Every viewer of Hulu’s “The Looming Tower” will remember how Episode 3’s interrogation scene ends: Robert Chesney, played by the Emmy-nominated Bill Camp, stands tall over terrorist suspect Mohamad al-Owhali (Youssef Berouain) and shouts, “Write it down! Write down the number you called after the bomb went off! Write it down!” The embodiment of a looming tower himself, there’s no avoiding Chesney’s command; Mohamed will write down the information because he has no other choice.
The whole scene builds to this moment, this shout, but that’s not the way Camp wanted to play it.
“I wanted to see if I was able to achieve that moment, which comes out in a really aggressive way, […] without even raising my voice; to carry the sort of tone of that whole scene all the way through — and I failed,” Camp told Indiewire, with a laugh. “I couldn’t do it. Somewhere in the cutting room floor, Danny [Fogelman] and the editor, were like, ‘Nah, didn’t work.'”
But what Camp did earlier was even more pertinent to the scene’s success. That tone he’s talking about came about because of conversations Camp had with real-life FBI agents who inspired his character.
“I think after I spoke with John [Anticev] and Michael [Anticev], [the scene] needed to be way more of a conversation between two guys,” Camp said. “The scene needed to be almost just about two equals, just two guys, just two men, or at least that’s how Robert was going to be conducting the interview; that it wouldn’t be an interrogation, so to speak, but more of a conversation.”
To that end, the first thing Robert says after dismissing his partner from the room is a meaningful comment; a truthful exchange that Camp gleaned from what the real men who were in those rooms told him.
“It was very important that I ask him at the top of the scene if he had prayed that day,” Camp said. “That’s a moment where it’s a shared thing; you find out over the course of the scene that they’re both men of faith. Their faiths are different, but […] they both have that in their lives. It’s not a judgmental thing, as opposed to, ‘Do you want a candy bar?’ ‘Do you want a cup of coffee?’ ‘Do you want a thing?’ — it’s respectful. I think that went a long way in terms of establishing that conversation and the ease in that conversation.”
Camp said he’s not the type to overwhelm himself with offscreen information in preparation for a part. He’s not researching everything that’s ever been written or talking to everyone who was ever involved with the subject.
“I do enough of what I feel like I need,” he said. “Like, [for] ‘The Night Of’ I talked to three homicide detectives and then I talked to a retired homicide detective. For this, I talked to three. I wanted to talk to four, but the fourth guy, he didn’t want to talk to anybody. He’s no longer in the FBI.”
Camp said he had “comprehensive” conversations with each of them that lasted roughly 90 minutes, but some of the real value came from how eager they were to share beyond those first meetings. Because FBI Agents aren’t allowed to talk about their work while they’re doing it, Camp found that these men were eager to tell their stories now in order to make sure the “Looming Tower” filmmakers get it right on screen.
“I remember being in Johannesburg and sending this one guy emails, saying, ‘Hey, what was going on at the time when you walked up to the Nairobi explosion?'” Camp said.
Camp’s performance is filled with rich details. He’s got a running joke with his boss, John O’Neill (Jeff Daniels), where they rib each other about a fake romance. He’s passionate about his work, to the point he’s always a bit disheveled; his shirts are wrinkled, ties undone, or his suit jacket creeps out from under his winter coat. Camp said playing a composite character — instead of someone based off one person — “totally frees me up. […] It inspires that creativity.”
It’s the type of work that elevates a supporting character from a piece of the bigger picture to a fan favorite and integral aspect of the story. Even his interrogation scene is based in a deep understanding of the type of person these agents are, in both the work they do and the attitude they have.
“I talked to the gentleman who actually did the interview in that interrogation scene,” Camp said. “I owe that scene and really the playing of that scene [to] a couple of words he said to me in the course of an hour-and-a-half sitting with him in Brooklyn.”
“And that [ending] probably works the best,” Camp said, laughing again.
Endings and beginnings — Camp got it right all the way through, and no one will forget anytime soon.
“The Looming Tower” is streaming now on Hulu.
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