Mark Pellegrino plays the bad guy you hate to love so well that you have to wonder how much of his personality seeps into the many characters he’s played.
We had the chance to find out, as we interviewed Pellegrino in conjunction with the release of American Rust on Showtime.
If you read my review of American Rust, you know that it takes place in a small, fictional town in Western Pennsylvania, which has fallen onto hard times in light of a mill closure.
Pellegrino plays Virgil Poe, the town lothario and husband to Maura Tierney’s Grace, who is beginning a relationship with Jeff Daniels’ police chief, Del Harris.
Virgil and Grace share a son, Billy, whose actions are at the center of the drama, making Virgil a key character in the series. As anyone would want to do with Pellegrino, he told me that Virgil was given a lot more heft in the series than he had in the novel by Philipp Meyer, on which it is based.
Of the role, Pellegrino’s previous work with the showrunner, Dan Futterman, in several projects, including Capote. Futterman was the lead in a project in the early 90s titled Class of ’61 about West Point at the beginning of the Civil War. That never saw the light of day but launched many careers, including Futterman, Pellegrino, Andre Braugher, Clive Owen, and Josh Lucas.
“I mean, so many great people were in it,” Pellegrino said. “And Janusz Kaminski, it was the first time he was the director of photography for Spielberg, and of course, he won the Academy Award later for Schindler’s List.”
Futterman and Pellegrino have worked together since, and Pellegrino said, “I go all the way back to those roots with him. So maybe he had me in mind from those two projects when he read American Rust and saw Virgil Poe and said, ‘I know a guy like this.'”
He’s thrilled that his Virgil has more substance than the novel’s Virgil. “They’re deepening him a bit. In the book, he’s sort of the way an absentee father is — absentee. He just sort of flips in and out from time to time, and there’s no real substance from my sense of the Virgil Poe in the book.
“Really, the action focuses on the other main characters, but in American Rust, he’s quite a bit more developed, and he might come off, I think, for a while as the Buell Lothario. But I think there’s other stuff going on. It’s a more complicated character than just a deadbeat dad. Man-children are more complicated than we give them credit for.”
Virgil offers the story a much-needed sense of comic relief, allowing Pellegrino to bring some light to the heavy material.
“When you see the two families spiraling in the way that they are, and the main character, Del Harris, being dragged into this spiral downward, I think it is a clever piece of writing to have a little crack of daylight in there to relieve everybody.
“I think I am a little bit of the comic relief, but it goes a little deeper than that, or so I suspect. There’s a great scene in Episode 9 that I think will really turn things around.”
In the Mark Pellegrino characters’ spectrum, Mark laughingly said it’s not so easy to peg Virgil, even after playing some spectrum-bending characters like Paul Bennet on Dexter. “I mean, arguably one of the worst characters I’ve ever played as far as human beings go, but when you really look at the guy, he’s trying to do the right thing.
“He’s trying to make up for being a drug-addled loser who spent time in jail. He’s trying to be straight. He’s trying to get his family together. He’s trying to be a good dad. He does it all badly, but he’s trying to do it.”
It’s a pretty similar story to Supernatural’s Lucifer. “You could say it’s a revenge story about an innocent person who rebelled against authority and was squashed and is getting revenge for that. So there’s a sense of justice that goes along with everything that Lucifer does.”
Pellegrino cannot say the same for Virgil. “Virgil is like a guy who is a kid who had adulthood thrust upon him and decided not to take up the challenge, but to run away from it,” he said.
“As a man standing on the outside, me, Mark, a step-dad myself, and 50-something who’s seen a lot of the world, and who has experienced a deadbeat dad myself, a number of them, that’s no way to be. There’s nothing admirable in that. It’s hard to find the positive notes in a character like that because you want to judge him.”
Instead, Pellegrino focuses on Virgil’s childlike elements. “He wants to be free. He wants to enjoy life, and somewhere in the back of his mind, he wants to be a good dad, too. He wants to do the right thing, and when Grace pushes him, he does the right thing, also, in maybe not such a great way.”
Mentioning Grace opens up another can of works for the character, who, when around his soon-to-be-ex-wife, seems to want to be better but can’t bring himself to do it.
“He has Grace tattooed over his heart. I think it was one of those things where I think he does love her. He just can’t get it together.”
Pellegrino doesn’t believe we’re predetermined to behave badly in relationships, saying, “I think it would take an extreme amount of focus and hours of therapy a day for Virgil to overcome whatever it was, his lived experience, that brought him to this present place to make him a good, loyal man to Grace.
“Despite his love, he’s got all these flaws. He just doesn’t have the equipment to overcome, you know?” Contrary to his flaws, Grace makes Virgil do the right thing. “Without her as that moral compass, I don’t think he would know where to go.”
Pellegrino doesn’t know why Virgil and Grace have yet to divorce, especially since the man is unemployed, not because he’s unskilled but too lazy.
“We get in these toxic relationships, and we know they’re toxic, but it’s really hard to get out of them because a person touches these primal cords in you. And frankly, I think Grace and Virgil really got along sexually, and that’s a really hard thing to break up.”
They’re totally in sync with each other and not just when it comes to sex, Pellegrino says, pointing to a specific scene in American Rust where Virgil is “dancing and flirting with her, and she’s laughing and enjoying it. You see that Virgil has the capacity to make her laugh, and I held that as sort of my thing, like one of my virtues, if I had them, was that I could make my wife laugh.”
There are two components to their relationship that makes it hard for Grace to leave behind. “If you’re sexually compatible with somebody and they make you laugh, and you have a genuinely good time when you’re around them, that’s really tough to leave.”
Futterman is one of a new wave of showrunners with experience as an actor, offering a different perspective from one that doesn’t share that acting past.
With “a showrunner like Dan, who knows what the actor is experiencing every time he’s on the set, not just the work that he has to do to be there, but whatever anxieties he might have, it’s very comforting to have somebody on the set who has that awareness,” Pellegrino said.
“You don’t feel judged in the same way that you might feel with people who just know about product, like ‘I want the results. I don’t care about process.’ Well, everybody there cared about process, and we didn’t have that much time.”
Like many others, American Rust’s shooting schedule was impacted by COVID, resulting in block shooting, meaning shooting multiple episodes simultaneously, which can make it harder to maintain a sense of continuity. It not only impacted how American Rust was filmed, but it didn’t allow for the cast and crew to share the sense of community, the familial feeling they so often do on longer productions.
“It was like there were plastic bubbles separating many of us from each other. So you didn’t have as much of all that off time to sit with your castmates, and bond, and connect, Pellegrino said.
That’s too bad because they were shooting in the Pittsburgh area, which is often still connected to a time when steel drove the economy. But it was Pellegrino’s third time in the city, so he’d had time to reframe his expectations. Still, he didn’t realize that it was a cultured city with a lot of different attractions.
“But it is, and it was fun. I lived in the Strip District, and I loved walking through the Strip District and walking downtown. When my wife visited me, we’d go to our Starbucks, and we went to the Heinz Center, and we took a walking tour of the city. That was pretty cool. And a haunted walking tour, and I got to know the city a little bit, and I really enjoyed it. It’s beautiful.”
While the interview was to promote Pellegrino’s association with American Rust and spread the word about the series, as an independent political thinker, I’ve been impressed with his views on politics in America.
Political views are very tricky to navigate in any business, but even more so when in the public eye, but it turns out that’s exactly why Pellegrino chose to get involved.
“Around 2013 or ’14, I noticed a palpable change in the social media environment. A clear bully culture was evolving and gaining prominence, and people were being intimidated by the bully culture. I felt that regardless of what consequences there were for me, and there are potentially bad ones, I had to speak out against it.”
His social media feed speaks to that directly, with some people in awe of his bravery and others who view speaking out negatively.
For me, I follow Pellegrino’s social media feed not only because I enjoy his acting but because I admire what he stands for politically and philosophically.
In this culture, hitting an unfavorable note publically can mean the end of your career, which hasn’t gone unnoticed by Pellegrino, who speaks to that dangerous territory by saying, “they’ve shown that they can do it to anybody. And they’ve also shown that they don’t necessarily need the truth to be able to do it,” noting that destruction is the only motivating factor of such encounters.
What better way to address all of it than to take on the establishment? Pellegrino did that with a friend of his, Joe Sanders, a social media friend turned partner with whom he formed the American Capitalist Party.
He said, “We looked around at the political landscape. We saw the establishment left, the establishment right, who are more or less the same animal with just different preferences, different tribal preferences, and the alternative to those two was the other side of the same coin, the libertarians, who are mostly anarchists.
“So they’re moral and philosophical nihilists, basically. So there are really no alternatives out there if you want to live in a society where you are left alone to live as you choose, and society’s job is to protect you against bad guys. So we decided to make a platform.”
Pellegrino and Sanders enlisted philosopher, teacher, and author Andrew Bernstein, an objectivist, to write their platform and “to be a pure representation of individualism.”
He sees the American Capitalist Party as totally individualistic, grounded in ethics and morality with a vision of the individual and how they must live.
“You either believe the individual has a right to his own life or society has a claim on it. As it stands now, both the democrats AND the republicans believe that society can make claims on the individual; they just differ with respect to what rights are sacrificial to those claims.,” he explained.
Pellegrino hopes that he could help to “present people with an island, an ideological island that they could rest on, or a lifesaver, you can say, that they could grab onto in this crazy, chaotic sea, and save themselves.”
Whether someone picks up the party banner and gets on a local ticket somewhere to advocate for the American Capitalist party would be icing on the cake.
For now, he’d like to offer that island where people who don’t fall far left or far right, who share a “common value, not statism, but actual liberty, and freedom of thought, and discourse, and debate,” can strive for “a philosophical revolution,” and unlikely achievement in this or even the next generation.
To get a better idea of this philosophy and the ideas behind it, you can visit their website, follow them on social media, and check out Pellegrino’s “Reality Checks,” which he publishes on YouTube, where he picks topics such as equality, liberty, and rights, discussing what they mean and what they don’t mean.
He said, They’re “three-minute videos; they’re kind of funny. People like them. Production value isn’t that great because I was doing them from my iPad with a $20 mic in my apartment in Pittsburgh, but I’m going to increase the production value in the next few that I do.”
There’s a lot of Mark Pellegrino to go around, and if his intellectual and philosophical nature is often overlooked with his roles, there are plenty of ways to get to know him better.
And, if you’re still unsure whether Showtime’s American Rust will be your cup of tea when I noted that I was hopeful that the series would do well and that it could maintain the momentum for a second season, Pellegrino summed up the experience beautifully.
“I’m glad you feel that way because it’s like a rock rolling down a hill. The more episodes that come, the steeper the hill seems to get and the faster the rock seems to go. So the shit is really going to hit the fan.”
American Rust premieres on Sunday, September 12 at 10/9c on Showtime and can be viewed through its streaming app right now.
Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She’s a member of the Critic’s Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, conversing with cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film with anyone who will listen. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.