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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Terry Kinney on starring in everything from Oz to Thirtysomething to The Mob Doctor

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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 Kinney is another perfect fit for Random Roles, as he’s a “hey, it’s that guy” who has been working steadily since the ’80s. The Illinois native was a founder and part of the original company of Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf Theatre, along with John Malkovich, Laurie Metcalf, and Scandal’s Jeff Perry. Most viewers would probably recognize him from Oz, but you’ve also seen him in everything from The Firm to The Good Wife to yes, The Mob Doctor. On Tuesday, November 15, Kinney will debut in TNT’s Good Behavior, a surprisingly effective noir-esque series from the creators of Wayward Pines, in which Michelle Dockery plays a drug addict on the lam with a hit man, and Kinney plays her parole officer. At the Television Critics Association event this past August, he sat down with us in the bar at the Beverly Hilton to discuss important matters like stage vs. screen and Chicago vs. Brooklyn.

Seven Minutes In Heaven (1985)—“Bill The Photographer”

AVC: Your first credited thing on IMDB—you play a photographer.

TK: Oh, God. Yeah, Seven Minutes In Heaven. And that is really interesting.

AVC: Baby Jennifer Connelly.

TK: Uh-huh, and Maddie Corman. I can talk about her in a second because I’m about to work with her again. But Fred Roos was working with [Francis Ford] Coppola, and he came to Orphans when we were doing it [at the Steppenwolf]. He saw it over and over, and he was trying to put me together with Coppola. And in the meantime, he said, “They’ve got this role, and it’s just really—you’re going to be there just a couple of days,” and I didn’t even ask. One of the strangest scenes—it could only happen in the ’80s I think, that kind of a tween movie, or young-adult movie—in which a girl is drunk, pursuing a baseball player inappropriate for her. And I save her as the ballpark photographer, bring her to my apartment, and tell her she needs to call home. And yet she won’t do it until I tell her what an orgasm feels like. And I remember—and it was a woman director—and I kept saying, “Is this okay? Is this really okay?” We did it, and it was a delicate balance. Years later, I’m about to do a play at Lincoln Center that Maddie Corman is in and directed her in that play.


Thirtysomething (1987-89)—“Steve Woodman”

AVC: Thirtysomething was your first long gig.

TK: Yeah, Thirtysomething was my first multiple-episode thing. I was a recurring character, and somewhere along the line they asked me if I wanted to be a regular. But it was a matter of relocating [to L.A.], which I wasn’t willing to do at the time, but they were really nice people—good cast and great bosses.


AVC: It seems like a really interesting role for that era of TV because the creative bar was pretty high, and you had such a sympathetic character with Steve, Ellyn’s boyfriend.

TK: Yeah, I remember my dad was watching it one time I was home in Lincoln, Illinois, and it was this scene in which we broke up. [Ellyn] was in the hospital from her ulcer, which she had developed over having an affair on me. And I was sitting there near tears, and I looked over at my dad’s chair and he was asleep. And he woke up and he said, “You know, you’ve got to watch this goddamn thing too well. I don’t like it.” And then he said, “And you don’t make much of a lover boy.”


AVC: Ouch.

TK: No, he loved me as murderers much more.

Murder Ordained (1987)—“Tom Bird”

AVC: What kind of murderers? You have a really long IMDB list.

TK: Well, he liked, my first really big part was in a thing called Murder Ordained, and that was a miniseries with JoBeth Williams, which is a true story of this reverend, Tom Bird, who murdered his wife and then his lover’s husband so that they could fulfill their mission. And we shot in the place that it actually happened. My dad liked that one.


AVC: That’s so interesting though, because you started out playing sympathetic characters and then took these departures. Now it seems like you’re more on the prosecutor, lawyer side. Maybe that’s just the shows in New York that are available, like The Good Wife and The Mentalist?

TK: Yeah. I always wanted to play a cop, and they always told me I couldn’t. They said, “You don’t look like a cop, and you don’t behave like a cop. And you’re too sort of soft-spoken to be a cop.” I didn’t like “no” ever, so my mission was to play a cop, but you know how it goes. Once you play something, then you get 20 more of those. So I’ve tried to avoid getting stuck. I try to take roles that are the opposite of the last thing I did as much as I can.


Oz (1997-2003)—“Tim McManus”

AVC: I think a lot of people probably think of you in relation to Oz. Everybody who has worked on it seemed to love that show. Can you extrapolate on that experience a bit?


TK: It was this very intense prison environment with the darkest, most gruesome storylines ever, but on the set, all we did was laugh a lot.

AVC: You had to, probably.

TK: Yeah, and all of those really badass biker guys and white supremacists and the Muslim brotherhood. All of them hand you their headshot. They were very gentle people, and we were all kind of a big happy group of guys.


AVC: That’s another show that had a high caliber of writing and directing.

TK: Well [creator] Tom [Fontana], he had a writing team, but mostly he writes everything. And his touch is on everything he does. So I think the high quality was his.


Good Behavior (2016)—“Christian”

AVC: What can you tell us about your new show, Good Behavior?

TK: Good Behavior is a sort of poetic noir piece, a thriller, about a woman [Michelle Dockery] out on good behavior for thievery, drugs, alcohol, and she’s trying to be good. She’s trying to get her kid back, and at the same time, she gets bored with that quite a bit and keeps making choices that mess her up. She ends up on the wrong side of a relationship with a hit man, and I’m her parole officer and I’m trying to help her get her kid back by having her show up for her check-in, which she is challenged to do. And it goes from there. The pilot sort of sees her at her low point, and from there, she gets some great redemption.


AVC: Sounds like quite a departure from Dockery’s role in Downton Abbey.

TK: She can do anything. We used to amuse each other on our 16-hour days with just doing different characters for each other. “What if it was this? What if it was that?” And she’s so facile with character work. She’s bold. She’s funny as can be. And I think people will be a little bit shocked at first at what a departure it is, but that’s exactly the mission.


The House Of Mirth (2000)—“George Dorset”

AVC: You haven’t done too much period stuff yourself, but you were in House Of Mirth.


TK: It was an interesting shoot. We were in Scotland, in Glasgow, for a very long time and all these wonderful actors, and I don’t know about them but I never saw anybody when I wasn’t on the set. I wandered around Glasgow for 10 weeks by myself. It was an experience where we didn’t really know what it was going to be like. [Director] Terence Davies was someone that I admired for a very long time. But once we got there, once I was on the set, I realized he wanted it a very specific way, and he told me what it was and I did that. So the experience was that. It was kind of, “Was that okay? Was that okay?” Multiple takes.

And otherwise, enjoying Glasgow. They’ve got the black soot over everything because it was a coal-mining place, so all the buildings are sort of black. I had insomnia there because it was midnight, the sun would go down for a while, and when I first got there, I lost my mind completely. Wandered the streets and couldn’t sleep, but it changed.


AVC: And then walking into a period piece. It’s so good, but it’s so tragic.

TK: It is. All Edith Wharton. Just tragic as can be. But yeah, Gillian [Anderson]’s good at tragedy too.


The Firm (1993)—“Lamar Quinn”

AVC: True. On the more blockbuster side was The Firm, where you’re the guy who lures Tom Cruise into the firm in the first place. Was that the biggest set you’d been on at that time?


TK: Yeah, I was overwhelmed. I was so happy to get it. I had auditioned for [director] Sydney Pollack before for a movie called Light Of Day. And I came so close but then another actor got the role. And I think he felt bad about it because I went through four or five callbacks. He gave me The Firm without an audition or anything, and it was really nice of him. He was very fatherly, and I mean that in every sense. Sometimes the good father, sometimes the not-so-good father. And I got to work with all these tremendous actors in such a large setting. It was a massive movie. I had to learn on my feet to be in a big movie.

AVC: Was Sydney Pollack also a multi-take director?

TK: No. He was like a coach. He was like a football coach, sort of. He would sort of scream orders at you. And I don’t mean this in a bad way. He would say, “Don’t look at him all the time when you’re talking. People don’t do that.” And then he would come up and say, “Walk with me for a minute” and then he would give you a lesson on movie acting. So I’ve never forgotten any of the lessons. They’ve all been valuable.


Fargo (2015)—“Chief Gibson”
Billions (2016)—“Hall”

AVC: You did get to be a cop on Fargo, which seems like an amazing series.

TK: Oh, it was. That was a real experience. Great cast. Very no-nonsense, low-key working style that the production quality is all on the screen. It’s a no-frills environment, and they block shoots so you’re shooting two episodes at once all the time. It’s rigorous, and also at the same time you can tell that it’s going to be really good because it just looks so absolutely period. And Calgary. It’s a blank slate in a way. Big, giant open spaces that you don’t really get to see anywhere else.


AVC: You’re also in Billions right now. How’s that going?

TK: Billions I’m shooting right now in New York. We just started season two. And it’s a blast. These are friends of mine, [co-creators] Brian Koppelman and David Levien. I’ve known them for years, and they just have this little, sick role that they thought it would be funny to have me do. And so I’m there to amuse them. They tend to show up when I’m working because they like to watch these scenes. They make the guy speak in a very specific way and he’s frightening and he’s mysterious. And I don’t believe they will ever, ever make him less so. They’re not going to explain anything about him.


AVC: What a gamut. And you’re still on the board at Steppenwolf, right?

TK: I’m on the executive artistic board, which is somewhat of an honorary position. I’m a founder. Anna Shapiro just took the helm, and she likes to confer with me about a lot of things. So yeah.


The founders are just Jeff Perry, Gary Sinise, and myself. There was a lot of the original company that was Laurie Metcalf, Al Wilder, Joan Allen, and a couple people that aren’t there anymore.

AVC: It’s such a legacy. What a gift to Chicago to have that still.

TK: And to us. To have the supportive theater community there. That’s a town that goes to theater, and there are so many places that have sprung up since that are just surpassing. There’s probably five places that are doing work, not just comparable to us, but sometimes beyond what we do.


AVC: Are you still doing stage work in New York as well?

TK: Yeah, I’m about to do two back-to-back plays in the fall and winter. The play I told you about with Maddie is called The Babylon Line. It’s Richard Greenberg and that’s at Lincoln Center. Then at Roundabout Theatre, I’m doing The Price by Arthur Miller.


AVC: Is that still where your heart is, stage? Or have you come to appreciate being in front of the camera?

TK: Well, I don’t act on stage for a very long time now. But I love to act in front of a camera, and then I like to direct theater.


AVC: Working with all these directors, has it affected your view of the stage now? You started on stage, then went big picture, so do you come back to stage with maybe a different understanding of what resonates with an audience?

TK: I think good storytelling continues to teach you how it unfolds. And so I don’t think that film and stage are mutually exclusive at all. It’s just that you’re always in a wide shot.


The Mob Doctor (2012)—“Dante Amato”
Fly Away Home (1996)—“David Alden”

AVC: Can I ask you about The Mob Doctorit just seems kind of random?

TK: Well, that was [director] Michael Dinner, who is also a friend of mine, so he asked me to come in for a couple episodes. And it turned out Sally Murphy from my theater company played my wife, so we had a lot of fun doing it. I didn’t really get a sense of what the bigger thing was. I just did a couple of them. Playing a mobster. I don’t know. I don’t think of myself immediately for that, but whatever.


AVC: But that’s what makes you so flexible. You can do that, and also something like Fly Away Home.

TK: Oh, I’m glad you mentioned that, now that you did. That was one of the more pleasant experiences of my life. That was four months, and we were in north of Toronto and [director] Carroll Ballard, I had worshiped his work, and [cinematographer] Caleb Deschanel shooting it. I couldn’t believe when I went in to audition for it that I got it because I was so nervous meeting him.


When the script came in, I was a little disappointed that I had been written in a different way than I imagined, and he said, “Don’t worry about that. You’re not going to say any of this. This is just an outline. We’re going to make it all up.” And that’s exactly what we did. We improvised. And we would be improv-ing sometimes for 10 minutes and then you would hear them across a field, and you’d say, “Where are they?” And then you’d see Carroll coming across the field. And I’d say, “Where are you?” and he’d say, “Oh, we were over there behind that fence,” and you still couldn’t see him. And I said, “Are you in a big, wide shot of us?” and he goes, “Oh no, close-up.” He was on a 600-800 lens. He liked to just be unobtrusive and shoot with very long lenses and let you do your thing. The only thing he would ever say to you was, “Make sure that this information gets in the scene.” And I was lucky that he liked me and found me funny, so he let me be funny all the time.

AVC: Do you teach at all? You have such a history with acting and the stage.

TK: I have taught. I think I’m a better director than a teacher. You know who’s a great teacher is Jeff Perry, my co-founder. He’s a wonderful teacher because he’s all process, all the time. You have to let people find out who they are as actors and pull their strengths out based upon what they can actually do best.


AVC: So, last question: Are you still a Chicagoan at heart?

TK: Oh God, yes.

AVC: What about this Brooklyn business?

TK: I love living in Brooklyn, and I’ve been there for long enough that people would call me a New Yorker now. And some Chicagoans would say you’re not a Chicagoan because you haven’t been there for the winters, etc. The winters were hard. I grew up in the Midwest and I’d had enough in that regard, but in terms of my heart, there’s nothing that would ever be able to change anyone that’s from Chicago, that’s lived there for any length of time. Who loves the Cubs. Who loves the Bulls. And I guess the Bears.


And Chicago theater vs. New York theater. There’s just nothing to say about it really. If you’ve seen Chicago theater, you know that the work is true to what is there on the page. It’s not trying to present itself with some sort of flashy, concept-based thing. It’s about the work, and it’s about the acting you’re about to watch. So acting-based theater feels like it was born there to me.