Fans of CBS’ resurrected cop show Unforgettable, which returns tonight at 9 p.m. ET for a second season, will notice a few changes: Det. Carrie Wells (Poppy Montgomery), her perfect memory, and her ex-boyfriend/current partner Al Burns (Nip/Tuck‘s Dylan Walsh) are being poached by the Major Crimes Section of the NYPD. (Acerbic medical examiner Joanne Webster, played by Jane Curtin, also makes the move, at Carrie’s insistence.) Their new technologically superior office will be in Manhattan, not Queens, and their boss is now the ambitious Eliot Delson, played by new series regular Dallas Roberts, best known as The Walking Dead‘s Milton and The Good Wife‘s Owen, and Rubicon‘s Miles Fiedler.
Roberts stopped by EW to chat about his new role and, since he’s joining a New York-set procedural, get quizzed on his five different guest appearances across the Law & Order franchise. He also shares the story of the fan first that happened to him on the walk to our office, along with his memory of writing a fan letter to Paul Reubens (a.k.a. Pee-wee Herman) when he was a teen and Reubens phoning him.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did this role on Unforgettable come to you?
DALLAS ROBERTS: They called. It was a phone call that said, “We’d like you to join us for season 2.” I’m not used to that kind of phone call. I’m used to, like, “Would you like to see if we want you to be there by coming in and doing a monkey dance for us?” [Laughs] I was obviously thrilled. The fact that they’re shooting in New York. The fact that he’s the boss, a guy with some power — I haven’t played one of those in a while. And the notion of being on a cop show was appealing, just because it’s one of those tick boxes in a career. But this one, in particular, is fun in that Carrie has this superpower, basically, and so as an audience member you watch exactly what she watches, and you’re given the opportunity to solve the case yourself, but you won’t remember the way she does. Every week, you can try to beat her, but you won’t. Try again next week. [Laughs]
Do you get to quirk up Eliot?
I try my damnedest to quirk up anything that I’m in. It could have very easily been the gruff police sergeant role. Like, “Oh, you’re driving me crazy, you two.” I try to just immediately take it as far away from that as I could. I’m hitting the rails a little bit. Sometimes they just need a gruff, blackguard sort of guy to lay down the law. But I’m trying to find interesting ways to have that happen.
Is he largely office-bound, or will we see him out and about?
He tends to be in the office. He does come out, from time to time. It’s usually not good news if he’s out of his lair. But he’s connected. I’m sure that in the times that we’re not seeing him, he’s off making power deals with the rest of New York City. … If this thing goes forever, I could see in, like, season 8, he’s running for mayor. He’s got those kind of political aspirations, I bet.
Speaking of New York City, I was looking at your IMDb page, and you have an interesting history with the Law & Order franchise.
Yeah. What’s funny is I think I did three of the mothership, the original Law & Order, and I did one each of Special Victims Unit and Criminal Intent. So I managed to pull the trifecta before it all imploded. In the acting community in New York we call Law & Order grad school, because everyone eventually does a Law & Order. My first one was in 1995, which was a year after I got out of school. Matthew Blanchard was the character’s name.
I wrote these down. I’m fact-checking you. Correct. Continue.
His sister was killed. Sam Waterston broke him. [Laughs]
In 2001, you played Mark Daltrey.
Hmmm… Nope. I don’t remember Mark Daltrey. [Laughs]
In 2009, you were Marty Winston.
Yes! Marty Winston, I think, was a bad lawyer. He was a lawyer for people bringing class action suits against airplanes that had crashed.
How did that work — three different guest spots over 14 years?
There is a statute of limitations. If you’re on it, you can’t be on it again for, I think it’s two years, unless you’re playing the same character. I never got a judge or lawyer or anything that would allow for more than that. I would just pop up as “bad guy” or “suspected bad guy.” Oh, that’s why I don’t remember the second one! Because the first one, I was the guy you thought did it right until the end, and then it was another guy. And then the second one, they found a dead girl, and on her phone is my number. They show up at my house, and I go, “Oh no, man, she called, but she never showed up.” Dun Dun. [Laughs] That was it.
On Law & Order: SVU in 2004, you played Thomas Mathers.
He was a self-loathing homosexual who raped women to make him not feel gay. Yeah, that was a stretch. The trivia about that is that I had my first son — I didn’t, my wife did, but I was standing right there — at, like, 8 o’clock in the morning, and the next morning, I was shooting that episode of Special Victims Unit with my hospital band taped up inside of my shirt so that I could get back in to the hospital. “I’ll be right back. You guys are beautiful!” [Laughs]
And on Law & Order: Criminal Intent in 2010, you were Dr. Abel Hazard.
[Laughs] It was Jeff Goldblum’s season, and Jeff Goldblum was exactly who I needed him to be, which was Jeff Goldblum 24-7. It’s impossible to convey in print, but he would just be talking about, like, his house. “I’m putting new shingles on the roof.” But he’s talking about it with his eyes. [Roberts’ eyes dart back and forth, looking into the distance, as he repeats “I’m putting new shingles on the roof.”] And he’s just finding it all out there. I was like [looks into the distance], “How are you doing that?” And then I said, “Have you ever seen Drunk Jeff Goldblum?” There’s that thing where they slow down the Apple ad. And he had not seen it. [Laughs] So I showed Jeff Goldblum Drunk Jeff Goldblum on my phone. But I played a scientist who was testing selfishness versus selflessness. The way he chose to test that was to kidnap couples, knock them out, and then have them awake bound in two chairs. One of them had a gun pointed at the other one, and at the end of an hour, that gun was gonna go off unless that person decided to kill themselves. So again, just a regular sort of guy from the suburbs. Not at all a weird situation. [Laughs]
Are you going to see crimes like that on Unforgettable?
What’s cool about this season of Unforgettable is that they’ve opened the scope of their storytelling to a broader range of topics. So they are like little movies. You can have the thriller in one, and you can have the helicopter in the other, and the bank heist, and the sniper, and the car chase, and the Die Hard. You can pack them in, in these sort of high-concept cool ways. I was joking with one of the writers that I, for no reason, just wanted one of my entrances to be by helicopter. Just land, and have me step out and start the scene and not explain it at all. They said, “That would be great. I’ll pitch that.” And I was like, “Yeah, that $100,000 scene. Just run that upstairs.”
Also noteworthy: Your first TV job ever was a guest spot on New York Undercover in 1994. IMDb simply IDs the character as “Larry.”
Yes. In fact, when I was on The Walking Dead this past season, [the character] Tyreese came in, and Tyreese is played by a guy named Chad Coleman, who most people know from The Wire; he played Cutty on The Wire. I saw him, but I was like, “Holy sh-t, dude, you were on New York Undercover with me!” I played the friend of the guy who died. The episode opens, and we’re in a club that’s sort of bangin’, and the friend gets in a fight with Chad, so they were throwing each other around the place. That was a crazy one. I think I delivered the line, “I’m not an addict, man. I just smoked some reefer and did a bit of heroin.” Which I thought was quite a jump. [Laughs] “I just smoke some reefer, and then I did a bit of heroin. You know, the way you do.”
Will we see you return to The Good Wife this season?
If CBS can see its way to loan me to CBS [Laughs], I hope that’ll continue. That’s certainly one of my proudest jobs.
When we left off, Owen, Alicia’s brother, was now pro-Peter. Did that switch surprise you?
It did. I read the script, and I was like, “What happened?” But then I figured he’s less pro-Peter and more pro-Alicia, and that seemed to be what was gonna make her happy. I know it’s driving you crazy, mom. I know it’s driving you crazy, Will. But she’s got to go make herself happy because she doesn’t spend enough time doing that.
What do fans say when they approach you?
I was saying this earlier, no one kinda likes The Walking Dead. Everyone LOVES The Walking Dead. Or they can’t watch it because it’s too scary. Or they hate it. Or they’ve never seen it. No one’s just like, “Nah, it’s pretty good.” It’s happening more so since The Walking Dead, but on the way here, I was walking and someone went, “Dallas!” with such authority, that I went, “Ohmygod, you look amazing! How are you?” But it was just someone who recognized me. I’m not used to it. I’m bad with people’s names, so I was just trying to fake my way through that first bit, like you do at a party. And then eventually, when she was like, “You’re amazing. And you killed Andrea. And can you sign this?” I was like, “Oh, wow. Sorry about the whole pretending to know you thing. I was completely fake in that moment. I do not reflect well on the acting culture at all.” [Laughs]
Do you get fan mail?
It’s a trickle right now, but if people have been able to find my representation, I sign all the pictures, and I put them back in the envelopes. Because when I was a kid, I sent letters to people, and it was amazing when I got stuff back. I was a crazy Pee-wee Herman fan when I was in my early teens. Before he had the kids’ TV show, he had a nightclub show in L.A., and I had gotten a VHS copy of it. It was a kids’ show, but onstage in a bar, so it’s sort of poking fun at the kids’ show. And I was obsessed with that, and then Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. So I wrote him a letter, and I called his production company and left a message. And then, two and a half weeks later, I was completely sick and laying in bed. I think I was 15, and my dad came in with the phone and went, “Hold on, he’s right here. [Whispers] It’s Paul Reubens.” I think the reason he called maybe was that I lived in the same town that his parents lived. So I think he thought maybe he should know me because I was coming from Sarasota. But that was one of the most thrilling five minutes of my life. Once he realized that I was just this kid fan, he was really sweet and amazing.
Have you ever met him and told him that story?
I haven’t yet. But believe me, I will.