Interview: ‘Battle Creek’ star Dean Winters on nearly killing Josh Duhamel and more

In CBS' “Battle Creek,” Dean Winters plays Detective Russ Agnew, a grouchy-but-determined Michigan law enforcement veteran who yearns for more and better resources, but isn't happy when support comes in the form of seemingly perfect FBI agent Milt Chambers (Josh Duhamel).

It's an oft-retold story, but things almost went awry immediately between the two “Battle Creek” stars.

“The first time I met Josh, I came in last March for rehearsal and I was lost and I was driving to the lot on Manhattan Beach and I was looking at my GPS and I literally came within a foot of running him over,” Winters too me when we sat down together two weeks ago. “It”s like I almost killed my co-star without even meeting him. But he and I got along famously like off the bat.”

Winters was glued to his GPS because he's a New York City guy, born and bred, and he's made a successful and varied career on East Coast productions and the occasional limited LA stint. And the need to move to Los Angeles nearly caused him to shy away from “Battle Creek,” before he realized that opportunities to work on a David Shore-run show from a Vince Gilligan pilot script don't come along often.

In our conversation, Winters talks about acclimating to Los Angeles and the process of finding the tone of “Battle Creek,” which may be funnier than what you're expecting. It's a tone he notes comes at least in part from his actual dynamic with Duhamel.

Invariably, the discussion also turned to Winters' former “Oz” co-star J.K. Simmons, who was on the verge of winning an Oscar when we talked. And, as the two are well-regarded insurance pitchmen, we also chatted about Mayhem, the Allstate campaign that surely ranks among Winters' most recognizable roles.

And check out my interviews with “Battle Creek” stars Josh Duhamel and Kal Penn.

“Battle Creek” premieres on Sunday, March 1 and the full Q&A is below.

HitFix: How hard for you was it to commit to an LA show as a New York-based guy?

Dean Winters: Yeah. It wasn”t easy. In the beginning, I said no. It had nothing to do with the show or obviously the pedigree of the people involved because it doesn”t get better than those two guys. But I was born and raised in New York and I”m of an age where I want to just be home. But, you know, when you sign up to be an actor it”s like joining the circus and the circus is not always going to be in your hometown. And I realized that this was a really good job and the writing was on the page and Josh signed on, then Janet McTeer and Kal Penn. It”s like, “Well, you know if these people… like Janet lives in Maine. Kal lives in New York. So I was like, “Well, if these people are going to do it then I should do it too.” So it was a leap of faith for me just because I am such a New York home boy. Like that”s my place, but I think it was a good payoff. It”s a good show and it was – it”s good to leave home. It makes going back that much better. 

HitFix: How long did you actually have to relocate?

Dean Winters: Six months. And it was, for me that was a culture shock. I lived in Hermosa Beach because we shot in Manhattan Beach and so that was like being kidnapped and thrown into the Hudson River right now, naked. I was just like, “Ahhh.” But we worked so much on the show that it didn”t really matter. My home was really the soundstage. But like I said it was a culture shock.

HitFix: And that was summer that you guys were working, so you didn”t even get to like miss a New York winter.

Dean Winters: No, I went back to the coldest winter in the history of New York. I left yesterday, it was one degree, it was minus-20 wind chill. I walked from my front door of my house to the car to go to the airport and that took maybe five seconds and my face was frozen when I got out of the truck. It would have been nice if we shot “Battle Creek” from January until like May but it is what it is. 

HitFix: Now I talked with Kal and so much of the story of this pilot and around the pilot was, “Vince Gilligan, 12 year old script, dusted off, first thing since 'Breaking Bad,'” all of that. Did you have any nervousness about what the second episode was going to look like?

Dean Winters: Yeah you always do, you know. I mean it”s the second episode, especially like you know the TV audiences are so unforgiving but so are the networks. It used to be back in the day like I mean “Seinfeld” took over a year for people to like it. You know “30 Rock,” it wasn”t a hit right away and we were lucky that they let us find our way. But these days it doesn”t seem like they let shows find their way. So you really hope that the second episode is going to be something that keeps people”s attention because the pilot is always usually there”s so much effort put into it. But how much have you seen?

HitFix: I”ve seen four episodes.

Dean Winters: Yeah, it”s funny. The second episode is good. The third episode is really good. The fourth episode… It gets better and better I find. I feel like the show catches its rhythm somewhere around six. And then the 13th episode is just f***ing phenomenal, man. It”s called “Sympathy for the Devil” and it”s amazing. It”s a great way to tie up that first season.

HitFix: So when you got the second script how quickly were you able to go, “Okay, this is still the show that I committed to moving to LA for”?

Dean Winters: Yeah, I”m not going to lie to you. The second script was great but I still, I felt like I wanted to see a little bit more where it was going. But I also know that you”ve got to be patient. And the second script was really kind of like an homage to “Breaking Bad.” I think that was the one where we were selling syrup illegally. And that was like a wink-wink to “Breaking Bad,” instead of selling crystal meth we were busting an illegal syrup ring. And I was kind of like, “Really? Syrup?” But it ended up being kind of funny I felt and it really was like a little bit of a wink towards Vince. Yeah, it was there. And then the third one and the fourth one I thought was really good. That was the one with the dogs? [His publicist says the third one was the one with the dogs.]

HitFix: Three and four both had dogs.

Dean Winters: There”s so many goddamn dogs in the show to the point where I was like, “Listen, I will give people part of my salary if they don”t write any more dogs into the show,” because we had the most like un-well behaved dogs on the planet. Like you would think that a show dog could fetch a ball and like they couldn”t fetch balls. I was like, “Where”d you guys get these dogs? Did you go to the shelter? Are these dogs trained?” And what it does is it turns a 12 hour day into an 18 hour day. So the dogs disappeared I think after episode five or six.

HitFix: Okay, I was surprised that three and four were both dog-heavy.

Dean Winters: Dog heavy! They brought one in, was it James LeGros comes in somewhere I think around episode nine and we had to deal with the dog again and it was just like, “Oh my God, you”re f***ing killing us. But I don”t know. What do they say? Dogs and children stay away from…

HitFix: And the fourth episode features dogs and children.

Dean Winters: Yeah. Oh yeah. We had our share of kids too. Yeah, it was interesting. The kids were actually really good.

HitFix: Now the first episode felt like it had a very consistent blend of drama and comedy and then I felt like the next three were sort of more consistently funny. How does the tone vary as we go?

Dean Winters: From what I was told they weren”t expecting that. And I think a lot of that came out of Josh and mine”s relationship and the frustration that my character feels, because it wasn”t really on the page as much. And for me the most fun of my career is to bring a little bit of irreverence to characters. And, you know, I don”t think that the producers were expecting me to be as irreverent as I am. I think I was really well-behaved at those initial meetings and then I just kind of let it out of the bag. And a lot of that I think came in the relationship between Josh and I. We really do have kind of like a brother thing off screen which can be really positive and a little bit negative. But in a good way. And so I think a lot of that irreverence between us kind of came out on screen and I don”t think that they really expected that. So that was great. I mean don”t get me wrong. Some of the writers wrote some really funny stuff but I think that there was some things that they weren”t counting on and that was fun to do.

HitFix: Well did you get to audition with Josh up-front?

Dean Winters: No it was an interesting way this whole job came to me. I”m not really sure I can talk about it. No, we never met. The first time I met Josh, I came in last March for rehearsal and I was lost and I was driving to the lot on Manhattan Beach and I was looking at my GPS and I literally came within a foot of running him over. It”s like I almost killed my co-star without even meeting him. But he and I got along famously like off the bat. And his wife is really close with one of my best friends from New York so there was like that thing. Do you know what I mean? But yeah, and he”s fun to work with. He”s like a big kid.

HitFix: Now Russ is sort of a grumpy old man who”s not really an old man. How easy is it for you to get into that sort of state of perpetual perturbedness?

Dean Winters: It was easy because as you can probably tell I like to kind of get things bubbly and alive and have a good time. But that can be exhausting. I do that just because I like to make everyone around me comfortable and happy but it does get exhausting. Going to work with Russ, playing that character, I got to kind of not be like that person who”s trying to please everyone all the time. I got to be a little bit cranky. I mean don”t get me wrong. I have my moments in real life but with him I got to do that 12 hours, 14 hours a day. So it was almost like when I was doing “Oz,” in that when I was doing “Oz” I got to go be really bad and do things that I would love to do in my everyday life but I would never do them because I”m a good person. Do you know what I mean? But I”m not going to be lighting people on fire and selling drugs in my real life. But it was fun to go to work on that show and kind of get your yah-yahs out for 12 hours a day. And it”s the same kind of thing on this job but in a different way obviously.

HitFix: Going back to “Oz” quickly. At the time, would you have guessed that J.K. was eventually gonna get this kind of role and have this kind of…

Dean Winters: We all knew J.K.”s work before “Oz.” I mean he”s been around for a long time, you know. He was a musical theater guy on Broadway and we were all really aware of him. And his impact on “Oz,” that character Schillinger was just nasty. But the character in “Whiplash” is really not that far from that and I mean J.K.”s done so many great jobs in the last decade since “Oz” ended or 12 years since it ended. But he hasn”t gotten to play that kind of a thing like he did on “Oz.” I think it was just a matter of time and I think casting him in “Whiplash” was the smartest thing that those people did. I mean obviously he”s winning every award on the planet. He”s going to win on Sunday. I hope he has his speech ready, you know. But he”s a terrific guy. I just went to his birthday in New York a couple of weeks ago and I couldn”t be happier for him. He”s just a hard working guy. And J.K. has that thing that is very indicative of people from the Midwest. He”s from Detroit and he”s got those values. He”s got a beautiful family. He”s a hard worker. And those are characteristics that I tried to have Russ have. Because this is a guy, he”s an hour-and-a-half west of Detroit, you know, and there is that thing, that Midwest thing. Josh has that. I learned a lot from being around him. Josh has those Midwestern values. I can”t necessarily say I have all those because I”m not from there but he does and so it was good to be around. 

HitFix: And did you go and visit Battle Creek?

Dean Winters: No I didn”t do that. You know when I got the job I only had a couple of weeks before we started and I didn”t have the time that those guys had. Kal and Josh went. And then when we were done I traveled and then I went to Israel for a while. And then I got back and we started filming so I just never really had the chance, but I”m going to. I want to see how the show plays out and then I would like to go there in the springtime. 

HitFix: Have you had the ride-along experience on different projects?

Dean Winters: Oh yeah, millions of them. Oh yeah, tons. I did ride-along when I was in New York with the NYFD, the NYPD. I rode along in the Bronx, in Harlem. I rode around in Times Square. A lot of my friends are cops. Like I”ve been in a lot of cop cars. [He laughs.]

HitFix: So you felt like you”ve gotten some of the necessary experiences?

Dean Winters: Yeah. Once or twice with cuffs on. I mean you get the experience.

HitFix: Well did you approach this guy and his background in a sort of specifically different way from those cops that you”ve interacted with?

Dean Winters: Yeah well only because those guys are all New York guys. You know there”s like a universal thing that cops have which is most of them want to make a difference in their community. And the character of Russ, a character that really, really wanted to do that. And I saw that in a lot of cops I know in New York. But for them, it”s a much larger scale, but the same mentality.

HitFix: Did you learn anything from the six months that you were here sort out of New York working here that for season two you”d sort of want to make sure you did differently?

Dean Winters: Oh yeah I mean absolutely. I mean you look back on a season of television, especially when it”s the first season. You look back on it and there”s things that you want to change in behavior or maybe “I should have done that differently” or this differently. But it”s the reason why I don”t really watch my stuff is because when I watch it it becomes more about vanity and narcissism. I don”t want to get caught up in that. I mean I have my moments in my everyday life. I”m an actor so it”s like it just kind of comes with the job and I try to stay away from that. I mean if we go back for a second season it”ll be a much more confident character portrayal I think. Because at the beginning it was like, “Okay, yeah, you”re trying to find your footing.” It”s like being on a boat. But when the water”s calmed down, I think it”ll be like that the second season.

HitFix: Well has he evolved in any way over these 13 episodes to become more you or more in your comfort zone?

Dean Winters: Oh yeah, absolutely. You”re going to pick up mannerisms and certain things. But I also want to make sure that like the people that know me aren”t looking at the character going, “Oh, that”s Dean.” Because that”s not what I want it to be. Even on a job like Mayhem, I wanted to bring something there that was me but also really different. And that”s the same thing you want to do with any role. Do you know what I mean? But yeah, you will fall into habits and mannerisms that are part of who you are. But at the same time I think that”s a good thing. I think that”s what makes you interesting, not being someone too far from who you are.

HitFix: Did you realize that Mayhem was going to become actually a character?

Dean Winters: Yeah, I knew it was going to be… I mean it was a character to begin with. We had no idea it was going to take off the way it did. When it became the No.2 costume in the UPI poll the first year I was like, “What?” You know that was crazy. When I got put into the Advertising Hall of Fame? And it was me and Mr. Peanut and the Vlasic pickle. No, you don”t understand. So we do this thing in Times Square. It”s the greatest picture I have. It”s me with like the Kia bears, the Vlasic pickle, Tony the Tiger, the Michelin Man. And I did an interview with The New York Times and I was like, “I feel like I”m tripping on acid.” And, of course, I said “Please don”t print that” and of course in The New York Times in the Business section it said, “Dean Winters felt like he was tripping on acid.” So I learned to not talk about that anymore. But we had no idea that Mayhem was going to take off the way it did.

HitFix: It”s just interesting because like the Vlasic pickle and Mr. Peanut – they”re actually are shadings to that as a character. Like I get the feeling that Mayhem has “motivations.” Did you realize that it was actually going to be something that was going to be that nuanced?

Dean Winters: No I had no idea. And even J.K. Simmons called me and he goes, “Hey, they”ve approached me about doing this Farmers Insurance thing.” He goes, “Talk to me about your Mayhem experience.” And I was like, “Just take the job. Just take the job. Just do it.” But I like to think we”re the kings of commercials but that”s just because I”m being an idiot. I love doing that job. It”s been like a blast and they get great film directors and just the whole production value. It”s like doing these little mini movies, you know. It”s been a gift that just keeps giving.

HitFix: So that means they're continuing?

Dean Winters: Oh yeah, there”s five more coming out. Yeah, we”ve done 39 or 40, no 40.

HitFix: Okay, I would not have guessed that there were that many.

Dean Winters: Well they withheld six because they were too violent. And those are the best ones. We”re trying to get those but they”re…

HitFix: Wait, what is the line?

Dean Winters: Well one of them is my girlfriend was a liar, so I destroyed her car with a bowling ball. And they”re like, “Yeah, we think that promotes vandalism.” And then I blew up a gas station and they”re like, “Yeah, we think that promotes vandalism.” I”m like, “Well why did we spend a million dollars?” So I”m trying to get them to release this whole batch on YouTube but they won”t do it. I”ll get them one of these days.

“Battle Creek” airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on CBS starting on March 1.