Robert Knepper achieved star status with his villainous turn as Theodore "T-Bag" Bagwell in the hit Fox drama Prison Break.
But if there were any lingering doubt in the Maumee native's mind about his celebrity, it was certainly quelled at the Las Vegas premiere of his new film, Transporter 3.
Robert Earl, owner of Planet Hollywood Casino, greeted Knepper at the movie's splashy event and proved to be a big fan of the 49-year-old actor, going so far as to introduce him to Sylvester Stallone.
"I want you to do his next picture," Earl told Knepper.
When Knepper turned around, there was Rocky in the flesh.
"It's like this little kid from Maumee, Ohio, is suddenly ... I'm just a kid about it," Knepper said. "The past 20 years I've been kicking around, going from job to job. It's kind of cool and great and I'm supporting myself. Then all of sudden I get Prison Break, which opens up all these doors for these fun movies like Hitman last year, and now Transporter 3 this year. And the next thing I know I'm turning around going, 'Well, hey, how you doing, Sly?' "
The theater-trained actor worked in relative anonymity - at least by Hollywood standards - for decades before his gig on Prison Break (which airs at 9 p.m. Monday on Fox, WUPW-TV, Channel 36 in Toledo). The show has been a huge success, and given Knepper the recognition and clout to move into showy film roles, including the big baddie known only as Johnson, the on-screen foil for Frank Martin (Jason Statham), in the latest Transporter installment.
The Blade recently talked with Knepper by phone about his success and fighting against the Transporter.
Q: To what do you attribute your success: luck, skill, or a combination of the two?
Knepper: It's all of that and I think it's a little a bit of naivete. I've never, ever doubted that I wouldn't be doing this the rest of my life. I just attribute a lot of it to my dad and my mom [Donald Knepper and the late Pat Deck] and the work ethic in Ohio, and Midwestern gumption ... of just saying, don't give up. And I never really questioned it. I never said, Oh, I should have something to fall back on. Especially as a kid back then in Maumee, there was such an innocence about it all. It was not about, Oh, Mommy, can you take me to a commercial audition? Can you take me to a movie audition, as you see in New York or Chicago or L.A., where it's a business for these kids. It was just fun, it was just a hobby. My first reason for getting into it all of it was because I loved it. It was fun, and I got to be funny, and I got to entertain people, and I got applause for it. People ... that get into it for money or fame, that hardly ever happens. That's the first thing ... you've got to know why you're doing it.
Q: How has the success on TV and film changed you?
Knepper: Honestly ... if I was 20 years old, I think I would be answering that differently. I started here [Los Angeles] when I was 24, I think. My first love was theater. I came out of Chicago theater and I went to New York for theater. If you'd told me 25 years ago that I was going to be doing Prison Break today, I would have said, 'I'm not a prostitute, I'm not going to sell myself on television.' Twenty-five years ago, doing television when you go to school to be an actor in the theater, that's like selling yourself ... you just didn't want to do it. I didn't want to do it. Even with Prison Break I'm very thankful every day. When that show exploded out of the gate it was a very, very emotional thing for me; it's still an emotional thing for me. People gave me compliments about my work on the show ... and it's great. I never take that for granted.
My parents always used to say, 'Rob, careful, cause you keep doing this and one of these days you may get something that's going to be a big break for you and it's going to happen for you.' I was like, 'I don't want that. I don't care about that.' I really honestly didn't think it would happen 'cause I'd been doing this for 20, 25 years. And I'd been doing one job to the next, but never anything as hot as Prison Break.
Q: How was it to work with Jason Statham?
Knepper: He was great, from the second I met him. He welcomed me, we had a couple days of rehearsal, he was very thankful I was on the movie, he thanked me at the end of the movie, he was a great drinking buddy. He's just terrific, just really humble and sweet.
What I say about actors is you always want to find an actor you can play ball with. You throw the ball at them and you want them to throw it back. Your ball playing is a lot better when you play with good ballplayers, like any sport. Every actor I know feels the same way. It elevates your own game when you're with somebody that challenges you, [and] is not nervous or star struck. They just play ball with you. That's all you hope for. He knew that in me and I felt that in him. The whole ride was terrific.
Q: Were you intimidated by your fight scene with him at the end of the film?
Knepper: No, in fact when I read it, I kept saying the only way that I'm going to do this picture and do it right is that I have to be a worthy opponent to him toward the end. I just hoped that the choreography for the fight was, don't make him win through the whole fight. Give him a challenge.
There's three or four big fights in the movie, and I just thought there's got to be something special about this one. It's like these two chess fighters through the whole thing trying to outwit each other, and finally at the end of it they come together, they better be on par with each other. I wasn't worried that he'd be better. I just wanted to be as good.
Q: How did you prepare for your battle with the Transporter?
Knepper: Lots of stretching. Lots of stretching. That's the thing, every fight you always know, don't jump into these things without stretching. That's all the preparation you can do for them. You've got to stay in the moment, you've got to look at each others' eyes, you've got to know when the punch is coming, and you've got to be on your toes, because if [you're] not, you're going to get it right in the kisser. It's inevitable.
Q: What's next for you?
Knepper: I just hope to keep working. Prison Break is an international phenomenon, so there should be some heat from that for a while.
Q: Is this the final season of Prison Break?
Knepper: I think there is talk in the air right now that they're going to wrap it up. I think it's probably a smart move because you don't want this thing to linger, you want it to go out with a bang. If the writing continues to be great, let it run a sixth, seventh season - I don't care; it's nice to have a steady gig. If it's just there to do business, I'm like, no, no, no. Again, remember that's not why I got into [acting]. I want to do it because it's quality.
Contact Kirk Baird at