How Robert Knepper Makes Bad Look So Good

By JARETT WIESELMAN

March 08, 2013

Robert Knepper created one of television's most memorable, and menacing, villains ever in Prison Break's T-Bag. So it's no surprise to hear that when the producers behind The CW's Cult were looking to cast their leader, they were actively seeking a "Robert Knepper-type."

Luckily for everyone, the genuine article found Cult's pilot script fascinating, which is why Knepper leapt at the chance to re-embrace his evil side. ETonline caught up with the actor to find out what it's been like working on Cult's show within a show and what you can expect from tonight's all-new episode.

ETonline: What attracted you to Cult?
Robert Knepper: 99.9999 percent of the time, I've only taken on roles I really wanted to play. I remember years ago, Kirk Douglas said, "Never take money when you're going up in your career, only when you're going down." I've certainly gone down the road where I've taken roles that make me think, "What am I doing? I'm not a slut!" [laughs] But this smelled fresh to me, it smelled like a hit and that's why I went for it. I got a little intoxicated by the success of Prison Break; I really liked that feeling and wanted to feel it again. Cult felt unique in the same way Prison Break did, and unique usually works.

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ETonline: T-Bag was a great villain, were you worried at all about the comparisons given Billy Grimm's similar tendencies?
Knepper: I was shooting a movie called Seal Team 6, which was a great, heroic part -- the only problem was it kept me in Santa Fe during pilot season. A friend called me up and said there was a pilot called Cult and featured a crazy-ass cult leader. My friend happened to ask the casting director who their prototype for the part was, and she said, Robert Knepper. That was the first time that had ever happened to me.

ETonline: That's gotta be a pretty cool feeling.
Knepper: Look, I've been kicking around for 20-plus years and people didn't really know my name before Prison Break. There is not a place in the entire world I've been to that doesn't know and love T-Bag. To me, doing this show has been like an answer to Prison Break. I don't think of him as just another villain, I look at him as an opportunity to play another rich, three-dimensional character who makes decisions most other people might not make. I'm kind of the go-to-guy for these kinds of roles right now, and I don't mind it.

ETonline: What is it that you enjoy about playing these kinds of characters?
Knepper: I was the little kid growing up. I wasn't picked on because, honestly, I was fast, so I could run away from the bullies [laughs]. So I think there's something karmically right about growing up to play a huge, magnanimous, charismatic, strong guy. I've never been in a fight in my life, but after playing T-Bag and Billy Grimm, people see me in a bar now and kind of go, "Whoa, watch out there." [laughs] I love the power of acting and being able to do that. I'm kind of a nerd, but when I step into those shoes, I get to be the king. T-Bag thought he was the king, but he could never have a following like Billy does. That's attractive to me. I don't walk around thinking, "How can I be stronger? How can I be a sexier man?" But to play it is so gratifying.

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ETonline: I loved the moment in last week's episode where Roger Reeves [the actor playing Billy Grimm] kind of had a Billy-esque moment with the network exec. What did you make of that scene?
Knepper: I loved that too because it gave you a glimpse of why that actor is playing Billy Grimm. You don't want to f*ck with Roger Reeves as much as you don't want to f*ck with Billy Grimm. That's one of the voyeuristic pleasures our audience can have watching this totally layered show.

ETonline: Looking ahead, what are you excited for the fans to see?
Knepper: The overall feeling of, "Whoa, what is this show doing to my head?" I want them to wonder about what is real, what is fictional and I hope people allow themselves to slip into this world, soak it in and go along for the ride. It's unlike anything I've ever seen on television.

Cult airs Fridays at 9 p.m. on The CW.

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