RUNAWAYS: James Marsters talks Season 1 of Hulu’s Marvel series – Exclusive Interview
The performer also talks his new movies, VIDIOTS, Ghost of the Robot and more
At this point, actor James Marsters has done plenty of straight drama and comedy – and time in a rock band, Ghost of the Robot – but he continues to uphold his genre cred. After his indelible performance as the vampire Spike in BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and ANGEL, Marsters’s roles have included anti-human Brainiac on SMALLVILLE, religious zealot Barnabas Greeley on CAPRICA, galactic traveler Captain John Hart on TORCHWOOD, and many more.
Now Marsters has added series regular Victor Stein in Hulu’s RUNAWAYS to the list. Adapted by Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage from the Marvel Comics saga created by Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona, RUNAWAYS concerns a group of disparate teenagers who discover that they have superpowers – and that their parents are supervillains.
The first season of RUNAWAYS is now available on Hulu in its entirety. Marsters is currently shooting the second season, has several new feature films awaiting release and a new album out with Ghost of the Robot, all of which he discusses in this telephone interview.
ASSIGNMENT X: Were you familiar with the RUNAWAYS comic book?
MARSTERS: I was not familiar at all. I had no clue, and to tell you the truth, I’m still not familiar with the comic book [laughs]. I did one episode based on a comic book a couple years ago, called METAL HURLANT, which is the French original for Heavy Metal Magazine. We referred to the comic book for inspiration, and I found myself trying to do an impersonation of the comic book. And I thought, “Eh, it doesn’t really help me.” I almost felt like there had been someone who had already played the role, and I was just trying to live up to that performance. It was like, if you were going to do a remake of A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, the last thing you want to do is watch the Marlon Brando [performance]. And so when I got this, I decided to trust the creators, Josh and Stephanie and [writer] Quinton [Peeples], who know the comic backwards and forwards, and just trust that they would pull me and push me in directions that I needed to go. And it really worked out.
I remember sitting down with Josh [early during production], and forcefully arguing that one of the reasons my character’s going to be watchable is that he’s like Macbeth. He’s already decided that he’s going to march into Hell, and he’s not going to second-guess himself. He’s not going to waste time going, “Oh, maybe I shouldn’t have made a deal with the alien, maybe I didn’t do right, I don’t know.” He’s not going to spend a second doing that. He’s already made up his mind and he’s going forward. And Josh was like, “Yeah, man, you can definitely do that. That’s right.” [laughs] And then one episode later, I sit down next to him and I equally forcefully say, “Okay, I think I got that. I’m going to keep that, and I think it works, but now I want to find the love of the character. I always feel like you have to find what this character loves, whether it’s love betrayed, love denied, love blossoming – wherever the love is, that’s where the gold in the mountain is. And I think for my character, the love is for his son and for his wife, his family.” And Josh looked at me and goes, “Are you reading the scripts [ahead of time]?” He was kind of confused. [laughs] I wasn’t looking at anything coming up, I was just instinctively going in the direction that it wanted to go in, and I think that it just speaks well of the fact that they cast the show really well, and my instincts are in line with Victor’s. I can argue why Victor is right about everything that he does. I can argue that he’s not a villain, and I think I can argue pretty convincingly.
AX: In his own mind, is Victor a good father?
MARSTERS: Hell, yeah. My kids are grown now, but when they were younger, I know how tempting it is to tell them that everything they do is perfect and they’re great, even when they’re not even really trying. Because what that means is, they will like me. And I know how hard it is to tell them the opposite, that they are not doing well enough, that they are capable of better, that they are not trying hard enough, and I expect more from them. And those are the really tough moments. I don’t think I was perfect in parenting. Hopefully, I struck a good balance. But here’s the question for you – is it worse to tell your kids all the time, that no matter what they do, they’re doing well enough? Or is it worse to be too hard on them, and tell them they always need to do better? If you’re going to make a mistake, and go too far one way or the other, which is actually worse, or which is more damaging to the child long-term? And I don’t know if I can answer it, but I think it’s a good question to ask.
So I think Victor is very hard on his son Chase [played by Gregg Sulkin]. The problem is that Victor sees that Chase is as smart as he is. His son is a genius. The challenge for Chase is that he’s so pretty, and he’s so good at athletics, that he could convince himself that he was just a jock, when in fact, he has an IQ northward of 170. And he is my intellectual equal, but doesn’t seem to understand that. And the world needs hope. And Victor is on a mission from God. Victor is trying to save Earth, and he’s trying to revolutionize energy production and transportation. And he knows that unless those two issues are addressed, that Earth is going to burn, and the human race is not going to survive more than a couple more generations. And he doesn’t see anyone else capable of this fast-paced revolution, and he doesn’t see anyone even really trying. So he’s frustrated about that. He is convinced that, if he has to do it alone, he’ll do it.
But he sees his son Chase as someone that could actually help. Except Chase is just playing lacrosse, and it seems like that’s a waste of time, and irresponsible, given the state of the world. He’s freaking Teen Wolf when he should be Albert Einstein, for God’s sake. And so, yes, I’m hard on him. Some of my favorite teachers in my life have been hard on me, the ones I learned the most from. So is he an easy father, is he a pleasant father? No. Is he the kind of father that can help a young genius realize his potential? Quite possibly. And I have to say, I’m not advocating everything that Victor does, but I for now am Victor, and I am paid to think like Victor, and I think that there’s a good argument to be made that he’s not perfect, but he’s not all bad, either.
AX: Were you amused that Gregg Sulkin, who plays your son, sort of physically resembles you? The cheekbones …
MARSTERS: [laughs] Okay. Gregg [Sulkin] is such a good-looking man, I’m stunned to hear that. I don’t see myself as such a good-looking guy [laughs] – I’m just me. And so thank you. And I expect that Gregg would have the same kind of reaction. I think I actually was cast after him, so they probably matched me to him. I don’t know – pretty funny.
AX: What was your audition like?
MARSTERS: Actually, I think they cast me because I took the character in an improv where I was addressing my engineering staff, saying that NASA needs help figuring out the Mars mission, and the thing they need to really figure out is feces. They have to figure out a way to recycle the water in the vehicle, and this is actually true. They can’t throw anything away, so everything’s got to be in a closed loop cycle on the three-month journey, and they have found a way to extract the water out of the air, the water out of all of the waste products, but feces, they can’t get the water out. And if they don’t figure that out, we ain’t going to Mars. So I think that’s why they cast me.
AX: You seem to get cast as a number of people who have unorthodox ideas about saving the planet, Brainiac and Barnaby and even Spike. Do you think there’s something in you that causes you to get these roles, or that, if you work enough, you’re going to get cast as these people from time to time?
MARSTERS: I think I have a better argument for Victor being correct about this than Brainiac, admittedly. And I enjoy fighting for an underdog. I enjoy taking the side of someone who most people are against. Kurt Cobain, when he did MTV, wore a shirt that said, “Nixon.” And I just thought that was genius [laughs]. Everybody hates Nixon, especially [Cobain’s] fans. But Kurt’s going to say, “Hey, what about old Richard? I bet he actually had some good points. He was a human being.” I have been cast as villains, but I’ve always passionately argued their side of it, as if they are right. And I think that’s probably the best way to play a villain.
AX: Is Victor in charge of the group of parents who call themselves Pride?
MARSTERS: I think in Victor’s mind, they’re all serving his interests. I’m not sure if they would agree with that [laughs]. I don’t think that he has to have everyone call him the leader, but I think that he strenuously believes that he is the one with the most important agenda. Victor is a lot like Elon Musk. In the way that Elon is addressing energy and transportation, in the way that Elon is both an engineer and an inventor, so he can take an idea and actually build the thing. It’s just that Elon is probably not as ruthless.
AX: Is there any difference in working for Hulu than working for a conventional network?
MARSTERS: No. I guess the only difference is that we got to complete a season [of RUNAWAYS] before anyone saw anything. At first, that was a little disconcerting, because you like to think that you can course-correct. If you see something that you don’t like [when production is still going when the show is airing], you can change it up. But at the same time, it just forced everyone to trust the producers, and trust that if they didn’t like what was going on, they’d tell you, and if they like it, they usually say, “Hey, man, that was really good.” And I thought that was wonderful, actually. I would like to shoot a whole show, seven seasons, before anyone sees it [laughs]. Just because I’m an actor, and I start freaking out about my hair, or I don’t think that costume is good, and I just question this stuff that doesn’t really matter as much, and I think being able to shoot it this way just meant that we could lose ourselves in the story, and not judge ourselves, and just think as the characters. I would say that is the only difference. I’ve met people from Hulu, but most of my interaction was really with the show runners, and they’re just really good writers, the people behind GOSSIP GIRL, so they know their stuff.
AX: You also have a couple of films coming up. What is ABRUPTIO?
MARSTERS: ABRUPTIO is a movie that was the sickest script that I had ever been sent in my life. Ten pages in, I was convinced I wasn’t going to finish it – it was too gross. It’s about a world where people are breaking into [other people’s] homes, implanting a small explosive charge in people’s carotid arteries, and blackmailing them to do the most heinous things to each other, and the world is falling apart. I got about two-thirds in and reminded myself that this was a movie that was going to be done with puppets, and I started laughing. And I just imagined this world done with puppets. One of my favorite movies is TEAM AMERICA, which the SOUTH PARK writers [made]. And part of what makes it work so well is the puppets. And I thought that it was just going to be a very memorable movie. If done correctly, it could be quite delightful, so I signed on.
AX: What is A BREAD FACTORY?
MARSTERS: Such a good experience. A BREAD FACTORY is an independent film, starring Tyne Daly, who was in CAGNEY AND LACEY on television, but she’s spent her time in theatre since that show. She’s widely considered one of our better actors in America. In Hudson, New York, in real life, there is a cultural arts center that has helped revitalize Hudson. Hudson went through a lot of depressed years, because of the industrialization, for reasons that I probably don’t know completely, but they went through a real tough time, I think starting with the ‘70s. And because of this cultural arts center, they have an opera in a town of seven thousand people. It’s attracted a lot of small business and revitalization and given Hudson a heart. THE BREAD FACTORY is about that, about how hard it is to keep a not-for-profit arts center open, and the love that is in those walls. So it’s a celebration of community and art, and of heroic sacrifice for community builders.
It’ll be two movies, and it was shot in such a way that the actors had to really be on their toes. The director [Patrick Wang] explained that he likes to edit in-camera, so you basically do one take, and that’s the scene. There’s no cheating, there’s no cutting one take with another take so that you can get the best parts of two takes. You have to do it flawlessly. And on top of that, the dialogue is like splintered [David] Mamet, which is to say, very short lines, a lot of cues, a lot of interrupting people exactly on the right word. It’s all about a specific rhythm. So he hires people with theatre training, because theatre people have proficiency in that. So it was a challenge, and it was just delicious. I like doing things that are just a little too hard, just to see if I’ve still got it [laughs]. And it was great.
AX: And you’ve also got a streaming series that you produce and star in, VIDIOTS. Can you describe that?
MARSTERS: In a word, it’s awesome [laughs]. VIDIOTS is an online show about two guys that travel the world and understand nothing. It’s a bit like AN IDIOT ABROAD, which if you’ve never seen, you should check out. Ricky Gervais produces a show about an Englishman who would very much like to stay within a two-block radius of his front door, but he’s forced to go out and see the Great Wall of China, go out and see all sorts of places around the world, and he’s just tortured by having to do it. And he doesn’t really understand – [Gervais accent] “The Great Wall, I don’t get it, it’s big, it’s dirty, so what?” But in our show, you get two idiots for the price of one. It combines that with video gaming. I do the show with my good friend Mark Devine, who is the funniest man I’ve ever met, and is the worst gamer I’ve ever gamed with. And he’s never more hilarious than when he’s dying, when he’s getting slaughtered or failing at some level on a videogame. He gets really angry at himself, and it’s hilarious.
The initial idea was to flip the YouTube videos that I’ve seen about gaming, where you have someone who’s really good at gaming, and millions of people watch these, and they’re just enormously better at it than I’ll ever be, and they make me feel like a horrible gamer. And the person then tries to crack jokes. But whereas the video-gaming is really tight, the jokes are sometimes pretty flat. And I thought it would be funny to flip that, and have us just be unapologetically horrible at videogames, but be really funny as we’re going about it. And people could laugh, and also feel better about their own gaming skills.
We were shooting in Paris, and we were playing an ASSASSIN’S CREED that takes place in Paris. So we were in a beautiful spring day, in a beautiful area of Paris, but we had the blinds closed, and we were playing a videogame. And it struck me as obscene that we should be doing that [laughs]. And I said, “Mark, this is absolutely ridiculous. We’re actually in Paris, we don’t have to pretend with a videogame. We should go outside. Let’s shoot the show outside today.” And we went out into Paris and started interacting, and we just naturally assumed characters that were stupider versions of ourselves, and just remarking on the things we saw as we walked. And we got some really good footage. And so we decided to combine kind of a travelogue with the video-gaming. And we finished the first season, and it’s a subscription, and it’s very popular, I have to say. It is on Amazon and Vimeo. And if you go to VidiotsOnline.com, you can get it.
AX: And Ghost of the Robot, the band you’ve been with since its inception over a decade ago, just completed a new album?
MARSTERS: Yes. PAIR OF BULLS. It [came] out on New Year’s Day.
AX: Is there any particular theme to PAIR OF BULLS?
MARSTERS: Quality is our theme [laughs]. No, not really. It is an extension of where I’ve wanted the band to be, which is, I’ve always wanted it to have more than one lead singer, I’ve always wanted people to have trouble knowing exactly who’s singing at any one point, I wanted us to be doing harmonies for each other. And the last album I thought really started to get there, because people were coming up to me and saying they’d heard the new album, and I sounded great on a track that I wasn’t the lead singer on. And at this point, we’re equal, we have three singer/songwriters, and we’re sharing the load equally.
AX: The three singer/songwriters are still you, Charlie De Mars and your son Sullivan Marsters?
AX: And musician Kevin McPherson is still with Ghost of the Robot as well?
MARSTERS: Yeah. I was just talking to Charlie, and he’s just over the moon. I think it’s our best album, for sure.
James Marsters and Ghost of the Robot will be performing a concert at WhedonCon in Los Angeles on Friday, May 18; Marsters will be appearing at WhedonCon on Saturday, May 19. Go to WhedonCon.com for details.