Detroit has become TV's biggest body double. For years, thanks to Michigan's generous production incentives, the Motor City has attracted films and TV shows in production. But it's always masquerading as somewhere else: L.A., N.Y., even standing in as Austin for Whip It. But in AMC's new corrupt-cop drama Low Winter Sun, the struggling city is getting some real face time in front of the camera. British actor Mark Strong, who plays the show's chief anti-hero, said, "I walked into a shop to buy something and the guy said, 'How are you enjoying Detroit?' I told him 'I'm having a great time,' and he said to me, 'People don't normally say that.'"
The show is based on a British two-part miniseries from 2006. In the original, set in Scotland's capital city of Edinburgh, Strong played Detective Frank Agnew, a cop lured into murder by his partner (Brian McCardie). In AMC's Michigan-set reboot, Strong is a new version of Agnew, but caught in the same trap. This time it's Lennie James (The Walking Dead, Snatch) who pulls him into conspiracy and cover-up as they are charged with investigating their own crimes. For Strong, the two Agnews are different characters. "I looked on it as a new job," Strong said. "The more I think about it, the more I realize there is nothing that I brought from that to this other than me physically. There are some plot points that we repeat, but I'm with Lennie, I'm not with Brian. It's only in talking about it that there's a resonance. The actual physical doing of it was a whole new thing."
While the British drama was a lean three hours of noir, AMC's new vision takes a long, slow delve into the criminal underbelly of Detroit and the attempts to rebuild the broken city. Strong called the city "an incredible backdrop. ... There are areas that are really struggling. Like in any city, you can go down one street and not see it, but go down another street and you come face-to-face with it."
When relocating Agnew, series writer Chris Mundy (Criminal Minds, AMC's Hell on Wheels) had a short list of locations: New Orleans or Detroit. James, who has worked in both, recognized the similarities, but noted the big difference: One was devastated by nature, the other by human hands. James said, "Detroit may look like a tornado hit it, but it isn't a tornado. It's just abandonment."
There's little doubt that Detroit gives Low Winter Sun all the imposing urban plight it could require. Agnew's house – a real Detroit home – is the only non-collapsed structure on the street. The rest looks like a war zone. "We were told about the white flight that was followed by the black middle-class flight, and that everybody who could leave the city of Detroit has left as quickly as they could, and the only people left are the people who couldn't get out," James explained. "That's not the whole truth. There's a lot of people who stayed and fought for their city and are still fighting for their city."
After living and working in Detroit for several months, both men see a city trying to turn itself around. Strong said, "If you ask me honestly if people are saying the city's going down or going up, there seems to be a really positive vibe." The city may have formally filed bankruptcy this summer, but there's a revived property market, as well as clusters of start-up firms. To reflect that planned revival, in the first episode there's talk of a new police station near the river. Strong said, "There are greater minds than mine at work on it, but the point is that there are minds at work on it."
Low Winter Sun debuts Sunday, Aug. 11, on AMC at 9pm – immediately following the season premiere of Breaking Bad.
Copyright © 2014 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.