Interview: ‘Battle Creek’ star Josh Duhamel on his character’s secrets and lies

In a visual flourish courtesy of pilot director Bryan Singer, Special Agent Milton Chamberlain is introduced in the world of “Battle Creek” from a low angle. Above his head, a circle of lights forms a halo. 

Milt Chamberlain is an angel. Milt Chamberlain is a boy scout. Milt Chamberlain is a golden boy.

But Milt Chamberlain isn't exactly what he seems to be. Or at least Battle Creek PD Detective Russ Agnew (Dean Winters) is convinced that Chamberlain isn't what he seems to be. But every time Russ thinks he's uncover the dark secret that his new partner is hiding, we discover that the secret isn't really the truth. 

It's a reluctant partnership that forms the spine of “Battle Creek,” a quirky, surprisingly funny procedural that was created by “Breaking Bad” maestro Vince Gilligan and then developed as a series by “House” maestro David Shore. 

Our first impression of Chamberlain, all flash and polish, is a good match for most viewers' preconceptions of star Josh Duhamel, who moved from modeling to soap opera to the glitz and gloss of NBC's “Las Vegas,” before moving on to a number of films including the “Transformers” franchise. But part of the fun of “Battle Creek” is watching Duhamel take a character who begins as a Ken doll and start to play around with his rough edges, culminating in a number of interesting reveals, each of which could be true or else another fiction.

I sat down with Duhamel last week to talk about his first regular TV role since 2008, the attraction of playing a character built on a foundation of lies and perhaps redemption and whether or not he feels like he truly gets Milt Chamberlain after 13 episodes.

“Battle Creek” premieres this Sunday (March 1) at 10 p.m. on CBS.

Check out my full chat with Josh Duhamel below…

HitFix: When did you decide that you were ready to dive back into the full-time TV thing and what were the things you were looking for out in the marketplace when you were looking at scripts?

Josh Duhamel: Well, I wasn”t looking for anything specific, you know. I made a conscious effort that I just wanted to work with people that were going to make me better and that was the main thing — writers, directors, in whatever medium. And when this came up I hadn”t really thought about it. It wasn”t really anything that I was looking to do or not looking to do. It was more about the fact that it was Vince and it was David Shore. Of course that was appealing. When I first read the script, I wasn”t sure even then, it's like, “Is this like really something that”s interesting?” I liked their script but the character just felt a little bit too perfect and too buttoned up, too similar to maybe something I”ve done. And after talking to Vince and David, I really wanted to find out, “Okay this guy cannot just be the polished-up, perfect agent who”s you know, got everything going for him. That”s boring.” And so we really talked a lot about, “Okay, if that”s the case I”ll play that guy the best I can, but I want to know that he”s got real troubled s*** that”s happened in the past. And that this is all just a cover for something else.” And that was really what it was about. So then all of a sudden he became a lot more interesting. Okay, that would be fun to play a guy who”s got it all seemingly together and then to find out that it”s just a cover for demons that he”s sort of trying to suppress.

HitFix: I”ve seen four episodes now and it feels like everything we learn about Milt pretty much we learned soon after that it”s not actually true.

Josh Duhamel: Right. 

HitFix: After 13 episodes do you feel like you know a few definitive things about him?

Josh Duhamel: As far as I know.

HitFix: Okay.

Josh Duhamel: I mean, again, I found that really interesting too, the lengths and the lies that this guy will perpetuate are pretty heinous, which means that whatever the truth is it”s got to be a lot worse than… The thing about 9/11? I mean if you”re gonna make that your alibi whatever you”re covering up must be pretty bad. So I think that to me is interesting. I love that about David, is that he”s not afraid to lead you one way and think it”s gonna be one thing but it”s not. And nobody tells the truth. Everybody”s f***ed up in some way, which I think is true to life. And he never lets anything get too sweet or saccharin. He”s got sort of a pessimistic view on a lot of things, even though he wants these characters to have a sense of optimism, we”re all a little bit messed up. And that”s what I think is great about his writing.

HitFix: Well how much were they able to or willing to tell you about him? 

Josh Duhamel: The truth is I had ideas from the very beginning. I remember I came and I pitched this idea about what I thought it was. Because they didn”t know the truth. This is something they were sort of figuring out as they went. And he really liked my idea and then I saw it in the script and it was the 9/11 thing. And I was like that was just a bunch of crap. So he sort of used it and then sort of didn”t. And then, you know, there”s a thing about the boss”s ex-wife or the boss”s wife and all that stuff was not true. It was like “Why?” So the more we sat the more he sort of figured it out as we talked. And he just went off into his cave and when he came back with the last script, I really dug it. It really was kind of what I was hoping it was gonna be. But even that I think there”s more to it. I think there”s more to it than just that. I think that it goes a lot deeper than that. And so that to me makes it fun. I like the dark stuff. That”s just sort of the kind of stuff that I”m trying to do more of in my career.

HitFix: So what”s the foundation for this guy? What is the touchstone if you can”t believe really anything he says, what can you believe?

Josh Duhamel: The foundation is that he really believes that he can change. He really truly believes. It”s not a masquerade that he”s orchestrating. He really does want to start fresh and he believes that if you do the right things you can outrun the wrongs of your past. You can change your spots. People can change. And that”s really what his touchstone is, is that he believes that this is the person that he is now. And I think there”s some truth and hope and optimism to that. Everybody”s got regrets. Everybody”s made mistakes. Nobody”s perfect. In this day and age, you”re so willing to try to tear down the people that make mistakes but if everybody looked at themselves, we all mess up. Everybody”s got regrets. It”s a personal choice as to whether or not you can change. So I just don”t know if he can. I think that”s going to be a question.

HitFix: What is the fun of portraying the sort of plastic perfection that this guy embodies? His hair is never out of place, the perfectly tailored suits. Is it fun to get to do that?

Josh Duhamel: Yeah and it wasn”t really scripted that way, but I figured if he does really believe that this is the person he”s becoming, the person that he wants to be, that he really believes that he is, it”s almost an overcompensation in a lot of ways. I want him to feel almost artificial, I mean the suits and everything. The hair thing is a little over-the-top but I felt like it was sort of a metaphor for what he”s become and who he believes that he is. And I think that this is really what he expects from himself. And if he does do enough right he can sort of be this person. There is something about Milt that this isn”t just made up. This is something that he really believes is what he”s becoming or what he is. And the question is whether or not that”s even possible.

HitFix: Well by the end of the 13 episodes have we seen the hair get out of place? Have we seen him in a pair of blue jeans?

Josh Duhamel: Well you”ll see who he was, the agent that he was before. Yeah and then the question is whether or not that character”s more interesting and if we ever go back to him. Are there are more flashbacks to that character? I don”t know. I sure had fun playing it.

HitFix: And do you get the feeling that that flashback version actually is him or is that another construct? Like is he a con man to some degree and that”s as much artificial as what we see in the present?

Josh Duhamel: That”s the question. I think either there were real motivations that this guy had and I think that when you”re young, like so many of us, when you”re young there”s an arrogance with you and there”s these maybe unrealistic ideas about what we”re gonna be. And as life happens you become humbled and then it becomes about making, “What am I going to do? Am I just gonna spend my life wallowing or accepting what I am? Or am I going to keep fighting and try to change my trajectory.” And I think that he was really sort of humbled by life, his previous life. And this is all part of his attempt at redefining himself. And is that possible? I think that it is. Or are those demons always going to be there? It”s like a heroin addiction. Yeah, you can sort of beat the heroin addiction but it never really goes away. And it”s a matter of whether or not he relapses.

HitFix: You mentioned in your very first answer to the first question I asked that you had been looking for projects that sort of need you better. Do you feel like that”s something you”ve always been doing in your career or has there been a turning point where you decided that was what you were looking for rather than something else?

Josh Duhamel: No, I”ve always tried, you know, in every project that I”ve done, I”ve put everything I have into it. Sometimes you have to take jobs early on just to get work, just to try to prove yourself. And now it”s a matter of proving that I”m more than just what people have seen me in, you know? A lot of the stuff that I”ve done whether it”s “Scenic Route” or “Lost in the Sun,” which will be coming out, or even “Bravetown,” these are movies that I”m just trying to do, you know, I want to do things that are different. Even though I don”t believe that a lot of this stuff is… To me they”re all completely different characters but I can understand why people would perceive them to be familiar. So yeah, I”ve never done something and not put everything that I have into it or seen it as a completely new opportunity. It”s just that now I just want to be more selective and can be a little bit more selective.

HitFix: I remember back last summer when you guys were at the TCA press tour. You were just on the verge of going off to do Battle Creek and doing your visit there. How was that experience? What did being on the ground there actually give you in terms of defining this guy and his place in the world?

Josh Duhamel: It was really cool because I just needed to go see it. I needed to like walk the streets and like meet the cops and meet the people and what it felt like to be there. And it was actually a lot cooler than I even expected because I just went by myself. I”d just wander around. I set up a ride-along with the undercover guys, the narcotics division, the gang unit. There is a gang unit in Battle Creek, believe it or not, because it”s right between Detroit and Chicago, so they get a lot of riff-raff going between. And a lot of these gang members end up here sort of hiding out or whatever. So I got to see that there”s real crime that happens here. This isn”t just an All-American city, but it”s also somewhere in between that and a big city. And plus I made great relationships. These guys still keep me posted on what”s going on out there.

HitFix: Was there anything that they wanted to make sure that you got right specifically either about just the day to day of their job or the place where they live?

Josh Duhamel: Well it”s funny because I went around with the guys who actually are more like Russ. One of the biggest things I learned from this is I didn”t realize there was such a rift between government agents and local law enforcement. I always thought that, you know, “They”re cops. They work together. Their objective is all the same.” Well local guys don”t really like the arrogance of the federal guys, because there is an arrogance they have because they have so many more resources. They have access to a lot more stuff, information or whatever. And the agents don”t necessarily feel that they get, you know, enough credit for some of the stuff that they bring to the table. It”s really sort of a mutually beneficial relationship between the two. The FBI guys need the local guys and the local guys need the federal guys. But it doesn”t mean they have to like each other. And that is, I think, where a lot of the great character stuff comes from.

HitFix: Have you been able to sort of bring that to your dynamic with Dean? He was saying that your sort of natural chemistry was responsible for a lot of the humor that's come to the surface.

Josh Duhamel: Yeah I think so. I think that Dean, he”s a tough guy, he grew up in New York. And maybe I grew up a little bit more naïve growing up in North Dakota. It”s almost like we”re the other way around. Like I”m the local guy and he should be the big city guy coming in. But it works. I think that Dean, he”s a lot of fun to work with. He”s a really cool dude and I love his prickly nature. He reminds me of Jimmy Caan in a lot of ways. He”s got this tough New York City kid feel, but he”s also a very loving dude. He”s very generous and always has a funny story to tell. So it”s made for a lot of fun to work with him.

“Battle Creek” premieres on Sunday, March 1 at 10 p.m. ET on CBS.