Building an Empire
Film and television actor Robert Davi introduces his latest series, Paper Empire, in which he plays a financial wizard on the run from the authorities after becoming the world’s biggest crypto fraudster.
As an actor, classically trained singer, producer and director, Robert Davi has a body of work that would make anyone curious about the movie business want to know more about its inner workings.
With a career spanning 130 films and television series, he is best known for Licence to Kill, The Goonies, Contract on Cherry Street and Predator 2 – all of which have shaped his outlook on his craft and the business in which he works.
But it is his latest project, Paper Empire, that he describes as not quite like anything he has done before, where “crypto is an evolution that turns into a revolution.” In the series, he takes the lead as Laurence Fintch, who seems to have it all figured out on the way to becoming the world’s greatest financial fraudster through the use of his cryptocurrency technology. After an FBI pursuit, Fintch ends up in jail but hatches a plan for a daring breakout.
“I had not played anyone like this prior, but elements of it,” he tells DQ while promoting Paper Empire in Cannes. “There’s an element of him in characters such as Franz Sanchez [from Licence to Kill], who has that criminal empire, or when I did The Taking of Beverley Hills. I like films like The Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle, but this is beyond that because they are dealing with just the crime element. This is the creation of and exploration of the dangers of what crypto mining can do, couched in a lot of sizzle and fun.”
Fintch, he says, “is always thinking ahead,” with viewers taking on numerous twists and turns as they follow his movements – and those of the characters closest to him, some of whom are out to get their hands on his fortune. “There’s a whole agenda that gets put in motion. There’s a deal made inside the prison,” he says. “It’s twist after twist, and you think it’s going to go here and then it goes over there. He gets sprung. It’s very interesting how things are navigated.”
Billed as the first series to take on the future of cryptocurrency and digital assets, the series depicts a world reckoning that results in “financial armageddon.”
It also comes with an all-star cast that features Denise Richards, Anne Archer, Steve Guttenberg, Robert Knepper, Cuba Gooding Jr, Richard Grieco, Carol Alt, Wesley Snipes and Kelsey Grammer. The series was created by writer and director Robert Gilling and is produced by Michael Tadross Jr and Bernard Salzman. It was produced independently, without studio or broadcaster backing.
Davi could have faced a challenge performing with so many co-stars across two 16-part seasons, which are still in production. “Well, with some of them, we haven’t even met up yet,” he says, “because that’s the way this is structured. You’ll introduce the character and they will have to earn their way to the Fintch character. It’s that journey. It’s all in the puzzle in Robert’s head – that’s the reality.
“Bentley [Richards] and Laurence are married, but she has an ex-husband who [Fintch] met earlier. Then you have Kelsey Grammer’s character who is a financial guy with me and Wesley… It’s like jazz musicians. Give me the theme, and if you are a good actor and a good musician, you start to play.”
A classically trained singer, Davi honed his acting skills primarily through the theatre. “That’s where you are learning the craft,” he says. “Then you learn depending on the part. Some parts need more preparation than others, and I Initially started off with the music. If he is a Colombian drug lord, what’s the Colombian music? What’s the music of Colombia? And I listen to that to give me a flavour of the music and the language. You start there.”
Davi’s work on Paper Empire started several years ago, and current scandals such as those concerning collapsed cryptocurrency exchange FTX have led him to believe the show was prescient in how the industry would evolve.
“We explore my character, who helped create cryptocurrency and understands its potential,” he says. “It’s basically like what Elon Musk recently said about stopping Artificial Intelligence because of the danger [it poses]. It’s the same thing with crypto and mining.
“But the way it’s written, it’s brilliant writing from Robert. It’s twisted, it’s sexy, there are so many different layers and then the belly of it is this character Laurence Fintch, who sees how the world is going and creates a financial armageddon that leads to a whole other thing.”
Across Davi’s career, his numerous film roles stand alongside TV appearances in series such as Charlie’s Angels, The Incredible Hulk, St Elsewhere and Hill Street Blues. His biggest small-screen role came in Profiler, in which he clocked up more than 80 appearances as Agent Bailey Malone in a show about a criminal profiler working with the FBI’s fictional Violent Crimes Task Force. It aired on NBC for four seasons from 1996.
However, starring in the procedural had a negative effect on his movie career. “I stopped doing features because you weren’t allowed,” he says of joining Profiler. “I was working 17 hours a day and they wouldn’t let me off. I would get some incredible feature films and I couldn’t do them, so that hurt me in one aspect. Then Garth Ancier, who became the new head of entertainment at NBC [in 1999], cancelled Profiler prematurely.
“I created a new show, I created a couple of shows that were ahead of their time, and they’re still good shows. I sold it to Spike TV, and then the head of Spike got fired. Then I didn’t want to go back and do a procedural show. It stops the momentum of a feature career in a certain way when you are doing TV. But that brought me to a whole other audience. It made me wealthy.”
Looking back on his start in the movie industry, Davi says the business has changed “immeasurably” since he worked on Frank Sinatra’s 1977 film Contract on Cherry Street – the project that gave him his first screen credit.
“It’s changed because culture has just been hijacked,” he says. “Political correctness has stapled people’s tongues to their foreheads when they have a difference of opinion. It’s unfortunate, because Hollywood has always talked about the blacklist and it’s more rampant now than it had been in the 50s and 40s when supposedly there were elements in society and in the government that were wanting to overthrow America. Now it’s almost in reverse that if you are too pro-America, you’re getting silenced.”