'Gang Related': RZA draws on best friend's 17 years of NYPD experience

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gang-related-premiere-fox.jpgRyan Lopez is torn between two worlds and can easily get killed in either.

Lopez (Ramon Rodriguez, "The Wire,") the main character on FOX's "Gang Related," premiering Thursday, May 22, is a tough cop who was reared by a gang leader.

The relentlessly action-packed drama is set in Los Angeles, and the pilot opens on July 4, 1998. A brave kid fights a much older gangbanger. The kid is determined to hold onto his watch because his late father gave it to him. He is so brave that the gangbanger's father notices and takes him in.

That kid is Ryan Lopez, and the man who takes him in is Javier Acosta (Cliff Curtis), boss of the city's most dangerous gang, Los Angelicos. Javier needs Ryan to infiltrate the police department to protect his illegal interests.

Ryan grows into a great cop and lives in both worlds, which leaves him at home in both, but at rest in neither.

"He wants to do the right thing," Rodriguez tells  Zap2it. "He has good morals. He is in such a difficult position."

And every day he struggles with this. Complicating his life is that the gangbanger who initially beat him for the watch is Javier's son, Carlos (Reynaldo Gallegos, "Sons of Anarchy"). Carlos, a stone thug, is jealous of Ryan and always wants to make trouble for him.

Much as Ryan appreciates the family that gave him a home, he is very much a cop, and he considers the elite Gang Task Force another family. His captain, Sam Chapel (Terry O'Quinn, "Lost"), is also paternal toward Ryan.

He's great at being a cop yet knows all of the secrets of the criminals.

"He was orphaned at 10," Rodriguez says of Ryan. "One of the most important things is to give him purpose. Javier treats him like a son. From 10 to 18, he was in Javier's house."

Ryan is a witness to the senseless bloodshed in Javier's wake.

"It's the struggle," Rodriguez says. "This show lives in the gray area a lot. Life is always in the gray area. He joined the LAPD with a strict mission. He can't help but get attached."

In the pilot, Lopez's partner is gunned down, and Carlos is the shooter. The GTF jumps into action, and Lopez winds up working with Detective Cassius Green (RZA).

Both actors hung out with cops for research.

"One of my best friends I grew up with has been on the NYPD for 17 years," RZA says. "He's one of Brooklyn's finest. I went on to become a rapper. He went on to become a cop. He came to my house in California, and I picked his brain. There are a lot of things that actors do that cops are very against."

On-set consultants ensure that the actors move as police would, and there is a lot of movement in this. Car chases, crashes and gunplay make up chunks of the first few episodes, which makes sense considering that creator Chris Morgan is a producer of "Fast & Furious 6," and executive producers include Scott Rosenbaum ("The Shield") and Brian Grazer ("24").

"Cas has on dog tags for his brother," RZA says. And toying with bracelets on his wrist, he adds, "These are my own prayer beads. In some episodes, I had the prop department bring prayer beads for Cassius. Cassius makes a little prayer because you never know what is going to happen. It is life or death. The only thing the cop may know is you think about gangsters who all have AK-47s.

"The mindset is it is me and my team against them," RZA continues. "I would rather my team goes home to their family than the criminal goes home to theirs."

Of course for Lopez, both are his families. Javier understands and loves Lopez, but his thug of a son, Carlos, is still his son. 

When Carlos winds up in the ER after a gunfight with a rival gang, only Ryan is uniquely equipped to help stop further bloodshed.

The characters feel very real, especially Carlos.

"Just about every aspect of Carlos' life is something that I've not just witnessed but grew up in, in the neighborhoods in South Central Los Angeles," Gallegos says. "I was born in San Pedro but raised everywhere between 112th and Watts, all the way through Carson, Compton and Gardena. So I do have a personal responsibility to the character. I feel like portraying him as real as possible from where I came from and giving that person a voice on the street, that was pretty important to me to make him a real person."

Carlos and his family speak in Spanish; in other scenes Russian is spoken and in others Korean. It gives the series more of a filmic and interesting quality than a standard cop procedural.

"It's not like a blend or not anything like that," Morgan says, addressing the show's diversity. "It is full - I mean, these guys kill it. I mean, to be able to learn that and to come in and convey that and - we embrace, not only in the writing room but in terms of the story and actually in practice, what you guys will see in series."
Photo/Video credit: FOX