How Bill Camp Became Hollywood’s Most Valuable Supporting Actor

Actor Bill Camp, and Camp as Robert Chesney on The Looming Tower
L: Michael Creagh, R: Marco Grob/Hulu

Over the last decade, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in Hollywood who’s been on as strong a run as actor Bill Camp. The longtime New York theater actor has popped up on screens big and small, shining in key supporting roles for all types of projects, including in Oscar-winning films (Lincoln, Birdman, 12 Years a Slave), prestige television shows (The Night Of, Boardwalk Empire, The Leftovers, Manhattan), big-budget thrillers (Jason Bourne, Black Mass, Red Sparrow), and critically-acclaimed dramas (Hostiles, Molly’s Game, Wildlife, Loving).

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Camp’s recent triumph has been his role as veteran FBI agent Robert Chesney on Hulu’s The Looming Tower, the 10-episode series based on Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book that traces the rise of terrorism and the rivalry between government agencies in the lead-up to September 11. Camp’s performance has earned strong reviews and has been compared to the work he did on another prestige TV drama: HBO’s The Night Of, which won numerous awards and garnered Camp his first-ever Emmy nomination.

As an actor, to be able to participate in a detailed, precise, intelligent, 10-hour series, looking at this incredibly big story in regards to the layers and creative team behind it, I hit the jackpot in every way.

With Camp on such a long and successful run, you might be surprised to know that Camp almost left acting altogether in the early aughts. After winning an Obie Award for his role in Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul, he moved to California with his now-wife, actress Elizabeth Marvel (HomelandHouse of Cards). While she was shooting the TV series The District, Camp worked a number of jobs, including as a restaurant cook, landscaper, waiter, and at a friend’s auto garage, among others.

“I was so caught up in being an actor,” Camp said. “I think that self-centeredness was starting to eat me alive, and I lost myself as just a person in the world. It’s like what happens when you identify yourself as your profession or vocation, but it was my job, that’s all it was, and I lost sight of that. I took about three years off, but that time gave me perspective and helped me become a better actor.”

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And now that Camp is back, he’s working as much as ever. Following The Looming Tower, which has its emotionally-charged finale on Wednesday, April 18, Camp will appear in Native Son, the film adaptation of Richard Wright’s classic novel; The Kitchen, an action/crime thriller based on the DC/Vertigo comic starring Tiffany Haddish and Melissa McCarthy (not a bad duo to join up with); and one more project with an Academy Award-winning writer that he couldn’t discuss—yet. Camp later went on to star in Vice with Christian Bale and Adam McKay, (likely the film he was referring to), HBO’s The Outsider, Dark Waters with Mark Ruffalo, and Joker with Joaquin Phoenix. Not bad for a guy who almost gave up the profession.

Men’s Journal caught up with Camp ahead of The Looming Tower finale to discuss reenacting recent history on television, his favorite places to travel, his acting process, why he loves hockey, and whether we’ll get Season 2 of The Night Of.

What was it like working on The Looming Tower? How did you prepare for your role?

Bill Camp: It really was a privilege to work on this show, because of the historical relevance, and the fact that this all really happened. Lawrence Wright’s book really is an amazing book. My character, Bob Chesney, isn’t a guy in the book, he’s a composite of a few different real-life people. I was able to talk with those people and it was an honor to speak with them. Being able to spend time with those people and learn from them, and then be able to participate in the telling of this history, that was something special. As an actor, to be able to participate in a detailed, precise, intelligent, 10-hour series, looking at this incredibly big story in regards to the layers and creative team behind it, and production design, and everyone working on it was incredible—I hit the jackpot in every way.

The finale is very emotional, detailing the events of 9/11 from the perspectives of the characters on the show. What was it like to film that episode?

As difficult as it may be it watch and revisit again, it’s an important story to tell. As a citizen, especially those of us who lived in New York at the time, it’s hard to articulate how that time was, and what it was like. It changed our world and affected everybody in the country. It was an intense experience.

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You got to film in a lot of different places. What was your experience like in Johannesburg?

I got to spend around six weeks in South Africa. It was my first time to Africa, and the excitement of being in Johannesburg was great, just the energy, the people, and the air—it was incredible. It was possible for me to be able to plug into the energy of the city. It was very exciting, but I was also trying to be a conscientious traveler and employee. There were some places we couldn’t go at night, and getting around on one’s own was interesting, just like people who come to New York City for the first time [laughs]. But we were there to work, and in the same way, as Bob says on the show—when we got there to Nairobi we were “ambassadors for the US”—and we were like that as actors and crew there, so the idea was to do the job and do it right. During the shoot, I did have a few days off and I got to take a solo trip to some places in South Africa, and then I met my son and my wife Elizabeth (Homeland actress Elizabeth Marvel) and we did a safari, and it was super-excellent. I think now Johannesburg is number one on my list of places I’ve enjoyed traveling to. I also got to go to Australia for The Leftovers. Doing that for a couple of weeks with Damon [Lindelof] was just wonderful and incredible. Damon’s brilliant too, I would do anything with him again.

Bill Camp on The Looming Tower
Casey Crafford/Hulu

There’s been some talk from Lawrence and the team about a possible Season 2—would you be interested in doing more Looming Tower?

Oh yes, absolutely yes. I think it’s sort of an extension of what I first said about everyone involved, they’re just so talented, and if they’re gonna do another season, absolutely I’m in. I would guess it would follow another part of what Lawrence wrote about this time period, picking up after this initial stretch. Your guess is as good as mine about where they would go, but because of that team and because of the people that are involved, I just dig them all so much and it was such a great experience, that it’s a no-brainer: yes I’d be into it.

Your character Detective Dennis Box was a fan-favorite on HBO’s The Night Of, and you earned critical raves—and an Emmy nomination—for it. There has been talk about another potential season of that show. Would you be interested if they do more?

Of course! Another easy yes. Dennis Box is a great character, I’d love to live in that guy’s shoes again. I owe so much of that Steve Zaillian and Richard Price, because they made this guy, they created him, and I literally took my understanding of him from them—a few little ideas myself—but he was made by those two talented guys, and they passed him on to me. I would love to be able to inhabit him again, and see what he’s doing—you know, I’m still curious about Dennis Box. This is going to sound so ‘actor-y,’ but I felt like I got to know him, and got really close to him in a way. I really felt comfortable with him, and think that made me more curious about him, so yes, any opportunity to have to go wherever Richard and Steve have him go, no doubt would be fascinating, and mysterious, and compelling—and probably a little f*cked up and dark, too [laughs]. It would be killer to come back to that. I don’t know anything about it, but I would be interested in coming back for more The Night Of.

What’s it been like for you being on some of the great, critically acclaimed TV series during this “Peak TV” era?

It’s been an excellent thing, and it really has opened the door. Television has a new form to it, and it has been an excellent thing for actors like myself. I’m thankful for the opportunity, and things have really opened up for people who want to tell longer stories in this format. Now that’s possible, and it’s awesome and very attractive to people who want to tell great stories on TV. I’ve been fortunate to be a part of it. In TV now, you can take stories that at one time, you could only make into a movie. So you’d have this great story that needs real length and attention to detail, but you have to do it in two hours, when it really deserves eight or 10 episodes like a season of The Leftovers or The Night Of. As an actor, it’s been fantastic for someone like myself, and for Elizabeth as well.

After you stepped away from acting for a few years, what brought you back?

I stayed away from that world and did a lot of different jobs until Tony Kushner called me and asked me to come back for another run of Homebody/Kabul. At the time, I had already done that role and thought I wanted to do something else, but it was great being back with Tony [Kushner] and Maggie [Gyllenhaal] on that production. Then Elizabeth finished her show, we got married, and came back to New York. I started working more, and in some ways, I was still drifting—it wasn’t like I suddenly wanted to be an actor again—but I was interested in being in a room with the great directors I got to work with over those first few projects. It was wonderful to be around these people that are so much smarter than you [laughs].

You’ve worked with some major, award-winning directors in your career—Steven Spielberg, Michael Mann, Stephen Frears, Scott Cooper, Alejandro Iñárritu, Adam McKay. What have you learned from them?

I know pretty much everything I know because I’ve worked with people like that, that whole list, and more. I want to work with men and women of that talent level, and I always want to remain as teachable as I can be. I know what I can bring, and I’m thankful they’ve asked me to do it, but they have a much better idea of how that character fits in the best, and I just want to have my ears open and be there, and contribute at the same time. I have grown to be more confident, and I like to have a dialogue with them, based out of curiosity. Because these men and women are so proven, they’ve already made great things, and want to keep making great things, and I admire that—they’re truly artists. They’re at a level that I strive to be at, and when I’m with them, I want to ask questions and not feel afraid to throw out ideas. They have a trust in me already by asking me to be there, and that dialogue is really important to me. If I have that dialogue, then I can end up doing more as an actor and character, and it becomes more richer and textured in the performance.

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You’re a big hockey fan, and in the past, you’ve done voiceover work for Showtime’s hockey documentaries; what do you like so much about the sport?

I’m very lucky; I have this great deal where I get to come in and describe and narrate my favorite sport being played at the highest level. I’m like a kid in a candy store because I just love hockey. This year, I’ll be doing it for ESPN and their ‘Quest for the Stanley Cup’ series. I started playing when I was four, and I played every year until I was 18, except for one season when I broke my leg. I played on an intramural team at the University of Vermont, I was always chasing people on the ice, but I thought I was pretty okay, but I just loved the game. And then I just dropped it for like 30 years [laughs]. I skated a bit after that, and then until around five years ago, I was doing Death of a Salesman on Broadway with Andrew Garfield and Philip Seymour Hoffman, and I picked it up again. Since then, I haven’t stopped. I skate on a couple teams, and play about three times per week when I can. I’m really like a pig in shit, I just love it.

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