Q&A with the Real Life 'Cleaner' Warren Boyd
Q&A with Warren Boyd, Co-Executive Producer of The Cleaner
By Fritz Lenneman
In A&E's gritty drama The Cleaner, Benjamin Bratt plays William Banks, a combination private eye and therapist who helps addicts get clean. Before the therapy begins, William and his team use surveillance methods to infiltrate the addicts' worlds to discover the truth about their addictions. From there, they "extract" the addicts, convincing them to leave their drug-infused lifestyles.
The incredible truth is that William is based on a real person. For nearly 20 years, Warren Boyd has used his own "whatever it takes" methods and intimate knowledge of the minds of addicts—he was addicted to drugs and alcohol for years—to get his clients clean. As co-executive producer of The Cleaner, Warren's personal and professional experiences are the show's foundation.
Fritz Lenneman: So are you in Los Angeles right now?
Warren Boyd: I'm in Los Angeles, on my way to LAX to go to New York to extract someone.
FL: Wow, so you definitely still work an addiction interventionist. William Banks' methods—and yours—are described as being "by any means necessary." What exactly does that mean?
WB: "By any means necessary" is a pretty broad stroke. It causes a few people's eyebrows to go up. But I think of "any means necessary" as more of what I'm willing to do. I'm not willing to break the law, it's not like that, but there are always means in which to get things done, and I have to be very creative. I don't have a plan—I'm going to New York right now, and I don't have a plan about what I'm going to do with this individual when I get there, the approach and everything else. I don't have a plan because if I set a plan in place, it's not going to work. Everything is going to take a left and a right, and it's going to go upside down on me, so I have to do it from the hip. I have to think on my feet and just do it from the hip. "By any means necessary" lends to: Am I going to have to call an investigation team to see what's going on around here? Am I going to call a med tech because are we in that sort of a condition where I would need somebody who is, like, paramedically qualified? Do I need to use other means like a family member? Do I need to use the police? What do I need to do to get this person? Do I need to pretend I'm somebody else? What do I need to do? That's in the pocket of "by any means necessary." Whatever it takes and being as creative as possible. And so the show is kind of easy for me to roll through, because lots of times things aren't what they appear. So my team can't be what they appear. We have to sometimes infiltrate the world in order to get someone out of that world. So a lot of those stories are true to their words.
FL: How did you get involved in making The Cleaner?
WB: For the last decade, people have been trying to get me to do something, media-wise, but I never have found a reason to do it. But to reach people on a grander scale is the reason I did. And also the bigger reason is the quorum of people who wanted to introduce this project, they were the right people. … Everyone gave me a comfort zone that I could work with. They allowed me to understand that we are going to keep this thing true to its nature and we are going to pull threads from the stories that we do have to tell. We're not going to deviate into something else. We're going to show the audience what that world really looks like out there. Authentication is the real reason I went with A&E, and I'm glad that I did. Here we are with most of the second season. And Ben's doing a fantastic job. He's really got it on the ground.
FL: So you're more than just an executive producer. It sounds like you're deeply involved in pretty much every part of the show. How does The Cleaner's story process work?
WB: It starts in a writers' room. I'm storytelling; the writers are writing the stories. I'm authenticating all the way through, and then we'll bring it out of the writers' room into concepts. And we'll go through it and see if the concept is our show. And we'll make adjustments as we need to there. And what we'll do is cast it, and I'll work with the actors and teach them. It's my pleasure to teach people to do drugs who don't do drugs. It's usually the opposite. That's kind of fun. So I work very closely with the actors and the directors. So process all the way from A to Z—I'm involved, and I'm happy to be.
FL: In The Cleaner, police involvement and the war on drugs isn't much of an issue and is hardly mentioned in any of the first season's shows. Is that a conscious decision?
WB: This is what it's like with law enforcement at 18 years of doing this. We develop a lot of relationships, and what the police know is what the purpose is. They know that what I'm trying to do is get somebody off drugs—bottom line. They're aware of that. They themselves have been more help than they've been anything else because it's a problem that's out of control. They don't have the manpower to handle it all. And if they have someone who's not committing a crime, they'll usually let me do my thing and actually give me a little help. And I agree, if there's someone committing a crime, then they have to go to jail first, and we'll talk about what we're going to do after that. If somebody who's simply addicted to and high on drugs and creating all that tumultuous stuff and there happens to be police contact that's taken place, then we work together. We work together to deal with it in a way other than incarceration if we can.
FL: In one of the episodes in the first season, an addict tells William Banks that he can't imagine his life not getting high ever again. Is that the addict's biggest fear?
WB: Absolutely one of the most bona fide truthful lines in all of the episodes. The addict wants two things—what they don't want is to stop, and what they do want is more dope. They don't want you in their face talking about: "You're hurting your mother. You're hurting your sister. You're hurting the mailman. It's time for you to come with me." They don't want to hear that. They want to hear, "Where can I get some more?"
FL: That line felt like it cut right to the truth.
WB: That's the only vision they have. First of all, they think they're not capable of never doing it again. And that's not the mind-set you want to go with somebody anyway. Where I like to go is, "Let's do this: Let's get you cleaned up. Let's get all the substance out of your body and let's get some nutrients going on and some exercise. Let's let you feel yourself. And let's talk about how long you want to feel that way." The thing about, "You never have to do this again," I understand that slogan, I get all that. But they usually don't hear it. That doesn't really sink in too well. It's like, "Never have to? But I want to." Those are the cases that I've evolved to—the cases that are completely chronic.
FL: What advice would you give to someone who's clean but struggling to stay sober?
WB: The advice I'd give to that sort of a person would be: It doesn't have to be a struggle. What they need to do is get around some people and have contact with some people who already have been across the field of land mines and got to the other side of it. The problem with people who are struggling to stay sober is they magnet to other strugglers. "Yeah, my friend is 60 days sober and having a hell of a time and I'm having a hell of a time." So they commiserate and have all the misery happening. And what it is is you need to have contact with someone who knows where the land mines are and how to step through the field. That's what needs to happen for someone who's struggling: "I struggled too. I'm not struggling anymore. And here's how I got here."
FL: And what about for someone who's got a son or daughter, or best friend, or wife, or father who they know is struggling—what can they do?
WB: If they can't get to that person and open that up themselves—if that relationship or the family dynamic doesn't work in a fashion that they're able to deal with that person—then they need to call a professional to get instruction on at least how to try that. They should not try to do that by themselves if they don't know what they're doing, because they can drive the whole situation in the opposite direction. I've seen that happen a lot of times.
FL: Do you think our culture is especially susceptible to addiction, or is addiction just a human condition?
WB: I think it has a lot to do with culture, and different zones of culture, different sections of culture do different things. But I think the faster society moves, the faster pace of society, the more susceptible people are to the drug or alcohol or whatever they're using to get out of the box. The more populated of course, it's more difficult. The bigger the population, the more difficult the drugs.
FL: What do you mean by that?
WB: If we have 10,000 people in a 7-square-mile section, then we aren't going to have that many problems. If we have 1.2 million people in a 7-square-mile section, we're going to have all kinds of problems. They're going to collaborate. They're going to try different things. There are more ideas. If you go to a 12-step–type meeting and you have a newcomers meeting, and you have 35 people in the room, pretty much what you've got is 35 bad ideas. And we want a fellowship and buddy up and pass our phone numbers around—that, in my experience, can be very dangerous.
FL: Are there other TV shows or movies that influence The Cleaner?
WB: We're not going to have a happy ending every time. It doesn't work that way; that's not the real world. It's not that at the end of every episode William's the hero and everything's okay now. That's not it. And so looking around at other TV shows, you know, I see a lot of good stuff out there. Intervention is good—it's a thing where they've laid out a lot of real deal stuff. But more importantly, it's what really happens in the world. It doesn't have to be reality TV, but let's see what's really happening. … I'd love to compare something for you, but I love hero shows. I like shows that have a guy who is really a failure who can dust himself off and climb back up and help other people. I love shows that have people helping other people.