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September 15, 2006 - Entertainment / Television

Rita Cook
Robert Knepper
Robert Knepper’s Big Break on Prison Break

He says that he plays the biggest, baddest MF on television right now, and while I close my eyes to imagine it, I wonder, can this nice guy I’m talking to really be that vile creature, Theodore “T-Bag” Bagwell on Prison Break?

He can and he is, and Robert Knepper is loving every minute of it. I interviewed him in Dallas, where this season of Prison Break is being shot and Knepper tells me that people are coming up to him all over town to ask if it’s really him. Knepper is no stranger to acting either. A look at his bio and you’ll see he’s been at it since the mid-80s with quite an impressive resume. However, he is relishing in the now and really wants to talk about T-Bag, Prison Break and living in Dallas.

Rita Cook: You guys are in Dallas shooting for the season; how did you end up in Dallas, Texas of all places?
Robert Knepper: There are three reasons. Chicago, if you haven’t been there, is pretty damn cold in the wintertime.

Rita: I lived there eight years.
Robert: Then you know. Well, I went to school there years ago at Northwestern, so I remember it. It is not that the cold weather is so much the problem, but just that it is so unpredictable. One day it can be minus 20 and snowing, and the next day it can be sunny and zero. If you are shooting something continuity-wise you are screwed. Second reason is, now we have broken out of prison…People are so addicted to this show. It’s crazy, as I can’t go anywhere without people coming up to me and telling how much they love the show. It doesn’t matter what town I am in – even LA – but if you tell anyone that you talked to T-Bag, they will be like, “Oh my God, is he as scary in real life as he is on TV?” I play the biggest, badass, MF on television.

Rita: How long will you be in Dallas?
Robert: Twenty-two episodes takes about a year.

Rita: Tell me how much of yourself you bring to this role – if anything, but everyone has something to draw on, right?
Robert: Let me tell you what T-Bag is. He was in for life, but he has escaped, probably a couple of times and this will be his last, because he is going to go down if he gets caught. But I think he will go down trying. He is in for raping young kids, so there is nothing that I can draw on for that. I learned at Northwestern, and with a great acting coach in New York, that acting is about imagination. I can’t really tell you how I draw it or why I draw on it and how I can do it, but I do it, and one of the things that I don’t…I mean, I did not do research on pedophiles – such as how does he act and how does he think when he is around children, that to me was what he was in for. What I got on paper when I first started was that this guy is a little prince, a little king of his own domain in this prison, and it was great because Joliet prison was built like a castle anyway, and it looks like a fortress with a very medieval feeling. They used a lot of music from medieval things like in the movie Gladiator and when you go in that first gate and put that music on, you feel like, “yeah, I am king of the forest here, I am cock of the walk.” Cock of the walk actually informed me about some of my look. I started picking up this kind of rooster thing and I added a lot of animal images. I do this weird thing with my tongue and it kind of slithers around my little crumb-catcher. A lot of the stuff came to me on the fly as I was auditioning for the part and three days later flying to Chicago and starting. My character was not in the pilot, he was introduced in the first episode. A lot of times in acting class, and I bring it up only because I love acting so much, because it’s not like I just studied acting, I studied it 20-something years ago, is to always play the opposite. If you’re playing the bad guy, you find the most charming thing about that character that you can. If you are playing a good guy you play the opposite. It’s just because it is more interesting. I play this guy as a real smart and charming guy, and as David Mamet used to say, “Keep it simple, stupid.” The rest of it, all I have to do is open my mouth, and they gave me this great character – a guy from Alabama in for life for deviant behavior.

Rita: What do you look for in projects that you decide to work on overall?
Robert: Will they pay me?

Rita: You have been doing this awhile…
Robert: It is weird, because all of a sudden you wake up and you’re not the kid on the set anymore. I look at that and people say I have done a lot of work and I say, I have done a lot of work, survived and paid the bills, and I have acted since I was nine years old in a little theatre in Ohio. I went to Northwestern for school and I started in Chicago, and I love Chicago because I started out in the theatre. If you had told me 20 years ago that I was going to be doing a television series called Prison Break and playing this demonic character on TV, I would have said “Fuck you, I am not a prostitute, I am not a whore.”

Rita: You are having fun doing it though.
Robert: Oh yeah, but 20-something years ago, I was a theatre purist. But now, I think it is one of the most beautiful characters ever created and it doesn’t matter whether it is television or stage or film. It depends on the project and the character. The fact is, I grew up in the old school of, I am in it because I love acting and I am not in it for the money or because of awards. I have done some great roles and been a part of great projects; this one for me is the longest and highest profile that I have been a part of. This is also the biggest role. I have been a part of huge A-list features, but as far as what I played in them, this is it for me. You always hope for a job and if you are going to do television, you hope for something that will last. Then you hope for a hit. Well, we didn’t get a hit, we got what is called an event.

Rita: What would you be doing if you weren’t an actor?
Robert: My father is a veterinarian, I have actually seriously been thinking, not of being a veterinarian, but I love anatomy and physiology, and that was one of my favorite subjects in school. You know how when you are getting a massage or giving a massage, and you can feel the muscle? If you really know muscles you can actually see how those muscles are created and how they connect to the bone. I am not saying I want to be a massage therapist, but if I had the choice now, I would love to do research of the muscular system or something in the medical field related to anatomy and physiology. It really pisses me off when I get a Charlie horse or pull a muscle, and I’m going, how can I get this thing back to normal?

Rita: What do you do for fun when you are not working?
Robert: I have no time. I am getting my family situated here in Dallas and I love being able to go out and discover fun restaurants here in Dallas. I did take my kid to the aquarium here and it was pretty amazing. I play a despicable character on television and I go home to my family, and my time is spent doing fun things. We went to Medieval Times recently, and there was one guy I had a feeling about and I got him an audition for the show. I am a kid myself so I have fun doing these things like water parks and all that stuff.

Rita: If you could change one thing in your life right now what would it be?
Robert: If I could change one thing in my life, boy…I would like my sister, who lives in Ohio, a little bit closer to me right now. She gets scared and nervous, and she won’t fly to see me because she has MS and she is slowing down. It pisses me off because it is my own damn fault too, because I have invited her to spend some time with me and I will hurry her and now she is like, she will send her daughter or dad. I miss my family a lot and I am basically the only one who ever left Ohio. All my relatives, except for my dad are pretty much farmers. I know that old world very well and I know the new world, since I went to school in Chicago and I went to New York, and there was something always in me that said I was going to be an actor. I pursued it and it worked and it is working, but when you grow up in a small area like that, it never leaves you and that is something I wish I could MapQuest in my head and go okay, they are here.

Rita: Tell me something about you that nobody else knows?
Robert: I love comfort food and my mother used to make a white bread with mayonnaise, lettuce, and peanut butter. That with a can of Beefaroni is my comfort food.

Rita: When was the last time you ate that?
Robert: I have been pretty comforted by this show, so I have not had to eat it in awhile.

Keywords: Robert, Knepper, Prison Break, actor, Hitman, Hostage, television, movies, Northwestern, T-Bag
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