Major Talent: Actor finds soaring success on detective drama

Out actor Phillip Keene, who portrays Buzz Watson on the TV police drama “Major Crimes,” might be between seasons, but he isn’t sitting around idle.

“Major Crimes” is a spin-off of “The Closer,” and between the two series Keene has been playing the civilian electronic-surveillance expert who works for the LAPD in the ensemble drama for a combined total of 13 seasons.

Not bad for someone who didn’t start off pursuing an acting career.

In fact, Keene began working for Pan American World Airways as a flight attendant shortly after graduating high school. And his love for Pan Am never waned as he has amassed one of the largest collections of the airline’s memorabilia — which has grown to include over 3,500 items like matchboxes, posters, uniforms and tableware.

Keene talks fondly of his days in the friendly skies.

“I worked for Pan Am for the last four years of the company’s existence,” he said. “That was a huge thing for me, having nothing more than a high-school education. But I did speak another language so I met all the requirements. It had been a dream of mine to live in Europe and I was able to realize that through my job. I was based in London and at one point commuted from Amsterdam to London because it was cheaper to live in Holland. Some people have a two hour-drive to work; well, I had a 45-minute fight. It was a really long day for me but I loved it.”

After Pan Am folded, Keene moved to California, where he worked another odd string of jobs at a modeling agency, a local gym, a travel agency and a stint as a makeup artist. He also attended UCLA, double majoring in history and art while taking acting classes on the side. By chance, a friend, who worked in the entertainment industry, set him up with an audition for “The Closer.”

Keene said that jumping into the deep end of the acting pool with the highly acclaimed and seasoned acting veterans in the show’s cast was intimidating, to say the least.

“It was terrifying for me in the beginning,” he said. “I mean, to be working with Kyra Sedgwick and J.K. Simmons and G.W. Bailey and Tony Denison. These are some pretty heavy hitters and there I was. I had two tiny speaking parts before that. I was a little green but they loved the mistakes in the beginning. Everybody was very supportive of me so I was always appreciative of that.”

Over the years, the ensemble drama started focusing on the lives of the supporting characters in the cast including Buzz, who slowly but surely became a more prominent member of the cast. 

“I really like what they’ve done,” Keene said of Buzz’s character arc. “With ‘The Closer,’ it was pretty much a single POV through Brenda’s eyes. The rest of us were really just supporting her, which was fantastic. But now that we’ve got ‘Major Crimes’ going into our sixth season, everybody’s storylines have been fleshed out. Last year, I was really happy with the development of my character in particular, in that they gave him more to do by becoming a full-fledged reserve officer and then a stand-in reserve detective, which you will see this season when I step in for one of our detectives that is out on bereavement leave. I love the fact that they gave me more to do in the sense that they allowed Buzz to open up this cold case of the murder of his father and his uncle that was going on for so long. He was able to — through the help of his colleagues — solve this case and bring the perpetrators to justice.”

The chemistry among the cast of characters is one of the strong suits of both “The Closer” and “Major Crimes.” Keene said the camaraderie you see on screen is reflective of how well the actors get along off screen.

“It’s even better,” Keene said of the cast’s behind-the-scenes chemistry. “Some of us, we’ve gone on vacations together even after we’ve done a season with 21 episodes. The day after we wrapped shooting for the last season — we had just spent 10-and-a-half months together — and almost all of us got together on an airplane and flew down to Naples, Fla., to participate in a Sunshine Kids event, which is a charity that we all support that helps kids with cancer. I have to say, we really do love spending time with each other. We joke around on set all the time. That chemistry that you see on screen is real because we really do get along with each other. If we’re not in each other’s homes or celebrating birthdays or things like that, you can generally find us having lunch or shopping together, you know, doing all the normal things that people do.”

Even though his work on “Major Crimes” takes up a lot of his time, Keene says he also devotes time to diversifying his performance skills.

“What I’m doing on Sundays right now is I’m taking an improv class at The Groundlings in Los Angeles,” he said. “If I’m not actively working on our set or on our show, I’m always trying to do something to hone my skills or gain some new ones. I came at this so late that I feel like I still have a lot of catching up to do. So I’m always trying to feed my mind and acquire some new skills, whether it’s reading a play or reading more history or taking a class. I’m always trying to do something like that.”

The Groundlings is known far and wide as an incubator of comedic talents and Keene said that, if the right opportunity to do something other than a TV drama comes up, he’s game.

“I would certainly entertain the idea of doing a sitcom or a soap just because it’s a different world entirely,” he said. “I’d love to see if I can handle that. Stage work? Fortunately, I’m working a lot and that’s great. But it also prevents me from entertaining the idea of a six-week rehearsal process and then taking that onto the stage. If I do find myself with an extended amount of time off, I’d certainly love to do a play.”

“Major Crimes” can be seen on TNT.