Mark Pellegrino is such
a big deal in Hollywood these days that people who see him on the street just want to walk up and touch him … then again, that could be because his god-like character Jacob on Lost can grant immortality to anyone he lays his hand on.
We recently sat down with Pellegrino to talk about playing a Christ-like figure on Lost, being a part of the pivotal rug peeing scene in the cult-classic film The Big Lebowski and his fondness for wiener dogs.
How did you get into acting and when did you decide it’s what you wanted to do for a living?
Kind of by accident. I took this commercial workshop, I don’t even know why, kind of as a lark and the guy who taught it thought I had something and set me up with an agent. I started going out on auditions not knowing what I was doing at all, but doing okay in spite of that. My agent decided I was green and needed to be tutored a little bit and set me up with a list of acting schools to go to, and I went to this one that was really cheap and near my house. It turned out to be one of the best acting schools in the West Coast. I got introduced to the craft and couldn’t turn back from there.
Were you able to work steadily early on or were there large stretches where you were unemployed?
Both. I started working early on, even though I didn’t quite know what I was doing, and there would also be some periods where I would go for a few months without any nibbles or auditions for work. It was like that for about four years where I would work and then a couple of months off, three months off, then work some more. Then, after that, it got a lot more consistent.
One of your early credits on IMBD lists you as playing yourself in Hulkamania 4. What exactly was Hulkamania 4 and what was your role in it?
I have no idea what that is. Those things on IMBD, I don’t know quite what they are. But that one, they must have used some footage or maybe some documentary stuff from the film No Holds Barred that I did way back when where I played Hulk Hogan’s little brother.
How was playing Hulk Hogan’s little brother in No Holds Barred? That must have been interesting.
It was pretty awesome. I was still learning and in the very, very early stages of learning about acting and I’m sure it shows, but professional wrestling had reached its peak I think at that time of popularity and it was huge. Vince McMahon, I think, sold the WWF right after that for like a billion dollars or some unheard of sum of money. And Hulk was at the top of his game, so I had seen him a lot on TV, especially after I got the part, I started watching wrestling a little bit more.
It was interesting working with him because he was actually kind of savvy and there was a scene where he had to get emotional and he really got emotional. You don’t expect that out of a professional wrestler. And he’s a nice, down-to-earth guy, which was pleasant since he was an over-the-top kind of guy when he was in the ring. He was very quiet and understated outside of it.
Jeff Bridges just won an Academy Award for Best Actor. You had a chance to work with Bridges on the Coen Brothers’ film The Big Lebowski. What was it like working with Bridges and the Coens and how did it feel to be a part of the pivotal rug-peeing scene?
You know, I’ve always loved Jeff’s work. Then when I got to work with him, I thought that he was an unsung genius. I know that word is thrown around a lot in Hollywood, but literally the guy is just such a great craftsman and so good at what he does. I couldn’t help myself sometimes in scenes just studying him, watching him work. It was pretty amazing.
And the Coen brothers are obviously great. One of them works with the actor and kind of works with you on how he wants the scene to go. And the other one kind of sets up the shot. Ethan would kind of talk to me about the scene; Joel would be doing his thing. Every once in a while, you’d get a little conference with the two of them, but not often. Mostly it was Ethan sitting there in the bathtub while I was dunking Jeff’s head in the toilet. Actually, not dunking his head in the toilet. He had a bad neck, so he had to do all that himself and I had to make it look like I was dunking him and holding him down.
Are you surprised at how enduring that movie has been? It’s become a cult classic and fans now hold annual Lebowski Fests.
In a way yes and in a way no because it’s one of the few movies that I’ve been in that I’ve actually watched more than once and have seen how it just gets better every time. You discover in it things that you didn’t see before for some reason. Like an onion, you keep peeling it away every time. So I can see from that. I don’t know what magic was in it that makes it that way, but it is that way and it’s deserved. It’s like in the top 50 cult films, right? Or top 10 maybe?
It’s great and all of the characters are so dynamic and so strong and so clear. Even when somebody like John Turturro comes on film for five minutes, he’s memorable.
We also wanted to ask you about Dexter. You played Paul Bennett, the abusive ex-husband of Rita …
I prefer to call myself the “misunderstood” ex-husband of Rita.
We never did get to see things from your perspective. Maybe you really were the good guy. You had this serial killer dating you ex and you were just trying to protect your family from him.
That’s it. That’s the way I looked at it. Once I got wise to him that something was up, I was the one who starts to turn things around. I just handled things a bit inappropriately, I guess. (Laughs.) I think getting drunk and trying to rape my ex-wife is a little inappropriate, but you know, I loved her.
There were definitely some great scenes with you and Michael C. Hall in that show.
Yeah, and what’s funny is for like the first couple episodes, I didn’t think he liked me. And I found out later that he didn’t think I liked him. We kind of avoided each other all of the time. We had such a contentious on-screen relationship that it seemed to be bleeding over into the everyday stuff. I think it was just both of us working off each other and thinking we were getting these things off the other because one day we were just both accidentally at craft service and started talking to each other. And I was like, “Oh my god, I thought you didn’t like me.” “I thought you didn’t like me.” “Oh geez.” He turned out to be the nicest guy on the planet. We talked a lot. From then on, it was very different, but those first couple of episodes were a little harrowing.
How did you land the role of Jacob on Lost? Were you a fan of the show before becoming a part of it?
You know, I never even owned a TV until a couple of years ago. So I rarely watch TV. I just don’t have time. And when I did get a TV, I borrowed it from my mom, this old like 1970s thing – not 1970s because I could hook a video up to it and I would just watch videos when I wanted to.
So I had read the treatment for Lost when they were about to do the pilot and I even went up for one of the parts; I don’t remember which one now. But it was one of the best treatments I had ever read. It was a total page turner. And I never watched the show at the time that I auditioned for [Jacob] and had no idea that the part I was going up for was such an important part. I just knew it was a guest star with a possible recurring theme to it.
The situation is – I guess people are so hot to get information from Lost that the sides you audition are not the sides that you work with. And the character is a different name, so if anything gets leaked out it’s kind of like a red herring. So I just auditioned this scene and did well on it and I thought, “I did well, that’s all I can do.” Didn’t find out how important is was until I actually landed on Oahu and started talking to people.
Finding out Jacob’s identity was one of the huge mysteries of Lost. When fans finally saw you in the season five finale on the beach talking to the man in black, it was a huge moment on the show. Were you aware when you were shooting that scene that it was going to be a big moment for the fans or was it just another day at the office?
Well, I did know by that point because we’d done that close to last in the shoot. So I did know at that point that it was a big revelation for people, but knowing that, I still tried to make it a day in the office so that I wouldn’t get overwhelmed by any of that information. Because there’s a lot of it. Every moment in this show seems to have almost Biblical proportions of subtext to it and meaning and history. Oddly enough, this sounds weird to say as an actor, in a weird way, I’m glad I didn’t know that because it makes things a lot easier.
Were you ever tempted to go back and try to find out as much info as possible or have you made the decision to not be aware of all of the subtext?
No, I’ve been watching the show and it does suck you in, man. I’ve just been watching it and seeing if I can figure anything out. I don’t necessarily watch it in order yet. I just happen to watch whatever shows we have on the DVD stuff and then I also see some of the shows that are coming out too. Then forming my opinion and seeing if I can guess right about my character and the fate of everybody.
Do they just send you your script and leave you to blindly read through it or if you have questions about your character, are you able to ask them? Or with the secrecy, do they keep you in the dark?
I don’t know how it is for other characters, but for me, I am in the dark. I read the script and if I have questions, hopefully I’m working with one of the executive producers who can actually say something about it. But sometimes you’re working with a director who is outside of the project. I don’t know how much of the story they know. I think they tend not to know to be honest with you. But they give really good adjustments and really good thoughts. I guess if Carlton Cuse isn’t too worried about it, then I’m not too worried about it and somehow we’re on the right track.
But Jack Bender, when I’ve worked with him, he’s said one or two things here or there that are little light bulbs. Then again, he’s one of the executive producers, so he probably knows where it’s going.
Did they give you any indication of how often you are going to be in the show or each time are you waiting to find out if you will be back again?
No, they do tell me. They didn’t tell me right at the end of the finale, but they did tell me a couple of months later how many shows I should expect to be in.
You were actually killed in last year’s finale, so at that point were you wondering if you would even be back?
I presumed that death didn’t necessarily mean anything on that show. And thank god I’m right.
I wasn’t sure. Everybody was saying I would be back. Being an actor, you never know what’s going to happen and you don’t put your eggs in a basket until you’ve signed it on the dotted line. I just said, “Okay, maybe. If it does, it does. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.” So it ended up that I’ve been back and it’s nice.
Your character’s interactions with Hurley have become a huge part of this season since he is the only person who can see you. When doing scenes with Jorge Garcia, it seems like Jacob is talking down to Hurley in a very calm and mannered way – almost like how you would address a small child. Was that a choice you made as an actor or were you instructed to use that particular cadence with Hurley?
Kind of both. It suggests in the scripts that I’m really centered and calm and unruffled. It’s kind of almost like Buddha-esque or Christ-like, without being archetypal. Just a simple person who I guess can see further than a lot of other people. So it has that element to it. Plus, with Jorge’s character, Jorge’s character is kind of a kid. He needs to be gently dealt with, I think.
It is fun to watch you two play off of each other – the way you address him and his excitement and jumpiness when dealing with you.
(Laughs.) He’s so funny. When I’m standing off-camera watching him, he just makes me laugh. He tries to hide that he’s freaked out or he tries to hide that he knows something, it’s sweet and kind of cute. And I can’t help but laugh. I think I’m ruining takes sometimes because I’m behind the camera laughing. But it’s all because it’s so sweet.
As you mentioned, there are themes of good and evil and there are many theories out there about what Jacob represents and if he is really a Christ-figure or truly good. What’s interesting is that you also play Lucifer in the show Supernatural. What has it been like to play both ends of the religious spectrum? And do you see Jacob as a savior for the island?
Well, first of all, I think somebody sees a really intense dichotomy in me to cast me as these types of characters and that’s true, I feel like I am extremes. So they’re recognizing something in me, I think. It’s interesting because they are both religious characters and both spiritual characters and oddly enough, there’s more in common I think with the Lucifer character and Jacob, the way they’ve written it in Supernatural, than there would be in the typical Lucifer and Christ-like figure.
In their version in Supernatural, he’s the most honest, sincere person there. To me, Lucifer is about justice – getting justice for something. I think it eventually expresses itself in a rather ugly way, which is still coming, I think. But he’s about justice. So there’s a tremendous amount of goodness, I think, that goes in all that darkness. Betrayed goodness in a way.
I think Jacob’s character, I don’t know what their end is in mind. I don’t know whether he’s going to be good or bad in the end. But good is a complicated thing, you know what I mean? Often times one does things for the good that seem really ugly in the moment. So there’s a lot of crossover in a way. These good characters that have such scope and these evil characters that have such scope, they’re capable of such complicated actions. I think they’re very similar in a lot of ways. But I do think the Lucifer character, there’s a lot more room to play and a sardonic sensibility out of it that isn’t there with Jacob.
Lost does love to play with the notion of good and evil. There is definitely a possibility that in the end we will find out that the Man in Black was more good than we realized and maybe Jacob wasn’t as good as we’ve though all along.
Well, you know, I think that question will be answered. (Laughs.)
What should fans be looking out for with Jacob then? Can you give us any indication of where things are headed with your character?
I can’t say anything. But, I think the questions people have about who this mysterious Man in Black is and questions they have about Jacob are going to be answered. I can’t give any spoilers and say how, but I’ve seen a little bit about how that’s going. It still doesn’t make me conclude one way or the other because I feel like every time I’ve read one of their scripts, I always get judo tossed on my head. Just as you think something’s one way, it goes another. And then, just as you’re adjusting to that, it goes in a completely different direction. I’m always surprised. And that’s good. That’s a good show that does that.
You and Michael Emerson had a very memorable scene together in last season’s finale. What is it like working with Emerson?
Well, my first experience was we all get around the set and we were just going to rehearse the scene where Michael comes in and sees that it’s me and he’s being prodded by Locke to kill me. He has this long speech where he basically talks about how I let him down and betrayed him. Usually, when you’re rehearsing something, people just kind of say the words and you don’t know what you are going to do yet and you are kind of walking aimlessly around the set just talking to each other. But he came in and the first time he did it, it was fully realized. If you put a camera on it, it would have been perfect. It kind of blew me away.
It actually drew me in every time he did his stuff. He drew me in and I lost myself in what he was doing, which helps you as an actor because you act in snatches. You act in like three-minute pieces and one of the hardest things to keep is your focus. Thank god you have somebody who is working with you that is so interesting and so alive that you can’t help but be focused on them. And that’s kind of the way that scene was for me.
He made me feel all kinds of things. There were so many different takes of the last line that I say to him that he brought out all kinds of different things in me. It was a pleasure working with him. I thought he was amazing.
That last line: “What about you?” can definitely be interpreted differently depending on your inflection when delivering it.
Oh yeah, I think they kind of stuck with something very sympathetic and that plays off in later episodes. One I just saw as a matter of fact where Ilana is going to kill Ben and this other character who can also see dead people [Miles] and says: “No Jacob was hoping he was wrong about you the whole time.” I didn’t know any of that information.
I wasn’t privy to this information but they took the take that was more sympathetic like I was brokenhearted, which he did break my heart on a number of takes. Some takes he made me mad and I thought he was self-absorbed and narcissistic and a couple of those lines came out that way. Like I was slapping him. And a couple came out like I was challenging him. So you never know on a show like that what they are going to take. But I’m glad they took the sympathetic one. I think that makes it more like the carpenter Christ who knows you and knows what you’re suffering and feels for that at the expense of his own interest in life. Because I bare my chest to him. I’m right there. I let him kill me. I’m strong enough to not let him kill me and I do.
Have you put any thought into how you would like to see things end for Jacob or directions you would like to see the character head? Or things you would like to find out about the character?
You know, a lot of those questions were answered for me in the last thing I did. I still don’t know where it’s going to go, but I tell you I’d like to be good. I’m so often twisted up characters and at best misunderstood guys doing the wrong thing, but often times I’m a bad guy and I like the notion of being a good guy. Especially a good guy of such stature. To be able to say that I played Christ, in a way, would be a pretty phenomenal thing.
What has the fan reaction been like? Do you get recognized a lot? We would imagine a lot of fans are excited to see Jacob out on the street.
That’s exactly what it is. It’s interesting because that’s my name, that’s my personality, that’s who I am to them is Jacob. It’s not even like: “Hey, what’s your name? I love you on Lost.” It’s not: “Hey Mark Pellegrino from Lost.” It’s: “Jacob! Jacob! We love you. Oh my god!” And they want to kiss me and hold me and take pictures with me. It’s really sweet.
At this point, we would imagine they want to touch you too since we all found out that getting touched by you will protect them. They probably want to shake your hand to make sure they don’t die.
That may be unconsciously going through some of their heads for sure.
What other projects do you have in the works? What’s on the horizon for you?
Supernatural, I’m still not done with that. Still not done with Lost, so that’s what I’m working on right now. And I’m writing stuff right now. I started a little production company, so I’m hoping to produce a couple things – something my wife wrote and something I’m finishing up. Then it’s just taking it one project at a time. Pilot season is here and I’m still trying to squeeze in a couple of pilot auditions and see if something lands from there.
Is there a particular direction you would like to see your career head or types of projects you would like to do?
I’m kind of a big fan of the horror genre. Maybe it’s for me to write and stuff like that. But I’ve always wanted to do something in the horror vein because that’s the hardest, most extreme thing to act for real. To do some really good memorable horror movie would be amazing. And there’s been some good ones lately – 28 Days Later. They get a really good cast of people around and it’s really good. I’d like to be a part of something like that. I like that stuff. I wouldn’t mind playing the dark hero too.
Would you want to be one of the people being chased in a horror movie or would you want to play the villain?
It depends on the villain. It depends on how interesting the villain is. But even people being chased, it’s such a huge, huge acting job. That is an exhausting, exhausting, almost Shakespearean level of work if you are really taking it seriously. It almost never really is, but when it is, it’s amazing when it happens. Even just the psychological type thrillers like Rosemary’s Baby where there’s a great story about ambition where John Cassavetes sells his wife out to be a success. That’s a beautiful, dark, twisted story. I like stuff like that.
So you would also be interested in playing an edgy antihero too?
The reluctant hero who has heroic qualities. Being a lover of history, it amazes me to see the mediocre to average men who rose to the occasion in the Revolutionary War and Civil War to be great. Revolutionary War, I think many of those men were great to begin with.
But in the Civil War certainly, there were people who were not successful in life that became giants during that conflict. And it took that fire that they had to pass through to make them great. I like that – the person who doesn’t know himself going through some kind of obstacle and becoming great as a result. That’s kind of cool to me.
We heard that you participate in a number of sports, including martial arts, kickboxing, professional Thai boxing, Judo, Karate and Ju-Jitsu. Do you actually compete or are these just ways for you to unwind?
I don’t compete with it. I taught Taekwondo for probably about three years and I haven’t done Taekwondo in probably about 15 or 20 now. I did Thai boxing for a couple of years. I studied with some great people. And it was a way of exercising and relaxing. I like getting in the ring and boxing, but it’s such a damaging sport to your body, especially at my age. I can’t do it competitively without suffering a lot.
But I used to train with great people and used to spar around with some really, really great martial artists. I was really fortunate.
So you have no desire to step into a UFC ring any time soon?
No. Oh boy. No, those guys are insane. But I have started studying Brazilian Ju-Jitsu. I’m really fascinated by that, such a great style. I love the UFC. The UFC is my favorite thing now.
What would you be doing for a living if you never got into acting?
That’s a good question. You know, I’m very interested in politics. I love politics. But politics used to be the realm of ideas and now it’s the realm of criminals and perverse folks. You can’t gain an upper hand there or let an idea get in the air in a place like Washington or Sacramento for that matter. My heart would be in doing something like that, but I think it would leave me soulless.
The third choice I would have for a career is teacher, maybe. Maybe I would teach history.
High school or college?
Probably college because you could do a bit more, I would imagine. But it’s like John Adams said, “Teaching is the eternal profession,” because you never know where your influence is going to stop. I teach one person and that person influences 50 other people and that person influences 50 other people and the information and insight that you gave them can go on for an eternity and change lives and that’s pretty amazing.
I teach acting at a theatre company out here and me and my wife also teach independently. So I have an opportunity there since acting is not just a singular subject. It deals with so many of our values that I have an opportunity to talk to people and challenge them in a lot of ways. A lot of people have changed as a result of being challenged.
Have you run into a lot of people who come in and think they are going to just become an actor right away?
Oh yeah, there’s tons of people out there, young folks that don’t understand that acting is a craft because unfortunately in Hollywood you can see people getting in the business, going to the right parties and somehow making it. Or having something in their personality that makes them interesting enough to work for a while.
But in the end, to me, the people that endure are the people who have craft, so it is tough teaching kids, teaching young folks that have entirely different motivations for being in the business, like I did. I liked a lot of women and money like anything that a 20 year old wants that doesn’t really mean anything in the end. And I had to be introduced to craft and mentored the way they do. And nowadays, they don’t have parents really helping them or tutoring them so you kind of become a surrogate parent in a way and give them values and say, “You know what? It’s important to work for what you want.” So I do confront that a lot.
Tell us something most people don’t know about you.
I like the color pink. (Laughs.)
I don’t think people would know that I love nature. I was going to be a marine biologist, actually. I went to school studying that stuff at first. I love the ocean and love nature.
What else? I think people might know that I love to read. And I talk to my dogs like they’re my three-year-old kids. “My little Frankie. There he is right there. Hi buddy. What’cha doing?”
What kind of dogs do you have?
I have two Dachshunds – a boy and a girl, Frankie and Johnny. Johnny is the girl, she’s a long hair and Frankie is a short hair. Just adorable, he’s my little boy. He’s really quiet and sincere and just a little love bug, aren’t you buddy?
Do you ever put them in outfits?
My wife does. In fact, when I got home from Lost this last Saturday, she had them both in sweaters. He was in a brown sweater and she was in a pink sweater, with a hoodie. I had like an Army jacket for him that I put on him once when he was a little puppy. But she is the dresser, not me.
Interviewed by Joel Murphy. The final season of Lost airs Tuesday nights on ABC, but you probably already knew that.