Rob Knepper Interview • 2-18-05
Beth Blighton: So, ambition has finally caught up with Tommy Dolan. Do you think we’ll be seeing him again, maybe in the death chamber?
Rob Knepper: Well, if you wanna hear my fantasy about what happens to Tommy Dolan in jail… In my fantasy -- and this is not anything the writers have written or anything – Tommy is in jail and I have an epiphany. And Tommy is finally… Finally everything that comes out of his mouth is the truth. And the truth is that he’s been framed, he’s been double-crossed, and he’s angry as hell. And he becomes a very vengeful person. All he wants to do, his whole reason is living… which I think is going to be pretty hard to do, since there’s going to be a whole lot of people in that prison who want him dead because they think he killed those kids.
Beth: Right, he’s a child murderer, as far as they’re concerned.
Rob: And the only thing he wants to do is destroy Brother Justin, and if there’s any way he can figure out to get out of there, he will. And he’s going to go kill Brother Justin.
Beth: Well, I think he’d be joining a long line of people that Justin is cultivating who would want to do the very same thing.
Rob: But I’ve got the goods, cuz I know where he is. I know what he thinks like, at least I think I do. Now the actor here is talking… The actor’s thinking that Tommy Dolan doesn’t know shit!
Rob: He’s been a pawn of Brother Justin’s forever. I don’t even think Tommy Dolan knows for sure if his reasons for being so involved with Brother Justin… I don’t think it’s clear if it’s because he genuinely cares about Brother Justin and the ministry, and the injustices that were done in burning down the church. I don’t know if he cares about that or if he cares about his own career escalating because of being connected to Brother Justin.
Rob: I don’t think he knows exactly which is stronger. When I first started working on the show last year, when Tommy was going around, trying to gather stories from people. And he’s sitting around a campfire, and all of a sudden this sort of very sad figure says, “I lost my God.” I was intrigued by this man and his story. And I think I genuinely was empathetic and compassionate in listening to his story, and therefore, I could tell a good story on the radio. Because I really was moved by what he was going through.
When I auditioned as an actor for a part that I really want, and I start to play this part, I get possessed by it. I remember when I played Bobby Kennedy a couple of years ago, in a mini-series, I LOVED getting ready to do Bobby Kennedy. I loved playing Bobby Kennedy. I loved Bobby Kennedy, even after I finished playing it. I was trying to think of other projects where I could be Bobby Kennedy, or I could tell the story about the Ambassador Hotel and all about maybe there was a cover-up for his assassination, I’ve been haunted by him ever since.
I think Tommy Dolan, as a reporter, found a story finally that really, really spoke to him. And what the writers, I think, added to that as well – because no one in this show gets off scot-free, as far as being (chuckling) pure as the driven snow – is that everybody has a different side to them. And in this case of Tommy Dolan, I think he… I mean, there’s a Depression going on. People are broke. Their spirits are broken, their wallets are broken, their bank accounts are broken. They have shoes that don’t fit. They’re constantly hearing on the radio and seeing pictures of people who are homeless, who are just drifting out in the streets. So, anything you can do to keep surviving, to hang onto life, you’re gonna do. And I think the survival instincts kick in and you go, “Wait a minute, I’ve got a great story here, and this is going to further my career. And I’ll be damned if I’m not going to go along with it and pursue it.” And yes, I genuinely care about this guy. But I’m gonna be the one who tells about his story. And that’s how last season ended.
Beth: Now some of us have been talking about the theme of hubris… Do you think that was Tommy’s undoing? Did he just not pay attention to what was really going on because he was so focused? Or was it that he just thought that he was smarter? He knew how this game was played, so he was on top.
Rob: Yeah, I think ambition is one of the sins in this story.
Beth: I’m not sure if that’s one of the seven deadly sins, but…
Rob: No, it’s an added one, the eighth one.
Beth: (chuckling) Now, I thought the scene where Tommy was putting the screws to Val Templeton was a classic, too. Do you think he did that to get in with Iris more?
Rob: No, but see in my eyes, back then, I was pretty innocent. And I may not have known what the writer’s intentions were. But when I first started working on this, I approached him very much like an “Aw, shucks,” Will Rogers kind of guy. And the first scene with Brother Justin, and then going on the radio, and then coming to talk to Iris, and then going to see Val Templeton… That, to me, was always… I always played that as very earnest, because I really was pissed off that somebody would… Because they didn’t think they had enough in their town that anyone else who came into their town, these people they call migrants… And then Brother Justin said, “These people need religion, too. I’m going to preach to them.” And the story that was put out, that I believed, that was manufactured, was that the City Council or whatever you want to call them, the leaders of the town were the ones who burned down this church. And I totally fell for it. It seemed like a good story to me, and I totally fell for that. Because I could see why they’d want to do it. They’re trying to… They don’t have enough food for themselves! And they’ve got a hundred other people coming into Mintern? They don’t want them around.
Beth: Tommy did get Val squirming, and I wonder if Tommy didn’t enjoy it a little that he had Templeton just stuck there, with no place to go.
Rob: But he deserved to get stuck. Tommy totally believes that Templeton is responsible for this. Because, wasn’t it Templeton’s brother who was also caught with a little boy or something?
Beth: Yeah, his nephew was the pervert.
Rob: So, as far as Tommy’s concerned, these guys need to be routed out. And the only person who is really good, who is going to try to save people, is Brother Justin. I’ll tell ya something that I know, that I found out later as an actor. I was told that when Tommy Dolan’s character came up last year, they were seriously only thinking of using Tommy Dolan for a couple episodes. But they liked it so much, and they liked what I did with the role so much, that they kept writing for me. And they bumped up the part a bit. And I think the reason is that they may have originally meant for Tommy to be… I’m not sure about the reasoning behind this, but my guess is they may have thought Tommy was much more how he ended up, that he was much more obviously an ambitious man and using Brother Justin to further his career. But when I first started, I didn’t know any of that. Nobody had told me that, and I didn’t play it that way.
Beth: Wow, so that was all stuff you found out later on?
Rob: Basically, what I did was, I imitated Will Rogers. If you go back and you listen to the first radio broadcast, and you listen to the first scene with Iris in the living room, and then you go over here to the Will Rogers Home off of Sunset Boulevard, near Pacific Palisades… They have a little room set up in the garage there, and they have these little films, and they play back some of Will Roger’s film parts (chuckling), I sound just like him. And it was on purpose. I just meant it to be very earnest, very Midwestern, just a wide-eyed guy. And maybe my way of playing him was then slowly to unveil this other side of him.
Beth: And did that change the way you played him then?
Rob: In the second year I made him… He got a little more slick. I bought him some clothes, and a new hat. I had this old hat the first season. I really liked that hat. And they told me I couldn’t wear that hat in the second season. And I should have fought for it because, that hat to me… I got that hat the night of the hobo camp, and we were sitting around, and it was the first time I ever listened to Brother Justin. And I loved that hat because it always reminded me of my roots. It reminded me of that first scene. So those next six or seven episodes of last season, I held onto that hat. It didn’t even have a liner in it! Most hats you’ve got a little plastic thing in there that tells you where it was made. I’ve got one from my father, from when he was in college, and he gave it to me. I wore it in some movie. He bought it in 1959, and it’s just one of those little fedoras, like a Frank Sinatra fedora. And that thing… I’ve still got that thing! And people take care of their hats… They’ve got that little liner in there. But this hat didn’t have any of that. It had been through so many movies and TV shows, it was just a bare felt hat. (chuckling)
Beth: It was just shot! (laughing)
Rob: But I held onto that thing because I loved it and I used it a lot during the season. And then this season came along and they said, “Ya know, that hat’s not really period, anyway. It’s not the right period, so we’re gonna give you another hat.” And I liked this hat that they gave me, but I also didn’t like it because it was kind of stiff. But the reason I kept it instead of fighting it was because I thought, nah, ya know what? Just like anybody would do when all of a sudden you realize you’re doing well, and Tommy Dolan’s making a little money, for once. He’s gonna put it into a nice pair of shoes. He’s gonna put it into a nice suit. And he’s gonna buy a nice hat! That’s just the way of all evil. (chuckling) Once you’ve got that money, you’re gonna want more money…
Beth: Now, do you think he actually had feelings for Iris? And do you think she returned those feelings?
Rob: I think, again, are you asking the character or are you asking the actor? (chuckling)
Beth: Either one.
Rob: Okay, the character, I think… I think the fun thing about working on a television series is that, before you ever go to the set that particular day and shoot an episode, or shoot a scene of that episode, at least with this show… You’ve got different drafts of the script coming at you every day. So, from the first day of getting a script to when you actually shoot it, many, many different things can happen. I think originally their intention was that the spark is there between Iris and Tommy. And Tommy totally believes that the spark in that scene with her, when he says, “I’d go to church if you’d go with me,” or something like that, with a real sexual innuendo in it, I think he really is intrigued by her. And yes, he’s there because he wants to find Brother Justin, but hey! She’s cute! (laughing) I’ll schtupp her, sure I will!
Beth: And I still think that Brother Justin was jealous of Tommy the minute he showed up at their screen door. He looked very perturbed that Tommy was there, apparently calling on his sister.
Rob: Yeah. But the thing is, now that we know the whole story, we know that nothing could really come between Brother Justin and Iris. They may play the game of being jealous, or they may make the other one jealous, but I don’t think anything could ever really come between them. And I was, like other people, probably just a pawn. As far as the actor in me says, I don’t think… I think the writers were wise not to pursue that relationship because it really had to be more about Dolan’s connection with Brother Justin. If Iris had been there, there would have been this kind of strange triangle, and I don’t think Tommy… Tommy’s too ambitious underneath it all to really let that continue. Because he would have been, “Wait a minute, I’ve been suffering so long… This whole country has been suffering.” I mean, you do crazy things, you do crazy selfish things when you’re that broke in a Depression, I would think. And if you have no scruples, you have no morals, you’d be kind of like, “Uh-huh… I’m gonna do anything I can to survive here, because I’m dead meat, otherwise. I’ve seen five of my friends die.” You know, stuff like that.
There were, the statistics I read when I did research on this… None of my relatives ever talked about. We never really got the details about the millions and millions and millions of people, year by year… I can’t remember the percentage points… Something like twenty to thirty percent each year were unemployed in the early thirties. And it wasn’t just here. It was worldwide. And I know that sounds really naïve of me. Like everyone would say, “Why yes, Rob, of course, this was what was going on.” All you have to do is study history. But we don’t study history in our time. We forget about these details. And we also forget, and I really truly believe it, that history really does repeat itself. We forget that when people are that desperate they will do desperate things, and they will follow desperate people, like they followed Hitler, like they follow today’s dictators.
Beth: Or crazy religious leaders, or anybody who will throw out a lifeline to them. But I’m wondering, at what point it was that Justin decided in his head that Tommy could be sacrificed? Because a lot of people have wondered if it was at the point where Tommy tells him a woman will never hang in California. But he had Tommy taking down Iris’s confession before that conversation, so he must have made this decision before that fact came to light. And I still wonder, because I think he was angry and jealous when he saw Tommy coming to the house for Iris, if he hasn’t been harboring this secret desire to do Tommy in for some time.
Rob: My personal opinion is that Tommy Dolan always felt that he was the one in control when he said, “Justin, I want your exclusive story. There’s only one way I’m going to help you. You give me the rights to your story, you can’t allow anybody else to do it.” And Justin says, “Oh, you drive a hard bargain. I feel like I’m shaking hands with the Devil.” And Dolan says, “Aw, c’mon, I’m not that bad…” Dolan totally believes that Justin thinks Tommy Dolan is as powerful as the Devil. And of course, we know, it’s the other way around.
Beth: Yes! (laughing)
Rob: And Dolan doesn’t have any idea just how powerful Brother Justin is. I think Brother Justin always, once he knew the power of the radio, and how Dolan was connected to the radio, he always knew that he would use Tommy Dolan until the end. And when he had exhausted him, he would get rid of him.
Beth: When he used him up, it was all done.
Rob: Use him as long as you need him, and then when it doesn’t work anymore, get rid of him.
Beth: Yeah, because obviously, by the time Justin had his little speech with Balthus about reaching more people than Jesus in one radio show, he knew he had what he needed.
Rob: Mm-hmm. It’s just like any other corporate monster, anybody who’s climbing up a ladder. Whether it be religion or a major company, people get to the top, and they’re going to get there any way that they can. And once they get there they think, “Who was it who helped me get here? What was your name?”
Beth: Now, the story that Iris tells Tommy about the little Russian children and the train wreck… At what point do you think Tommy realized that she was talking about herself and Justin?
Rob: That was a beautiful scene. I don’t think I got it until the end. That’s always the tricky thing about acting. The actor knows everything, but then the actor has to forget about everything, because the character doesn’t know yet. And so the actor knows what’s going to happen at the end of the season, but Tommy Dolan doesn’t. And I think the reason he doesn’t know it right away is that he’s got other things on his mind. He’s riding a real high after getting Templeton. He knows he’s nowhere near to finding Brother Justin. But he knows he’s in good graces with Iris because he’s proven to her that he’s on Brother Justin’s side. Yeah, I think it was near the end of the scene.
Beth: So then, by that point, after she tells him the story, he’s got some inkling that Justin is capable of killing somebody. And as he investigates the madhouse and some of the other details, doesn’t he start to think, “Ooh, maybe I’ve got some dirt on this guy, too”? And would that only add to the power he already thought he had over Justin?
Rob: But again, that never was written and we never had any of those scenes. You never see Tommy Dolan alone, and you never see him talking to a friend about what he had, this wealth of information, or his confusion, or his doubts. You never see that side, you only see the side of the, “Okay, I’ve gotta find Brother Justin. Now I’ve found him. Oh, my gosh! Now I’m discovering all this other stuff, that maybe he was crazy, or he was in a car outside the church, and the plot is thickening. And wait a minute, what am I in for here? I’m helping to build this guy up, but is it going to bring me down, as well?”
And then again, there’s always that fine line between what do I care more about? Do I care more about… Now that I’ve fallen in love with this man’s mission, do I care about his mission falling or do I care about my own fall? And that was always kind of left open, which I think was good. I think that’s honestly why Tommy Dolan stayed around so long, because I never played it one way or the other. It was always kind of left hanging.
Dan Knauf had mentioned to me, oh, at the beginning of the season… And he sort of laid out about where he thought Tommy Dolan was going to go. It wasn’t for sure, but it was an idea, and they pretty much stuck to it, as far as what we shot. But Tommy Dolan was described as Mengele.
Beth: Wow, really?
Rob: He was Hitler’s architect, sort of his public relations guy. And I think Mengele was absolutely aware of what he was doing and why he was doing it. But I don’t think Tommy was aware of that. He was more naïve, in more of that Will Rogers sort of way. But Mengele knew what he was doing. Carl Rove knows what he’s doing. I think any man who serves a president has to totally believe in that president, whether they’re Republican or Democrat, and they know exactly the blueprint for everything they’re doing. And all they have to do is make sure that they believe in that person. Tommy Dolan believes in Brother Justin, and believes he’s going places. If somebody tried to argue with him on the street, saying “This guy’s a knucklehead! What are you doing? He’s a zealot! What are you doing following this religious zealot?” He would have every argument to say, “Listen buddy…” And this is another beauty of the script, and beauty of the writing, and of Dan’s creation… Here’s a guy who’s fallen hook, line, and sinker for this guy that stands for religion, and Tommy Dolan doesn’t go to church!
Beth: Right, he could care less about that aspect.
Rob: He could care less. He doesn’t really want to go into a church. Ya know, that kind of dynamic was beautiful, too, in this. All these great little details, all these complex little push-me/pull-you, inside, outside, I’m for this, I’m against this, I’m for you, but I’m also for myself, I’m good, I’m bad… for all of us! For all of the characters! There was never a clear line. (laughing) Nothing was ever that simple.
Beth: But now he knows he’s been betrayed. He’s been sold down the river by the man he trusted the most. That was a big betrayal scene there, at the end.
Rob: And anybody who watches this show… And using common sense you would look at this scene, and this character, and this story and go, “All he has to do…” He has alibis he could use. He knows where he was that night. He’ll go off and he’ll tell people, “Hey, I wasn’t at the church that night, there’s no way I could have burned that church down.” Realistically, he could get out of it. The problem is, will he have time to be able to convince people, to be able to convince somebody in authority – the District Attorney or the Police Chief, or whatever? Because Brother Justin is desperate, as well, and he’s gonna use his powers on people. I don’t have those powers to write things different than they thought they wrote, or say things like that church scene last year, where people confess their sins.
Beth: And he’s seeing them! And the other beauty of it is that probably the only alibi Tommy has got is from people the authorities wouldn’t listen to anyway, like itinerants and what have you.
Rob: (laughing) Yeah, he’s screwed.
Beth: Poor Tommy… Now, you and Clancy went to Northwestern together? How much fun was it to have a little reunion on “Carnivale”?
Rob: Well, it’s actually not the first time we’ve acted together. We did a pilot together several years ago. I played the lead in the pilot. It was about a guy who works in Vegas at a casino, and he wants to own his own casino, and there’s all the politics of that, to allow that to happen. And Clancy played a… He may have played a pawnbroker, I’m not even sure. All I remember is he looked like Harpo Marx in the damned thing. They had this very strange wig on. I always kid him about it. He’s a great actor, and I’ve seen his work a lot. And when I knew this was happening for me I went out on that first night, to shoot that hobo scene, and it was like this long lost brother. Giving each other a big hug, and he made me feel so welcome. And he said, “God, we’re so lucky to have you! And I’m so glad you’re here.”
Beth: It’s gotta be great to cross paths again.
Rob: And Dan Hassid, one of the producers on the show, I’d also had a great experience years ago. His first film that he produced (I think it was his first film that he produced), was one of my favorite films that I’ve ever done called, “Gas, Food, Lodging,” which was an independent film. It did very well for everyone involved, including Dan. And it was a beautiful romantic part for me. So, there was that great connection to see him again.
Beth: I’ve heard of that. I’ll have to try to check that out in the video store.
Rob: And then Clancy and I, when we were at school, we did “Merchant of Venice” together. I played Shylock and he played Antonio, the Merchant. And I remember thinking of him back in school… He was like the god back in school. He and his girlfriend were like the king and queen of the prom, for four years straight. Unfortunately, they split up. But they were just like “the couple.” They did a lot of acting together, and I just looked up to them. They were like royalty to me
And I respect him, too, because he also comes form Ohio, and his father was a congressman, and he’s very smart. He’s the kind of guy that, if you’re ever doubting something or you want to know something, you say, “I wonder what Clancy thinks?” because, if you ask Clancy something, he’ll give you his honest opinion. And I always trust him, because he can play all sides. He’s a great debater. He’s not close-minded. He’s a great guy. I can’t say enough good stuff about him.
Beth: He definitely is.
Rob: And he’s really so good in this show. My God… One second he’s got a girl on her knees, saying, “Come over here and do your daddy.” And the next minute he’s preaching and making people believe him. It’s great. He’s got an amazing face on film. I’ve never seen it so… Ya know, a lot of time with film or TV shows, you play a character that’s pretty much… you can sort of see the through line. It’s a pretty simple through line. And then you see a movie come along like “The Apostle”, and you think, “Oh, my God. Here’s a Preacher that’s sinned. Here’s a Preacher that’s practically killed somebody with a baseball bat.” And that is what Clancy’s character reminds me of, what he’s done with it. I know a lot of it is in the writing. But a lot of it is also Clancy. You really want to pray to this guy, and at the same time you’re horrified by him, once you start learning the truth about him.
Beth: Exactly. And a lot of people really believed, through that first season, that maybe Justin wasn’t necessarily the Creature of Darkness because of that performance. I mean, the writers laid it all out in front of us that he was the bad one, and yet… And I was right there with them on that one. Because it certainly would be interesting if he wasn’t!
But I did want to ask you, have you got any new projects coming up that we might not know about?
Rob: Well, I told you about the Clooney film that’s coming up, “Good Night and Good Luck”… And I’m going to New York to the premiere of Bruce Willis’s new film, called “Hostage.” The premiere of that is on March eighth, and I’m in that
Beth: Excellent! We’ll be on the look out to catch those then. And thank you so much for doing this interview.
Rob: You’re welcome.