Gabrielle Union and Jessica Alba Partner Up On- and Off-Screen for Bad Boys TV Spin-Off L.A.'s Finest

The duo explains how their real-life chemistry translates to the small screen in their new series based on the Michael Bay–directed film franchise.

by | May 13, 2019 | Comments

It’s been 15 years since we saw Syd Burnett (Gabrielle Union) taking names and stealing scenes from her brother Marcus (Martin Lawrence) and then-boyfriend Mike (Will Smith) in Bad Boys II. Back then, Syd was working for the federal government and toppling cartels in Miami.

Now, Syd moves to Los Angeles (and television) on L.A.’s Finest, a follow-up of sorts that shares her new adventures as an L.A. cop alongside her equally badass partner, Nancy McKenna (Jessica Alba). Together, Syd and Nancy — not named for the infamous punk duo, they promise — encounter action-packed crime scenarios at work and in their personal lives. They might not trust each other with all their dirty secrets at first, but no matter what, Syd and Nancy always have each other’s backs.

“It felt really modern to tell this story of this friendship and this partnership of two women in a modern time, in a modern world,” Alba said during Rotten Tomatoes’ visit to the show’s Los Angeles-area set in February. “You don’t have to call out that we’re women all the time. We’re just people in the world that you want to hang out with.”

L.A.’s Finest premieres May 13. It’s the first original series for cable provider Charter Communications/Spectrum, and thus it’s a guinea pig of sorts for the service. The Spectrum Original series will be available on demand for customers of the cable service only, but Union isn’t worried about people missing her show.

“I love a challenge,” she said. “The proof is in the pudding.”

From Clean-Cut Procedural to Rough-and-Real Drama

LA’s Finest – S1 – EP2 (101) – “DEFIANCE” – Jessica Alba as Nancy McKenna, Gabrielle Union as Sydney Burnett, Zach Gilford as Ben Walker, Duane Martin as Ben Baines Photographer: Nicole Wilder/Spectrum Originals
(Photo by Nicole Wilder/Spectrum Originals)

On paper, L.A.’s Finest might sound like a procedural: Two cops fighting crime in Los Angeles. But with Michael Bay’s ’90s action flick Bad Boys as its source material — and support from Jerry Bruckheimer Television — L.A.’s Finest feels more like an action-thriller series than a clean-cut cop drama.

According to its producers, though, L.A.’s Finest wasn’t always so gritty and real. The shift from procedural crime show to action-packed drama happened when L.A.’s Finest moved from NBC to Spectrum, after the team had already finished shooting the pilot.

Producer Anton Cropper (Suits, Black-ish) said, in some ways, the series straddles the differences between network and cable narratives: “We always talk about the difference between network and cable, and we wanted it to have that cable feel.”

“We wanted this to feel cinematic,” Cropper said. “Especially in today’s age, everyone has 80-inch TVs. We wanted this to feel like a 13-episode movie.”

LA’s Finest – S1 – EP3 (102) – “CON AIR” – Duane Martin as Ben Baines and Zach Gilford as Ben Walker Photographer: Erica Parise/Spectrum Originals

For the L.A.’s Finest team, the cable vibe wasn’t just about a visual look that combined TV and cinematic techniques. It also meant focusing on characters’ relationships and emotional lives rather than just the nitty gritty of their jobs as detectives.

“It’s different for a show like ours to tackle more of the personal relationships and less of a procedural,” Alba said. “You really get to go on that journey with us.”

Alba and Union agreed that there were some real, concrete differences when the series was aiming for network distribution. Their wardrobes were more limited, their characters felt more archetypical, and Syd’s sexuality was, well, straight.

“In the NBC version,” Union said, “there is no woman in my bed… But in the Spectrum/Charter version, she’s back!”

Originally, Nancy was more “uptight” with a “perfect life,” and Syd was “the rebellious one,” Alba revealed.

“It was always sort of keeping us inside of these boundaries and these roles,” she said. “In real life people, are a lot more fluid… and so that’s how we want to see women on this show.”

The Series Is Action Packed

Sony Pictures Television/Spectrum Originals, Photographer: Erica Parise
(Photo by Sony Pictures Television/Spectrum Originals, Photographer: Erica Parise)

Right off the bat, L.A.’s Finest throws its audience into the heart of Los Angeles — a.k.a. right into traffic. In the first episode, Syd and Nancy are seen engaging in the most typical Los Angeles behavior possible: arguing over traffic, the GPS, and local routes of navigation. Sure, the series features on-location scenes everywhere from Santa Monica to Koreatown, but its representation of life in Los Angeles isn’t necessarily the most realistic one. Specifically, Syd’s apartment and Nancy’s house are way outside the typical budgets for L.A. law enforcement. But Union says the show is self-aware about the luxury these ladies live in. In fact, Union said that’s part of the point.

“[Syd has] clearly played loose and fast with the rules,” she said. “She hasn’t been an L.A. detective for that long, so what exactly was she doing for the D.E.A.?”

In other words, what has Syd done to afford this room with a view? What has she done to hide, or otherwise evade, potential demons from her past?

L.A.’s Finest has Alba and Union driving all over the city chasing perps and evading figures from their respective pasts. While the two do some of their own hand-to-hand combat, they do have stunt doubles that face most of the action for them. But the driving? It’s often really Alba behind the wheel, Union says.

“I’m like, where’s the stunt driver?” she laughed. “And they’re like, ‘Jessica has opted to do it!’”

In Alba’s defense, “it’s fun, though,” the actress said.

Yeah — “for her,” Union joked. “It’s one big anxiety attack for me.”

Opening Up the Bad Boys Universe

LA's Finest. Sony Pictures Television/Spectrum Originals / Photographer: Nicole Wilder
(Photo by Sony Pictures Television/Spectrum Originals / Photographer: Nicole Wilder)

Even though L.A.’s Finest is focused on Syd’s life now, her partnership with Alba’s Nancy, and how these women’s past lead them to such turbulent and complex presents, Union is also open to including other Bad Boys characters in the mix.

“The Bad Boys universe exists so we can have these Avengers-type moments where can all sort of be together, that would be amazing,” Union said. “The door is always open for them.”

In fact, the new Spectrum series has already expanded the Bad Boys family by introducing Syd’s estranged father (played by Ghostbusters star Ernie Hudson) into the mix.

“We had to figure out what would cause an estrangement to the degree where you’d never met Ernie’s character in the Bad Boys universe — you’d never really heard of Marcus having parents,” Union said. “We had to come up with a mythology that really explained his absence and their relationship.”

Brandon Margolis and Brandon Sonnier, LA's Finest showrunners (Spectrum Originals)
(Photo by Spectrum Originals)

From the get-go, it was Union leading the charge on reintroducing Syd’s story and incorporating Nancy in the series.

“It really did start with Gabrielle,  L.A.’s Finest co-executive producers and writer Brandon Margolis (pictured above left)Margolis said that he and his writing partner and fellow showrunner, Brandon Sonnier (above right), met with Union to pitch a Syd-centric TV series, and everything grew from there.

“It was a real blessing to have these two strong women who can do the action, but equally hit the comedy timing and those comedy beats and moments, which are a real hallmark of the Bad Boys universe,” Sonnier said during our set visit in February.

Sonnier expressed a real appreciation of Alba and Union’s chemistry, too.

“They right off the bat had a trust and a camaraderie,” he said. “They came in as equals and it immediately showed up on the screen.”

(Later in February, Sonnier and Margolis were involved in an on-set accident that resulted in Sonnier’s leg being partially amputated, but is still working, according to an interview Charter Content Chief Katherine Pope gave to this month: “He was at our final mix and in editing…we treasure him.”)

Sony Pictures Television/Spectrum Originals, Photographer: Erica Parise
(Photo by Sony Pictures Television/Spectrum Originals, Photographer: Erica Parise)

The duo’s on-screen chemistry is a translation of their “real-life naughty sense of humor,” as Union explained it.

Alba described the show’s creative working environment: “During the pilot we did a lot of ad-libbing and we would just riff off each other.”

More than inside jokes, though, the two are committed to fostering a behind-the-scenes space that accommodates their lives as mothers, too.

“I needed somebody that was gonna be on board with a new way of filming, a new way of doing this Hollywood thing,” Union said. And when Alba decorated her trailer as a nursery to prepare for her new baby, Union knew she’d picked the right partner.

To hear their fellow producers and costars tell it, everyone benefits from that parent-safe and accommodating environment. Ryan McPartlin, who plays Nancy’s husband, Ryan, has also brought his kids — 9- and 12-year-old boys — to set.

“God forbid, it’s probably gonna make them want to become actors,” McPartlin joked.

Partners in Crime — On-Screen and Off

Sony Pictures Television/Spectrum Originals, Photographer: Ron Batzdorff
(Photo by Sony Pictures Television/Spectrum Originals, Photographer: Ron Batzdorff)

In addition to starring in the series, Alba and Union are also executive producers.

It was Union who recruited Alba to be her partner on- and off-screen. Union knew she wanted a “boss, badass woman” to be her co-star — someone who would be confident in the middle of action scenes and voicing her opinion behind the scenes, too.

“There’s not too many women that run a billion-dollar company, have established iconic characters, who can kick ass, who has the same work ethic I do, who’s not afraid to speak her mind,” Union said. “There’s only one Jessica Alba. So that’s why I started calling and begging… Sending tequila.”

L.A’s Finest premieres Monday, May 13 on Spectrum on Demand.

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