New York Magazine
Robert Forster on Sci-fi, Lucky Breaks, and Better Call Saul
By Bruce Fretts
Robert Forster knows a thing or two about reincarnation. The 73-year-old character actor has reinvented himself more than once, most notably with his Oscar-nominated 1997 role as bail bondsman Max Cherry in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. Now he’s occupying a new body, as the shadowy hit man Frank Shepherd on the life-after-death sci-fi mystery Intruders, which BBC America is showcasing tomorrow from 4 to 8 p.m. with a marathon of the show’s first four episodes, leading up to the new episode featuring Forster at 10 p.m. “When I was 9 or 10 years old, I was sure reincarnation was how life progressed,” Forster says. “Why waste a whole life on one person if you don’t get another one? I haven’t been at all sure about the subject matter since.” Forster is sure about a few other things, however, like the fact that his legendary Breaking Bad character, the Disappearer, will return in the AMC spinoff Better Call Saul, as he exclusively revealed to Vulture in this wide-ranging chat.
Do you understand what Intruders is about? And is Frank Shepherd a good guy or a bad guy? Truthfully, I asked an awful lot of questions, and Rose Lam and Glen Morgan and several other producers spent good time with me before I uttered my first words, because as an actor, you’ve got to know what you’re saying and why you’re saying it. You’ve got to know what your backstory is. They gave me a lot of answers, some of which are not for publication. But the point is, I seem to have a fairly good knowledge of what the show is about and the function I serve on it. It’s a good gig.
You’ve done many sci-fi projects over the years, including playing Milo Ventimiglia’s dad on Heroes. Are you a fan of the genre? Yes! One of the earliest in my career was The Black Hole. I was thrilled when I got to be in the space version of the Jules Verne story 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which is what that was. I did Alligator, and, oh, boy, there’s a list of them. I’ve done a lot of genre pictures in my career. They’ve been a staple of my career, and I’ve always liked them. This is what movies were really about when I was a kid. I was watching Flash Gordon with the terrible effects. I grew up on those.
Any chance you’ll be returning for the reboot Heroes Reborn? I didn’t know they were doing a reboot of the show, so obviously, it hasn’t come to me. They are doing a reboot of Breaking Bad, and though I have not been told a date, I have been told that the character I played will be seen on Better Call Saul.
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Exciting! What kind of reaction did you get from that episode? Oh, you know, there are a few things that actually buoy your career, give you some lift you didn’t expect. Of course, Jackie Brown did. And that episode of Breaking Bad was probably seen by more people than have ever seen Jackie Brown, even this many years later. It gave me a huge lift. Suddenly people start pointing and saying, “Hey, how ya doin’?” What a thrill at this point in my career!
You played characters created by Elmore Leonard so well in Jackie Brown and on the too-short-lived ABC drama Karen Sisco. Is there a reason why his words sound so good coming out of your mouth? I started with [the 1972–73 NBC series] Banyon, which was about a 1930s private detective with old cars, old clothes, old jokes, and fast women — the same kinds of things that Elmore Leonard usually deals with. If I have a genre that I really relate to, it is the detective. I’ve done them since the beginning of my career and enjoyed them. So I have a background in those hard-boiled words.
You also played a detective — briefly — in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., which started out as a TV pilot. If it had gone to series, would your character have come back? It would have continued. After the first take, David said, “Do it slower.” So I did it slower. He came to me after that and said, “Do it slower.” This goes on two or three more times, and it doesn’t sound believable to me. So I go to him, and he says, “Do it slower.” Months later, I discovered I was in a dream. So David Lynch is one of those guys who, when he says, “Do it slower,” even if you don’t believe it, you do it slower.
You’ve done several films with Fred Williamson and Pam Grier, including the upcoming Old School Gangstas, which bills you as one of the “legends of Blaxploitation cinema.” How did that happen? I worked with [director] William Lustig on a number of exploitation films during the depressed period of my career, starting with Vigilante and going on to Maniac Cop and Maniac Cop 2 or 3 — I can’t remember how many we did. Then Fred Williamson started putting me in his movies, and I did three or four of those.