On the surface, CBS’s East New York may look like just another cop show, but its talented, diverse cast does an amazing job of making the series stand out from the procedural crowd. One of the most interesting elements of the show is the relationship between Officer Sandeford and his rookie partner, Officer Bentley. Lending an air of authority and swag to Sandeford is veteran actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson. With appearances on Law & Order, NYPD Blue, New York Undercover and his memorable role as Captain Montgomery on Castle, this isn’t the actor’s first time at the cop show rodeo. Santiago-Hudson spoke with The Root about what made him say yes to East New York and Sandeford.
With all his previous experience in procedurals, the Tony-winner wasn’t looking to jump back into the genre. But when he was approached about East New York, he told producers he wanted to show the person behind the badge and focus on the character’s humanity.
“I want to show that I love hard, I have hard tears, hard laughter, hard comedy. And they were all for that,” the actor/playwright told The Root. “That’s part of the premise of this show: dealing with the people inside the uniform, not the people that are the uniform. They didn’t want to do another cop show about cops, they wanted to do a show about human beings who were cops.”
As fresh and captivating as East New York is, the highlight of almost every episode are the scenes between Bentley and Sandeford. To put some authenticity into their relationship, Santiago-Hudson calls on lessons from the ancestors, where in African villages it was the responsibility of the elders to prepare the next generation. He takes his portrayal of Sandeford’s role in Bentley’s life seriously, but also makes sure to put his own unique spin on it.
“I like being able to in my own curmudgeon way sometimes [and] in my own comical way sometimes, lead and say, ‘Young man, this is the way it goes,’ but also being willing to listen,” Santiago-Hudson said. “So the elders could be the elders of date, not only taught but listen as well.”
As the series prepares to return from its winter hiatus, it will pick up with the cliffhanger from Episode 9, “When Dinosaurs Roamed The Earth,” which featured Bentley being shot. When we resume the story on Sunday, Jan. 8 in Episode 10, “10-13,” the whole precinct is shaken by the young officer’s situation, but Sandeford definitely takes things personally because he’s responsible for his partner. For Santiago-Hudson, his character’s emotional reaction to the shooting provides the actor with some of the best work he’s ever done.
“Through the generosity of our producers I’ve been challenged to go as far as I possibly can go as a person in the depth of my feelings and revealing the love that I have for him,” he said. “They’re willing to let a person of color be whole. To have frailties as well as power, to have humor as well as pathos. I am being challenged tremendously in the next episode. It is the highlight episode of my career on television. I’ve never had the chance to share that much of myself on television because Hollywood has been content to just utilize a fragment of who I am. In this episode, I have to use all of who I am.”
That is an incredibly bold statement from someone with the career longevity of Ruben Santiago-Hudson. First of all, it’s shocking that the other writers and producers he’s worked with were not utilizing the full spectacular capabilities of this artist. Second, it feels like this episode is going to be a favorite for fans of the father/son relationship between Sandeford and Bentley.
East New York airs Sundays at 8:30 p.m. on CBS and is available to stream on Paramount+.