In Part 2 of our exclusive interview with Robert Knepper, we talk more about his dual role of actor Roger Reeves and Reeves’ TV character, cult leader Billy Grimm, in the CW’s CULT, plus Knepper’s one-time return to his PRISON BREAK character T-Bag on BREAKOUT KINGS and his recent and upcoming film roles.

ASSIGNMENT X: After PRISON BREAK, you did HEROES, and then you reprised T-Bag on BREAKOUT KINGS – how was it going back to him?

KNEPPER: I remember Nick Santora [co-creator of BREAKOUT KINGS, who had been a writer/co-executive producer on PRISON BREAK] calling me up and saying, “Knepper, what do you think about this?” And I said, “I don’t know if I want to do this – I kind of let him go.” And then I thought about it and I said, “Hey, you know, it’d be fun. The only stipulation I make on this thing is, you can’t kill him. He has to live – he has to live forever.” And Nick said, “I have no intention of killing him.” He sent me the script, and before he sent it to me, he said, “These are the best T-Bag lines I’ve ever written. I hope you agree.” And they were. That was the funniest shit I’ve ever done as T-Bag, and also the most emotional stuff, and I loved it, I so loved it. And when I finished that, I thought, “Okay, now the glove can rest.”

AX: And then …

KNEPPER: I did an independent movie called BURNING DAYLIGHT, a compilation of Jack London stories and novels as well. I don’t think that’s seen the light of day yet. I did an episode of CRIMINAL MINDS and told my agents, “Guys, I’m really tired of playing the sickos. I’ve got to do some comedy.” And then SHAMELESS came up, and I loved it. And then I did a pilot last year called RECONSTRUCTION – when the Civil War ended – for NBC. I got to play a very funny sheriff of the town. That didn’t get picked up. Anyway, then I did a huge movie that’s coming out in June with Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds for Universal called R.I.P.D., a big old two-hundred-million-dollar [feature].

AX: Do you play a dead person?

KNEPPER: I’m a dead-o. You got it.

AX: Did you have to deal with prosthetics?

KNEPPER: Not really, because they’ve got to do that all in CGI.

AX: Did you have to deal with dead movement?

KNEPPER: I did all of the movements of it, yeah. I just ran into the guy [who choreographed the zombie movement], he was also in Washington with his wife for the inauguration. He’s got a shop up in Vancouver. He was like, “Robert!” He came over and said, “You are going to be so happy when you see this.” This must be pretty amazing stuff.

After I shot R.I.P.D., I got to play the commander of the troops of the Navy SEAL team that took out Osama bin Laden in a little picture that was originally called CODE NAME GERONIMO, and then renamed SEAL TEAM SIX. That shot last February and March in Santa Fe. John Stockwell directed it. We did it on a shoestring budget. Everyone knew Kathryn Bigelow’s film [ZERO DARK THIRTY] was coming up, but I jumped on that one, because most people don’t normally cast me in the good guy part, and I got to play the good, strong leading man tough guy and it was a f****** dream come true. It was work like you would never believe work was in the trenches there. It was just wild to be a part of that. Harvey Weinstein picked it up this summer, which was a huge coup for all of us. “Oh, my God, Harvey Weinstein loves it.” He opted to [run it] on television. He wanted to make sure it came out before Kathryn’s film. National Geographic loved it, put it on – it was their highest-rated show of the season, I think. I went to Washington for the premiere of that on the night that Hurricane Sandy hit. That was a surreal experience, to be at the Hay Adams Hotel with Harvey, who decided to have the premiere anyway, even though everything else was canceled, but all the journalists had come to this hotel, and to watch that film with President Obama being a character in the film, and to look out the window and look down there and see the White House, and I couldn’t help it, I jumped up afterwards and said, “This is just the most surreal, amazing experience for me, because I was in a film with that guy [President Obama] and he’s right down there right now, and I am so pleased to be part of this movie, and Harvey, thank you …” I felt like I was getting an award. I said, “When I was a little kid, I was always taught that there are three branches of the government. The executive branch of the government – it doesn’t matter who the person is, it’s the position, it’s the position in the three parts of the different branches. And it doesn’t matter who the person is – that person in the White House had to do that job, and it could have been anybody else doing that job, and he did it, and I’m very proud to be in this country, I’m very proud to be in this film, and I’m very proud that that man is in the White House and that he made these decisions that allowed this mission to go forward. It’s not bull****, I really, truly mean this and feel this, and to be in a film trying step into the shoes of this man and these people that helped take out this number one bad guy is an unbelievable experience.”

All of that happened in the midst of me thinking, “Great. I’m shooting this film in Santa Fein February and March – it pays some money, but not a lot of money. What am I going to do? I can’t afford to miss pilot season. I’ve got to put myself on tape.” And I’d been working fourteen-, sixteen-hour days, trudging through this thing, trying to make this thing real, and a lot of scripts came my way and two of them I really loved. And one of them was CULT, and the reason I loved CULT was because I thought it was an answer to what I’ve been going through ever since I did PRISON BREAK, the notoriety of being a very private, anonymous person to, “Hey, look, he’s in his car right there and his windshield wipers are kind of going slow – that’s Robert Knepper.” That’s what I’m getting right now if somebody looks in my car. And it’s like being a gorilla in a zoo where everybody’s watching. And to me, [CULT] was like an answer to that. I loved it because it’s shot in Vancouver, my ex-wife’s family are all Vancouverites and I thought if I got this, my son would be able to visit me a lot. The other show was a Frank Darabont pilot called L.A. NOIR, [recently renamed LOST ANGELS] and L.A. NOIR is about a Forties gangster thing between cops and gangsters right here in L.A. It shoots in L.A. as well. So I got that as well and I was thrilled. I went up to shoot CULT. It just fits like a glove and I love being the leading man. And I’m not taking anything away from Matt Davis [who plays CULT protagonist Jeff Sefton, a journalist who’s seeking his missing brother]. Matt Davis is the leading man, he’s the hero of the piece. But to play a really strong man who also gets to play the other guy, the actor playing the part, who is a very successful actor, has a beautiful home in the Hollywood Hills, is dealing with this whole fame thing, dealing with the pressures of why I got into this business, of the passion for the work, and coupled with the fact of the show business part of the thing, of maintaining that reputation, maintaining that place, that elevated place when you become a so-called star – it all kind of is art imitating life for me. And thank God I found some energy in the sixteenth hour of every day to put myself on tape for these things. I’m going to do six episodes of [L.A. NOIR], Frank’s show.

AX: In CULT, is your character Roger aware of the effect that the show within the show has on some of its audience, or is that part of the secret?

KNEPPER: I think that’s part of the secret, and I think that, wherever he is in his evolution of knowing that right now, that’s going to constantly evolve.

AX: Were you familiar with CULT creator Rockne S. O’Bannon’s work prior to working with him on this?

KNEPPER: No, because I grew up with a dad who hated television, so as an adult, I never got in the habit of watching it. I never have any time to watch. I just like [O’Bannon] because, one, he liked me, and two, he is one of the smartest, most complex writers/producers/show runners I’ve ever met. First of all, I’m always enamored of writers, because I just don’t know how they keep doing it week after week after week. They’re seemingly normal people, they’ve got families, they’re dads, and yet they write some of the sickest, most twisted stuff on the planet [laughs], especially for me. And then they go back and have a normal life. I guess people could say the same thing about me – how could I play these monsters of characters and yet adore my son and be adored by my son? I just do it. I think they’re really great, juicy parts, and writers must think the same way.

AX: Do you have scenes where you go back and forth between Roger and Billy – where we see Roger before “Action” is called, and then he becomes Billy?

KNEPPER: No. I haven’t done that yet. That’s interesting, because that is what sort of happened to me when I was playing T-Bag. The new [crew] guy on the set would say, “Ah, Knepper, he looks so jovial, he’s joking around, he’s not doing the Daniel Day-Lewis thing, he’s not staying in character all the time, he’s doing more the Anthony Hopkins thing, where he’s kind of joking around.” “Okay, everybody, here we go,” and the operators would say, “Yeah, but watch him, he’ll turn – there he goes.” And then I’m in the character. And it’s the same with Roger. What we haven’t seen yet is the actor turning into the character on camera, but I think that’s something that’s on the horizon.

AX: Are you privy to the way the show within the show is affecting the “real” world in CULT? Have the writers told you, or are you with the audience going, “Okay, what is going on here?”

KNEPPER: I’m with you on every script. And I kind of like that, because then Roger doesn’t really know either. Roger’s working for this godlike producer named Steven Rae [fun fact – this is O’Bannon’s WGA-approved pseudonym], and Steven Rae has his own agenda.

AX: Do you gear up differently for Roger and for Billy?

KNEPPER: For Billy, I listen to Brahms and for Roger, I listen to Dave Matthews.

AX: In the acting, is there anything that’s ever made you uncomfortable in either of the roles, where you’ve felt, “This is really far from me personally, far from my comfort zone, how do I play this?”

KNEPPER: Well, this is all far from me personally. I’d have to say no on this one [CULT]. Sometimes with T-Bag, yes, I was thinking, “I can’t do this. I don’t know how I’m going to do this.” That scene with [approaching] the little girl by the pool once, knowing that T-Bag was a pedophile. No, there’s nothing on this that is [like that]. [Billy Grimm has] deep, archetypal Greek/Shakespeare flowing emotions that came out, a love for family, a love for a wife, betrayal, a love for the future – all that stuff was very easy to tap into, because that’s kind of who I am. There was a scene that’s coming up with Roger that you’ll see a very emotional side of him. It wasn’t hard to play, it’s just interesting how a character or a man who’s very guarded, that somebody hits him with a zinger, some bit of information about his past that no one’s supposed to know about, no one ever heard about that, and that was a very nice private moment to come out, and those kinds of moments are always juicy, because I can go back into my childhood and my little secret about what I used, but Bill Ester would say, those are just the moments of gold, moments of gold that will get you through the next part. It’s great.

AX: Do you have a preference for one character or the other?

KNEPPER: No, because for me, the juicy thing about this job is playing both characters. Obviously, I can’t be Billy if something happens to Roger, because Billy cannot survive without Roger. And you’ll see during the season various things that happen to Roger – I had an acting teacher years ago, Bill Esper, he used to say, “Leave your troubles at the stage door.” Well, that’s all well and good, but that doesn’t always happen. Your real-life circumstances are going to affect your work somehow. You tend to forget about it, but that’s kind of a use of the piece as well, to say, “Oh, okay, this is happening to Roger five minutes ago, how’s this going to affect his work as Billy?” That’s another cool thing to be aware of. All the things that I usually have to keep quiet or keep private, I can show in this show. It’s a dream come true.

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


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


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