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Robert Forster on Sci-fi, Lucky Breaks, and Better Call Saul

Photo: C Flanigan/Getty Images

Robert Forster knows a thing or two about reincarnation. The 73-year-old character actor has reinvented himself more than once, most notably with his Oscar-nominated 1997 role as bail bondsman Max Cherry in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. Now he’s occupying a new body, as the shadowy hit man Frank Shepherd on the life-after-death sci-fi mystery Intruders, which BBC America is showcasing tomorrow from 4 to 8 p.m. with a marathon of the show’s first four episodes, leading up to the new episode featuring Forster at 10 p.m. “When I was 9 or 10 years old, I was sure reincarnation was how life progressed,” Forster says. “Why waste a whole life on one person if you don’t get another one? I haven’t been at all sure about the subject matter since.” Forster is sure about a few other things, however, like the fact that his legendary Breaking Bad character, the Disappearer, will return in the AMC spinoff Better Call Saul, as he exclusively revealed to Vulture in this wide-ranging chat.

Do you understand what Intruders is about? And is Frank Shepherd a good guy or a bad guy?
Truthfully, I asked an awful lot of questions, and Rose Lam and Glen Morgan and several other producers spent good time with me before I uttered my first words, because as an actor, you’ve got to know what you’re saying and why you’re saying it. You’ve got to know what your backstory is. They gave me a lot of answers, some of which are not for publication. But the point is, I seem to have a fairly good knowledge of what the show is about and the function I serve on it. It’s a good gig.

You’ve done many sci-fi projects over the years, including playing Milo Ventimiglia’s dad on Heroes. Are you a fan of the genre?
Yes! One of the earliest in my career was The Black Hole. I was thrilled when I got to be in the space version of the Jules Verne story 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which is what that was. I did Alligator, and, oh, boy, there’s a list of them. I’ve done a lot of genre pictures in my career. They’ve been a staple of my career, and I’ve always liked them. This is what movies were really about when I was a kid. I was watching Flash Gordon with the terrible effects. I grew up on those.

Any chance you’ll be returning for the reboot Heroes Reborn?
I didn’t know they were doing a reboot of the show, so obviously, it hasn’t come to me. They are doing a reboot of Breaking Bad, and though I have not been told a date, I have been told that the character I played will be seen on Better Call Saul.

Exciting! What kind of reaction did you get from that episode?
Oh, you know, there are a few things that actually buoy your career, give you some lift you didn’t expect. Of course, Jackie Brown did. And that episode of Breaking Bad was probably seen by more people than have ever seen Jackie Brown, even this many years later. It gave me a huge lift. Suddenly people start pointing and saying, “Hey, how ya doin’?” What a thrill at this point in my career!

You played characters created by Elmore Leonard so well in Jackie Brown and on the too-short-lived ABC drama Karen Sisco. Is there a reason why his words sound so good coming out of your mouth?
I started with [the 1972–73 NBC series] Banyon, which was about a 1930s private detective with old cars, old clothes, old jokes, and fast women — the same kinds of things that Elmore Leonard usually deals with. If I have a genre that I really relate to, it is the detective. I’ve done them since the beginning of my career and enjoyed them. So I have a background in those hard-boiled words.

You also played a detective — briefly — in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., which started out as a TV pilot. If it had gone to series, would your character have come back?
It would have continued. After the first take, David said, “Do it slower.” So I did it slower. He came to me after that and said, “Do it slower.” This goes on two or three more times, and it doesn’t sound believable to me. So I go to him, and he says, “Do it slower.” Months later, I discovered I was in a dream. So David Lynch is one of those guys who, when he says, “Do it slower,” even if you don’t believe it, you do it slower.

You’ve done several films with Fred Williamson and Pam Grier, including the upcoming Old School Gangstas, which bills you as one of the “legends of Blaxploitation cinema.” How did that happen?
I worked with [director] William Lustig on a number of exploitation films during the depressed period of my career, starting with Vigilante and going on to Maniac Cop and Maniac Cop 2 or — I can’t remember how many we did.  Then Fred Williamson started putting me in his movies, and I did three or four of those.

Is that how Quentin Tarantino discovered you for Jackie Brown?
I’m sure he saw them, but he was also a fan of Banyon. I ran into him at a coffee shop in L.A. one time, and he said he was adapting Rum Punch and I should read it. Six months later, I walked into the same restaurant, which was my daily habit, and he was there, sitting in my seat. And before I even got to the table, he handed me the script and said, “Read this, and see if you like it.” I had auditioned for Reservoir Dogs and thought I was going to get it until he told me the role is going to the guy he dedicated the script to, Lawrence Tierney. Whereas I didn’t get into Reservoir Dogs, wow, what a part he threw at me with Jackie Brown. It was the best male part that year.

It must have been wild to find yourself at the Oscars after all those years of struggling.
Ah, yes. My expectations were realistic. The night before the Academy Awards, my friend Frank — another actor who I’d been in a couple of Lustig movies with, said, “Now, look it.” He was drunk, too, Frank. He said, “Just remember, when the guy opens up the envelope and says, ‘And the winner is: Rob … in Williams,’ don’t jump out of your seat too quick. I was bolted to my seat — no worries.

You should’ve gotten an Oscar nomination for The Descendants, too. How was working with George Clooney and Alexander Payne?
Both these guys are really champion guys. George Clooney is as you think he is. He’s as good a guy as he looks. Like Gregory Peck was as good as you thought he was. And Alexander Payne, what a guy. He was kind and generous and helpful to me. He gave me one of the great parts of my career.

You studied law in school. Did you always want to be an actor?
I was going to be a lawyer, and then on my first day of classes during my senior year [at the University of Rochester], a girl walked in front of my car as I was parking. She was wearing a black leather raincoat and high heels. I was struck by lightning. I followed the girl into the auditorium. I was trying to think of something to say. They were doing auditions for Bye, Bye, Birdie, and she was in the crew. I auditioned and they didn’t give me the part of the guy in the gold suit who does an impression of Elvis Presley. They gave me a part in the chorus. I thought, “To heck with that!” But then I figured, “That’s how I’ll meet the girl.” Later, I married the girl [June Forster, his wife from 1966–75, with whom he has three daughters]. It was a lucky stroke from the very beginning.

Your dad was an elephant trainer. Did he support your dream?
By the time I was ready to graduate, I went to my father, who spent the 1930s on the big show — Ringling Bros. — and said, “Dad, I don’t think I want to be a lawyer. I want to be an actor!” He did not miss a beat. He said, “I think you could do that, Bob.” So, merrily, I went to New York City, not knowing there are a zillion actors, and very few jobs. And I got lucky. There’s very little question you’ve gotta get lucky if you’re gonna have a career of any kind. Walter Matthau said, “All you need to succeed in show business is 50 really lucky breaks.” I’ve gotten many, many of those. My whole career has been, “Let me see if I can get good at this.”

I’d say you succeeded!
Well, listen, if you’re going to get a warm streak in a career, it’s nice to get it during the backend.

Robert Forster on Sci-fi and Better Call Saul