Interview: ‘Gracepoint’ co-star Kevin Rankin on diversified roles from ‘Undeclared’ on

VICTORIA, BC. It's early May on Vancouver Island and rain has temporarily trapped Kevin Rankin in a makeshift press tent just inland at Island View Beach Regional Park.

With several of his co-stars in rotation being interviewed, Rankin ends up sitting next to the heat lamp, which means sitting next to me for what turns out to be an in-depth conversation about both his work on FOX's “Broadchurch” and his eclectic and varied career. 

With his turns as rascally and resilient Herc on “Friday Night Lights” and gloriously unprepared-for-authority RA Lucien on “Undeclared,” Rankin has the rare honor of having been part of multiple shows that earned the Firewall & Iceberg Podcast Summer ReWatch treatment. [Three, if you include “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” though his one-episode appearance came after the season featured in the podcast.]

Rankin has also had runs on shows including “Breaking Bad,” “Six Feet Under,” “Big Love” and “Justified,” when he wasn't terrorizing the President in “White House Down” or assisting Matthew McConaughey to his Oscar in “Dallas Buyers Club.”

On “Gracepoint,” a FOX remake of the British “Broadchurch,” Rankin plays Rev. Coates, a man of the cloth trying to steer a small town through its collective grief at the murder of a young boy. Is Coates just a shepherd caring for his flock, or does he have a personal agenda?

For an actor who has moved back and forth between hero-adjacent good guys and villain-adjacent henchman, it's a role that could absolutely go either way.

We covered a lot of Rankin's career in our 20-minute chat. Clad in a buttoned up brown cardigan, Rankin talked about his attempts to diversify his resume to prevent typecasting and how that has led to myriad responses when people recognize him in public. We talked about the pleasures of doing brief guest spots on established shows, but also the value in being with a show from the ground floor. And Rankin discussed the advantages and frustrations of kicking the wheels on being a network procedural regular. 

I think this is an interesting glimpse into the progress of a hard-working character actor.

The second “Gracepoint” episode airs tonight on FOX. The full Kevin Rankin Q&A is below…

HitFix: So, what is the allure of getting to play a man of the cloth and not a Neo-Nazi meth-head or any of the other various things that you've been on a roll with lately?

Kevin Rankin: The allure is, I guess, that it's completely different. And I feel like if the industry, as well as the audience, is going to allow me to step out of the boxes they put me in every job and they have the imagination to let me play this sort of thing, I'm there.

HitFix: When did you start feeling like you were getting put in a box of a certain kind? I don't feel like it's a small box but it is a box.

Kevin Rankin: Yeah. They keep trying to wedge you in there no matter what you do, but I had an idea early on: Diversify before they know who you are. You bounce around and you”re the computer nerd, you're the stoner guy, you're the bad guy, you do all those before you get a name for yourself and then when they take notice like, “Oh that was that guy, that guy, that guy” and then all of a sudden they really can't, even in their own head, they can't box you in, they can't really pigeonhole you if you're already out there, your work is out there already, whereas if you make a name with a certain character first before you diversify it's really hard to get out of that box.

HitFix: Now, does being clean-shaven help? Like do you walk into an interview and people go, “Wait… Are you…”

Kevin Rankin: Yeah. Completely different every time. And there's different forms of facial hair, there's the mustache with this so it's interesting. It looks different every time. I've been very lucky to be able to play these different characters here.

HitFix: Now the collar, when you put it on the first time and you look at yourself in the mirror, how quickly does that lock you in?

Kevin Rankin: It locks you in pretty quick. I usually say there's a thing that Jack Nicholson says is that the character's all in the hair part, the part of his hair. Every actor has something different and mine's usually wardrobe. And so when this comes on it feels like there's a padlock back here. I feel like I'm on God's leash, you know? And I feel like it makes me realize that the character has the collar as a reminder to himself also, like a psychiatrist gets into that sort of thing because they have their own issues to work out so they work it out with other people's issues. So I feel like it's the same for this guy.

HitFix: And you do in fact have the part in the hair, whereas…

Kevin Rankin: Yeah. This is a nice little schoolboy haircut. My mom says, “Oh you're finally a good guy.” I was like, “Maybe. I don't know.”

HitFix: Well, okay. Let's talk about that. Because obviously you're playing a character who is going to invariably be a suspect, but what is sort of the challenge of playing a potential suspect without playing suspicious?

Kevin Rankin: Yeah, no, because we have all this history of film and television,  years and years of red herrings, and the audience is so hyper-smart and they're used to watching things by looking at clues and piecing things together when you're not even asking them to. So this is a fine line to walk. And all you can do is I play him earnest and true blue possible because even if he is a bad person, he may not realize it; he may be something off; he maybe just left-of-center. So it's really tough to not give those looks back at camera and those things. You have to really just walk this line, because the audience is going to project it. They're like, “Ah the priest.” I'm the modern age of the butler, the modern version of “The butler did it,” the priest. So I think most of that suspicion comes from the audience, it's just their projection, no matter what you're doing. They know this is a sort of show that everyone is sort of suspect so no matter what you're doing, even if it's something as simple as moving a cup from here to here it's like, “Why did he move that cup?” So it's all up to them.

HitFix: And you sort of trust that the director and the editor will have gotten what they needed for the cutaway?

Kevin Rankin: Complete trust. Yeah. It's all up to them and how they pace it, what shots they use, how they're moving the camera because that's all the stuff that informs the viewer of like, “How slow is that camera moving?” So it's such a dance and I just come in and do my part as honestly and genuinely as I can and then put it into their hands.

HitFix: The character in the original there is sort of more of a tradition of the British small town priest/vicar/whatever and we don't have the same tradition in the States in the same way. So how does that make your character different?

Kevin Rankin: It's very much Americanized. It's a lot less traditional over here, an Episcopalian priest. So there's so much more freedom from the get-go, you know, from definition-wise. I feel like it was very British the “Broadchurch” version and he was a very earnest character, whereas over here, even if I'm a little inexperienced, my character hides it very much more. I'm learning on the job but I don't let it be known. My character definitely feels that “I have a calling, and part of that calling is showing confidence that I know.”  So there's a lot less bumbliness. I'm more confident. And within that confidence you're going to get a lot of – people could read it as “Whoa, back up a moment” or maybe it's creepy to some viewers and to some viewers it might be a little, “He knows exactly who he is and who he's about.” So I just know viewers are going to read me differently across the board.

HitFix: Well, there's always sort of the question when you're playing a man of faith, are people of faith going to view him as being a negative depiction of The Cloth?

Kevin Rankin: I don't think you so. I think those viewers I think will see my effort and my want to help people. I don't think they're going to see it as shady. Know what I mean? Whereas other people will. Because the normal guy Joe Blow may not come in contact with a lot of priests. So just right from the get-go, I know when I'm talking to a cop or something, it's just something about me straightens up. So the same thing with a priest. People act differently around my character and I act a little differently around each person as well.

HitFix: Tell me about your relationship with the original series, had you watched it before you heard about this? Did you watch it after?

Kevin Rankin: Yeah, I heard so much stuff about it for months. And then when this came about I watched the pilot and that's all I watched. So that's all I've seen. I didn't want to show up first day with a British accent and they're like, “He watched it. He's doing exactly what the other guy did!” I just wanted to get a feel for the vibe of it; that's all I needed. And then I came in and I sort of knew how that character was being played on “Broadchurch.” I came in with a completely different take, and in my head I felt like, “If they hire me doing it this way I really want to play his character.” And they liked it so I was like, “Wow, I'm in,” because I would say it's almost a 180 from “Broadchurch's” vicar.

HitFix: Okay. Well give me a little bit more on the 180 side of it.

Kevin Rankin: Because Arthur Darvill was great. He's a fantastic actor and the way he played it was a very earnest, I hate to say “surface-y,” but it's very “British” I would say. I don't know how to put those in words, it's very abstract whereas this Americanized version of this priest is more internal? His character was more externally, is a little bigger, where this guy is a little more drawn in, you don't know what he's thinking. It's more in the eyes and what he's doing as opposed to… I'm trying to find the right words for it.

HitFix: Sure. Just when you said the 180 part it sort of, you know, piqued my curiosity.

Kevin Rankin: It seems as though instead of popping on the scene and me telling you exactly what my character is about, you're going to have to sit back and take maybe an episode or two to figure this guy out.

HitFix: For you when you're looking at projects, you've had a lot of success lately on TV dramas, why haven't you gone back and done comedies lately?

Kevin Rankin: Honestly they won't let me in. They're exclusive worlds sometimes. You have comedic actors and then you have actors that do comedic stuff. I'm not looked at as a comedic actor so a lot of times I'm not sort of invited into that world. And this world kind of keeps pulling me back. And then within this world I get to play some comedic stuff, but I'm still not viewed as a comedy actor.

HitFix: What do you think of yourself? I mean obviously you think of yourself as being an actor.

Kevin Rankin: Yeah. I mean I enjoy both of them a lot. And honestly there's a lot less stress in doing the drama. There's a lot of pressure in the comedy to really get it. But where in this it's just two people talking. There's no stress. It comes a lot simpler and it's more genuine whereas comedy is all about [He pauses, setting up the old punchline.] timing.

HitFix: But would you like to go back and do…?

Kevin Rankin: Oh yeah man. Yeah. Yeah. Definitely yeah. I really love both of them and I enjoy both of them.

HitFix: When I think of when I first saw you it would have been in more comedic stuff.

Kevin Rankin: Yeah, it started out in more comedic stuff working very character-y character stuff, and part of that diversification that I was trying to do initially… I would cut my hair and just try to show up and be different people. It just sort of evolved. It went from being this bumbling guy to the computer guy to the stoner guy to now we're a bad guy, which was a constant decision. I was like, “I really want to work on trying to be a bad guy.” And then when I did that, those parts started kind of coming in. And then now all of a sudden that's all they wanted me for so now I'm saying, “Pump the brakes; let's try something different.”

HitFix: Now, is there anything when people point and go, “Hey you're that guy from…” What is the “from” usually going to be?

Kevin Rankin: It's tough because I look at different, so when they see me out in the world they either think I dated their cousin or they went to college with me. But I get a lot of “Friday Night Lights” now just because people are discovering it. People are discovering it more now than they did then and they don't usually – anything I have facial hair they don't recognize me from. They don't normally recognize me from “Breaking Bad,” but I get a lot of “Justified.”

HitFix: I was just wonder can you tell the sort of people who are going to recognize you from certain things?

Kevin Rankin: Yeah. They ask me and then I start going down my resume and then by the fifth one they still haven't seen it and I'm like, “You know what, I'm not aware of your viewing habits. I thought I knew you like you thought you knew me but I don't know you.”

HitFix: It's like the idea that if you see a certain kind of person you can go “Okay that person is going to recognize me from 'Justified.'”

Kevin Rankin: Yeah. It's like, “He knows me from 'Justified,'” and then he's like, “Oh it's 'The O.C.'” “Oh wow. I only did one of those but sir, you remember 'The O.C.'?” [He laughs.]

HitFix: I think that speaks well for a certain kind of viewer.

Kevin Rankin: I still get “Undeclared.”

HitFix: Of course you do and that would be the comedy I mentioned earlier, one of the first places where I remember putting your face and name together.

Kevin Rankin: Ahead of its time by the way, “Undeclared.”

HitFix: I don't know if you've rewatched it lately…

Kevin Rankin: I haven't. No.

HitFix: Every bit as funny. As it was, and of course the cast is…

Kevin Rankin: Completely. Right?”

HitFix: Utterly ridiculous and you and Amy [Poehler] had all of those great moments together.

Kevin Rankin: Which was great. With Amy, I didn't know who she was when we first started working together. She's genius. She's like John Lennon-esque in her genius of comedy. She was so insecure and we would do a take and she'd be like, “That's just not funny.” I'm like, “No, you're doing great,” not knowing who she really was at the time. I'm like, “No, you're doing great!” Who knew she was so amazing?

HitFix: Would you have known at the time that all of those guys were going to become what they became?

Kevin Rankin: Oh, I really felt like that, yeah. Yeah. Specifically Seth Rogen. I knew that guy was definitely… Yeah.

[More on Page 2, including Rankin's experiences on a couple procedurals and the all-important question: Does seeing David Tennant's work on “Gracepoint” make him want to reprise Herc in a British “Friday Night Lights”?]

HitFix: Well, how do you feel sort of about the different between doing a regular thing where you can settle down and you know “I've got these ten episodes I'm going to be in one place,” rather than the guest star life of “I've got two episodes and then it's onto the next place”?

Kevin Rankin: Mainly I guess they're just so different, they're really different. Whereas the other one I feel like I'm constantly the new kid in school coming onto a production that's already on and swinging and I just sort of feel my way around. Whereas this I'm ground zero with everyone else, so we're all starting from the same place. So I guess there's obviously more time to build a character and to understand who the character is, but I like it both ways. I like the speed of the recurring, just come in and do my job, a contract player. And I like this too. But I guess the difference is is you just have more time to figure out who you're playing.

HitFix: You had [“Unforgettable,”] which you did a couple of years ago, where you took the regular role. And I'm like thinking “Okay, if it doesn't feel like a challenging character immediately for him, but on the other hand I can see why there would be an advantage to saying 'I'm going to be in 22 episodes of this one.'”

Kevin Rankin: Yeah. I'm just gonna sit here and I'm going to be in one place, although it wasn't really to my liking. So the whole network, 20-episodes, that sortta thing, I'm not a fan of it really. It's just too much work. That stretch of 22 episodes straight is a lot of work. It's a lot of work and a procedural where I'm just spitting out information just, you know, “So and so on this night of the murder…” I felt like I was a spinning my wheels on that show for sure.

HitFix: But was the thought process stability?

Kevin Rankin: It definitely was. Network. I wanted some stability in life, put some money in the bank; that kind of thing. It totally was that kind of decision. And then it was a whole different kind of acting because you're there and you're just doing almost like a newscaster because you're just delivering information for a straight hour to the audience. So it has to be a certain cadence of this information, but you also have to say it like you say it every day. You can't say it too fast because then you're not understanding the information. So it was like a whole new way of acting when you do it procedural than something like this where, like I said, it's just two people talking and there's not information that actually has to get out, but subtext and emotion, where those procedurals we're talking heads. That's all it is.

HitFix: Is there anything you can learn or take away from an experience like that other then obviously the standard paycheck?

Kevin Rankin: Yeah. Memorization. It's great for the brain because you have a lot of information that you have to memorize. So I took that away from it.

HitFix: I just felt it was just an interesting decision for you at the time…

Kevin Rankin: Right. I felt like it was too. It was an exercise in stability and “Let's see what this is like. I've never played a cop; I've never put a suit on for a job, let me go see what that's like.” That's really what it was.

HitFix: Going back to “Gracepoint,” is the sweater your sweater or the character's sweater?

Kevin Rankin: This is character. This is all character.

HitFix: I didn't want to make a joke about the sweater in case you're like, “No this is *my* sweater.”

Kevin Rankin: This is sort of the look. Sometimes I have a black shirt or a blue one but it's always different cardigans so this is the look of this guy.

HitFix: Is David Tennant sort of a touchstone for all of you guys having done this before, this show?

Kevin Rankin: Yeah because I have so many questions for him because he's doing a lot of the times really similar scenes, like almost word for word sometimes, with different actors who are playing these characters very different than the British version. So what that does is it changes up David's game quite a bit just purely through reactions and takes his character down another road than it did in “Broadchurch.” So not only is he speaking with an American accent, but his character is being pushed in different directions by everyone else. So I think this is interesting for him and yes he is definitely a touchstone for all of us.

HitFix: Would you ever like to do that, play the exact same character only with a different accent?

Kevin Rankin: No. No. [He laughs.] No. I wouldn't and that's why I was thinking it's very interesting for him, but for me it's not something I would like to do.

HitFix: You don't want to know what British Herc would be like?

Kevin Rankin: [Laughs.] No. I'd watch it. I'd watch someone else do it, but I wouldn't want to do it. No. [He laughs more.]

HitFix: I'm kind of thinking it's a high school… I don't know… soccer team?

Kevin Rankin: Soccer team. Right. Well, I would do like a Funny-or-Die skit as a British version of all these characters.

HitFix: Okay. You wouldn't want to do it on a regular thing?

Kevin Rankin: No. I wouldn't want to do it.

HitFix: I can completely understand that. It's a weird thing. I'm kind of looking forward to seeing…

Kevin Rankin: I'd like to see it. I mean that's the difference between like a theater where you're doing the same material for so long, which is why I like television and these characters is the turnover, the speed of it. I like to do it and just keep it going and do different things man.

HitFix: Obviously there are a lot of people who live out on this island here but it still is a bit remote so it's not like a shooting in L.A., it's not even like shooting in Vancouver. What has this semi-remoteness of this done to the cast as sort of a unit?

Kevin Rankin: I stayed the whole time. I brought my wife and my baby out here and we love it. It's the best place I've ever shot on location. It's so peaceful. And I think it gives you a little more time with the material and to just sort of soak up because I don't have to worry about the phone ringing, my normal life that I left back in Los Angeles. I don't have to worry about anyone calling or popping in, it's just very peaceful. I came up here to sort of a retreat and it feels like a retreat.

HitFix: Have you started doing any of the island-y things that the natives do?

Kevin Rankin: I haven't gone off the island yet but I have my kid and like swim classes and music classes so I moved right in. It's really quiet here, very quiet.

HitFix: Well, do you have the next thing lined up already if you guys are on episode nine on this?

Kevin Rankin: I did but it didn't work out because it's all about “Can we get him out?” and the dates didn't work out so now I'm just going to be unemployed after this for a minute.

HitFix: Was it going to be television as well?

Kevin Rankin: It was going to be a film, a nice R-rated comedy, a nice change. So it would have been nice.

HitFix: You ever get on the phone and ask Judd Apatow why he isn't inviting you to the movie party?

Kevin Rankin: I know! Judd's waiting for me… Because I kind of had a different trajectories than all of those other guys. They all sort of, like I said, went into that comedic world and I was sort of invited in the drama side with open arms so I went that way. I think he's waiting for me to make a name for myself to work with me again. That's what I think. He's waiting until it's like the cool thing to work with Kevin Rankin again and then he'll work with me. [He chuckles.]

HitFix: And then it will be a full Kevin Rankin vehicle.

Kevin Rankin: It will be full-on. Yeah. Yeah. Exactly. But I would love to work with Judd. I loved working with him then. He would just spit out things during the take, “Say this, say that” as we're still rolling and it was just alive. That set was alive.

HitFix: Were there things you learned from that that you still are able to use?

Kevin Rankin: Yeah man, concentration and focus stuff. Just being able to stay in it while a billion things are happening and be able to get suggestions and directions and to be able to just apply them in the moment. So I learned a lot initially.

“Gracepoint” airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on FOX.