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Exclusive interview: Bob Balaban on playing CIA boss in new spy thriller Condor

Tonight’s no-miss event from AT&T’s Audience Network is Condor, a modern spy drama adapted from the 1975 Robert Redford film.

Jason Smilovic and Todd Katzberg’s crackling penned teleplay is rooted in the novel Six Days of the Condor by James Grady and Three Days of the Condor screenplay by Lorenzo Semple Jr. and David Rayfiel.

This 10-episode thriller on AT&T Audience Network centers on CIA analyst Joe Turner (Max Irons) who had authored an algorithm that is predictive of terrorist patterns based on chatter and intel.  His boss is Reuel Abbott, played by Bob Balaban.

Second City alum Balaban has had many decades acting in theater, film and television. He can always be counted to be cast in roles that are smart and memorable. Many remember his amusing observant fish-out-of-water Morris Weissman, a visiting American Hollywood film producer in Robert Altman’s Gosford Park which earned him an Oscar nom for best picture (Balaban was also a producer).

He was cast in many notable films and TV series over the years, including Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters, Sydney Lumet’s Prince of the City, Midnight Cowboy, Capote, Waiting For Guffman, Moonrise Kingdom and more. Television saw him cast in Miami Vice as reporter Ira Stone, and Seinfeld’s fourth season as Russell Dalrymple, the NBC president. He also directed an episode of Nurse Jackie for Showtime.

Condor has an enviable cast of stars and also features William Hurt as Bob Partridge, Joe’s uncle and a national Intelligence Officer who works with Balaban’s Abbott. Leem Lubany plays Gabrielle Joubert, a Villanelle-styled assassin trained by the Mossad and who now works with Nathan Fowler played by Brendan Fraser, a steely weirdo whose quirky behavior distracts from the fact that he is a very dangerous man.

The cast is rounded out by former special forces op Deacon Mailer (Angel Bonanni), ER doctor Mae Barber (Kristen Hager), and Marty Frost (Mira Sorvino) is pulled out of retirement to replace Partridge, who she shares a “complicated past” with.

Bob Balaban, William Hurt
Bob Balaban as Reuel Abbott and William Hurt as Bob Partridge, Joe Turner’s uncle

The premiere episode opens in a swath of desolate Navajo nation, as Nathan Fowler (Fraser) is trying to bury “a lot of dead Prairie dogs” when a less than friendly Native American rolls up on him. Fowler is accompanied by Joubert (Lubany) who wastes no time wasting the inquisitive interloper.

Cut to three years later and we meet Turner (Irons), a CIA analyst who winds up inside a Gordian knot of misplaced blame and deadly intrigue. When Joe’s algorithm taps into a terrorist plot to breach a stadium with a virulent and fatal biological weapon, he is sucked into a conspiracy that has him on the run until the truth is sorted.

Joe must figure out who is playing him and who he can trust even at the highest levels of office in government.

Playing an erudite holy terror is Bob Balaban, cast as CIA Director Abbott.

Reuel is a cool cucumber, a brilliant sort whose pious demeanor and deeply rooted distrust of anything Islamic informs his far-reaching capabilities in his role as the top tier of the CIA management.

We spoke to Balaban at the Television Critics Association tour about his complex role in Condor, books he has authored and his acting history with William Hurt.

Monsters and Critics: Can you give us some backstory on Reuel. Is he from the Midwest? Is he a southerner? I know he’s very pious or religious.

Bob Balaban: Well, we never talk about it so far, but I imagine Reuel is from the east coast, basically, Connecticut, maybe. He went to good schools, prep school, possibly. He’s kind of erudite and very well educated. I wouldn’t say fairly well educated. He’s very religious, and I know that because he prays from time to time. Which seems strange because he’s not exactly somebody who you’d think is terribly spiritual, let’s say, but he is, which is interesting.

He has very strong opinions. He knows what’s right and wrong in his mind to do. The end completely justifies the means. But not because he’s evil or wants to be bad or anything, it’s just because he wants to do whatever he can do to make the thing happen that he feels is right to happen. He reminds me a little bit, I don’t act like him at all, but G. Gordon Liddy who I work with. He was an actor. Did you know that?

M&C: Yes. Well, you know your character is very political and Nixon’s henchman seems so quaint now compared to the cast of characters we have in the power structure. I was going to ask you if your character imitated Liddy…

BB: We did a few episodes of Miami Vice together. And on Miami Vice he was [cast as] my nemesis. And in my second episode, I got to be killed by G. Gordon Liddy. Oh, that’s like a highlight. Really, truly, I mean it. I’m not even kidding.

But the great surprise is how much I liked him. Because I thought, ‘Oh, it’s another one of Nixon’s henchpeople, terrible people.’ And I had quite the opposite reaction, I just thought he’s unusual, he’s quirky, and he’s very particular. Who else would you know who would hold their hand up to practice being brave and put a wet match or lighter under their palm, which…I forget why he did it, to endure pain, whatever.

But I really liked him. He was a man of principal. I didn’t agree with his principles, but he believed them, and he acted accordingly. Half the time I see hateful politicians, I don’t even think they believe anything. It’s just like, ‘Well, I decided to be in this party, so I’m just going to act out the things that this party is supposed to believe in no matter whatever they’re doing.’

My big surprise was how much I liked him, and I actually directed him in a couple of things, a little TV movie that Penn and Teller wrote a million years ago for Showtime and some other things.

M&C: William Hurt’s character Bob. You all have some history…

BB: A little bit. I was in Bill’s first movie that he did. A Ken Russell movie called Altered States and we’re [cast as] best friends in the movie. And we met each other by Bill calling and saying, ‘We’re going to be best friends, so come to my house and we’ll have a playdate.’

So, I went to his house. We ate, we sat around and listened to records, but that wasn’t just for like a day we did this for months before the movie began. And then he would come to my house and we went to California. He would be hanging out with me and my family and he didn’t have a family then, so I didn’t hang out with his family.

And it was a long, arduous, complicated movie for many different reasons, but I loved him, but then I never saw him again, literally. I mean until I walked on to the set of Condor.

M&C: That must have been wonderful to see him again after all those years?

BB: And also, whatever was complicated, suddenly didn’t seem complicated anymore. We both were so happy to see each other. Really, it helps you because these things you don’t rehearse, not that you should, I’m not advocating rehearsals for television shows. But what I am saying is any feeling that you actually have is useful. If I hated him it would be a useful feeling, but I so am fond of him.

I really feel close to him and we may never see each other again now, too. I don’t know, but you know actors are kind of like that. Francois Truffaut with the End of Day for Night says things like, ‘yes, with this big family we adore each other. We’ll never see each other again.’ And it’s true, you really end up not…because your lives are…’he lives here and he lives here’ and we know people in common. I feel like I’m a better person around him, acting-wise certainly.

M&C: Are your characters Reuel and Bob of like mind?

BB: Yes. We’re all in the CIA together.

M&C: But not everyone in the CIA in this is on the same team as far as allegiances and intentions.

BB: Well, my intentions, and I think Bill’s character’s intention as well, is just whatever we think is right. We want to get that, however we can get it. I didn’t always know if I was lying to Bill because it would turn out the way that I…it’s really interesting, because I feel like I’m at the strata of the storytelling where I don’t know if it’s always been completely determined what my motive was for believing certain things or saying certain things, so you just make them up on your own.

And I have a feeling, what I know for sure, I would manipulate Bill’s character in any way I could to get what I needed and what I wanted. But it doesn’t mean that I don’t also like him. That’s an interesting thing to think, I mean the obvious thing to talk about, but it doesn’t always occur to you when you’re acting like, ‘Oh, I’m manipulating this person,’ but the truth is I enjoy him and I like being around him and I don’t want to hurt him in any way, but I want to get what I want.

M&C: Yeah, as you should. You’re the head of the CIA.

BB: I had trouble with that with my character’s wife.

M&C: Right. Who plays your wife in this?

BB: Allison Hossack…her character [my wife] has cancer and you could imagine she would or [might] die…

M&C: So, this is a heavy personal backstory going on while you’re trying to get one of your operatives (Turner) to survive the slaughter of 11 CIA young people who are now being accused of their murder, you’re trying to sort this…

BB: My character is very involved with the, well the story is very involved with the guy who was apprehended for who is going to blow [attempt to] blow up the 60,000 people who were in the football stadium, but who turns out not to have been doing that exactly. But I knew that, or I know that eventually.

M&C: What’s your opinion of Brendon Fraser’s turn as Nathan? When you’re introduced to his character he’s an unusual nefarious character.

Brendan Fraser
Brendan Fraser is a very bad man in Condor

BB: I adore him in this and I like him anyway. I’ve known him for a little bit, not for a long time but just a little. But I think he is doing a remarkable job as an incredibly memorable character. It’s so ingenious, his character is sort of stupid but really dangerous and sort of naive but horrifying. And it’s a wonderful combination because it’s something child-like about Nathan, which makes him even more dangerous.

I just don’t have that much to do with him but at one point I have a scene with him in one of the episodes and it was just so much fun to turn the screws on him because he was so eager…I mean he did it so well. It was just really fun working with him.

M&C: What are some of the aspects of the script when you first received it that you…I know you know the original film…that you appreciated from the writers — what they offered you to consider this role?

BB: As you know probably, some actors just read their parts to be ‘Okay, what’s that, what you’re doing here?’ And I immediately determined that it is the kind of part that you would sort of be like, ‘Oh, okay, he’s a government man.’ I’ve been a lot of government people. In Absence of Malice I was sort of the version of this character, I guess you could say.

But all I knew is that I read this part and I thought this guy goes to places that Bob doesn’t usually get to go to, here and there. So, I wanted to do it anyway because it seemed like a really good show. So well written and smart.

And I thought, I don’t usually have a wife who dies and I don’t usually…I get to be, I like the tough, big, bad guys somewhat.

M&C: It seems like you are cast often as a doctor or therapist? 

BB: Well, I did have a period of where I only played prosecutors. I was like nine prosecutors and the truth is when I say I’m not like any of them, I’m not like any of them — I don’t know what I’m like in real life. You know what I mean? I don’t know that anybody does.

M&C: If you couldn’t act what would you do? What do you think that you would do?

BB: Be a therapist. I used to think that. Originally my acting career began as a puppeteer as a child and I started actually working at it. I was on the school plays, even in kindergarten I was always like the troll in three billy goats gruff and I was in on Dean and I was in the lead in all the high school plays and stuff like that. But I’d never thought I would really be an actor nor did I think it was a viable profession for anybody, let alone me.

I had started acting in summer stock and getting parts in things and doing commercials, but I was in college. But basically, as the summer approached up to my sophomore year or something I was like, ‘Okay, what’ll I do this summer?’ I had done musicals and the led in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, in little equity houses and stuff. But then there were summers where I was a runner at the board of trade for EF Hutton.

M&C: In Chicago?

BB: Yeah. And then my next summer I thought, ‘Well, maybe I’ll get an acting job but probably I won’t, so, I think I’m really going to be a writer. I don’t want to live at home in Chicago with my parents. Maybe, they’ll pay for me to have,’ I literally thought a garret. I’m not sure what a garret is but I thought, ‘I could be a writer if I lived in a garret.’

M&C: You went to really good schools.

BB: I did, I did. I went to the Chicago Latin School when I took Latin. Well, I was planning to go live in the garret and start writing. I wasn’t sure what I was going to write, but I thought I would like to write and I kept getting jobs that got in the way of that. And then I thought, ‘Oh, I guess I’m doing this.’

M&C: You’ve got published books now.

BB: I had a best seller series of children’s books. I did six of them, it was called the McGrowl series, we sold a couple of million copies.

M&C: Circling back to Condor — give me a quick tag line how would you describe your character, Reuel Abbot?

BB: Reuel Abbot is a big cheese at CIA. He’s tough, he’s smart, he’s determined, he’s religious and he’s complicated.

Condor premieres tonight, Wednesday, June 6, at 10pm ET/PT on Audience Network.

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