Interview: Terriers' Rockmond Dunbar

You may know him best as C-Note on Prison Break, but now Rockmond Dunbar is playing a character on the right side of the law. As Detective Mark Gustafson on the new FX drama Terriers, Dunbar plays Donal Logue’s character’s former partner on in the Ocean Beach Police Department. After Logue is given a dishonorable discharge and starts up his own private detective agency, it becomes Gustafson’s job to not only control the crime in the San Diego community, but also turn a blind eye to his friend’s less-than-legal actions.

As I mentioned in my interview with the show's Michael Raymond James, I was given the opportunity back in June to visit the set of the new show, which premieres tomorrow night. While there, Dunbar was happy to sit down and discuss his character’s relationship with Logue’s, working with the writers in developing his character and the ridiculous nature of being a black man named “Gustafson.”

Your character starts off being partners with Hank, then he gets discharged, but you still have a connection throughout the series. What is your characters’ arc throughout the first season?

It’s really interesting because everyone has a certain point of view or perspective on how they see the characters, and mine is just a little bit different, but from the very beginning he has his demons that he’s dealing with, I have my demons that I’m dealing with, and I’m telling him, “Control your demons. Control your demons. I’m controlling mine. I’m holding mine down.” He doesn’t control his well enough and that’s where it gets to the point that I’m more pissed at him because he didn’t control his demons and now I feel like he abandoned me. So now he’s gone, he’s doing his thing, and I still have a little bit of animosity, until I realize that, “Oh, ok. I thought that this was caused by your demons and it fucking wasn’t. So now, look, all that love that I’ve always had for you? It’s always going to be there and it’s still showing now. We’re helping each other.”

We were talking about how a lot of this stuff, the back story of these characters, isn’t in the first two episodes. So it comes out throughout the series. As an actor creating your own character, your own back story, can you talk about the challenges?

It’s the same thing as Prison Break. I can talk about it because it’s still a Fox show, which is interesting. It’s the same thing where we have the flashback episode, later on we have sort of a flashback episode, but it really only gives you tidbits of information, where the characters come from, how did they get here, what really happened, and I like that more. It gives us a chance as an audience to use our imagination instead of spoon feeding the exposition. It’s like, “Get out of here.”

Is it more challenging as an actor as opposed to a straightforward character where the details are all put out?

It’s challenging for an actor if you’re very insecure about your craft. If you’re not insecure about your craft, you’re like, “You know what? I’m going to play these colors, I’m going to play these speeds and you’re going to like them or you’re going to hate them.” I’m still fucking playing. I don’t care, I’m just going to go ahead and do it. So you make some solid choices that you don’t want to change, but you just don’t give a whole big back story/overview with a script full of 400-pages of notes on a 60-page script. You just don’t do it. You allow yourself the freedom to grow.

So you’re free when the writers throw you a curveball or throw in a monkey wrench.

You’re open to it. You’re free. You’re like, “Oh, wow. Great. That’s really something I didn’t think about” or “Yeah, I kind of had a feeling that would go that way, but what if we throw this layer on it or that layer on it, or this color or this suit?” And then you have a chance to build. It’s not like they’re giving you specific things. You have to be black – okay, I’m already black. You have to be a certain thing and that’s it.

What has it been like working with the writers? How much of it is collaborative?

Honestly there’s only one writer that the words don’t trickle off my tongue, the rest of the writers are great. I’m not going to name that person, but there’s one writer who I just can’t…and there’s always something like that. You just really don’t gel with the writing or it’s not necessarily they haven’t found the voice, it’s just their style of writing. It’s the cadence of the words or they haven’t picked up on my cadence. Or they think, “Oh! That’s his cadence! He would never say that.” It’s that one word, you have to pull that out and then it flows.

Did they give you leeway as an established actor to tweak the line to your preference?

I’ve only ever been on one show that didn’t allow me to adlib a little bit and that was a David E. Kelley show. You have to fucking stick to his words, that was it. So, with this show, yeah, this morning I adlibbed a little bit. I challenge it until someone says, “Can you stick to the script?” And that really only happened once. I’ve found myself to be one of those actors that even with really cheesy, putty lines I can sell them. Those lines that some actors will throw out, it’s hard to swallow, it doesn’t resonate, it’s not real. I can figure out a way and that’s what makes it fun for me. When you can pull a line that really just doesn’t make sense and make it fly. On Soul Food, there were a lot of lines on that show that were, for my character, just really sappy, but you have to sell it. That’s what you get paid for, not to complain and say, “Can we cut this line?” That didn’t make it work.

This show harkens a feel of masculine cop shows of the past, and it goes beyond Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James to you as well. Did you, as an actor, have any pairs or performances that made an impression on you?

There’s impressions that are stuck in my head- Starsky and Hutch, Bo and Luke Duke, every superhero that you can possibly name. There’s moments that I can pick out and choose. It’s one of those questions where as soon as I get to my trailer I’ll be like, “Oh yeah!” Sanford and Son, Miami Vice. As far as my character on this show, I’ve always looked at Rockford Files and said, “I’m Dennis.”

After Prison Break is it nice to be on the right side of the law?

It’s really interesting, because for the longest time I would always play the husband or the dad, and I’m not married and I don’t have any kids, which is funny but I’m going to sell it. Then I went from a psychiatrist to a military prisoner to a transplant surgeon, to a detective. So I’ve had great, great characters in between. So yeah, it’s something different. I did a number of pilots before where I played a detective, nothing ever really stuck, but this is sticking and it feels good. I love the character, it’s lots of fun. Love that they let me keep Gustafson as the last name. It’s the first thing that they asked me when I jumped on and Donal and I hit it off and had great chemistry. “Do you want to keep the name?” Yeah, it’s fucking hilarious. Black guy with the last name Gustafson.

Where do find the level is in the tone of the show? Do you find that its more comedy or more drama, particularly with your character?

Well, life is already funny, so if you just play life you’re going to find your beats. But it’s really interesting from the very beginning when I was auditioning for the show. I came in for the audition and I thought it was a drama. And I was like, “Cop drama, okay, cool. Shawn Ryan created another one, alright, great this is going to be cool.” Then they were about to do network, and they were like “Rock, we’re offering you the role.” “Okay, cool. Doing another drama, playing a cop, this is going to be great. Detective, last name Gustafson, kind of funky, whatever.” And then it came out in the press that it was a comedy, and I was like, “What the fuck? Nobody told me it was a comedy? I didn’t play it funny. Okay, maybe I’m not the funny one.” And then we did the pilot and everyone was still kind of confused. A comedy? An hour comedy? I’m like, “Man, we need to cut this down to a half-hour if we want it to survive.” And now it’s like a dramedy more than anything. It’s really, really grounded in this sort of retro-lifestyle that makes it kind of awkward/quirky/kind of funny. I mean, I’m a detective with a big fucking beard named Gustafson. It’s a little off.

The title of the show is never really fully explained. What is your take on its meaning?

I didn’t title the show [laughs]. Every time someone says, “Rock, what are you doing now?” and I tell them, “I’m working on a show called Terriers.” “Terriers?” “Yeah, it’s people acting like little dogs. I don’t know.” And they’re like “Oh! So it’s…” and I’m like, “No, it’s a cop show.” I just don’t get it. Very resilient people? Terriers are very resilient. Tenacity – you stick to something, you stick to it, and that’s what we’re doing. We’re doing this thing that’s not really necessarily going to give you anything back. It’s like a bouncing ball for a terrier.

Can you talk a little bit about shooting in San Diego and its role in the show?

I love shooting in San Diego. I think it’s great. I think the show could have been anywhere. It could have been anywhere because the characters are so strong. We could have shot this in New Mexico and it would have been fucking phenomenal. San Diego is great, love everything about San Diego.

Is there something to it not being L.A. based or New York based?

The show is written so strongly that it would work in L.A. It would work in L.A., it can work in San Francisco, it can work in Toronto. [under his breath] Please don’t send us to Toronto.[laughs]

Terriers premieres Wednesday, Sep. 8 at 10 PM E/P on FX.

Read our review of the first few episodes of Terriers here.

Eric Eisenberg
Assistant Managing Editor

NJ native who calls LA home and lives in a Dreamatorium. A decade-plus CinemaBlend veteran who is endlessly enthusiastic about the career he’s dreamt of since seventh grade.