A Chat with Robin Tunney, Robin Tunney interview, "The Mentalist", "The Craft"
Alfonso Ribeiro

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Robin Tunney has been acting since she was a teenager, but it wasn’t until she found her way into the teen-movie circuit that she really started to make an impression on the masses. You may or may not remember her from “Encino Man,” and it’s possible that you didn’t realize that she was “the bald chick” in “Empire Records,” but just about everyone recalls her turn as Sarah Bailey in “The Craft.” But, c’mon, people, that was a long time ago. Tunney has done plenty of films since then, and in recent years, she’s started to carve herself a nice niche in the world of TV as well, first as a co-star on the first season of “Prison Break,” and now as the female lead in the CBS show “The Mentalist” Bullz-Eye had a chance to chat with Tunney about her new series and her old series, found out how she came to appear in the pilot episode of “House,” asked what it was like working with Albert Brooks in “The In-Laws,” and got confirmation as to whether or not “Supernova” ever seemed like it was going to be a good movie.

Robin Tunney: Hi, it’s Robin Tunney!

Bullz-Eye: Hey, this is Will! Good to talk with you. I appreciate you taking the time to chat with me for a few minutes.

RT: It’s my pleasure!

BE: I’m really enjoying “The Mentalist” thus far.

RT: Oh, good. So am I!

BE: I was at the TCA Press Tour when Simon (Baker) and Bruno (Heller) were there pitching the show, and I was psyched even back then, but it’s nice to see that it’s lived up to the hopes I had based on the pilot.

RT: Yeah, I think a lot of times they sort of throw everything they have into the pilot, and then the show itself can be a disappointment. But it’s sort of like an old-fashioned show, and I feel like it’s getting better. The one that’s coming on tomorrow (“Red Handed,” which aired on Nov. 11), I’m really excited about. It’s my favorite one so far.

BE: I read the summary of it, and it looks interesting.

RT: It’s a lot of fun…and I think that’s what’s really refreshing about this show. With the things in the state of the world right now, I think people want to turn on the television and be entertained. And it’s not, like, a gory procedural show. It’s not ugly.

BE: Actually, I was going to ask you what drew you to the show. Because, “Prison Break” aside, you’re really more of a film actress than a TV actress, per se.

"(‘The Mentalist’) is a lot of fun…and I think that’s what’s really refreshing about this show. With the things in the state of the world right now, I think people want to turn on the television and be entertained."

RT: Yeah, and I only did a year on “Prison Break.” Really, I was a fan of “Rome.” (Writer’s note: “Mentalist” creator Bruno Heller was behind “Rome” as well.) I thought it was really well done. And I read the script (for “The Mentalist”), and I thought it was well written. And there are some challenges in that kind of role for me, because I’d never played somebody who was so demonstrative and sober. (Laughs) Being the boss presented certain challenges, especially for a girl…you know, for a woman. It’s just such a fine line. I thought it seemed kind of difficult, so I was excited about that. And, then, Simon signed on, and that’s what made me really want to do it, because I’d met him personally. We had some friends in common, and I’d always thought he was a really great actor…and I think it’s really important when you’re doing television, an hour-long, that you like the people you’re working with, because you’re just in proximity with them for so many hours a day for such a long time. Like, somebody can be a jerk or maybe not your cup of tea on a movie, and you just kind of X the days off…it’s three months, then it’s two months, then it’s a month, then you’re off to Hawaii and you never have to see that person again! So it was a real relief to get to work somebody I knew. He had a real sense of humor about himself, and…I think you’re in a vulnerable place when you’re acting, and everybody has their own way of approaching the work, and he wants to have a good time. He doesn’t take himself terribly seriously. He takes the work seriously, but…that’s a rare combination. Look, actors are funny creatures, and it seems like Simon comes to work wanting to have a good time, and that’s not always the case.

BE: By coincidence, I got the pilot for “The Mentalist” on the same day my mother-in-law came over for dinner and asked, “Do you know anything about this new show that Simon Baker is in? Because he is so cute, and I just can’t wait to see it.”

RT: Awwww!

BE: I’m sure you get bombarded with people asking, “Is he really as cute in real life?”

Robin TunneyRT: I know, between him and Wentworth Miller! Well, he is just as handsome in person, and his hair looks like that when he wakes up. He has an amazing head of hair. But he’s just a great guy! He’s got a family, and he’s…he’s a real man. I really admire him. He’s pretty great. And, yes, he’s cute. (Laughs) I guess when you meet somebody, you think of them as the way you meet them, and I think of him as a father and a husband. But after I got the show and people started watching it, I realized that he was a sex symbol.

BE: Certainly to my mother-in-law.

RT: (Laughs) Exactly. And…you know, I hate to say it, but I think he’s cougar meat.

BE: Nice.

RT: The older women, they really love him. I mean, they just die.

BE: When you first heard that the hook of the show was going to be on Simon’s character, Patrick Jane, did you need a certain amount of assurance that Teresa wasn’t just going to be spending every episode apologizing for Patrick’s methods, only to have him save the day in the end?

RT: It was more a fear of mine that -- in the pilot, I felt the relationship was coming off as a power struggle, and it was about me getting angry at him. And I had a conversation with Bruno that I didn’t really feel that that was going to work, and he agreed with me that I had to have a three-dimensional relationship with the guy. Like, at times, to find what he’s doing entertaining and funny and useful, because he’s right, and not just sort of be, “No, I’m By-The-Book Girl!” I think that would get dull. And I also think that, with all of your relationships in your life, you have different reactions to people. Depending on your mood and depending on the situation, somebody around you can be annoying or be entertaining or make you mad. And he seemed to be on the same page about that. So that was a bit of a worry, and also how the writing would come off, so I wouldn’t seem like an idiot for having arguments with him about the other side of the case. You know, it’s based on a formula, and The Mentalist is always going to be right, and people are going to want that, but to make my dialogue strong enough to prove the other point, where I don’t just look like an idiot. And I think they’ve been really good with that. It’s not, like, “Oh, my God, she’s not making any sense,” or, “Come on, we know!” What’s trying about the show is that I don’t think people tune in to see who did it; I think they tune in to see how we’re going to find out who did it.

BE: Right. It definitely has a bit of a “Columbo” feel.

RT: Yeah, and it’s lo-tech and kind of sweet, as far as…we don’t use DNA testing and crazy gadgets and things like that. It’s just people kind of sitting around, hypothesizing, or going out to play tricks on people. It’s sweet! But I don’t…I think by virtue of the fact, too, that there’s always something other to play other than the exposition, due to the writing. Sometimes there’s humor, sometimes there’s concern, and all of these different things. I never feel robotic on this show, like a lot of the procedural shows, which is what I was worried about. I’m interested in human behavior, which is why I became an actor, and I think Dick Wolf came up with this great idea to have shows without any human behavior, and that was the hook, and that was what was new about them. It was just sort of, like, “We don’t know anything about these people’s personal lives. They don’t eat, they don’t sleep, it’s just the case.” And it was reasonably new and fresh television 18 years ago, or whenever that was. But now it seems like a lot of procedurals have taken that on, where it’s just the case, and you don’t know anything about the people.

BE: Speaking of character back story, with the “Red John” storyline, did you get the impression that there would’ve been a plan to conclude that if the show hadn’t gotten the full-season pick-up?

RT: You know, I thought it was really brave to reveal that story in the pilot. I think there are a lot of other shows…well, for instance, with “House,” it’s taken a long time to find out what’s up that guy’s butt, you know? (Laughs) And I thought, “Wow, that’s really interesting: they just laid it out there!” But I don’t know. I haven’t thought much about it, to be honest. It’s so…encompassing that you kind of look at the work in front of you and the character, and all of the stuff of just getting through the day and taking care of yourself, that the idea of what would’ve happened if we couldn’t get the back nine? I mean, we were just lucky that the numbers were so good from the very beginning that it always seemed like unless something horrible was going to happen the following Tuesday…which, believe me, crossed my mind! I always thought it would just keep on going, at least for the year.

"(Simon Baker) is just as handsome in person, and his hair looks like that when he wakes up. He has an amazing head of hair. And…you know, I hate to say it, but I think he’s cougar meat. The older women, they really love him. I mean, they just die."

BE: I presume there was a huge cheer on the set on the day you found out you were getting the back nine episodes.

RT: Yeah, I mean, it’s a really close-knit group, and I think what I’ve found the coolest about that is that everybody on our crew, they take part in the show’s success. When the numbers come out on Wednesdays, they’re always hanging them up on the monitor and standing outside of the sound stage, having bragging rights with the other shows, because they shoot a lot of other shows on the lot, and it really is because they take pride in how the show performs. So it’s not just about the actors, and it’s not just about the writers. These people are part of it, and if it wasn’t for them…I think that everyone in the back of their mind knew it was going to happen, and that it was inevitable because it had done so well, but I think they all want to be there, and I think that has a lot to do with Simon’s attitude and Bruno’s attitude. It’s a good place to work. And I don’t think that happens a lot.

BE: It seems like the ensemble -- the team, as it were -- as a whole works well together.

RT: Yeah, we all really enjoy each other, and I think that sort of shows. I think that, a lot of times in the workplace, especially when you’re working this many hours, can be fraught with egos and people arguing. But that’s just not the case here. I think everyone’s just happy, and that includes the crew and everybody. As far as the unit goes, I think it’s great that they found five individuals who do get along really well. I mean, I look at them and I want to laugh! And I really feel warmly toward them. It’s fun.

BE: Not to give away anything that we haven’t seen yet, but how much did they tell you about the character of Teresa going into the project? Or were you able to kind of create your own back-story for her, to draw upon while playing her?

RT: I was kind of free to create things, and it’s really strange, because a lot of the things that I made up turned up -- like, in Episode Three -- and I hadn’t spoken to Bruno about it, so it was a little eerie. And it was also strange that I told Bruno that I’d really be interested in killing somebody, and seeing what was it like for the character…and in the second episode, I got to kill two people! I was, like, “Whoa!” (Laughs) It’s crazy. But, y’know, I had the idea that she’d sort of been the eldest and had all brothers and didn’t have a mom when she was younger. And that showed up in the script, so there’s a certain amount of simpatico with Bruno. It’s really strange. But, yeah, there’s a lot of freedom, and it’s not one of those places where you feel scared to come up with ideas. Also, I feel really taken care of by them, as far as the character goes. They’ve never written anything where I felt defensive. I feel like they understand her.

Robin Tunney

BE: You mentioned “House” a minute ago. I’ve always wondered how you ended in the pilot for that show.

RT: The director was a very famous director, a guy named Bryan Singer, and I was really curious about him. He’d never directed television before, and I’m a fan of his movies. I mean, the second “X-Men” I thought was the most well done comic book movie I’d ever seen. And, also, I loved “The Usual Suspects.” So I was just curious about him. And they’d asked me to do it, and I’d been asked to do a lot of TV over the years, and it was a situation where it was safe enough, where I didn’t have to sign on for six years but I could go and see what it was like. To be totally honest. Because I think something’s scary if you don’t know. You get less takes and you do a lot more pages in a day, and it’s a different kind of a beast. You don’t get as much direction from the directors; the directors sort of come through and they’ll give you little pieces here and there, but a lot of it is left up to you, which I felt scared about. But, so, with “House,” I thought, “Well, I’ll go and see what this is like.” And to be totally honest, I thought the script was good as well. I was joking around the other day that I’ve had a lot more luck at choosing what television scripts are good than movies. (Laughs) I’m, like, “Shit, I’m three for three!” Because all these people are saying, “You know, it’s amazing, it’s like winning the lottery if your show goes,” and I’m, like, “Uh, really?” I guess I’m just really lucky!

BE: So was it the comfort that you felt on “House” that made you feel up to taking on “Prison Break?”

RT: Yeah, but it was a different type of experience. I didn’t feel...as comfortable in my work. The show was, I thought, a super great show. It worked. You know what I mean? It was a show that, because there was a time period, similar to “24,” you have to work at such a rate, and it’s edited at such a clip, to keep the anxiety going that sometimes it isn’t as fun to act in, because you don’t get to do as much stuff. I’m not saying that…I think it’s incredibly fun for the audience, and there’s that constant tension, but as an actor, to keep that up is really challenging. And you don’t laugh as much. It’s not as fun to go to work. When I go to work on “The Mentalist,” we laugh at all the time. Joe cracks me up, or Simon and I are trying to get a certain type of banter or patter down and we’ll screw it up, or there are mouthfuls of dialogue or seven-page-long scenes. It’s a little like doing a play. But “Prison Break” was a lot of short scenes and wasn’t as fun to do. I knew when I read the pilot, they asked me several times to do it, and I knew the show was called “Prison Break,” and my character is the lawyer that wants to get them out the legal way, so by virtue of the title of the show, I’m going to be ineffectual…and how long can you make ineffectual last? And the show was a bit more earnest than “House.” It didn’t have the sense of humor. There’s no room for argument the way we argue on “The Mentalist,” where you’re so connected, and there’s got to be so much emotion involved. It was more difficult to do…and it’s hard working at a prison!

BE: I can imagine it wouldn’t be the most upbeat gig in the world.

RT: It’s hard! I mean, I loved doing it, I loved the experience, and it’s really interesting to see how rabid fans of shows like that are. I’ve done movies for 15 years, and I’ve never had people so invested in characters, with so much to say about them. It was like real life for people, and these characters were their friends. And that was really interesting to see.

BE: Oh, surely you still hear from people who tell you how much your role in “Empire Records” affected them. And I’m not being sarcastic. I’ve known people who were really obsessed with that movie.

"I was in Texas, and this woman started sobbing when she saw me the day after I died on ‘Prison Break.’ It was like I’d awoken from the dead! And I was, like, ‘It’s okay, it wasn’t real, it wasn’t real,’ but she was crying and…it was really strange!"

RT: I know, and they’ve seen it, like, 200 times, and they have Web sites where people write in and say what should happen with the characters now, and all that stuff. You know, look, I’m proud of that performance, and I had a ball doing it, but I would never…I think people saw it at a certain age and it affected them in a certain way, and the filmmaker did his job, if that’s what he meant to do. But in the masses, there are just so many more “Prison Break” fans. The people who watch “The Mentalist”…I don’t know, because I work all the time and don’t get out a lot, so I don’t know how people are reacting to it, but it’s not the same kind of comic-book thing that “Prison Break” was. I was in Texas, and this woman started sobbing when she saw me the day after I died on the show. It was like I’d awoken from the dead! And I was, like, “It’s okay, it wasn’t real, it wasn’t real,” but she was crying and…it was really strange!

BE: I just had a couple more questions about some other projects that you’ve worked on, and then I’ll let you go. When you worked on “The In-Laws,” I know a lot of people dismissed it because they preferred the original, but was it fun working with Albert Brooks?

RT: Yeah, he was great! I actually really enjoyed both of them, and I felt like the movie was sort of unfairly judged and viewed. The movie on its own is really a lot of fun, and David Suchet is so funny in that movie! It’s a really entertaining ride, and I think that the problem…well, I think there were a few problems, but the biggest was that people, especially critics, had such a relationship with the original. And this was sort of “inspired by,” because they didn’t go through the same circumstances. It wasn’t a remake. It was sort of unfairly judged. But Albert Brooks is a great American comic talent, an icon, and I was thrilled to meet him. I mean, I’ve seen “Lost in America,” “Mother,” and…what’s the single one that he did? (Writer’s note: I’m just guessing, but I think she’s referring to “Modern Romance.”) I mean, he’s an icon, and I’ve seen all of his movies, so it was really exciting to get to meet him. And he was really funny. The way he approached his work was diametrically different from Michael Douglas. Albert liked to do the scene as many times as possible, and Michael was a three-take guy, and it was so funny to watch them together.

BE: Do you still get approached by Goth girls who love “The Craft” more than they can find the words to say?

Robin TunneyRT: Yeah, it’s funny, because now they’re kind of, like, Goth moms. But, yeah, I think that was another movie where people saw it at a certain time in their life, and so many people have played “Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board.” No matter how many movies I do, other ones can be more successful, but that one just sticks with them. I was in a Starbucks a couple of months ago, and the girl at the counter was, like, “Oh, my God, you’re the girl from ‘The Craft’! My babysitter let me see that, and I was, like, way too young to see it. I was, like, six, and it scared the hell out of me! I was scarred! I can’t believe I’m saying that. It was so long ago. I’m so old. I feel so old!” And I was, like, “How do you think this is making me feel?” (Laughs) But, yeah, I think it’s something that left a mark on a certain generation, and it was good for girls, and I’m happy to have been a part of it. It was fun. But it’s on television all the time, which is a little confronting.

BE: After you did “August,” did you have to go watch a lot of comedies to recover?

RT: From doing “August?”

BE: Yeah, because I enjoyed the movie, but it’s not the most upbeat film in the world.

RT: (Hesitates) You know, to be completely honest, I’ve loved David Bowie since I was seven, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to play the role. I thought the script really worked, and I loved Austin (Chick's) first movie a lot. I thought “XX/XY” was really good. And when David Bowie signed on, I ran to New York. I wanted his autograph and a picture with him so badly, but I never got the nerve up to ask. I was so nervous around him. You don’t even understand! (Laughs) It’s funny, but as time goes by, you stop taking all of your decisions so seriously, and there’s not as much narcissism involved. And I can honestly say that I did the movie to meet David Bowie, because I wanted that life experience. And when I’m 70, I can play his albums for my grandchildren and I can say, “I did a movie with David Bowie!” (Laughs)

BE: I interviewed Adam Scott, and he said that one of his greatest regrets about “August” was that he didn’t get to have a scene with David Bowie.

RT: He’s a good friend of mine now, too. That was another good thing: getting to meet Adam on that film. I think he’s a really good actor. We did another film together afterwards (“Passenger Side”), just a little part in something he was doing, and he’s a friend. And he lives in my neighborhood. Yeah, a lot of good things came out of that movie. I think he’s a fantastic actor.

BE: And, lastly, just for my amusement, really, was there any point during the filming of “Supernova,” or possibly even before it began, when you felt that it could’ve been a good movie?

RT: Um…

BE: It’s one of those where I felt like it had so much potential to it, but…

Robin TunneyRT: When I first got the script, it was being directed by this Australian director (Geoffrey Wright) who had made this film with Russell Crowe called “Romper Stomper” that was a really amazing movie, and I thought the guy would kind of turn it inside out, and that it would be good performances and stuff. And then I think when the studio fired him, I was already signed on, but I knew something was going to go very wrong. And I love Walter Hill, he’s an amazing man, but the studio had, by firing somebody, already spent a lot of money, and there were just too many hands in the pot. And I think I started to feel like something might be very wrong while we were shooting it, because the studio would come down, and they wanted to make a very different kind of movie. At the very beginning, I thought it was going to be cool. The cast was a little bit different, and I thought it was going to be cool and edgy, because I couldn’t imagine that the guy from “Romper Stomper” was going to make a cheesy movie. I haven’t seen it all the way through, but my boyfriend gets a real kick watching it. It’s one of his favorite performances of mine. He loves watching me play sluts. (Laughs)

BE: They’ve got a section of trivia about the film on IMDb.com…

RT: Oh, God, do they, really? (Laughs)

BE: Yeah, and there’s a reference to how Francis Ford Coppola was brought on to “re-edit” the film.

RT: I know! I got a letter from him!

BE: Oh, really?

RT: Oh, yeah. It was really strange. The whole situation was really sad. I feel bad for everyone involved. Angela (Bassett) is shooting “E.R.” on the sound stage next to ours, and I see her. She’s so fantastic. I love her. She’s really fun. But I’m sure it’s not her best…I mean, I don’t know, I don’t talk about the movie much because I haven’t seen it much. But it’s another one of those things that happens when time goes by. You realize that, hey, everybody’s made a turkey. What are you gonna do?

BE: Such is life.

RT: It is. It’s part of life. It’s all good.

BE: Well, it’s been great talking to you. I’m glad you had a few minutes to chat. And, like I said, I’m really enjoying the show.

RT: Oh, thanks for everything! I’m sure I’ll speak to you again one day. You take care!

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