Cult’s Robert Knepper on Method, Prison Break, and Unleashing the Dark Side

BY ANDREW FISH

Robert Knepper | Prison Break | Cult | Billy Grimm | T-Bag
Robert Knepper

Robert Knepper has a particular aptitude for making the blood boil. Able to infuse an audience with hate, fear, and affection in one big jumble of conflicted emotion, the actor excelled as the infamous Theodore “T-Bag” Bagwell on the Fox series Prison Break. With vicious charisma, he made people feel for a cold-hearted killer by revealing glimmers of decency beneath what most would consider pure evil. Throughout the show’s run and long after its finale, Knepper has been stared at, confronted, and confided in by fans who watched him unleash his dark side every week — experiences that are coming in handy at his latest gig on The CW’s Cult, which features his portrayal of both Billy Grimm, a villain on a fictional TV show, and Roger Reeves, the actor who plays him.

As is evident in the interview to follow, Knepper pulls no punches. He’s an intense guy with great stories, strong opinions, and not a hint of the malevolence many expect from the man who channeled T-Bag with such brutal realism from 2005 to 2009. Even Rockne S. O’Bannon, creator of Cult — as well as the classic science-fiction series Farscape and the upcoming Defiance — admits he had some apprehension about meeting the performer because of the “indelible impression” Knepper had made on him through his work on Prison Break. “Then I met Robert,” O’Bannon tells us, “this very warm, generous, talented artist. I knew I’d found my man, an actor who could brilliantly bring both [Billy and Roger] to life. He’s an actor who cares deeply about the work, but also approaches it with a wonderful sense of fun.”

So how is someone with such a friendly demeanor and positive outlook able to craft such finely tuned villains as the frighteningly complex T-Bag, the relentless and diabolical Billy Grimm, the mass-murder-obsessed Samuel on Heroes, or the intergalactic fiend Simeon on Stargate Universe? He studied hard, immersed himself in theater, and became great at what he does.

Knepper cut his teeth on shows like Star Trek (The Next Generation and Voyager); L.A. Law; Law & Order; Murder, She Wrote; Profiler; The West Wing; CSI: Miami; and Criminal Minds. He also appeared on HBO’s Carnivale and Showtime’s Shameless, and played Frank Sinatra in the French film Cloclo and Robert Kennedy in the TV movie Jackie, Ethel, Joan: The Women of Camelot. Next up is the big-budget supernatural action film R.I.P.D., based on the Dark Horse comic, with Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds. Knepper took some time to chat with us recently, and here’s what transpired.

Having been an actor who has played some villainous characters, most notably T-Bag on Prison Break, is it fun to now be playing an actor who plays a villain?
Yes, I don’t think I’ve ever done anything like this before. I think for a lot of people in the business, you run the risk of saying, “Is what I do and how I live my life as an actor interesting enough for people to watch?” It’s really cool with this project to have certain attributes of Billy Grimm be the same attributes of Roger Reeves. Then you understand why Roger Reeves is playing this part. I hope it’s interesting and I hope it resonates with people. It’s kind of what I went through playing T-Bag in Prison Break, because I get to save a lot of money on therapy by wrestling with a lot of demons! [laughs] And then I get to walk down the street and have people be at once horrified by me and at the same time — T-Bag, for a lot of people, was really an alluring character [and] I get to see a wide variety of reactions to that. I remember this one couple came up to me on an airplane. [The woman] looked me right in the eye and said, “I really love T-Bag, and so does my husband. In fact, we love T-Bag so much that we switch parts. We decide who’s going to play T-Bag tonight.” I’m like, whoa! That’s pretty out there. The power of the imagination is pretty crazy, that you can affect people that way, to scare them so much and to turn them on at the same time. It’s probably the same emotion.

These are some of the ideas that are being explored on Cult.
Exactly! I’ve told a lot of these stories to Rockne [O'Bannon], and I swear I think he turns around [and] uses them, [but] tweaks them a bit.

So would you say that some of the things we see Roger experiencing on the show have come from your own life?
I would say if you’re a good writer — and I think Rockne’s a very good writer — you can’t help but take things that you hear or you see. I’m envious of writing. I can’t say I create; [as an actor] I interpret what’s already there. I think writers are sponges. I’m friends with “Swampy” [Marsh], who’s co-creator of Phineas and Ferb, the [animated show]. When you’re sitting with him, you know when you’re trading stories, that guy’s soaking them up and filing them somewhere in the back of his head, going, “I can use this!” [laughs] You always have to be really careful what you say around writers because I think they’re wonderful voyeurs, and I think they can spin it! I’ve never seen an actual story that I’ve told a writer used in an episode, but I’ve feel like I’ve come close to it.

What can you tell us about the motivations of both the actor and the villain you play in Cult? What do these two characters want?
I think Billy wants to maintain what he has. He wants to keep that little castle going on the top of the mountain, and he’ll do everything to protect himself, and surround himself with people from his “family” that will protect him. There must be something about him that can’t help but love the power that he has. These kinds of people are interesting to me because on one hand they offer you unconditional love; they’re so giving. You can fill in the blank; they’re either a preacher, a priest, any religious figure, or they’re a politician, a leader. They give people so much, and they’re a sponge, themselves, because they feed off of gifts that other people give them. That power must be pretty amazing. I think any great leader has to have tremendous ego, and when you are that confident, a lot of people find that really interesting to be around. There’s this glow about you. I know it; you know it, I’m sure. Certain days you wake up and you go, “I am feeling on top of the world right now!” These guys wake up and they’ve got to feel that way every day. They have a huge responsibility, and what if somebody tried to take that away from you? What if somebody said to you, “I want to bring you down”? Billy Grimm says, “Uh, uh! I’m not goin’.” So I think that goal is pretty self-evident; that’s him.

Roger is like me, in a way. I am compelled to be an actor; I’ve been an actor since I was nine. You’ll discover a lot of [Roger's] back-story over the next several episodes. I think every actor’s nightmare is that none of us ever wants to be boring and we never want to be typical. [He started] in the right place years ago, in the theater — and I started in the theater [as well] — and you have a little bit of a chip on your shoulder when you start in the theater, because it is the most pure form of acting. To go from that, as you’ll see in the unfolding story, to great film roles, to a juicy television role, [and] you’re thinking, “Am I doing the best I can do?” Almost 30 years ago, I was sitting with my agent who had come to New York to see his New York clients, and I was such a purist back then. He sat there [and asked], “So what do you want to do?” I said, “I love the theater.” And he started twiddling his fingers on the desk, and he said, “What else do you love?” [laughs] Because he’s an agent, right? I said, “Well, in a pinch I would do film.” And he pounded his fist on the table and said, “You left out the number-one-paying job — television!” This was, like, 1982 or ’83, and I said, “Uch, television. I’m not a prostitute! I’m not a slut! I’m not gonna sell myself out.” Of course, television back then, you had Banacek, you had Mannix, you had Hawaii Five-0, you had these big, strong, beautiful hunks of men whose hair never moved. And that was what you played if you were going to do that. So I just thought, “I’m not gonna do this.” And I think, to a certain extent, Roger Reeves has grown up with that kind of mentality, and you see him shift in the series, going, “You know what? I’m playing a great part!” I’ve certainly gone through this. I had a pretty [rough time] by having a taste of success — a huge taste of success — playing T-Bag in Prison Break [and garnering] worldwide knowledge and love for what became an iconic character. You can get a little addicted to that kind of love, and then you have to go, “Wait a minute; why am I doing this? Am I doing this because I want this recognition every time I go out? Or am I doing it because I really love the work?” You’re going to get to see a little bit of that with Roger, as well. I think he’s questioning what his goals are. What does he want? Does he want fame or does he want to keep playing a great part? And, like any great part you play — specifically on television, because it is a long-running gig — it starts to mess with your head after a while. Because you can’t walk around in your real life being the character that you’re playing. There’s no way you can have that much power over people. Once in awhile, you’re going to have to cook your own dinner. [laughs]

Do you have trouble shaking your characters off? Do you take them home with you?
Having a kid — I have one child; he’s 10 — that is the great equalizer. He’s a great barometer for this kind of stuff for me. There’s a film I did, and I can’t wait to see it; it’s called RIPD. It comes out in June or July; it’s this big, 200-million-dollar Jeff Bridges, Ryan Reynolds film. And Ben, my son, is my best acting coach, because I can memorize lines with him, I can run script stuff with him, and look at him and go, “Is that interesting to you?” “Well, pop, I would try that, but maybe don’t use the glasses.” [laughs] And for this gig [on Cult], he’s helped me memorize several scenes. Ben is great because I just don’t take it too seriously. I’m serious when I do it, and yeah, it can take its toll, but as soon as I get him on the phone, or as soon as I’m running home, and I hear “Papa,” I’m right back to my reality, which, thank God… The state of my union is very good.

What kind of emotional stuff do you deal with when you play these characters?
The accumulation of these deeds in these episodes, it does sometimes wear on me, and I have to, you know, take an extra-long shower, or I have to work out a little bit more, or play racquetball or squash a little bit harder, but I work them out. I went to Northwestern University and I studied with Bill Esper in New York, and the golden words I always remember are, “You’re just acting.” To have that kind of power over an audience, whether it’s to make them cry, or to laugh, or to be afraid, or to be angry — the only way to do that is to just surrender and say, “This is me. This is what I’m going to do. This is the character. This is how I do it.” You can never, ever see somebody acting, because if you do, then you’re not going to have the same kind of visceral response. There’s just no way. When we see Anthony Hopkins be Hannibal Lecter, it’s seamless. So for an actor, my theory is the more you surrender to really being the guy — and Esper, [with the] Meisner technique, used to call it “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances” — the more you actually do that, the more cathartic it is for you as the actor. If you do it half-assed, then I think you spend more money in therapy, going, “I’m a terrible actor!” versus, “I’m living this character fully.” You’re just like an open channel, and all these things happen when you do that. I recommend it; it’s highly therapeutic!

What was it like working with Woody Allen in Everyone Says I Love You?
I learned a huge lesson working with Woody Allen, and that is, don’t be afraid. I felt like a kid when I worked with him. It’s one thing to act a scene with another actor; it’s another thing to act a scene opposite your director. And I was just awful. [laughs] I was awful in that movie, because I just kept going, “Woody Allen doesn’t like me!” I have so much respect for him, and I just was a blithering idiot around him. I wish I could do it all over again. Years ago I remember going to my ex-wife’s father [Peter Herald]. I had done Woody’s film, I had done the Bruce Willis film Hostage, I’d done Carnivale on HBO, I had done Good Night, and Good Luck with George [Clooney], and all these things were great but they weren’t paying a lot of money. [Peter] was a production manager [and] producer; he was Walt Disney’s right-hand man. He had fled Germany in the early ’30s because he was Jewish. He was quite successful, and then in the latter part of his years he developed Parkinson’s and he had to stop working. I had known he’d gone through a rough time trying to provide for his family, and my ex-wife and I had gotten to the same point. So I remember going to Peter and saying, “How did you get through those hard times?” And he said, “All you have to do is get yourself invited to the dinner party.” And I thought, great! The great Sphinx has spoken. How do I get myself invited to a dinner party if I can’t even get in the front door? But then I started thinking, maybe what he means is I have to believe that I belong at that dinner party. And if I believe it, it will come true. And, lo and behold, it did! [laughs] And had I believed that I’d really belonged at the dinner party with Woody Allen, I would have been a lot more successful. I would have felt better at night. I mean, the little stuff that I had to do in the movie, it came off all right, but I so wanted Woody Allen to go, “That guy’s worthy of another dinner party!” Because I heard he works with people again and again and again. I want to be one of those guys! But instead, I was like, “Oh my God, it’s Woody Allen!” I was a big dork.

How did you go about following that advice, practically?
As an actor, doubt is a really big cancer. If you start doubting, it spreads in your body. It’s really tough to be an actor, sometimes, if nobody knows you. I’ve always acted; I waited tables at the beginning of my career back in Chicago, but that was it. I’ve never wanted to do anything else, so I never had anything to fall back on, so I just had to do it — and that can wear on you. I’ve seen people go down, just crash and burn. They screw up relationships, or they turn to drugs, or they turn to alcohol, because they can’t deal with the reality of the fact that they’re not working. And doubt — and your mind — [are] the biggest [culprits] there. You do all this crazy shit in your head, and it’s stupid to do that, instead of walking out and going, “You know what? I did the best that I could, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.” And when you’re [on a set and] somebody walks on who’s a guest star, who’s enamored of you as an actor, which started to happen to me on [Prison Break], I was like, stop doing that! Just be the character; let’s do the scene! Let’s play ball. I throw you the ball, you react, you throw the ball back to me. That’s how it goes; it’s not that hard. It’s really moment-to-moment, total Meisner training, reacting to what’s right in front of you. That’s all we have to do as actors. But then you bring in the other stuff, like doubting, or “I hope I’m good enough,” or “how does my hair look?” You’re standing outside yourself and you doubt, and you don’t really belong at the dinner party because you’re not bringing something to the table; you’re coming to the table to take. You can smell that a mile away. Directors and producers can smell that when you walk in the room. If you don’t come in that room offering something, they’re going, “Well, why should I hire you? You want a job; you want to take something from me,” instead of, “Ah! Thank God this guy walked in the room because now I found who I want to have play this part.”

You worked with Rockne O’Bannon on The Twilight Zone in the ’80s and with George Clooney back in the ER days, and then you ended up with Clooney in Good Night, and Good Luck and now you’re on Cult. Do you find that past business relationships have helped you later in your career?
I think that to a certain extent they can, but in the case with Rockne, Twilight Zone was a long time ago. I think it was my second or third TV gig. At a writers meeting when I actually went in and met all the writers, [Rockne and I] talked about The Twilight Zone, and he said, “I wrote this episode.” And I said, “I did that!” He said, “You were in that?” [laughs] I don’t think either one of us knew. I certainly wasn’t aware enough as a young 20-something-year-old to remember a writer’s name. But I do think, in the case of George… There’s two people, I always say, that saved my career. That’s Kiefer Sutherland and George Clooney. Kiefer and I — I had played the bad guy in a film called Renegades we did with Lou Diamond Phillips, and they liked working with me a lot and I loved them. They were big stars and I was mostly doing a lot of theater back then. I remember going to Gold’s Gym one day — we used to work out there — and he walked up to me and said, “Hey Knepper, how you doing?” I said. “You know, I’m thinking about giving up the business. It’s really, really hard.” And he hauled off and decked me. He hit me so hard in the shoulder. He pointed at me and said, “Don’t you ever, ever give up acting. You’re too good of an actor.” And I’m nursing my hurt shoulder and I said, “Thanks, man. You saved me for another day.” At the same gym, about 10 years later, I’m working out by myself, and I’m having a bad day. I’m thinking, I don’t know if I want to do this anymore. And this beautiful woman came up to me, who I had known and worked with before, and she said, “I was hanging out with George Clooney last night and we were watching television together, and you suddenly came on in something you had done, and George said, ‘You know what? That’s one of the best actors I ever worked with on ER.’” And suddenly the sun came out. I said, “Can you please do me a favor? You go tell George Clooney that I thank him for saying that. Because he’s now the guy that saved me for another day.” When I met him on Good Night, and Good Luck, I told him that story, and he said, “Yeah, I remember that.” So maybe that had something to do with some fleeting memory of a connection, for that movie.

But I think relationships are so important. I have one regret in my career. The first film I ever worked on was with Blake Edwards, and it happened two weeks after I came out to LA from New York. [It was] That’s Life with Julie Andrews and Jack Lemmon. They shot it in 1985 and it came out in ’86. I was a fish out of water. The script was improvised; no one knew how big a part they were going to have, and it was an ideal, dream thing to start with. I have this picture on my wall of a 25-year-old kid looking into a Panavision camera. I had long hair and Jack is standing next to me with his head down, kind of smiling, [like he's saying,] “This crazy kid looking into his first camera.” The only regret I really have is that [though] I never thought he would think much of it, I should have found Blake Edwards again. I talked about him a lot in the press, so I hope he read it before he died. I have him to thank for so much, because I was suddenly in really good company. Talk about people who know they belong at the dinner party; you couldn’t get much higher than the really grateful Julie Andrews and Jack Lemmon. They were so giving, and Julie still is. And here I am, a kid from the theater. I don’t know about “hitting the mark”; I don’t know about anything! [Jack said,] “Don’t worry about it!” And now I’m that guy. I’m the guy on the set [who says], “You hit the mark [or not], so what! If you go too far, you go back and you do it again. You’re not gonna die.” [laughs] It’s so funny, for years and years [I was] the young kid, and all of a sudden now, on Cult, I think I’m the oldest actor who’s a series regular. It’s kind of nice to be [that]. And it’s fun! It’s fun to not take advantage of that position. George Clooney set a tone on ER. First of all, you’d see the Emmy there — it was in the case — and you knew what kind of show you were working on, but then you’d see George being a goofball. He was just so gracious to everyone, and welcoming. I thought, that’s what I want to be. Don’t ever stop being grateful and welcoming to people, and you need to check your ego at the door. And, luckily, that’s because I started off with those people and those kinds of examples. How do you make people do the best work? You make them feel comfortable, so you can feel comfortable — and then you can have a really good ballgame!

Catch Cult at its new time on Fridays at 9pm (8 central) on The CW and support the show! Follow Robert Knepper on Twitter @robert_knepper.

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