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.
"T-Bag, for a lot of people," Knepper offers during his chat with Iconic Interview, "was really an alluring character. 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."
Playfully suggesting that some of his own interactions with overzealous fans may have influenced the tale of Roger Reeves, he notes that Reeves's inner struggle is certainly similar to what Knepper, himself, went through as he saw his own fame skyrocket. "You can get a little addicted to that kind of love," he relates, "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."
As is probably clear, Knepper doesn't pull any 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 at Northwestern University, practiced diligently under instructor William Esper in New York, immersed himself in theater and became great at what he does. Knepper explains that it's all about "[surrendering] to really being the [character]. 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, because you're living it out fully. You're just like an open channel and all these things happen."
Knepper's TV resume includes 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. He's worked with Woody Allen in Everyone Says I Love You and Bruce Willis in Hostage, 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 Ryan Reynolds and Jeff Bridges.
Knepper credits his work with Blake Edwards, Jack Lemmon, and Julie Andrews in That's Life!; Kiefer Sutherland in Renegades and Young Guns II; and George Clooney on ER and in Good Night, and Good Luck as the experiences that helped him develop his guiding principles of gratitude, graciousness, and checking your ego at the door. "That's because I started off with those people and those kinds of examples," he says. "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!"
For more on Robert Knepper, read the full interview at IconicInterview.com. Catch Cult at its new time on Fridays at 9 p.m. (8 central) and follow Knepper on Twitter: www.twitter.com/robert_knepper. Support the show!
Follow Andrew Fish on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MrAndrewFish