2017 Berlin International Film Festival: As part of a relatively new segment of The Berlinale, Amazon’s much-anticipated new series, “Patriot” had its international premiere at the prestigious festival. I had a chance to sit down with Kurtwood Smith, Terry O’Quinn, Michael Chernus and Michael Dorman, as we discussed their characters, careers, social media savviness (or lack thereof), inspirations, hobbies, music and what to look forward to throughout the show.
Kurtwood Smith and Michael Chernus
(I introduce myself to Kurtwood Smith and Michael Chernus)
Kurtwood Smith: Where you from?
Awards Circuit: San Francisco.
Smith: Oh, cool! So how do you like the city?
Awards Circuit: San Francisco? Love it.
Smith: Did you grow up there? You from there?
Awards Circuit: Yeah, born and raised there.
Smith: I used to live in the Bay area.
Awards Circuit: Really, where in the Bay area?
Smith: When I first was there, I was in like South San Francisco, Los Gatos for a long time, San Jose, Redwood City, Menlo Park.
Awards Circuit: There you go! Nice! I grew up in San Mateo and then moved to San Francisco [downtown].
Smith: I started theater at College of San Mateo.
Awards Circuit: Oh, awesome! How about you Michael [Chernus]?
Michael Chernus: I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio originally. Then I moved to New York when I was 18, and I’ve been there pretty much ever since.
Smith: [Using his legendary wry wit] Well, anyway, it’s been nice!
(the three of us laugh)
Awards Circuit: How’s your experience been so far at The Berlinale?
Chernus: It’s been great.
Smith: Yeah, it has been great, because the interviews have been fun. But that’s pretty much all – at least that’s all that I’ve done.
Chernus: Yeah we haven’t seen any other things or seen any of Berlin.
Smith: Yeah so we have not really participated in Berlinale other than this.
Awards Circuit: First of all, I enjoyed the first two episodes. The pilot was amazing!
Smith: Thank you.
Awards Circuit: So, when [show creator, writer and director] Steve Conrad first approached you guys, what attracted you to the script or the story?
Smith: Well, the writing because if it isn’t there, there is a pretty good chance you’re not going to have anything. I think his writing is fresh and entertaining. It’s very relatable but at the same time you’re dealing with a spy, his family and all that kind of stuff, and a mid-west piping company that all blends. But it’s very relatable. Great sense of humor. Funny.
Awards Circuit: Absolutely. One of the things that surprised me was the sense of humor. I was laughing a lot, but it sort of deftly balanced that sense of humor with the sobering reality of espionage and all that stuff. Kurtwood, you play the stickler boss very well.
Smith: Thank you. But, this guy, you know, Michael and I were just talking to someone from Brazil and we were talking about how great it is to have characters that develop so much. Like in the third episode you get my whole back story. And you understand why he’s a legend, but is working in a – y0u know – sort of a lesser job than he should be. It’s great to be in a show that does that and in a situation that allows it in 10 episodes.
Awards Circuit: Sure, I look forward to hearing the backstory, absolutely.
Smith: But basically it was the script, to get back to it.
Awards Circuit: (to Chernus) So, you play sort of the loyal loving brother, and I think you kind of bring an earnestness and kindness and [you’re] kind of the comedic relief in the series, at least the first two episodes I saw. And your character was certainly different than your brother, your counterpart, you kind of cover for him, you’re loyal-
Chernus: More handsome…
Awards Circuit: Exactly.
Chernus: More athletic…
Smith: Funnier. But he has – the way his character changes towards the end is quite fascinating. He’s got quite a journey there.
Chernus: Thank you. Yeah he’s a fun guy to play. To piggy back on what Kurtwood was saying, I think the writing on this show is so unique, and specific, and just weird in the best sense. When I read it, as an actor you get scripts and some things jump out at you and some don’t, and for whatever reason, this just like grabbed me right away. I felt like, “Oh I have to do this. I have to play this guy,” and Steve has written all of the characters so lovingly but for me it was like, to take this guy like Edward, who, in the wrong hands could be written off as sort an odd ball, goof ball, ne’er-do-well, sort of lazy. And to be written, with such grace and empathy really blew me away. And that everyone gets their little moment – you see them – you know, like the moments that I have with the Efram character, the little boy, who’s my beltway buddy, who you find out is actually my son, and there are these moments, these glimpses into everybody’s personal lives, and Steve really takes the time to treat every character with respect.
Awards Circuit: That’s what I found what separates this from a lot of espionage [films or shows], is it focuses more on the familial bonding and the relationships that these characters are going through. And I look forward to certainly hearing the character’s [Smith’s] backstory in the third episode. That moment towards the end of the second part, where you explain the bedtime story to your son, that was really emotional.
Smith: And funny at the same time.
Awards Circuit: At the same time! It’s a perfect balance. (to Chernus) When you were explaining [in the show] – you’re wearing the Beastie Boys jumpsuit, and you talk about the concert and how your dad [O’Quinn’s character] – the whole time – they were poking him. It was hilarious, but you said a piece of you died when MCA died. I thought that was funny, but at the same time, like you said, sad, and it was interesting, you have this espionage story about these spies, then all of a sudden you have the Beastie Boys and the musical aspect of John and his dad playing folk songs. It’s refreshing. You were also in “The Dinner” (which also debuted at The Berlinale). I saw it and loved it. You played the waiter, which was awesome. Your scenes with Steve Coogan were great.
Chernus: Oh, thanks!
Awards Circuit: Yeah, you’re, in a sense, the glue in the film to hold everyone together in the dinner [scenes] from falling apart. It’s inevitable but eventually –
Chernus: Thank you so much. I’m really proud of that film. Oren Moverman, the filmmaker, I really think he’s a really special filmmaker and he trusts actors so much. So a lot of that – we were all sort of stuck in this location where they created that weird fancy restaurant for two weeks, and Oren will just let the camera roll for long periods of time. The lion share of the film was scripted, it’s not like we were improvising the whole time. But I feel like he’s so good at catching nuances. The film is originally based on this novel – a really successful novel, and I feel that Oren did a really great job – a hard thing – of taking the story off of the page and putting it on the screen.
Awards Circuit: So Kurtwood, I’m sure you get this a lot, but you’re – at least in my generation, over the last 15-20 years – it’s “That 70’s Show,” the character that I sort of associate you with. But obviously you have a vast filmography of course, but did you take any of Red from “That 70’s Show” into this character in the show? Because they both kind of have this kind of bitterness.
Smith: I’ve started saying recently, it seems like I’ve built my career on berating young men. There is some of that, but it’s certainly not intentional. But then it’s me doing it – so some of that’s going to happen – but they are totally different men and characters. And because I’m doing it, you can’t help but probably see some of it. But it’s even done in a very different way.
Chernus: You berate me in your personal life. Onset!
Smith: Well that’s just – you gotta practice!
Chernus: That’s just fun.
Smith: It’s so funny. It’s worked out great. Michael and I being teamed up for the interviews, and we have no scenes – we were never onscreen for the same time in all 10 episodes. But it kind of works out perfect, because then you cover both sides. But anyways, thank you for what you said about “That 70’s Show,” because that was just a great time. But I doubt that’s what Steve had in mind. I doubt he’s a “That 70’s Show” guy, probably some other things I’ve done came to mind.
Award Circuit: So, you’ve got 10 episodes, you guys never meet, but has Steve hinted that you will encounter each other?
Smith: I don’t think so, but it’s possible. It’s funny because Terry O’Quinn and I, we were on opposite sides of the film for about 8 episodes, and then all-of-the-sudden, in the last two episodes we had several scenes together, especially in the last episode, episode 9 I think. It was great, we had a great time. Terry and I met 27 years ago in Berlin. He doesn’t remember! He forgot the movie.
(enter Terry O’Quinn)
Terry O’Quinn: What’s this? What’s your name again?
O’Quinn: Did you know these old guys are butt ass naked out here on the balcony? A little spa or something.
Awards Circuit: Europe!
O’Quinn: Yeah, welcome to Europe!
Awards Circuit: How are you doing, Terry?
Smith: You know Terry, right? (We met 10 minutes earlier in the lobby)
O’Quinn: I’m not here.
Smith: I think it’s quite possible that by next season we have some terrific scenes together.
Awards Circuit: Awesome, I’m certainly looking forward to that.
Chernus: If we were on a network they might’ve used Sweets Week, the Leslie Edward episode.
Awards Circuit: So on location it was shot primarily in –
Smith: It was shot almost entirely in Chicago, but for some others of us – they got to go to Prague actually.
Chernus: Those of us with valid passports.
O’Quinn: Or had to, depending on your point-of-view.
Awards Circuit: You shot the Budapest and Amsterdam scenes both in Prague? Was that sort of intentional? What was the story behind that?
Chernus: I think our cinematographer had shot a bunch of times before in Prague and he knew some crew members over there. I think it was a practical, problem-solving solution. We didn’t have a lot of time – 80% of the series was shot in Chicago, and so a lot of the European interiors were shot on a sound stage in Chicago. But we needed to get like street scenes and exteriors in Europe. So Prague was selected because we have a short time to schedule it and our cinematographer had a familiarity with Prague.
Awards Circuit: Certainly a beautiful city to say the least.
Chernus: Yeah, great city!
Awards Circuit: Terry!
Awards Circuit: Is that what they call you?
O’Quinn: Well, Michael does.
Smith: I think we should start calling him that from now on.
Chernus: It’s your Instagram handle, isn’t it?
O’Quinn: That’s right, @tboneoquinn.
Smith: (in shock) You have an Instagram handle?
O’Quinn: Yeah, I do, I think so, I forget.
Chernus: It’s a great page, follow him. @tboneoquinn!
O’Quinn: A lot of pictures of sunsets.
Smith: I’ll have to check that out. I never put pictures [on mine], I like to look at other people’s pictures.
Chernus: You’re a lurker?
Smith: I’m a lurker. Yeah, absolutely.
O’Quinn: I put pictures up of my cats and sunsets.
Smith: You have cats?
O’Quinn: I have two cats!
Smith: What are their names?
O’Quinn: One is Aliette. We took our one cat to Chicago, we drove there, and my girlfriend Kate and Aliette were talking one night about how she wanted another cat to take care of. So we got another fucking cat in Chicago. She’s a little gangster cat. She’s the nastiest little cast, but she’s a sweetheart. She can’t figure out how to get the door open but the other cat can. She can’t but she’ll kick the other cat’s ass when she comes out.
Awards Circuit: The scenes where you play the guitar and sing, those are wonderful scenes. You have a lovely singing voice, did you play your own guitar?
O’Quinn: That’s cool man, well thank you very much. Yeah, that scene they recorded live. They just recorded us playing. I don’t think there was any dubbing that time.
Awards Circuit: Had you been familiar with the guitar before? Did you have to learn?
O’Quinn: Yeah, you can’t – that’s – you should never ask that question again (jokingly), because it took me 50 years to learn guitar just that well for the scene!
Awards Circuit: That’s a good point, I’ve only been playing for 10 years!
O’Quinn: I started at 15, and I hit a plateau at 16, and I’m still on it!
O’Quinn: Michael is great at guitar.
Chernus: Yeah, you’re great.
Smith. You’re great, and you’re great together.
O’Quinn: We have a big happy family as you can tell.
Awards Circuit: And that’s part of what brings [more] life to the story, is the depth and the familial bonding between you and your sons. It’s rare because usually you have a person in your position in film, usually we see as a faceless, one dimensional person, but you’re obviously a multi-dimensional person.
O’Quinn: You can thank Steve Conrad for all that. The fact that we want to get picked up for another season just so we can all do more scenes together. I can’t wait until we’re all in a room together!
Smith: That would be hilarious!
Awards Circuit: So how long did the shooting take?
Smith: A month, I mean 4-5 months. 5 months. 4 months in Chicago and then in Prague for a couple weeks. But there was a big space, about a year, between the pilot and the series.
Awards Circuit: (to Terry) You were attached to the project two years ago?
O’Quinn: Not long before it started. I mean, I guess, when did we start shooting?
Chernus: We started shooting in August of ’15. I only remember because I got married a month after
O’Quinn: I think I got started 2-3 weeks before we started shooting. Those are the folks who get a whole year to make a 90-minute movie. They’re so spoiled. We did a 10-hour movie in 6 months. And it’s pretty good, too!
Awards Circuit: And having a series allows you to further explore characters way more than you ever would within an hour and a half, two-hour frame work. That’s a beauty of TV these days. Particularly with these studios like Amazon Prime and Netflix that focus on this. And I think, they truly understand the narrative shift in the industry towards high brow television. It’s [the industry] evolving – television is almost becoming the new standard.
O’Quinn: Well, there are two types [of shows], it depends on what you’re talking about.
Awards Circuit: Not reality TV. Anything but reality TV.
O’Quinn: There’s still plenty of that TV. This is a whole other avenue; I don’t think of this as TV. Probably half of the people that watch it, maybe more, won’t watch it on TV, but people can watch it anywhere.
Chernus: People can watch it on their phone, iPad, Computer. Yeah, to call it a TV show isn’t even fair anymore, you know? It’s not on a television network.
Smith: Hopefully people aren’t going to watch it on their phones.
O’Quinn: To watch this on a phone would be like listening to a symphony on a phone without earplugs. You’ve got to watch this baby on something big. It’s so beautiful. It’s so beautifully shot, they take the best advantage – that I’ve seen – of HD, and the new technology that I’ve seen. They really do.
Awards Circuit: (to Terry) For me, this is the first time I have seen you onscreen since “LOST,” a wildly successful show. I had seen you in movies before, “Stepfather” back in the day. And you had some small parts in [films like] “Old School.” But with “LOST,” it was the first time I had seen the range that you [can] portray. The humanity and the struggle of that character I really related to. You bring that same sort of depth into “Patriot,” but they are completely different characters; as soon as I saw you on screen, I had forgotten completely about the character John Locke.
O’Quinn: That’s wonderful. That’s the nicest thing you could say to me. Although I love John Locke, and I’m glad that people loved him, and I still hear a lot about him. When you have a character like that, and Kurtwood knows this, it’s lovely for people to come up and say, “I loved you in this.” But you want them to come up and tell you about something different, something new that you’re doing. This [“Patriot”] feels more to me like something that has that sort of depth ever since.. I’ve done 4 pilots in 2 seasons of shows, and nothing has had that grip.
Awards Circuit: So good to see you all!
Chernus: Thanks, brotha!
Smith: And say hi to the Bay Area for me! I don’t get up there as much anymore. My kids moved down to LA.
Awards Circuit: Absolutely, will do!
Terry O’Quinn and Michael Dorman
O’Quinn: “Sunshine in my eyes can make me cry.” *pitch-perfectly acappella singing a lyric from John Denver’s “Sunshine On My Shoulders.”
Awards Circuit: You both have got to be really musical guys, musically inclined.
O’Quinn: (soulfully) Well I love it!
Michael Dorman: We share that.
O’Quinn: He plays it better.
Dorman: I don’t know about that.
Awards Circuit: (to Terry) Are you being humble?
Dorman: He is.
O’Quinn: I got – you know what – I’ve developed my own style. I hit a plateau early on in my guitar experience and I pretty much stayed there.
Dorman: Well, there’s a true fact: that I would go around Terry’s place, and force him to play music so I could sit and listen to him.
Awards Circuit: Really?
Dorman: Yeah. That is a fact!
O’Quinn: That’s because, then, he felt so much better with his own guitar playing.
O’Quinn: Yeah right! Sure!
O’Quinn: Well, I don’t know, this may be inaccurate, but Kate says, “You’re so much better than you think, why are you down on yourself?” Well that’s just – that’s how I do. It’s the Irish in me.
Dorman: What’s that analogy on the golf course? Whose ball is that? It’s true!
O’Quinn: I told him that story. I play golf, so, you know, when you and your partner both a ball over the hill, there will be one by the pin and there’s one in the sand trap. I always walk to the sand trap. I say, “That’s mine!”
Awards Circuit: Well, humility is a good trait to have for sure.
O’Quinn: As long as it’s not false. Because we ain’t buying that.
Awards Circuit: (jokingly) I was telling Terry I watched this series on my little iWatch.
Dorman: Oh, yes!
Awards Circuit: It was certainly beautifully shot, not something you want to watch, as Terry was saying, on your phone. You’ve got to capture the whole feeling of it.
Dorman: Yeah they did a great job. That was the first time we had seen it on the big screen. So for us it was an absolute treat. I was even noticing new things new stuff I had forgotten. They really captured everything.
Awards Circuit: I asked Terry a dumb question, oh, “Did you learn the all of the guitar only for this role,” and I realized how much practice it takes. I kind of mess around with the piano. It’s definitely not easy; it’s taken me 10 years to learn three songs. But granted, I don’t have a teacher or anything –
O’Quinn: Hey, at least you’re doing it. That’s all it is.
Awards Circuit: Yeah! Anyways, about you guys! Your relationship is really unique in the series. It’s refreshing. (to Terry) You’re the Director of Intelligence, right? (to Michael) And you’re his son who reluctantly follows orders. Yet, there’s a love that is rarely seen, portrayed in these kinds of relationships in government agencies, and I thought that going in depth into those characters, is certainly what sets this apart from a lot of other things.
Dorman: Well, it’s not really a boss, even though it is. My take on it was, “That’s your father,” and there’s trust there, which is a dangerous element, because if have an intelligence officer, who has a trust for the person who is calling the shots, they will do anything for that person. You know. It can be dangerous and it’s an asset. It sort of tips the scales a little bit. Because then, I also feel comfortable letting him know that I’m singing these songs, you know, having a fight with these different conflicts.
Awards Circuit: (to Terry) And you don’t – you’re concerned about his songs being too literal, but you like them of course.
Dorman: How it sort of goes into that territory is, it’s unchartered.
Awards Circuit: I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be funny at the same time, but in the first scene you’re playing the guitar, it’s so literal, you’re saying everything you just –
Dorman: Well it’s a set up. They are setting up the tone. And the idea. And then the execution; it draws out the comedy because you, the audience, are in on the gag.
O’Quinn: Well, the cool thing is, I don’t think there’s supposed to be anything, it can be funny and that’s great, but if people don’t laugh, that’s okay too. Because he’s telling the story. It’s weird, if nothing else.
O’Quinn: But it is funny.
Dorman: We had fun.
Awards Circuit: The musical scenes with you guys together, playing the guitar, was that shot in one take, or did you have several takes?
Dorman: We had a few. But we shot it in one sequence.
O’Quinn: Yeah, it was a scene like any other scene. There had to be moved cameras and all that. Maybe 5 or 6 times. They recorded it right on the set. We didn’t dub anything or loop anything.
Dorman: I knew I was in for something different then. Because I knew it was unconventional in the sense of things that I worked on prior and my experience of television. That was different for me, because even some of the sequences we filmed in the pilot, where you’ve got a steady cam, and we’re going from one moment, to the next moment, to the next moment, and it’s just one through line. And, you’re actually, as the viewer, experiencing what we are at the same time. Very different than anything I’ve done.
Awards Circuit: So, right off the bat, we see a darker side of John (Michael’s character). Where he pushes his competitor for the interview in front of the truck.
Dorman: Or an acceptance of necessity.
Awards Circuit: Was that something that was implied – that you were supposed to do as told? Or was it just like your character’s instincts?
Dorman: I guess it was in that moment, if you were to look at it through John’s eyes, he has no one to help him. That becomes, in part, impossible, going undercover. They call them NOCs (non-official cover). They don’t have any backup, and so you’re basically left to make decisions on your feet. And in that instance, the moment that you’re talking about, if that guy gets the job, the whole plan is done from the start. There is no plan. And he’s faced with the choice of having to do something he really doesn’t want to do, but without him, which is why I said the acceptance of necessity, is why he was making the choice for that push. That’s the only option, which, you know, for me, there’s a joy in it because you see the human side of John where he doesn’t want to do it, he’s reluctant. But then you him have to execute it, but then you see how it manifests in his next day. He’s left with this guilt and all of the emotions that you’d experience if you did something. And you, as the viewers, get to experience that with him and watch it.
Awards Circuit: You convey that so well. Sometimes on the verge of tears trying to hold it in, and so you see the humanism behind an act that would seem like an act of, I don’t know, uncalled for violence. But it has a purpose to it, like you said. I think that the scene where Terry is explaining to you what your mission is, and you’re just sort of zoning out. What I noticed is that the politics in the beginning takes a back seat. They are establishing family first. It’s not until the end of the second part, you see what happens, that what you (Terry’s character) were attempting to do actually backfired. You see a brief glimpse of flash-forward 2017 and you’re on trial telling the story of what happens.
Dorman: I just love those scenes. They’re so funny, so funny.
O’Quinn: I think I am being deposed. I think we get the impression that it’s a deposition. You know by the end of the second part, somewhere, that the consequences are dire for both of us.
Awards Circuit: So I’m assuming the next eight episodes you’re going to try to get yourselves out of that conundrum that you got yourselves into.
Dorman: Yeah, you’re right. It is essentially the unraveling of a plan. And then an attempt to conceal that.
O’Quinn: It’s really just no different than another relationship. Because if I owned a car dealership, with father and son car dealers, this is what happens this is my vision. You know, welcome into the business. We love each other. But at what point do you begin to abuse the trust?
Awards Circuit: There is a theme of nepotism. Do you guys relate to that relationship – wanting to be loyal to your family but at the same time pursuing your other passions. Did you guys relate your own personal lives to those characters?
Dorman: I didn’t really think of it in the making of, but now that you’re asking me to think about it, and if I could…my father has a very different idea – he does something very different than me. I did something completely different, but, in saying that, I think the person that I am is similar to my father, in the way that I approach people and in the way that I approach my tools, or skill set, whatever it is, is similar. I guess it’s the same with these two characters.
Awards Circuit: So how was it working with Steve Conrad as a director? What does he bring to the table, obviously a lot, but what have you seen that’s different from other directors you’ve worked with?
O’Quinn: Clarity of vision; he is very clear.
Dorman: He has such a unique style. On the page, it’s different than anything I’ve read. You kind of need that, right? It’s rare.
O’Quinn: He’s going to get what he wants, and he’s not going to stop until he gets what he wants. And fortunately, you realize that it’s what you want. Because once you understand that they are driving the ship, you can do your thing and relax. You can simply add all the nuance you want, to do your job.
Dorman: And having a writer and their vision, chasing through the direction and ready to shoot when they get to set, because they know what they want to shoot. And maximizing the amount of time you have, by being so prepared you’re not wasting any of the time.
O’Quinn: I think what I’ve talked to the other people about – at first they don’t get it, they think it sounds kind of tyrannical. Oh no, ‘Let me explain further, it’s not at all.’ It’s great, you know you’re in good hands and all you have to do is be you and do your job as required. It’s pretty sweet.
Awards Circuit: It must have been fun shooting on set! Sounds like an amazing experience. Thank so much for taking the time to talk to me!