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You have to hand it to Robert Knepper. It’s not easy playing a man with one hand for three seasons and change.
As Theodore “T-Bag” Bagwell, among the most ruthless and calculated killers featured on Fox’s Prison Break, the actor contended with a mountain of challenges over the course of his run with the series — breaking in and out of multiple high-security facilities and murdering his way across America while still somehow engendering some sympathy from the audience (even after cannibalizing an old buddy in the middle of the desert at one point).
But few obstacles were greater than the loss of T-Bag’s left hand in the climax of the first-season finale, a bloody twist that paved the way for some of the character’s most memorable moments in the ensuing seasons — including a rudimentary reattachment operation at a veterinarian’s office, followed swiftly by a second removal of the same limb just a few episodes later.
When Prison Break returns on April 4, however, Knepper’s T-Bag will have five brand-new digits to call his own: In trailers for the revived Fox series, the character is seen with a fully functional cybernetic hand, a reflection of just how much things have changed since the improbable series first debuted in 2005. Then again, it’s also a reflection of how some things have stayed exactly the same — namely, the show’s tendency to swing for the fences, no matter how wild the pitch.
With the season five premiere just weeks away, Knepper sat down with The Hollywood Reporter for a conversation about his journey with Prison Break, how his work in recent years has influenced his view of the Fox River inmate, his memories of the night T-Bag lost his hand and the series’ surprising success after all these years.
Prison Break ended its first run in 2009. What are your memories of the first time you walked away from playing T-Bag? Did you have any feeling that you might one day inhabit those shoes again?
I want to answer this in two different ways. To answer the latter part of the question, I remember having a walk as soon as I wrapped. We were at a high school juvenile detention center when T-Bag was thrown into prison, years ago. The guys asked me if I wanted a ride back to base camp in the van. I said, “No, I just kind of want to walk.” I walked. There wasn’t anyone around. It was a beautiful day. The wind was flowing through the trees. It was very quiet. Nothing chaotic. I heard this little voice in me saying, “I’m never, ever, going to play a prisoner ever again.” And then, in my head, I saw images of Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney and I heard myself say, “Until the next time.” And then I [reprised the role] on Breakout Kings, which I think is the first time a character [from Prison Break] wound up on a whole new series. When [creator] Paul Scheuring called me up for [season five] at the beginning of the year, I said, “Just give him something new. Just make sure we have something new.” And he did. He gave us so much new stuff for so many of our characters, but also some of the old stuff, which was great.
The other way I wanted to answer that question is this: I had the great fortune in November and December to play in a movie for [Investigation Discovery] called The Dating Game Killer. And no, I did not play the Dating Game Killer. He was a guy named Rodney Alcala. He’s still alive, on death row. He’s one of if not the most prolific serial killer in America. They somehow didn’t vet him. He got on the show The Dating Game in the ‘70s, and by that point, he had already killed a lot of women. But he got picked, out of three contestants, to be the guy that she would go on a date with. Somehow, backstage, after the show was done taping, he pissed her off and she said no to him. So she didn’t get killed. But he went to a disco that night and he picked somebody up and killed that person. Leslie Greif produced it — interestingly enough, my wife and I are going over to Bill Paxton’s life service right now, over at Warner Bros., and Bill and I worked together on Texas Rising, also produced by Leslie Greif, same producer as Hatfields & McCoys — and he had the smart genius to cast me in The Dating Game Killer not as the usual suspect, playing the bad guy. Guillermo Diaz plays Rodney Alcala. I was cast to play the detective who goes after that killer. I thought it was very cool. It was very interesting to now play the guy who’s going after the quote-unquote “T-Bag character.” It was very interesting to put that character in the past. Who better to hunt the hunted than the guy who played the hunted before? It gave me very fresh and old-fashioned eyes to look back on it, to realize, ‘Oh my God, that’s what I had to deal with years ago when I played that guy. How can I stay one step ahead of the law?’
It’s also easy to imagine T-Bag winding up on a dating show.
(Laughs.) Totally! Totally. He would be very charming, just like Rodney Alcala was. And he would get picked! My wife and I would joke about it [when Prison Break was initially on the air]. How could you not single out T-Bag on the streets when he was walking around years ago? How does he always keep getting away with this stuff? When I met [America’s Most Wanted host] John Walsh at a Fox upfront, he came up to me and said, “Robert, I love T-Bag. He’s great. But please tell your writers one thing: No matter what he says or what he tries, he is and always will be a predator. I hope your writers never forget that.” And I said, “You know what? I don’t think you have to worry about that. I think they get the message.” He said that this is the character he’s always trying to get, the character he’s always trying to nail.
In the past, you have talked about T-Bag as an animal. Given the years since you last played the character, do you think T-Bag still remains more animal than man as Prison Break picks back up?
It’s probably still there. For all of us, but particularly for me, because this guy was such a killer… if somebody said something wrong to him, he would probably kill you. But things are a bit deeper now. He thinks about things now. I don’t want to give anything away; people talk a lot about plot with this show, and I think it’s better to be surprised. A lot of my plot points haven’t been brought out yet, and it’ll be nice for y’all to be surprised by them. But I think you’re going to find him fighting his demons a little bit more than he would have before. Before, he would have said, “You’re looking at me wrong? You’re dead.” Now, he’ll say, “I have to think about it. If I kill somebody, there are ramifications.”
There’s one element about the return of T-Bag that’s already known: the return of a hand — emphasis on a hand, because there’s no getting that first hand back. The lack of a limb has been such an important aspect of the T-Bag experience. How much does that change the character, to have a functioning hand in season five?
I remember that I went right from Prison Break to Heroes several years ago, and I went, “Wow! I can use my left hand. I haven’t been able to have a left hand in four years. I did all kinds of fun things with it that normal people do without thinking!” When I realized I would have this new hand … you’ll see. There are a lot of cute little spontaneous moments where I suddenly realize, “I have my hand back!” I don’t want to give it away, but there are some fun moments of me rediscovering the use of my hand.
Can you revisit the moment T-Bag lost his hand in the first place? It’s in the thick of the season one finale, as the Fox River Eight are escaping. T-Bag handcuffs himself to Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller) in order to remain part of the escape, and then John Abruzzi (Peter Stormare) cleaves T-Bag’s hand right off. What were the conversations like with the writers in the lead-up to losing the limb?
When I grew up, I wasn’t allowed to watch television. My dad hated television. So I’m still in the habit of not watching a lot of television, which is ironic, because it’s my business. But I think it was Paul Scheuring who called me up and said, “What do you think about the idea of cutting your hand off?” And I said, “Has it been done before? Because I don’t watch a lot of TV. If you think it hasn’t been done all that much, then yeah, let’s do it.” And he said, “Well, which hand do you want to cut off?” And I thought about it. I’m right-handed. You never know if a show is going to last longer than the season you’re playing in; there’s always hope, but you never know. Who knew it would last another three years?
I decided I better cut off my left hand, because that’s the one I don’t use all that much. But the dang thing about it is that I don’t have any tattoos on my body. For my first reading with Paul Scheuring and the gang, thank God I didn’t have tattoos, because I hadn’t seen the pilot yet, and I didn’t know the whole thing was about Wentworth having all of these tats [designed to help break out of prison]. (Laughs.) But I thought, if I have a tattoo on my body, I’m going to feel tougher. So what I did was I took a little Sharpie and on my middle finger — and you would have to look back to recognize it — but on the middle finger of my left hand, I tattooed a ring: “XO XO XO XO.” Little did I know, I would have all the stuff with the love interest with Mrs. Hollander [in season two]. In my head, I added the tattoo after it didn’t work out with her. The motto I had for it in my head was: “Love and kisses, love and kisses, love and kisses, love and kisses, f— you,” with my middle finger up. When Paul said which hand do you want to cut off, I said let’s keep the right. Let’s go with the left. But then I realized, oh shit! That’s the hand where I put the tattoo on my finger! So that was gone. Luckily I found my inner toughness and never had to work on it. But putting that little tattoo on my finger, it made me feel like I was tough.
Did that help inform the loss? T-Bag wasn’t just losing a hand in your interpretation, but also a very powerful memory.
There were so many memories packed into each moment. I’ll never forget it. It was so cold when we shot that episode. Kevin Hooks was directing it, our last episode [of season one], and he was also the line producer. Wentworth and I were handcuffed. Kevin said, “Here’s the thing. You’re going to be thrown down onto the hood of the car. Your hands are there. Peter Stormare has the ax and he’s going to crunch it down right on top of you.” And he asked Peter, “Hey, how’s your aim? Think you can nail it between the hands?” And I think it was Wentworth who said, “Wait, nope, he’s not putting that ax down on our hands. There’s no way that’s happening!” (Laughs.) But that was the original idea. “We’ll be fine! You have good aim! It’ll be fine!”
I loved that scene. I love the moment right afterwards, too, where Teddy’s running through the woods, through the foggy night, carrying his hand, and the harrowing and haunting sounds that came out of my mouth. You know, I learned a long time ago from childhood that your imagination is so great. You should just surrender to it. How am I ever going to prepare for something like that? How am I ever going to prepare for what it feels like to have your hand sewn back on without anesthetic? You use your imagination. It’s thousands of years old. It’s something you can depend on.
In trying to think of words to describe a show like Prison Break, one of the first that comes to mind is “improbable.” The series fulfills the title’s promise by the end of the first season, with the Fox River Eight breaking out of prison. Where can the show go from there? And yet, not only did Prison Break continue on for three more seasons, it also returned as a film in Prison Break: The Final Chapter, you reprised T-Bag in Breakout Kings, and now the show is on its way back for a full-fledged fifth season. It’s an improbable success story. How do you explain it?
Brother, you got me. I’m not quite sure. My own personal feeling is that the world was so specific. I remember when I was studying acting many years ago, that George Bernard Shaw said, “The writer writes for himself, and the world overhears it.” In history, when you write a story — whether it’s television, film, a novel — if your world is very specific, you then have great general overtones. You create themes. Look at the shows that have done that and made it and continue with rich worlds and rich characters. You can go in so many directions. I’m thinking of Game of Thrones, for instance. It can only happen because the world itself is so specific. That’s my only hunch about it. It’s also, on a simplistic level … it was escapism, if you’ll pardon the pun. It was about escapism, which we all need a bit of right now.
Prison Break returns on April 4. What are your thoughts about Robert Knepper’s journey as T-Bag? Sound off in the comments below, and stay tuned for more coverage in the lead-up to the premiere.
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William Jackson Harper