In AMC’s new long-form murder mystery series “The Killing,” the eternally boyish Billy Campbell plays an idealistic local politician who becomes one of the many suspects in the murder of a teenage girl. At a “Killing” press conference in January, Campbell said he told the producers that he didn’t want to know whether or not his character was the killer until they got to the point in the series where the audience would find out the truth. That notion of playing a character on a show like this – or on “24,” where at any moment you could find out that you’re playing the new CTU mole – without knowing that character’s full intentions has always interested me, so – after doing interviews with producer Veena Sud and star Mireille Enos – I spent a few minutes chatting with Campbell about why he wanted to do things that way.
What I”m really interested in is this idea that you don”t want to know.
That”s got to be really hard, though. How are you playing scenes if you don”t know the characters intent or back-story?
Actually it”s a really great acting exercise. And incredibly valuable because if you think about it, the biggest thing that makes for bad acting is indicating. You know, when a bad guy makes a bad face, it”s overacting or what have you. And the very best actors are the ones who can be a bad character but they”re not making faces. Anthony Hopkins pops into my mind, right? So I”ve never planned to be a good actor. I wouldn”t claim it. I”ve certainly been a bad actor in my life at times, and this is a chance to do something when you know you can”t indicate. You can”t make a bad face or a good face. You have to be right down the middle.
(I cite a scene in the pilot episode where Campbell is told about the missing girl by the police, but only in the context where he may have to cancel a televised debate.) So what are you playing there in that scene? What”s going through your head?
I”m just playing like, you know, “Of course the thing has to be canceled. There”s a missing girl.” I”m basically playing true to character. The guy”s meant to be. He”s ostensibly a good guy. Right? He”s an honorable guy, which just makes him human. It doesn”t necessarily make him a good guy. I mean, the default position is, we would hope, is for every individual to be honorable. I don”t think he thinks he”s exceptional. He”s just an honorable person. We”ll find out if he actually is that or not. That”s the fun thing.
But I guess what I”m saying is if, hypothetically speaking, Veena declares, “Alright, you did it,” and now we have this scene where he”s reacting to a piece of news about the girl he killed rather placidly, are you going to feel okay with that choice?
Absolutely. Because it”s the better choice anyway. Again, the temptation is to indicate with the face, but the temptation is always to do too much of that. And you know, Michael Caine once said that when the camera”s close up on your face in a scene like that, by far the best choice is to think about what you had for breakfast. Not about the fact that I murdered the girl or whatever. But no, he literally will, in a close up, think about what he had for breakfast. So his face is like, “Whoosh.” And so the audience can read whatever they want into the face.
And you say you don”t necessarily want to call yourself a good actor. That at times you’ve been a bad actor. Was there a point in your career in which you feel you got a better handle on this sort of thing?
I suppose, yeah. It’s maybe concurrent with my just feeling better about myself as a person, you know? I started going to sea (Campbell recently took a break from acting for a year to be on the crew of a ship that delivered medical and educational supplies) and I started learning a lot about myself and just became more comfortable in my own skin. I think I am quite comfortable in my own skin now and I think I consequently became somewhat of a better actor. I mean it”s no secret that the things that we do are not always Shakespeare. They”re not always terribly well-written. And I don”t think I”m a good enough actor to make bad dialogue sound good, but it”s no excuse. You should try anyway. I admit that at times in my career I got lazy and so forth, and it”s not something I”m proud of, but it”s not something I”m ashamed of either. It just is what it is but this is a phenomenal opportunity to really be the best actor I can be.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com