Episode two of HBO’s The Night Of is called “Subtle Beast.”
The phrase is used by John Turturro’s character, precinct-crawling lawyer John Stone, to describe Detective Box, who is leading the investigation into the murder of a young woman in a brownstone on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
“I’m not saying he’s a bad cop. On the contrary. He’s very good,” Stone tells his new client, Riz Ahmed’s Nasir Khan, who spent the first episode of the show openly telling his story to the detective without counsel present. “And like all good cops, he does you over just inside the rules. He’s a talented oppressor. A subtle beast.”
That “subtle beast” is played by Bill Camp. You may not know his name, but you’ve almost definitely seen his face. Maybe in bit parts on Boardwalk Empire or The Leftovers. Or in consecutive Best Picture Oscar winners 12 Years a Slave and Birdman. He’s played at least two different characters in the Law & Order universe.
This year alone Camp has key roles in Midnight Special and Loving (both from writer-director Jeff Nichols) as well as the new Jason Bourne film (which also features his Night Of co-star Ahmed). And he received his first Tony Award nomination earlier this year for his performance as Reverend John Hale in The Crucible.
Speaking to The Daily Beast by phone as he walked down New York City’s Madison Avenue during the final week of performances for that popular Broadway production, Camp can barely hide his excitement at just how positively viewers and critics alike are reacting to The Night Of. Though, like his character, Camp exudes a calm and deliberate presence.
In just the few days since the first episode aired on HBO, Camp says he has been getting emails and texts from friends eagerly guessing who the real killer might be. And early one morning this week, as he was leaving home to take his son to camp, a woman from his Brooklyn neighborhood stopped him just to say how “nervous” she was watching the pilot. It’s the kind of attention that the actor has rarely received during a career made up of smaller character parts.
Like most veterans of stage and screen, Camp doesn’t believe in small parts, just small actors. But now, more than 25 years into his career, he is delighting at the chance to portray one of the leading roles on a show that is capturing the country’s attention. The fact that it’s a complex story about America’s broken criminal justice system only makes the experience more rewarding.
Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
How did this project come to you?
I had met [co-creator] Steve Zaillian doing a reading of a script of his in New York, and he had come to see a production of Death of a Salesman that I was in on Broadway. Then, he invited me to come out to LA and read with him. And I read with Jim Gandolfini and some actors coming in to read for the role of Naz. And then they asked me to do the part.
What were your first impressions of the scripts and this character of Detective Box?
My first impressions were that it was a really fabulous script. You know, when you’re reading scripts that are as well written as this is, they’re just so easy to read, it’s effortless to read. You’re just kind of in it. And as an actor, or anybody that’s reading something, the imagination and the visual that gets turned on when reading really good writing is exciting. And so I was excited to read it and super engaged and curious and immediately hooked in on the story. The first thing I read, of course, was just the pilot, so it was still a total mystery. And the role of Box was just a little gift for me as an actor to have the opportunity to play. The guy is not easily figured out. He’s a very complicated guy. He’s stoic. He doesn’t reveal a lot. And I think, as they say, he’s a “subtle beast.” As John Stone calls him.
When you read that description, “a subtle beast,” how did that inform the way you approached the character?
They are juxtaposing terms, those two words. It was something that was always in my mind in terms of his interactions with other people. There’s a kind of unanswerable diligence in terms of his methods and the way that he’s tenacious, but in a quiet way. Or an almost invisible way of going about his job and finding out the information he needs to know. And how he’s going to get that information. A “beast” is not necessarily someone who gets along with other beasts, or other people. There’s a certain kind of solitariness to him that is also present in that description.
In the second episode, we see Box start to manipulate Naz, allowing him to see his parents, but only so he can listen in on their conversation. Do you think he considers himself a “nice man,” as Naz’s mother describes him?
I kind of don’t really think that concerns him at all. I don’t even know if that gets on his radar or if he really cares. I don’t think he spends a lot of time thinking about whether he’s a nice guy or a good guy. He’s pretty single-minded in terms of his role, which is his job. There are no other ulterior motives to his job other than finding out who’s responsible for somebody’s else’s death. Deep down, I think Dennis Box is a good guy. I think that’s sort of his compass. But he’s been doing this job for so long. If somebody’s been doing a job like that, surrounded by death, if the subject of one’s vocation is death and murder, I think that in order to fulfill the job requirement as a homicide detective, the idea of whether he’s a people pleaser doesn’t even occur to him anymore. It may be a tool, something in which he knows how to be charming. He knows how to be a nice guy.
You read the pilot before shooting and that script reveals a key plot point that your character does not know. And that’s the game that Naz and Andrea played with the knife and that he did stab her in the hand, even if it was accidental. How do you reconcile the fact that you, the actor, know that detail, but you character does not?
That’s just part of my job. My job is to best play the information that I know right at that moment. That happens all the time. I do that every day in The Crucible. There’s information that I know, as the actor, because I’ve read the play and I also hear the whole first 15 minutes from my dressing room. But I can’t walk out there and know what’s happened. I have to not know. I just play the reality of what I know is going on in the moment in the script, and put myself in that character. Maybe actors are really good at compartmentalizing or something, I don’t know. I’m just trying to do my best to remain ignorant of the information I already know.
This show has a lot to say about the criminal justice system and you may have your own personal beliefs about that system in America. But did working on this show and playing this character change the way you think about these issues in any way?
I think it just reminded me, in a way in which I had never experienced before because I was in it, as to what our criminal justice system is about and the way it operates. So it was on the forefront of my mind a lot. I have my own ideas and beliefs and opinions about the criminal justice system, which were pretty irrelevant. But I think the show and the story are really important in that way. I think it’s a really honest portrait. I’m really proud to be a part of it, because it’s a really important issue, in terms the societal system that exists here in this country and how we go about fixing or making better that system. If a dialogue can get stimulated about things like that, issues that are super important to our communities and there isn’t a stagnation or indifference, then I think there’s hope for solutions and hope for change.
In the British series, the defendant in the case was white and in The Night Of he is Pakistani-American. How do you think that racial element plays into the way your character thinks about him?
Only in terms of what that kid’s world is like. I think, as an investigator, the goal is always to be as objective as possible and not to bring in one’s own personal feelings about a suspect. But at the same time, because he’s a young kid from Queens, who’s Pakistani-American, he needs to know what that kid’s world would be like. That’s the relevance to Box. And wanting to know, maybe high school wasn’t so great for this kid or knowing what his life would be like as Pakistani kid living in Queens. In terms of Dennis Box’s take on him, he’s looking at every suspect and wanting to know as much as he can about every suspect. And that has to do with gender, race, age, sexual orientation — everything that makes up a person.
A lot of your work has been as a character actor where you might get one or two scenes in a film or television show. Did you relish the chance to go deeper with a part like this one?
Oh, definitely. It was a great gift, as an actor, to have something as rich as this character and this script to be a part of. I mean, it’s privilege enough to be asked to play the part by Steve [Zaillian] and the powers that be. I was nothing but grateful. Whenever I’m asked to do anything, especially when it’s a great story and one with relevance, I’m always going to try to go as deep as I can. Fortunately I get asked to play — regardless of how big or small they are — some really interesting people who are part of great stories. So, as an actor, there’s really nothing better. My job is great, Matt. I have a really, really excellent job and I love it. And in order to have some perspective on it, I just try to stay as grateful as I can for whatever I get to do. I’m just part of a story. And when the story is really great, then it’s an even more enriching experience for me.