Billy Burke has played a role or 20 over the years on TV, so the early success of CBS’ Fire Country — this fall’s most watched, top-rated new series — came as no surprise to him.
Ahead of the freshman drama’s fourth episode (airing this Friday at 9/8c), TVLine spoke with Burke about what sparked his interest in playing fire chief Vince Leone, the Jake/Riley bombshell that just got dropped, the show’s prickly father/son dynamic and, for good measure, several of his past TV roles — including the one he simply didn’t get enough of.
Tell me a bit about what you filmed today (Wednesday) at Fire Country.
Well, I had the day off today. But the day before yesterday, we just wrapped Episode 9, and…. Well, what do you want to know?
Was there fire involved?
[Chuckles] There was a bit of fire, yes. But the fire is not the main enemy. We’re on a search-and-rescue mission for some core characters.
You’ve been in the business a minute. Why do you think Fire Country struck a chord and opened as well as it did?
I don’t want to say it’s a “no brainer,” because there are no “no brainers” when it comes to TV anymore, as we all know. But it is one of those shows that’s got all the elements of what people watch TV dramas for. And that is relationships, family, involvement in whatever that family does…. A good, competent mixture of all those things always leads to good entertainment, and I think this show does that really well.
And what about the role of Vince interested you?
First and foremost, I love this world. When they sent it to me, I thought, “Wow, how come nobody’s done this show before?” It was ripe for the picking, so that was my first reaction. And then it appeared to me that this was a guy who was going to have a lot on his plate and a lot to deal with throughout any given season, no matter what’s going on. I mean, there’s so much history between not only him and his son, but he and his wife have a very long and steady and strong but complicated relationship. Vince has also suffered a lot of loss, yet he’s got to keep everything together and pretty much be the patriarch of not only his family, but kind of the whole town, too. And there was nothing not attractive about that.
What is Vince going to do with what just learned from Bode about Jake’s past relationship with Riley? TVLine just got in a sneak peek involving a sparring session, but I haven’t yet seen how it plays out.
When he first learns about [Jake and Riley], obviously he feels betrayed because Jake was and has been and remains, essentially, a surrogate son to him. When [Bode] disappeared, Jake was there and Jake sort of filled that void that Vince thought his son would be filling — bringing him up to the firehouse and being a legacy. He’s hurt by it, but he’s nothing if not rationale, most of the time, so he’s going to try and work his way through it the best he can.
I appreciated last week how Vince kind of fumbled whatever he was aiming for with Bode there. He seemed to be trying for a sort of truce or apology, or a sort of make-good, but….
Yeah, it’s going to happen in waves just like all things do, even in romantic relationships. I always go back to the reference that they made on Seinfeld a long time ago, about how you’ve got to rock the Coke machine back and forth before it tips over. We’re going to go through quite a bit before there’s any semblance of stable ground between Vince and Bode.
It was interesting to learn that it was the path Bode chose that really hurt Vince, more than anything having to do with Riley’s death and the circumstances.
Yeah, to Vince that appeared to be a sudden abandonment of everything. OK, so [Bode] made a big mistake, but then he turned that big mistake into five more huge mistakes that changed everything. But that is sometimes what people do when they feel hopeless.
Are you and Max [Thieriot] having fun chipping away at this dynamic? (Fire Country is inspired by series star and co-creator Thieriot’s experiences growing up in Northern California.)
Oh my god, I love that kid. Yeah, we’re having a great time. I mean, he’s just a dear man and he really cares about this story and all its components. He’s just so invested in it, and it bleeds out into everything he does and everything we do on set. We couldn’t have asked for a better guy to come and work with.
Are there any details about the family’s past that we’ve yet to learn, anything that might shock us?
I believe it’s Episode 8 where we have some flashback experiences into what that actual event and night was actually like. That’s a good tease, right?
I do like the flashbacks — especially how they try to tuck back Max’s hair so it doesn’t look so shaggy.
You got a pretty great TV wife there in Diane Farr. Remind me, had your paths ever crossed before?
No, and when we got here, we both couldn’t believe that either, because we’ve both been hanging around in this business for quite a while. But here again, with her, she just makes it so easy. I mean, it’s great to have somebody like her who, yeah, she’s got her own process and I have my own sort of non-process, but they kind of gel together really well. She likes to say that we “bargain” about scenes and moments, but I don’t really do that much bargaining. I’m just like, if she’s got an idea and we both dig it, I go with it, and she does the same.
I was going through the new episodic photos and I saw that Michael Trucco (Battlestar Galactica) will be playing your brother (in the Nov. 4 episode).
I’d never met him before either, and we couldn’t believe that, but yeah — great, great guy. He really fit in well to the entire system and family. Right away, he got what we were doing, cares a lot about it…. He’s just a pleasure.
Do the brothers get along?
Not necessarily! There’s some history there, too. Some of it goes back to the night of [Riley’s death], but some of it dates before that. There are some perhaps-titillating, surprising elements to their relationship… but that’s as much as I’ll tease.
What does Billy Burke typically get flagged down on the street for? What are people coming up to you saying? “Hey, you’re the guy from….!”
It always depends on what my facial hair situation is when I’m out there in the world, which I’m not very often. But the Twilight references have been pretty steady and constant since those movies.
Oh, OK. I’ve actually never seen those.
Well, you’re a TV guy, after all.
Give me a fun anecdote about one of your very first roles, as a Deep Space Nine Cardassian soldier.
I think that was whatever year I moved to Hollywood; I came down kind of late. I had done a couple of indie films up in Washington, which is where I’m from, but yeah, Star Trek was, I think, my very first gig. It may have been one scene, it may have been two, but I just remember going, “This is so foreign to me, this style of what they’re doing.” Star Trek, that show anyway, felt to me almost pseudo-Shakespearian, and I am a bit of a naturalist, so it was a challenge for me. Not only that, I remember the makeup being probably five hours applying, and five hours taking it off.
I was going to say, those were the early days of prosthetics, so it had to be a process.
Yeah, it was a big deal. And I don’t remember where I went from there, but I’m pretty sure that was my very first gig. (Watch the Season 3 episode “Second Skin” on Paramount+.)
Out of all your TV roles, was Phillip Stroh (The Closer, Major Crimes) the most deplorable character? Or was there possibly someone slightly worse out there?
Yeah, he was; for TV, absolutely. What I did a couple years back on 9-1-1: Lone Star, that guy kind of walked the line of being despicable but forgivable; you could never really figure out if you liked this guy or is he just an absolute f–khead.
And which of your characters would you say was the most cool, like the other side of the pillow?
On TV? Oh, man…. Matt, that’s a really hard question.
Miles Matheson (from NBC’s Revolution)?
No, Miles is super complicated, because he was in a spot he didn’t want to be in. He was pulled into this living condition and war that he really wanted no part of. In the end, he did seem to handle himself in a way that might have seemed quote-unquote “cool,” but he was never cool with it.
Which past TV role do you most wish you could have played for one more season?
That one [Miles]. We felt like we were kind of just getting started on Revolution, and when we got notified of the cancellation, it was really abrupt for everyone. At least one more season would’ve given us a chance to tie up all the loose ends, or not tie them up, but give the show and all the characters a sendoff that they deserved.
Lastly, speaking of “one more season,” what would Zoo Season 4 have looked like?
Again, that one ended kind of abruptly, too.
Mitch & Co. had just smashed the jet into the barrier wall, letting all of the CGI hybrids run loose.
Season 4 would have been, yes, hybrids running around, but that show probably would’ve become a hybrid in and of itself. It would’ve been just absolutely out there….
You had a lot of fun on Zoo, you always told me.
I had so much fun on it, and I was always pushing for and leaning towards, like, “Let’s be in on the joke of how ridiculous this is.” Let’s be that, and the audience will come with us.
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