An Exclusive Clip from 'Rubicon' and Intel From Star James Badge Dale
If you gave up early in the AMC show's debut season, come back. As I wrote here, the conspiracy aspect of the show is proceeding at a satisfyingly brisk pace, but 'Rubicon' is often even more effective as a psychological study of thoughtful individuals doing an odd, difficult job.
Being an intelligence analyst is "a very strange life," 'Rubicon' star James Badge Dale said in an interview. "In some ways, it's the antithesis of the human experience -- you voluntarily put yourself into a void, into a vacuum."
Dale, who plays analyst Will Travers, and executive producer Henry Bromell spoke recently about 'Rubicon' and its dual identities as a unique office drama and a meditation on personal and political trust. Read on for much more (non-spoilery) intelligence from Dale and Bromell, as well as an exclusive clip from Sunday's episode ( 9PM ET, AMC).
Dale said that when the cast began working on 'Rubicon,' they only had the first set of scripts, which hinted at a vast conspiracy and depicted daily life at a government intelligence agency known as API. There were a few "hints" about the middle of the season, but the resolutions of both the conspiracy that Will investigated and the office politics at API were unknown at that point.
"We sat down and we really tried to figure out, 'What are these characters' struggles?' So we as actors have a place to go, always," Dale said. "What I loved about going to work every day with these actors was, we were always trying to find that human element behind everything. ... Although the conspiracy is the A story line [of the show], almost in the characters' minds, that's the B story line. They're dealing with their own sets of personal problems and trying to overcome them."
Bromell said via email that it was "always a goal to show the effect of this work on the characters -- that's what I found so interesting about the idea of doing a show about intelligence analysts, the stress and pressure on these people."
Quite often, those pressures came out most vividly in somewhat self-contained episodes like 'The Outsider' and 'Caught in the Suck' (if you're going to start or restart a 'Rubicon' marathon, I highly recommend the first one or two episodes, which are available free on AMC's site, as well as Episodes 4, 6, 7, 8 and beyond).
In 'Caught in the Suck,' the sweet, twitchy Miles (Dallas Roberts) and the smart, substance-abusing Tanya (Lauren Hodges) were transported to a secret site at which a terrorist was being tortured. Nothing about the well-constructed episode was overwrought, but it nonetheless explored topical issues in a cogent, compelling manner and gave us greater insight into these intelligent but troubled characters.
Bromell said that the episodes that close out the season will focus on the ominous conspiracy that Will has been investigating, but he added that there would be a good deal of character development as well.
"We've been trying to do a balance" between those two elements, Bromell noted, "but it's clear that the self-contained stories work better dramatically, and so there will be more of that next season" if the show gets renewed by AMC.
'Rubicon' had an unusual production process, which may be part of the reason the characters feel so lived-in and real. The six-story building in lower Manhattan that serves as API headquarters on the show also contained the sets and was used as the production's headquarters. The writers, actors and crew transformed the building into what Dale called "acting camp," which came complete with a barbecue on the roof (an incongruous detail, given how many tense 'Rubicon' conversations have taken place on that roof).
"AMC wasn't hanging over our shoulder, saying 'Do this, do that.' They gave us this kind of positive environment, a playground, and said, 'We've hired you, now do what you do.' They gave us this real creative freedom," Dale said.
Though there was an excess of ambiguity in the show's early stages, 'Rubicon' snapped into focus mid-way through Season 1 and became appointment viewing. At this stage of the game, I care as much about Miles' separation and Will's trust issues as I do about the shadowy corporate interests that Will is trying to investigate. As far as the conspiracy angle goes, I'm most fascinated by the games that intelligence manager Kale Ingram and API director Truxton Spangler are playing; Arliss Howard and Michael Cristofer have been mesmerizing as API's cryptic, ruthless bosses.
"They hired actors who are individuals, you know?," Dale said. "None of these guys are cookie cutters. ... These were incredibly creative individuals and they allowed us to use that."
Below are the transcripts of my interviews with Dale and with Bromell.
Phone interview with James Badge Dale:
MR: I didn't quite know where 'Rubicon' was going at first or what these people were really about, but now it seems to be about the effect of the job on the people more than anything else. Is that how you saw it from the start or did that evolve as you were all making the show?
JBD: That was kind of the way we all saw it from the beginning. I think that's what makes these characters so interesting. Not only are they all unique, original people, and I think you have to be that way to work in this world, but to work in this world you make certain sacrifices. It's a very strange life. In some ways, it's the antithesis of the human experience -- you voluntarily put yourself into a void, into a vacuum
MR: It seems like it would be a very wearying, tense life. Is that your take on Will? That he can't quite find comfort?
JBD: I always felt that the comfort for Will is in the work. Will has been through some things where he kind of retreated from life and from people. Comfort for Will is when he can disappear and not think about life and all the things he's missing and the grieving and the pain and regret. That's where I wanted it to come from.
MR: But what's interesting about him is that, despite all that, there's part of him that wants to connect with other people.
JBD: Yeah, that's the thing. You have to want it, and that creates the conflict, when you're trying for [connection] but you keep failing, or there's something in you that keeps you away. He has to in some ways want it, even though he's conflicted about it.
MR: One of the things I like about 'Rubicon' is that it's just a good workplace drama. There are all these unique personalities, and then Will is suddenly their boss.
JBD: Yeah, it's very funny. I mean, here's Will, a man who's very anti-social, a little bit by choice. Now he's asked to be in a supervising position. It's like a nightmare of public speaking. I guarantee you he wakes up in the middle of the night, 'Am I in the conference room right now? What's going on?' If he sleeps at all.
MR: I don't picture him sleeping, just staring out the window all night. But it's interesting to see Will forced into all these situations that are way outside his comfort zone -- looking into this conspiracy, being the boss, having to be around people.
JBD: Absolutely. I mean, when you talk about how you didn't know where the show was going, I didn't know where the show was going either. It's not like you show up and they give you all 13 episodes and tell you, "This is where we're going to end up." It's difficult to work in an environment where you're given the beginning of a story and some hints about the middle but you don't know what the end is. That doesn't happen when you work on a play, that doesn't happen when you work on a film, it only happens in television. So we sat down and we really tried to figure out, "What are these characters' struggles?" So we as actors have a place to go, always.
What I loved about going to work every day with these actors was, we were always trying to find that human element behind everything. What's driving Miles? What's driving Grant? What's driving Tanya, Kale, Will? Although the conspiracy is the A story line [of the show], almost in the characters' minds, that's the B story line. They're dealing with their own sets of personal problems and trying to overcome them. That's what will make this show work, hopefully.
MR: I hope so. I mean, there are so many shows in this arena, but they're kind of about the gizmos or it's a heroic mission, or, you know, they call up whatever they need on their computer instantly. I'm not dissing those shows, I like some of them a lot, but it seemed to me that a new approach was absolutely necessary or else you're just covering the same ground.
JBD: Absolutely. And I think it's a relatable approach. We all have jobs that affect us. And the work that you do changes you, it changes how you relate to people, your relationships and your family. That theme of "How do you navigate your job?" -- you can relate to it if you work in an auto plant or as an accountant.
MR: One big problems that new shows have is making their characters seem like something other than types or stereotypes. But 'Rubicon' didn't really have that, and the characters have only gotten more interesting with each week.
JBD: I've got to say, they didn't write types. Most people write stereotypes. That's just the nature of the beast, especially in the television world. But what AMC did was, they gave us kind of this playground. We had this six-story office building in lower Manhattan. AMC wasn't hanging over our shoulder, saying 'Do this, do that.' They gave us this kind of positive environment, a playground, and said, 'We've hired you, now do what you do.' They gave us this real creative freedom.
And they hired actors who are individuals, you know? None of these guys are cookie cutters. I've known a lot of these guys a long time, I'd go to work every day and it was like acting camp, a four-month acting camp, with this amazing crew, great DP, great director, good writers. Every day we'd just play -- 'Try this, try that.' And after a take, I'd be laying on the floor laughing from what Chris Welch did, or something crazy Dallas Roberts tried in the middle, or Arliss Howard [would do something]. These were incredibly creative individuals and they allowed us to use that.
[At this point in the conversation, Dale walked out of a building in New York and went outside].
MR: Will didn't get outside much except when he was on the roof.
JBD: We has such a good time on that roof. They pulled out this huge barbecue. Every evening, [craft service] would get out there with chicken and vegetables and all this stuff. It was great.
MR: Was Will a challenge to play, in that he had to silently react to a lot of things? I mean, in that sense, he was a lot like Robert Leckie, your character in 'The Pacific,' who was always reacting to what was around him. Did you ever think that would be so predominant in your career -- just reacting to stuff?
JBD: [Long laugh] You know, I've always kind of enjoyed the little fantasy of doing a silent film. [He did do a silent film for a student filmmaker about 10 years ago, and someone told him he'd overacted.] I was like, "It's a silent film, buddy. I don't have too many other tools here."
MR: I once talked to Gabriel Byrne, whose character on 'In Treatment' does a lot of listening, and he said it was draining to really be present all the time so that you can give good reactions.
JBD: I gotta tell you, it is mentally tiring. It does require real concentration on just being present. But that's all you need to do, just be there. It did sometimes drive me crazy when I'm by myself and it's the crossword puzzles and it's like, "Oh my God, does this mean that? The four-leaf clover means this?" You really just have to shut everything off and trust yourself, and trust the camera and the crew. I don't know.
I remember there were so many times in 'The Pacific' when Robert Leckie would be staring at something. It got to the point where I went up to [director] Tim Van Patten one day, "Timmy, I'm all out of stares, man. We gotta do something different, we have to change it up, because I'm done."
MR: I can imagine. Can you talk at all about what's coming up?
JBD: I haven't seen [the episodes], but I can talk about what we [shot]. The first few episodes [of the season] were really getting to know everybody. And I think in a lot of ways, we were getting to know ourselves. Then we had the middle. The third act should really be picking up the pace and driving the A story line of the conspiracy. Things should ramp up and everything is going to start to come together.
Email interview with Henry Bromell:
MR: In the final four episodes, will the focus be on the overarching mystery/conspiracy or on life at API? Or will the episodes have a balance of both elements?
HB: The final four episodes are driven for the most part by the conspiracy and the main spy story weaving together into a single threat. But there is also a lot of character development, especially in the final episode.
MR: Episodes like 'The Outsider' and 'Caught in the Suck' did a great job of telling mostly or largely self-contained stories. Which do you feel works better for the show -- episodic stories or bigger, serialized stories? Or again, is the show week to week trying to balance those different kinds of stories?
HB: We've been trying to do a balance, but it's clear that the self-contained stories work better dramatically and so there will be more of that next season.
MR: 'Rubicon' seems most effective when it shows how the work these analysts do affects them as people. Was that always one of your goals, or was that just a byproduct of the desire to tell stories about the use and abuse of intelligence in the post 9/11 era?
HB: It was always a goal to show the effect of this work on the characters -- that's what I found so interesting about the idea of doing a show about intelligence analysts, the stress and pressure on these people.
MR: What worked better than you'd hoped this season? What did you end up not doing as much because it didn't seem to be working?
HB: Even the notoriously difficult 13-part spy story told exclusively from the [point of view] of the analysts as they collect fairly abstract information worked better than I feared.
MR: The conspiracy Will seems to be unraveling appears to be very powerful. I'd like a second season of Rubicon, but I'm wondering how you tell these kinds of stories in a hypothetical Season 2 without repeating yourselves as writers.
HB: I have a plan for season 2 that won't repeat anything from season 1 but I can't get into that for obvious reasons.
MR: Have you heard from real intelligence analysts and espionage experts? Do they think 'Rubicon' does a good job of depicting these kinds of jobs and the people who do them?
HB: I just last week got an email from an friend high up in intelligence in DC who said more and more of his colleagues are watching the show and that they think we're doing a good job portraying that reality, which I found very exciting to hear.
MR: Can you say anything to tease viewers who've been following the story or hook new viewers?
HB: I doubt very many viewers will be anything but surprised by what happens in the last few episodes.
Mild spoiler for the last set of episodes:
MR: When will Will and Katherine Rhumor meet [aside from a brief conversation in episode 5]? It feels like she's been in a separate story line and I'm wondering how soon her story and Will's converge.
HB: Will and Katherine come together in episode 10 and are in a way side by side through episode 13.