Good to be bad
That’s Monsieur T-Bag to you.
Robert Knepper is trying to get a lot done in a little time, calling during lunch on the set of his TV show “Prison Break,” on which he plays the complicated, omnivorous villain/hero-by-default Theodore “T-Bag” Bagwell.
“We’re doing an impossible schedule today, trying to get everything done in the usual 12 hours,” he says with enthusiasm as he eats. “We’ve got a lot of stuff going on because everybody’s excited for me to get on this 7:25 flight to Vegas for the premiere tonight. So everyone’s booking and booking and booking.”
What’s happening in Vegas is the arrival with screeching tires of “Transporter 3,” the latest in the Jason Statham action series, in which Knepper plays -- what else -- the bad guy.
“You know, it’s funny. For years, I’d say, I don’t want to play the bad guy,” the 49-year-old actor says about scuffling for work before finally finding the sweet spot as Southern sociopath T-Bag. “When you’re riding the wave that we’ve been riding on ‘Prison Break,’ internationally especially, you don’t want to let that slow down, you want to keep going. If I play more bad guys, fine. Eventually, someone is going to say, ‘You know what? This guy’s really funny.’ This is like the beginning of a career for me. It’s a beautiful, sweet feeling.”
But how sweet is it really, getting one’s hand chopped off on television, then taking the obligatory beating from Statham in the movie?
“I loved working with Jason,” says Knepper after a long laugh. “And he will always be able to beat me, because his body is like the old-fashioned brick schoolhouse: Nothing’s gonna bring that down. On top of that, he’s a sweetie-pie, so you never worry you’re gonna get hurt when you work with him because he’s so gracious about his acting and so gracious about his fighting.”
As “Transporter 3’s” Johnson (“the bad guy in the suit,” as the actor describes him), Knepper is a dirty-work government operative who happens to be a neat freak who doesn’t use contractions and would prefer to avoid violence.
“He believes that, ‘If you do it like I want you to do it, nobody’s gonna get hurt.’ And he gets really offended when people don’t do it his way,” Knepper says, then adds with a laugh: “He’s like a producer.” When it’s pointed out that Johnson doesn’t tend toward tirades when he doesn’t get what he wants, Knepper admits: “He basically shoots people.”
But unlike T-Bag, whom Knepper describes as “an animal, and animals just pee wherever they want,” Johnson “has to be more diplomatic. He is a diplomat.
“I remember during the Iraqi war, there were various American diplomats who went over there to try to paint a picture of, ‘Everything is great and the transition is going just fine,’ and they stand in front of the camera and they have their hair all perfect. They were handsome dudes, and you’d kind of go, ‘Yeah, I can trust that everything’s OK over here.’ And that’s sort of the kind of guy that I modeled him after.”
As Knepper wraps up one break (lunch) for another (“Prison”), he waxes enthusiastic about the freewheeling, risk-taking style of the French filmmakers he worked with on “Transporter 3" and 2007’s “Hitman” (“They’re like these big kids over there who wear these size 30-something pants”) and the joys of working in Paris.
“They don’t just call me T-Bag over there; they call me Monsieur T-Bag. There’s respect for the scumbag. You feel like a rock star over there, it’s unbelievable. I’m three months in Paris playing the lead bad guy in this film opposite Jason: Just pinch me, man!” he says.
“You’ve just got to get to the point of, especially for me because it’s all kind of new, ‘Come on, man, this isn’t going to last forever. Just enjoy it and smile and don’t take it too seriously.’ ”
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Where you’ve seen him
Robert Knepper is best known as fiendish felon and repeat amputee (one might call him underhanded) T-Bag on TV’s “Prison Break.” But before that he appeared on HBO’s “Carnivale” as radio reporter Tommy Dolan, as well as taking guest shots on “Murder, She Wrote” and “L.A. Law.” In 2007, he played yet another bad guy for yet another French filmmaker (Xavier Gens) in the film adaptation of the video game Hitman. He was also in the films “Good Night, and Good Luck” (2005, as a McCarthy aide), “Hostage” with Bruce Willis (2005) and Woody Allen’s “Everyone Says I Love You” (1996), among about 80 film and TV credits.