“Prison Break” star Robert Knepper talks high-speed chases in new movie “Transporter 3”
Best known for his role as Theodore “T Bag” Bagwell in TV series “Prison Break”, Robert Knepper is hitting the big screen hard in action thriller “Transporter 3”.
The third instalment in the franchise sees sees Jason Statham returns as former Special Forces mercenary Frank Martin, who has relocated to Paris to continue his business of delivering packages without questions. Only this time someone else is making up the rules as Frank faces a race against time to safely deliver his latest consignment. Can Frank beat the clock to save his life, outwit Robert Knepper (Prison Break, Hitman) an ex-Delta Force criminal mastermind, and prevent a global catastrophe?
Here, Robert Knepper tells us what brought him to the franchise, playing the bad guy and working with the Megaton:
What appealed to you about Transporter 3?
I like the feeling of playing opposites, Mr. Johnson is a character that… He’s hired to do the dirty work for government. If he didn’t do the dirty work, he’d also be the guy in front of the camera who stood up and made a statement about toxic waste or government policy. He’s very educated and sophisticated. He’s also a very dangerous man and that’s why he’s hired to do this kind of dirty work. What I like about him is that he wears a suit and he wears a suit very well, and he loves nice suits, nice ties. Everything about him, when he’s preparing for the day, is neat and orderly. And the opposite is that he does such dirty work, having to muscle people, kill them, in order to get what his country needs. I think he’s strangely patriotic and he really believes in his mind that he’s doing something for the good of his country and the world. In the film, you see him being pretty cold and violent, but when he’s not working, he’s probably in a place like this, doing Tai Chi or Yoga or something, keeping his body loose and his mind open. Then, when he has to step in and do the work, he does the work and it’s not always very pleasant. He’s respected and feared, and he can hide behind his suit and his tie. You’ll see in the film there are certain things I do that are trying to release negative energy. Of course, there’s his own crazy world that he’s living, where he thinks, “If I just keep things zen-like and relaxed, and everything goes according to plan, everything will be all right. He says at the end of the film, “I hate violence. I’d much prefer to do it in another way.” Of course, he means, “You have to do it my way.” He would come to a place like this, I think. Or he would live in a place like this. So that playing of opposites is interesting to play.
I can’t remember the guy’s name, but he was a diplomat. The word “diplomat” kept coming into my mind. He was a guy that the American government hired to go into Iraq, who got off the plane and he looked like a businessman, just like Johnson in the movie. He comes off in a nice suit, nice clothes, looks like he’s running for President, and you know that he’s probably a Harvard or Yale-trained man – in my case, he’s probably also military-trained as well. But what I liked about these pictures of him was the he really did look like just any successful businessman. Last year, when we were making Hitman, I remember saying I was going to model my character off Putin. The same thing happened to me on the plane over here: I kept seeing that guy’s face. He could be any diplomat in any country that America decides to meddle with. I just kept seeing him coming down the steps of the airplane as if he was coming to a political rally, to meet the people and say hello.
I also have a picture in my mind of Hemingway, that I’d seen in the paper the day I flew in. He had this great piece of white hair on either side of his head, and I kept thinking, “I don’t remember that about Hemingway. I just remember this dark hair and kind of a little curl to it.” You know, I work on the physical and the emotional stuff as well, of the character. From the outside and the inside. I had imagined that he grew up in a typical boring suburb in America – nothing too special about his childhood, kept to himself, kept quiet and knew that there was something inside of him that was not going to last very long in this little, small town. When they called me and said, We need to take a passport picture of Johnson, I said, “Could we also put on there where he’s from?” He’s like everybody else. He’s a person and he has an identity – he’s probably been able to change that identity – but he knows exactly where he came from. I said, “Why don’t you make him from Wisconsin, some place kind of Middle America.” Years ago, I remember seeing the movie, The Doors, and Val Kilmer was doing this scene where Jim Morrison has made up this whole story about where he’d come from. In reality, he came from a small town in the Mid West, I think. In his mind, he’d created a whole fantastical story about who he was, but he wasn’t that at all. He became that. And I think Johnson became that, as well. I tried to incorporate that as well. He doesn’t go as far as to wear a little pin on his coat with the American flag, but I think he’s deeply patriotic and totally believes that what he’s doing is right for his country and right for the world.
Do you prefer playing the bad guy in movies?
Again, when you think about playing opposites, whether it’s Prison Break or Hitman or this movie, you always… Years ago, in acting class, the great teacher Bill Esper used to say, “You don’t play a doctor like a doctor, you don’t play a bad guy like a bad guy, you play a bad guy like a good guy.” You have to know in your mind and in your heart that what you’re doing is the right thing. If you’re doing something that you think is bad, you’re not going to be able to live with yourself too long. And these kind of people seem to live their whole lives with themselves, without killing themselves or getting killed hopefully. Somehow, in their minds, they justify their actions. Some of the other qualities about this guy is that he’s elegant and – I keep coming back to the word “diplomat” – to be diplomatic about something, he would much rather sit down and have a discussion about an 18th century book than he would pull out a gun and kill you. That’s just dirty business, let somebody else do it. He’ll do it if he has to, but he’d much rather not do that. So that kind of old-worldly attitude is something in the pot to play the opposite.
What pleasure do you think audiences take from an action movie like Transporter?
The thing that really got me about this movie was the thing about the bomb on the wrist that Frank has to wear. “Oh no, he’s too far from the car! Oh no no, get back to the car! Oh no, the car’s taking off, he’s gotta run through the streets!” It wasn’t so much about my character, it was the idea of what Frank had to go through. It makes you turn the pages a lot faster. “Oh no, is he going to make it?” Again, it’s just good old-fashioned storytelling about the good guy trying to stay alive and all this conflict in the way of him trying to stay alive, and the bad guy trying to get after him. That’s how I felt about it being an action film. It made my heart race when I was reading it and I really couldn’t wait to turn the page. So that was a lot of fun. That was the nº1 reason for doing it. Plus, I wanted to work with Luc again. He’s done some amazing films and he produced Hitman, but I never got to meet him. Luc is great, because when you don’t know someone and you only hear about them, it’s one thing and then you actually work with them – and he worked a lot on this movie. He wrote it and he came to the set a lot and helped put his little stamp on it. He’s the King of France now in film, he’s the godfather of film here, but he’s also an artist and he cares very much about what happens in a scene and what happens moment to moment. When I first got here, people said to me, “One of the differences between the Americans and French is that Americans stand really close to you, they put their nose right up there – it’s this kind of feeling that you can be so confident to stand so close to somebody. But the French stand back from each other, they’re not in your face so much.” Luc and I stand about this far apart from each other – I could kiss his nose every time I talk to him. It’s terrific.
Tell us about the big fight scene that everyone is talking about?
When I read the script, I knew this intricate chess game between these two players was coming to a head in this big fight, and it’s a long fight! I was very interested to see what the style of the fight would be, and then when I realized that martial arts expert Corey Yuen was on the film, I thought there’s definitely going to be some Eastern philosophy here in the fighting. I had studied Tai Chi a bit years ago and I remember that it was based on animal imagery, and I kept thinking of the preying mantis. I honestly can’t remember the poses anymore, but I seem to remember the legs of a preying mantis, how it walks and then scurries and attacks. And I thought, “I hope it’s like that.” Then, when I saw the style of the fighting, I kinda went backwards in time and I thought, “Here’s Johnson on the first scene the first day, and here’s the climax of the movie with the fight, so how does the fight inform the rest of the character, as opposed to him being a totally different type of guy.” If Johnson was a bruiser who didn’t have much of a brain, he would fight in a different way, with a lot of fists and brute force, coming at you all the time, as opposed to taking your energy, pushing you aside and then trying to inflict pain or keep himself alive. I imagined that people who fight like this, they know how to breathe very well, they know how to breathe out bad energy and it comes out like a whisper. Up until Johnson meets Frank, I think all of his other jobs, they may have been difficult, but this has been the most difficult job, because Frank was such a problem for Johnson because he was an upstart, because he was cocky. I think Johnson respects that in him. He also likes the fact that Frank does business the way that he himself does it. He likes it to be neat and precise, he doesn’t like to use names, he likes to be divorced from any emotion with it, and you probably imagine that he fights pretty well, as well. So, all these little things going backwards in time helped me find moments where you see Johnson beginning to get upset and then he kind of breathes out, “I’m not gonna get upset, I’m gonna keep it very calm, because if I get upset, if I bring emotion into it, that’s gonna mess me up when I fight, that’s gonna mess me up in daily life, if I keep calm, I direct people to make a decision in a calm and precise way…” Olivier and I talked about the movie Phone Booth with Kiefer Sutherland, and the way he talked on the phone in a quiet, enunciated voice. Johnson hardly ever uses contractions. He doesn’t say “doesn’t”, he says “does not”. It’s a precise, cold almost emotionless way of doing business. It’s not like I can’t do a fun thing for an actor, where you’re calm and all of a sudden you explode – I mean that happens in the movie, as well – but for the most part it’s a zen thing, like “I’m not gonna be upset, I’m not gonna be upset, I’m gonna tell you exactly how I feel.” Which is ironic because he doesn’t really feel it, he just thinks it. It is like a game of chess. I wanted to make sure that the fight was for Frank, where he had met his match, that possibly in this film Frank could be killed, that it was a match of two gladiators coming together, two swordsmen, and the gift about it was knowing that Corey was doing it and that it was going to be more than brute strength, it was going to be something of a mental challenge, as well.
How much did you learn from Martial Arts expert Corey Yuen?
I learned something I couldn’t do. I called it the Monkey Move or the Monkey Kick. I’m pretty sure they’re gonna keep it and they’ll use the stunt double and he should be mentioned. Most all of the rest of the fight I was able to do. You know, when you study the theatre, you learn a lot about stage combat. How to take a punch and how to give it, how to move, how to stretch beforehand. There wasn’t much that I had to go to Corey for him to teach me how to do it. It was a dance and I had to quickly learn the choreography. Jason and I would have some time and we’d go, “Let’s go back three moves. What was this? Block, kick, push.” But there was one, the Monkey Move, that I could just not do. It was going down into a push-up and then suddenly being able to lift up my body and kick my legs through and get Frank in the shins. I said to Corey, “Stunt double. I’m not gonna be able to do that.” The two guys who came in to rehearse the fight were amazing. They were in such great shape. The film makes me look like a great fighter, I’m sure, but those guys really are masters.
There’s something very exciting about doing a fight scene, especially something of that magnitude. I think we shot that fight in two days and it’s exhausting. At the end of the day, Jason and I would look at each other and go, “Oh my God!” We both got banged up pretty well in that fight. It’s inevitable. You’re gonna get hurt, but it’s also exhilarating because you feel like you’re at the Olympics all day long. You find this incredible reserve of energy and you go back and do it again. You’re physically exhausted and it’s great. It’s like two kids going, “What do you wanna do today? Let’s get into a big fight scene on the train.”
How did you get on with the director Olivier Megaton?
Olivier was great. He was so honest and so gentle at the same time and that’s what I like about him. He looks like he could beat the hell out of you, but he’s just very strong, he has very clear, focused opinions about things, and luckily we’re on the same page. I totally get him and I truly loved working with him. And he’s also an amazing cook! And to be a great cook, you have to have a feeling in your spirit that you know just how much to put it into this, you know the right ingredient and that’s how I feel he directs.
You’ve worked on both TV and movies, which do you prefer?
I’m used to working very, very fast and as I’ve gotten older and got more experience, I don’t think so much, I just do it. And amazing things can happen in the moment. They’re just sort of little hits that you get and that comes from experience and trusting it, but it also comes from having to come up with it really fast. I think the other important element is not just speed, it’s how you mentally come to work, and that’s something I learned from great, great actors over the years. You leave your troubles at the door and the more you can get rid of your frustrations when you arrive on set, you have to let that go, because otherwise you’re gonna affect everybody around you. It’s not brain surgery what we do.
The cool thing I love about Jason is that he’s the same kind of guy as me. He’s done some great movies and he knows this character inside out and we have a great working relationship, great respect for each other. He’s really good. He just belongs at the dinner table, he’s just right there.
When I read that fight scene, I thought “This can’t just be someone he can beat up easily. This has to be a worthy opponent.” Frank couldn’t just fall down. I was going to be tough for him. I also wanted to make sure that Jason felt, “Yeah, Knepper’s got the chops.” Once you know that another actor can play ball, that you can trust the other actor, all you have to do is throw the ball and he’ll throw it right back to you.