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Exclusive Interview: Robert Knepper on ‘Mob City’

TV’s resident villain tells us why his role on “Mob City” is the best character he’s ever played.

Robert Knepper Mob City

Robert Knepper and I go way back. I started interviewing him for “Prison Break” season two, and then each subsequent season he remembered me.
 
I actually interviewed Knepper for “Cult,” but the CW buried that show so quickly that we didn’t even have time to run it! Knepper has landed on solid ground though. “Mob City” is Frank Darabont’s latest show with the full weight of TNT behind it. Knepper plays another intimidating villain, Sid Rothman, an enforcer for mobsters like Ben “Bugsy” Siegel and Mickey Cohen.”
 
We love seeing Knepper play bad guys, but we learned just how much he loves Sid Rothman. 
 
 
CraveOnline: I know voice is really important to you. How did you develop the voice for Sid Rothman?
 
Robert Knepper: It’s one ingredient. I originally sort of heard Sterling Hayden and then I hopefully got away from that a bit and made it my own voice.
 
Why Sterling Hayden?
 
Sid Rothman to me is a guy who stands behind Mickey Cohen and Ben Siegel and Meyer Lansky. He’s always been the go to guy and he’s hopefully like wallpaper. He doesn’t stand out too much, but when needed, he steps forward and takes care of dirty business. I wanted to sort of have a voice almost like there was a piece of paper on my face. Sterling Hayden basically had that voice. There’s nothing too flashy about it. It didn’t go up and it didn’t go down.
 
Plus, Sid is a conglomeration of all these different characters. As a writer, Frank has an imagination to write for Mickey and Ben, but for Sid, a character that doesn’t really exist, he can do anything. This part for me, hands down is the best part I’ve ever played, even better than T-Bag because there’s nothing like the first time you read a script of an episode. This one I read, I just kept writing in my little bars on the side, “Thank you, Frank. Thank you, Frank.” You’ll see. I have amazing dialogue in this.
 
So Sid Rothman wasn’t real? 
 
No, and I stupidly Googled him at first going, “Where is he? Where is he? Who’s Sid Rothman? Who’s Sid Rothman?”
 
I did too, but I actually found stuff. That must be materials TNT produced.
 
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Frank and I created Sid out of nothing and people actually hopefully think he was a real character, but no, he’s not. 
 
Wouldn’t Mickey and Bugsy have had a man behind them in real life?
 
I was their man. I’m that guy. I’m sure they did but again, Sid is a conglomeration of all these different guys because they must have each had their own. The only thing I used to start this character off for this season was I wanted to accentuate the positive stuff that no one knows about. I think he’s a novice violin player because he plays the violin in the pilot as a kid, in his 20s. He’s the one that’s kind of stuck with him over the years. It’s what he does to relax. 
 
Let me tell you, when I proposed this idea to Frank about the violin, it was a nightmare. Half my summer was spent learning the violin. In the pilot, the three kids are playing the violin. It’s the same way that I played some of the other guys that are bad guys. I want to make sure it’s always balanced with something that’s really positive, that’s really good, like he’s a real person. Frank and I were taking a piss in a bathroom right next to the stage the first week of shooting and I said, “Frank, you know that scene in the beginning of the pilot where they’re playing the violins? What if in the second season, after I’ve done some really dastardly thing, you see me as an adult sitting there reminiscing, wanting the old days, playing for my friends.”
 
He said, “That’s a great idea. That’s a really great idea. Have you read episode three of this season? You do play the violin.” I said, “I play the violin in this season? That gives me about a month to learn to look like I’ve played the violin like I’ve been playing for 40-some years.” He said, “Yeah. Get going.” 
 
So they got me a great guy, Charlie, who taught me how to play the violin, play this one song and he said, “Just remember one thing. You’re not learning to play the violin. You’re learning to play the violin to make it look like you play the violin. They’re two different things.” Once I got that into my head, I was like, “I can do this.” Also the other thing, because I knew that he was a strong man, sort of a Sterling Hayden thing, a sort of quiet and strong voice is that I thought of him as being a builder. I started building furniture.
 
I don’t know if I’ll get that incorporated in the second season or not, but I love the fact that the very man who builds things, who creates beautiful things is the one who also tears down life, ruins people’s lives. Anybody who ruins my life and my family’s life, I’m going to take down. That’s how I look at it, but otherwise he’s a gentle soul.
 
When you talk about being a blank piece of paper, is that different for you since most of your character tend to be very flamboyant?
 
Exactly, that’s the reason why I loved it because I thought I can talk like this [monotone] da da da da da, very still. Again, it’s Sterling Hayden as sort of the jumping off point for it. 
 
With the dialogue, does Frank’s script read in a certain cadence of the ‘40s?
 
This is, for me, and some of the other actors too, this was always a very interesting dilemma. We all asked Frank what were his favorite film noir films. I watched a lot of them and honestly, I’m always gravitating towards Bogie. I just love Bogie anyway. A lot of them I just felt like we don’t talk like that anymore. There is a cadence for these films. There is a certain delivery and there’s a certain falseness to it. That was the style. That style was acceptable back then. It wasn’t until Dean and Brando came along in the ‘50s and went, “Oh wow, we’re going to go for real sounding things.”
 
So how do you honor the ‘40s with trying to get your point across at the same time? Especially because I went way out on a limb with the Sterling Hayden thing. Personally I think it’s sh**. I look at it and I go, “It’s too much.” And Frank’s like, “No, no, no, it’s good.” I love listening to Eddie, Ed Burns. He can do the same thing, he’s got the thing, he’s out in the desert, he’s like doin’ his thing, he talks like Ed Boins. He’s totally believable. How do you stay believable and still honor the ‘40s? That’s the tricky part. I don’t know if I got it in the first season. Maybe I’ll get it in the second season.
 
Do you think “Cult” had the potential to be the best character you’d ever play?
 
Yes, and nobody watched it. I can’t be sure about this, but why didn’t the CW promote that show? Why did they put it where it was? Did they get cold feet? Did they test it and it didn’t do well? I found as the series went on, we had endless possibilities to go in many different directions and I feel like we didn’t and we could have. I think it’s a brilliant subject matter and we didn’t quite tap it yet.
 
I tried. 
 
It’s one of those shows where instant gratification is not part of the program. You had really stick with it. I think the beautiful thing about this show is that one, you know the genre. Two, it’s very different than any other shows but it gives you enough information that you know the world you’re in. Then you just sit back and take the ride and let it wash all over you.