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UNDER THE DOME’s Alexander Koch on Being the Psychopath We Love

Things are tense when you live under a dome. Easy for people to start to lose it a bit. But, when you’re a psychopath already, it’s kind of an unchecked filed day. Under the Dome‘s resident sadist, Junior Rennie, has had his share of screwed up moments and “did he just do that?” instances, but through it all, somehow, the character has found a little, tiny bit of sympathy from fans of the CBS series, which returns for Season 2 on Monday, June 30th. Nerdist sat down with Alexander Koch, the young actor portraying the troubled and troubling son of Dean Norris’ Big Jim, to talk about what it’s like playing such a reprehensible-yet-enjoyable character, about what it could mean for his future in the business, and transitioning from classical theatre to primetime telly.

NERDIST: Junior is a character with a great deal of malicious disconnect which could be a bit much for some viewers, but you’ve managed to make people not only sympathize with him, but empathize a bit. You kind of feel what he’s feeling, and you see that he’s just trying to hold on to his relationship a little bit. How did you approach that? What was that like for you?

ALEXANDER KOCH: Well, that was the big thing, is that he’s holding onto three different relationships. He’s trying to hold onto this relationship with his dad, he’s trying to hold onto Angie, and stuff with his mom. I think that’s where I really, really started. I was, like, what’s the central thing? Where, if Junior was living this perfect life, where was the timeline? Where did the timeline go wrong? And I think it was when his mother died, he kind of had this piece of him just missing, and he was living with his father, who is really not nurturing. He’s nurturing, but not in the way that the mother is. He was tough and “You have to be a man. You have to be like this.”

We have to keep up this facade of how the family is supposed to be; this white-picket fence, despite the fact that there is an obvious missing component in the whole thing. And reading the book, he would have conversations with his mother in his head, and I thought that was a really interesting notion, so I kind of attributed it a lot to connections with his mother. With Angie, he finds that same type of love that she gave him. When she’s leaving him, he’s trying to get that back any way he can, so he’s doing terrible things, in order to hold onto her as much, and having that love for her and trying to hold onto her and not letting loose.

N: One of the things it’s interesting to mention – the relationship with Big Jim, because I was wondering, it really seems like your performance about half-way through the season, as Big Jim started to come unhinged a little bit, your character started to get more level. As you see Big Jim going a little crazier, you see where you’re emulating it from. How has that been as you guys have been working together?

AK: It’s great. It’s really interesting, because I feel like when I’m going up a wave, Dean, Big Jim, is going down. We’re never on the same page, and it’s so frustrating. I’m trying to get him on my side, trying to get him to believe in the Dome, and believe in all this stuff, and then get away from it. We can lead, and we can do all this stuff, but we’re never on the same wavelength. And I think with Dean it’s – first of all, he’s phenomenal. He’s great, and I just follow him every single time. But it’s so frustrating playing Junior, because he’s never winning with is dad, and he wants his dad to love him so, so much.

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N: Even though, in the finale last year, your two characters hug and seem to seeing eye to eye, you don’t. Do you think, in the larger scheme of the show, it’s the Dome itself is “fixing” your character, bringing out better qualities in him?

AK: Yeah, I think – I think, you know, it really is kind of just circumstances. Really interesting things – I think 9/11 is a great example in terms of people who were just office workers really rose up and did great things, helped people and saved people and tried to get them out. They rose up to be heroes. That’s a big thing, I think, with our show: who you can be in these circumstances.

At first, where Junior kind of falters, and his dad is right there on the forefront, leading all these people, I think Junior didn’t really have a footing in the whole thing. He was just trying to scramble, just trying to save who he could, and he was acting more impulsively than his father. His father is very calculating. But kind of as the ground keeps falling out underneath Big Jim, Junior is getting more solidified in his stance on what’s the connection to his mother, what are all these things that are just going on, and how can he better society. I think he becomes less selfish over the season, and he’s more like wanting to be a hero.

It’s almost like he’s matching Barbie a little bit more. I think he sees that as that’s a person that Angie kind of is interested in.

N: You’re a classically trained actor and you’ve done theatre; how has that been, going from that instant reaction from an audience, and its very energetic scenes – it’s very easy to get hyped up for a performance in a play – how is that, versus a TV show, where it’s a lot of hurry up and wait, and stopping and starting?

AK: Yeah, that was the big thing that I was wondering last year, was just the whole feel of that. At the end, you always want to hear the applause. We didn’t hear it for several months. That was frustrating, I think, at times. It’s just finding new ways to get yourself into the scene, and changing the way I work a little bit, in terms of you go through the whole arc in two hours, if you’re onstage. You go through this whole big thing.

But finding these little bits of being more moment to moment, and kind of finding smaller ways of – just more detail; more intricate detail in little things. You find so much in rehearsal. We don’t have the pleasure of rehearsal – we’re just go, go, go. So it was great in terms of just trusting myself, and kind of being like, “This is a good idea – go with it, go with it.” Your first instinct is usually the right thing, and then going with it. When you get there on the day, and if it’s not working, you just kind of shift around.

N: A little freeing?

AK: Uh, freeing and constricting at the same time. I really miss theatre a lot but this show trains you in such a different way.

N: Well, I absolutely love what you’ve done with the character. You brought a lot of humanity to a character that could have very easily just been stereotyped.

AK: Thank you. I was very worried about that last year, because I read the book, and I was like – if they had followed the book to a T, there was no way I could have ever been redeemable and stuff like that. What you said about him earlier, about him being a redemption story, that’s what me and the writers always talk about. That’s their thing – Junior is very much a redemption story. Who he will become is going to go with this series, and people fall at times, and then there are times when he’s going to rise above.

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N: People aren’t perfect, and it’s great that there’s a character in there just saying, “Yeah, I’m going to fuck up.”

AK: Yeah, and the first couple of episodes, he does pretty drastic things, but then he’s finding the way to do drastic things in the right direction. Junior is never going to follow a strict, “Oh, I’m going to be careful about this!” He’s going to do kind of extreme things to kind of get his ends that he wants.

N: Do you read comics?

AK: Yeah, big time.

N: I consider your character the kind of Eddie Brock Venom of Under the Dome.

AK: Very much so. I like that!

N: He hates Peter Parker, would absolutely kill him in a heartbeat, but he still wants to do the right thing for the rest of the world.

AK: Absolutely.

N: So what are you reading right now, if you read comics?

AK: I was reading I, Zombie a little bit, which I really liked. I like the new Batman/Superman – the artist, Jae Lee? He did all the work for Ozymandias Before Watchmen. That guy’s art is so symmetrical and brilliant. I was also reading a little American Vampire: Forever Evil.

N: What Brian K. Vaughn [showrunner and executive producer of Under the Dome] titles do you like?

AK: Y: The Last Man. I’m hoping that movie comes out and I can sneakily audition for it.

N: What else do you have coming up? I hear you took a bit of a break between seasons.

AK: I did. I did some writing. I turned down a couple of projects. I wasn’t into them. They were just things I didn’t want to do. I was kind of getting my arm twisted by a lot of people, and I was like, last minute, I backed out of a project. It was too close to what I was doing here, and I want to do something different.

N: Yeah, I wouldn’t go playing a psychopath again too soon.

AK: [chuckles] Yeah, no. And you have to look at that stuff. The guy who played Ollie Densmore, Leon Rippy, He was really great. He said to me, “You always have to be careful about what you choose in life.” He’s played so many different villains and heroes. He was in The Patriot, he was in The Lone Ranger. He’s been around for a long, long time, and he’s like, “I’m very careful about what I pick.” You don’t want to fall into that circle of “Well, he’s always a villain, and he can always play this.” You want to show different parts. You don’t want to play the same thing over and over. And this other role just wasn’t it.

For now, you can see more of Alexander Koch playing the sympathetic psycho on Under the Dome, which premieres its second season Monday, June 30th, at 10/9c on CBS.

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