The new CW drama series CULT takes viewers into an unusual world of two different realities – one fictional and one real in the same show. So CULT offers a peek behind the curtain as it features a mystery story surrounding a fictional TV show that seems to bleed-over into the real world. Playing two characters in one show, star Robert Knepper portrays the actor Roger Reeves, who plays the fictional Billy Grimm a cult-leader in the popular TV show “Cult.” But the fans of Roger Reeve’s show have taken the fictional world a bit too seriously, and when a string of murders is revealed, no one quite knows what to think about the actors who portray members of the TV cult. At the WB Mondo International Press Tour, Robert Knepper shared a bit of insight on what it is like to have played a variety of television characters, who are so larger-than-life and cult-like in their own way, that it sometimes colors the reactions his own fans.
How are you most like your characters Roger Reeves and Billy Grimm, and what are the biggest challenges of this role?
ROBERT: I grew up being an actor in hopefully the truest sense. I started in the theater. And I love playing parts that are very, very magnanimous, very strong characters that are leaders and then, underneath that show he is like a Nixon kind of character, a guy who’s like, really, “Wow, is this all happening?” I’ve never been in a fight in my life, and I played T‑Bag on PRISON BREAK, and I can go anywhere in the world, to any bar and people are like, “Oh, no, look out.” So that’s kind of fun, to be able to play a guy who’s so strong and who could be in any fight in the world, and yet isn’t. Then the things that are very different that I also like about it is because I also get to play the actor who gets to play that character. So, as the actor, you see certain things of Roger Reeves that are very similar to Billy Grimm and his strengths. But you also get to see what I go through, and a lot of actors go through, in playing these kind of parts, on being on huge TV hits, very popular shows, and going, “Oh, my God, is this really happening to me, all this stuff?” I know it’s not real. I kind of, sometimes buy into it; sometimes I don’t buy into it. And you kind of go through a little mind-trip with yourself about how to deal with that new reality.
What does this character bring you compared to all the other characters you’ve played before, on a personal level and professional level?
ROBERT: Well, again, sort of the storyline of “playing the actor who plays this cult leader,” it just kind of makes fun of the whole process of the whole storyline of when an actor becomes successful. There’s a typical thing when you’re a stage actor, which I originally was, that Roger Reeves, my character is, and then he goes on to become like somewhat of a movie star back in the ’90s. It’s a little bit of the backstory, and then he sort of poo‑poos television, saying, “Here I am being this big television star,” and it just exposes all that. I’m not that way in my real life, but I love being able to play that kind of character that all actors will go, “Yeah,” until they know what this is about. To expose that and blow it up and say “just take your ego and throw it out the window.” So hopefully in one scene to the next, one minute to the next, you’re going to see me with people, controlling them, and the next minute going, “I don’t know. Should I be doing this? I’m not sure.” I’m not saying it’s totally nerd because there are many aspects of Roger Reeves that are as strong as Billy Grimm. But, for the audience, hopefully, to accept the fact that I’m sitting there, talking with them and then I get up and I’m suddenly I’m Billy Grimm, and then I go back and forth like we do in the show. So there’s this master manipulation of the audience to see me as Robert [Knepper] playing Roger [Reeves], and sort of you see a lot of me as Robert [Knepper] and then you see somebody totally different playing Billy Grimm, in a sort of a Jack Nicholson or an Anthony Hopkins’ kind of way sometimes. Just for you as the audience to go, “Ah, they’re shifting around” And then, when you pull back in the show and you realize, “Oh, there’s somebody maybe, kind of manipulating that whole thing.” That you think the show is one thing and it’s something else, then it’s going to keep evolving into something else. You’re not sure who’s in control of the situation, which is also what makes it so different from other shows.
What exactly is the relationship, if there’s any, between Marti and Robert? It seems like from the pilot that they don’t interact a lot, initially. But do their lives start to intersect at some point?
ROBERT: Yeah. I mean, you’ll see in the series. Alona [Tal] and I have these quick little tidbits with each other, little lines and stuff, and that can go so many different places, from season to season as well. Right now I’d say we’re both kind of Marti [Gerristen] and Roger [Reeves], like they are sort of really dealing with the fact that their fans drive this show and how each of us have a different reaction to what it’s like to have that, so many fans constantly in our lives, what it means to give up a private life.
How much of the dark side of everything going on does your character Roger Reeves become aware of or is aware of as the show goes along?
ROBERT: You mean that Roger is aware of? That remains to be seen. I think right now, the emphasis has been mostly on what we call the “inside show.” See, the great thing about the “outside show” too, is that no one quite knows why these people are disappearing or why these murders are happening. And the lid’s being kept on it because we don’t want it to go public, because, oh, God forbid, maybe that will close down the show. Well, how can you close down a hit? You’ve got a studio saying, “Shh, don’t ‑‑ let’s not let anybody know what’s going on here.” So Roger’s just playing his part. He’s playing Billy [Grimm] and may not know all these things, yet, that are going on. And I think we’ll find from season to season stuff will come out. I think next year’s going to really explode with it as well. We’re working inside of a bubble right now because it hasn’t aired. We all think it’s one of the coolest shows ever, so hopefully the fans will too. That’s why I keep talking about next season and the next season and the season after that, because it’s going to take a while to let this story untold.
We’ve become used to watching a lot of TV shows when they come out on DVD. People catch up with shows. PRISON BREAK was like that. Do you like to do that with your TV watching? And what do you think of people owning your shows and watching them in that way?
ROBERT: Well, I’m a horrible example because I grew up without television. My dad hated TV. And we had to sneak it. We actually had to pull it out a closet, plug it in, and I would watch DARK SHADOWS when I got home at 4 o’clock. So I don’t have the same kind of fanaticism — fan‑aticism –about television. I don’t know how anyone has time to watch television, honestly. I have a ten‑year‑old and I have a career, so I think DVDs are great in that way. I think studios and networks are also trying to figure out, and are figuring out, how they can adjust their way of doing things to accommodate the fact that you can get things online, you can stream it, you can buy it, you don’t have to wait from week to week. I still think because I’ve been a part of these shows, there is something really fun about hearing my grandparents talk about the old radio days and they couldn’t wait to know what “The Shadow” knows, and then they would get the next installment and they would all get really close to the radio, like a Norman Rockwell painting. I think television, then took that to the next level, with viewers saying, “Oh, my God, I can’t wait to be there next week.” Sometimes if you have to wait a little bit, I think it’s kind of great, instead of instant gratification.
Have you ever experienced that kind of fan-aticism relationship with your fans, as is portrayed in CULT?
ROBERT: Totally, totally. I mean, it’s art-imitating life for me. I mean the one that I love to tell on PRISON BREAK is when the elevator door opens up and this beautiful couple are inside and the woman sees me. I’m in the hotel in Dallas, but she didn’t see me as Rob [Knepper]. She saw me as T‑Bag. And she screamed. I mean, she literally screamed so loudly. She didn’t even have time to exhale the scream. She inhaled and she couldn’t stop screaming. That’s going to happen on CULT. I don’t think they’re going to scream, because Billy Grimm’s not a pedophile. He’s not a rapist. He’s just mind-fucking people and he creates this family that’s all about himself, and with guys like that, it’s “I’m so loving and I’ll take care of you and I’ll make you feel really good.” But he’s somebody that you, hopefully, will be totally in love with and want, like “Oh, my God, Billy Grimm, Billy Grimm.” (Laughs) Hey, he’s an amazing character, but you wouldn’t want to cross this guy, because your days are numbered.
To see Robert Knepper’s magnetic portrayals of both Roger Reeves and Billy Grimm in the new series CULT, be sure to tune in for the premiere on Tuesday, February 19th at 9:00 p.m. on the CW.
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