Last night at the Wizard World Comic-Con press meet and greet, we bloggers got to press the flesh with stars of both the large and small screen, and I was able to get an interview (through luck, or possibly but less likely, good looks), with James Marsters, well-known for his time in the role as Spike in Joss Whedon’s hit TV Show Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. James originally hails from the stage, and as that is a hobby of mine, we got to talking about some of his favorite performances, how he prepares for a role, and how much filming the Buffy musical episode absolutely terrified him…
WhoseResponsibleThis: I’m here with James Marsters, well-known for Buffy the Vampire Slayer as well as his time at the New Mercury Theatre… Thank you very much for being here!
James Marsters: Thank you for mentioning New Mercury Theatre. That’s awesome.
WRT: I’m a stage actor myself, so…
JM: Nice! Yeah! (The New Mercury Theatre is a Pacific Northwest, non-union theatre up in Seattle.)
WRT: So for the first question, which I’m sure you always get is what’s your most favorite show or film that you’ve been on?
JM: Oh wow, I’m not sure I can do films and favorite shows…um… my favorite film I’ve ever been on… probably PS, I Love You… it was with Hillary Swank, Gerard Butler, Kathy Bates, it was a romantic comedy. The thing is it was stack full of these A-List actors, and I went in thinking, “Oh man, I’m gonna be dealing with egos, I’ve been reading about it, all these ‘big actor’ egos.” And I found, that I’ve never been with a group that was more humble, hard-working, and low maintenance. And I remember asking Kathy Bates about that, and she said, “Oh yeah, James. If you’re on the A-List that means the directors are too, and they don’t want a headache.” And they only hire for one project at a time, so if you give them a headache, you’re out. So that was a nice lesson. I think sometimes the ego can happen when people think they’re big, but they’re not. (Laughs)
WRT: I’ve acted with a number of those types of actors and I know exactly what you’re talking about.
JM: Yeah! I think humility can be powerful and I think a lot more stars are a lot more down to earth than you expect.
WRT: So I guess that segues into my next question, as you were one of the founders of the New Mercury Theatre, you do a lot of stage acting, that’s where your background is. Do you enjoy doing Stage more than screen? Or is acting just acting for you?
JM: Well, I hate to say what everybody who does both says, and that is that I prefer stage. You know Benihana’s? It’s an Asian restaurant where your chef cooks the food at the table. Chops it up, fries it up, delivers it to the audience. On stage, you’re the chef. At the point of sale, you chop up the script, and the costumes, and the set and all the different elements, and you arrange them and deliver them to the audience. So you create the product and you deliver the product. And it’s a high degree of competence that you need to be able to do that. That’s why you have to train for years to do it. And it’s a large job. In film, you’re not the story-teller, you’re not the chef. You’re just a piece of celery that the chef chops up. The chef is the editor. So your job reduces to minutia. To “Do I have a stomach ache today” to “how does this cigarette taste”, and if you get that minutia correct, and if you’re honest about it, it can be quite powerful. and film requires a level of honesty, and bravery frankly, that stage doesn’t. On stage, you get to plan everything out, and there’s safety in a way.
WRT: So you’re hoping that when the editor get there, that you’re hoping that your performance is not only what you want it to be, but also intact.
JM: Wow, Y’know you have to give that up. I think the best that I can do is not lie. And when I watch a performance of mine, my favorite moments are the ones that I wasn’t aware that I was doing. I was simply responding to the other person in the scene. And if I make a plan, like I would do on stage, it looks false. It looks like an intellectual plan that was executed. So for film, it’s really about surprising yourself…when I first got into television, and they said “we’ll have a stuntman do this.” And I said, “What the hell’re you talking about? I come from the stage, we don’t get a stuntman.” You go into a makeup trailer, and they’re gonna put makeup on you, and you’re like “Just gimme the brush! I’ll do it myself.” Of course stuntmen could do it way better than I could, and the makeup people from Hollywood are better, but I had to really learn that my job was a much tighter focus than when I was on stage. So I like telling stories, but I prefer stage by a lot.
WRT: Well, what actor that started out on the stage wouldn’t?
JM: And I’m not denigrating film at all, I came to Los Angeles with my nose in the air, thinking I was part of the “true” art form, and I was just slumming it in Los Angeles. And then I saw a film…Pleasantville. The whole conceit is that these people are living these tightly constrained lives, and at some point they break free of the constraint, and for that moment for each character they colorize. For Joan Allen, it was when she had an orgasm. She is an amazing actor, comes from Chicago, worked with the Steppenwolf company. It was a revelation. And I don’t know if I wept, but I “moistened” if you know what I mean… and I remember thinking about that moment after I saw the picture and I realized on stage that would have taken a three to five-minute monologue by Joan Allen, and it would have been amazing, but by the end of it I would have been up in my head as an audience member. Because theatre is basically an intellectual forum. It’s a forum of ideas. Whereas film has a way of getting past your intellect and into your heart. Kind of the difference between a good song and a good essay: They’re both important, but one of them can bypass the audience’s intellect and really get in deep before they even know you touched them. And if you’re working with someone who knows that, who has something to say, it can really do damage in the best possible way! (laughs)
WRT: You trained at Julliard, do you have a “process” for when you get ready for a character? Like when you got ready to play Spike, did you have a process you went through on either a daily basis or when you got the role and created the character?
JM: This is an interesting question. Let’s see, I did Spike when I was 34, and I’d done about 100 plays, and the process becomes a little less conscious at a point. What I remember about Spike was that I (ripped) off Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner, I thought that was an awesome performance and he had kind of a stillness that was also unsettling, and I thought “I’m gonna take a little bit of that”, because I had three days! I was cast, they’re like “You’re going in!” And I also ripped off Malcolm McDowell’s walk from Cat People, which was not a great remake of the 50’s classic, but he had a great walk. He played a guy who could transform into a cat, so he had a great walk. I said, “That’s a predator’s walk, I’m gonna take a little bit of that.” But most of it is just sitting down in bed, learning the lines, and fantasizing in my head what the words seem to want to do…And for Spike there was the process of trying to get the accent down, which was a long process, because it wasn’t very good in the beginning. Anthony Head finally saved my ass when I mispronounced a word: Bollocks. I said “Bullocks”. And he couldn’t stand it anymore, so he trained me awhile. But I didn’t actually have a good experience at Julliard.
JM: Yeah… we were having Troilus and Cressida for our first production and we were three days away from an audience, and I stood up and said, “This is the biggest piece of shit that I’ve ever been in. We have got to tell this story, guys. People are gonna waste three and a half hours of their lives with us, and if we don’t take that responsibility seriously, they’re never gonna forgive us. Come on!” And the staff… didn’t appreciate it.
WRT: Was it one of those modernized versions of Troilus and Cressida?
JM: I thought about this all my life, “What happened there?” Because I got run out on a rail, and it was from that day that this one teacher took after me for the next two years, and it finally got me kicked out. I think it was being directed by one of the best actors for stage, and a wonderful human being… and a horrible director. It was called The Discovery Play. And the director was saying, “ You do it! You go! Everything’s wonderful! Go! Go! Explore, explore, explore!” Which is fabulous in the first week, but that’s the first week of rehearsal, then you need to make choices, then you have to carve those choices into a journey for the audience, and there’s a progression through rehearsal. And we were staying in first week rehearsal kind of stuff. I was thinking, “If we take this kind of stuff to the audience, it’s gonna be horrible!” It was called The Discovery Play… and no one would tell me why! And I decided maybe it’s not our discovery that we’re supposed to be making, maybe it’s the staff’s discovery of what kind of actors we are, of what kind of class we are. As a group are we gonna tell a story or just jerk off? Well, this class has me, so I’m gonna put my vote for telling a story. And I did it as a 19-year-old would do it, which was with a lot of ego. So I decided to stop going to classes by then, and just let the audience teach me. Because the audience will tell you moment by moment if you suck or not. It’s a great barometer. The horrible part, there’s the part of rustling paper, and you know you’re screwed, because they’re checking the program to see “when can I get out of here?”. Then there’s the silence of people shifting in the chair slightly which indicates they’re okay, they’re not necessarily overwhelmed by being there but no one is going to ask for the ticket price back. Then there’s the silence of everybody really paying attention, and that’s really good and you hope for that. And then every so often there’s a sacred silence, I’ve only gotten it three or four times, where no one’s breathing for three seconds, something will really happen, or a line will land, and 500 people stop breathing and it’s the most beautiful sound in the world. You can clock an audience, it’ll teach you a lot about what works and what doesn’t.
WRT: I promised my editor I’d ask some questions about Supernatural and Buffy…
JM: Ah, I talk too much, and when you talk about theatre too… ok, lightning round.
WRT: A friend submitted a question. Buffy fan Leslie Murray asks, “How much fun was the musical episode on Buffy?”
JM: None. We were terrified.
WRT: You hated it?
JM: No, we didn’t hate it, we were scared! We thought Joss had gone insane, and that he was flushing the toilet. We thought we were jumping the shark. No one had ever done it before, so he gave us a cassette tape of him singing the songs, and as a singer (myself), he’s a really good writer. And it wasn’t until halfway into filming that he (edited) the first musical number he’d filmed, the Xander dance, and showed us that it was actually going to be amazing. So for the first half of it, it was really scary, second half of it was really amazing. So we went from the depths to the sky on that one.
WRT: So, what’s next for you?
JM: There’s an independent film called Dudes and Dragons. It’s like Princess Bride, it is really adorable, and I play a wizard who trains a dragon to light on fire anyone who falls in love. And he’s just horrible and evil, but also… adorable. Another movie called Nouvelle Vie, which is in post production. My band is going back in the studio, producing our fourth album. And that’s all for now.
WRT: thank you very much for taking the time to talk with me!
JM: My pleasure!