Phillip Keene stars on one of TNT's most popular series, but the path he took to get there was anything but narrow. The Closer turned Major Crimes star, who plays Buzz Watson on the spin-off, has a story that reads best as an inspirational novel. Speaking with someone like Keene is a great reminder that, if your heart's in it, you can accomplish anything at any point.
Keene, AKA the nicest person ever, chatted with Zimbio on Tuesday, sharing his long road to stardom and outlining the future he sees for both himself and his beloved character as the show approaches the end of its fifth season.
Zimbio: So I've heard you had quite the journey before becoming an actor.
PK: I went from working at every restaurant you could imagine to working various aspects of retail to being a travel agent for a little while. I was also an electrician's apprentice. I'm sure there's a few in there that I've forgotten, but there were multiple, multiple jobs before this. I think the most memorable, other than Major Crimes, was working for Pan Am those last four years that the company existed.
Zimbio: There must be a lot of comfort and camaraderie after having been a part of the same TV family for so long.
PK: It's true, we are so much like a family. We have our aunts and uncles and the brother-sister relationships, it's a lot of fun. We end up going on fundraising events. We'd wrapped 23 episodes the year before last. The day after, most of the cast got together and we flew out to Naples, Florida to spend more time together and raise money for kids with cancer.
Zimbio: That's so great.
PK: Yeah. So it's not just on-set, it's after work as well that we spend lots of time together.
Zimbio: I imagine going from being a flight attendant to a full-time actor was a big adjustment.
PK: It really was. I still get about the same amount of sleep, which isn't much. But that's okay. There's a lot of similarities between the job I had as a flight attendant and working on the show for so long. The family aspect is strong, we weren't just employees, we really relied on each other to get each other out of emergency situations. To a lesser degree, now we rely on each other on set and on stage to boost each other up and to be there when our personal lives want to invade work.
Zimbio: That makes sense.
PK: Yeah, and I don't know that all shows are like that. We're really supportive of each other. Not to say that other shows aren't, but you hear rumors about fighting and diva behavior, guy or girl. We don't have that on our show, which is really, really good.
Zimbio: That's so great. Can you give me an example of a time the cast has come together to support one of their own?
PK: Yes. They weren't a cast member, but they were a member of our family. She was a second assistant director, and we found out the little car she had died. She was taking three buses to get to work in the morning at 5 o'clock a.m. We thought, let's all pitch in cash, see what we can gather and maybe get her a moped or a scooter. A week later, we'd raised almost $7,000. We ended up buying her a used car. She was always smiling, always had a great attitude. We just felt like, here's someone who really gives her all, and we want to give back a little bit.
Zimbio: What an amazing gesture.
PK: Also, I got married a few years ago, and I asked one of my fellow cast members to be my best man. If you can believe it, Sanchez (actor Raymond Cruz) was my best man. So it really is a tight-knit family.
Zimbio: Speaking of your cast mates, jumping into acting for the first time later in life takes a lot of confidence, especially when the cast you're joining is so seasoned.
PK: Absolutely. It was tough to get into. I was very nervous in the beginning, but I learned from going into college much later just to ask questions. If you need help, ask for it. The worst thing anyone can ever tell you is no. So you just get used to that. Someone once said to me, "If you sit at the table long enough, they eventually have to feed you."
Zimbio: As for your character himself, Buzz is such a breath of fresh air on the show. How do you feel about being viewed as the optimist of the group?
PK: That's a fair characterization of him, yes. That's exactly right. It's interesting for me as an actor because I don't necessarily have that same vision that he does, so it's a bit of a challenge at times to achieve that.
Zimbio: In "Bad Blood" (episode 18 of season 5), Tao says, "Put your guns down. You do not fire a weapon unless a gun is pointed at us." It seemed distinct. Was that meant as a reference to current events involving police?
PK: I don't think it was a reference to anything going on in the news right now. These episodes are written well in advance. It's interesting because a lot of our stories end up airing close to events that are really similar. Crimes are always being committed. I think what the writers are trying to do is present a situation and leave the audience asking a question. We don't preach, we aren't a political show. But we do show what happens in day-to-day life when people are struggling.
Zimbio: Do you want to continue to portray "nice guy" characters like Buzz as you move forward in your career?
PK: There are other personalities I'd like to portray. I want to try comedy. I love very witty, well-written dialogue. Very dry stuff. I'd also like to play against what is considered my "type," which is this all-American, grown-up choir boy, "butter wouldn't melt in his mouth" kind of thing.
Zimbio: Oooh, a bad guy?
PK: Yeah! It would be fun.
Zimbio: But for now, what's in Buzz's future?
PK: For so long, his driving force was figuring out who killed his father. Now that that's been accomplished, I think he's searching for purpose. Maybe now that he's grown a little more and his mother's fears have been delayed, I think you'll see him pursuing more of the law enforcement aspect of the job. Maybe even volunteering to do some more dangerous things, I hope.
Zimbio: I'd love to see that.
PK: And ultimately, I'd love for him to have a relationship. Everyone else on the show has had a relationship at one time or another. I mean, Provenza's been married, what, four or five times? I think Buzz deserves a chance.
Zimbio: What kind of person do you think is right for Buzz?
PK: Oh my gosh, I don't know. I'm an "out" actor playing a straight character — some people might balk at that — but as many different kinds of gay people as there are, I think there are just as many kinds of straight people.
Zimbio: Do you think it's important for people casting these roles to be blind to the sexuality of actors?
PK: I think so, I think it's important. If the actor can illuminate the work the way it's supposed to be, if they can do justice to the material, that's what matters. It should be open to any and all. I recently saw a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof where the lead actress was a non-typical cast member, she was Asian, and she did a beautiful job. The world has changed a lot. It's not one color or one point-of-view anymore.
Zimbio: Amen to that.
PK: I try and look at Buzz's orientation not as the main driving aspect of his life, just that it happens to be part of who he is. His work is involved, his family's involved, his friendships and relationships are involved, but for so long he's been so focused on his job that he hasn't had time for a love life. It would be nice to see him with someone his own age, maybe a young woman or a divorcee. I don't know if he wants a family or not, that's something to be explored.
Zimbio: Interesting! And Buzz has such a loyal fandom that I'm sure would love to see that. A lot of your fans are so dedicated to Buzz.
PK: They really are and it's so gratifying, I have to say. I have some young ladies in Slovakia who just sent me a birthday card. I've been gifted a pair of airplane cuff links, which was the sweetest thing, for them to take the time to buy me a gift. There's another group of ladies from Brazil who get together on Skype, or some other platform — technology is not my friend — they've created a small community and become friends as a result of watching the show. It's a really cool thing to see and to be able to be part of. I interact with the fans as much as I can.
Zimbio: Awesome. Any final words?
PK: Yes. Thanks for watching, everyone, and for finding us after we've been moved around so much. It's not always easy to find us. Also, I'm going to be in Long Island, New York on November 11 for the second half of the opening of the exhibit of the Pan Am Museum Foundation.
Zimbio: Going back to your roots!
PK: Yes. We've raised a quarter of a million dollars. If anyone has some spare cash lying around, we'd love to take it off your hands. We're dedicated to keeping the memory of Pan Am and its achievements alive.