Chicago-trained Justin Cornwell takes ‘Training Day’ to TV

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Justin Cornwell (left) and Bill Paxton in a scene from their new cop TV drama “Training Day,” inspired by the Oscar-winning film. | Photo Credit: CBS-TV

Many hours spent on stages in Chicago led up to Justin Cornwell’s debut this week on “Training Day,” a new CBS series inspired by the 2001 film that won Denzel Washington his second Academy Award.

“I really needed to pay my dues — doing theater in Chicago — or else I would never have been prepared to tackle this incredible opportunity,” said Cornwell, calling from the police drama’s set. “Training Day” will premiere at 9 p.m. Thursday (WBBM-Channel 2).

Reflecting back on his time in Our Town, Cornwell said, “Those five years I spent in Chicago, I really felt like I found an artistic home. When I came up from Louisville [Kentucky, his hometown], I hadn’t done much: a couple of high school plays, and some things I did studying at the University of Louisville.”

But in fairly short order, Cornwell started getting small roles, walk-ons and a bit of television production work in Chicago. Key theatrical opportunities came his way at Northlight Theatre and at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. “Chicago was a great place to learn real theater. … It taught me so much.”

As for the new “Training Day” series, Cornwell noted one key change from the movie. “While my character of Kyle Craig is much like the character Ethan Hawke played in the original movie, there are differences. I play a [Los Angeles] police officer who has just been bumped up to detective, but only to infiltrate Bill Paxton’s character’s unit.” where corruption is suspected.

“It’s like the Ethan Hawke character, if [in the movie] he had been part of Internal Affairs. … But there are lots of different twists that have been added. Of course, like in the film, Bill Paxton [playing a character loosely based on Washington’s] and I play two unlikely individuals — two very different kinds of cops — who are thrown together and then take off on quite the wild ride.”

Asked why he thinks cop shows have continued to grab audiences’ interest — and for such a long time — Cornwell offered a couple of reasons.

“Most law-abiding citizens are intrigued by what that criminal world is like. They want to know how people get into a life of crime and also how crimes are prosecuted. … Plus, I think it’s also a bit of a need for escapism — giving people a means to be transported and get lost in storytelling that they find relatable, even as they are being entertained and escaping from their own lives.”

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