On The CW drama series Cult, investigative journalist Jeff Sefton (Matthew Davis) has learned to live with his younger brother Nate’s obsessions, including his latest rant that a hit TV show intends to harm him. However, when his brother mysteriously disappears, Jeff takes Nate’s paranoia seriously and beings to uncover the dark underworld of the TV show centered on the cat-and-mouse game between a charismatic cult leader (Robert Knepper) and the detective (Alona Tal) who was once a cult member, and its rabid fans.
During this recent exclusive interview with Collider, actor Robert Knepper talked about the unique opportunity of playing both cult leader Billy Grimm and Roger Reeves, the actor portraying that character, finding a balance between the two roles, getting to have moments where he talks directly to the camera, what it’s been like to be a part of shows that have had rabid followings, how much fun he had revisiting his Prison Break character, T-Bag, for an episode of Breakout Kings, getting to be a part of Frank Darabont’s L.A. detective show for TNT (originally titled L.A. Noir, and recently renamed Lost Angels), the experience of working with Jeff Bridges, Ryan Reynolds and Kevin Bacon on R.I.P.D., and how even he still gets a little starstruck sometimes. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
Collider: Can you relate to this idea that a TV show can become so consuming that it starts to seep out into your own life?
ROBERT KNEPPER: I grew up with a dad who hated television, so we had to sneak television. It got ingrained in my head to never follow a show that religiously, but I certainly like being a part of shows that do that. I don’t think I could have played this part, if it hadn’t been for Prison Break. All of us that worked on that show are really forever grateful for what it did for us. And in this case, I’m grateful for knowing what it’s like to go, “I have no privacy. I have no life. Am I this character?” All those things get explored. It’s great!
Was it fun to get to revisit your Prison Break character, T-Bag, for an episode of Breakout Kings?
KNEPPER: Totally! (Show co-creator) Nick Santora said, “What do you think about this idea of doing this?,” and I said, “Just don’t kill him. I want him to live on forever, even though I don’t want to keep playing that part anymore.” You become known as these characters, and I didn’t want to be known for T-Bag and have to sing his Greatest Hits on the County Fair circuit. And then, you get the next job and you go, “They’ll still remember that, but they can accept the fact that I went on to Heroes and that now I’m on Cult.” You never forget what made you, but the compliment for me is that people know my name instead of just T-Bag. They go, “Oh, yeah, he’s the guy who plays all those really interesting characters.”
What’s it like to find a balance between the Billy Grimm character and the actor who plays him, Roger Reeves?
KNEPPER: You get to see a lot of similarities and why this actor named Roger Reeves is playing Billy Grimm, and then you also see the dissimilarities, which is what goes on in real life. Otherwise, I’d never work again. I would have been one character, and that would have gotten it all out of my system, but it’s not like that. I was raised in the theater and I started acting when I was nine. To me, the idea of being an actor was about playing different characters and being a chameleon. That’s why I was in the theater. I love the stock characters that we know. Clint Eastwood, to me, is Clint Eastwood. He’s great at being Clint Eastwood. But, I don’t know how to be that guy. I just don’t know how to be one person. But with this, in one second, you can see me puffing up and being this Robert Mitchum-like character with Billy Grimm, and then in the next second, I’m this very successful actor who’s obviously spending his money and living well. There’s this great fantasy of going to work, every day, and getting to play out what people think my life is, as a successful actor. It’s one version of what it’s like to be a successful actor. For me, the idea of being a successful actor is hanging out with my dogs and my boy, down in Venice beach, and going, “I don’t have to audition today. I’ve got a little respite here.”
Since it’s not something you typically get to do, did you have fun getting to do some of those moments where Billy Grimm was talking directly to the camera?
KNEPPER: I loved that moment at the gas station. When I read that, I thought, “That’s really clever!” It’s the strangest thing because, when you’re shooting something like that, you’re looking right into the camera. After awhile, you wonder if you’re cross-eyed, so you have to pop out of it and go back. I remember when I auditioned for this role, I was shooting Seal Team Six down in Santa Fe. I was so tired, but I couldn’t afford to not have pilot season. I wanted to do a series, and I wanted to know what it’s like to be on a hit show again. I was so tired. I had shot for 14 hours, but I was like, “I’ve gotta get this tape done and show them what I can do,” and that tape became my audition.
Had you been auditioning for a bunch of different shows, or were you focused specifically on Cult?
KNEPPER: It was pilot season. There’s also a show I ended up doing, as well. I’m recurring on Frank Darabont’s show, which was called L.A. Noir, and it got picked up. I don’t know what it’s called now. I heard they were changing the name of it. That’s shooting in L.A., and I really wanted to get that to be close to my boy. I wanted to play Chief Parker, who’s the cop who becomes the Police Chief of L.A. Frank said, “No, I love you and want you on the show, but I see you as this other character.” I loved that and Cult. If I’m going to shoot anywhere other than L.A., I want to shoot in Vancouver because my ex-wife’s family are all from Vancouver and I can see my family there more often. It’s just straight up the coast and it’s so beautiful to be in the city. I shot the first season of Prison Break without my family, in Chicago, and I needed that first season to be away. With this, I needed the first season to really explore doing the monstrous stuff I have to do as Billy Grimm, and then equalizing it with a bit of Roger Reeves, who is humble about it all while being confused by it. I think the show has such great potential.
With things like the glasses or the tattoos, should viewers be looking for clues everywhere?
KNEPPER: They’re respectful and don’t do too many red herrings because that would piss people off. But, any great movie in the old days has a red herring. Hitchcock was so good at that. I don’t watch television that much, but this show feels fresh. It’s iconic enough, in that you’ll know the themes that are going on, but you’ve never seen anything like this before. Hopefully, that will work.
How was the experience of working on R.I.P.D., with Ryan Reynolds and Jeff Bridges?
KNEPPER: I played such a fun, nerdy, funny character. It was so weird to see Kevin Bacon on the set. I didn’t have anything with him, but ever since Diner, years ago, he and I have been up for the same thing. He’s a big movie star, and I ended up making it more in television. I had to act so nonchalant around him, like, “Hey, Kevin, how ya doin’?,” when inside I was like, “My god, it’s Kevin Bacon! It’s really Kevin Bacon!” I still get that way with actors. I see them and go, “Oh, wow!” I’m really grateful for every good thing that ever happens to me and keeps me employed, so I get to do what I love to do, which is acting. When you see somebody like that, you’re like, “Wow!” And then, I saw Jeff Bridges and was like, “Oh, my god, it’s Jeff Bridges! He won the Oscar! He had a total comeback career, and he was so amazing in that movie.” Finally, I just said to him, “You know, you’re a fucking big actor, man! You’re so great!” And he said, “You’re great, too! Knock it off! Stop it!” And with Ryan Reynolds, it was the same thing. We had a really intense amount of time shooting together, and we were all there for the same purpose. After you’ve been in the business for awhile, you start to realize that we’re not that different. We just want to be a part of telling a good story. I think that film cost about $200 million to make. I don’t know how much Cult costs to make, but it’s certainly not $200 million. But, everybody works the same way. The crew, the actors and the writers all work the same way. We always want to do the best job.
Cult airs on Friday nights on The CW.