After more than two decades of steady, if not particularly career-defining, work, Robert Knepper has emerged as the unlikely breakout star of Fox's Prison Break, which returns tonight with the final five episodes of Season Three. His character, T-Bag, is a homicidal, pedophilic white supremacist, but the real Knepper is one of the most affable guys in Texas. Knepper talked to Vulture from Dallas, where he's waiting out the writers' strike, getting antsy to get back to work, and dealing with some remarkably insensitive fans.
Our writer Adam Sternbergh once singled out your character as the reason that Prison Break is better than 24.
Yeah, and he said I was a cross between Truman Capote and Hannibal Lecter. I loved it. I've used that quote a lot. It's on my Emmy screener.
So what's in store for T-Bag for the rest of the season?
Some of my friends have written me and said, "What's going on with you, man? You had such an explosive first and second season, what's going on?" I say, "Just wait, just wait. He's still there." T-Bag’s been doing the Iago thing for several episodes, lurking in the background, and I think you're going to see him hop to the front pretty soon. Sorry, I lost my train of thought. I just got this new car. I'm learning how to drive it as I'm trying to talking to you.
Please be careful.
It would be a really good article. You could say, wow, I was interviewing Robert Knepper at the moment that he crashed into a telephone pole.
I really don't want to do that article.
But you could be famous!
That's okay. Do people ever get freaked out when they see you out and about?
One time I was at a hotel in Dallas waiting for the elevator, and the doors opened and there was this idyllic, blonde, blue-eyed couple — they looked like they were from, like, Denver. "Rocky Mountain High" should have been playing behind them. She's kind of cooing in his ear, and she turns as the doors open and sees me and literally swallows a scream. And then she immediately turned beet red because she realized that I was the actor, not the character, obviously. That's a great feeling — to affect people that deeply. At least they feel something. I just don't like it when my little boy is bleeding and somebody comes up to me and says, "Do you mind if I get a picture?"
Did that actually happen?
It actually happened. Here in Dallas. We were by the pool, and he stumbled and fell right on his face. This lady came up to me right then, and I could have said, "Fuck off! Look at my kid!" but I was torn. Obviously my allegiance was with my boy. But I just said, "Just give me a minute." When you're an actor going from job to job, you start to think, maybe someday I'll get a huge break and maybe not be a star but I'll get to the point where I don't have to struggle so much. And all of a sudden it happened for me — not in my 20s, but in my 40s — and I'm like, "Damn, man. This is so great." So I'm not going to turn to that person who's witnessing my kid's nose bleeding and say, "Fuck off."
Does it get weird sometimes — playing a total psycho and then going home and being a loving dad?
Well, I have that reentry period of driving home. You get home and it's, "Papa, let's play!" It’s the great equalizer. He is my life. I draw on that passion, that love, in a way, to play one of the most demented characters ever. I know it sounds like a dichotomy, but you'll see: When you have a child, your work will get even better. You're so focused. You really start to feel like, I would do anything, anything to protect my family. Including kill.
When is he going to be old enough to watch the show?
Oh, I don't know. 35? No, maybe 12. I'm sure he's going to be exposed to a lot worse by the time he's 10. He's going to look at it and say, "Oh please, Papa was playing a racist pedophile. That's nothing!"
The writers' strike interrupted the show mid-season. How's that been?
Honestly, when the strike first happened, I thought, "Oh, thank God." I did want a little break. But T-Bag is such a volatile, complex character, and the volatility has to be released so often, on a daily basis. Now, to not have that, it’s been a little bit of an implosion. I think my wife likes me a little more when I'm working.