TO SERVE AND PROTECT
The Personal Demons of a Police Officer: An Interview with Sam Jaeger on ‘Plain Clothes’
Parenthood star Sam Jaeger on a short film about a cop battling the brutalities of serving within the thin blue line—and the struggle to not bring it home to his family.
To me, Sam Jaeger was Joel Graham from NBC’s Parenthood, who each week gave me a new reason to love my family even more while simultaneously putting husbands around America to shame for being the perfect spouse. I had also seen him recently in the Oscar-nominated film American Sniper alongside Bradley Cooper, expressing outrage in the movie after the heartbreaking loss of a fellow Navy SEAL, who was killed by an enemy sniper.
However, my inquisition into Jaeger didn’t start with where I had seen him previously, it started with a tweet on the night of the series finale of Parenthood.
Jaeger had posted to his timeline a new short film entitled, Plain Clothes, which tells the story of Cole, a 35-year-old police officer trying to make sense of the brutalities of serving within the thin blue line of law enforcement and the struggle to not bring it home to his family.
The 10-minute film shows Cole confronting a wanted suspect on his way home from work and is based on conversations Jaeger has had with police officers. The film launched on YouTube and Vimeo recently and starts off with a blank screen with Jaeger’s character Cole speaking to what seems to be the audience, however, we quickly learn it’s his therapist.
“I used to see the old cops, all fat and bitter,” Cole said, “Treating J-walkers like they were pedophiles and I thought, that’s not going to be me.”
“And now?” the therapist asks.
“Now I drive around my block for a half-hour before pulling into the drive because I am not bringing that [expletive] in,” Cole said, “I told Jo to stop asking about how my day was a few years back—you either keep it in or you tell your wife all about it—so here we are.”
The short film resonated with me. I saw myself in Jaeger’s character upon returning from a combat deployment to Afghanistan a few years back. Reflection is sometimes the most insidious unseen wound to come out of war. The loss of innocence—the loss of friends—War is life multiplied by some number no one has ever heard of, according to war documentarian Sebastian Junger.
Plain Clothes seeks to provide a visceral reminder of the toll law enforcement work can take on an officer of the law, on his or her marriage, and the personal demons that seem to be only skin deep.
My phone rings, Jaeger is calling from New Zealand.
Jaeger just recently wrapped up filming the pilot for TNT’s new drama Lumen, a fantasy medium about a family locked in an alternate world; acclaimed director Steven Spielberg is producing the show.
Jaeger and I talk about how New Zealand is practically a vacation compared to California or Ohio where he grew up. I tell him about how I saw myself in some of his characters from Plain Clothes and American Sniper. I had a lot of questions to ask—I wanted to know more about Jaeger’s short film, how his self-described “dark road,” had given him the inspiration to write, star, and direct Plain Clothes, and why this issue is so important to him.
With that, we got started.
So talk to me about Plain Clothes. Why make this movie on this particular topic?
The film came out of heart-to-hearts I have had with police officers and hearing what they have to deal with in their line of work. I am always looking for stories that have not been told too much and one story that I think is really gripping and important is what police officers go through.
Did the public opinion regarding law enforcement today also influence your desire to tell their story?
Yes, especially with all the negativity and venom that our country has right now towards law enforcement. I think it’s important to give the other side.
Anybody can record the end of an arrest and people can take it out of context as some officer bludgeoning someone. But after hearing from officers the reality is much more of a grey area. You know, their main job is to make sure their partner and themselves are kept alive and it doesn’t do the public any good if the police officer is slain because its hundreds of lives he or she can’t save.
So it’s not to say I think a police officer’s life is more valuable than others but I believe their death effects not only their family but also the community.
What is a police officer’s world like?
Well, after talking with officers I just felt like they live in a strange world with many contrasts. You know, not only just going from work to home life but transitioning from call to call because one call will be stopping two boys from throwing rocks off the overpass and the next is some heroin addict strung out at a hotel.
So they have to treat every situation differently but also maintain their guard—that’s a lot to ask and it wears on a psyche and I wanted to tell the story of a man in the middle of all that.
If that’s the world of a police officer, why would someone choose to go into it?
I think a lot of officers go into that line of work because they have a calling for it. But at some point, they find themselves in the middle of their lives having seen some of the darkest things that are just unimaginable to the rest of us.
So them wrestling with those memories and images…you know, when people think of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) the general public only thinks of war—our officers are at war every day.
So it’s a different battleground?
Yeah. Cops often say if the public only knew what they had to deal with outside their doors at 3 o’clock in the morning. [laughs]
So I actually haven’t heard much about police officers and their struggle with PTSD. So I did some research and learned the other day that more cops die by suicide than by felons, according to the National Study of Police Suicides and that one third of officers have PTSD and don’t know it.
Yeah, isn’t that tragic? You know, it’s interesting that there seems to be this stigmatism out here against going to find help for mental health issues or trying to find an outlet for depression. I felt that the environment out here was if you went to a therapist you were deemed a crazy person and yet the reality is it’s one of the most important pursuits we can make as a person—you know, the more we talk about what is holding us back as individuals, the more it benefits us and our society and I think Plain Clothes is an effort to do that.
Do you think a police officer doesn’t go into therapy because of some personal shame?
You know, hopefully some cop will see this movie and feel less alone. There is an attachment to shame and talking about one’s feelings as a man but I see it as a real strength. The more understanding we have about what’s going on in our own brain will just make us more capable in our own jobs, in telling our kids we love them, and living a fulfilling life.
I am just an actor but there are these other people who are really selfless, I come from a long line of nurses in my family and they really do a thankless job.
So there’s this scene in Plain Clothes where Cole is unsure about which pasta to bring home to his wife, but in his confusion he seems to be consistently on alert to his surroundings, a common side effect among individuals that have PTSD. Were you trying to show that in the film?
Absolutely, and one of the things we tried to do in the story was portray that. You know, he’s off duty so he should’ve notified his fellow officers about the suspect but he’s caught in this area where he makes the mistake of following this guy that he thinks is linked to some other crimes, which is the cop you never want to be.
There’s a YouTube video I watched that you posted. In the video you talk about how you also made this film during a dark period in your life. Can you discuss that?
Well, I made this for officers I know personally but I combined it with things I was feeling five years ago. I have a four-and-a-half-year-old son and a five-month-old son. When my four- year-old was born it really took me for a turn.
I suddenly realized, I brought this kid into the world and I don’t know what the purpose of life is so how dare I—if I don’t have any answers for myself, how could I do this to someone else?
Where did those feelings take you?
I went down a kind of dark road trying to figure out my purpose in life and I think the movie hints at the notion that we may not find a purpose to life but what’s most important at the end of the day is that we are loved—and we are there for those we love. So I tried to sprinkle a little bit of that in.
The reason I find law enforcement and military so vital is that they are not just protecting the country but the people within our country. But ultimately, I came to the realization that we don’t get to the end of our lives and look back and wish we had gotten the dossier to our boss on time—we look back and think have I been a good Father or Mother or a member of the community? I think police officers spend a lot more time in that pursuit than a lot of us.
It’s interesting that you always go back to family, even within your own work…
You know, it’s been great because my world has been family for the last six years and even before then—I have a stepdaughter whose 20-years-old and has been in my life for 15-years now and family has always been a big part of my life. I think it was having parents who loved and supported their children regardless of their trade. They had the same excitement for me being a struggling actor as they did for my sister who’s a nurse.
But even in your work family bleeds over, no?
Well, one of the reasons I love being an actor and a filmmaker is that I am fascinated with what it means to be human, with the dark places our minds can go and yet, at the same time the length we go to in order to care for other people. So my job as an artist in that realm is to empathize as deeply as I can with people outside of my world because my world of being in film, if you get too far into it—there’s nothing there. [laughs]
What do you mean?
[laughs] It’s all a fabrication—but I have always had an interest in the smaller stories. I always felt like if there was an entertainment industry in Toledo, Ohio, I would be there because I think there’s a real need to tell stories outside of what Hollywood finds interesting and I think Plain Clothes and American Sniper are examples of that because it’s tapped into something that America has a real interest in.
On this subject of family, your character Cole struggles with keeping the brutalities of police work away from his family, especially in the opening scene. Can you talk about that?
Well, you know he talks about the older cops that kind of take their work home with them. If you look at the divorce and suicide rate within the community, it’s sky-high and the reason is because of the stress that starts to seep into their own persona. I know police officers who are the most loving, sociable, affectionate guys but as soon as they start talking about their job, their voices get a little lower and it’s almost like they get tunnel vision on what their duties are…it’s a hard line to walk.
This discussion of cops being the bad guys lately. So look we all know the firefighters get all the credit. [laughs]
But the police officers with all the negativity directed at them it’s even harder to do their jobs than ever before. I don’t know, but I can imagine it’s kind of a drag when you’re trying to do a service to a group of people who want nothing to do with you.
Another facet I find interesting about Plain Clothes is that Cole questions his relationship with God. Was this a common trend with police officers you spoke with?
Yeah, I think that the pursuit of faith is very important to officers and certainly the officers I know. The things that they see cannot all be described as God’s way—I mean what kind of God is that who loves discriminately and takes so maliciously?
Growing up I sang in the church choir until I graduated high school and I haven’t held on to my faith the same way police officers I know have. But seeing them and their belief in God—I envy them; I think it’s healthy that they lean into God because I think it’s a community of support that I have lost. And believe me, I have tried to find that connection to God that I had when I was a kid but it’s just not resonating with me.
But this plays into the conversation I was having in my head about Plain Clothes. So if I don’t have all the answers than what is my purpose here on earth? So if God forbid there’s no afterlife, what am I to make of my time here?
So I wanted Plain Clothes to explore how law enforcement tears at the fabric of a marriage and the persona of an individual. But the message is the conclusion that I came to in my own life.
At the end of the day, I believe that the most important thing is whom I tuck into bed at night and that’s a hard thing to remember in any line of work.