This Castle Rock article contains spoilers.
It took Tim Robbins 25 years to return to Shawshank Prison, but when he did step back into that particular hell in the seventh episode of Castle Rock season 2, it was as a completely different character. Robbins, best known to Stephen King fans as Andy Dufresne in the movie The Shawshank Redemption, stars on Hulu’s Castle Rock anthology series as Reginald “Pop” Merrill, ruthless loan shark and patriarch of the Merrill crime family. He’s also a man on death row who is forced to face his dark past once and for all — the kind of tortured subject King loves to write.
But Robbins’ Pop isn’t the Pop Merrill we know from the 1990 novella “The Sun Dog,” in which the scummy junk shop owner is killed by an angry dog inside a haunted Polaroid camera. Castle Rock‘s Pop is trying to make right, and when true evil comes to the town he’ll have his chance at redemption.
Chatting with Robbins before the start of the second season, the actor tells us what it’s like to be back in King’s world after so many years and how playing Pop compares to Andy Dufresne.
“[It’s] so different. Stephen King is such a multifaceted writer, writes in so many different genres and is able to create absolutely terrifying stories and also stories that are truly inspiring and hopeful,” Robbins says. “There’s no real comparison between the two. For me, it wasn’t even an issue.”
Indeed, while Andy was an innocent man paying for a crime he didn’t commit, Pop is a criminal whose past crimes have come back to haunt him, but he’s not necessarily a bad guy. He watches over his family, even miserable lowlifes like his creepy nephew Ace, and is the sole benefactor of a community of Somali refugees in Jerusalem’s Lot (we learn why as the story progresses).
“I like when characters are not painted in broad black and white strokes,” Robbins says. “I like the complexities that are in all of us. Every one of us has a complicated moral universe and I just find the more interesting characters are characters that you can’t quite figure out. You’re not quite sure about whether this guy’s a good guy or a bad guy.”
A deeper exploration of Pop beyond his more one-note characterization in “The Sun Dog” meant that Robbins and showrunners Dustin Thomason and Sam Shaw kept discovering new things about the character as filming progressed.
“It’s always an interesting leap of faith when you’re asked to do a series, or a limited series in this case, because you’re not quite sure what, and they’re not quite sure, where the character is going. It all evolves as you’re doing it,” Robbins says. “Things I don’t think they really knew and we talked about it originally and that’s cool too. It’s just about being fluid. It’s about being able to see what’s coming in, write for that and adjust if you have to.”
One thing Robbins did when getting into the role was draw from his experiences growing up in New York City in the heyday of criminals like Pop, who made his fortune loaning money to the desperate people of Castle Rock at incredibly high interest rates. At one point in the series, we see Pop collecting money from one of the town’s shop owners like a mafioso would in his territory.
“I grew up around that kind of guy,” Robbins says. “Grew up in Greenwich Village, which borders Little Italy. I knew some mob bosses, some gangsters. You could tell who they were by the way they walked and carried themselves, some of the murderers.”
Speaking of his acting method, Robbins says that the trick to getting inside the head of someone as complicated as Pop is to “commit completely” but to be able to leave the character behind at the end of the day.
“It’s just about going to that place and I guess the thing that I’ve learned to do, more so than when I was younger, when you go into a dark character to have the lifeline out. When I was younger I might’ve immersed myself more in it and gotten into a place that was similar to the character I was playing, but I’ve learned how to let that go at the end of the day and commit completely, as much as I have in the past, when I’m doing it. But I guess as I’ve gotten older I’ve learned how to not go home and sleep as that character.”
Robbins also went back to the source material when preparing for the role, not just the novella his character appears in but also other stories this season of Castle Rock borrows from.
“I watched Misery again. Read a bit of Stephen King. Mostly I tried to imagine this new world that was being created. There’s not a lot of clues about Pop in [the King novella], but whatever clues were there I used,” says Robbins, who had only this to say about “The Sun Dog”: “That fucking dog.”
With more than two decades since he first entered the world of Stephen King, Robbins has had a lot of time to think about the horror master and other King characters he’d like to play one day. The actor is of such caliber that we could see him in any number of roles in this universe, but the one he tells us he’d love to play surprises even us.
“Have you read his book On Writing? I think there’s something really fascinating about that, not that there’s a character to play in it,” says Robbins before considering that perhaps the character is King himself. “Maybe that’s it. I can see that vision. I don’t know if it’s an idea for a film, but he’s so unique and so talented.”
Castle Rock season 2 airs Wednesdays on Hulu.