While 2020 is a year most want to forget about, it was certainly a special one for Rudy Pankow. After years of appearing in a number of short films and starring in a couple of episodes in the true-crime television series Solved, Pankow made his global breakthrough when playing the lead role of JJ in Netflix’s Outer Banks. The teen drama series instantly captivated viewers after premiering in the spring of that year and became one of the most successful shows on the platform. As noted by Forbes, not only did the first season go viral but only two other shows were more popular. If there was one good thing that came out of quarantine and not leaving the house, it was having the time to binge a new show. And for millions of people, it was Outer Banks. For that reason, it won The Binge-worthy Show of 2020 at the People’s Choice Awards.
Rudy wears a full look by Ferragamo.
Rudy wears a full look by Etro
With that being said, did the show’s runaway success come as a surprise for Pankow? He initially tells MOOD he’s not “entirely sure,” before explaining: “We knew we had something magical in the bag when we shot it. We just hoped it was going to connect with the audience the way it connected with the crew and cast. So I guess yes, but I knew if it was given the chance people would like it.”
Pankow got discovered after his name was given to a manager by a fellow student who saw him working his “ass off” in an acting class. Before he knew it, the roles came flying in and he continued to book jobs. His most sought-after role of JJ came about after he was “lucky to have it come across my desk as an audition.” Outer Banks has without a doubt introduced millions of people to Pankow and his talent. When asked if he’s had to adjust to his newfound fame in the past year, the Alaska-born star admits that “taking photos with fans is new but other than that I try to not think about it and just go outside without any expectation of anything different.”
For those who need a recap, Pankow’s character, JJ, is a surfer who has been John B’s loyal best friend since the third grade. He and his other tight-knit friends are part of a group named The Pogues who go on a mission to find out what happened to Big John, John B's dad, who suddenly disappeared at sea nine months ago. While embarking on their quest, they find a shipwreck with $400 million worth of gold. The first season is left on a cliffhanger as the group’s leader, John B, and his girlfriend Sarah are presumed dead due to sailing during a storm. However, they were rescued by a passing cargo ship and were last seen making their way to Nassau.
Of course, for over a year, fans anticipated the second season, which finally premiered on Netflix on July 31, 2021. Pankow admits it was harder to let go completely the second time around as they had to film everything during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. “It was difficult to feel safe to do anything you wanted to, which generally is what everyone feels on-and-off set, but it’s super hard to feel free during COVID,” he says.
The actor also provided some insight into his character. In season one, viewers learn about JJ’s abusive father who frequently beats him up, takes drugs, and is a heavy drinker who spirals out of control. While keeping fairly hush and trying to avoid spoiling for those who haven’t yet seen how the second season rolls out, Pankow states “there’s a sense of closure that needed to happen” when it comes to his relationship with his dad. As for discussing his own character, Pankow expresses his favorite qualities about JJ. “I love JJ's sense of freedom and humbling outlook that it always could be worse. “Only up from here,” “nothing to lose,” is a very freeing ability to do what he wants to. And I definitely resonate with that,” he shares. One of his favorite moments during Outer Banks, however, was something Pankow hopes he won’t ever have to do in real life. “I really enjoyed driving an ambulance going 50 mph for the first and hopefully only time in my life,” he says.
Netflix is notorious for canceling shows that are both critically acclaimed and popular amongst fans. In 2020 alone, we saw new shows such as I Am Not Okay With This and Teenage Bounty Hunters not get renewed for another season while Altered Carbon was canceled after its second. Fortunately, Outer Banks continues to gain popularity with its second season reaching the No. 1 spot on the US Netflix chart the day after it premiered. In addition to that, Season two also holds a higher rating on Rotten Tomatoes with a 86% approval rating. Many questioned the future of Outer Banks after Season two launched due to the production company’s unpredictable ways, especially since the second season’s finale ended on another cliffhanger. Nevertheless, Christmas came early when it was announced in early December that a third season would be happening.
While everyone impatiently waits for Season 3, Pankow has made his big-screen debut in the action-adventure movie Uncharted, which also stars the likes of Tom Holland, Mark Wahlberg, and Tati Gabrielle. The plot focuses on characters Nathan Drake and Victor "Sully" Sullivan’s quest to find the “greatest treasure never found.” While doing so, they try to hunt down clues that may lead to finding Pankow’s character, Sam, who is Nate's long-lost brother.
The chance to audition for the part of Sam was offered to Pankow while he was working on another project. After he tried out for the role, Pankow was on vacation when he was asked to do a chemistry read. The actor flew straight out to LA to grab the opportunity. Initially, Pankow didn’t believe he had secured the role. But before he knew it, he got a phone call telling him he was flying to Spain the following day. “I felt a huge honor and pressure to be a part of the cinematic story of Uncharted, which definitely played a part in wanting the role,” Pankow reveals, adding, “To feel the pressure of being trusted to portray a character that means so much to Nate and the brother bond that I cherish in my heart was a major reason for wanting the role as well.”
“Grateful” is a word Pankow uses often surrounding the opportunity he has been given. “I hope to only continue to do the story and character justice by bringing them to life and to truly make people feel something when they watch it,” he says. Pankow also expresses how thankful he is to have been able to work alongside a well-respected cast. “Sure, there’s pressure, but it's an honor to feel those pressures and just continue to play ball,” he adds.
Pankow insists “there’s something to learn from any set.” He explains that working with director Ruben Fleischer on the movie allowed him to see Fleischer “balance the exploration of a scene and trusting the scene was already inside our prep and imagination.” Pankow adds, “As long as you trust that, you really can’t go wrong.”
With a growing fanbase and an Instagram following of 6.5 million, there are many people out there that may look up to Pankow as someone they aspire to be. However, for him personally, there wasn’t a specific public figure he idolized when growing up. He shared that his own passion for acting started when he would impersonate performers he would watch as a child. “Whenever I saw an amazing performance I always would love to imitate them and be the character for the next 24 hours just for fun.”
While acting might be Pankow’s full-time occupation now, there was a time when he was unsure about what he wanted to do in life. “It took a lot of thinking of what I truly wanted to pursue after high school,” he explains. “There were plenty of people telling me other things and I had to ask myself so many times what is it that I truly want to do. And I was lucky enough to find the opportunity to move to LA and try it for a year, and then that’s when I really discovered my love of storytelling. I always loved entertaining however I could, but it wasn’t until I met the teachers I did and took the craft to a whole new level when I fell in love with acting.”
For those who want to follow in Pankow’s footsteps, he insists it’s more important to be passionate about what you do instead of being driven by success. “I would ask them, would you love doing this for the rest of your life, if you never got “successful” in the industry? Can you work the craft till the day you die to only just learn it for yourself? Because I think that’s the deeper level of self-commitment that lights the fire that can energize you forever because then you can’t fail, you can only impress yourself,” he says.
Along with a new season of Outer Banks to look out for, Pankow has a few other things in the pipeline. One thing fans can expect to see from Pankow in the near future is more roles on the big screen. He is set to star in Leo Milano’s new dramatic comedy film The Crusades as Leo Grecco, which has now wrapped production. “It’s a coming of age story about three friends who have to each deal with their separate teenage problems, then having it go very very wrong for all of them,” he reveals. Pankow is also scheduled to appear as the lead character in an upcoming comedy-drama titled Chocolate Lizards, alongside Thomas Haden Church.
At 24 years old, Pankow’s rising career is only in its beginning stages. One thing that soon becomes apparent is that he’s willing to work hard and push himself for each role he takes on. With the goal of being able “to deliver a performance that people never would have expected me to do,” his future is wide open.