Outer Banks star Rudy Pankow charts the trajectory of his “comfort character” JJ Maybank
Film+TV | 21 April 2023
Photographer Fabien Kruszelnicki

jacket, jeans and necklace, all by GIVENCHY SS23; vests stylist’s own

Netflix’s Outer Banks was at the epicentre of pandemic TV. First airing in 2020 at a time when the world stood still, viewers lived vicariously through a tight- knit group of local teens (the ‘Pogues’) on the hunt for shipwrecked treasure in a fictionalised version of South Carolina’s Outer Banks. Three seasons on, the gang have bitten off more than they can chew. And as JJ Maybank, the beloved loose cannon of the group, US actor Rudy Pankow has been through the lot: gang rivalry, a murder cover-up and a budding romance.

When Pankow walked into the audition room armed with handmade props and JJ esque hutzpah, the show’s creator Shannon Burke was instantly impressed. In conversation with Pankow here, Burke recalls the importance of casting personalities that fit, and nurturing a symbiotic relationship with the cast – a chemistry which has become “the superpower of the show.” Away from Outer Banks’ golden shores, Pankow became a mischief-seeking podcaster in Spencer Whiteout’s cult 2022 film, Space Waves, and takes on a Harvard-educated actor stranded in Texas in Mark Lambert Bristol’s upcoming comedy-drama Chocolate Lizards.

THIRTEEN CLUB; vest stylist’s own; hat and boots RUDY’S own

Rudy Pankow: When was the first time you and I met?

Shannon Burke: It was in LA, right? The thing I remember about you was that you brought props – you were ridiculously prepared. [Rudy laughs] How many roles did you go through?
RP: I think I did a total of nine auditions, I went through John B, Rafe and then JJ.

SB: You started at JJ, is that right?
RP: Yeah, that’s the fun thing.

SB: It’s interesting because you were JJ.
RP: I was JJ all along. I was standing in front of you when I was doing that audition thinking, “Holy cow, what was the writer’s image of this character and how can I get into their brain to understand it?” But I couldn’t worry about that part yet, I just had to wait to bug you on set when I booked the job. [laughs]

SB: It’s also better not to be too rigid in your thoughts on what the character will be. You have an idea and you want to make it clear enough but you also want there to be leeway because you guys bring stuff we never thought about. It’s more like a vibe and once you embody it we’re feeding off of you – it’s a symbiotic relationship. I remember the thing that impressed us was how invested you were – you had props too. Do you remember what they were?
RP: I remember the prop, I made it because I didn’t know what Gullah [a group of African American people who predominantly live in America’s southern states] was. So I made a sheet that was the Gullah transcript John B was talking about on one side  and on the other side was the weed symbol.

SB: How close was it to the weed symbol we ended up having?
RP: I bet I could find it. This is it! [holds up prop]

SB: Look at that, how cool! It’s not that far away. How have you found filming season three compared to one and two?
RP: I think this time around, we’re on a schedule. I feel like the more we keep going, the bigger it needs to feel but the less time we have to create that scale. Honestly, the audition process I went through for season one really helped, it was like a rehearsal for me every single time I had to go in and prep. Between two and three, finding that prep time – the time to rehearse and see what the character is evolving into – becomes a little harder. At the same time, I remember asking myself, “How am I going to evolve JJ from season one to season two?” Then in season three I let go of that and thought, “Throw that all away and just focus on what the writer is doing.” How about from your side of things?

shirt, jeans and belt all by ALEXANDER McQUEEN SS23; hat and boots RUDY’S own

“I think you should always go back to training even if it was a ten out of ten performance.”

SB: Definitely. Time is a similar issue on our end, it was compressed, and the filming schedule was insane, which must have been crazy for you guys. As it gets bigger it’s harder to make it human and make it real, those two things are fighting each other but you have to keep escalating. We’re trying to tell these long character arcs and they’re fighting the insanity of this treasure hunt story. You’re trying to wedge these human moments inside this increasingly unbelievable story, which is in some ways really fun, but you also have to try and bring it down to reality. We know we’re holding stories, and we know we have those cards, but when do we turn those over?
RP: It’s also about tackling the physical and emotional challenges of JJ. I think JJ has shifted so much throughout the seasons, in season one he was just thinking “What can I do with my friends to have a lot of fun?” Season two is interesting because it’s when JJ started being more aware of his responsibilities, and I think in season three he’s asking “How can I have fun with my friends in the least risky way possible?” However, he is always going to do what his friends do. The evolution is him thinking, “I’d rather have my friends around than risk their lives and do something crazy – I’ll do the dangerous shit first because I don’t want them to do it.”

SB: Out of all of them I think JJ is the one who just wants the friends to stay together and I think it’s because he has this abusive past, so his friends are all he has. You really feel that in parts of season three.
RP: Would you say reception from fans or critics shape the writing?

SB: Totally, I’m the one who reads everything. I read every review, I read all the things people write online and really take them to heart. I read them because it’s probably less painful for me than for Josh [Pate], I’ll try to take it in and take what I can from it. People say all kinds of crazy stuff but it’s good to know how it worked. When you’re writing this thing it really is in a vacuum, we’re like a gang, we’re all together, and there isn’t a lot of oversight. We’re just making our show and we have no idea how people will react, so I just want to see if it worked. How about you in terms of performance?
RP: I don’t want to taint anything but I think from critics and fans there’s pressure and for performers, it’s a voice in your head that doesn’t need to be there. It’s always good to be beaten up in a way, if a critic was like “Hey, this wasn’t that good,” it sucks but don’t listen to them listen to your brain. If you know it wasn’t the greatest performance then take a step back and figure out if there was something else. I think you should always go back to training even if it was a ten out of ten performance. It’s just more pressure and voices in your head when all you need to be worried about is taking the hand of the writer and asking, “What can I dig deeper into?”

jacket, jeans and underwear all by JW ANDERSON SS23; jewellery, worn throughout, by EMANUELE BICOCCHI; boots stylist’s own

SB: Was there a sense of affirmation that a character you embodied has become so beloved? Everybody likes JJ.
RP: It feels good that people relate to the character we created because all you can ask for is to leave a piece of art behind for people to relate to and hopefully learn a lesson from. It’s not necessarily that I think my purpose with acting is to teach, but I think it’s to show an example of a character who goes through trauma or struggle and helps people understand the different ways of handling it.

SB: JJ usually does the right thing after he does the wrong thing a few times. [both laugh] Also, I say embody a character, but it’s a give and take, you bring things to us. You do your performances once, but we see them hundreds of times in post-production, not just the stuff in the cut.
RP: I think the amount of time you’re watching me as JJ is probably more than the time you talk to me as Rudy.

SB: More than the time I’ve talked to anybody in my life. [both laugh] It’s the same with Josh [Pate, co-creator], we’re spending so much time on the cuts. We’ve been watching you every day for months and you’re like, “Oh I haven’t seen you since we stopped filming,” but that’s not the case. [laughs]
RP: Your brain is like, “Holy shit!” It’s funny whenever you meet an editor because they’re like, “I feel like I know you,” and I’m like, “Well, I’m meeting you for the first time.” [laughs] Do you have a main objective in mind for what you want to achieve with the story or characters in the show?

SB: A character is like an individual entity that is going in a certain direction and you can feel it. We think we know where JJ is going probably more than any other character. How about you? Do you have any desires? What do you want for JJ?
RP: Since I’m not the writer I try not to cling to what I want. He is continuing to learn and we’re watching him learn. I see JJ making a mistake he can’t really take back but then at the end of the day, it’s the choices he makes after that mistake and how that affects him. There’s a bigger story than just one character.

SB: In season three there is a lot more straight-up dramatic stuff. You have some great dramatic scenes with Kiara [played by Madison Bailey].
RP: JJ’s character arc really evolves through seasons one, two and three. He’s afraid of moving on but he’s more afraid of his friends moving on from him.

SB: I think that’s an undercurrent we may explore as we go on. It’s definitely implied, it’s mixed up with JJ’s past trauma. There is a self- sabotaging aspect to him where he doesn’t feel like he deserves to have the good things happen, some people do crazy stuff when they’re presented with things that seem like a good deal.
RP: What do you do when you don’t have to worry about Outer Banks? Are you thinking about other projects or other things to write about?

“Doing a movie feels like a dessert and when you see this entrée of a show sitting in front of you, you start to think ‘How much of this can I eat?'”


SB: There is no downtime, I’ve been working straight for four or five years but I’m a novelist at the core so I still think of fiction and I get ideas. I have things which were unfinished when this began which are still sitting there, and sometimes in a moment of clarity, you’ll suddenly understand the spine of the thematic centre and a lot of the time it is pretty simple. That’s happened with almost all the books I’ve written. There will be moments where I just get it and that’s what happened with this season too, we’ll try to have a single thing at the core then everything thematically will revolve around that. It’s a bit like a lighthouse in the fog, it tells you which way to go. As this is so long, I would like to do a movie, or something which doesn’t take over your life for years and years. I’m sure you feel the same way.
RP: I do, but I think when you get off something that takes eight months to create you’re like, “Do I want to do a movie right now?” [laughs] It really depends on what you’re feeling inside, you need to properly be ready for a new character. I beat myself up but I think I need to chill out as much as I can because I’ve realised relaxing is the best way to forget a character. Doing a movie you have a start and an end, and what you do in between is your playground. Doing a movie feels like a dessert and when you see this entrée of a show sitting in front of you, you start to think “How much of this can I eat?” That’s why you have to love it, you have to love acting and writing enough to do it pretty much all year round. In the three or four characters I’ve done since Outer Banks I’ve learned so much from trying to erase a character or trying to live like a character. In Chocolate Lizards, I would try so hard to be Erwin because I thought that was the way to find a kid who gets lost in Texas. I thought I could be him in a sense, rather than put it on. But your imagination can sometimes be stronger in creating a backstory.

SB: I think there is a similarity with writing, you have to settle down into a centre. You’re always writing about yourself or your own experiences refracted through the story in some way and if it’s not connected to yourself then it doesn’t feel real. I just need quiet and a few hours to settle, then I go, “Okay, I know what I want to do.” Once you’re in that zone everything works pretty well and things feel true.
RP: I completely hear what you’re saying. You jump in the ocean and it’s cold at first, you start freaking out and your body can’t calm down, then all of a sudden you start swimming. When you know it has to be serious, you can’t play into the seriousness in your head, let the sincerity come later. No one wants to think this is serious business, you want to live your life having fun, staying above it, but when it has to get serious, it has to get serious.

SB: What does it feel like when you’re away from JJ? When you do other things and seven or eight months go by, is it satisfying when you come back or do you think, “God not this again?”
RP: It’s not unsatisfying or dreadful. I know JJ so well because of what I’ve done with him and how long I’ve had to do it, so it’s kind of like a comfort character. It can get nerve-wracking when I have to evolve with the character but it’s the way your chess piece has moved. You have to be aware of those decisions the writer makes in any project. Your job as an actor is to validate the writer’s thoughts and work out why this was their decision, your job is to make sense of it. The same goes for any character or any job that is a little bit nerve-wracking because you want to do the best you can, and those nerves still come up even after playing a character for four years now, which is crazy to say.

t-shirt by CALVIN KLEIN; jeans by PRADA SS23

Interview originally published in HERO 29.

fashion assistant RENEE OLD

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