Rubicon, AMC’s third original series after Mad Men and Breaking Bad, has its work cut out for it. The show—a serious, brooding, and elaborate brain-twister—has the unfortunate distinction of following two of the most critically acclaimed shows on television in recent memory. As AMC has morphed from oft-forgotten cable also-ran to a powerhouse of original programming, expectations are high for all of the network’s future series. (The fourth, The Walking Dead, is due in October amidst similarly outrageous advance buzz.)
Fortunately, Rubicon seems to have so far survived the scrutiny. The premiere episode netted two million viewers, besting the premieres of both of its predecessors. The show, an homage to the classic Robert Redford and Gene Hackman conspiracy thrillers of the 1970’s like Three Days Of the Condor and The Conversation, has a measured, more methodical pace that makes it a natural fit alongside Mad Men on Sunday nights. James Badge Dale stars as Will Travers, a brilliant, paranoid and recently bereaved intelligence analyst at a New York-based think tank. After he inadvertently discovers a potentially monumental government conspiracy through clues hidden in the daily crossword puzzles, a colleague and close friend turns up dead, and Will begins to believe his paranoia might be justified.
The plum role is Dale’s biggest to date, who was seen earlier this year in Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks’ World War II saga The Pacific on HBO, as well as in Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winner, The Departed. (Hint: He was the guy who—spoiler!—shot Leonardo DiCaprio.) BlackBook caught up with Dale to discuss the great expectations placed on Rubicon, why the show is not like 24, and we he thinks of his passing resemblance to another one of television’s leading men: Matthew Morrison.
This is one of those shows that can be difficult to talk about without delving into spoilers. After all of the press that you’ve done, have you perfected how to describe it yet?
One word: vague. [Laughs] Very vague. It’s a mystery. I think that’s the best way to describe it. People talk about it like it’s a conspiracy thriller, but to me, it’s a mystery. It becomes a whodunit. And if the audience stays and plays along, then the characters on the show and the audience can discover things at the same time. It can be a beautiful, beautiful thing.
Your character, Will Travers, is basically paid to be paranoid. How were you able to connect with him? Are you like him at all?
[Laughs] I can tell you how Will and I are different. He’s good at math. I am not. Will is a college graduate. I didn’t graduate college. I barely graduated high school. I’m not a dumb guy, but I’m nowhere near as smart as Will is. Will is an incredibly talented, gifted individual. With people with a brain that is working on an entirely different level than everyone else, there’s a burden that comes along with that. There’s a price to pay, and with the job that he has, he hasn’t been able to process the loss of his wife. He hasn’t grieved. I can relate to him on the personal, emotional side of things. That was my in to Will Travers. But listen, in the first episode, he does a crossword puzzle in three seconds flat. I’m awful at crossword puzzles. I get the Monday New York Times crossword, which are supposed to be the easiest crosswords, and it’ll take me a week to finish it.
We learn early on that Will lost his family in 9/11, and there’s certainly a palpable post-modern fear and paranoia that permeates the show. Do you think that’s an important element to Rubicon?
Well, I want to make a point that this is not a 9/11 show. I think we go to that world, but that is the world we live in today. I think the most important part about that is the powerlessness that Will has, that we all have. That there are people in this world ideologically separate from us who have their own agendas and are planning things. And everything is connected. There are no random events. I think that’s what Will struggles with. His brain works in a very logical manner, but things are not adding up for him logically.
People have compared Rubicon to lot of things, like even 24, a show that you were on briefly.
I know, someone said it was like 24 without guns, and I wanted to yell “no no no no!” [Laughs]
Right, the pace of this is much more in vein with AMC’s other shows. It is slower, more methodical and psychological.
Absolutely, Our show is like a slow fire. You start a fire and you blow on the embers and it smolders and smolders and smolders, and eventually it will ignite. But it takes a while. The show is not for everybody. That being said, I think people who want to be told stories in this manner will enjoy it. We’re very conscious of taking care of them. I think there are a lot of people who are dying to be spun a yarn.
AMC is developing a reputation of having the best programming on television. What do you think about the pressure on Rubicon to live up to Mad Men and Breaking Bad?
It’s tough. [Laughs] Coming in as the third show, to join two of the most acclaimed shows on TV—the bar is really high. I don’t think we can live up to it. Mad Men is very beautiful, and so is Breaking Bad. There are just two beautiful, unique shows with incredible writing and great acting. I think it would be disrespectful to them to compare us. We’d like to be our own unique thing.
Last question. Do watch Glee?
[Laughs] You’ve got to be kidding me, man! Somebody just asked me this. There’s definitely a resemblance between you and Matthew Morrison.
I met him once. Let me tell you, Matthew Morrison is ten times better looking than I will ever be. If you see Matthew Morrison and hit him in the face with a baseball bat about three times, then you have me. My apologies to Matthew Morrison, who’s an incredibly talented actor. I personally think I’m more of a cross between Lyle Lovett and Bill Clinton.
You think I’m joking. I’m actually not. Take a good look, you’ll see.
So if we photoshop their faces together, we’ll get you?
Yep. Exactly. I’m their long-forgotten love-child.