Robert Knepper in PRISON BREAK |© 2008 Fox

Robert Knepper in PRISON BREAK |© 2008 Fox

The CW’s CULT, created by FARSCAPE’s Rockne S. O’Bannon and playing Friday nights at 9 PM, is a hard show to describe but a fun one to watch for those who are into mind-bending thrillers. In the world of CULT, there is a CW TV series called CULT, which stars Robert Knepper’s character, actor Roger Reeves, as charismatic but dangerous cult leader Billy Grimm. Roger may or may not be aware that the show seems to be affecting some of its viewers, including the brother of journalist Jeff Sefton (Matt Davis). Jeff teams up with CULT production assistant Skye (Jessica Lucas) to try to find his missing brother, a search that leads them both into a strange web of obsession, disappearances and murder.

Ohio native Knepper has had some experience in his own career with cult shows – he played the mercurial T-Bag on all four years of Fox’s PRISON BREAK, a role he reprised in a guest appearance on A&E’s BREAKOUT KINGS (created by Matt Olmstead and Nick Santora, who had been executive producers on PRISON BREAK) and was on the last season of HEROES as the telekinetic earth-mover Samuel Sullivan, a character who was something of a cult leader himself.

In a phone interview, Knepper talks all things CULT, in addition to what he’s been up to lately, including this summer’s big horror/fantasy/comedy R.I.P.D.

ASSIGNMENT X: How would you describe CULT?

ROBERT KNEPPER: It’s one of the most difficult shows, I think, to explain in two or three sentences, but it is the easiest show to watch. We have a catchphrase that you see in the logo, saying, “Do not watch this, because it’s too dangerous, it’s too scary, and it will suck you in if you watch this.” In the pilot, you’ll get sucked into the thing, and clues will come up and you’ll start disappearing. It’s one of the most beautiful shows to watch, because it is not only a simple story about a younger brother getting hooked on a TV show and suddenly falling through the cracks, like other people watching the show who are fanatical about a television show. It’s so much deeper than that and [has] so many more layers than that, and what I play as the cult leader, and then the actor playing the cult leader, is one small part of what this show is about. That’s what I love about it, because you think you’ve got it figured out, but it just keeps getting deeper and deeper as the layers of the onion get peeled away and you’re like, “My God, we’re talking about something much larger here as an homage to television, an homage to TV fans and something even bigger than that, which is the power of social media, and could you control social media like that?” Obviously, you can – you can reach out to millions of people.

AX: Is part of the appeal of this specific leading man that the character gets the sort of reaction that you got as T-Bag, where it’s not only that people recognize you, but they recognize you and they’re a little scared of you?

KNEPPER: No, I don’t think that’s going to quite happen the same way. I know how I carried myself as T-Bag. T-Bag was sort of slithering and kind of light on his feet. He had the hop, he was hiding all the time. [For CULT], I wanted to be in really good shape, not because I wanted to beat anybody up, but I wanted to look like, don’t tangle with this guy, don’t mess with this guy at all, because he could crush you with his hand. Billy Grimm is strong, centered, focused, weighted, calm, he’s magnetic in a way that you would never know until you get into the series – the power he has over people. T-Bag wished for that, but he never had that.

AX: You’ve now had some experience with real-life fandom. What would you say is CULT’s view of TV fans?

KNEPPER: What fans should look at, I think when I watch the show, is this is an homage to fans as far as all the fans that I know and love from PRISON BREAK, and I’m sure there are actors that have other shows that they’ve worked on where they feel the same – fans are depicted as fans are, as they are in real life. They are fanatical, they are crazy about certain shows. That’s all [CULT] is saying. It’s not saying fans are going to go out and kill for this show. It’s fiction, let’s not forget that. This isn’t real – this is good old dramatic fun and people should lighten up and enjoy it, just like they watched PRISON BREAK and bit their nails for an hour, like they couldn’t wait for the next installment next week. This is that kind of a show. It’s a real page-turner and it’s a cliffhanger every week, saying, “Oh, my God – oh, don’t bother me, I’ve got to find out what happens next week.” Nobody’s dumbing anybody down on this show. This is quite elevated shit, if I do say so myself.

AX: You said you got a really bad cold around the end of filming CULT …

KNEPPER: We [Knepper and his son] were in Washington for the inauguration. A hotbed of flu and cold, but also the unforgettable hotbed of memories that will stay with us forever. Unbelievable weekend. I’m a huge crybaby. If you put something in front of me that other people think is going to be emotional, I just can’t help it. And I’m hugely patriotic, and anything from my childhood, I just lose it, and standing there realizing that I was the first of my family ever, of any generation, to be there, to represent my family, and to have my son there as well with me, and to have this real sense of history, of knowing that every four years, for the past two hundred-some years, there’s somebody that’s stood up there and taken that oath, and we were part of that history, was [makes wow noise].

AX: Would you have cried even more if you realized what a bad cold you were getting?

KNEPPER: I am so used to having colds, it’s not even funny [laughs]. I do some of my best work when I have a cold. I don’t know what it is – I shot most of the [CULT] season with an ear infection. I got in really good shape for this thing. I had a dream that I wanted to be a leading man, and I toned my body up to be that of a leading man, not a squirrelly little lizard guy like T-Bag, but a real leading man, like an old-school Robert Mitchum/Kirk Douglas kind of thing. And for two, three months, I was in tip-top shape. And then all of a sudden, somehow, somebody dropped an ear infection bomb over Vancouver, and I caught this thing, and more than half the season, I was basically upside-down. I had vertigo all the time, I could hardly work out. I don’t know how I did it, but because of all the years of theatre and four years on PRISON BREAK, I just said, “I’ve got to do it. I can’t let this thing down – I can’t let it down at all, because they’re counting on me.” And I did it, but it was a pain in the a** – pain in the ear.

AX: Do you talk to Rockne O’Bannon about your experiences and does he incorporate anything that you tell him into the characters?

KNEPPER: Yeah. Especially early on. He knew my work from PRISON BREAK, I think. Rockne believed in me from the beginning. I think he had a couple other choices for this part, but I think he went with me because I most recently was dealing with fame and most recently to the height of the level of fame in regards to playing a successful, iconic character on an international hit, and then having to deal with that as the actor, because that does affect the actor. The actor can’t be that different than the character. I mean, I’m not going around killing people, I’m not going around terrorizing people, I’m just being a loving dad and taking my kid to the inauguration and being a passionate guy. But there certainly in my imagination are parts of me that can definitely play doing it. And I think that was what he was trying to do in the writing. Here’s this successful actor who’s doing really well, but he’s definitely got an ego and you can see the strength in him, which is the same strength that Billy Grimm has. And he wanted to make sure that that was equal. A lot of times, I guess, people were coming in to read for it, and they made Billy Grimm this really strong, charismatic guy, magnanimous and monstrous at the same time, and then they turn around and make Roger this kind of dweebish, kind of immature guy and of course we’re that, actors are all that underneath, but a part of us is also, “God damn it, I’m playing this part. I am this part. If I’m not that part, then I can’t play the part.” There has to be some kind of inner strength in order to be able to play it. I think that’s what Rockne tapped into with the writing and with me. You’ve got to be pretty thick-skinned to last in this business, and you’ve got to be pretty thick-skinned if you’re a cult leader – you know people are trying to bring you down all the time, like Kelly [played by Alona Tal] does, a person of [Billy’s] family who’s left him and has now joined the other side, if you will, to be a cop and bring him down. I had a friend when I was growing up in Chicago, early twenties, Jack Wallace, great actor, wonderful actor, still a dear friend of mine. I did my first two plays in Chicago with him and then he said to me once when I was twenty-five years old, “Sometimes you’ve got to put the raincoat on and let the shit drip off you.” And that’s still my motto. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be acting. I wouldn’t be able to survive all those years before PRISON BREAK. If you’re a politician, imagine what those guys and women have to go through. They’re shooting slings and arrows your way all the time, and you’ve just got to go, “No, sorry, not going to get me down, not going to take me down, still here.”

AX: Is this a philosophy that’s developed over time?

KNEPPER: I grew up with a very strong father, and he taught me, you have to be strong in life. You have to work really hard to get what you want and you can achieve anything. You have to believe it. You know, all the typical strong things a father would tell you, he taught me. And he made me work really hard growing up. We were very lucky to have [the opportunity], but I did it. My sister did it. In the summertime, I’d work from sun-up to sundown, and after I’d finish school, I’d work with my dad in the [veterinary] clinic, help him clean the dog cages, I’d get the medicines ready for him. I played, but we never had time to watch television. It wasn’t allowed anyway. But we worked, and I’m really grateful for that. Now, the oxymoron here is that I also had a father who said, “Don’t be too big for your britches.” I borrowed a line of his that I put in the SEAL TEAM SIX movie as the commander. I said, “If you think you’re so important, put your finger in a bucket of water, pull it out, see how fast that hole fills up.” At the same time I had a man who was really strong and saying, “Believe it, you own it,” was “Don’t develop too much of an ego.” [laughs] So these two conflicting things going on, I think, is a lot for actors – “Who are you to think you’re so important?” And to use the Nelson Mandela line, to carry it one step further, “Who are you not to think you are?” It’s all kind of art imitating life as far as people in positions of power, whether you’re the president or the leader of a cult family. The tremendous pressure you put on yourself to say, “Okay, I chose to do this, I’ve got to carry it through,” knowing full well you are surrounded by enemies. That for me as an actor, that’s really juicy to play, because we’re all kind of walking around being normal people. It’s just fun to put on those clothes every once in awhile and go, “I am the King.” In his own mind, T-Bag was one of the rulers of that prison. He was the cock of the walk. And I don’t walk around that cocky. But in my imagination, I’m going [T-Bag accent], “Yeah, baby, let’s go.” As Billy Grimm, to walk around feeling like I’m actually saving people’s lives, I’m making their lives more complete by them loving this family, those guys I imagine get a lot out of it. They feel complete.

Related: Exclusive Interview with CULT star Robert Knepper – Part 2



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Article: Exclusive Interview with CULT star Robert Knepper – Part 1


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