Cult’s Robert Knepper on Billy Grimm’s Moral Compass
When last we saw Roger Reeves — the actor who plays Billy Grimm onCult, the TV show within The CW’s new show — he was headed for trouble. His head was turned by a pretty girl claiming to be his biggest fan, but what Roger doesn’t know is that Cult fans are a dangerous bunch.
When Wetpaint Entertainment visited the set of Cult in Vancouver last fall, we asked Robert Knepper what it’s been like playing the dual roles of Roger and Billy Grimm. You’d think tapping into the charisma necessary to lead a cult would take research, but Robert sees things differently.
Wetpaint Entertainment: Are we going to be seeing more of the actor who plays Billy Grimm? Robert Knepper: Oh God, yeah.
What can you tell us about that? Nothing. It's funny, last year I started thinking, I should put some ideas for pilots together. And I thought, “Wouldn't it be kind of fun to like play a character who's an actor who plays a monster?” And boom. Here I am. So you can imagine all the different things an actor playing that kind of part would go through and say, “Oh my God. I'm playing a character that is affecting so many people in so many different kinds of ways,” the way TV fans are affected by characters. The way that I would walk down the street, people would be affected by T-Bag, or I played Samuel in Heroes or anybody playing any character would go, “Wow. Are you that guy, or are you that dad?” Whatever it is I'm playing.
How are you with playing a character that even you may not fully understand yet? It is evolving. Are you okay with that? I remember I worked with a director years ago. He was shooting a pilot, and when you shoot a pilot you know where everything is, who the actors are, what the scene's about. All of a sudden, the night before they shot this new scene, they changed everything, and they had to get on their feet and figure it out the day of. And he said it was his favorite day of shooting because he had no preparation for it whatsoever. The actors tried to figure it out right in the moment as well, and it was great because they were literally flying by the seat of their pants. And I learned a long time ago, don't ask too many questions. Really just stay in the moment. If I'm going to fall, they're going to be there to catch me like a good dad. Otherwise, they let me play, and that's been the case with this one as well, just to have a great time and really carpe diem. It's the best way to live it.
Are there ever any moments where we'll actually see humanity in Billy Grimm? Oh, yeah. Well, not many. I think you have to find humanity because you have to understand, as a person watching the show why so many people follow him. Otherwise, they just are idiots. They're just lemmings falling off the edge of the cliff. Absolutely, I mean people like that have to be so charismatic that normal people would just go, “Wow. I really could use that right now in my life. I could follow that guy.” But, he also serves a purpose of being the center of the conflict for Matt. So they always used to say, “Every good guy has to have a good villain. Every villain has to have a good, good guy.” So if you don't have that conflict going. You don't have a show.
What's it like for you to live Billy Grimm's life maybe not knowing why he needs to be surrounded by all these people, and how do you play that? What’s your take on it? You mentioned about, I think, something about monsters. I think the trick to playing these guys is to try to play the opposite, and it's not so much what Billy knows and thinks he can take from people, it's what he thinks he can give to people. He has a huge heart, and he can help out a lot of people. And that's kind of how I approach it.
Would you say that Billy has a moral compass? Yeah. It's a little askew, according to what most people think of as moral, but, yeah, in his mind, sure.
What kind of interaction does Roger have with Jeff? I don't know if we're really getting there yet with them. I think that's still to come. Every time I read the new episode, I think, okay. This is where it's going to be. No. There's so much to tell in this, so many different stories, and the two worlds, the inside show and the outside show, I think there's plenty of time for that.
Are there real life leaders you modeled him after and what kind of traits do they have in common? Now you're using that word research which I don't do so much of. I never went to prison when I played T-Bag. I never visited prison. I was afraid if I did, I would be like, “I can't play this guy.” I know there are those people out there. I got Robert Mitchum stuck in my head right now for Billy Grimm, Cape Fearish, but also just that sort of like, strong charismatic guy that you just look at and go, “Don't want to mess with that guy.” Rather kind of follow him because he could just squash you like a bug.
Have you gotten to see Roger's relationship to or feelings about the fandom? In a way, yes. Look, there's two ways, in my experience, to deal with fame. You can let it go to your head, or you can say it's not real. And what they're exploring, and I think they're going to continue exploring with Roger, is that he's very much like I felt during Prison Break. He's very much in the limelight, and as an actor, that's really interesting to go, “Okay. How do I walk down the street?” I can't go anywhere in Vancouver, by the way. Me, as an actor, without people knowing me, and it's really weird to suddenly go, “Oh my God. I used to be an actor that nobody knew, and now I'm an actor that everybody knows.” And to adjust to that is kind of odd, and sometimes you can let it go to your head, and sometimes you can't. Sometimes Roger does, and sometimes Roger doesn't. And when he does let it go to his head, I don't like that kind of actor, but it's not my job to say, “I'm not going to play that.” That's part of exposing all of this whole thing of what this business is in a certain way.
Are we going to find out what kind of roles that Roger has had in the past? Yeah. And see, that's what I'm talking about. Little snippets of things are going to come out that you're go, wow.
They’re all romantic comedies. He did a great episode of Parks and Recreations, but he can't talk about it.
Are we going to learn more about the relationship with Roger and Marti and how it's different or similar with the relationship between Kelly and Billy? Yeah. Again, snippets. I think because it's such a huge story to tell, that's a nice little detail that I think we’ll come into more of down the road. There are hints of it in a couple of different episodes that we've had. I mean the relationship between Kelly and Billy is so great. It's so complex because of what — that you even saw in the pilot — what they were 10, 15 years ago, and what they are now, now that she's a cop. Yeah. Simple answer is yes.
Since you're working on a show that's so creepy and twisted, have you experienced any feelings of paranoia or like that everything is a conspiracy around you? No. I wouldn't say I felt that. I can't help my dreams are a little affected by playing characters like this. I mean, I really long for the day when I can just do a comedy and not think about that. I also think it’s kudos to an actor to be able to go from like dramatic stuff to comedic and back and forth. I'm looking to maybe do a play in LA during hiatus, get back on the boards. I started in the theater. Twenty-five years ago, if you told me I was going to do Cult or any other really good television, I would have said, “I'm not a prostitute. I'm not going to sell myself out. I'm not going to do this.” I was kind of like Roger Reeves in a way who had really pure beginnings which comes up in an episode. But, yeah, it is strange to play a — the nasty word is called leader — to play somebody that basically plays mind f**ks with people and sucks them into his way of thinking. It's weird. I can't help but let it affect me, but then again, I sort of let it go and say, “Well, it’s just a character I'm playing.” It's part of a great story. It’s part of a great tapestry.