Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Terry O’Quinn started his acting career in the theater, but once he jumped in front of the camera, he quickly began to pick up work in both movies and TV on a regular basis. Although O’Quinn earned his first starring film role in 1987 with The Stepfather and subsequently picked up recurring TV roles in the ’90s, most notably on Millennium, it was the part of the mysterious John Locke on Lost that made audiences realize just how many other things they’d seen him in. In addition to a recurring role on Hawaii Five-0, O’Quinn can currently be found in the cast of Fox’s Gang Related.
Gang Related (2014)—“Sam Chapel”
Terry O’Quinn: I’m always looking for work. There are only two states of being an actor, so if I’m not working, I’m looking for employment. But I think I was working on Five-0 in Hawaii, and I was on the beach with Kate, my girlfriend, when my agents called and said, “We have an offer for you for a role in a thing called Gang Related, but you need to decide by tonight.” [Laughs.] I’m, like, “Oh, really? What’s the urgency?” He said, “You just have to.” I said, “Well, send it to me.” I knew as soon as I started reading it that it looked like I was in good hands with the writers. You can just tell. It’s just like when you go to a play, you see a particular actor walk out, and you relax, because, “Oh, okay, he’s all right, he’ll take care of me.” So then it was just a question of how I would respond to the role. It looked like it had a lot of possibilities, room to grow. And, then you just kind of say, “Let’s talk dollars and cents and see if we can get it done!”
The A.V. Club: So who is this character?
TO: He’s a career cop, and he’s pretty driven in his job. I want to say he’s a family man, but only because his family is his task force. He’s divorced, and he has a daughter who works for the district attorney, and… he apparently was not a very good father. So they have issues from the get-go, he and his daughter. But he’s a very loyal man to his people. But it can be a small family. It’s not like he thinks all cops are his family. His gang is his family. Which clearly reflects the other side of the fence in our television show: Los Angelicos, a Latino gang that Sam Chapel is most occupied with. He’s trying to control the influence of these gangs in L.A., but particularly this one. But a member of his task force—Ryan Lopez, played by Ramon Rodriguez—was raised by this gang, so that’s why we’re dealing with that gang, although the task force doesn’t know Ryan Lopez has that association. And because of Sam’s obvious affection for and loyalty to Ryan Lopez and the rest of his [own] gang members, he probably would be the last person to see the tie that Ryan has to that gang. Those are probably his vulnerabilities—his affections and his loyalties.
AVC: When you took on the role, did you know where the character’s arc would be going over the course of the season, or did they just say, “Here’s who he is, now wait and see what’s going to happen”?
TO: They kind of said, “Wait and see.” They didn’t tell me too much. I mean, once you sign the papers, you start working and you kind of hope for the best. I’ve always felt that the actor’s job is to say what’s written and to do your best version, not to butt heads with the writers and the directors and say, “I want to say this this way.” Now, to their credit, these people are very accessible in terms of asking, “Can I just rephrase this?” But, you know, if you were doing A Streetcar Named Desire, you wouldn’t go up and say, “Hey, Mr. Williams, can I say it this way? I don’t like it that way.” [Laughs.] Probably wouldn’t do that.
I always assumed your job was to do what they write. And I do have to remind myself of that, because unfortunately in television… well, in Hollywood in general, you can get enough respect or carry enough weight that people will indulge you in your choices. I want to find things that actually fit me better. As opposed to trying to make it work the way they wrote it. So I’m trying to make sure I keep my mouth shut, because they’re very good in there and they listen, but I’d rather make myself do the uncomfortable thing.
F.D.R.: The Last Year (1980)—“James Roosevelt”
Heaven’s Gate (1980)—“Capt. Minardi”
AVC: For your first on-camera appearance, which came first: F.D.R.: The Last Year (your first TV movie) or Heaven’s Gate (your first movie)?
TO: [Starts to laugh.] Wow. Uh, F.D.R. I don’t remember much at all, except for… I remember Jason Robards sitting in his wheelchair, cutting the biggest fart, and just laughing so hard that he started rolling backwards: “Sorry, boys!” But I don’t remember much about that at all. I was very young.
Heaven’s Gate I remember, because it was the first movie I ever was cast in. I was doing a play at the Center Stage in Baltimore, and I got cast in this movie, and they said, “Can you ride?” And of course I said I could ride. [Laughs.] I was in Maryland, which is horse country, so I went out to this farm and started taking lessons, because I had time before I shot. They said I was gonna start shooting in May, and it was still the end of March. So as I was doing the play, I went out to this barn and started riding, and I met this girl out there who was teaching. And in May, they said, “It’ll be June.” In June, they said, “July.” And in the meantime, the play closed, I ran out of money, and I moved into the barn.
I lived above the barn, and I agreed that I would muck stalls for free. So I did 50 stalls a day, and then I rode horses, and this girl and I gradually got closer and closer. In July, they said, “August.” In August, they said, “September.” This was famous, you know, Heaven’s Gate. So the girl’s dad and her two big brothers came down and ran me off the place ’cause they said I was just a gold digger! And then she came with me, and I got a job at the racetrack, out walking horses, and she went and trained people’s horses for them. Finally, in September, I went and made the movie. And then in November we got married. And we were married for 30 years. It’s been four years since that [ended]. But… that was Heaven’s Gate! [Laughs.]
AVC: How was the actual experience of making the film?
TO: It was weird. You know, it was my first exposure, so I thought, “Wow…” They were wasting time and money. When I got there, there was a guy who ran up to me in the lobby of this little hotel in Kalispell, Montana, and said, “You’re Terry O’Quinn? I’ve been here for six weeks, and my first scene is with you!” [Laughs.] I said, “Really?” And it was another week before I worked! People were getting hurt left and right. It was clearly just such a waste of time and effort and money, and people were so jaded and tired that when I went and saw the movie… There were great things about the movie, except it ended, like, five times. It was half an hour too long or something. But I just thought, “Wow, moviemaking is crazy!”
AVC: So how did you find your way into acting in the first place?
TO: When I was in high school, I fell in love with Olivia Hussey in Romeo And Juliet. Franco Zeffirelli… It was the first time it ever occurred to me to be an actor. I was probably 15 or 16. But I thought, “Wow, this is happening somewhere. Somewhere they made this happen.” Because they didn’t even do plays in my little hometown. So when I went to college, one night in my first month there, they were holding auditions for Henry IV, Part 1. And I was, like, “Shakespeare! Just like Romeo And Juliet!” So I just walked in, and apparently I was a male body that was tall enough and in good enough shape when they needed one, so they put me in the play as Edwin Mortimer. And that was it. I was hooked. I was hooked on the experience and on the people. I figured I’d found my tribe. [Laughs.] A bunch of rejects!
Old School (2003)—“Goldberg” (uncredited)
TO: Somebody just called and asked, “Do you wanna be in this thing?” And I said, “Well…” Because I had another job that was coming up. But they said, “It’s only two days… and it’s a comedy! You’ll be able to be in a comedy!” So I said, “Okay.” I mean, I didn’t think they were gonna ask me in particular to be funny. But the situation was funny. That’s another thing I would love to do: just be funny sometime. But, anyway, they said, “Okay, well, we’ve got to make a deal now. So where do you want your credits?” I said, “I don’t need credits. I’ll just do it. You don’t have to put my name on it at all!” And they said, “Really?” I said, “Yeah!” But whenever it came out, I got a call from my sons one night, and they said, “What were you doing in Old School? We didn’t even know you were in it!” They said, “We’re sitting there, and the first time we see you, it’s, like, in a reflection in a window. And when we saw it, and we both thought we were, like, tripping or something! ‘Did you know he did this?’ ‘No! I didn’t know he did this!’” So I said, “Well, when you do too many things, that’s what happens.” You never know where you might be found.
The Rocketeer (1991)—“Howard Hughes”
TO: I think I read for that. I just remember that when I saw it… [Starts talking fast and out of the side of his mouth.] I just remember guys from the ’40s talked like this in the movies! “This is how we’re gonna talk!” So I remember actually doing that in the movie, and I remember it looked very funny when I saw it. “You fellas are outta line!” [Laughs.] But what I mostly remember from that movie is sitting one night and talking for hours with Alan Arkin. Leaning against a wall, because of our back problems, and talking, and working. What a nice guy he was… and is! But, yeah, that was kind of a cool movie. That was the first time I ever went to one of my movies with any of my family members. I was the seventh of 11 children, so my siblings just totally embarrassed me in the theater, shouting and screaming about Howard Hughes. But it was fun.
AVC: Were you frustrated by the commercial reception of the film like many of the other cast members?
TO: No. Because I didn’t feel like I had that much of an investment in it, personally. So I didn’t take it personally.
Miami Vice (1984)—“Richard Cain”
Moonlighting (1987)—“Bryant Wilbourne”
TO: Richard Cain? Oh, I have no idea. [Laughs.] Around that time, I did Miami Vice, I did Moonlighting once, I did…well, another one of the big hit TV shows around that time. But I just remember that that was kind of the era of people discovering that they were stars, and when I walked on the set of Miami Vice and Moonlighting… Not to cast aspersions on anyone, but that was when I realized that there can be unhappy sets and happy sets, and there are people that are 500-pound gorillas and there are people who are team players. And I learned really quickly that I liked team players, and that that’s what I wanted to be, and that’s what I wanted any set I worked on to be. You know, everyone has the same size trailer, everybody is treated as an equal. I always thought of myself as a member of the crew. We’re all on the crew together, whether you’re a grip or in electrics, doing hair or makeup or anything, managing wardrobe on the set. I’m very egalitarian about that kind of stuff, and being on those jobs made me realize that they weren’t exactly the best examples to live by.
Star Trek: The Next Generation (1994)—“Admiral Eric Pressman”
TO: [Laughs.] I just remember that they offered me that job, and I thought, “Oh, what a great feather in my cap, to be able to say I was on Star Trek!” So I just went on.
AVC: It wasn’t a huge role, but you nailed it.
TO: Oh, well, that’s lovely! What I remember about that was that Patrick Stewart was nice, but, more specifically, Jonathan Frakes was probably the nicest person in Hollywood and that I’ve ever worked with in my career. It’s between Jonathan Frakes and Mark Harmon [on JAG]. I’ve worked with a lot of nice people, but they’re gentlemen through and through. Frakes was such a good-hearted soul. I remember him going, “Uh, you don’t want to stand like that. I’m just gonna tell you, you don’t want to stand like that. Not in that get-up.” [Laughs.] That was at the same time that there were big fires burning in the hills and everything, and you’d come out of wherever we were filming, and the cars would be covered with ash. But Patrick Stewart… I remember going to his trailer one day and saying, “Can I get a signed photograph for my son?” And he said, “Okay.” And I said, “Could you sign it as Captain Picard?” He said [gruffly], “I never do that.” I said, “Not for me?” He said, “Oh, all right,” and he signed it. Since then, I’ve realized how stupid that was. A lot of times, though, I’ll sign pictures from Lost and, after I sign “Terry O’Quinn,” I’ll put “John Locke” underneath. But that was a very happy set—or it seemed like one, anyway—and that was another good example of how you want to work in this business.
The X-Files (1995/2002)—“Lt. Brian Tillman”/“Shadow Man”
Millennium (1996-99)—“Peter Watts”
Harsh Realm (1999-2000)—“General Omar Santiago”
AVC: How did you first cross paths with Chris Carter?
TO: I think I was offered a job on The X-Files. I just did the one episode, and…I don’t recall that very much at all, except that [David] Duchovny and Gillian Anderson were there, and it was…okay. It didn’t seem like a terribly happy set. You know, that’s kind of what I remember. [Laughs.] All my experiences are, “Was it a happy set or was it not a happy set?” But, no, it was all right. And then I remember they called me about being a member of the Millennium group on Millennium, maybe just for one or two episodes, and then that blossomed into a three-year gig, which was great. I mean, I think that was one of the most rewarding things to me. The same thing kind of happened on Alias, with J.J. [Abrams]. People bring you on for one or two, and they go, “Oh, we can keep this guy around. This guy’s good!” That’s what reinforced me throughout my career, really. That kind of support and encouragement. The same thing happened to my buddy Michael Emerson when he came on Lost. He was gonna be there once or twice, you know, and he ended up winning an Emmy Award for it. He was great! But that kind of validation is important.
AVC: Is there anything specific about playing Peter Watts on Millennium that stands out?
TO: Not really, no. Not so much. I remember Lance [Henriksen] hated exposition. He hated it! [Laughs.] And every time, he’d say, “Terry can say that. Let him say that!” He had trouble with his lines. But he could run the gamut from being the funniest guy you ever heard to one of the moodiest, that you’d just stay away from. But a riveting actor. I don’t remember too much else, though. See, Peter to me is, like, one of those un-character guys. You don’t know who he is. So many people I’ve played—and maybe it’s because I bring it to it—are kind of undefinable, whether they’re wearing the white hat or the black hat, whether they’re good or bad. He was just one of the first of those.
AVC: To knock out all the Chris Carter stuff in one fell swoop, what are your recollections of Harsh Realm?
TO: That was, I think, probably ahead of its time. And I think that was at the time when apparently he and Fox were having a little bit of an issue… That was one of those things where they walked in at lunchtime and said, “Show’s over!” [Laughs.] They just pulled the plug one day, and that was it. I didn’t know it would ever be realized as fully as it was imagined. I thought it might not be.
Silver Bullet (1985)—“Sheriff Joe Haller”
TO: That was in Wilmington, North Carolina. With Gary Busey. Oh, my goodness. [Laughs.] He said, “Let’s go out and play football out on the beach!” And I said, “Okay.” He said, “Okay, I’ll meet you down there in five minutes!” I went down there and waited an hour, and he never showed up. And I said, “What happened to you yesterday?” He said, “What?” I said, “We were gonna play football!” He said, “We were?” I said, “Yeah!” That was before the accident. So he was always that guy!
But I remember one of my favorite memories, and I wish I’d had a camera, was the scene where the guy who was the werewolf—the lead, Everett [McGill]—was having a dream, and in his dream everyone in the church was singing “Amazing Grace” and slowly turning into werewolves. So they’d sing “Amaziiiiiiiing…” [Snarls.] “Graaaaaaace!” [Snarls.] And then you’d go back, get a little bit of makeup put on. “How sweet the sound!” [Growls.] And so on. After about three or four hours of this, I remember they said, “We’re gonna take a break, everybody. We’ll take 20 minutes!” And we’re in full masks by the time. So I go outside of this little church—by now it’s, like, four o’clock in the morning—and under the street lights there are werewolves smoking cigarettes, sipping on Cokes through a straw… I just wish I had a picture. [Laughs.] It was so surreal.
The Stepfather (1987)/Stepfather II (1989)—“Jerry Blake/The Stepfather”
TO: Well, The Stepfather was the first time I sort of carried a film, or led in a film, and doing it was fun, and I felt very special. Afterwards, though, I was terrified. I just thought, “Wow, this is basically going to be about me. If this film is a success or a failure, a lot of it’s on me!” They released the film just here and there and now and then, and it got critical acclaim, but it was never much of a success in terms of box office. A lot of people watched it after the fact. It’s sort of a cult thing. I still have people mention that to me from time to time.
AVC: You did the second Stepfather film, but you didn’t do the third one. Did they pitch you on doing it?
TO: Yeah, they did. I said, “No, I’m good.” [Laughs.] I shouldn’t have done the second one! I mean, how many times can you kill this guy? I didn’t want it to be a Halloween or one of those things.
Alias (2002-2004)—“FBI Assistant Director Kendall”
Lost (2004-2010)—“John Locke”
TO: While I was doing Alias, Jennifer [Garner] and Michael [Vartan] and all those guys went to [J.J. Abrams] and said, “He should be a regular!” I was getting paid guest money, five grand a pop or something, and I was flying back and forth from Maryland and just staying at the cheapest hotel I could find. So J.J. came to me and said, “They won’t let me make you a regular, but I promise you: I will find a thing for you, something that you’ll be glad you took.”
And hence Lost, which was great. I’m glad I took it. I mean, I never doubted I would: I had to have a job! I had been unemployed for a good, long while before J.J. called me. I was in Maryland, at home, when he called. He said, “I’ve got a role for you if you’re interested.” And I said, “I’m interested!” And he said, “Well, it shoots in Hawaii…” I said, “I’ll take it!” And he said, “Well, it’s about this…” I said, “Look, okay, go ahead and take your time and talk to me, but I’ll tell you: I’ll take it.” [Laughs.]
So I went to Hawaii and shot the pilot, and I said, “Oh, this is interesting. They’re gonna have to give this some support: They’ve spent millions of dollars on the pilot!” And that turned out to be… [Hesitates, then shrugs.] I don’t know. People say, “How does it feel now that you’ve made it?” I say, “I’ve only made it to here. Made it to what?” You know, it’s always, “what have you done for me lately?”
AVC: Is there a particular aspect of John Locke that stands out as your favorite?
TO: I think it was that uncertainty. People have asked me which version of John Locke I was most like, and I think I was most like the guy in the wheelchair, the one before it all, in all the flashbacks. That’s me. The other guy, the black-smoke guy, the dark and dangerous guy, that’s the fantasy.
But what I remember most from Lost is sitting under the trees, playing guitar with Naveen Andrews or Josh Holloway. It was just lovely. The settings were so stunning, and everyone was so excited. You were excited when you got the script: “What are you going to do in this?” And I was excited because I’d open the script and go, “I’ve got a great scene with Josh and Evie [Lilly]!” And I couldn’t wait to do that scene. It was those kinds of things. That’s when I fell in love with television: Because I realized it can feel like you have a family… and if it’s a good family and a happy family, then you can go as long as you want. I could do this for years.