The PCZ Interview: Owain Yeoman

Transcription by Katrina King. First rule of Katrina King is you do NOT talk about Katrina King!

CBS’ hit series The Mentalist features a strong ensemble cast that has proved extremely popular. As CBI Agent Wayne Rigsby, Owain Yeoman plays a likable, unassuming American. Yoeman has also previously played a soldier (HBO’s Generation Kill), a bank robber (ABC’s The Nine) and a killer robot (FOX’s Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles), all with an American accent. I point the accent out specifically because Yeoman is Welsh, a fact that I was surprised to discover. The Mentalist returns this week for a string of new episodes and I recently had the great pleasure to talk to Owain Yeoman about the series, his character, pretending to be American and what projects he’s like to tackle in the future.

POP CULTURE ZOO: I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me!

OWAIN YEOMAN: Not at all mate, not at all.

PCZ: So to start off with, are you guys still shooting season two?

OY: We are yeah, we’re on episode nineteen of twenty-three. It’s funny, because the show has just premiered in my homeland, back in the UK, in the second season, and it seems so bizarre to be almost a whole season ahead. So I have to be careful when I’m speaking to people back home, to not ruin the entire season for them by saying “oh of course, you’ve seen that bit” and they’re like “no we haven’t seen any of that, but thanks, we don’t need to watch it now”. (laughs) So yeah, it’s a long run, it’s intense, but we’re having fun shooting it.

PCZ: Congratulations to you and to the rest the cast and crew on the success on the show, and getting a second season, that’s pretty awesome!

OY: It is! Yeah, getting a first season is quite a struggle these days so, getting a second one has been great. I don’t think anyone has anticipated the success of the show. You respond to scripts you think you like and then you have to sit and wait on a huge anonymous public out there to cast a vote on whether you’ve got a job or not. So it’s always nice when you put in a lot of hard work and then the audience kind of enfranchises it and really responds to it. So we’ve been really, really pleased – really, really thrilled, yeah.

PCZ: Now your last few roles, that I’ve seen you in at least, have all been as Americans. Were you also aware that this was going to be a role as an American and did you go into the audition auditioning as that?

OY: Yeah it’s funny, I’ve tried very hard to persuade them that maybe he could be from Wales, that we could have Agent Rigsby from Cardiff or Swansea, but I think we decided it was a little too much story to kind of explain away. It’s changed for me, now, I go back home and I think I’ve been disowned as a Welsh actor, I’m like that guy who maybe used to live in Wales, who is American and occasionally puts on a false British accent. But it’s great for me. I learned early on here that if you want to have a crack at the work out here, then you have to master the American. It’s a nice feeling when people don’t realize I’m not American. I’ve had plenty of experiences where I come to an audience with lots of interesting British accents and stuff and people say “Why did he put on that awful British accent?” And I’m like “It’s not the accent I’m faking!” so that’s always a bit embarrassing.

But yeah, going into it, I knew this was going to be an American role. I’d read the pilot, and I was fortunate enough to be offered the role. In fact, I was the first person to be brought on board with the project. And at the time we didn’t have Simon as our lead guy. And so it kind of hung in the balance a little bit. I’d just finished a project called Generation Kill, and that was a very long period in Africa. So I was just very keen to do something that I could just travel down the road, rather than just nipping off to Johannesburg. It does make life a lot simpler to be able to just film very close to home.

PCZ: You were actually the draw for me for The Mentalist, because I was familiar with you in Generation Kill, The Nine, and Terminator, and I’d heard you were the first cast for Mentalist and I thought, “Definitely, it’s a done deal, I gotta check that out!”

OY: Oh that’s very sweet of you. You and my mum I think have watched all those things, so bless your heart!

PCZ: I confess, I was one of those who had no idea you were Welsh, so it’s a very convincing American accent. It’s not one of those generic American accents. It sounds like you’re actually from somewhere here, which is good.

OY: Well you see I had an uncomfortable kind of induction into it. I had an audition once where my agent had said to me, just say you’re from Wisconsin, but make sure that you say “WisCANsun” and you’ll have everyone fooled! And then talk about how much you love the cheese. He said Wisconsin’s the kind of place where everyone knows where it is, but no one really comes from there. And I’m like, oh ok. So I went into this audition, and the director was like “Yeah, I’m from Wisconsin” and I was like “oh…”… And I’d done a bit of research and made up this village, and he went “Man! That’s my home town!” I was like “Oh, I have to get out of this audition room very quickly.”

PCZ: (laughs) I guess that is always the danger.

OY: There’s a lesson there: always go in as yourself. Also I’ve got a name that doesn’t really scream like I’m from Atlanta or somewhere. I don’t know too many Owain Yeomans over on this side of the pond. Unfortunately my name belies my Welsh heritage a bit.

PCZ: (laughs) That’s probably true. One of the things that I think makes the show so successful and fun to watch is the chemistry between the characters, and I’m assuming that probably carries on between takes and trying to get each other to laugh and things like that?

OY: Yeah, very much so. I’ve got to say it’s probably one of the most light-hearted sets I’ve ever been on. I’m sure most people will tell you that I’m a bit of a joker, and I will deny that… no, it’s very long hours, and when you’re working seventeen, eighteen hour days, it’s nice to be able to laugh your way through it and work your way through it and get on. Tim [Krang, who plays Agent Cho] and I have a great rapport. He was just one of those guys who I knew I got on with. It’s very funny, because he’s actually very outgoing and gregarious, he has to have a minute before the take where he tries to get very in perfect Cho deadpan, and I do everything I can to try to put him off that. And Simon and I share that kind Australian, or British sensibility of being extremely sarcastic about everything. So we do, we have a lot of fun, and like you say, hopefully that carries over into if you enjoy making something then, nine times out of ten, other people might enjoy watching it.

PCZ: Getting into your character a little bit, I find, with your character and Tim’s as well, that you guys kind of started the series being skeptical of Jane and standoffish, and now we get to the point in the second season where you guys are willing to risk your careers to keep him in the group. Did you always know that your character was going to be like this and warm up to Jane that way?

OY: No, I think we’ve all had to kind of find our way. When I read the role in the pilot Rigsby was extremely cynical. He was conceived much more as a real badass. Like the kind of cop who slid across the hoods of cars and always got the girl and was all very slick and aggressive. Kind of a very machismo opposite to Jane. I just thought, we don’t need to see another one of those very generic, macho cops on TV, and I preferred a guy who maybe was a bit lovelorn, could’ve got the girl but hadn’t got the girl and, y’know, might not be the brightest of the pack but gets along in an affable way. And I think sooner or later, you kind of have to come around to, and not be immune to, Jane’s charms, and the fact that ultimately, he closes cases. It became a bit of a standing joke in the first season. Why don’t we just listen to Jane at the start of the episode, we can save ourselves 40 minutes of prime time TV. ‘Cause we’re always wrong, and he’s always right. Save everyone from the commercials, but that would make very boring TV. So as the show’s gone on, I’ve found myself just trying to evolve almost as a kind of audience member as well as a kind of a participant. If Jane has sort of got in our way, then he’s an irritant, but if he gets the job done, then he gets the job done. And you have to be both charmed and sort of impressed with that, I think.

PCZ: And of course this season, after teasing us for a long time, Rigsby and Van Pelt get together. So was that another thing that sort of seemed to evolve organically, or was it always kind of heading that way as well?

OY: Simon summed it up quite nicely, I thought, when he was talking about the show – he was saying that Jane and Lisbon represent more of kind of a patriarchal energy. They’re like the mother and father people, whereas Rigsby and Van Pelt are representative of a more youthful kind of lustful side of love and attraction and all the rest of it. So I think they were always gearing in that direction. It gave hope, it gave tons of chance to have the taste of a love story. Everyone loves a love story and as we’ve come into season two now, the challenge is what we do with that. As it’s been going on, because it’s TV and because it’s drama, the paths of true love will not run smoothly.

PCZ: Right, that’s what I was going to say – in one of the latest episodes, you guys have kind of hit a rocky patch, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the end of the relationship, though, right?

OY: No, I think there’s new challenges now. I think that’s also the challenge of how to make a relationship interesting. The thing is, in real life, everyone aspires to a relationship that works, but on TV that’s actually quite boring to watch, because you become a repeat of the same scene. How’s Rigsby and Van Pelt? Everything’s great! Well, that’s not very dynamic. It’s that kind of Moonlighting scenario – the minute you get them together, where do you go from there? And they’ve certainly resisted that temptation with Lisbon and Jane. I really like that – the fact that we’ve got two prime time characters who don’t need to be in love. They’re two characters who have a good rapport, and have a good banter, but don’t fall that way. And I think now, Bruno [Heller], the show’s creator, whose aim as far as I can understand it with our characters is to really lay down a different challenge to the relationship. We’ve got a new cast member coming in, Aunjanue Ellis is playing Madeline Hightower. She’s the new big boss, so she’s Lisbon’s boss. She presents a very firm ultimatum for us. It’s like: Relationship or CBI? You can’t have both. So I think that now introduces a really good element of tension. Before it was just about if we wanted to get involved. Now it’s about do we love each other enough to jeopardize things, or do you want to sacrifice your job, and that’s a very real and very difficult ultimatum I think.

PCZ: What has been the biggest challenge for you in this role and on this show?

OY: This is the first job I’ve ever done without an accent coach so that is always an ongoing. I try never to forget how difficult that is, because then you become complacent and then suddenly you’ll get that note coming through saying “I’m sorry, at what point did we make Rigsby from London?” I have to stay on top myself for that, because it’s a good physical handle into the character. I like to also be on top of, and Tim is the sameway, the technical side of things. I think I’ve watched too many cop dramas or too many medical dramas where doctors are holding x-rays the wrong way up, or you see a cop do something with a gun and you’re like “augh”. Our technical advisor on the show says “Nothing pains me more than to see someone with their thumb over the safety of a gun. The minute you fire that, you’re losing your thumb!” It’s silly little things. With Generation Kill we did almost a month and a half of Marine boot camp and it gives you a physical vocabulary and once you’ve done that, you’re taking all sorts of things for granted that make you look and feel like a marine or like a cop. At the end of it I arrogantly made the mistake of saying to the military advisor who was actually the real guy I was playing, Eric Kocher, “God, I’ve been away for months now, and y’know filming out here in the desert, it’s just like I’ve been at war.” And he said, “Yeah, just like war, but with more make-up and less death.” And I went, “Okay, that puts me in my place.”

PCZ: (chuckles) Yeah, oops. I know you’ve been doing the American accent for a while in shows, but when you have to do an extremely dramatic scene or a big action sequence, does that add a layer of complexity to it, having to remember that accent?

OY: I made the mistake of mentioning to a writer on the show, who’s a really great guy, certain constructs that I find difficult to say and indeed any British or Australian person will find difficult to say. They’re normally words involving the R sound, things like “water” and “daughter” – things like that. They are the things that keep you awake at night as a British actor trying to be American. So he actually starts writing lines with all of them in. “The victim of the daughter brought a glass of water..” and I’m like “You know exactly what you’re doing, stop that!” So it’s less about what the scene is about and just the challenge of being your own critic. You never want to judge your character, because the minute you decide oh, my character is dumb, or my character is evil, my character is this – you’re making a judgment on them, you’re not being them. Then you’ve lost sight of where you at with them. It’s kind of just re-engaging yourself every week. TV is very, very relentless. You never want to become complacent. You always want to stay on top of that. Fortunately, we have great scripts and a very, very passionate cast who every week we find that energy somewhere to try and make something that good. And certainly we enjoy making it and hope that the audience will enjoy watching.

PCZ: Do you have any ambitions, especially being on this show, of doing any writing or directing for the show?

OY: Y’know, back in the way-back-when, I used to have an academic degree before I gave it all up and my parents sort of held their heads in their hands and said what are you doing? And academic stuff was my first love, and I loved books, I loved reading and writing and was all set to have a career in academia. I do miss that. My wife and I have just started casually scribbling stuff down and I have a new respect, because suddenly you realize all those scripts you read, the ones you thought were not very good, you actually go, “It’s a lot harder to write it.” It’s a very refined art. It’s one thing to be able to read it and especially keep it open and it’s another thing to be able to put a bunch of random ideas from your head into something coherent. I mean certainly just in the distant future, I would love to. I’m not sure how they would feel about letting me loose on it. (laughs) But you get all sorts of bizarre stuff. Like I’ve had fan mail where people have actually written story lines for me. One guy sent a script in for me, about my character and where I come from and everything. And I was like “wow, that person has way too much time on their hands!” (laughs) That wasn’t you, was it? I’m just checking that you weren’t writing it ’cause as long as that wasn’t you…

PCZ: (laughs) No, that wasn’t me.

OY: Actually, the rest of script was really good, so y’know well done on that, whoever it was.

PCZ: No, I keep all that to myself… no, I’m just kidding!

OY: Exactly!

PCZ: Are there occasions where maybe in the middle of a scene you think, “I don’t know that Rigsby would necessarily behave this way or say that..”?

OY: It’s interesting you bring that up. What I’ve learned about TV which is different from features is that you become much more responsible for the integrity and ongoing journey of your character each week, because the directors, in a way, become in essence a day player because they’re new to the project. We have a lot of return directors, which is nice, and then occasionally we’ll get one of our executive producers, Chris Long, he will direct and he knows the show very well so that’s always nice. But you know when you get a new face in, they always watch one or two episodes prior to, but they will often say to you “What’s the go-to procedure in this?” or “How do you feel about this?” I have to turn around to them and say “Actually, y’know what, three episodes ago there was this conversation between Van Pelt and I, so this doesn’t actually make any sense what you’re asking us to do”. I think you have to be very mindful of that. It’s a new responsibility for me, to be able to do that. Also, because I’ve never done a project that’s gone beyond thirteen episodes, the joy of a project that ended early is that no one holds it against you. The challenge with this is to keep it exciting and to keep challenging ourselves because otherwise you’re not gonna want to watch it. I’m a huge fan of TV. I love TV and when I sit down and watch TV I really enjoy it. I’ve seen a couple of shows that have come out recently where I thought, “That’s great because it moves TV on” y’know what I mean? I really enjoyed watching FlashForward, I thought it was a great show. And Modern Family is a really, really funny comedy. Things like that excite me because I’m in the business and I like seeing the business shift and move. It’s all inspiration. It’s inspiration for performance and it’s inspiration for writing. You do have to kind of stay on yourself from week to week. Especially if, goodness knows, who knows how long this all will run, but hopefully we can have the same conversation again on season seventeen!

PCZ: Absolutely!

OY: Yeah, “Not active anymore, yeah, fifteen years on I’m finding it very hard.”

PCZ: Well, and talking about pushing TV forward – is there a sense that you guys can kind of mix up your story lines a little bit or maybe push the envelope a little bit in some ways?

OY: Yeah I think it was Simon who talked a while ago about the show finding its feet because we emerged out of a very weird creative time, it was just after the writer’s strike, the recession was very present, and it was a very recessed time both creatively and economically and I think people wanted to return to basics. [Our] show, in essence, offers a very old formula with a new twist. It harkens back to things like Columbo, a classic whodunit. At the center of it you have an actor who is an anti-hero. You like him in spite of the faults. He’s a narcissist. He’s responsible directly for the murder of his wife and child because of his arrogance and because of his narcissism and yet it’s his narcissism and arrogance that we as viewers find attractive, so it’s a weird conundrum to face. I think we’ve all been very, very keen to try and return to maybe a darker side to the show. Sometimes it’s easy to get lost in the frivolity of it. A joke between Rigsby and Cho, a flippant remark from Jane to Lisbon, Van Pelt and Rigsby having a moment that is where we live in this “where everything is cool” universe. But then you realize we inhabit a world where we’re a serious crimes unit, where people are getting murdered every week. We’ve got a serial killer on the loose who underpins the whole story. So we enjoy it when we get that chance to sink our teeth into that stuff because it lets us feel that we’re two different shows. We’re a…I hate to use the word, but a dramedy – a drama with a comic touch, or a comedy with dramatic moments depending on how you wanna look at it.

PCZ: Well, I thought it was quite nice that it did seem, like you said, that it was an old formula with a new twist, and things were going along great, and then you’ve got an episode where Red John wipes out five officers and there’s utter chaos.

OY: That was weird day to film, we’d just gotten to know those guys and Terry Kinney, who played Sam Bosco, became a really good friend. A wonderful actor, a wonderful man and no sooner had he got his feet under the table, we were like “See ya!” What I loved about that was that too often shows can become stale because they don’t want to risk the formula that they think is winning, so they flog a dead horse. Whereas Bruno’s been very good at shaking things up. Minelli played by Greg Itzen, he came in and he’s gone. We’ve got Aunjanue coming in. All these people bring a different dynamic. We had a wonderful episode the week before last that really began to delve into Cho’s storyline, and his gang background. On the horizon, we’ll look more into my character’s troubled upbringing – he had an overbearing father. These are all ideas that we’ve discussed with Bruno, giving us, hopefully, scenes for season three. Of course I’ve got the difficulty now of being in love with a woman who I can’t be with because of my job. So I think it’ll be interesting to see some of the drama, and take away some of the frivolity so it’s not just all nicey-nice. It’s got real stakes, real sort of issues.

PCZ: Will we get some more tidbits or more appearance of Red John going towards the end of the season?

OY: Very much so. I think at the moment they’re playing with the idea of a two-part season finale. This is all conjecture on my part as well because it’s yet to be locked down, but I know we’re going to be filming somewhere out of town. I think Bruno has always seen Red John as a series long hook, but he’s also very sensitive to his audience, and he’s also very mindful of the fact that he doesn’t want this to be another show where for seven seasons you’re teased and teased and teased, and then suddenly someone opens a trapdoor and everthing’s blown away and it’s all completely a parallel universe. I think the reward of the show is that every week we’re giving people the payoff at least of that week’s murder. And when Red John does surface, I think there can only be so many times we can just miss him before that becomes tired, and I think Bruno’s very mindful of that. So I think there are definitely bits of information coming up about that stuff. Aunjanue’s character, Madeline Hightower… You’ll have to ignore all Police Academy references there. No comical Hightower references there. When we read that we were like, “Did Bruno see Police Academy? Did he watch Police Academy?” It was Simon’s first thing on set, “Anyone seen Police Academy?” And Chris said, “You’re not saying that.” So that was very funny… But these are all people who are bringing new pressures in. There’s an interesting dynamic between her and Jane. And Jane, as the series goes on this season, we realize that it’s not Jane who’s culpable, but Jane really begins to put Lisbon in a very tight spot. Because really, Jane can come and go as he pleases. He’s the dilettante, but someone has to be responsible for his actions, and that person is Lisbon. So you might see her really beginning to feel the heat now in a very real career sense because of his dilly-dallying.

PCZ: I was glad to see the romance was put on Rigsby and Van Pelt because it seemed to me that Jane couldn’t really ever open himself up to a woman until he caught Red John.

OY: You really do stroke at the heart of it when he’s a guy who still wears his wedding ring and then suddenly if we see him making out with every available female character on the show [it doesn’t work]. It’s hard because Simon was TV Guide‘s sexiest man, so all the female viewers wanna see him do is make out with someone. I think the beauty of the character is that he’s completely shut down. We’ve had glimpses of the past that have resurfaced in Jane’s therapy, in a mental hospital, going through a really difficult transition where he was really loving his drug, the thing that was making him very sick. He has to divorce himself from that. There will be some interesting conundrums coming up in the final few episodes too, because we’ll see the return of Leslie Hope who played a rival clairvoyant, rival psychic. Earlier on in the first season she was the only character who seemed to really reach him, who really seemed to disturb his calm waters on the surface. I won’t go so far as to say there’s a love connection, but there’s certainly a meeting of minds again in those two. That’s really, really something that I think a lot of people enjoyed seeing, is Jane getting challenged on his own turf. There’s going to be plenty more of that when Leslie comes back towards the end of the season.

PCZ: So when you guys go on break between season two and, hopefully, season three, are there any projects that you’re looking at to take on?

OY: Yeah, I’m currently looking at a project which I can’t mention the name of it! It is unfortunately.. well, not unfortunately, wonderfully, it’s another soldier project. (laughs) So, I think it’s the virtue of being a big guy in Hollywood. I’m the go to guy for soldiers and marines and various other things, which means, unfortunately, lots of time in the gym. And that would be fun. I’ve had a few auditions for it; it’s been going well. The difficulty of it is just that it’s a timing issue. We’re having conversations right now along the lines of if I were to get the film it would film out of town at basically from two days after I wrap until a day before I start back. I have to ask myself if I have the energy in me to do that. But, I love work, and I believe that work brings work, so if I do get offered the part, I will be very keen to do it. I’m still busily in pursuit of a superhero role, I’m not gonna lie to you, I’d like any superhero I can get. I’m so on for it. I’m building a big campaign to try and play Captain Marvel. I think they’re going to make the movie, I know it’s been on the horizon for a while. And I keep saying to mates, “If Captain Marvel ever surfaces in a real way, I’ll do anything they need. I’ll dress up in the big red suit, just let me know!”

PCZ: You know actually, you’d be dead on perfect for that!

OY: I’m thinking I could be right for it! So maybe you and me just need to go along and speak to the people at [the comic book company] and break some legs and just do whatever it takes to get in that door. A friend of mine, Ioan, played Mr. Fantastic of the Fantastic Four and he said, “It’s a very weird day when you see yourself as a doll, especially as a stretchy doll.” He has one of those at home, and I was like, “That is really odd. It’s like your own personal voodoo doll.” I’m not sure if I aspire to that. I don’t think that’s going to help anything.

PCZ: You know, if the Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles show had lasted you would have eventually had an action figure of you. Even though you were only on for the beginning, believe me they would have made at least one.

OY: Indeed, I should have stuck around for my Cromartie figure at least, unfortunately. (laughs) Yeah, you’re right, looking back on it now, I think it’s too late to call people in the factory to get them started on the prototype. My kind of MO as an actor is to ring the changes and to do things like I played the chef in Kitchen Confidential, I played a robot in Terminator and then shift to something extremely different in Generation Kill. I think hopefully it avoids that position of being pigeonholed and stereotyped. It challenges me, which I enjoy doing.

PCZ: Well, and there’s an extremely, world-wide phenomenon, popular TV series shot in Cardiff that you could always hit them up for a role as well…

OY: Yes there is indeed! Yes, I’ve not been immune to the charms of it, I did hear halfway through last year that they were looking also for a new Doctor Who, but I think I’d be a fool to follow David Tennant. He’s done a great job. Maybe I’ll let a few lousy Doctors go by, and then when they’re in the need of a great Doctor, or y’know when a couple people have passed after Daniel Craig, when they’re in need of a really great James Bond, hopefully I could jump in there just at the right time. That would be nice. (laughs)

PCZ: Well, see, so that’s three campaigns I need to start for you, now. Captain Marvel

OY: Three campaigns! Let’s get those going, yes, we’ve got Captain Marvel, James Bond…

PCZ: …and Doctor Who.

OY: And Doctor Who!

PCZ: Perfect!

OY: I’m nothing if not ambitious!

PCZ: (laughs) Set your sights high, why not, y’know?

OY: Absolutely.

PCZ: Well, looking forward to the rest of season two of The Mentalist and the inevitable season three of that. I definitely enjoy the show every week and watching you in particular.

OY: Oh mate, that’s very kind of you, I really appreciate that, thank you so much!

PCZ: Thank you very much for your time, and hopefully we can do this again sometime.

OY: Look forward to it!

Thank you very much to Owain Yeoman for his time and the great conversation. The Mentalist airs on CBS Thursdays at 10:00 PM!

Joseph Dilworth Jr.

Joseph Dilworth Jr. has been writing since he could hold a pencil (back then it was one of those big, red pencils, the Faber-Castell GOLIATH. Remember those? Now that was a pencil!). As the instigator of this here website he takes full responsibility for any wacky hi-jinks that ensue. He appreciates you taking the time to read his articles.