Exclusive Interview with Condor’s Kristoffer Polaha
Kristoffer Poloha is that ridiculously handsome actor whose face you definitely know but whose name you may not recall. Chances are you’ve seen him in a dozen of your favorite series – Mad Men, Life Unexpected, Ringer, Castle – I know I have. Having worked in television for the better part of 20 years, he’s now starring in AT&T’s Condor, a re-imaging of the famed Sydney Pollack political thriller, Three Days of the Condor. The series updates the classic man-on-the-run premise, describing it as:
Joe Turner has always been conflicted about his work for the CIA. But when something he’s discovered gets his entire office killed, leaving Joe as the only survivor and forcing him to go on the run, the theoretical reservations he’s always harbored turn into all-too-real moral dilemmas. Under life or death pressure, Joe will be forced to redefine who he is and what he’s capable of in order to discover who’s behind this far-reaching conspiracy and stop them from completing their deadly objective that threatens the lives of millions.
Kris plays Sam Barber, originally played by Walter McGinn in the film, Joe Turner’s friend, and possible foe. We had the chance to chat at the ATX Television Festival about the original film, why it was ripe for remake, how the series made the relationship between Joe and Kathy Hale (Katherine Cunningham) less “creepy and rapey” than the relationship between Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway and how the series is so compelling it kept Kris glued to his seat.
Condor is based on the 1975 film Three Days of the Condor with Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway. What was behind the decision to bring it into the present and recreate it now? Especially as a series instead of a movie.
MGM has this beautiful library of films, right? Sydney Pollack directed the original film and I think Sky Dance and Paramount wanted to do it. They had a draft and they had an idea of which way to go, but in order to do it, we had to go through MGM who own the rights to it. They were like, “Listen, this is a great idea, but let’s start to…” and I think they tinkered with the idea and they kind of got it to a point where telling it today, kind of updating the story, does sort of two things: one, it makes it a lot more relevant because all of a sudden you go with terrorism and you go with internal versus global terrorism versus… and then the idea of distrust.
Here’s what was amazing about Three Days of the Condor, that movie was made… Sydney Pollack directed it in 1974 and it was a precursor to everything that had happened in 1978 with the hostages in Iran. Like in the real world. It was almost like they were reading the writing on the wall and then they made this movie about oil and guns and money and they sort of… the places that they talked about in the film became real-life hot points. And I think in that, it was a little fortune telling.
I think in the same way this television show kind of talks about, in a very mature and very grownup way, these almost impossible “what ifs.” What if there were… and it’s not really our government because it’s a private military firm that sort of generates this idea but uses people in the CIA to execute its plan, but what if these private armies decided to wage war in a way that wasn’t exactly aligned with how things are supposed to function without relationship to treaties, without relationship to boundaries or borders or almost a loyalty to any kind of specific country and then all of a sudden the question becomes a lot like, “what if?” You’ll see what happens. I think biological warfare versus nuclear is interesting because of the idea that he travels globally. You know what I mean? That’s just scary stuff because technically it’s all plausible. I always wonder if life imitates art, art imitates life, and then if you do something like this if you give people the ideas.
That’s a valid question. I think the answer is often both. For fans of the original movie, what would you say they should anticipate as far as the series goes? And for someone who hasn’t seen the original, what would you say to draw them in?
I would say that the idea of that spy noir thriller, that’s very much that genre and that pacing and that intensity and that mystery – the puzzle solving aspect of “where’s it going to go?” and “how’s he going get out of this mouse trap that he’s in?” that’s all there. So, if you were a fan of Sydney Pollack’s original and if you’re a fan of Robert Redford… I think where the story improves is they allow, they breathe room, they just sort of make all of this space to enlarge the world.
My character’s in the film, but you see him very quickly come and go. Whereas in this TV show, you also see him [laughs] sort of quickly come and go but the world that he exists [in], sort of, there’s a contrail throughout all 10 episodes where you see who this guy is. He’s married and then all of a sudden you see his wife and you see his kids and you see how Joe Turner [Max Irons] interacts with that family and what that gives him.
And then the relationship with Joe Turner and William Hurt’s character gets a lot more room to breathe and so all of a sudden, you’re telling the story in a much more expansive universe so that that relationship with Katie Cunningham’s character, the Faye Dunaway character, isn’t as… ‘cause it was really weird. It was almost like MGM back in the day jammed in a love story because we have Robert Redford, women want to see Robert Redford kissing on a girl and let’s make it, you know, Faye Dunaway because she’s pretty too, and they’re both stars and let’s sell this movie and make it a big hit. And it felt forced.
Whereas in the TV show you see what the heck that would look like if you were sort of held hostage and then all of a sudden realize that the guy who’s holding me hostage isn’t a bad guy and he’s doing this because it’s life or death. So it goes from… it’s a little creepy and rapey [the movie]. I remember watching it thinking, “There’s nothing about this that’s attractive at all.” It’s a hostage takeover situation that’s now sexual and I’m like, “I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel about this.” And it really took me out of the movie. It was one of those things where… I dig when he taps into the phone, this is the Redford film I’m talking about, where he taps into the phone and when he starts to one-up the pursuers and starts to get away, I’m like, “Oh, that’s a great story.”
And I think for viewers of the television show it’s more of that. And then it’s also a more organic exploration of the relationship, which is better. I just think it makes a better TV show than a movie, ultimately.
You kind of touched on this a little bit about your character “coming and going.” But is it safe to say we’ll still be seeing Sam?
It is safe to say that Sam is a part of the world and you’ll see him throughout. Yeah. In bits and pieces. Yeah.
Should we guess maybe things aren’t as they seem?
I mean, I wish I could say that.
One of the things I found interesting is that you read all 10 episodes of the series beforehand. That’s pretty unusual. Was that because you needed to know the entire story arc to inform how you’d play your character?
Yeah, I mean I always love knowing. Some actors don’t read… I mean I’ve talked to actors who don’t read scripts. They just read their part. They’re like, “It doesn’t matter. I don’t need to know anything else.” But I always love knowing from a story point of view. I want to know the whole world that I’m inhabiting because all of a sudden I know what part I’m playing in that space to occupy [it]. But it also sort of goes to show you just how compelling the story was because to sit and read 10 scripts in a day. I jammed through them. I mean, I caused back and hip pain. I’m in a chair just like… they’re really good. They’re just great stories. It’s one compelling script after another. It also is a testament to how good the show is going to be because the writing is just so juicy and good and it was captivating. I was like, “This is a great script.”
Yeah, I was really curious about this approach because generally, you act for what that script requires at the moment and sometimes knowing ahead can accidentally lead you a certain way. Right?
Yeah, but it’s also fun to know because I didn’t know how Sam was going to play into it all. It was fun reading the scripts and see “Sam Barber.” I’m like, “Oh, okay, here he is again. What does he do now?” and just see it all the way through. I think they hired me for… I want to say it was five out of 10, and it ended up being an eight out of 10. So, I was all of a sudden reading a script and I’m like, “Oh, this is nice.” I was in more than I bargained for. It was like all of a sudden I was in. So, it was fun to discover how my character was going to play in and throughout. And then, when you shoot things you have so much time. We shot it in blocks. It was episodes one, two, three, I think. And then four and five. And then six, seven, eight, nine, 10. The last block was a bigger chunk. So when you’re shooting things it gets compartmentalized again and then you’re like that grub, kind of digging through the specifics of the scene. So even though you have the scope, it’s hard to hold on to all of it and so you still get back to that minute in what you’re doing and it becomes a little easier. You almost do forget about like, “Oh, I’m going here with it.” Unless it’s a very clear choice to go, “Okay, I’m going to play it this way so that…” You know what I mean? But the writing is usually constructed in such a clean way that if you just keep doing what you’re supposed to be doing it’ll lead organically.
You can catch Condor on DirecTV’s channel 239 every Wed. at 10 PM ET or view it On Demand. And you can follow Kris on Twitter and Instagram.