In recent years, Bill Camp has had the good fortune of experiencing the heights of two artistic forms. With supporting roles in Lincoln and two consecutive Best Picture winners—12 Years A Slave and Birdman—Camp couldn’t possibly reach a higher pedigree of films. And with turns in The Leftovers and The Night Of, the latter of which earned him his first Emmy nomination, the actor is now thriving in the era of Peak TV.
In Camp’s view, the experiences in film and TV are much the same, in the quality of his collaborators and in terms of the formats. As so many directors today will tell you, a television series is but a prolonged movie, with the chance to develop more nuanced, ever evolving character arcs.
Camp recently discussed the experience of working with The Night Of creators Steve Zaillian and Richard Price, whose words provided everything he needed. He also rendering his personal takeaway from the season—or series?—finale.
What grabbed you about the The Night Of?
The writing, really, and working with Steven. It was early, before they cast the role of Naz. I didn’t even know that Jim [Gandolfini] was going to [star], and be one of the executive producers. Steve and I had known each other after working one day together on a script—he sent me scenes and I was just immediately engaged with the writing. It was really awesome writing—it just makes you lean in, and I was leaning in. I was immediately fascinated, wanting to know the story. That first interrogation scene is quite brilliant, and the pace of the relationship with John Stone.
What did you latch onto in finding your character, Dennis Box?
In Episode 2, Richard and Steve give John Stone a really clear description of who the guy actually is. That was something that I knew, right away, was consistent—he’s sometimes a “Subtle Beast.” John Stone describes him to Naz: Essentially, “Watch out for this guy. He may give you the impression as being one way, but he’s not.”
Sometimes, you read things that characters will say about the character you’re playing. They may be lies, so sometimes, that information is not one to use as a handle. But that was one [instance] that very clearly was going to be something that I could work with for the whole length of the tale.
That was it. I feel like he kind of moves in and out—that was a really fun thing for me to start to play with. He starts off a little bit like, “Oh, is this guy just a grumpy asshole?” He doesn’t really care, and then he seems like he has a level of compassion to him. You’re not really so sure because there were things that Steve and I did, just quick glimpses of him that were a little like, “Wait a minute. Who is this guy?”
Then, it’s a back and forth, which I love. It’s hard as an actor to buy in, the more I do it, and the more I live my own life—we’re not consistent, human beings. We often make decisions and behave in ways that are contradictory to the way we behaved the day before, or even hours before. I think that’s always interesting to have, and a description like “Subtle Beast,” which are really two totally opposite [descriptors].
Was there research involved in preparing for the role?
There were some things that were private to me, that maybe Steve and I talked about, but weren’t overtly relevant, in terms of whatever everyone was seeing. They certainly fed into what goes on internally, for me at least. There was a certain backstory that I created that would evolve, even. That’s the play that I get to do as an actor, with a guy where there’s a lot unsaid. You don’t really see this guy in a private sense. You see him doing his work, which was a lot of what his existence was about.
He doesn’t even know what he’s going to do when he retires.
As a prosecutor, Box is crafting a narrative, spinning a web. Does that notion resonate with the work you do as an actor?
That’s a fascinating idea. I think there are definitely similarities—we each have a certain amount of evidence. As an investigator, a homicide detective or what have you, there’s a certain amount that’s given, or at least given as evidence, as happened. I have a certain amount of evidence that I’m given by the writer, the circumstances and whatever is there for the character. I do know the events, and as an actor, I’m trying to connect character to events, and building that narrative, which has to be fleshed out and filled in, in order to make those events ring true in the story.
I think an investigator is trying to then connect events, in order to believe in outcome. So, on one level, absolutely—I think they’re definitely similar in that sense. I think there’s also a creative side: I don’t do this for a living, but I talked to a few detectives, and I also know that was what was happening with Dennis Box. Actors somehow put themselves in that position to imagine. Myself as an actor, and I think with investigators, the imagination has to be active, whether in a good way or a bad way [laughs].
As an actor, that’s really the essence of it for me. If I don’t turn my imagination on, then I’m not going anywhere, and I think that as an investigator, or somebody who’s crafting a narrative that they want to then prove, they also need to imagine certain scenarios, or certain actions people take, certain things that are going on. Dennis Box realized that there was a relationship going on between some other guy and the victim, so that then means, well, when there’s a relationship, we have emotional stuff that’s going on, and who knows? Was it sexual? Did it then move into something else? That led him through a whole different door.
Of late, you’ve experienced the heights of both film and television, between a string of Oscar winners and then prestige television. What has TV offered you, in relation to your film work?
I’ve just been insanely lucky and privileged to work with some really awesome directors across the board. Certainly, you could probably evaluate each one a different way, but I would work with all of them again in a second. I think they’re all just brilliant, and I learn every time I go on set. That’s kind of my goal, to approach the day in terms of, what am I learning? That sounds sort of cheesy, but it’s literally the only way I get through it.
Fortunately, I’ve got something to learn from all of those people. And it’s true: in television, the series I’ve been working on, the directors are unbelievable. Some of them have cinema experience—I think all of them do—and television. As forms, I don’t really approach the two of them differently because basically, they’re the same.
As you well know, the kind of television that I’ve been involved in—Leftovers, Night Of—they’re sort of like long movies. In that sense, as stories that are being told, they are very similar. I find it really exciting, and I’m still learning so much about the form, itself, of being an actor in front of a camera, as opposed to what I did most of my life, which was acting on stage.
Which episode did you submit for Emmys, and why?
I submitted [Episode] 2. Personally, there’s a lot of stuff that I really love in 1. I just like seeing it because anyone else watching might feel like, Well, you’re not doing anything. What is that? [laughs] I remember doing it, and I remember thinking that it could be the tiniest little thing that [is effective]. There’s stuff in 1, there’s stuff in 8.
I’m really proud of 8, insofar as the scene in the casino—I collaborated a lot with Steve in that scene. We adjusted some stuff; it wasn’t on the fly at all, but it was the culmination. It’s saying, this is what he—now, after all this time—believes is what happened. It was really a process of discovery. The framework was certainly all there—the architecture was there—it was just some of the other stuff. So I’m really happy about that day of work with Steve and everybody, and happy with how it came out.
I love the scene with John [Turturro] and I in the dumpling shop—I love all of the interactions I have with John because there’s something oddly playful about it, between the two of them. And I love John, working with him. I hope some day Riz and I get to do something which is not so dour. We ran into each other like six months after it opened, on a roof over in London, because we’re both in that Bourne movie that [Paul] Greengrass did. He showed up one day when Matt [Damon] was throwing me off the roof. I looked over and there was f*ckin’ Riz [laughs].
By the end of the series, the question of whether Naz committed the crime or not is largely irrelevant—either way, he is broken. What’s your gut feeling on the subject?
I don’t think he did it. There’s something in Episode 1 that makes it clear for me, when he’s in the apartment before he splits. I don’t think he did it, and that’s all I’ll say. I agree that it’s irrelevant because the power of the series is its ambiguity, I think. But I don’t think he did it.