Paul Risker chats with Person of Interest star Kevin Chapman…
Recently Flickering Myth had the privilege to speak with Person of Interest’s Kevin Chapman aka Detective Lionel Fusco. As I eagerly await the second season of Person of Interest, the sound of Lionel’s… Sorry Kevin’s voice on the other end of the phone line was a source of comfort that took me back to happier days, when each week was adorned with a new episode, in which Reese would shoot someone in the kneecap. Oh, happy days.
Kevin spoke to us about discovering acting late in life, working with Clint Eastwood and Sean Penn, the award winning television series Brotherhood, the lessons learned behind the camera as well as and of course talking Lionel Fusco and Person of Interest…
Paul Risker: Why a career in acting? Was there that one singular moment when you decided to pursue a career as an actor?
Kevin Chapman: I started acting late in life. I was thirty seven years old. I was working in a logistical capacity for the mayor of Boston; logistics for films that came into the area. A director by the name of Ted Demme who has since passed on, and an actor by the name of Dennis Leary are the ones who got me into acting. They just got curious looking at me and one day they said to me “Can you act?” I said, “I think I’m intelligent enough to.” It kind of then spawned from there.
They cast me in a movie called Monument Ave. that Ted was directing, and Dennis was producing. I was scared to death. I had no idea what I was doing, but Dennis was always very supportive of me, and so I really owe it all to those two men. It was something that I never aspired to do, it just found me, and once I got involved in the art of acting, I was fascinated by it. I began being cast in these small roles that were filming in the New England area: In the Bedroom, Cider House Rules and The Boondock Saints, and I knew that if I was going to have any success in this business then I needed to develop a craft. So I quit my job at the mayor’s office and I moved to Los Angeles, California. I started studying acting diligently for about two years, and then Clint Eastwood cast me in the film Mystic River, and that was kind of my coronation to the business.
Paul Risker: From a personal viewpoint of having worked with Eastwood, how would you describe the man?
Kevin Chapman: I’ve worked with some phenomenal directors: Clint Eastwood, Philip Noyce, D.J. Caruso, Alejandro González and I did Tony Scott’s last movie. I’ve worked with some marquee directors, and I have found the bigger the director the more inviting they are in the process. They realise that anytime you create a film or a television series, it is very much collaboration. I find that those individuals who have been around the business for as long as they have, they know that everyone has ideas. Some are good and some are bad, but they are smart enough to listen to them, and it was a delightful experience. I actually worked with Clint Eastwood twice. I worked with him on Mystic River and Flags of Our Fathers, but specifically to work with him on Mystic River with that cast.
When I got into this business I just wanted to meet Sean Penn. I never thought I’d stand opposite in him in two films. Laurence Fishburne, Kevin Bacon, Tim Robbins, Marcia Gay Harden, Laura Linney, and then you had a guy like Eli Wallach who came in and did small roles, and guys like Kevin Conway. These guys have been in the business forty, fifty years, and then of course to be directed by a legend like Clint Eastwood. I remember as a kid going to watch all of his films, Dirty Harry, The Enforcer and all those great Spaghetti Westerns that he did. So it was quite an experience and something I’ll always treasure.
Paul Risker: Looking at your filmography, Person of Interest is not the first television show in which you have had a regular recurring role.
Kevin Chapman: I had a show called Brotherhood that ran for three years on Showtime. It wasn’t wildly popular but it was very much critically acclaimed. We’d won a Peabody award, but I just feel that it was great television that slipped through the cracks. A lot of people I see on the streets will come up to me and say “I just saw Brotherhood on Netflix” or whatever network they saw it on. Everyone says the same, “Where was that show? How come you’re not making any more?”
Paul Risker: If a show happens to fall between the cracks in America, it is unlikely it will be aired UK. Luckily transmission dates between the U.S. and UK for some shows are simultaneous, or are closer together giving a show more chance to be discovered.
Kevin Chapman: Person of Interest is tricky when you are doing interviews abroad because the show is in so many markets throughout the world. You never really know where people are in the storyline, and of course you don’t want to give anything away and spoil it for the viewers. So it is always tough to navigate that, and we have to look to see where we are with the airing of the show in that particular region.
Person of Interest has gone gangbusters abroad. I have some musician friends who were on tour in Japan last week, and they were sending me pictures of me on Japanese television. It was kind of funny to hear Japanese coming out of Lionel Fusco’s mouth.
Paul Risker: How did you come to be cast in Person of Interest and what attracted you to the project?
Kevin Chapman: When I read the script, I liked the duality of Fusco. Is he a good guy doing bad things or is he a bad guy doing good things? Those are the kinds of characters I like to play, and it was very much like the character on Brotherhood, Freddie Cork. To have a duality with these characters and to try and play them as truthfully as possible is I find the real challenge to them. Jonathan Nolan and Greg Plageman both were fans of Brotherhood, and so when April Webster who was the casting director brought me into the meeting, they were familiar with whom I was right off the bat. I’d worked with Greg Plageman before on Cold Case. He was the producer and writer, and when I walked into the room he was “Oh great, I can see this guy playing this role.” So the conversation spun from that.
Paul Risker: One of the points of interest in the show is the duality of all the main characters, who are all capable of good, but also capable of actions that can result in devastating consequences. The show hasn’t shied away from that, because after all people/characters are capable of both.
Kevin Chapman: I think all four of us have trust issues first of all [laughs] and all four of us are broken in some fashion. That makes it interesting as well to see how reluctant Lionel was to embrace the idea of what Reece and Mr. Finch were trying to accomplish. Then when he realises that he’s not going to be able to break away, he kind of embraces the idea and ultimately starts to find a once heroic image of himself.
Paul Risker: It must be a privilege to have the opportunity to work with a talented cast of actors and guest stars?
Kevin Chapman: Good material attracts good actors. Actors are not always driven by commerce; they are driven by material and for me material that I can play truthful. Will I be able to touch people on some emotional level through the performance? I think those are the things that really drive actors. Can I really make this material pop? Can I really make this character a memorable individual? I think this is the material that really gets you excited.
I have done movies where I’ve been paid like a sandwich [laughs] but at the time I really believed in the material. There was this comedy called Black Dynamite, which was a blackspoitation film written by Michael Jai White, and after reading only the first ten pages, it was the funniest material I had ever read. I don’t get much chance to do comedy, though I love doing comedy. I think it is because of a lot of the characters that I have played, and because I can play that intimidating character rather well, Hollywood sometimes has a tendency to put people into categories. When someone gives me the opportunity to play comedy I love that, because I love to go for the laugh. As I say that was a perfect example of a movie I did for hardly any money because I just wanted that opportunity. I think that’s what drives actors to our show. The material is so solid, and the writing staff does an incredible job week in and week out. People know that, and their representatives know that, and I think that’s why we are getting so many phenomenal actors coming to do guest slots on our show.
Paul Risker: Person of Interest is a character focused show, and the first season starts very slowly. It relies on the audience to stick with it and to allow it to draw you into its world.
Kevin Chapman: It’s like anything. If you ever watch a good comedian, they draw you in. The first time I saw Billy Connolly, they talk very slow and very quiet, and soft, and it just sucks the audience right in. I think it’s that same kind of mentality with Person of Interest.
Jim has this very stoic presence, and yet his speech is monotone. It’s very soft and I think that also creates danger. I know myself that when I have played characters like in Mystic River for instance where I played this wildly, dangerous character, but I played him with the stillness and the quiet. Quiet is the most powerful thing in the world, and that’s something that I think Jim brings to that character; the stillness and calm. As an audience member that’s when you watch it and you go “Okay danger is on the horizon.” Jim does a remarkable job with it, and all four characters in the show are written so beautifully and they are written with that sense of duality. They are all flawed in some way, which as a society we identify with. As a society we have a tendency to root for the underdog. We always want to see people with redemption. To have these four characters with these redeemable qualities, it moves people and gets them to cheer for them.
Paul Risker: Despite the journey towards redemption, Lionel is sometimes forced to play the villain. Similar to the other characters he is on occasions a victim of events, and whilst each character is responsible for their situation, they are sometimes forced to redeem themselves in secret.
Kevin Chapman: I don’t think Lionel really plays a villain. I just think Lionel is reluctant to embrace the idea of what is being presented to him. In the first couple of episodes he tries to get Reese bumped off [laughs] and when he realises he can’t get him bumped off, he starts to come around to the Reese and Finch’s ideology. He’s embracing that, and what it does is it gives Lionel the chance to return to that once heroic image of himself.
I think what happened is Lionel got lost, and fell into the wrong crowd with these rogue cops and Reese brought him back to the heroic image of himself that once drove him to become a police officer. I don’t think he’s so much playing the villain. There is a great deal of reluctance but then he begins to embrace the idea. It’s more of a discovery.
Paul Risker: It’s the difference between being flawed and being the villain.
Kevin Chapman: Exactly, and Lionel is just a flawed individual. It doesn’t come from a level of malice. It just comes from believe it or not a level of acceptance, of just wanting to be accepted.
Paul Risker: Actors often tell me how theatre is the greatest training for an actor. Have you had any experience of acting on the stage?
Kevin Chapman: I have only done one play in my life, and it is something I would love to do again. The one play I did was a phenomenal experience, and the thing with Person of Interest is that your time off is rather minimal, because you are starting right back up into the next season again. So to make a commitment to a play is virtually impossible, but it is something I hope to do at some point, because I really did enjoy that experience.
I have produced a couple of movies. One which is coming out in the fall is called Bad Country with Willem Dafoe, Matt Dillon, Tom Berenger, Neal McDonough, Amy Smart, Chris Marquette, Bill Duke and me. It is a great ensemble cast. It’s very exciting.
Paul Risker: How would you describe your experiences of moving behind the camera to produce?
Kevin Chapman: As an actor, you realise not to take everything so personally when you don’t get a job. Also as an actor you make yourself vulnerable by walking into a room. I always thought okay I didn’t get the job so my audition wasn’t good. Producing movies has really opened my eyes to that it’s not necessary about whose good, but rather who’s right for the character.
I remember the first movie I produced, we had this actress that we loved, and we wanted to give her the role. The problem was we had already cast another actress with the same colouring: eye colour and hair colour as this actress that we wanted to hire. So we couldn’t do that and we had to go in another direction. So sometimes it is things as small and as simple as that as to why you can’t go in a specific direction. So what producing has taught me as an actor is not to take everything so personal when I don’t get the job. It can be for any number of reasons.
It is trying to create an ensemble or world that doesn’t implode, that doesn’t self-destruct. You have a group of people for whatever reason whether they look the same or sound the same, and there’s not that diversity within the structure of the project. That is one of the things that opened my eyes as an actor. Its building blocks, building something that is hopefully going to come together as a unit and hopefully have success. It was one of the biggest eye opening experiences going to the other side of the camera.
Paul Risker: It is a process filled with tough choices and limited opportunities.
Kevin Chapman: This is a business where there is no prize for second place. People talk about being competitive, but being an actor is the most competitive job in the world. If you want to play football in England there’s twenty five jobs available on that team. If you want to play basketball there is a fourteen man roster. With acting there is one job, and one person’s going to get it. There is that competitive thing that comes in where you are in there and you are swinging for the fence to try and land the job.
Paul Risker: Does that give an actor the feeling of responsibility when they land a part? After all you are given the opportunity to bring that character to the screen.
Kevin Chapman: With some actors. I find a lot of the actors who come from the theatre are very conscious of that, but I find that some actors who are younger and came into the business as a child actor sometimes don’t carry that level of responsibility. They almost feel that it is a rite of passage. It depends on the individual.
Paul Risker: Here in the UK we are at the end of season one. What can UK audiences expect moving forward and what can U.S. audiences equally expect as season three gets underway?
Kevin Chapman: Well you can expect someone to get shot in the kneecap [laughs]. You can expect Reese, Finch, Carter and Fusco to come together a little bit more as a unit and try to right the wrongs of the world.
Paul Risker: The story seems to be evolving into this power struggle for the machine between the group and external individuals as well as external groups or organisations?
Kevin Chapman: What makes the show so interesting is that it questions our internal security as a nation. You look at the stuff that’s gone on with Prism and the NSA. It is making us look like reality stars and we are finding out that the stuff we talk about in the shows is real. So that in itself is driving people’s curiosity to the show. We talk about this machine and cultivating information, but from what it sounds like in the media, that’s exactly what’s happening today.
Paul Risker: Jonathan Nolan seems to be one of those creative individuals with his finger on the pulse?
Kevin Chapman: He’s wildly, wildly, wildly intelligent. Look at the two Batman movies he wrote with his brother. Just to see those movies alone, and see movies like Memento and Prestige, you can see that Jonathan thinks on a whole other level; another plane.
Paul Risker: Both he and Christopher are an intimidating tour de force.
Kevin Chapman: In just the circle of friends that they have, and as I say they just think on a whole other level. It’s really… As you say it can be intimidating without a doubt.
Paul Risker: Whilst at the same time it is rewarding to have the opportunity to work with them?
Kevin Chapman: Absolutely, but the writing staff that they have, is all brought together by Jonathan’s vision and that’s where it all happens.
Paul Risker: Moving forward, do you see yourself producing or perhaps taking the step of directing?
Kevin Chapman: I don’t think I have enough experience yet to direct. Maybe one day, but I have only been doing this for thirteen years which is nothing in this business. Anyone who is wildly successful is not an overnight success. It’s definitely a marathon, it’s not a sprint by any means, and I’m just happy to be working with wildly talented people, and able to participate in great scripts and to be a part of a show that is touching people. On some level it is moving that emotion and that’s all we ask to do as actors.
Many thanks to Kevin Chapman for taking the time for this interview. If fans would like to reach out to Kevin, his Twitter handle is @poifusco
The third season of Person of Interest is now airing on CBS. If you’re not watching them, they’ll be watching you.
Paul Risker is co-editor in chief of Wages of Film, freelance writer and contributor to Flickering Myth and Scream The Horror Magazine.