When you have life on your shoulders for the first time, it’s one of the most exhilarating feelings. It’s all on you to figure this out.
For the uninitiated, Outer Banks arrived on Netflix in the spring of 2020, at the very height of the pandemic, quickly notching cult phenom status among sequestered Gen Zers. Set on the titular barrier islands, the series follows a group of sun-kissed, rough-and-tumble teens who get caught up in a high-stakes treasure hunt. One of the streamer’s biggest success stories to date, it’s now headed into production on season three. Meanwhile, its stars—a raft of Hollywood’s next-gen talent—are also beginning to reap the coveted opportunities that fame affords. Among them is Rudy Pankow.
On the docket for Pankow this month is Ruben Fleishcher’s Uncharted, an adaptation of Playstation’s wildly popular video game franchise. In a bit of an echo where doubloons and Indiana Jonesing are concerned, the film shadows Nathan Drake (Tom Holland), a globetrotting adventurer who, alongside his seasoned mentor “Sully” (Mark Wahlberg), hatch a plan to recover a five billion dollar fortune that’s been lost to time. Although details surrounding Pankow’s involvement has remained largely shrouded in secrecy, he reportedly plays Sam, Nathan’s older brother, in the film.
Anthem reached out to Pankow in Barbados, where he’s currently filming, for a conversation.
Uncharted goes wide on February 18th. Seasons one and two of OBX are streaming on Netflix.
[Editor’s Note: The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.]
Hi, Rudy. Where are you calling from?
I’m calling from Barbados.
You’re on location with OBX3, I presume?
Yeah, I remember Barbados doubled for the Bahamas in season two. That’s where it left us.
And what’s cool is, we get to incorporate going to Barbados this season. It’s gonna be really fun.
How long is the shoot expected to last?
We’re gonna be shooting upwards of about six months.
That’s a long stretch!
Yeah, it’s gonna be awhile!
Do you know your character arc and the story arc well in advance?
To be honest, no. They really like to keep that close to the chest. Right now, they’re telling me what I should be thinking about and what I shouldn’t be thinking about. It’s very vague.
Maybe there’s an upside to not knowing too much with people prying, like I’m doing right now. You’re not made to lie, which can feel icky. You really don’t know that yourself yet.
It is a benefit. I think that’s why they do it. They don’t want us giving away the storyline quite yet.
Even by industry standards, you got famous fast. OBX was explosive. It also arrived at a weird time, deep in the pandemic. When did you realize just how big the show was getting?
I don’t think I realize just how big it’s gotten even now. And like you said, we were in the middle of quarantine. The only way to measure the scope of how many people were watching and investing their time was on social media and other channels where they track numbers. It was weird then to go to the grocery store with a mask on where no one would know it was you. So it never really sunk in as deeply as it could. Honestly, it’s only in the past six months that it became like, “Ohhh.” I traveled internationally this year and somebody would be like, “Hey, you’re that guy!” When you’re in a different country, it’s kinda crazy when that happens.
And the world must feel a whole lot smaller.
Exactly! And you’re like, “Uh, do I know you?” [laughs]
You’ve obviously had a lot written up about you now, but I wonder if it was different altogether seeing your profile in the Ketchikan Daily News, the paper where you’re from, because it’s that local-boy-done-good sort of thing. They’re taking it back to your roots.
Right—they know a different life that I had. When something like that happens, I think it can be embarrassing, but you also feel honored at the same time. Your hometown is acknowledging your accomplishments, but it’s also like, “That’s the kid who did such and such at this age” or “That’s the kid I babysat.” It’s one of those interesting and awkward situations where the person from your hometown who’s reading the article knows way more about you than the general population.
When you took a gap year and moved out to LA, was it a particularly anxious time for you? You’ve surely made it now, but when you’re first starting out, there’s so much up in the air.
Yeah! I mean, it was one of the most pivotal moments in my life: making that jump and knowing that it wasn’t going to be something where I could lean on anybody else for. It’s all on your shoulders. It’s scary. At the same time, it’s probably one of the most real experiences I’ve had that made me truly understand life. When you have life on your shoulders for the first time, it’s one of the most exhilarating feelings. It’s all on you to figure this out. When you’re home, you have parents to talk to and they kind of guide you. But when you move to a whole new place that they don’t even know about, you can’t talk to them about it and you can’t talk to your friends about it. You have to take it head-on. A lot of people go do that already, but I encourage it. I encourage people to make jumps like that more often in life, whenever they can and when they can afford it. This generational thing is happening right now where so many people are realizing that life has more to offer if you can find those moments to jump. I always respect that. Yeah, that’s probably the biggest jump I’ve ever made in life: going directly out of high school to LA. That really is it.
Did you experience culture shock?
Oh yeah. I didn’t know anything about the industry, the city, or the people. It was a huge culture shock. It was a matter of learning who to talk to. And who not to talk to. [laughs]
So how did you make friends?
Friends came through class. Friends came through working in an improv troupe. Friends came through working on different projects. Really, friends just came through the work.
One of JJ’s overriding traits that you’ve continually singled out is self-reliance. We see that his home environment was never great so we can make sense of it: he had to depend on himself in order to survive. Where did your autonomy come from? Did you always have it?
No! I think that was me growing up: “Man, am I gonna get left behind here? Am I gonna be stuck here?” That’s something I relate to with JJ, where you don’t really know what your options are. And then you ask yourself, “Do you really actually want something other than this and other than that?” Once I made that jump to LA, I think I started doing the character study for JJ without even knowing that would be my future. I think he was a character that came at the right time for me. People live and grow in ways that will allow them to portray characters in the right way, and also make it harder to portray some characters because you maybe haven’t learned the depth of certain struggles. I think that’s the job of the actor: no matter what the struggle is, you need to understand the full depth of that struggle. I was ready to explore the full depth of JJ’s struggle.
I understand the first acting class you took was for improv. I think there’s a misconception that all actors love it because it means freedom. I know a lot of actors who are afraid of it.
I’m afraid of it, too. But I also love it. I’m afraid of not making anyone laugh in an improv session. I’m afraid of falling flat on my face on a joke. But at the same time, I think that’s where you grow. You’re gonna fail at improv at some point, and that’s what’s going to make you try something else that might be the thing that works great. It’s really important that you care when you’ve failed.
How long had you been in LA when OBX came along?
I think three and a half years. I was taking improv and scene study classes. I was also doing some smaller projects that were really fun. That’s when OBX came across the table.
I heard that they made you audition nine times, which sounds super intense.
Yeah. The first audition was for JJ. But I also went out for Rafe and John B.
When you catch lightening in a bottle like this show has, that obviously comes without a manual. But one thing that’s hard to ignore is how much the fans embraced this ensemble. You guys are believable as friends, and I know that you’ve all become quite close in real life. Chemistry is that slippery thing Hollywood tries to manufacture systematically: putting strangers together in a room and just hoping for the best. It’s a gamble. A game of Tetris.
It is fascinating. It’s fascinating to see what the show’s creators see, what the writers see, and what the directors see. And then they put people in a room together and the next thing you know, the scene is flowing. We started with five, but now we need to have that chemistry between the six of us. With more and more people that are brought on, it’s a challenge to get the scenes to flow because each person needs to show that they have chemistry with everybody else.
I was told that you have yet to watch Uncharted.
Yeah, but I’m looking forward to seeing it. Tom Holland absolutely crushed it. Also, when I leave a project, my mind’s not so much latched onto watching it. I’m more on to the next thing. But I’m proud of what we did on that movie. From what I’ve been told, it’s a super fun ride.
In a weird way, OBX2 feels like a prelude to the Uncharted world. How did you get involved?
Uncharted came when I least expected it, while I was on vacation. They were like, “You have a chem read.” And this was maybe two months after I had read for it. I had thought, “Okay, well, that was that, I guess.” Next thing you know, they’re flying me out of my vacation to LA the next day.
They were super secretive about your involvement in the film. Up until recently, your name wasn’t even listed on the film’s IMDB page. I found that really odd. What was that all about?
I mean, I come in at the beginning of it—I think I can say that… [laughs] My moment in the film is pivotal in Nick’s life. I wouldn’t say it’s the biggest part of the story, but it’s really important.
And maybe it sets you up for a bigger arc in Uncharted 2, if they were to make one.
Maybe! We’ll see. Fingers crossed.
Were you a fan of the video games?
I was more of an Assassin’s Creed fan, but then I had a friend who was playing Uncharted. He was like, “Dude, if you like Assassin’s Creed, you gotta play this.” So I did play it for a little bit.
How many years apart are you and Tom Holland? Two years?
I believe so. I actually don’t know his official age. [laughs] You never know what to trust out there!
That’s so right. Point is, you’re still so young. You have all these opportunities ahead of you.
I hope so, man. Thank you for saying that.
Now that you’ve established yourself, what do you think your next challenge is going to be?
I mean, it’s still hard. Because it’s not about perfection—it’s about mastery of your craft. And even after you master something, I think it can be hard to a certain extent. Yes, it might come quicker, smoother, or you might have mastery in terms of instinct, but still, it’s hard. At the end of the day, it’s knowing that the craft is something you always need to sharpen. You gotta keep putting work into it. It’s the thing that was there when I first moved out to LA: it’s about bettering your instrument. So in some ways, I think the challenge is the same as before. Tuning your instrument.