Backup plans can help you sleep easier at night... but backup plans also give you an easy out when times get tough.
That's why so many successful entrepreneurs didn't have a backup plan. Many will say their startups had to work. There was no other option.
Today his IMDB credits seem to scroll down forever, but his journey to success started when he "packed up and drove to Los Angeles and lived in my car and started telling everybody I was an actor"... even though he had never really acted.
And as you'll see in this wide-ranging interview, for all his accolades Robert hasn't forgotten his humble beginnings... or that no matter how high you climb, hard work, preparation, and persistence remain the keys to success.
So how does a Georgia boy wind up in Hollywood?
First I failed at some things I thought I wanted to do. I thought I'd have a career as a professional football player or baseball player, I went to college and dropped out of college, I drifted around... and then I was in a life-or-death situation where I was forced to take stock in what I'd done so far and realized the great life I had envisioned for myself wasn't going to happen unless I did something drastic and way out of my comfort zone.
So I packed up and drove to Los Angeles and lived in my car and started telling everybody I was an actor.
But why acting?
I'd done some acting in elementary school, so I didn't know whether I had any talent. I just knew I wanted to do what John Wayne and Clint Eastwood did.
I know it might sound strange, but right away I felt like I belonged. I was meeting other kooky people like myself, people where full of hopes and dreams and ideas, who were thinking like I was thinking, who thought there had to be something more to life. I was an idealistic young guy and I just couldn't believe I was going to have an average life.
I just refused to accept that... and that gave me the courage to make a bold move and try to do something bigger and better.
Yet tons of people have tried to do what you've done... but you pulled it off.
I'm really aware of how fortunate I am. I know how special and rare it was.
There's not a day that goes by that I'm not grateful that everything happened the way it happened... or maybe none of it would have happened.
I didn't have a super amount of confidence, I just had a super amount of, "I've got to do something."
Wait. Your profession requires incredible confidence. The ability to stand in front of people or in front of a camera... that takes a huge amount of confidence. How did you bridge that gap?
I don't know how I conquered that. You're right: Fear is a crippling disease. If you're around people that say you can't do something, if you have that little voice in your head that says you can't do it...
Acting is definitely all about confidence. If you saw some of my first attempts when I came out here, maybe you could see some raw talent... but I was awful. I didn't have any technique. I had nothing to go on other than I knew you were supposed to use your imagination and "believe." I had read some books, I tried to make up for my lack of acting education... but at a certain point it comes down to will and your ability to convince yourself that you actually are what you want to be.
Somehow I discovered an ability to do that. My imagination would lock in and I could hang with it.
But you still had to get chances to show what you could do, which is really tough early on -- in any pursuit.
I did a play, that play helped me get another part, I got a movie, and the next thing you know I was doing a physical role for (legendary independent filmmaker) Roger Corman that required action and stunts. I thought, "I'm a football player, I can do this." And I would observe and learn and watch what the other actors did.
Really, Roger Corman was my film school and acting school. I am so grateful for that.
You also adopted some of his business strategies.
We had this idea for the movie Within the Rock. Gary Tunnicliffe created a special effects monster that gets released from a sarcophagus and terrorizes the crew on a mission to change the moon's course... and we had all this dirt and sets and machinery and my partners at the time, Stanley Isaacs and Scott McGiniss, were marveling at what we'd accomplished... and we realized we had money on the meter at the studio and came up with an idea for another sci-fi movie. So we changed the sets around and made Ravager happen.
That approach goes all the way back to Roger Corman. That's exactly the kind of thrifty thing he would do.
Roger is quite a man and deserves to be a legend in the business. He's broken so many people. Before Terminator 2 I had no agent, had only done six small films, had a part in Die Hard 2...
... and when I met (T2 producer and director) James Cameron, one of the first things he said was, "Hey, you're a Roger guy."
He was a Roger guy, too: Roger gave him his start.
Very few aspiring actors actually land roles, much build 30-plus year careers. How have you done that?
My dad would tell me that talent is important, but you also need to be someone that people want to work with, not around. That attitude also comes from my football and baseball days. When you're on a team you have to realize that the team wants to use your talent and your abilities... but you are also part of something bigger than yourself. You'll have your moment to shine, but you have to be there for other people.
I think a real key to building a career in any field is to make sure people know they can count on you. You have to the kind of person who is good to with, friendly, helpful, focused, prepared...
If you want work, you have to figure out how to work well with other people. If you can't do that, talent doesn't matter.
So you move to Los Angeles and start acting... but when did you first feel like you belonged?
Right away I felt like I made the right decision. I really felt like I was where I belonged, even though I only had small successes.
When I came out here, it had to work. There was no backup plan. It was just going to work. There was no option for failure. That was never a word that entered my mind.
So I felt like I belonged right away. Other people might not have, but I did. That's when you really know you're doing what you're supposed to do.
Is that where your confidence came from?
I wasn't the most confident man, but I was determined.
You know, that's the answer to your earlier question about confidence. Confidence comes from preparation. I didn't realize the fear gnawing at me came from the fact I hadn't been prepared.
Once I realized I could prepare myself and learn, that I could develop techniques to do my job well, that my job is a craft I can get better at, that the things I feel I lack I can find down the road... you get more confident as you get more prepared.
Preparation is everything. Preparation gives you the confidence.
That really came together when I felt like I could stand in front of a camera and feel entitled to be there. That's a feeling every actor needs -- that feeling that they can roll camera and you're enough.
When did that moment happen for you?
Rob was the first person, besides my wife, who said, "You've got something, and you're going to make it, and you're going to be big." That was a simple thing, but I hung my entire dream of my career on that.
Someone believed in me... besides me.
Later, right before I did The Sopranos, my acting coach Stephen Bridgewater helped me understand that being an actor is a 24/7 thing: you're constantly learning and watching people. There are always things you can pick up on.
He also helped me with my camera technique, and he helped me with my confidence and my ability to believe I belonged. Once you realize that, you can focus on what you need to and not all the other stuff.
Bottom line, if you don't feel entitled to be in front of the camera, you're dead. You have to be able to stand there and believe and know you're good.
That level of confidence and belief comes from preparation.
When is your job fun?
The most fun I have is when I've worked my ass off and prepared and the scene is challenging and there are things I want to do with the scene and it works... and I just feel great.
That's hard to do, though. Acting is an inexact process. You get close a lot of the time, but really hit it out of the park? That doesn't happen all the time.
But I love when I have a long speech and I nail the words and the emotions and feel like I brought a degree of nuance to the performance.
The more time I get with the words I need to perform, the better I do. That goes back to preparation. I don't feel comfortable unless I really know what I'm supposed to be saying and doing and feeling.
So challenges are the fun part?
Succeeding at challenges is the fun part. (Laughs.)
I also love working with big stars and feeling like I hold my own in the scene. I've had a chance to work with some greats: Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Eastwood, Duvall, Phoenix, McConaughey... the list goes on and on. I've been very fortunate.
But the first day I worked with Clint as an actor when he was the director was a nerve-wracking experience. Even after all these years. I was definitely a little out of sorts that day.
Clint was such a big influence on me, and I'm on his set, and he's telling me what to do in this scene and are all these people are watching... I just kept saying to myself, "Just keep your (stuff) together."
But it was great. And then to get to work with him as an actor was also great. He got a case of the giggles and he couldn't keep a straight face during a scene and I said, "Come on, man, this is my close-up." (Laughs.) That's a day I'll never forget.
Do you have a scene you're particularly proud of?
My favorite scene is the dinner scene with Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line where I play his father. It is one weird scene, and I'm very proud of it.
But I have lots of other favorites. I've worked with Kevin Bacon, Billy Bob Thornton, Bobby Duvall... I'm in awe of Bobby Duvall guy. Bobby's a dude.
You asked when I felt like I belonged, and here's another moment: when I was in Georgia doing Jayne Mansfield's Car, Bobby Duvall is playing my father, I'm playing the brother of Billy Bob Thornton and Kevin Bacon... and I had this moment of, "Wow, this is really cool... I'm so grateful I decided to just get in my car and set out across America all those years ago."
That was definitely a moment when I knew I had made the right choice.
Working with icons of the industry has to be stressful. Now you're on Scorpion, a top-ten television show... that seems like a lot of pressure, too.
Oh no. Being on Scorpion feels like exactly what I've been waiting for.
I've making my living as an actor since 1984. My wife and I got married while I was making T2, I've provided for my family, and even as recently as a couple of years ago I thought going away on location was great... but I realized I would like to find a gig in LA that could take away some of the "not knowing" so I could just focus on working.
As an actor, you always have to be looking for "next." You live in a world of uncertainty where it's really hard to plan.
I'm not complaining, though. I chose to chase the dream of being an actor. But you do have to find someone to hire you, over and over and over and over.
That's a similar feeling to one entrepreneurs have: they're always looking for the next customer, the next project...
It's exactly the same feeling. Scorpion was something I was looking for.
It's funny; I was doing NCIS with Mark Harmon, and I said, "Man, I'm just looking for my Mark Harmon gig." He laughed. Then I saw him at the CBS up-fronts and I said, "I've got my Mark Harmon job." (Laughs.)
Now here we are in our third season and I would love for this show to go on for 7, 8, 10 years. It's great for me as an actor and as a person. I just did a little movie on my hiatus; we shot that in May, June, and July, and then I went back to Scorpion. So I get to step out of the character that I do for 10 months and lose myself in something else, the walk back into the Cabe character...
Did you ever imagine that would happen?
I didn't, and to some degree I have The Sopranos to thank. Doing The Sopranos was a pivotal point in my career; it opened doors for me because everyone in Hollywood watched The Sopranos. I got to open some eyes and change people's perspective on me as an actor.
That's also when I realized I there was great writing on TV.
Plus, who doesn't want to stand in front of a camera every day? That, to me, is the ultimate. That's where my artistry lives. I live between "action" and "cut." That's my space to create.
So every day I get the opportunity to suspend the real world and enter into a whole new world and use my imagination and have fun with it. Every day there's a camera pointed at me and I have to prove I can do it, I can say the words... that I can make the audience believe.
The thing I love most about Scorpion, besides the cast and the writers, is the stunts they let me do. They let me run on the dam with a harness and a wire. Who gets to do that kind of thing?
It's funny, I was telling my son who is a high school football player, "Look, you've got two more years of highs school ball. You may get to play in college and you may not, but all you know for certain is you have two more years to play football. This is the only time in your life you'll be able to put on some pads and hammer someone and not get arrested. The stuff you do now on the football field you never get to do it again."
That's how acting is. I get to do stuff that people don't get to do, and it's fun. Driving fast cars, running, jumping, especially on Scorpion, the wild storylines we have and the problems we have to overcome... it just tickles the crap out of me. I get to act like a teenager.
Is that what drew you to acting in the first place?
Maybe so. Acting satisfies the Peter Pan in us all -- the sense we haven't had to grow up, we get to step out of real life and into this another life and create... and actually get paid for it.
But I'm totally aware it's not a birthright. It's a privilege. And it's definitely something I've never taken for granted.
I'm in no way comparing myself to Bruce, but Bruce Springsteen does come to mind. Every time you go see him you don't get the feeling that he's working. Even though he's putting everything he has into performing, even though you have no idea how much heartache and pain goes into it... you sit there and just watch a guy who loves what he does and is not afraid for you to know it.
There's a vulnerability in that. It's hard to let people know you truly love what you do. Most of us don't. I know I don't.
I love performing. I want to do it as long as I can, and I think that's consistent in the actors that I admire: they still love what they do.
They love acting.
Speaking of feeling privileged, that feeling tends to make most people want to give back. Tell me about me about Boozefighters and your toy ride.
I'm a motorcycle enthusiast and member of the Boozefighters Motorcycle Club. We call ourselves a drinking club with a motorcycle problem. (Laughs.)
Last year my priest, Father Davis, mentioned an orphanage in Pasadena that the Episcopal Diocese is involved with. I took it to my brothers in the club and suggested we put on an event, and we did. So we're doing it again this year.
Emilio Rivera from Sons of Anarchy, Mike Beach from Sons, Kurt Sutter is involved... we're going to do what we can to get as many toys and items that we can to kids. We will hopefully have a very large procession of people and we'll spend the day with the kids. They love seeing all the bikers.
It's fun when you realize that you can take whatever public profile you have and use it to make a positive impression on people. Stand in Iraq with soldiers and they say, "I can't believe you came all the way over here to support us and say Hi," it's a humbling thing.
They're the real heroes. We just play heroes.