Sons of Anarchy” star KIM COATES talks about his life as Tig Trager, everyone’s favorite vicious biker.
By Elisa Jordan
“Lucky” and “blessed” are two words frequently spoken by Kim Coates. The veteran character actor has been working steadily in theater, film and television for nearly three decades, but it’s only since the 2008 debut of “Sons of Anarchy,” the hit television show on FX about an outlaw motorcycle club, that his name has become a household word among viewers.
“This ain’t no comedy!” laughs Coates, who plays Alex “Tig” Trager, the sergeant-at-arms of the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club, Redwood Original, or SAMCRO. He’s kidding—but many a truth is spoken in jest. “This is one of the only shows ever, if you think about it, that both men and women can love zealously with each other. It ain’t no ‘guy show.’ It ain’t no ‘woman show.’ It’s both, and literally everyone—men and women, boys and girls, friends, gay, straight, all over the world—loved this show and was watching it together. I think that’s amazing. I really do.”
BIRTH OF A PHENOM
“Sons of Anarchy” has drawn comparisons to other popular shows, such as “Breaking Bad” and “The Sopranos,” in that they are all compelling dramas with hints of dark comedy revolving around criminal activity. And yet, regular folks can relate. Whereas Walter White turns to crime to help pay his medical bills and care for his family, the SOA bikers are portrayed as a tight-knit family with loyalty and love for each other while supporting their local community and living by their own rules. “It is,” Kim Coates emphasizes, “a family drama.”
Since it began, SOA has garnered blockbuster ratings and a loyal fan base. Much of the show’s success rests with its creator and head writer, Kurt Sutter, who crafted something unique in its complexity and focus on the biker underworld, a subculture largely overlooked in episodic television. In addition to the motorcycle club backdrop, Sutter loosely based the show’s dynamic on Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” If it was Sutter’s storytelling that started the engine, it’s the cast that revved the motor that helped drive the show’s success. And one of the standout gang members is Tig Trager, SAMCRO’s enforcer, and the most violent character on a show that doesn’t shy away from controversy.
Coates’ portrayal of Tig created a mutli-layered character that, even though he’s a vicious killer, is still likeable and even funny. Tig exhibits fierce loyalty to his club, endures witnessing his daughter’s horrific murder and rescues a dog from being killed after it loses a dog-fighting match. Yet in one of the show’s most touching storylines, tough-guy Tig falls in love with a transgender woman—an arc that focuses on the human side of love, rather than the gender side. Finally, Tig’s quirks provide much of the show’s darkly humorous moments, such as his crippling fear of dolls and hints of an interest in necrophilia.
“I really do think that Tig Trager was one of those guys that doesn’t come along very often, and maybe ever, especially over a seven-year span,” Coates says. “I had no idea when I said yes to play this guy what he would turn out to be. I think I’m still trying to process it.”
Remarkably, Tig, a fan favorite, almost wasn’t part of the show. In the original pilot, he was nowhere to be found. When it was decided that the pilot needed to be reshot, Ron Perlman replaced the original actor portraying SAMCRO president Clay Morrow, and Tig was written into the script, as well. When Sutter asked Coates to play the role, the actor was initially reluctant. Tig wasn’t yet developed well enough for him to get a feel for the character.
“I said, ‘I’m going to have to say no because I choose my bad boys very carefully, and I have no interest in playing this sociopathic guy at all,’” Coates says. “Sutter stopped me and said, ‘But this guy is going to shoot first and ask questions later. He’s tough. He may be the toughest guy out there, but he’s going to cry and laugh at the same time. He’s going to be loyal. He’s going to break down. He’s going to have his own issues. And he might even be the moral compass of this club by the end. We don’t know, but just please come along on this ride with me.’ So I said that I would and I’m really blessed that I did. It’s been quite the ride, for sure.”
Coates, who originally hails from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, didn’t dream of working as an actor when he was growing up. He took an acting class in college simply because he figured it would be easy to pass with a good grade, and that’s when everything changed. He began appearing in plays, performed in summer stock and switched his major from history to drama. “I fell in love with Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw and Tennessee Williams,” he says. “I did over 24 plays in four years. I knew I wanted to be a professional actor by the time I was 20 years old, and fortunately it’s really worked out.”
CIGARS AND WHISKEY
Now living in Los Angeles, Calif., Coates’ career has taken him all over the world. It was in Toronto, though—around the mid-1990s—that he discovered a love of good cigars. “I don’t know where it is now,” he says, “but I had a book in which I would keep the bands off cigars when I was done with them. I would put the bands into this book and rank them—what was good about the cigar, how the draw was, and the finish. I had so much fun with that book, it was crazy.”
He has a Spanish cedar humidor that’s “ready to go” now that “Sons of Anarchy” has ended. “When I get to enjoy a good cigar, it’s a good life, for sure,” Coates says. “There is nothing more fun than Irish whiskey, cognac or a Scotch—I drink Johnnie Walker Red because of Winston Churchill, who’s my hero—and a cigar on a golf course or at night when I’m putting my feet up. Those of us who love a good cigar and a good shot of whiskey—we’re not going anywhere.”
Coates would occasionally learn his “Sons of Anarchy” lines while drinking a Godfather, a cocktail comprised of two-thirds Scotch and one-third amaretto. “You shouldn’t make one with really good Scotch because you don’t want to put anything but half an ice cube, if anything at all, in a good Scotch. But there’s something about that drink—it’s strong, but it is a bit sweet—it was definitely my drink of choice.”
The Godfather also became Tig’s drink of choice on the show. When club members weren’t dealing guns, navigating the prison system or engaged in a gunfight, they could often be found at the SAMCRO clubhouse, relaxing with drinks and smokes. It’s in these scenes where their brotherhood shined, and the feeling remained after the cameras stopped rolling. “We really grew to love each other, and that’s a real esoteric thing,” Coates says. “I’ve heard that not all television shows are like that, but we truly did hang with each other. We really rode with each other, too.” Coates is an authentic motorcycle enthusiast and currently owns three Harley-Davidsons. “I’ve got three very heavy horses in my garage that I love dearly,” he says.
When the show began, only Coates and co-star Mark Boone Junior knew how to ride. According to Coates, though, all the cast members are now amazing motorcycle enthusiasts, “But it was a train wreck that first season and into season two—bikes were being dumped all over the place.”
The “Sons of Anarchy” cast has used its collective celebrity to help raise money for charity, including one that is special to Coates: One Heart Source (oneheartsource.org), a nonprofit that helps young people in South Africa and Tanzania. Coates personally supports a number of other charities, too, including the Boot Campaign (bootcampaign.com), Creative Kids (mycreativekids.com) and The Hospital for Sick Children (sickkids.ca), among others.
Giving back is important to Coates, who, after working for so long as a character actor, has only recently become recognizable enough to lend his name to some deserving organizations. “I never cared about being a celebrity, but now I need to be smart with it,” he says. “Giving back to charities means so much to me. It’s something that I’m so proud to be able to do.”
He is also active in and supportive of the artist community. In addition to acting, he’s also produced and looks forward to directing one day. Film festivals, he says, are important for independent productions in these days of big-budget blockbuster movies. In 2007, he starred in and produced “The Poet,” which won the Best Film and Best Director awards at the Staten Island Film Festival. Also in 2007, he won Best Actor for his role in “King of Sorrow” at the AOF film festival, which also awarded him the Half Lifetime Achievement Award.
“Festivals allow independent filmmakers to show their films and get reviews, and without festivals, these independents have no shot,” he says. “I’ll be a supporter of film festivals until the day I die.”
If the role of Tig Trager has shown audiences a sliver of the acting range of Kim Coates, fans will want to check out his other work. In addition to more than 50 movie roles, he’s also been a guest on TV shows such as “CSI: Miami,” “Prison Break” and “Entourage.”
“I think what we all should do in the artistic community is continue to spread our wings and try different things,” Coates says. “I don’t like being comfortable, I really don’t. If I was going to be comfortable, I would be doing ‘CSI: Saskatoon.’ I’m not afraid to fail, and I think that’s why I get all these great parts. I want to be challenged.”
Coates is going to miss playing Tig—“miss him like crazy,” he says—but after seven seasons acknowledges that the character has had a good run and it’s time to move on. He looks forward to what the future brings—“2015 is going to be epic for me”—but clearly appreciates what the violent gang member has done for him. “All I know is that this is an exciting time for me because I’m a character actor, and I love it all,” he says. “I love doing comedy. I love drama. I love accents. I just want to work with the best people, and that’s what I’ll continue striving to do.
‘Sons of Anarchy’ was lightning in a bottle. It will be seven seasons on disk that people can put in years from now and go, ‘Holy shit, what a great show that was!’ I’m just so lucky to have been a part of it.”
Elisa Jordan is a Southern California-based writer specializing in entertainment history. She is a passionate preservationist and currently leads tours around Los Angeles through her company, LAWomanTours.com.