Rex Linn On Working With Girlfriend Reba McEntire In The Hammer - Exclusive Interview

Rex Linn may not be a household name, but there's a pretty good chance even the most casual viewer of movies and television will have seen this veteran actor in a plethora of projects. After all, as Linn's IMDb profile makes clear, he's appeared in dozens upon dozens of TV series and films over the course of a career spanning five decades and counting. 

His many screen credits include such films as "Cliffhanger," "Rush Hour," "Wyatt Earp," "Tin Cup," "Ghosts of Mississippi," "Django Unchained," and the cult-hit horror-comedy "Zombeavers." Meanwhile, his voluminous small-screen roles range from homicide detective Frank Tripp on "CSI: Miami" to Kevin Wachtell on "Better Call Saul" to Principal Tom Peterson in "The Big Bang Theory" prequel spinoff "Young Sheldon."

In recent months, Linn has made headlines not for his acting work but for his personal life, thanks to his high-profile romance with legendary country music superstar Reba McEntire. Now, Linn is melding his private and personal worlds with upcoming made-for-TV Lifetime movie "The Hammer," starring alongside McEntire in a kind-of-true story about a travelling Nevada judge whose no-nonsense approach to the courtroom earned her the titular nickname.

In an exclusive interview with The List, Linn opens up about working with McEntire, how they wound up meeting decades earlier when he had a bit part in the Kenny Rogers TV movie "The Gambler Returns," and what it's like to be recognized by different types of fans for his various roles.

Rex Linn on how he became involved in Lifetime's The Hammer

What can you tell me about the movie? Can you give me a quick elevator pitch about what it's about?

It's inspired by a real life traveling female judge: Kim Wanker, an amazing woman, one of the last few traveling judges we have in this country. It's about the adventure that she takes in the course of her duties as a traveling judge. It's going to be fun. Everybody's going to really like it. Reba does an amazing job on it. 

She does look like she's having a lot of fun in that role.

I had a blast watching her. It was fun.

Were you at all familiar with the real Kim Wanker before taking this project on?

I was not, but we dug into it when Reba read the script [and] fell in love with it.

She may disagree ... I was the one that said, "Hey, let's call her," because I'm that kind of guy ... I like to dig in. She did the research on it. We got to Zoom. It was really great.

The whole idea of a traveling judge intrigued me. I didn't know that they still did that. This woman is a hoot. She is so great to talk to. We had a lot of fun talking to her.

Did she have any stories that might have inspired the performances?

We were going to go travel with her, and then she got in the middle of a pretty serious trial, and she couldn't. Her schedule changed, and Reba's schedule changed, and we couldn't do it.

The one thing that was great is the nickname she got, "The Hammer," was based on an actual incident in a courtroom where she knocked the hell out of a defendant that charged her up on the bench. She got her gavel and then knocked him out, basically. We didn't get time to share a lot of stories. We were excited just to be talking to her.

Wow, so that scene with Reba knocking [someone] out with a gavel in the courtroom actually happened?

It did, yeah.

Working with girlfriend Reba McEntire

What can you tell me about your experience working with Reba? I guess this would be the first major acting that you've done together? 

It was fantastic.

Reba always says we worked together. We did, in 1991 on "The Gambler Returns," but [my name] wasn't on the call sheet. My buddy directed it, and he said, "I know you don't have an agent or anything, but I got a role for you on this Kenny Rogers/Reba McEntire show called 'The Gambler.'" I said, "Great." I went in there and worked one day. I had two lines.

I did meet Reba that day. Reba always says we worked together, which I find hilarious, but she always says, "We worked together on 'The Gambler.'" We shook hands on "The Gambler." Then, they were telling me, "Hey, dude. Get over there by that horse, and get on him, and wait until we can talk to you." That's how we worked.

It was so much fun working on "The Hammer," because it was a great advantage being in a relationship with the person that you're rehearsing with. I'm a rehearse freak. Reba is amazing because she can look at dialogue for 10 minutes, and she's ready to rock. I have to study for hours. I'm not kidding. I have to [constantly repeat]. She's not that way.

She had a lot of dialogue in this movie. What made it fun — a long-winded answer to your question — she and I rehearsed a lot of hours, even every night after we finished work. Back home, I go, "Come on. We got to get back in the script, start rehearsing again." She was like, "No. I'm not. I'm tired."

In that sense, as an actor, it was great working with Reba, because we got to rehearse at night, and talk about it, and talk about the characters. It was a great pleasure.

To watch her work ... Honestly, and I'm not kissing butt here, but she's fun to watch. She's fun to watch on the stage singing. She's fun to watch in front of the camera. It's a lot of fun.

You're absolutely right. She is definitely one of those people that sparkles on camera, no question.

She really does, and she's contagious. Everybody wants to sparkle, whether it's in front of the camera or behind the camera. She brings a lot of light and energy and good vibe to wherever she goes. It's pretty amazing.

What Reba McEntire brought to the set as exec producer of The Hammer

Reba is also an executive producer on "The Hammer." You're both also working with Melissa Peterman, who she's got a long relationship with from when they worked together on her sitcom "Reba." How did that affect the mood on the set? It must have been a very familial atmosphere.

It was. Here's the great thing about that. Reba ... Again, I'm not kissing anybody here. It's honest truth. Reba diffuses a lot of stuff. She diffuses that whole idea about, "Not only am I starring in this, and I'm Reba, but I'm also executive producer." That stuff gets thrown out the window. It makes for a great environment.

I can speak for [Melissa], her probably. I don't think any of us looked at Reba like the executive producer. You would normally go, "They're the executive producer too, so walk on eggshells," that kind of thing. None of that existed during filming.

Reba never threw that around at all. It was great. We had great producers on the show. We let them do their job, and they did a great job. We were trying to take care of ourselves in front of the camera.

Rex Linn says it's pure serendipity that he and Reba McEntire came to co-star in The Hammer

What can you tell me about your character in "The Hammer," and how does he fit into the into Kim's story?

I wish it would've been an eight-hour movie, because I would've liked for my character to be in there a lot more, but I'm in it enough, for sure.

It was fun because Bart Crawford, the character that I play, has got an ulterior motive. He's got a son that's getting ready to be sentenced to prison [for] perhaps a long time. He has a genuine love interest, in the judge. There's a fine line right there.

But my attitude always was, make no mistake about it, he also wants his son to get sentenced to very little time, and so he wants to be nice to the judge, but he also has a crush on her in a way. They wrote it ... It was written so that you don't really know if he's part of the whole conspiracy going on or not. So I kind of played it that way.

It was a lot of fun to do, because from an acting standpoint ... there's two different things Bart Crawford's thinking about. He has a love interest right here with this judge that he genuinely likes, but he also knows that she's going to sentence his son in about a month. It was fun to play that character.

Now, had you and Reba been specifically looking for a project you could work on together, or was this something that just came up?

It presented itself. Just like the project we're working on now, we never really set out to do it [Linn and McEntire will be appearing together in the second season of ABC drama "Big Sky" in fall 2023.]

"The Hammer" was the same way. She got the script and loved it. I said, jokingly [and] without reading the script, "Is there anything in there for me, you think?" Because every actor asks that, don't you know. Some actors will go, "I never ask that." That's bulls***. They do. I said, "Is there anything in there for me?" She said, "Well, yeah. Here," and she handed me the script. I read it. Bart was what I wanted to play, and it worked out. Thank God.

Plans for his and Reba McEntire's characters in Young Sheldon

I find it fascinating that both you and Reba have recurring roles on "Young Sheldon," but you've never actually been in any scenes together.

Funny you should bring that up. When I found out ... That's how Reba and I got back together. We never worked together. We were friends for 28 years. She called and said, "I'm going to be on 'Young Sheldon,'" and I said, "Great," so we went to dinner. We've been inseparable ever since.

Here's what I planted at "Young Sheldon." I said, "Old Tom now, Principal Tom, he's ... June [McEntire's "Young Sheldon" character] is over there in a hair salon. She's single. I'm thinking that old Principal Tom, on his day off, happens to walk by the salon." So far, it hasn't happened.

Ironically, they've pushed more of my character and Melissa. There may be something happening there. I don't know. I keep [asking,] "What about June now? Can Tom see June?" I think that's not going to happen.

Do they tell you about these storylines coming up, or do you get the scripts and find out that way?

You get the day you're going to travel, the day you're going to work, and the script. That's pretty much it after that.

That show has been so much fun. It's been good to both of us. I've been on five seasons now. As a matter of fact, I was on the very first episode, the series premiere of "Young Sheldon." Jon Favreau, at the time, was directing all of us. I didn't think I'd come back on the show. They didn't tell me I would be, but 27 or 28 episodes later, here we are. It's been a lot of fun.

Rex Linn on being a part of Better Call Saul

I also wanted to ask about "Better Call Saul." You've been a key player in that throughout the series. Now that it's concluded its run, what are your thoughts on that?

I got to tell you, brother, I'm having an old ... We're working on "Big Sky" right now. I'm having a "Better Call Saul" reunion [with] about half the crew. ["Big Sky" films in Albuquerque, New Mexico, as did "Better Call Saul."]

[Regarding] "Better Call Saul," I'll make this short. I loved, as millions of people did, "Breaking Bad." I auditioned for Uncle Jack in "Breaking Bad." I didn't get it. They hired a guy named Mike Bowen ... He was amazing as Uncle Jack. I would've hired him, too.

I got the opportunity to play Kevin Wachtell. I auditioned. When they called and said, "We want you for one episode, for sure," I was so happy, because I was going to be a part of that whole legacy. Vince Gilligan, all I can hear is how great he was, how great Peter Gould was.

Then I started getting [several episodes in] Season 2, and then Season 3. They started ... They would hint to me that perhaps Kevin is going to be instrumental down the road, but whenever you hear that, most of the time, it doesn't materialize. Boy, did it ever in "Better Call Saul." I am so happy, so proud to be a part of it.

Rhea Seehorn's performance ... I won't give it away for people who haven't seen it, but her performance in this particular episode, she should have already been nominated for five Emmy awards. I cannot ... It's one of the biggest travesties in our business that she's not been nominated until now. That's ridiculous. She is phenomenal. In that last episode, as you know, she was really unbelievable.

To be a part of that family ... John Lithgow, one of my dearest friends, he is a "Better Call Saul" freak. He calls periodically and says, "Are you aware that you're on one of the best shows ever?" I say, "I know, man."

Then they had me back for the season premiere of Season 6. I was so happy to come back. I've been taking Reba to all the old restaurants we used to go to for "Better Call Saul." It's been a lot of fun. 

I said this at a cast dinner one time when we were all in Santa Monica. I never read a script of "Better Call Saul," because I loved the show so much. When I announced that at the table, with Vince and Peter and Ray and everybody, [Bob] Odenkirk and everybody, they all looked at me like, "What did you say?"

I said, "The reason I haven't read a script is because I don't want to know, so I go straight to Kevin Wachtell's dialogue, all of his scenes, highlight it, study it, leave it alone, and watch the episode."

Jonathan Banks, who's one of my dearest friends over the last 30 years, he got mad at me, as a matter of fact. He'd call up and I'd go, "Well, don't tell me anything." He'd say, "Would you stop saying that? I'm not going to tell you anything." I would tell Rhea, "I don't want to know what's going on."

I do know one thing. He's not in the final episode of "Better Call Saul" ... In the script when it said, when I leave the country club, and at the bottom of it says, "Kevin Wachtell looks at Saul one last time." I knew it was ... ... I was really glad they had me back.

A wildly diverse fanbase

Looking at your IMDb credits, you've been in everything. You've got such an impressive roster. What do people tend to recognize you from most?

It's interesting you say that. It used to be always "Cliffhanger." [That] was my first movie ever. It was a great movie for what it was. It changed my life.

It's interesting, because a lot of people recognized me from "CSI: Miami." I did that series for 10 years. A lot of people recognize me from "Better Call Saul." The ones that watch "Better Call Saul" always do. Now, I'm starting to get recognized from "Young Sheldon," which is weird.

I would have to say "CSI: Miami," but I get surprised all the time. I don't mean that narcissistically. A guy in the grocery store the other day in Albuquerque said, "Dude," and he looked at me. He goes, "'Rush Hour' is my favorite movie." I go, "Thank you." Not too long after that, like a week later, a guy walked up and he said, "Huge fan of you in 'Breakdown.' Can you tell me what was J.T. Walsh like? What was Kurt Russell like?"

I've been fortunate to be ... a part of some really great films, but also some great television. I would say mainly probably "Cliffhanger" and "CSI: Miami," but always, recently, "Young Sheldon" and "Better Call Saul."

You mentioned "Big Sky" coming up. Are we going to be seeing you in "Big Sky" before we see you in "The Hammer?" Is that how that's going to work out? 

Yes. [September 21] is the release date [for the Season 3 premiere of "Big Sky"]. Then, January is the release of "The Hammer." We'll be in "Big Sky" before "The Hammer."

What's that experience been like, doing "Big Sky"?

It's been great. This is one of the best crews I've ever worked with. It's like I've had a reunion. We got "CSI: Miami" crew members from here. We got "Better Call Saul" crew members. I did a limited series called "Waco." There's some people from "Waco" here. I did a throwback horror comedy called "Zombeavers." I always smile about that, man. There's some people on the crew that worked on "Zombeavers." It's been a great reunion in a lot of ways.

Rex Linn stars with Reba McEntire in The Hammer, airing on Lifetime January 2023.