No, Robert Knepper’s legal middle name isn’t “T-Bag,” but his unforgettable turn as that slithery Southern convict from Prison Break has created in many TV viewers an inability to distinguish between the two. Fortunately, Knepper’s show-stopping performance in the latest season of ‘Heroes’ appears likely to loosen – and maybe even break – the shackles binding him to the specter of Theodore Bagwell. In fact, Knepper did such a good job in his new role out of the starting gate, he was promoted from what was merely intended to be a guest-star stint to series regular faster than you can ask, “Who’s the scary guy in the eyeliner?”
The new season of Heroes resumes tonight night with the cast of everyday superheroes attempting to forget all about that ol’ superhero thing and just be regular folk. Ah, but it’s hard enough blending in while possessing the ability to physically regenerate, or read minds, or manipulate the time-space continuum. Then some traveling carnival blows into town, and this charismatic, electrifying and mysterious supernatural carnie kingpin named Samuel shows a more-than-passing interest in our heroes.
So much for blending. Oh, and charismatic? Electrifying? Mysterious? That must be Knepper’s cue.
But such a seasoned pro must be used to winning people over with his performances by now, and news of a big promotion to series regular is probably taken in stride. The guy’s too cool for happy dances, surely, or maybe that’s just our initial impression of the fellow who plays bad hombres so well.
“I always do a happy dance,” Knepper says. “I do a happy dance even when I get a guest-star role. I think every actor should be always grateful when they work. And I do the same kind of work whether I’m a series guest star or a recurring regular. Getting the job is kind of, “Yahooo!” And then you have to go back to doing your regular thing. It’s not like you say, “Let’s have a HUGE PARTY!” But it was kind of like having a big party. I’m happy, my wife’s relieved, and it’s nice to know that the powers that be, the producers and the networks and the studios, value you.”
Seeing as how the trailers for the new Heroes season has the Samuel character mentioning a little somethin’ ’bout “vengeance,” is Knepper willing to reveal who Samuel is gunning for? No? Er….it was worth a shot. “Before the last episode I just filmed, I would have gladly done that for you,” Knepper says. “But it is such a nice revelation, I really don’t want to spoil it. Because you think when he’s talking about vengeance, it’s about one thing, but you’ll find out – I think it’s episode 10 or 11 – that it’s completely somebody different that he’s getting vengeance on. It’s a total, total shock.”
Hard to imagine it can come as a shock to the guy with the official script in his hand, but Knepper insists he likes it that way: “Some people ask me, “Do you want to know where a season is going?” Obviously I know what happens within an episode…..[but] sometimes it’s better not to know what is going to happen two or three episodes down the line because you really are playing right in the moment. When I read the word ‘vengeance’ [in the script], I don’t bother to call up the writers and say, “Who exactly are we talking about here? Who am I seeking vengeance on?” They could give me the answer, but part of me doesn’t want to know. I found out in the tenth episode, it’s somebody completely different. I had somebody in mind, but I had to keep it hidden. So the fact that I didn’t really know who it was, actually, it was better for me to hide it, anyway…if that makes sense. Vengeance is vengeance. You hurt me, I’m gonna get back at you. It might make a big difference if you find out it was, say, your mother instead of your friend. And there are degrees of that here, but if you can keep the mystery going, then the audience is going, “Oh my god, is he going to go after one of our beloved series regulars? God forbid – is he going to go after Sylar? Is this going to be the war of the titans?” As long as you ask questions as an actor – and ask questions as an audience – I think you’ve got a show that’s palpitating and alive.”
Knepper is a firm believer of living in the moment, whether dealing with the issue of what’s coming down the line story-wise, or serieshood-wise. After all, it’s no secret the show has struggled to find its footing over the past few seasons. When talk turned to how he hopes his role might serve to resurrect the drama, his response was vague. “You wanna win the World Series, but you can’t think about that sixth game,” Knepper reasons. “I’m up to bat, I’ve gotta hit the ball right now. If I’m thinking about that next game, I’m gonna get hit in the head with a ball and get knocked out.”
Being a carnie will immediately relegate the Samuel character to Uber-Villain status in some viewers’ eyes. After all, few occupations come with a more potent whiff of ‘menace’ than that of traveling carnival employee. (Really, have you ever taken a good look at the guy running the Tilt-A-Whirl?) But Knepper isn’t sure the bad rap is a deserved one. “Well, I think it’s a stereotype,” he says. “These are people who move around a lot. And maybe in our heads, we go, “Well, because they move around a lot, they’re not grounded. They don’t have to take responsibility for things.” The stereotype is that they’re the misfits. One element that we’re trying to add, to dispel that stereotype, is that this is a family of people. And they struggle even harder than other families because they are so maligned. That’s just the seed of it right now. The flip side is that they’re very, very colorful characters.”
While diva behavior doesn’t surprise anyone in Hollywood (and if anything is rather relished as headline fodder), Knepper isn’t the sort of guy looking to hide in his trailer and avoid the very-below-the-line crowd. “Bill Fichtner and I were the same on Prison Break,” he says. “We’d go into a room with a hundred extras waiting to be prisoners, and – Peter Stormare is the same way – we’d just go and talk to everybody. I talk to all the extras on this show, too.” Beyond enjoying the friendly on-set vibe, in some cases, it seems a few lucky Heroes extras can even enjoy a bit of the Cinderella story experience. “There’s this great little entrance to the carnival that we have set up, and……. there are these huge banners,” Knepper says. “One of them is of me, one of them is of Dawn [Olivieri]’s character Lydia, and there’s Edgar [played by Ray Park]. You know: “He walks! She talks!” Typical carnie things. But then there’s one guy, this extra – he came to work one day as an extra, and now his face is emblazoned on this 4 x 10 foot banner! You never know what will happen.”
Not surprisingly, Knepper isn’t shedding too many tears as the image of T-Bag grows smaller and dimmer in his rearview mirror. “As much as I loved that show and that experience,” he says, “it was time to let it go. I’d seen in print, ‘The actor formerly known as T-Bag,’ and I thought that’s just a good way to put it.”
It seems the Actor Formerly Known As T-Bag is off to a good start, seeing as how a former Prison Break director didn’t even recognize Knepper in his new role. “We had this director on Prison Break, Brian Spicer – he directed one or two episodes, and he’s now directing the next episode of Heroes,” Knepper relays. “He gave me the best compliment. Yesterday I saw him on the set, and he says, “Yeah, I’m catching up on the episodes [for the new season], and I’m about halfway through the first episode, and I realize, “Oh my god, that’s Knepper! That’s T-Bag!” And I was like, “Yeah!”
Heroes season four premieres on Monday, September 21 at 8/7c on NBC.