As his many menacing television and film roles will tell you, Robert Knepper is no stranger to villainy – but when it comes down to battling a vicious cold, the “Heroes” actor is as helpless as the victims that fall to his on-screen personas.
“I’m like a little tiny puppy when I’m sick,” the actor laughingly groaned in an exclusive phone interview with CBR News. “I play these bad guys that can move the Earth and kill people, but when I get sick, I’m like a baby.”
But perhaps the ailed actor didn’t give himself enough credit. Despite calling an hour ahead of his interview time so that he could go back to bed and recover, Knepper quickly embarked upon an enthusiastic and detailed analysis of Samuel Sullivan, the literally and figuratively seismic character that has lorded over NBC’s “Heroes” throughout its soon-to-conclude fourth season. In an exclusive interview with CBR, the actor spoke about Samuel’s many complexities, the similarities between the character and his iconic “Prison Break” role of Theodore “T-Bag” Bagwell, and how he nearly had to give up acting before joining the Fox television series.
CBR News: Robert, you signed onto “Heroes” pretty quickly after your four year run on “Prison Break” came to an end. What was it about the series and the character of Samuel Sullivan that caught your attention?
Robert Knepper: Here’s what I was looking for after “Prison Break” – I was looking for a fully realized, three-dimensional character. I was looking for a long-term gig. I realize now that I’m kind of spoiled because of “Prison Break.” I like the idea of telling a fraction of a movie every week. I like that feeling. In the old days, my grandparents used to tell me that down in the [countryside] of Ohio, everybody would gather around the radio and that would be it, then they’d have to wait for the next installment of the story, wondering what the Shadow knows. That kind of feeling people used to tell me they had with watching “Prison Break” – “It’s Monday night, don’t interrupt me!” – I really like being a part of that type of storytelling.
When I saw the script for “Heroes,” I knew this show had been running for a while, so it had some legs. [Executive producer] Dennis Hammer and I talked about this character as being something more than a one-dimensional stereotypical circus carnival barker. That’s when we talked about this whole Keith Richards-eqsue rock and roll image – some kind of mascara, eyeliner, funky stuff where he’s a little spooky but also magnetic at the same time. It just started to unfold, and with each episode, it felt like it was getting more and more interesting.
Then we brought in this whole back-story with his brother Joseph, which seemed kind of universal. I grew up, and you might have grown up and a lot of people I knew grew up going, “Is this it? Did I come from this family? Was I left at the doorstep? I look like my relatives, but there’s something a little bit different about me.” As I realized over the years after leaving Ohio, there was like a clan of people that just knew they had to roam and had to go seeking fulfillment in their lives somewhere other than where they grew up. I liked that quality of the show. It felt like there was something else going on here that I didn’t quite know about.
That whole backstory with Samuel was so cool to find out, where he tells his brother, “Oh my God, you’ve been holding this back from me for all of these years?” He wondered why that kind of power in the wrong hands would be destructive. If Joseph had been able to figure out a way to let Samuel know about these powers early on, maybe he wouldn’t have harbored it for so long.
It’s an interesting turn for Samuel. When you’re first getting to know the character, he’s very charismatic and seems to have all of the answers for these other confused characters on “Heroes.” But when you flash back just a few weeks and months to this confrontation with Joseph, you realize that Samuel himself was pretty lost not so long ago.
He was always living in the shadow of Joseph. Joseph was the leader and he knew it all. It was a subtle thing that I tried to show in Samuel’s wardrobe. When Joseph was alive, Samuel was more punk and was more, “Whatever, I don’t give a damn,” almost more of an English punk kind of thing. Then some responsibility has to come into play when you become the leader and you’re not equipped to become the leader. What does that make you do? The cool thing about having that character as an older brother – and what a fine actor, Andrew Connolly – the thing I learned from him is what Samuel could become.
A lot of it was in the form of the clothes. I would never have worn a plain, charcoal vest before, because that was too old man-like. But when I worked with Andrew as Joseph, it’s kind of a dad image. You spend all these years fighting your dad, and then you find out that you sound just like him. There was a lot of that dynamic going on as well.
Samuel has a moment where he tells Sylar, “I’m not a good man, but I’m not all bad either.” He owns up to his failings. Even when Claire calls him out after she learns what he’s done to his brother, he has an explanation that, at least momentarily, pacifies her a bit. He has this way of convincing both the characters and the viewers to be on his side, even after he’s done some awful things.
I had a great acting teacher in New York that always taught us to never play a bad guy like a bad guy – play the opposite. You can’t get something out of somebody when you’re that much of a weasel. You have to be somewhat charming. Samuel knew that, down the road, he’d want something from Hiro. The way he’s going to get it is that he convinces Hiro that there was something missing in his life. He could take one piece out of life and it wouldn’t alter everything. When Hiro realizes that he can do that, he’ll turn around to Samuel and say, “Thank you so much. Now what can I do for you?” As opposed to strong-arming him into what he wanted to do. Samuel really wanted to do that with everybody, but I think his flaw isn’t his anger – though that’s probably a biggy – but he really wants to please people and would love to be a nice guy and do it that way.
Bad guy or not, T-Bag was the same way. Once you start committing atrocities, you have to really watch your ass because, if you’re caught, that’s it. The first atrocity is that Samuel killed his brother. He didn’t mean to kill his brother, it was just a fight. But the fact is, if he went to court, he’d be convicted of killing his brother. He’s been tiptoeing around ever since that, and that actually happened right before the season started. Right from the get go, he’s hyper-aware of what’s going on around him.
I’ve sometimes equated him with Hitler. How can you rule the world, because I think it’s mine to rule – because I’m so fucking pissed off about what happened to me as a child. How can a whole country let that guy get away with it for so long that he’s basically indestructible? In the end, he kind of was. He blew his own brains out.
I don’t know. I just find Samuel to be a really interesting character. To be able to have that drive, have that goal and also have that charm at the same time, it’s really fun stuff to play.
You spoke about how he’s a people pleaser, but there’s definitely uncontrollable rage to him, too. A good example of that is when Samuel causes an earthquake to destroy a town at the end of “Pass/Fail,” all because he’s been rejected by his lifelong love.
Years from now, when Samuel is alone in a prison and he looks back on his life and wonders about the things that got him to this point, he’ll realize that it happened because of anger. He reacted out of anger. One was Joseph’s death and there’s also him causing the earthquake in this small town. But I have to tell you; it’s not as predictable as you’d think it’s going to be. [The final episodes] were really fun to play and they’re filled with a lot of twists and turns, in much the same way that “Prison Break” used to be. You’ll look back at it and say, “Oh, I see. Samuel had a plan here.” But you’ll be blindsided by the turn of events. Stay tuned – it’s not what you think it is.
On “Prison Break,” you played a compelling character in T-Bag, a man who commits some truly vile acts but can still earn sympathy from the viewer. On “Heroes,” Samuel is certainly the antagonist of the season, but he’s also this enigmatic figure, and the viewers don’t don’t know if he’s offering salvation or destruction. Did you find any commonalities between T-Bag and Samuel, or did you try and divorce yourself from that character completely – and if you did try and divorce yourself from T-Bag, how difficult was it for you to shake the character off?
Acting, to me, is stepping into the shoes of a character and really inhabiting those shoes. In fact, I started collecting the shoes of the characters that I’ve worked on because that to me is the key thing about a character, literally and figuratively. I used to finish a role and I’d cry my eyes out. It would be hard to move on because I would be so mournful about this character. I still mourn the deaths of my characters.
But I had a nice, peaceful walk when T-Bag finished. I was shooting at a prison out here and I was waiting for the van to take me back to base camp, and I said, “Eh, I’ll walk.” It was great. There wasn’t anyone around me. I just walked peacefully through this [prison] yard, which at one point was pretty crazy with a lot of inmates. But on this particular day, it was calm with a little wind blowing through. I wasn’t crying, I was just saying goodbye. We knew it was definitely the last episode. My last thought was, “I’m never going to play another guy in prison again.” Just as I got to the edge of the trailers out in the parking lot, I thought, “You know, I can’t really say that for sure. Maybe I will.” You never know. But once I walked out of those gates, I let T-Bag go.
It’s funny, because a lot of the guys on the crew for “Heroes” were on “Prison Break.” They just kind of shifted over. There was one guy at the end of “Heroes” who came up to me with a very serious face and said, “You know, Robert, I have to tell you. I think – and I may be wrong about this – but I think that Samuel is a much better character than T-Bag.” [Laughs] He had really given it some thought. I said, “I don’t know if one character is better than the other.” But Samuel, I don’t know, he felt like even more of a man. T-Bag is an animal. I love dogs, I have two dogs myself, but they have the mentality of a five year old, basically. They forget things in twenty minutes. Samuel, to me, is like a Shakespearean character.
Sure. Samuel is definitely driven by goals and an endgame, whereas T-Bag pretty much just scrambles to get by and survive and find some shred of humanity.
At the end of “Prison Break,” it ended up being a little bit of a bummer, but he decided that prison is his life and he’ll be all right. He’ll go back and that’s his home. The similarity between the two [characters] is that they both wanted a sense of home and family. Samuel puts it in the context of, “I’m doing this for my family.” When you turn to him and tell him, “No you’re not, you’re doing this for yourself,” he’ll say, “No, I’m not. I’m doing this for my family.” He’s totally convinced that he’s doing this for the good of all. That kind of character is so interesting to play! [Laughs] He thinks one thing about himself and the audience fully knows the other side. When T-Bag says, “I want to take care of my family,” he just wants a wife and wants to have kids. He doesn’t want to take care of the world. He can’t -Â he’s on the run.
I’ll tell you this about T-Bag. When Jeremy Irons won his Oscar for “Reversal of Fortune,” he thanked David Cronenberg for his role in “Dead Ringers.” Some day, if I’m lucky enough to win an Emmy, I will thank Paul Scheuring, Matt Olmstead and my buddies from “Prison Break,” because that show put me on the map. I’d been kicking around for twenty years, but that damn show – I can’t go anywhere in the world, none of us can, without being remembered for that show.
For years, it was just “Prison Break.” But now, people come up to me on the street and say, “I love your show!” I think they’re talking about “Prison Break,” but then it turns out they’re talking about “Heroes.” [Laughs] So there is life after T-Bag. There will be a next job.
That job came pretty quickly for you in “Heroes.”
I have a wife and a seven year old. Right before “Prison Break,” my wife said to me, “Honey, I love you. I love your work and I know it’s your passion. It’s your soul-feeding existence. But we have a two-year-old kid and you’re not bringing home the bacon as much as we need to now. Either you need to get another job or I need to get another job.” I said, “Oh, please, let me go get another job!”
For the first time in almost twenty years, I was forced to realize that I might have to do something else other than acting. I thought, “I can’t wait tables. I did that when I first started in Chicago, and if I do that again, I’ll kill myself. What else can I do?” I love acting and I love nature, so I thought, “Okay, I’ll teach.” I got a job through [UCLA Extension] and I taught one [acting] class a week for $50, and that wasn’t going to cut it.
But I loved nature -Â I grew up on farms. We grew up on twenty acres of rolling hills down to a river. We had sheep, we had horses, and I just climbed trees my whole childhood. So I thought that I’d go up to Will Rogers Park, which is kind of my sanctuary out here, and I’d put in an application to become a park ranger. I knew I’d have to scrub toilets, but so what? I scrubbed toilets growing up; I know how to do that. At least my family would have insurance and we’d get by. Maybe some day I’d be able to get back to acting again.
I drove up there and put in my application to be a park ranger, and right after that was when I had the audition for “Prison Break.” I got the job. I called UCLA Extension and said, “Guys, with pilots, who knows. Shows never work out. They always fall apart. It looks good on paper and the word is that it’s good. I don’t want to screw you over, so maybe you should take my name out of the hat.” They said, “If it doesn’t work out, let us know.” So I flew to Chicago and started shooting “Prison Break.” We shot all through the summer and there were good feelings about it, but again, who knows what could happen. Meanwhile, I haven’t heard from Will Rogers Park at all.
September comes around and [“Prison Break”] explodes. The show becomes an overnight sensation. Every Tuesday morning, I would sit on the steps of my trailer and tears would come down my face because I’m going, “This is something that an actor dreams about for their whole life, and it’s happening right now for me.” It was unbelievable.
November comes around and I get a phone call from Will Rogers Park saying, “Rob Knepper, we just wanted to call and let you know that we have a job for you – but we don’t think you’re going to need it.” [Laughs] They were huge fans of the show. What had started out as me going to them basically asking if I could please scrub their toilets, the phone call ended with me saying, “When I get back into town, we should get together because I love your place and maybe I could help you with fundraising.” So you just never fucking know how it’s going to go.
Nothing against park rangers and state parks – I love them and they are a necessary part of our lives and I’ll do anything I can do to help those things stay alive -Â but when “Prison Break” ended, I said, “I will never, ever have to think about doing another job except for acting. I will hustle my ass off right now to make sure [the transition] is seamless.” That little extra oomph was there because of what happened to me right before “Prison Break” started.
With “Heroes” about to wrap its fourth season, what can you share about the finale and the remainder of Samuel’s journey?
Every action has a reaction. Karma is a bitch. Everything’s being squeezed here, and the noose is getting tighter around Samuel’s neck. There’s only going to be one conclusion in the end – either the good guys win or the bad guys win. There’s no turning back now. Samuel has a lot of work cut out to get his family to trust him again, and that’s what’s most important for him. He has to find a way to make them believe in him, because he is lost without them. Everything will center on that for him.
We shot very intensely for these final episodes. I swear to god, I didn’t know whether I was coming or going towards the end. It was so damn intense. For a month and a half, it was just like, “What the…” [Laughs] But hey, I wasn’t scrubbing toilets. I was really happy to have a job.
“Brave New World,” the season finale of “Heroes,” airs tonight at 9:00 PM EST on NBC.