Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Billy Burke toiled in various films and television series during the ’90s and ’00s, pulling the occasional headlining gig (Dill Scallion) while continuing to prove himself as a dependable character actor, but his profile got a tremendous boost when he scored the plum role of Bella Swan’s father in the Twilight films. Although that job officially comes to a close when The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Pt. 2 hits theaters on November 16, Burke now has a fallback position: co-starring on the new NBC science-fiction drama, Revolution.
Revolution (2012-present)—“Miles Matheson”
Billy Burke: I was in Las Vegas, being a danger to myself. I got a call from my manager. She said, “Jon Favreau and Eric Kripke would like to meet you. They’re doing a show. It’s also produced by J.J. Abrams.” I said, “What time do I gotta be there?” I flew back immediately, we met on a weekend, and they sort of just pitched me the show, what it was and what it was about. And given that and the pedigree that it came with, I said, “What do I gotta do? I’m in.” And that’s where it went from there. It’s been nothing but joy ever since.
The A.V. Club: In the pilot, Miles is enigmatic as far as his agenda goes. Has playing him been a challenge because of that, or have you already started to get a feel for him?
BB: Oh, yeah. I love playing this guy. I mean, he’s the kind of guy that gets to do all the stuff that we all want to do, you know? Although the irony of that is that he doesn’t want to be doing it. He’s reluctantly in this situation. He’d rather care about nothing than care about anything at all. So he’s doing these things we’d want to do and saying all these things that we want him to say, yet he himself doesn’t want to be there.
AVC: There’s been a lot of discussion about the pros and cons of serialized dramas on broadcast networks. What are your thoughts on the genre?
BB: I don’t really know… I guess I know what it means, but I don’t really have a reference point. I mean, I watched the entire first season of Lost, which I was riveted to, but beyond that, I don’t have a lot of points of reference for serialized drama. I watch movies, and if I get the chance to watch television, I’m usually prone to watching something completely mindless and mundane that I don’t have to follow so closely. [Laughs.]
Jane Austen’s Mafia! (1998)—“Joey Cortino”
BB: Yeah! That was my first studio picture. It was two tons of fun. [Laughs.] Great cast: Jay Mohr, Christina Applegate, the late Lloyd Bridges… one of his last movies, as a matter of fact. Yeah, just that silly, fall-down, slap-in-the-face, really great comedy that I never get the chance to do anymore, actually. But it was good times.
AVC: How did you find your way into acting in the first place?
BB: I had known that I’d wanted to be an actor from a very early age, but I had always known that I wanted to have a dual career. I wanted to be an actor, and I also at that time wanted to be a rock star. And I went down the rock-star path first, and… that had its successes, but it didn’t actually turn into rock stardom. But while I was doing that—this was up in Seattle, during the pre-grunge years—I met a woman who was producing an independent film, and she asked me to come and read for it. I did, and I got that part. And then she ended up doing another movie, and I got a part in that. Then I kind of did the thing that all the kids do: I moved to L.A. and just… I was doing music at the time, I had a demo deal with Warner Bros. that didn’t pan out in the end, but I decided that while I was down here I’d just try and read for everything that I possibly could, and I started working as an actor in a timely fashion. And I’ve had a good 21 years so far.
24 (2002-2003)—“Gary Matheson”
BB: Yeah! Before I went in, I hadn’t seen the series, so I watched a few episodes and sort of got the tone of the show, and I went in and read… I remember just reading a couple of very small scenes—I didn’t really even know what they were about—but they ended up offering me the role. It was dark and dripping with stuff that you love to just get your teeth into as an actor. I remember at the end… this relates back to the show we’re doing now, not knowing what we’re doing as we’re doing it because we don’t have the information, but on the last episode of 24 that I did, it said in the script, “Gary goes to his hiding place, which is a lab someplace, and takes out a baggie of what we think is crystal meth.” So I found out that during this whole run, I was high on crystal meth. [Laughs.] I had no idea!
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1994)—“Ari”
BB: I barely remember that, except for the fact that it was one of my very first gigs. I remember being in makeup for four and a half or five hours, and then to take off the makeup it was another three or four in makeup, because you have to go through the whole process. It was very brief. One scene, maybe a scene and a half. It was basically a walk-on role. But it was very… it was a style that I was completely not used to as an actor. It was very Shakespearean, that show. But I did the best I could. [Laughs.]
Twilight (2008) / The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009) /The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (2010) / The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 1 (2011) / The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 2 (2012)—“Charlie Swan”
BB: Charlie Swan has been very, very good to me. I went to meet Catherine Hardwicke, the director of the original Twilight, and we threw around a couple of scenes, and she said, “Have you heard of this saga?” And I hadn’t, of course. She said, “Well, go home and Google it.” And so I went home and I Googled it, and I was like, “Wow, this is a big deal!” When they ended up offering me that role, I was maybe one of the only people who, at that time, knew it was going to have an audience. I obviously didn’t know it would sort of overtake the cultural zeitgeist as it did, but… [Laughs.] Aside from that, it’s been a great gig for me. I’ve loved playing that part. I’ve loved playing basically the only guy in the entire storyline who has no idea what’s going on.
BB: Oates? Oh, geez. Look, uh… [Laughs.] There are things you do for art and there are things you do for commerce. I am not embarrassed about saying that I had an amazing time in Australia making that movie. Was it a piece of genius? No. But I remember having such a great time making it. It was me and Jill Hennessey and Kevin Zegers, and we had a ball, actually. We shot it on the Gold Coast of Australia, and every weekend we’d go down to either Sydney or Melbourne and have a blast. I don’t really remember what the movie was about, but, uh, there were some lizards in it, right?
Fringe (2008)—“Lucas Vogel”
BB: Oh, that was fun. I don’t know how he does it, but J.J. Abrams tends to just work with people who really know what they’re doing and really care about what they’re doing, and, because of that, he has a tendency to hit a lot of home runs. I think that show’s done something that not a lot of network television shows have done: It’s tapped into an audience that really does care about it. I had a great time on it. It was one episode, and I had to learn a little German for it, which I don’t know if I pulled off or not. [Laughs.] But it was a good time, and the cast was amazing. It was great.
Drive Angry (2011)—“Jonah King”
BB: So much fun. Again, one of those movies that… it is what it is. We all knew that going in. Even the creators knew that going in. “We’re going to make a slam-bang, beyond-popcorn, at-times-silly, over-the-top action movie.” And that’s exactly what we made. It’s those kinds of roles that really… they give you the sort of safety net to chew up some scenery and not feel in real danger about it, because the movie is what it is. So I had a great time chewing on that. Nic [Cage] was great, and the whole experience of that was great. We shot it in Louisiana. Good times.
Dill Scallion (1999)—“Dill Scallion”
BB: At the time, it was the most fun I’d ever had doing anything. Ever. Anything. [Laughs.] Again, I hadn’t done a whole lot at that point—I believe I’d just finished Mafia! —and I went in to meet Jordan Brady, the creator and director of that. Kind of like with Twilight, we just sort of sat and BSed about what it was, we threw around a couple of scenes, and, I sang a couple of silly little tunes. Literally, he gave me the words of some songs he’d made up that he hadn’t even written melodies for, and I just sat there with a guitar and sort of made them up as I went along. And literally there on the spot—this has never happened before—he’s like, “We leave in a week. You wanna go?” And I was like, “Yeah!” So we literally got on a tour bus in Los Angeles and shot on tour across the South, all the way over to Nashville. We finished the movie in Nashville, and every single day was… Nobody knew what was going on any day. It was complete guerilla-style. We got to Texas, and we didn’t have backstage passes, but we rushed onstage with cameras. Everything was done without permission. It was awesome. And what a cast we had! That’s how I met Peter Berg, who I ended up doing Wonderland with.
My Boys (2008-2009)—“Jack Newman”
BB: Ah! Jamie Tarses, the runner of that show, is a very good friend of mine. I knew her from the Wonderland days, because she’d been a producer on that show as well. So when she asked me to come onboard for My Boys, I was all-in. I thought it was a well-conceived, funny show. That cast was quite exceptional, a lot of really, really funny people. I really enjoyed it.
AVC: You played Kyle Howard’s brother on the show.
BB: Right, I was Bobby’s brother. I was Jack; he was Bobby. [Laughs.]
Gilmore Girls (2003)—“Alex Lesman”
BB: Again, it goes back to Dill Scallion. Lauren Graham and I had known each other for a long, long time, and she’d been doing Gilmore Girls for a while at that point, but a role came up on the show and… I think she asked her producer about me; then she called me up and said, “Hey, would you consider coming and doing a role on the show?” And I said, “Of course.” I love Lauren Graham. Love her to death. She’d always been one of my favorite people and favorite actors, so working with her on that was nothing but a joy.
The Closer (2009, 2012)—“Philip Stroh”
AVC: You had a very memorable turn on The Closer back in 2009; then you reprised the role for the final season of the show.
BB: Yes, I did. The first one I shot… when I read the page, when I read what this guy did, what he was and what he said and how he justified it, I was like, “This is too good for TV. Let’s do it!” And, you know, we had all been trying to figure out when the reprise would be or if it would happen, but luckily on the final season, the opportunity arose and we found the availability, so I was able to come back and do a couple more. They really closed it out well. It’s good, fun stuff that’s good cop drama.
Gone In The Night (1996)—“Rob Kinney”
Karen Sisco (2003)—“Merle Salchek”
BB: Karen Sisco? [Bursts out laughing and demands a high five.] Holy… wow, man. Well, that was the first time I met Carla Gugino, who’s amazing. I love her. And it was the second time—although neither of us realized it at the time—that I worked with Kevin Dillon, because he was sort of my sidekick-partner on that episode. He and I had done a TV movie-of-the-week together years before that [Gone In The Night]. And we both realized, like, “Oh, yeah, remember that?” So he was a kick in the ass, and we had a great time doing that. An interesting story for that show is that… I’ve never missed a day of work in my life, and that was true on Karen Sisco as well, but I got the worst case of strep throat on that show. During filming, I was literally going to do takes, then going to lay down in my trailer and get B-12 shots from the doctor.
Ladder 49 (2004)—“Dennis Gauquin”
BB: I still have a lot of friends from that film. As a matter of fact, Tim Guinee, who was also in Ladder 49, is my brother on Revolution. That’s how things come around in this business. Jay Russell, the director, is still a great friend of mine. All those guys are. Robert Patrick, Balthazar Getty, Joaquin [Phoenix], Morris Chestnut, we’re all still friends. We had a great time making that movie. We did it in Baltimore, right at the tail end of when Baltimore was, like, the shooting city of the East Coast. I kind of lucked out in that role. From page to screen, the character actually became entirely different. It became a role that kind of lingers on throughout the film even though the character’s not actually there.
Wonderland (2000)—“Dr. Abe Matthews”
BB: Like I said, I’d known Pete Berg a little bit, I saw he was doing a show, and he asked me to come in and read, which is kind of… [Hesitates.] For him, it was a role that had a lot of basis in his own sort of psychosis and history. He’d been living at Bellevue Hospital in New York for a long time, researching this show and writing this show, and the script was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever read. So, really, I not only could relate to the character himself, because here’s this guy who’s working in the field of psychiatry and psychology, yet he’s got so much of his own mania going on, so much of his own pathos. All of the characters did, for that matter. But that show really addressed a world that we don’t look at very often—the world of psychiatry—not only the execution of the medical side of it but also how it affects the patients and the doctors who treat these people. We were all really, really proud of that show. It was a very well-done and ahead-of-its-time piece of television.
AVC: It’s kind of an intense topic for broadcast television, but were you surprised that it came and went as quickly as it did?
BB: I was surprised, but I guess I understood why it didn’t happen on a logical level. But from an artistic standpoint, I was like, “Wow, I don’t watch a lot of television, but I’d watch this show religiously.” And I’d say that even if I wasn’t on it. In fact, I’d say it especially if I wasn’t on it. [Laughs.] When I think about television and my history with it… I’ve done more pilots than you can count on two hands, so obviously when something like [Revolution] comes along, and it’s getting the attention and accolades that it’s getting, it’s a nice get. But at the time we were doing Wonderland, I’d never been more proud of anything I’d ever done.