150-yard stretch of it and put green screens at both ends so they can paint the rest of it out. And it’s extraordinary.

I think it’s interesting that your show is absorbing two graduates of “Breaking Bad” — R.J. Mitte and Jonathan Banks.

[Banks is] fabulous and an old friend. I worked with him the first time on a five-show arc of “Wiseguy” I did back in 1989. But I can’t take credit for the alums coming over. I have to credit Greg Walker and Art Sarkissian and Cathy Konrad as producers for wanting wonderful actors on the show. And there happened to be a lot of wonderful actors on “Breaking Bad.” And we’re going to tap into “Shield” alums.


Like who?

We haven’t booked them yet, but I’m very hopeful to see the likes of Jay Karnes and C.C.H. Pounder or Walton Goggins or Kenny Johnson on my show because they’re great.

After playing cops, now you seem to be gravitating toward criminals. There’s also the film “Parker,” which is scheduled to be released in January.

It’s not by design. There are probably about seven actors out there who truly just choose 100% of where they’re going next and whom they’re working with. There are maybe 10 guys. The rest of us are trying to identify the best material with the best people that we can get. If you’re lucky like I am, particularly on the television side but even on the feature side, you have some choices, some not so great, some interesting, some really, really cool.

Let’s talk about your less well-known musician side. The Michael Chiklis Band has a new album?

I have a new single out [titled “The Connection”]. I started playing drums when I was 7, I started playing guitar when I was 12. And I was in bands all the way through junior high, high school, college and just beyond. Then I went and screwed up my band by getting my first movie, “Wired,” in 1988. I always bristled at people saying, “Are you going to be a musician or an actor?” I always thought, well, I had examples growing up of wonderful actors who were musicians as well, and vice versa. As far as the music is concerned, this is part of this whole thing I’ve been going through this second half.


How old are you?

I’m going to be 50 next August.

So you’re turning 50 now mentally.

Mentally, yeah. I break up my life into periods of experience and periods of reflection. That’s about 80-20. I also look at short-term, medium-term and long-term goals for myself. I’m looking at the second half of my life at this point and saying, what do I want to do? And one of the biggest things I want to do is make my production company flourish, Extravaganza. And I finally have it on this little feature that I did called “Pawn.” It’s a little small, small feature, a couple-million-dollar feature with a phenomenal cast [including Nikki Reed, Ray Liotta and Forest Whitaker]. It’s a little thriller. And there’s also a music division, which right now is just my band, but hopefully I’ll have other artists down the line.

I will always be an actor. That will always be my first love and the driving force of my career. But I think I’m at a place now where directing and producing are definitely going to be more and more prevalent in my life. I also want to have more control over storytelling. It’s time for me to take the wheel.

It’s interesting that you don’t seem freaked out by the big 5-0 at all. I know that for women in the industry it’s very difficult. Do you feel that there’s no downside to that for you?

Well, my arthritic feet. It’s kind of a cruel trick that life pulls on you that right as you start to pull yourself all together and everything’s firing on all cylinders, your body starts to fail you. But I’m trying to fight that fight as well.



Timeline: Emmy winners through the years

Celebrity meltdowns

VIDEO: Watch the latest fall TV trailers here