In MOB CITY, running on TNT in two-hour blocks Wednesdays at 9 PM, executive producer/director/writer Frank Darabont has adapted John Buntin’s book L.A. NOIR as a drama about the struggle between righteous cops, renegade officers and outright mobsters in 1940s Los Angeles. Some characters, like LAPD Chief William Parker (played by Neal McDonough) and gangsters Ben “Bugsy” Siegel (Edward Burns) and Mickey Cohen (Jeremy Luke), are historical figures. Others, including troubled police detective Joe Teague (Jon Bernthal) and female lead Jasmine Fontaine (Alexa Davalos) are Darabont’s creations.
Robert Knepper’s character Syd Rothman, a hit man and lifelong friend of Siegel and Cohen, seems like he could be real, but he’s another of Darabont’s dramatic inventions. Knepper has played some heroes, going back to one of his earliest roles in John Sayles 1987 WILD THING and the Lieutenant Commander in charge of the military group in SEAL TEAM SIX: THE RAID ON OSAMA BIN LADEN, but he’s known for some notably scary roles. The Ohio-born actor spent four years as the lethal and lustful T-Bag on PRISON BREAK, had a stint on HEROES as a man whose superpower was causing the ground to open and was recently had a dual role on CULT as a conflicted actor and the homicidal cult leader he portrays.
Speaking by phone, Knepper talks about MOB CITY and a few other recent gigs.
ASSIGNMENT X: Had you worked with Frank Darabont before this?
ROBERT KNEPPER: Nope. Every actor that’s ever worked with him goes, “Frank Darabont wants to work with me? Yahoo!” Simon Pegg [who plays Hecky Nash in MOB CITY] said to me, “When Frank calls, you just go, ‘Oh, my God.’ You work with him, I don’t care what size part it is.”
AX: You were originally doing CULT when MOB CITY started up. Were you okay with the way CULT ended or do you feel that there should have been more of a wrap-up, given that it didn’t continue?
KNEPPER: I kind of like the fact that it was a cliffhanger – it was supposed to go on to a second season. My character was mortally wounded, but he would have recovered. I think what was hard for me dealing with that show is that I loved working on it so much, and I invested so much in it, and I really thought, probably naively thought, that it was going to be my next PRISON BREAK. It was pretty obvious early on that that wasn’t going to be the case. And I had to lick my wounds and go on. Luckily, I had shot two pilots, [CULT] as a series regular, and [MOB CITY, which] was originally called L.A. NOIR. Syd was originally just recurring.
AX: Did you your representatives have a conversation with the TNT people, saying, “Well, he’s a little more available than we originally thought”?
KNEPPER: No. I’d been offered a play, a tour of China, a play about the Washington Post [covering a story about Cambodia] prior to Watergate. Nixon had the Supreme Court shut them down and Ben Bradley was the character I would have played. I liked it, and I thought, I’ve never been to China, and everywhere in the world I go, people from China go, “Do you know how big you are in China?” So I went, “I want to see what it’s like to be in the midst of that.” CULT didn’t work out, I got the offer for the play, Frank had written me saying, “Oh, I got a doozy of a first season for you,” and I’m thinking, “Oh, no, I can’t afford to do this [financially, unless it’s a series regular].” And I think the combination of being very serious about doing this play and realizing that I’m going to have to find a series regular, it really made them have to step up and go, “Uh-oh, wait a minute, we don’t want to lose him.”
AX: So you wound up not doing the play because it conflicted with shooting MOB CITY?
KNEPPER: Actually, MOB CITY got pushed about three weeks, so I could have done the play [laughs], but I didn’t know three months prior when I had to commit to it that that was going to be the case. I could have actually done both, but that happens sometimes.
AX: Do you feel that you’re at an advantage or a disadvantage, playing a fictional character alongside actors who are playing real people?
KNEPPER: I have to admit that when I got the part, I Googled Syd Rothman and I couldn’t find him and I felt really stupid, and then when I found out he was a fictitious character, I went, “Oh, this is going to be great, because the pressure’s taken off of me.” The way Ed handled it and the way Jeremy handled it was great. I felt like they never approached it like, “Oh, I have to imitate this person.” They did it the right way. They gave a semblance of the character and they went off on their own. I played Bobby Kennedy years ago and I made the mistake of thinking, “Oh, I have to be Bobby Kennedy.” And I didn’t have to be. My best scene was a scene where he gives his acceptance speech at the Ambassador Hotel, and the crowd did not react exactly like the crowd reacted in real life. I’m a reactive actor and so I had to play off of what was given to me. I went, “Wow, they’re not shutting up. I have to shout over them.” And I couldn’t do it exactly like Bobby, and that’s when I realized, you don’t have to be dead-on. The other thing about [the real] guys is, not every step of their lives was documented, because they were gangsters, so everyone could use their imagination to a great deal. For me, I had incredibly leeway. So did Alexa, so did Jon, because these are fictional characters, placed in a time of history when we are in the story surrounded by real people, so they all go into the pot. They all come out being basically fictional characters.
AX: Syd grew up with Siegel and Cohen, but so far, he seems comfortable working for them. Does Syd have bigger ambitions or does he enjoy the position he has in that Mob hierarchy?
KNEPPER: I don’t know exactly where Frank is going to go with this. My initial reaction was that Syd was quite content being in the shadows. I remember going into the production office and seeing a lot of photographs on the walls of either Mickey Cohen or Ben Siegel coming out of City Hall or they’ve just been let off from a court case. And you could always see these shadowy guys behind them or on their sides, the same way you would see Secret Service guys with the President – if you really stare at them, you will eventually remember their faces. But I thought, “I want to be pushed back into the woodwork. I want to be wallpaper.” You’ll see in subsequent episodes, Syd, when he’s with the stars, he’s quite happy being just their shadow man. But when he’s alone, when he has to take care of business, he gets pretty flashy himself [laughs].Very flashy, in fact.
As you’ll see in the first season, all of these men are capable of not only losing their tempers, but violent acts. If Mickey Cohen and Ben Siegel are smart, they don’t want that publicity. So they have guys like me. We’ve been friends, you see in the pilot, since we were kids. And that loyalty is like blood.
AX: Do the costumes inform your performance?
KNEPPER: Oh, of course. I’m a shoe guy. It all starts with the base. The shoes have to be just right, and they were perfect, and then all the way up. The height of the pants in the Forties goes basically up to the navel on guys, and when you first see them, you go, “This is going to look dorky.” But you get used to it and you think, “Yeah.” That’s what these guys did – it’s what my grandfather did back in the Forties. It’s what my great-uncles did. They loved wearing suits. Even the poorest of men wore suits all the time. Suit and tie and a really nice hat. And you walk down the street and you feel like cock of the walk. It’s pretty amazing. There are very few scenes I have in this first season – in fact, I think there’s only one – where I am just in my t-shirt. There’s a lot of pride in who these men are, who they care for, and their family and their brothers. They don’t want to be thought of as shoddy-looking people.
AX: In the opening sequence, we see Ryan Dorsey as young Syd playing the violin. Do we see you as adult Syd playing the violin later?
KNEPPER: I like to make characters very well-rounded and three-dimensional. I thought, what does Syd do when he’s not working for Ben, protecting him, protecting Mickey? What are his hobbies, how does he lay low? I live at the beach and I thought, I bet he would lay out on the beach and no one would know him. He could totally slip back into the woodwork. He could be building beautiful pieces of furniture, at the same time he’s turning around and destroying life sometimes. And what if he continued playing the violin? So I think it was the first week – I stepped into the restroom and there was Frank. And I said, “Frank, I got this idea. What if, like in the second season, Syd’s playing the violin?” And he said, “That’s a really good idea. You haven’t read Episode Blank, have you?” And I said, “No.” He said, “Get started. You’ve got to learn it right now” [laughs]. It was a month of pure sweat.
AX: Was there anything else you had to learn for the part, or that you just researched to get more familiar with the period?
KNEPPER: No. I’ve done a lot of period pieces. I did CARNIVALE years ago on HBO, I did GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK with Clooney. I was trained in the theatre, so that part of it wasn’t tough for me. I think the tough thing for me, because I’d had all of that experience, because I’ve seen a lot of film noir – I love noir – you’re always saying, “Hmm, I could do that a little bit better.” And my third eye on this was saying, “Just a little less, a little less. You want to not be so flashy. Don’t do so much and don’t try to be somebody from the 1940s.” Because most film noir, you hear it, and everybody does imitations of Cagney or Bogie. I don’t want to do that. And yet there is something with the language and the rhythm, the cadence, that keeps calling you to that. And the way Frank writes, and he writes so well for obviously different genres and different generations, but he writes for the Forties really well. And what we in modern day can take three sentences to say, in that same amount of time, that guy in the Forties, like my character, can spew out a paragraph in the same amount of time, which means there’s no pausing. You open your mouth and you don’t shut up. I’ve got a scene in the third episode – Jon asks me a few questions and Syd just goes on a roll, and he doesn’t stop talking [laughs]. And I thought, I don’t even take a pause in this entire two-page, three-page monologue. I remember reading that scene and then writing in the margin on the side, “Thank you, Frank.” He’s given me one of the richest characters I’ve ever played. I mean, it was a hoot to do the first season. I hope I get a chance to keep playing with it.
AX: You also did an episode of THE BLACKLIST this season …
KNEPPER: That was amazing. It aired already. That was one of those sweet parts that I think I had maybe two sentences in it, and I’m in a lot of scenes. The episode is called “The Courier.” I played the Courier. It’s about a guy on the Blacklist who is the courier for certain things that are top secret, and you’re wondering how he does this, and then you realize he has this disease that when people have it, they don’t feel any pain. So he has all these scars all over his body, because he opens up his skin and tucks things in there and sews himself back up. He dies in the episode. But I hardly speak, and it was great. I always love parts that react more than they act.
AX: Did you have to deal with a lot of prosthetics?
KNEPPER: Yeah. That was several hours – there were like twenty of them. It was great fun. It was an offer [as opposed to an audition], I got to go to New York, which is a city I love, where I had started years ago after Chicago, and you just feel like a kid when you go to New York. The energy there is pretty amazing. And the cast is all great, James Spader’s great, Megan Boone is great – very welcoming people. Michael Watkins is the show runner, he was the first show runner on PRISON BREAK, so it was like a reunion. It was a great feeling.
AX: What else have you got coming up?
KNEPPER: There’s a film that I wish I could tell you about, but they would kill me, that I shoot in the spring. It’s so funny, lately people on the Internet were gearing up for [MOB CITY], and are like, “Knepper’s playing another bad guy.” I’m like, “I’m playing really great parts. And I’m playing parts that I love, and I also love to work.”
But I get to play good guys. One of them is a film I did with Helen Hunt. We just shot it late summer/early fall, called RIDE, where I get to play her ex-husband, and he’s nothing but a good guy. He’s just a great guy. And I know the bad guy parts are flashier, they’re more fun to play, but it is nice to balance it out with good guys. I played a tough guy but a good guy on HAWAII FIVE-0. The whole episode basically is a two-hander between me and Daniel Dae Kim. We finished it [at the beginning of December].
AX: How was working in Hawaii?
KNEPPER: Man, it’s great. As soon as you step outside the door, you can see the most amazing sunsets. It makes you feel like you’re in Hawaii – because you are in Hawaii [laughs].
AX: Anything else you’d like to be doing?
KNEPPER: There’s always room for comedy.
AX: And anything else you want to say about MOB CITY?
KNEPPER: You know Grauman’s Chinese Theatre – my wife showed me a picture she took over there of the [courtyard where] various stars over the years put their feet and their hands in the cement. Bogie wrote [in the cement, to Sid Grauman], “Sid, may you never die until I kill you.” And I sent that to Frank. The beautiful thing about working on a show like this is, you’ve got this great, great entrepreneur of the business – writer, director, creator – the amazing shows and movies that he’s done, and to be a part of that ensemble – what he has created for Syd already is so amazing, it’s something you relish. [Darabont] said something very sweet to me, it just made me feel like a million bucks. He said, “We’re always going to work together.” As Bogie would say, it’s the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
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Article: Exclusive interview with MOB CITY gangster Robert Knepper and the end of CULT