Franchise Fred Interview: James Marsters is Marvel’s Runaways’ Bad Dad
Marvel’s Runaways has a team of teenage superheroes fighting the villain every kid wants to battle: Their parents. Only for the Runaways, their parents actually are evil members of The Pride. Fan favorite James Marsters plays Victor Stein, the abusive father of Runaway Chase Stein (Gregg Sulkin).
Marsters will always be Spike to his biggest fans, having played the vampire across Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and Angel. He’s dabbled in comic books before with voiceover for Ultimate Spider-Man, Superman/Doomsday and DC Universe Online. Marsters spoke with me by phone before the holidays for a Franchise Fred interview. Marvel’s Runaways is now streaming on Hulu.
Franchise Fred: You’d had a little bit of comic book experience with Smallville and some animated shows, but what is really diving into Marvel like versus the Buffy fandom?
James Marsters: I have to say, it’s a very similar experience to me. I’m not sure about the differences. I can speak about the similarities. I’m having more fun on Runaways than I’ve had since Buffy. I’m playing a character that gets to do the most messed up things, just like they let me do on Buffy, a character that does unforgivable acts and then turns around and does something that makes you feel maybe, not sorry for him, but humanizes him. I feel like they’re letting me sneak through the backdoor and terrify and horrify the audience, and then bond with the audience. Right when the audience trusts me, I get to horrify them again. That’s just a delicious place to be in.
I feel like I’m working with people who are absolutely at the top of their game. Stephanie [Savage] and Josh [Schwartz] did Gossip Girl and they just have a fearless way of approaching young characters. They’re not afraid of offending or terrifying the audience, much like Joss Whedon. The people that I’m working with are all cool, man. No one’s peeing in the pool. It’s just a delight to go to work every day. I can’t say enough good about it.
I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had fun on so many sets. I had such a good time on Smallville. I had a glorious time working with DC on Lex Luthor in Superman/Doomsday and the video game. I’ve met so many wonderful people but this is one of those things that is even better than that. It’s kind of a special time.
FF: Spike got to continue in comic books with the writers, without your performance. Now you’re bringing to life a comic book character. How did you rely on the Runaways material for that?
James Marsters: You know, I have not read any of the material. I don’t want to do an impersonation of a character that’s already done. If you read the comic books, this is my theory anyway, maybe I’m wrong, it would be almost like if you were going to do a reboot of A Streetcar Named Desire, the thing you don’t want to do is begin with watching Marlon Brando do that role. That would be the worst thing you could possibly do. Then you’re going to end up impersonating Marlon Brando playing Stanley Kowalski. I didn’t want to read a character that was fully realized in the comic books and then try to do an impersonation of that. I chose to trust Josh and Stephanie and the other writers on the show, because they know the comics backwards and forward, no one more than Quentin. I trust them to pull me back if I’m going in the wrong direction, and just work instinctually and trust that they cast me in the role because I’m right for the role.
It’s really interesting, Fred. I would go to them and feel like I’m arguing, just tell them where I want to go. I’d be very passionate about what I think is important for me to remember playing the scenes that are coming up in the episode. In the beginning, I feel like I’m playing a character who knows that he made a deal with the devil. He may wish that he didn’t make that deal, but at this point the die is cast and there’s no use second guessing myself. I am a character that’s marching straight to hell and I’m not going to waste time going, “Oh, I shouldn’t have done that. I feel so guilty.”
I remember just going off on Josh, saying that’s why the character of Macbeth is a potent character, because he doesn’t second guess himself. Everyone knows he’s doing the wrong thing, but he goes straight forward. It takes him a long time to decide what to do, but once he decides, he does not feel guilty or second guess himself. Then, the very next week, I sit down with him and say, “Okay, I think we got that. Now, I feel like the most important thing for me to discover is the love of the character.” I feel like when you find the love of the character, you kind of find the vein of gold in the mountain. You find the rocket fuel that really energizes the character. I said, “I feel like the love of Victor Stein is for his family, his wife and his son, and it’s not easy to see but I think it’s really there very strongly.” Both times, Josh just looked at me. He’s like, “Are you reading the scripts that are coming up? This is just unnerving because you’re going exactly the way we were hoping you would. That’s exactly it, to the point where it feels like you have some inside knowledge of our script meetings.”
FF: Have you ever had teachers or directors like Victor with that self-satisfaction of their knowledge?
James Marsters: Yeah, hate them. [Laughs] That’s a really good question. Oh wow, I don’t want to go there.
FF: Could you use that?
James Marsters: No, not at all. Not at all. I have a side of me, if someone is treating me like I’m stupid, or if someone is hurting other people, I have this fearsome arrogance where I want to bring them to task. I will overwhelm them with my intellect and it is not pretty. I’ve tried to stop doing that. It usually only happens when I get offended for some reason but I think Victor just lives there. I have a 155 IQ. Victor’s probably got a 178. He’s really smart. I think the problem for Victor is he doesn’t feel like he’s that smart. It’s just everyone around him seems like an idiot, so it’s hard to be patient with people.
He’s trying to save the world. Victor is trying to revolutionize energy production on Earth and transportation on Earth. He knows that if he fails in that, the Earth is going to burn, probably within a generation and a half, but if he succeeds, there’s hope for the planet and for human beings as a species. He doesn’t see anyone else really capable of doing that and no one else really trying. He’s a bit like Elon Musk in a way, if Elon Musk had lost his soul. The problem with Victor is that he made a deal with the devil in order to accomplish this and he got in over his head and he now can’t get out.
But he has that thing where when people know they’re right and they know they can cut corners, and when the ends start to justify the means, it’s a very slippery slope and you could find yourself becoming that devil in a way.
FF: The child abuse was in the Runaways comics, but is it not necessarily necessary to see the abuse to understand there’s a history of abuse?
James Marsters: Yeah, I don’t think you have to actually show it. I’m not saying we don’t show it, but you’re right. Sometimes it’s more powerful if it’s inferred. My experience with the character is not just what we filmed. It’s what I imagined. It’s what I know about the character. It’s my inner life. All of that’s very real. I have to say, they’re very aware that the comics clicked. Those comics worked. As an engine of storytelling, that thing was firing on all cylinders. The worst thing you can do is try to rewrite everything. There are some changes, and I think there has to be when you go from a static form like graphic novels to a living, breathing, moving form like television with real life humans playing the characters. But the heart is still there and Josh and Stephanie are not afraid of horrifying the audience. I will say we’re not pulling any punches.
FF: How much of Victor’s lab is practical on Runaways?
James Marsters: Too much, man. There’s all these servo motors going on. All this stuff has to move and that causes problems for sound so you have to deal with that. It’s just impossible to make a motor that’s absolutely silent. I don’t shout a lot of times when I’m acting. I tend to speak actually fairly softly. I’m often fighting all the electricity and motors humming around.
FF: That’s more than I expected. I figured a lot of it was CGI?
James Marsters: It is a combination. It’s a combination of practical, CGI and video screens playing images and stuff like that.
FF: Will we see more of Victor’s inventions on Runaways?
James Marsters: I will say that that guy is always inventing. He is constantly thinking of things and constantly able to build them. That’s the great thing about Victor is he can both conceptualize an idea, and because he’s an engineer, he can actually build it. He doesn’t have to go find help or outsource it. He can just sit in his lab, think of something and then get to work with his tools and actually bring it into being, into life very quickly. So he never stops. You’re going to see a lot of inventions.
FF: Every kid probably thinks their parents are evil at some point, and Runaways is about what if they really are. But also parents can be wrong despite their best intentions. Is Runaways about that too?
James Marsters: Exactly. That’s the thing. I think that certainly I, when I was younger, before I had kids, I was this theater producer and I was going to change the system one heart at a time. I was really pretty good at it actually. As soon as I became a father, I stopped trying to change the world and started to just use the status quo to my advantage to provide food and shelter for my children. So I became co-opted by the system so to speak. I stopped fighting the consumerist culture and joined it in the most spectacular way by coming down to Hollywood and making television. I kind of lucked out because the first show I got to do was a deeply subversive show called Buffy, and at the same time, I remember telling my agent when I came down, “I’m not interested in awards. I’m interested in diaper money. I need health insurance for my family. That’s what I’m interested in. I’ve already proved myself an actor out in theater. I don’t need to do that here. I’ll be Urkel. I really don’t care.”
So I sold out. I did. When my kids look at me, they can see someone who sold out and I raised them to question authority. I raised them to question assumptions and be subversive. So they’re looking at their dad who taught them all this stuff who’s not living that life. That’s got to be a little weird for them. Runaways is talking about something that I think most parents can understand. It’s just that we take it to another level because we’re talking about Earth ending events, supernatural stuff. It’s all very relatable.
FF: Is Gregg Sulkin where you were when you started Buffy?
James Marsters: I think he’s a healthier person. I think he’s a happier person. I think I was more tortured, frankly. That was probably good for the character of Spike. I think it was all good, but I think he’s a more successful human being at this point in his life. He’s probably wiser than I was when I started Buffy. He’s certainly more comfortable with himself, that’s for sure. He’s a cool dude.
FF: Did talk of a Spike spinoff sort of go away when Joss Whedon got busy doing Avengers movies?
James Marsters: No, I think it started to go away before that. I had told him, when we were finishing Angel, he came to me and said, “Do you want to do a Spike project?” I said, “Joss, whatever you have for me, ‘til the end of my life, if it’s one line or 50 lines, wherever I am in the world, call me, I’ll come running. I would love to work with you again. But, if you want me to play Spike, you have seven years to do it because Spike’s a vampire. He does not age, and I’m a human being. I think we can hold that for another seven years, but after that it’s going to be cheesy.” He didn’t really like that. [Laughs] I was like, I don’t want to go do a storyline where Spike’s drinking pig blood right now so he’s aging slowly or some kind of copout like that, because one of the coolest things about being a vampire is that you don’t age. If you take that away from the character, it’s not the same thing.
So for seven years we were trying to get things off the ground. For reasons that were not us, or issues that were above us on the power level of Hollywood, it never really got off the ground. There were a few times when it almost did. It wasn’t that he got busy with other things.
FF: And now it’s been seven years.
James Marsters: Yeah, man. I look pretty good. I look good for my age, everyone tells me so, but you don’t want people saying, “Man, Spike looks really good for his age.”
FF: What were some of the possible Spike stories?
James Marsters: I wrote one actually that just got turned into a comic book about a year and a half ago. Joss called me up and he’s like, “Let’s do it.” I was like, “Cool, what’s the story?” He said, “I don’t know.” I said, “Come on, Joss. You’ve got to have something.” He goes, “Well, I’ve got a line from a movie as an inspiration. This is Aragorn from Lord of the Rings: I have no hope for myself.” I said, “Joss, that’s really dark, man. That’s not funny. Come on.” He’s like, “Well, what have you got?” I said, “Give me a week.” I came up with a story.
The problem with Spike is how do you tell a story of a vampire who’s just gotten a soul and is trying to redeem himself without retreading Angel? They really explored that through Angel, so how do you do that for Spike? I decided to take a page from Joss Whedon and just do the opposite. Joss is a genius at doing exactly the opposite of what normally really good writers will do and then making it work really well. So if Angel was an iconic character and he had a lot of lift and he was always in a mansion by a fireplace sipping port wines thinking about his soul, Spike should be homeless and starving to death because he now has a soul and he can’t kill anyone for food and he can’t rob anyone for a new pair of shoes. He should really be in trouble trying to figure out how to live life without being a villain, because he’s not going to get a job. There’s no way in hell Spike is going to go get a job. He should be having real trouble.
I wanted to do a story where he tries to be the hero and gets his face kicked in by the monster. I wanted him to meet a woman and doesn’t have the courage to tell her he’s a vampire and she finds out when he’s getting his face kicked in, and dumps him in horror. But I wanted him to find a way to get a new pair of shoes without hurting anybody, without killing anybody and without getting a damn job and just make the smallest little step towards redemption and figuring out what to do with this soul he’s acquired.
I told this story to Joss and he’s like, “Dude, I love it. That would be really cheap to shoot.” I said, “Yeah, man. I wrote it for you.” That one almost got off the ground but didn’t quite. So that one percolated around and when Dark Horse approached me for a new comic book, I had a new story that I was ready to tell.