Jake Robinson
Jake Robinson (center) stars as Harrison Walters in NBC' "American Odyssey." (Virginia Sherwood/NBC)

Jake Robinson takes action in ‘American Odyssey’

Jake Robinson doesn’t believe everything he reads on the Internet, and the “American Odyssey” star doesn’t think U.S. citizens should, either.

“I think if we have an active population and a free-thinking population, then we have a better country,” the Cincinnati-area native told me during a recent interview with reporters.

Robinson stars as political activist Harrison Walters in the NBC thriller airing at 9 p.m. Sundays. The series follows one giant conspiracy as seen through the eyes of three major players—Harrison, U.S. Army Sgt. Odelle Ballard (Anna Friel) and former U.S. Attorney Peter Decker (Peter Facinelli).

[Spoilers ahead if you haven’t watched to Sunday’s episode, titled “Drop King.”]

  • Harrison believes a hacker, Bob Offer (Nate Mooney), who claims to have discovered that the military is lying when it reports that Ballard was killed during a mission in Mali.
  • Ballard, now running for her life in Africa, and her task force stumbled upon proof that a U.S. company, Simon-Watchel, secretly has been funding Islamist terror groups. The company hired a private military contractor to kill Ballard’s team when they uncovered the truth.
  • Meanwhile, Decker unearths the massive government-business coverup while working for Simon-Watchel.

Whew! That’s a lot of conspiracy from creators Adam Armus, Nora Kay Foster and Peter Horton.

No surprise, then, that playing Harrison has opened Robinson’s eyes about what the media reports and what the government tells its citizens. The 24-year-old may not be a full-fledged conspiracy theorist but, Robinson said, he does question information more than he did. He hopes “American Odyssey” gets viewers to do the same.

“I see it already on social media and across the board; people are like, ‘My gosh, is this actually happening? Is this what’s going on? Is our government doing these things?’ ” he said. “That’s what’s exciting about being on the show to me.”

That, and dramatic plot lines in which Harrison’s journalist dad, whom Harrison asks to investigate the coverup, gets gunned down by Simon-Watchel’s thugs.

The guilt Harrison feels about his dad’s murder “absolutely” propels the activist forward, Robinson said. Always the activist, the kid won’t be sitting this one out.

“I think that it’s a definite driving force and I think, more importantly, he really turns it around for himself and uses it as a way to really go after the truth,” Robinson said.

The actor, who played Bennet Wilcox on “The Carrie Diaries,” talked more about questioning the media, Midwestern values and his love for the New York City subway.

Jake Robinson
Jake Robinson in “American Odyssey”
Were you much of a conspiracy theorist before playing Harrison and the experience changed your attitude?

Jake Robinson: Great question. Absolutely. I think initially I was a pretty straight-laced, like, “This is how they’re reporting it and this is how it must be.” …

After doing the show and doing research and reading various books and kind of delving into things more, I think I’ve definitely gone out and started to question what’s right and what’s true and what’s actually going on and really trying to research and find answers for myself, which I think is what Harrison is also doing in “American Odyssey.”

I think there are certain conspiracies that are way further out there than others.

Do you think that’s a good thing to be questioning what we’re told?

I think we have to exercise our rights, whether you’re a political activist, whether you’re protesting, whether it’s something as simple as the right to vote—which so many people don’t. Hopefully this gets people active.

Do you think social media changed the way that everybody looks at news and conspiracies versus how they used to?

I think there’s a good and a bad side to it. I think the good side to it is that people are generally more aware of what’s happening on a consistent basis.

I think the bad side to it is it’s not necessary. There are a lot more sources out there so it’s hard to really know who you’re trusting or who’s putting false information or good information out there.

I think the other bad thing about it is that social media allows people to hide behind the platform or the Internet, and they really don’t have to have a face-to-face interaction. There’s something to be said for being somewhere face to face with people and telling them what you believe and think versus writing whatever—a tweet—and saying, “I can’t believe this is happening.”

I do think it’s good that it’s getting more news stories and causing discussion among people. I think that we also do have to be very careful though about what the cost is of spreading that information out there without really knowing what’s going on.

What was it not only about your character but the show as a whole that drew you to this role?

The initial script was … so edge-of-your-seat. I think it told this story before. I was on the subway and I was reading the pilot script trying to decide whether I wanted to audition for it or not. And I missed my train stop home because I was so engaged with what was going on and I just loved the idea.

I love the conspiracy aspect of it. I love the thriller aspect, and it was incredibly relevant to what was going on as well with the political activist role and being in his 20s and struggling with a lot of things that I felt like I was searching for in my own life at the time.

So it was a natural fit and it was really exciting. I could tell it was going to be something big in the way it was filmed and it was going to be epic. It really came through on that at the shoot itself. It didn’t really feel like a typical television shoot. It felt more like we were shooting this giant epic movie over four months.

Were you privy to the entirety of the first season story before you took the role, or did you have only the first couple scripts with the info and then you learned how it unfolded as shooting progressed?

Initially when I took the role I only had the pilot script, which was fantastic. There are a couple other things that I was being considered for at the time and it was just heads and shoulders by far the best script that I read. And then what was rare about the show was all the ideas were in place before we started shooting the pilot.

So I did know the beginning and the end how to form my character before we began treating for the pilot, which was great. I knew where I was going with a clear head and [I was] able to do research that was relevant and not really waste my time or waste other people’s time about what was important and what was necessary for the character.

With the story’s similarities to the what happened with the Blackwater Agency [a private security firm hired by the U.S. military to work in world hot zones], there’s the option where it could be the private military thing is indicted or one bad apple within a unit could be singled out. Did you know ahead of time how that would shake out?

As far as the Blackwater connection and that sort of thing, it’s one of those things where the idea was thought of three years ago for … what “American Odyssey” was going to be.

So it’s really interesting how things have played out globally, whether it’s the Greek finance problem with the Greek elections washing away, deciding whether just to default on all the debt and clear out of the Euro, or Blackwater.

Today I think there’s an article talking about it in the New York Times. … The Blackwater private military contractors have gotten charged with killing civilians in Afghanistan. And I think it was a seven-year turnaround before you saw any sort of justice on what they’d done, which is absolutely horrific.

Even now there are more complications because they’re working for the State Department; they might get out of it. So they’re going to appeal. It’s kind of incredible that this was thought of three years beforehand, this stuff had just started happening and now things have really blown up. And I think there’s much more news and awareness of it for the general population.

American Odyssey
U.S. Sgt. Odelle Ballard (Anna Friel) is taken captive in North Africa. (Keith Bernstein/NBC)
I don’t know if I’d say Bob betrayed you, but he definitely let you down concerning the email from Odelle. What are your character’s next steps?

The biggest change in what happens in the occupy movement in the G8 protest and that sort of thing kind of gets left behind a little bit and it becomes much more of a personal journey for him, where there’s things that are affecting his personal life, affecting his family as he delves deeper into this, and it definitely has a more personal note for him and the things that are happening around him.

That incites him even more to go after it, to uncover what’s going on, to figure out why these people are doing this, and where Odelle is and what’s going to happen to her and how it can get that out there, and that ties in with some familial stuff … I think Episode 11 it finally gets resolved for him and then there’s more stuff that happens.

What would you say sets ‘American Odyssey’ apart from all the other political dramas currently on air?

I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s a political drama. It’s a human drama. It’s about three fairly normal individuals. It’s not about a president. It’s not about a congressman. It’s not about the White House. It’s about us as citizens in the United States and how when something’s going horribly wrong and we’ve realized it, how can we make a difference? And it’s told from three different perspectives, which I think is unique to the show.

It also makes you sit down and have to really pay attention to it because there’s a lot of stuff going on throughout every episode and I think that’s the main difference, is that it really is a human story and heartfelt. Whether it’s about [Odelle’s] family, and you get introduced to my mother and my father—[it shows] how it’s affecting everyone’s home life. … It’s more about how these people are struggling in their lives to make decisions and go after what they want.

I’m glad to hear that you character makes it to Episode 11 because I’m definitely worried about him in particular getting knocked off.

Me too.

With that in mind, can you tell us if there’s a possibility of additional seasons of this show with these same set of characters or is it set up to mostly be a one-and-done type series?

The end is definitely a cliffhanger and it’s a big cliffhanger. The final episode has a lot of stuff in it that’s left unresolved. Certain major things get resolved, but I think the majority of the story continues and I think it’s definitely set up to be a multiple-season show and hopefully people tune in and the network decides that it’s worth keeping on its schedule. I know I’m certainly incredibly proud of it and I think it tells a very relevant and important story.

Have you become particularly close friends with the cast?

Yes, absolutely. For better or for worse I conduct myself on set in a very personable way. I’m not standoffish and I try to have dinner and lunch with the crew and the camera crew and the grips and everyone.

So our set was definitely a big community and I came into it with the attitude that I was going to be a lead on a TV series and that people look up to you and look at you as an example of how to act on set. And my goal was obviously to create a TV show, but also make it a home because you’re there 12 to 16 hours a day with everyone and you spend a lot of time together, so what’s the point of keeping everything impersonal?

Peter Facinelli and I became good friends. We talk. Nate Mooney, who plays Bob Offer, I stayed at his house out in L.A. Daniella Pineda and I still have conversations. She plays Ruby. And Anna Friel and I, we email and call about once a week just to talk about everything. So I’d say we’re a really tight cast even though the stories are so separate.

I love that you’ve held on to your Midwestern values, Jake Robinson.

Thank you. I’m a Cincinnati boy, all boys Catholic high school, Catholic grade school. I truly grew up in a Midwestern tradition and I worked on a farm all my life since I was little. So here I am in the big city caught up in a giant conspiracy thriller on national television.

I was struck by something you said about riding the train and reading your script. Are you still able to do that without being bothered or noticed?

I am. I’m a true New York subway rider. For me, honestly, I was out in L.A. last week and I was like, “I don’t know how I would’ve ever started an acting career [here].” I spend all my time on the train sitting and memorizing my audition lines. If I was in a car driving before the audition, I would’ve been totally screwed.

The train is my zone. I go down there and I unplug for however long it is and I sit down and read my scripts or work on something. I think, hopefully, I’ll always take the subway.

And you know the thing about New York, there are movie and TV stars everywhere, so it’s like you walk down the street and run into Louis CK or whoever. It happens all the time, so I think New Yorkers, it’s a thing of pride for them. They’re like, “Yes, whatever. Angelina Jolie is on the subway. That’s fine, no problem. We’re in New York.”

The show doesn’t feel like your typical network show. Do you think that it’s something that will change the way the network does television?

That’s a really great question and a tricky question. I definitely think that it doesn’t feel like a typical network show. I think there are great things about that and I think it was incredibly brave for Bob [Greenblatt] and Jennifer Salke … and everyone who was involved in this, to NBC and Universal, to put this on the air. I think it was a brave choice.

Now the question is in the payoff. While we’re incredibly fortunate to tell this story and to do something that’s pushing the envelope for network television, the bottom line is NBC is a business and people often make money off it at some point. That’s the nitty-gritty.

Everyone creatively is in it to tell a good story. But at the end of the day, if it doesn’t produce good numbers, if people aren’t tuning in and people aren’t watching, then you might not see this kind of television on the network, which is a shame. So hopefully they stick with it for a while and continue to give us the benefit of the doubt about what we’re doing.

Optimistically speaking, is there any direction or storyline you’d like to see your character go into in Season 2?

I know where it ends in this season, so honestly I have no idea as to how he gets out of the hole that he’s in at season’s end. It’s rough. It’s rough where he ends the season.

Optimistically, I’d love to see him—I can’t. I can’t answer that because I was so pleased with the way that his story unfolded throughout the first season that if they’re doing anything like what they’re doing in the first season then I’ll be over the moon about it.

What’s been the hardest part about filming such an epic production?

The hardest part about filming this production was how emotionally involving the entire story was. It wasn’t a project that you could show up to and go through the paces. It demanded so much of you everyday emotionally, physically, whether we were shooting outside in the cold or whether we were running around, whether it was experiencing your lowest of lows versus experiencing highest of the highs.

Across the board it was just an incredibly soul-searching and really emotionally challenging production to work on. And it was a blessing absolutely for me, because I definitely pushed myself in ways that I didn’t really imagine I could. I went to places that I didn’t really think were accessible to me. So that was exciting and nerve wracking as an actor.