Murder, kidnapping and rape are among the most heinous crimes committed by racist and pedophile Theodore “T-Bag” Bagwell. Once described by TV Guide magazine as “one of the creepiest characters on television,” T-Bag became a very familiar face to Prison Break fans around the world thanks to the talented Robert Knepper. For four seasons, he kept viewers guessing as to what his character would get up to next, and when the show ended last year, the actor began looking for a new creative outlet. He was soon cast as Samuel Sullivan in season four of Heroes. The leader of Sullivan Bros. Carnival, Samuel has the ability to control earth and other minerals with his mind. Playing someone with super powers could not have been more different from T-Bag, but Knepper was determined to make this character just as memorable for audiences.
“When I first met with Dennis Hammer [executive producer] we talked about Samuel not being a stereotypical character,” says Knepper. “I learned a long time ago from a great acting teacher of mine in New York to always play the opposite. Don’t play a bad guy like a bad guy, don’t play a doctor like a doctor, don’t play a cop like a cop, etc. The stereotypical carnival barker is someone who is kind of oily and sleazy and is like, ‘Step right up, step right up, see him walk, see him talk.’ That type of thing, you know?
“At this point I didn’t even have any ideas yet visually about Samuel, but Dennis and I talked about him being charismatic, magnetic and magnanimous, like a rock star. Samuel has to entice these people with powers to get them to come over to his side because he realizes that he’s more powerful with them around him. His abilities increase exponentially as a result of that. I suppose he could have just coerced them in obvious ways – hey, you’re going to join me or I’ll kill you – but then you would have had half a season of Heroes and not a full one,” jokes the actor. “But I think Samuel is smart enough to realize that it’s better to entice these people and get them to say, ‘Hey, thank you, Samuel, for helping me realize something in my redemptive path that I really need to look at. Now, how can I pay you back?’
“So Dennis and I talked about all this in our initial meeting and I realized that this was a really interesting character. From there, I began thinking about what Samuel would look like, and Keith Richards kept coming to mind. Why do rock-’n'-roll musicians sometimes wear facial make-up onstage? When you’re, say, an accountant, you don’t do that when you go to work. I come from the theater where you want the audience to see your eyes in the back row, but some of these guys go over the top. KISS wore all this make-up and created a certain look for themselves, so I thought, ‘Well, it may or may not be explained why Samuel does this,’ like the nail polish thing that I came up with, but these guys [the Heroes producers] were great. They let me experiment and would pull me back if they felt I was going a bit overboard with the make-up, but it was always a collaborative effort from the get-go.
“I think they knew and know that I’m a team player and a true storyteller. I love being part of telling a story, and when you’re in the theater or on television, at least the kind of television that I like to work on, that’s a true collaboration. And I have to say that the people on Heroes took a lot of my ideas and ran with them. When we were shooting the last [season four] episode, Tim Kring [series creator/executive producer] came up to me and said, ‘I just want to thank you because we have such a great time writing for you.’ And I said to him, ‘I had a great time saying your words, buddy.’ When you have that kind of collaboration, the writers love writing for you. Also, on Heroes, they know I don’t look ahead. I’m right there in the moment with the scripts. What’s right there on the page is what I’m concerned with and nothing more. So it really was such a terrific start with these guys, and by the time we got to the end of filming, there were a lot of good feelings bubbling around.”
Making his debut in Heroes‘ fourth season opener, Orientation, Samuel Sullivan is seen giving a speech at his brother’s funeral. He tells his fellow carnival workers – who also have special powers – that they are his true family and that the outside world does not understand them. Using his power to cover his brother’s grave with dirt, Samuel later goes to see Lydia (Dawn Olivieri), an empath who can sense the wishes and desires of others. In this and in later episodes, he uses her abilities to show him others with powers who can help him expand his family. Although Knepper had made some decisions on how to play Samuel, there were still one or two aspects of the character he needed to tweak.
“My challenge with this character, as with any character, was to make him believable so as not to look so damn silly as you’re standing there causing an earthquake with your clenched fists,” he says. “Samuel’s accent was a huge challenge for me. I always work with Tim Monich [dialect coach] and try to make the time to prepare and get it [the accent] down. I remember when I did [the feature film] Hitman in Bulgaria during one of the hiatuses from Prison Break. I worked for a bit over here with Tim and then I studied with a guy in Bulgaria for a couple of weeks before we began filming. I thought, ‘People know me all over the world as T-Bag from Prison Break, and now I want to be Russian. I want to be as freakin’ Russian as I can.’ When I did press for that movie, I met a French journalist in New York, and his first comment was, ‘Where did they get that Russian guy who looks a lot like T-Bag.’ I thought, ‘Yes!’
“With Hitman I had time to study the accent, but with Samuel it was frustrating because I had to jump in right away. Early on I had this crazy idea of making him Irish, or not necessarily Irish but coming from someplace in the British Isles, maybe a little Scottish, maybe a little of Northern England. There’s kind of an Old World feeling to Samuel because he’s not your average guy walking down the street. This is someone with powers who is suddenly discovering them over the years. If, when he was a child, Samuel had known about his abilities, he probably would have destroyed half the world, but if his brother had told him about it, then maybe he wouldn’t have been so destructive. Who knows?
“Anyway, the fact that my character had these powers made him seem timeless, and there’s something timeless about British accents, but I didn’t have any time to call Tim [Kring] about it. I actually phoned him after we began filming and apologized to him, saying, ‘I’m just kind of winging it [the accent].’ I’ve done quite a few English dialects over the years in the theater, but never Irish.
“I remember going down to Comic-Con and telling the people there, ‘You’re going to watch me discover Samuel as we go along. This is not a fully fleshed-out character, especially dialect-wise.’ And the thing is, a lot of these fans are the same fans who watched Prison Break, so I just hoped that they’d forgive me for that because I was experimenting. But at least I had the guts to experiment in front of them, almost like it was theater. I’d say that by about a third of the way through the season, I found my footing. So Samuel’s look didn’t change, but his dialect did.’
What did the actor think about his character’s powers and filming scenes where Samuel uses them? “I like how the writers wrote about the power of moving earth,” notes Knepper. “That’s how it was described to me. What’s Samuel’s power? He can move earth. Then, of course, it went from this nice sweet simple act of Samuel moving his arms and covering up his brother’s coffin, to covering up seeds he planted in the ground [Hysterical Blindness], and then, [in Strange Attractors] him saying, ‘I can’t believe you’ve hurt one of my own. I’m going to bring down the police station.’ And before that [in Ink] when Samuel destroys the house where he and Joseph grew up and later became its caretakers, all because the owner wouldn’t let him into the backyard.
“So you don’t want to upset this guy because he will do something destructive, and as the season goes on, Samuel becomes angrier and angrier as more and more things are revealed to him. When it comes to shooting the scenes where he uses his powers, you’ve just got to pretend. You have to stand there and think, ‘I’m believing all this is real.’ It’s described to you [in the script] how to look, but even then you don’t know for sure. It’s more about a feeling you have as opposed to what you’re really seeing.”
Among the heroes (and villains) that Samuel tries to lure into his carnival family are Claire Bennet (Hayden Panetterie), Hiro Nakamura (Masi Oka) and the psychotic Sylar (Zachary Quinto), who, while suffering from amnesia, stumbles upon Samuel’s carnival in Hysterical Blindness. “The thing with Sylar is that Zach and I first met when I was doing Prison Break,” says Knepper. “We were in this issue of Entertainment Weekly as some of TV’s best villains, along with people like Vanessa Williams from Ugly Betty and James Callis from Battlestar Galactica. We were all brought together for this photo shoot, and because I don’t watch TV I didn’t know who any of these other actors were, but it was just nice to be included in this group.
“I did, however, know that Zach was in Heroes, and then later when I came on the show, I thought, ‘This is kind of fun. Here are these two heavyweights [Sylar and T-Bag] going up against each other.’ So it was a little surreal. Our characters were famous from our [respective] TV shows, but now we were together. It was like a big-time wrestling match; in this corner is Sylar, and in the other corner, Samuel,” chuckles the actor. “Zach is a cool guy, and even though people go nuts for him because of the Star Trek film [in which Quinto plays Mr. Spock] as well as Heroes, he’s totally unpretentious about the whole thing.
“As far as the storyline with Sylar and Samuel, I’m not sure the writers knew exactly where they wanted to take that. Sometimes he would get Sylar in his clutches, and then Sylar would disappear and then come back. I think that’s still got to be fleshed out as far as what happens with it. Ultimately, though, I feel that Sylar will become as much a hero as he can be and be part of taking down Samuel. However, I’m not sure yet if they [the writers] know whether they want to do that or not. It would be kind of nice to leave it hanging as far as, oh, you thought you saw that bad boy [Sylar]. Well, take a look at this bad boy [Samuel], and you’ve got them both on the same show. At the same time, I don’t know if Sylar and Samuel could ever come together because they might be a bit too narcissistic.”
In the fourth season Heroes episode Thanksgiving, viewers are given further glimpses into Samuel’s and his brother Joseph’s (Andrew Connolly) past. Since childhood, Joseph, who was also an evolved human with the power to cause others to lose control of their abilities and render them unconscious, had kept his younger brother from ever fully realizing his abilities in order to prevent him from wreaking havoc. When Samuel discovered that Joseph lied to him, it led to the fight where he accidentally murdered him.
“It’s funny, after I was cast as Samuel, I found out that it had been between me and another actor, and the next thing I heard was that this other actor [Andrew Connolly] would be playing Joseph,” recalls Knepper. “I thought, ‘Oh, this is going to be awkward,’ but Andrew turned out to be really cool. He’s the real McCoy, meaning he’s Irish, and just the sweetest man. On our first day working together, Andrew came up to me and said, ‘They gave me a few episodes to watch and your Irish is terrific. You’re an amazing actor and I’m just really honored to work with you.’
“So Andrew was incredible, and I learned so much from him about Samuel. We had that great scene together where our two characters go out in the field and they fight. Samuel is so upset and he throws a rock and hits Joseph in the neck. But he didn’t throw that rock to kill him. Samuel threw it because he was so angry, and then it was like, ‘Oh, crap, I killed him.’ That scene was so well done in how it was filmed and written to say, no, no, no, it was not the intention to kill him. Damn you, Joseph, I hate you so much that I feel like killing you, but I don’t really want to kill you. I just want to let you know how mad I am.
“Joseph was everything to Samuel. He was his world, he was his mentor, he was his father, and he was his leader. At the same time, Samuel couldn’t believe that his brother kept this information from him. How dare Joseph hold this back from him and not let Samuel reach his full potential. How could he not have found a way to tell his brother? All this stuff is fantastic in Shakespearean-like or Greek tragedy-like proportions, and really neat to play. And Andrew was terrific to work with from start to finish.”
In last week’s Heroes episode, The Act of Deception, Claire returns to the carnival to try to talk Samuel into surrendering to her father, Noah (Jack Coleman), who is coming for him. Samuel agrees, but unknown to Claire or Noah, he betrays them and uses Noah’s attempt to capture him as a ploy to further convince the other carnies that they must help him create a new world where all evolved humans will be accepted. Filming this episode as well as the final few season four Heroes stories was especially satisfying for Knepper.
“The best thing about working on an ensemble show is that most shows shoot around eight days [per episode], but Heroes shoots 10 or 11 days as well as shoots simultaneously with other episodes,” explains the actor. “When I was on Prison Break I’d work three or four days out of eight, so I got a lot of time to spend with my family. These last three or four episodes of Heroes were over two months worth of work. I swear I worked every day, sometimes all night long, but as a result, I got to feel what it’s like to be number one on the call sheet, and it didn’t feel like an ensemble. It was like I had this weight on my shoulders, and I proudly took it. I thought, ‘I’m going to take this season to the finish line,’ and I loved it.
“Probably my biggest challenge was finding the energy as well as time to memorize my lines and just stay afloat. But I was like a boxer in the ring and thinking, ‘Come on, come on, bring it on. What else have you got for me?’ In these last few episodes everything comes to a climax in regard to Samuel’s powers along with his anger, frustration and revenge. It boils over the top and is very intense.”
Born in Fremont, Ohio, Knepper was nine years old when he joined a community children’s theatre group, the Back Alley Kids and performed in plays during the summertime. At home, the actor’s parents both played piano, and rather than television, their nightly entertainment was standing around the piano and singing. Knepper’s father is a veterinarian, and the actor always thought that he would one day take over his dad’s practice.
“But I never stopped having fun [performing onstage],” says Knepper. “Luckily, my parents didn’t discourage me from having fun, and they didn’t encourage me, either. When I was in high school I was auditioning and doing college plays, so it just seemed like a natural conclusion that I would go into the theater.
“When I was studying at Northwestern University I did an English play called The Ruling Class, which my mom and dad came to see. This particular night just happened to be amazing; it was the first time I ever got a standing ovation. And my dad was so sweet. Before he and my mom came backstage, he sent me a note that read, ‘I think you’re doing the right thing.’ So they were always supportive of my decision.”
While attending Northwestern, Knepper worked professionally onstage, and after two years he moved to New York City where he continued performing in the theater. The actor was around 25 years old when he relocated again, this time to Los Angeles, to pursue feature film and eventually TV work. That’s Life!, Wild Thing, Species III and The Day the Earth Stood Still are among his movie credits, while on the small screen Knepper has guest-starred on such shows as Star Trek: The Next Generation, ER, Law and Order: Criminal Intent and CSI: Miami as well as played recurring characters on Presidio Med and Carnivale.
“Prison Break is what put me on the map, though, and I haven’t looked back since,” says the actor. “T-Bag had so much in his past as well as so much he was fighting against and wanted. Of course, there was the need to cover all that up because he was a wanted criminal. He had escaped from prison, so he needed to be charming. Some of the funniest damn lines I’ve ever said acting-wise came with that role, too. T-Bag was kind of like the show’s Don Rickles,” he jokes, ” and that was a hell of a lot of fun. It’s the same sort of thing with Samuel. Again, you peel the layers of the onion away, but you don’t wear it on your sleeve. You don’t walk around saying, ‘Look at me, I’m a wounded guy. Oh, forgive me.’ Samuel would kick T-Bag’s butt, except for the fact that he’s just as wounded.”
As noted above, photos by Adam Taylor, Trae Patton, Justin Lubin, Chris Huston or Greg Gayne and copyright of NBC or Fox, so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any kind. Thanks!