From Casey McCall on "Sports Night" to Nate Fisher on "Six Feet Under," Peter Krause tends to play the everyman. In his new film, Civic Duty, Krause turns that everyman identity on its head as Terry Allen, who starts out as an Average Joe in a media-saturated world and eventually turns into a paranoid vigilante after becoming convinced that his young Muslim neighbor is a terrorist. The film — which is both a tense thriller and a political statement about prejudice and paranoia — opens in limited release today.
I recently sat down with Krause to talk about the film — which he also produced — and its message, life outside of Hollywood, and why he almost said no to his new TV pilot. In person, Krause is fiercely intelligent, quietly thoughtful, and refreshingly unafraid to express his political opinions. Here's how our conversation went:
I didn't realize you lived in the Bay Area. What's it like being away from the LA crush?
I should have done it long ago. I really love what I do. I love being on a sound stage. I even love the city of Los Angeles. But in terms of a home, I'm much more comfortable in a rural setting. I know I'm sitting here in a suit right now, but I'm usually wearing a pair of bib overalls and a hat to keep the sun off my face.
So, about Civic Duty. Almost six years past 9/11, do you think there are still people like Terry? Or do you think we've turned off the media more and become desensitized?
I think that it's exhausting, obviously, to stay in a heightened state of panic. I'm not sure that it's anything except a function of nature, that it's the way we are as animals that we can only remain that vigilant for so long before we start to go crazy or batty. I think we also have a built-in mechanism — nobody wants to live in that world. Nobody wants to live in paranoia, they really don't. I do think that there are fewer people out there who are this afraid. I don't know if it's becoming desensitized or if it's just because of a lack of terrorist activity that that sense of paranoia is diminished.
Lots more about Civic Duty, his acting roles and his upcoming projects, so read more
I read that when you became involved in the project you changed Terry a little bit.
I did, along with [director] Jeff Renfroe and the blessing of the writer, Andrew Joiner. He understood what I was trying to do by bringing Terry to the middle and making him a member of the silent majority rather than being conservative. We weren't going to alienate anyone by having conservative people feel like they were being made fun of or let liberal people off the hook, let them lean back and say, "Oh, this crazy conservative." Because the truth is, we were all very paranoid for good reason after September 11.
What drew you to the project?
I didn't feel at the time — we made this almost two years ago — that there had been enough response from the artistic community about what was happening now in our world. Also, there was no real response from the artistic community about what was happening to the mental landscape of your average American. It was an incredibly frightening time immediately following September 11. The media kept reflecting our fears, saying there could be thousands of these terrorist cells, there could be thousands of these terrorists here in the country. I think that our worst fears were being reflected back to us — orange alerts and red alerts. The flames of fear were definitely being fanned by the media, by the government, and we became a paranoid nation.
You play really interesting, complex characters. When parts come your way, are there things you look for?
I don't like to be bored, so that's part of it. When I read something and I'm not into the story, or the character's not — there's not something there that I'm like "What? What's going on here?" — then I don't tend to gravitate toward it. There was a miniseries I just did for the Sci Fi Channel called "The Lost Room," which was really a refreshing change for me. I got to play a classic hero who knew right from wrong and was very uncomplicated. His daughter gets lost in another dimension, and he's got to get her back. It was that simple, and I understood when I did that how I could get sucked into playing those sorts of roles, because it's psychologically very easy. It's healthy. It feels good to know right from wrong and to get the job done. It's so unlike life.
I haven't said that before, but it's very true. It's true about the movies. The movies that do really well are the movies that are so unlike life, where characters know right from wrong and they get the job done. That definitely is a part of life — we want our heroic ideals, and we want to strive for them. But real life is a lot more messy and complicated. Civic Duty is in the spirit of that attitude. It's not a simple look at the world, and it's definitely an extreme look at the possible output of paranoia and the possible output of a government that hasn't taken very good care of its people.
Is Civic Duty the first truly political thing that you've done?
Were you nervous about doing that at all?
I guess at the time I was, and now I feel less nervous about it. The film is really a jumping-off place for conversation, for talk, for communication. There are things that I think the majority don't know. I don't think the majority know that they don't get to vote on foreign policy, that they get to vote on elected officials who then get to represent them to other countries without much of their say. If we want to be a different country we have to step forward and be a different country.
I wanted to ask about your new TV pilot ["Dirty Sexy Money," which is being developed for ABC]. I thought it was funny, as a "Six Feet Under" fan, that you were once again playing a guy who took over his dad's business.
Yeah, that was one reason I almost didn't do it. But Craig Wright, who wrote it, was a writer on "Six Feet Under," and he had a long talk with me about what "Dirty Sexy Money" is and what "Six Feet Under" was and what similarities they share and how they're different. If it goes, it will be a very different show. It will have a lot more comedy than "Six Feet Under," but it will also examine some of the more wobbly things in the world — greed, division between rich and poor, that sort of thing. But a laugh a minute!