Exclusive interview: Patriot star Terry O’Quinn on Amazon series’ big changes in Season 2

Terry O’Quinn as Tom Tavner in Patriot Season 2
Terry O’Quinn as Tom Tavner in Patriot Season 2. Pic credit: Amazon Prime

Writer and director Steven Conrad’s quirky but sublime, dark comedy Patriot returns for a second season, debuting this weekend on Amazon Prime.

It’s the story of an intelligence officer named John Tavner, played by Michael Dorman, who has been pulled into what should be a clear cut assignment, preventing Iran from going nuclear.

He’s been set up with a non-official cover as John Lakeman and everything goes wrong from there. John’s life is made far more complicated since his handler is his father Tom, played by Terry O’Quinn (Lost), who asks him to do unconscionable acts for the good of the country, while his Congressman brother Edward (Michael Chernus) is pulled in to help too.

Season 2 picks up right where Season 1 left off as Edward was kidnapped, the bag full of money is in play, now in the possession of Luxembourg Detective Agathe Albans (Aliette Opheim).

The entire season moves to France where more parties converge, including John’s recovering coke-head boss Leslie (Kurtwood Smith), his wife Alice (Kathleen Munroe) who is kept in the dark, and now his politician mother (Debra Winger).

We spoke to Terry O’Quinn about his character Tom, the new season of Patriot, and the artistry of it all.

Monsters and Critics: Season 1 was about establishing the characters, John skulking around Europe, and what brought them to this month-long ordeal. Season 2 moves much faster, and the events around John are swirling and crowding him.

Terry O’Quinn: Season 2 definitely moves faster, things roll down the hill faster. Some of that is to take some of the burden off of Michael Dorman who plays our lead character John. Or it’s just that the story begins to snowball, it gets bigger and bigger.

Michael Dorman as John Tavner and Terry O'Quinn as his father Tom
Terry as Tom Tavner and Michael Dorman as John Tavner. Pic credit: Amazon Prime

In the story, we keep making “jellyfish” [as a metaphor for creating problems], where you try to kill a jellyfish and wind up making two jellyfishes. We keep accumulating jellyfishes and that keeps it going faster.

M&C: There’s two mysteries in the show, the characters going through the events as they unfold, but then there are these interviews in the present day that inform you but leave the viewer wondering what happened? Are you in the dark as to what happened as well?

Terry O’Quinn: My character does fill people in on supposedly what happened, but I don’t get ahead of the story. I’m actually helping them fill it in as they’re watching it, to help clarify. But no, I don’t know where the story is actually going and I don’t want to know.

I remember working on Lost, they would say, we can’t tell you what’s going to happen, and I’d say that I don’t want to know. I have no desire to know because I don’t want to start playing the ending during the middle. Sometimes Steve [Conrad] will tell me things because he’s a wonderful sharing kind of guy, but I’ll say, look, don’t tell me. [Laughs]

From the production side, considering all the footage he has, it’s like putting a jigsaw puzzle together, when I see it cut together. When we filmed the interviews, I had no idea where they were going to go. I couldn’t tell the exact order of the way things were shot. So it’s like seeing a puzzle being put together but one piece at a time.

M&C: Could you talk about Debra Winger joining the cast?

Terry O’Quinn: Talk about adding another heavyweight to the cast, Debra Winger plays my ex-wife, John and Edward’s mother. John calls her in the story at one point as a point of desperation. We’re obviously divorced for a reason but it’s such good fun to get to play with her to see what she brings.

It’s funny when she shows up, it had been 30 years to the month since I had last seen her. We were both on a film called Black Widow where we had done a few scenes together and I had not seen her since. It was great to see her. She’s involved plenty, but I wished she was involved even more. She has a great effect on what happens in the story.

Debra Winger as Bernice Tavner
Debra Winger as Tom’s ex-wife Bernice Tavner. Pic credit: Amazon Prime

M&C: Talk about establishing something in Season 1 with the family dynamic and then adding an unknown to that same dynamic in Season 2.

Terry O’Quinn: The story takes a turn. I, as John’s and Edward’s father, am beyond questionable in terms of my moral stance, I am doing things that I believe are in the interest of my country, and I’m asking John to do things that no father in his right mind would ask of his son.

Yet, he’s an agent, he’s one of my agents, so I, as Terry, tell myself, ‘Okay, you’re asking him to do things that you’d ask any agent to do,’ regardless of how morally proper it is. It’s certainly questionable. I think it gets very dark. By the end of Season 2, I think you’re going to go, ‘Whoa, what kind of ground are we walking on here?’

The funny thing is, that everyone from the duck hunt becomes a part of this extended family. I don’t know if I feel that as a member of this wonderful cast, who I’ve fallen in love with, I think I’m feeling it because Steve (Conrad) tied everybody together in a family.

John sort of brings everyone in and I, playing John’s dad, keep getting frustrated that it keeps getting wider and wider, all the involvement of other people. The task and the event is terribly frustrating. For an audience member, though, it’s wonderful.

For a cast member it’s wonderful too. I’ve said that if someone told me that all I have to do is work with this group for another decade or two, I’d be perfectly happy.

Tom sits alone
Tom sits alone with his thoughts in a scene from Season 2. Pic credit: Amazon Prime

M&C: The comedy in the series is its own thing and takes many forms. The best way to describe it to those who haven’t seen Patriot is as a Coen Brothers film in Europe.

Terry O’Quinn: I realize it’s funny, but I hesitate to call it comedy. It’s so unexpected and real. We don’t play anything to be funny, we play it to be straight, but Steve takes care of the funny.

I think you find yourself shocked at what it is that you’re laughing at. When you laugh at someone throwing somebody else in front of a bus, you go, whoa!

I also think in this season, Steve sought to consciously try to take some of the burden off of Michael Dorman for carrying the entire season so he brought more characters into it.

All the people from Season 1, including the Milwaukee characters, show up in Paris, which was just kind of wonderful and unexpected — it’s kind of delightful.

M&C: When you watched it for the first time, were you laughing at the characters for the first time? Or did you know going in that this is going to have beats to it that will be funny?

Terry O’Quinn: I think Steve knows, and you can certainly sense it (during production), and consequently you try not to play them funny because that would be a mistake. If you see something that you perceive as a joke, to play it as a joke would be wrong. So you avoid that.

M&C: It’s all mixed in with this artful cinematography too. One can’t talk about Patriot without mentioning the composed shots and memorable, long, single-take scenes.

Terry O’Quinn: There’s a lot of the times when I’m watching it, the cinematography is so special, it’s kind of unique and brilliant. Sometimes just the shots are funny.

Sometimes I’ll notice a camera is taking a beautiful wide angle photo of a town square or some building in Paris and there will be two guys sitting on a bench 100 yards away from you, and you hear the whole conversation and watching this beautiful shot while you’re doing it. It’s storytelling at its best.

Without it, it’d just be talking heads and there’s plenty of that, but one of the things that strikes me most about the whole show is the cinematic artistry of it. At the risk of sounding boring, it’s beautifully shot.

M&C: I love shots of Europe but some of those duck hunt scenes from Season 1 were some of my favorite.

Terry O’Quinn: I can’t argue with that. I think Steve had that in his head. Jim Whitaker [the director on those duck hunt scenes] shot it all. They put a lot of time and forethought into what they were going to shoot.

I’m also thinking of the scenes with John Lakeman sitting in one of those huge concrete circular tubes and people keep coming up to him. In the far off distance is someone approaching.

It’s a stationary camera but you have one person coming from side, then you have another person from another side. It makes you work more mentally, because visually it’s captivating.

M&C: Do you collaborate with Steve in creating Tom Tavner?

Terry O’Quinn: I don’t want to say Steve is a control freak but he did do every single thing. He wrote every word and directed every scene and wanted each scene to be delivered in a certain way.

At first my thought was that, well, that’s sort of controlling, but after a short time I realized it was sort of freeing. There were things I didn’t have to worry about.

He wanted you to be creative, he wants you to bring your own thoughts to the project, but it needs to be in subtle ways. Normally you think you’re the painter holding the brush, and you’re painting the painting.

In this case, you’re just the paint and Steve’s holding the brush. You’re adding subtlety to the color in the timing and delivery. His focus on what you’re giving him is so minute, that it’s really fine tuning.

Tom Tavner was created and I get to inhabit him and give him my voice and contribute my thoughts but he was a self-driving machine.

Tom speaks with Bernice
Tom speaks with ex-wife Bernice, who is a high-ranking federal official

M&C: Tom’s another character who you’ve played who is very untrustworthy. Going back to your days as Peter Watts in Millennium or John Locke in Lost, you’ve mastered this type of character. They’re all unique but do you enjoy playing with the audience, where there is a truth to what your character is saying playing against another truth to what you’re doing?

Terry O’Quinn: I absolutely love to do that. At first I thought, should I take offense that you said that I like to play untrustworthy characters, but I totally get what you mean and I love to play that.

I think it’s so much more interesting than playing Tom Trueheart where you know as an audience member that everything coming out of my mouth is the truth. The truth in the case of a lot of the people that I play depends upon who it is I’m speaking to at the moment.

This guy clearly is not above lying. In fact, he’s good at it. Sometimes the audience knows he’s lying and that’s okay, you have to choose when you tell the truth to the audience and when you’re going to let them be confused a little bit.

In the end, you always owe them the truth, but before you deliver the truth, you can f**k with their minds a bit [Laughs]. I like that Steve does that. I love those characters because it’s much more interesting to always be possibly lying [Laughs].

M&C: Without spoiling, what are some specific moments you can tease viewers.

Terry O’Quinn: I’ll tell you about one, and it’s a technical thing that people when they watch it won’t necessarily know what they’re seeing but it’s absolutely stunning. It’s a steady-cam shot in the second half of Season 2 that lasts five to six minutes that’s like a music video because one of John’s folk songs is playing over it.

It starts on a subway train, then goes on a platform, goes up a bunch a stairs, walks down a street and goes into a store and commits a little crime with his three buddies, Edward, Dennis (Chris Conrad) and Jack Birdbath (Tony Fitzpatrick) getting involved with it, while you’re hearing this song.

They get what they came for, walk down more streets and subways, get on a train and that’s all one steady-cam shot. You’ve got to keep a look out for that!

M&C: Viewers will not be able to miss the change in the opening theme song to the Beastie Boys’ Sure Shot which gives a terrific new energy to this season that is just perfect. Would you agree?

Terry O’Quinn: Absolutely, maybe that’s a good summation between Season 1 and Season 2. With the folk song in Season 1, you’re mislead into thinking this is a family thing with the old videos of two boys. In Season 2, you realize the s***’s about to hit the fan.

Season 1 and now Season 2 of Patriot are available on Amazon Prime.

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