After playing assorted levels of psycho, ‘Prison Break‘ alum Robert Knepper is anxious to lighten up and make you laugh. But for the time being, he’s got a pair of dark-and-twisted turns with which to haunt you.
This Wednesday at 9/8c, Knepper guest-stars on CBS’ ‘Criminal Minds‘ as the son of a bitter former movie star played by Sally Kirkland. In that role, he targets pretty young things, sending Hotch and the BAU team on a spine-tingling manhunt. Then, lest ‘Prison Break’s lecherous baddie be forgotten, T-Bag himself is due for an actual encore.
Knepper spoke with us about his ‘Criminal’-y good reign of terror, Theodore Bagwell’s return, and his ‘Shameless’ bid to bring smiles to our faces.
I’ve seen your ‘Criminal Minds’ episode and I guess “theatrical” would be a good word to describe it.
[Laughs] Well, yeah. That makes sense considering the nature of Sally Kirkland’s character, my mother.
This guy is no run-of-the-mill “momma’s boy,” though.
You know, the first conversation I had with the director was, “How can we make this guy also virile? How can I make him a strong guy and not just a momma’s boy? ” It was all about finding the right combination of “well-trained, well-mannered, well-educated young man who loves his mother” and “Ohhhh, you picked the wrong person to mess with.”
In addition to of course ‘Prison Break and ‘Heroes,’ you’ve recently appeared on ‘Stargate Universe,’ ‘Chase’ and now this. What is your personal “litmus test” that you hold a role up against, so you’re not always just “the bad guy”?
I don’t know if I really have a litmus test. I have to tell you, as soon as I finished ‘Criminal Minds,’ I called my agents and said, “I don’t care how you do it – and I know I’ve talked about this before – but I’ve got to do a comedy. I need to f–king do a comedy, because this is the last totally disgusting, demented character I want to play for a very long time.” And lo and behold a comedy came up – John Wells’ ‘Shameless,’ for Showtime (premiering January 9, 2011). That’s going to be huge. The pilot is amazing and I loved every minute of it. But you know, I take good care of my family – I give them some nice choices to eat at dinnertime, and that requires an actor being able to work. Hopefully, I won’t be playing a demented character for a while, but if I have to, I will. I had a great acting coach in New York, Bill Esper, who used to say, “If you’re going to play a part, play a great part.”
Working with Sally Kirkland – I imagine there had to be a lot of trust between you two.
There were two things going on at once. There was getting to know Sally, which was just amazing, and there was great trust there. The other thing I realized when doing this thing had to do with my mother dying eight years ago, suddenly of a massive heart attack. It was very strange to get back in touch with that because it’s one thing to lose a parent over a period time; it’s another to have them whisked out of your life. This episode brought back a lot of stuff for me. The whole ending… that was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.
I was going to say, your final scene had to be among the most powerful – if not strangest – you’ve done in your career.
Yeah…. It was a really emotional and creepy, but hugely cathartic. I think I saved well over $1,000 in therapy costs by doing that episode.
Let’s talk about T-Bag’s return in ‘Breakout Kings‘ (an upcoming A&E series about ex-cons who help lawmen thwart prison escapes). What was your immediate reaction when you got that phone call?
My first reaction was, “Don’t kill T-Bag. I won’t do it if they kill T-Bag.” And I’m doing it, so I guess I just gave it away that they don’t kill him. [Laughs] My next thought was, “This is a stupid thing for me to do because I’ve finished with this guy and I’m moving on. What do I think I’m going to do here? Like Jamie Farr in ‘M*A*S*H*,’ I’m going to go back to Toledo and always be T-Bag?” So I wasn’t sure at first, but then word got out that it might happen, and I got emails from all over the world asking, “Is it possible? Could it be?!” I realized the power of this character has for so many people around the world, so I’m thinking I’ll survive it.
It’s a nice little nod, that’s what it is.
It’s a nod, it is. The important thing is to keep working.