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Robert Knepper Tells Why “Cult” Is a Love Letter to Television

By on February 19, 2013
Robert Knepper

Robert Knepper

“When I read the script I said this is my answer to Prison Break,” says Robert Knepper of new CW series Cult which premieres tonight, Tuesday February 19th on the CW.

The parallels, although perhaps not obvious at first glance, are certainly there. Knepper has signed on to one of the CW’s most ambitious shows to date, playing an instantly recognizable actor from a hit TV show. The actor, Roger Reeves, plays bad guy Billy Grimm, a cult leader with a legion of obsessed fans.

“It sometimes very closely mirrors what I went through playing T-Bag on Prison Break and what I dealt with in my real life of having people come up to me and telling me how they loved that character and hated that character at the same time,” admits Knepper. “Plus there’s the whole thing about the show being about a huge hit TV show and playing an iconic character and then also being able to play the actor who gets to play that part,” Knepper says, laughing at the similarities.  “I love the premise that you’re watching this show called Cult, and then you pull back and realize you’re watching a TV show called Cult  and the people who are watching it are as fanatical as the cult members themselves. It’s just so fun to be a part of.”

Cult follows Jeff Sefton (Matt Davis) an investigative journalist whose younger brother Nate goes missing following claims that a TV show intends to do him harm. Initially skeptical of his obsessional brother’s latest fixation, Jeff soon begins to take Nate’s paranoia seriously when the TV show begins to mirror real life. Jeff soon finds himself stumbling  into a dark and dangerous world centered on the show, its enigmatic central character Billy Grimm (Knepper) and a sub-culture of rabid fans.

Robert Knepper as Billy Grimm and Alona Tal as Kelly collins in Cult. Image © The CW Network

Robert Knepper as Billy Grimm and Alona Tal as Kelly collins in Cult. Image © The CW Network

Cult is surprising fare for the CW, despite the casting addition of Vampire Diaries alum Matt Davis to the lineup. But make no mistake. There are no superheroes, vampires or witches to be found here. Delving into the world of modern television instead, the show paints a picture of the double-edged nature of celebrity, fandom and social media with bold and unapologetic brushstrokes. (The show within a show is hosted on the CW Network, and created on a real Warner Bros. lot. With real and recognizable actors playing actors themselves, it’s pretty much a matter of time before the show-in-show actors have Twitter accounts of their own.)

Knepper is keenly aware of this intentional duality and sees Cult as an evolutionary step in CW programming. “This show is helping to elevate the image of CW and CW shows,” he observes. “As you said earlier, it’s not typical fare for CW. They’re changing things up. They’ve got Arrow now, and our show too. I think it’s a great love letter to television. Plus it’s also a bit of a cautionary tale about being careful of what’s out there on social media. But it delivers that message without hitting the audience over the head too much. We’re exposing the power of social media. I think this might be the first time that has been done. You always want to be part of something that is ‘first time.’ It’s got to be fresh and it’s got to be different.”

“There’s a giant, wonderful billboard on Sunset Boulevard for Cult. You’ll see more of it in the next couple of days. I’ve been in shows before that have had billboards on Sunset Boulevard but this is the first time I’ve ever been in a show where I’m actually featured in it. There’s the four of us – Matt, Jessica, Alona and myself. My son and I went there last week. I just wanted to be like a kid and get my picture taken next to it.”

Knepper promises to tweet some pictures of the billboard over the next couple of days. Watch @Robert_Knepper for updates.

“But you’re going to see some scary, fun dangerous pictures of me doing something with that billboard,” he teases. “I did something crazy. There’s nothing that makes you feel more like a kid when you get your own billboard on the Sunset Strip to play with!”

I ask Knepper to describe what’s it’s been like to play two characters on the same show. The pilot episode is Billy Grimm heavy, but his counterpart Roger is still largely unknown. Will we get to see more of him in future episodes, and if so, will he be as interesting as the enigmatic cult-leader Billy?

Cult Key Art. Image © the CW Network

Cult Key Art. Image © the CW Network

“You’re going to see a lot of Roger,” he confirms. “You’re going to see why Roger Reeves is the actor playing Billy Grimm. When you play characters like Billy and Samuel from Heroes there’s something really strong about these men. I kind of felt like I was channeling Robert Mitchum when I was playing Billy Grimm. I had a great teacher called Bill Esper who taught the Meissner technique. Bill said “If you’re going to play a part play a great part.
Easier said than done, I know. It’s such a crazy profession. But I love how he said it. It’s so simply put. Even if it’s just a small episodic part, I try to make every part a great part. But this is definitely two parts that are great.”

Is there an aspect of Billy and Roger being two sides to the same coin?

“Yes, I think so,” he says. “Although I think Roger gets to a point mid way through the season where he just wants to run as far away from his character as he can. It gets Shakespearean. He just wants to do a light fluffy comedy. He wants to do a CW show!” he laughs “He wants to just stand there and look pretty and run his hands through his hair once and a while, and say ‘Um’ … and ‘Like’ a lot.”

“That’s that other CW show,” I note.
“Yes it is! Um … like … um…” he laughs.

Given that Cult takes a hard and uncompromising look at Social Media, I have to ask Knepper about his own experience of the medium, and if he’s ever found  himself in a situation where he felt a little overexposed to fans who might, like Cult fans, be a little obsessive.

“I thought about that when I really became active with my Twitter account,” he says. “I thought, you know what, I’m not going to tweet that I’m going to the bathroom now. I’m not going to tweet what I’m eating. I try to tweet back fans because I think it’s important these days to keep a connection with them, but I do try to keep it pretty much to the shows I’m working on. Other people can describe what kind of toilet paper they’re using. I don’t want to do that. If you start to see anything about toilet paper on my Twitter please call me up and say “Knepper! Stop it!”

Knepper’s unique screen presence has given rise to some unforgettable characters over the years, from Prison Break’s T-Bag, to Heroes Samuel to Clocio’s Frank Sinatra, and with Cult’s Billy Grimm only looking likely to add to the actor’s repertoire of instantly identifiable characters I ask him what roles and projects he finds himself drawn to.

“I just want to play a three-dimensional character. They have to be not just one thing. I also remember a quote from Kirk Douglas who said “Never take money on the way up, only on the way down.” I think it’s important to keep your integrity. I want to work with really good people,” he answers simply.

Cult premiers tonight at 9/8c on the CW. You can also catch Robert Knepper on Twitter @Robert_Knepper.