Hulu’s limited series The Looming Tower not only digs deep into the U.S. intelligence failures that preceded 9/11, but also highlights some of the unsung heroes who battled to beat Al Qaeda behind the scenes.
For Bill Camp, playing the role of FBI counterterrorism agent Robert Chesney meant becoming a composite character made up of four real-life men—a concept that Camp says, “immediately engaged” him and “presented challenges that I was eager to undertake.”
To play Chesney, Camp met with three out of the four men his character represented; a move that helped him to, among other things, authentically reenact a real-life interrogation with an Al Qaeda operative.
Being part of a series about this topic was, Camp says, “a privilege” and “the kind of thing that’s owed to the world.”
Had you read the original book by Lawrence Wright before going into this? What really grabbed you about the role?
Well, I did read the book, and it’s an awesome book. Just so engaging in terms of Lawrence’s investigative skills, which makes him a king. So it was like a nice sort of ignition of my curiosity about something that I knew very little about in terms of the whole history.
As a New Yorker I kind of knew the experiential events that happened on 9/11, but I didn’t know the history, or I knew very little. Just by virtue of the strength of his reporting, that in itself was fascinating as a teaching lesson, as a window into history that I had no idea about, or that I was woefully ignorant about. That right away made me quite curious and interested, and that’s always a great thing as an actor, to be fully engaged by the material. It’s such a huge landscape of world history, at least our history and also history in parts of the other world, obviously, that I was hungry for.
You met three of the four men your character was based upon. Did you try to incorporate pieces from each man? What about the physicality of Chesney? Did you base that on any one of them?
There’s obviously very clear information that I can get from each of those three folks. I couldn’t speak to this one person, although I had a kind of image to work with there, which helped quite a bit with the exterior of who Bob Chesney was. It was based mostly on one the description that Lawrence had given in terms of information from the book. On the exterior…the outside visual, what we see on the surface, who this guy looks like, was based on the gentleman I was not [able to meet]. He didn’t want to talk to anybody about it.
So I had that. I knew what the guy looked like, and that helps insofar as just having a physical reference. I can’t really tell you what the things are that go on inside of my…the connection between my mind and my body, of physically how that dynamic works. I’m not really sure. But it does inform me. And with that information, it sort of stimulates me in a way to make me feel comfortable that I have a handle on who this individual is. Then I had these three other gentlemen that I did speak with. They gave me very clear information, like facts that I had and to then act out when I felt I needed to.
Also, there were ways in which those three gentlemen communicated to me. What were their cadences? What was their energy like? And so I would kind of pick and choose things from them that I felt would be appropriate to blend with this exterior that I already knew of this gentleman. Then after I integrate that and make it work with the words in the way this guy operated, his dialogue with other people around him, how he interacted with them.
There was more of a feel from the three gentlemen I did speak with, and just knowing what their experiences were. So I always had that to play around with. It’s like, “Well, I knew that this guy, he was bombed in Nairobi.” The explosion at the embassy. I knew how this gentleman responded because not only did he write about it, and share with me his writings about it, but he also talked to me about it, and what he was feeling emotionally.
Then there was the gentleman I spoke with that I was playing in the interrogation scene, who was sitting in that room. He explained to me what it was like in that room and how he communicated with the gentlemen across the table. I also was sitting across the table from that guy myself. There were just little things that I would always have to access. And at this point I’d feel like, “Well, that’s not going to be right, because that’s not going to be consistent with the guy that we’re all seeing, that everybody is seeing, the audience is seeing.” I wanted to make sure that I could integrate with that guy and not be too contradictory.
What was it like on a personal level, hearing about the authentic, inside experience of that interrogation? It made for an incredible scene.
It’s interesting because one, this gentleman is such a soft-spoken, easy guy, in terms of how he communicates, that I could see that he was being honest. It wasn’t inconsistent to what I heard from other people who spend their lives doing that. In that they say that that’s how an agent talks to you, to establish some sort of trust and rapport, as opposed to pushing them into a place of defense, you know?
I watched this movie last night called Le Petit Soldat, Jean-Luc Godard’s film. The guy gets tortured. Towards the end of the movie he gets captured. He resists, and it all makes sense to me as to why it’s far more effective to try to work with somebody through the establishment of trust—a kind of level playing field. It just makes sense to me, but there was a certain part of me of course that was like, “Gosh, the ability to really do that in time, in real life, in that real situation is extraordinary to me.” Trying to, when the stakes are that high, get information. That’s what really blew me away. The ability to be able to do that.
The stakes must also have felt high for you, telling such an important story.
Of course, there are people that are going to say, “Well, this is left out, or this was told a different way.” I trusted the way that it was being told. There was a real importance, especially, that that interrogation scene was presented in a way that I had known it was presented.
I had to play it as accurately as possible, not in a hyperbolic way.
The tension between Chesney and Jeff Daniels’ character John O’Neill is so perfectly pitched. How did you guys get to that point? What work did you do beforehand?
We didn’t have to do a lot. I’m such a huge fan of Jeff, and he’s very easy to get on with, to me. We had a pretty instant rapport. We didn’t really need to talk a lot, [in] terms of what this relationship was about. We both, I think, just instinctively knew it was going to be a fun relationship to play with and how to build that. The writing is very good in terms of lifting that relationship, and the tension between those two guys jumps off the page. That sort of thing is a great shape as an actor to play, especially with a partner like Jeff, where it’s just the back and forth and the joy in that that I think we both got off on a lot. We also got along very well off-camera. We had, generally, a pretty excellent time.
Obviously, you look for a great script, but what kind of characters really speak to you?
I think I have that one figured out and then it all changes. It’s hard because I don’t have criteria in which I’m going to work. I don’t want to be too rigid in terms of limiting myself, because I’m an actor, so I want to be open to the challenges, especially things that I may be [thinking], “Oh no I don’t do that.” Obviously, I have to believe in the story.
But back to The Looming Tower—it’s such an important story to tell that it’s really a no-brainer. I had great faith in the people that were making it, that it was to be told in a really accurate way. In a way in which I would feel comfortable being a part of. It was a privilege to be a part of.