So Good At Being Bad: James Marsters On The Human Side Of Supervillainy
James Marsters is not a bad man. In fact, during The Music's chat with him in the lead-up to his appearance at Brisbane and Adelaide's Supanova Comic-Con & Gaming expos, the respected actor, musician, video-game enthusiast, husband and father proves to be a charming, genial conversationalist, possessed of a genuine love of his craft and an infectious enthusiasm for discussing its varied nuances and forms.
So, no, he's not a bad man by any stretch; he just happens to be exceptional at playing one. It's not something that he planned, necessarily — he actually got his start in the theatre before making the transition to TV when he moved to Los Angeles, elements of which he revels in being able to use when doing voiceover work for video games, animated shows and audio books, areas in which he has quite extensive history besides — but has nonetheless accepted and embraced the idea that the screen is where his foreseeable future lies.
Having first come to televised prominence as peroxide-blond, vampiric villain (and eventual hero) Spike in Buffy The Vampire Slayer and its companion show, Angel, Marsters' body of work has repeatedly — although not exclusively — found him returning to morally grey playgrounds, through roles such as alien-AI mastermind Brainiac in Smallville and his upcoming stint as the brilliant but deeply compromised inventor Victor Stein in soon-to-debut Marvel series Runaways.
For those unfamiliar with the comic books (created by writer Brian K Vaughan and artist Adrian Alphona) on which the show is based, Runaways follows a group of teenagers who discover that their parents are secretly members of a villain cabal known as The Pride and, armed with powers of their own, begin the fight to defeat their progenitors and atone for their sins. Created by Gossip Girl developers Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage — who also worked on The OC — Runaways enters a TV landscape where fans of superheroes are spoiled for choice, though Marsters is confident that the new show, which shares canon with the MCU, has a few tricks up its sleeve to help it stand out from the pack.
"They're really exploring something that I think that happens to every teenager, when they find out that their parents are not all good," he explains. "Some people have to wake up to the fact that their dad works for a chemical company that's polluting the environment, or their dad works for Nike and he goes overseas and makes sure that all the children are still making tennis shoes; just the different ways that parents compromise their own morality to try to bring money to feed the kids. And I know I've done it.
When my kids look at me, I doubt they see a punk-rock subversive. I really doubt it.
"And every kid wakes up to this: 'My parents are not all that I hope that they are.' Every teenager thinks, 'My parents are evil,' at some point. But to actually explore that honestly — and not in a camp way, but really for real — I think that they're able to do that, and not just go for all the sparks and all the special effects but actually go for the psychological damage that happens to young people when they have to go through that. On the other side, one of the things the series is doing that the comic book didn't do is really exploring what it's like for the parents to have to confront this idea that they've made a deal with a devil that they didn't intend to do; they were just trying to be good parents and provide for their kids and have good careers like we all do, and it all turned on them and now they're co-opted and they can't get out.
"So it speaks to me as a parent, and makes me think of the ways that I've been co-opted by consumerist culture. I used to be a punk-rock subversive theatre producer, and I had a son and came down to Los Angeles and started making television. I lucked out, because I worked with Joss Whedon, who's subversive himself, so I kind of got my cake and ate it too, but when my kids look at me, I doubt they see a punk-rock subversive. I really doubt it. I think they see something other than that. So it's able to really talk about these kind of issues in a way that is credible and painful to look at. And then you slap the special effects on top of that, and I think that you have something really good. I know that there's a lot of superhero stuff around, and I think a lot of it's actually very good — I think some of it's not perfect — but I am excited by what's happening so far in Runaways; very excited."
Marsters' role in Runaways carries a few parallels to his time as Brainiac on Smallville, another show that dealt with teenage superheroes coming to grips with the intricacies of their lives, not always successfully, while revealing that the adults around them were never quite what they first seemed; in Brainiac's case, he posed as a human, Dr Milton Fine, before being outed as a malevolent Kryptonian supercomputer and, after his initial defeat, reappeared as the reprogrammed, benevolent Brainiac 5.
But, beyond that, the series also was famous (or infamous, depending on your viewpoint) for the fact that Tom Welling's Clark Kent didn't don his iconic costume or fully realise his destiny as Superman until its final episode, Smallville instead having spent much of its 10-season run dealing with crises of a more personal nature, something that Marsters credits as a smart play by creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar and an obvious piece of connective tissue with the young heroes of Runaways.
[For 'Smallville'] to actually examine [Superman's] emotional vulnerability, I thought, was a stroke of genius
"Television moves very quickly, and you don't have months and months to do spectacular special effects constantly, so you have to find a way to tell a story and really zone into the characters and really dig into their psychology for your drama," he says. "I think shows like [Netflix's] Daredevil, they're proving that you can have a lot of fight scenes and stuff, but you can't have huge spaceships flying around every week. There's just not time — there may even be money for that, but there's not time — and I think Smallville was a genius show because it really wasn't talking about, 'How big a rock is Superman going to throw around this week?', it was, 'How is this teenager going to deal with his love life, or with his parents, or with his self-esteem?'
"I think that they fixed the character of Superman! How do you get that character into an adventure when you can't hurt him? The only thing that you can do is pull out Kryptonite, and that becomes repetitive for a television show. For a movie, they always pull out Kryptonite, every single time … with a movie, it's only one-and-a-half hours, but every movie pulls out Kryptonite, because there's nothing else. But to actually examine his emotional vulnerability, I thought, was a stroke of genius — and, of course, to do that, the best time to do that is those teenage years."
You don't have to back away from the villainy at all — in fact … it's more important to go for it and be as heinous as possible.
Like Spike and Brainiac, then, Runaways' Victor Stein is a character who, sure, could be described as 'evil' at face value, but such broad strokes will only ever reveal a portion of the full picture. Television and film has historically been eager to split the world into black and white, right and wrong; conceptual absolutes that make it easy to know who to sympathise with and who to condemn at a glance. But, increasingly, we've seen characters that once would have had nothing more to them than a fearsome laugh and obviously blackened heart become more and more complex — that, like real people, it's often not so cut-and-dry as pegging someone as merely 'good' or 'evil' — and that's something that Marsters has revelled in portraying over the course of his career.
"I've made a living off of characters who were definitely villainous, but I don't think of them that way," he muses. "They're not just two-dimensional characters; they're actually three-dimensional human beings who were just making some mistakes. You don't have to back away from the villainy at all — in fact, I think it's more important to go for it and be as heinous as possible — and then at the same time try to reveal that you're actually a human being like the audience. I think that's even more horrifying."
James Marsters will appear at Supanova Comic-Con & Gaming expo in Brisbane from 10-12 November and in Adelaide from 18-19 November. See the event's website for more information.
Marvel's Runaways premieres on 21 November.