Interview: Justin Bruening, Deanna Russo & Gary Scott Thompson from Knight Rider
We had the honor of speaking with Justin Bruening, Deanna Russo and Gary Scott Thompson from NBC’s Knight Rider. Here’s what they had to say:
My first question is for you and I’m wondering, you know, in terms of momentum as actors, because you shot a movie and not a pilot — and because you did it several months ago — how difficult was it to get back into your roles and into the Knight Rider storyline?
Deanna Russo: It wasn’t difficult at all.
Justin Bruening: Yeah, it was not difficult at all.
Deanna Russo: Because we didn’t take a break from it. I mean, once we wrapped shooting, we were… we just kept working on the show from when we shot the two-hour pilot and then we were promoting it. And then we immediately started training into the series, even before we even knew officially. We just wanted to be prepared.
Justin Bruening: Yeah.
Deanna Russo: And, you know, we just enjoyed our characters so much that it wasn’t – you know what I mean, we didn’t want to leave them behind just yet.
Justin Bruening: And I think deep down we had all confidence that it was going to go to series.
Deanna Russo: Shoot, it’s Knight Rider. I mean, come on.
Gary, I wanted to ask you a similar question because, you know, when the movie came out obviously it was, you know, a re-imagination of something we hadn’t seen in a long time. Obviously it sets the stage for a series but at the same time there was a fair amount of closure. So, you know, how challenging is it to excite the audience a second time as a series begins?
Gary Scott Thompson: Well it’s not just the second time. It’s now in 100 more times because we plan on going a long time with this one. So challenging-wise, it was pretty easy actually.
We’ve got great stars here and a great car. We’ve got a few new cast members, great writers. So it actually was fairly easy. There’s a lot of stories to tell.
What can you tell us about the voice of KITT? Who is that going to be this time around?
Gary Scott Thompson: Same voice, Val Kilmer.
The talk at TCA was that the series was going to be in no way, shape or form even resembling the pilot, that everything was scrapped and writers were taking on a completely different mythology and storyline. Do you want to talk about that, and if that’s true or not?
Gary Scott Thompson: It’s still true. We went back to the original series to look at what made that work and (wrote a word). We went through the pilot and then, you know, we don’t want to disappoint some of the fans of the two-hour so there was – you know, we have four characters coming from that.
So we made sure that those four characters clicked into what the new mythology was for the series. Again, it’s 25 years later so we have to update the car, update the people and be in touch with the times.
So I think that’s really what we did was just try to bring it up to date.
How different is the series from the movie?
Gary Scott Thompson: It’s a lot different. I think the movie just sort of set the table and bridged the gap between the original series and this series. That’s how we like to look at it. This is a much faster pace.
It’s, you know, kind of balls to the wall, flat out go, high octane adrenaline. And it’s a real rush.
And who would you say it’s aimed at? Is it a family show? Is it mainly for younger male viewers? Who’s your audience, do you think?
Gary Scott Thompson: Everybody. Everybody loves KITT.
Deanna Russo: Yeah.
Back on the original show KITT was really a science fiction creation. Today, how much of a science fiction creation do you think the car is or is it even this close to reality? I mean, it seems just a step away.
Gary Scott Thompson: It’s a – it’s very close. You know, everybody already has GPS and OnStar. The cars do talk to you. They’re working on cars that can drive themselves using sensors, so they will never wreck. They’ll know the speed limit and all that. So it’s – you know, it’s 10 years away, 15 maybe.
In the pilot movie, the mercenaries are almost successful in hacking KITT’s system and I was wondering are you going to install Norton on him for the series?
Gary Scott Thompson: We have Super Norton on him.
What were some of the new refurbishments for KITT that were not reflected in the pilot as far as KITT the movie?
Gary Scott Thompson: KITT can transform from one vehicle to another. He has more advanced weaponry. What else, guys? He likes Deanna’s character better than Justin’s.
Justin Bruening: That is untrue. The – his windshield is now a heads up display which…
Justin Bruening: …interacts fully with our headquarters, the SSC.
Gary Scott Thompson: Right, and we have a headquarters which is – you know, we affectionately call the KITT Cave which is Satellite Surveillance Chamber, which is part of Knight Research and Development.
And that’s our main base of operation. And we can track and follow the car anywhere in the world via a co-opted satellite.
I think it was mentioned that KITT is a teenager in rebellion and is growing into himself – Val Kilmer’s voice over and the car’s personality. Would you talk about that as far as KITT’s maturation?
Gary Scott Thompson: It’s not so much a teenager as that he’s actually learning. It’s a developmental process through the course of the first season. The idea is going from you know, as if a child would go from say sixth grade all the way through college.
So it’s the idea of training him and making him learn or having him learn.
(The two thing) – from the terrible teen years?
Gary Scott Thompson: Oh yeah, we’re – we’ve got some terrible teen going on right now in the Halloween episode.
Justin Bruening: Yeah.
Gary Scott Thompson: He’s a little defiant.
Justin what’s the – what’s your favorite bell or whistle on KITT?
Justin Bruening: Favorite bell or whistle on KITT?
Gary Scott Thompson: It’s actually the bells and whistles that are on KITT.
Justin Bruening: It is – as far as bells and whistles, that’s a hard one.
Deanna Russo: I think…
Justin Bruening: Well each week we have…
Gary Scott Thompson: There’s something new.
Justin Bruening: …you know, something new each week. You know, I fall in love with something and I get a new script, and there’s a new something. So I always – you know, there’s new little buttons to push and gadgets.
Deanna Russo: That’s not true. I’ll speak for Justin. KITT is this like – like this little like globe…
Justin Bruening: Orb…
Deanna Russo: …this orb thing that instead of the three lines, you know, lighting up and lighting down, it’s now three dimensional orbs and removable. So Justin likes to take it out in between scenes and just like play with it.
Justin Bruening: There.
Deanna, how much do you know about nanotechnology now?
Deanna Russo: More than I ever thought I would in my entire life. It’s – you know, it’s – what’s funny is I’d never heard of it before the pilot. Apparently it’s a real thing.
Actually, speaking of the nanotechnology Gary, how easy is it going to be to fit in new technology as you guys go because just a couple weeks ago they discovered invisibility or something, I was reading.
Gary Scott Thompson: Yes, they did. We’re on top of that. That’s actually in an episode.
Gary Scott Thompson: It’s sort of a cloaking device. It’s fairly easy because we have a super braniac in Deanna’s character who comes up with new technology and is able to program the car.
Deanna Russo: I say big words.
Gary Scott Thompson: Yes, really big words. I try to actually make up the words just to see if she can actually say them.
Deanna Russo: (Jerk).
I was wondering about practical effects versus CGI with the car. Are you going to be doing – I know you said green screen. What’s sort of effects will you be doing?
Justin Bruening: There is a lot of green screen, but there’s also a lot – we have a whole, you know, second unit that does…
Gary Scott Thompson: It’s a combination of both at this point. There’s, you know, real driving and then there’s – because the car is transforming, we need to do that CG. Also, it’s just not cost effective, nor can we close down freeways, to drive 300 miles an hour.
Trying to drive that fast in the state of California is a little prohibitive. So we have to do green screen for a lot of those shots. But we’re out doing stunts in highways that we can control. And so it is very much a combination of all of those.
Okay, and then as a follow-up to that, stunt driving has – for Justin and Deanna, have you guys had to do any stunt driving or have any training in that area?
Deanna Russo: Yes, and it was the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done. I still don’t know how they green lighted that idea.
Gary Scott Thompson: Justin hit a tree.
Justin Bruening: I did not hit a tree. KITT hit it. KITT hit the tree. I – yeah…
How often do you guys just crack up on set considering that you’re dealing with a talking car day in and day out?
Justin Bruening: No, our show is serious. What are you talking – no…
Deanna Russo: All the time.
Justin Bruening: All the time, especially when you add the green screen in with it. That’s a fun…
Is it bizarre? Is there somebody standing offline, obviously off to the side reading dialogue for the car because obviously Val Kilmer is coming in and doing it later, right?
Justin Bruening: No, KITT really talks.
Oh yeah, it’s a real good car.
Justin Bruening: Yeah, everything is real. We do, we have an interesting – a voice double for Val and his name is (John Berdell).
Deanna Russo: And he’s amazing.
Justin Bruening: Yeah.
Deanna Russo: He really helps us out. We couldn’t do what we do if it wasn’t for him.
Justin Bruening: You know, Gary had mentioned earlier about how, you know, KITT learns and having someone there that is a voice actor can always add those elements of what hemay be learning or may not be learning. And that really helps us react.
So clearly KITT is a wonderful part of this show. Can you guys just go back and tell me a little bit about maybe the coolest car that you’ve ever personally owned or, you know, whether or not you named your car back in the day, or anything like that?
Justin Bruening: I had a 1976 Chrysler Cordoba with maroon Corinthian leather.
Deanna Russo: What was its name?
Justin Bruening: It didn’t have a name.
Deanna Russo: Boring.
Justin Bruening: Well it’s a name that I can say and it was this piece of s…
Deanna Russo: Ah, the POS car.
Justin Bruening: It was a POS.
Deanna Russo: I had a 1992 Hyundai Excel. Everything was manual but the transmission. He was a little white piece of plastic and I called him Elroy.
Elroy, I like that. Gary?
Gary Scott Thompson: I had a 1958 GMC pickup that my grandfather gave me when I was 12 and there’s a long story attached to it, but that was probably my favorite.
As far as any like main people coming to the show, I know Hasselhoff was in the movie – is he coming back for any, you know, episodes or maybe William Daniels popping up somewhere, even though he wouldn’t be the voice of KITT?
Gary Scott Thompson: We haven’t spoken about William Daniels at this point. I have spoken to David and David and NBC, and myself, we’re discussing.
Justin and Deanna, there wasn’t a lot of time for a romance in the two-hour movie, so do – will there be more time for romance in the series?
Justin Bruening: Actually that’s kind of part of the story – is, you know, we have to save the world and there’s not a lot of time for that, but trying to fit that in, having a life and, you know, going on the missions and all of that.
That’s kind of where sometimes the humor comes in and, you know…
Deanna Russo: Sexual tension.
Justin Bruening: …and the sexual tension, and all of that.
But the two of you will still be each other’s love interest for the series?
Deanna Russo: Well it’s more of like the will they, won’t they kind of, you know, kind of storyline.
But they’re not going to be kind of like, you know, Mike finds, you know, the girl client of the week kind of thing, or he’d just be more interested in Sarah?
Deanna Russo: That’s what kind of keeps us apart is all these floozies that keep coming in.
Justin Bruening: Yeah, when you’re a spy you sometimes have to go under covers…
Deanna Russo: Sure, under covers.
Justin Bruening: Yeah.
Deanna Russo: Great.
Now with the series being changed around a little bit, is the family connection still going to be important with the father and all?
Justin Bruening: I believe it’s always there. Family is very important, you know. It’s – you know, I – we haven’t talked about it much, but I believe there’s times that we’re going to have to – you know, I may have to learn from the – my predecessor.
And definitely, you know, I know with, you know, Sarah’s character her family works there. So it’s – family is very important. And actually, the whole team is a family.
Deanna Russo: Yeah.
Justin Bruening: You know, we come to – as the series progresses, as you get to find out, you know, what each character means to each of us. And that’s – sorry, that’s – I mean, that’s the thing.
You know, like in the first episode my character, I think, really does realize that – who everyone means to him and there going to be – that’s his new family.
Justin, the movie touched on Michael’s background and that he was previously in the war. How has that shaped him into the guy he is today and what have you enjoyed about the way they have flushed that history out this season?
Justin Bruening: A lot of – you know, one of the new mythologies and one of the storylines to the series is actually Mike’s past. He was in war, but there’s also a – he doesn’t remember a few years of his life while he was in war.
There are things that come up from his past throughout the series, people that necessarily want to kill him or, you know, his loved ones. And that really, you know, that affects the missions. That affects the – everyone’s relationship with him.
And for him not to remember there’s things that he’s done that – you know, the things that he does remember are, you know, not good and the things that he doesn’t are probably far worse.
So there are – there’s a lot of more elements and it’s a really – you know, it makes the character a lot more complex. So…
Deanna, what role does Sarah play in Michael’s life and adventures? I mean, do you consider her his trusty sidekick or what makes her important – an important member of the team?
Deanna Russo: Well I mean, she’s definitely got mechanic tendencies and I think she’s just trying to prove herself as one of the boys. So she’s been trained to fight but, you know, winds up getting in trouble and has to be saved a couple times.
But then in turn, there’s a couple times when Mike gets in trouble and she has to save him. So it’s tit for tat, perhaps.
Do you enjoy kicking some ass, then?
Deanna Russo: Always, oh man, the best part of the job.
Gary Scott Thompson: She does it quite well.
Justin Bruening: Yes, all over me.
Justin, I wanted to ask you a little bit about working with Hasselhoff on the film and if you were intimidated at all. And what was that experience like for you?
Justin Bruening: Oh, the experience was great. We had – you know, I was a little intimidated at first. You know, he was my childhood hero as far as, you know, Knight Rider being my favorite show.
And so when he came to the set I was fine until we were in the middle of the scene and he introduced himself as Michael Knight. And then I kind of freaked out a little bit.
But other than that, I mean, it was a wonderful experience and, you know, it’s one of those that I get to tell my grandkids about.
Is there any pressure that you feel playing the son of Michael Knight?
Justin Bruening: You know…
Gary Scott Thompson: No.
Justin Bruening: …not at all.
Gary Scott Thompson: I told him he couldn’t have any pressure.
Justin Bruening: Yes, I’m not allowed to have pressure. I don’t have time.
Well that makes that easy, then.
Justin Bruening: Yeah.
Deanna, we know obviously that Justin, you know, was a big fan of the original series and of Hasselhoff, but what was your experience? Had you watched the series growing up at all or what was sort of your background coming into this?
Deanna Russo: Yeah, I’m a little sister of a big brother who dictated everything on television and Knight Rider was always on. That, and the A-Team, and Dukes of Hazzard I mean, all of it.
Deanna Russo: No, we didn’t watch (Air Wolf)…
Justin Bruening: Come on. You didn’t watch (Air Wolf)?
Gary, you wrote the first two Fast and the Furious films and I was wondering what, from that experience, do you bring to this show and what – if you could talk a little bit about your working relationship with Dave Bartis and Doug Lyman, and their involvement in the show on a day-to-day basis?
Gary Scott Thompson: The experiences from the Fast and the Furious was just drive fast and furious – a relentless pace and that there’s an audience out there for cars. We’re a huge car society, so people like to tune in for cars.
We try to remember that when we’re writing the episodes. And Doug and Dave, my relationship with them is they’re Exec Producers. I’m an Exec Producer and the show runner. So we communicate on all facets of the production from scripts through cuts.
Gary, I was just wondering what was the decision behind scheduling the premiere online a week earlier than television?
Gary Scott Thompson: I’ll be very honest with you, I didn’t know anything about that until someone told me.
Gary Scott Thompson: So yeah, I just found out about that a few days ago. I still don’t have official word from NBC on that, so I have no clue.
Okay, I was just curious because it’s all over the Net by the way.
Gary Scott Thompson: Yeah, that’s how I found out.
Justin and Deanna, you both have done some time in the daytime world. How do you think that world prepares you for really anything else outside the soap world?
Deanna Russo: Well the – I mean, the pace of the show is much more intense than anything else out there, so it’s an entirely different animal than primetime. I mean, we go through like 70 to 90 pages a day for daytime and for primetime, you know, people complain if we’ve got 9 pages.
Justin Bruening: And yeah, I mean, one thing – it just prepared us, I think, you know, a little more as actors in general and I’m saying that is like finding your camera, you know, learning how to be comfortable in front of a camera because you don’t have time to think about it.
So now it’s actually refreshing to have more time to be in a scene and make it deeper, and make it more complex instead of, you know, having to rush through it.
Deanna Russo: Because that like challenges your instincts.
Justin Bruening: Yes.
Interview By: Emma Loggins