Marsters Of The UniverseWritten by Rohan Williams
The Buffy, Smallville and Torchwood star reflects on a long showbiz career and talks dildos, fan fiction and ageing with Rohan Williams.
You're coming out to Australia soon for Supanova. I'm guessing with your fan following, you do a lot of these conventions?
Yeah, I love it, man. I love it. I love that people are walking around these conventions carrying swords and axes and drinking beer and nobody gets into a fight. Where else in the world does that happen? I always compare it to a Grateful Dead concert or a Burning Man festival where you can pretty much be whatever you want. You can be 70 years old and be a Klingon; you can be 12 years old and be Spider-Man. It's all good.
What are the most interesting interactions you've had with fans at these things?
My interactions tend to be really good! The most interesting thing that happened for me recently was when I met somebody who worked for the jet propulsion laboratories in Pasadena, California, who was proud that the new Mars rover, Curiosity, had landed successfully. He took a moment to explain exactly how hard it was to do that. There was a period in the landing process where they were going 380,000 miles an hour and they had to go down to three miles an hour in seven minutes!
The whole thing had to be automated, man. There were no orders from Earth, because the signal takes too long to get there. And there were so many steps! They had to release the heat shield, release one parachute, then cut that and release a bigger parachute, cut that and then fire retro-rockets, and then lower the rover on a tether from the retro-rocket pack close to the ground, and then release it like a little baby on the ground. And it all went great! He just went on about it, like, 'dude, you have no idea how hard that is!'
So that was awesome. I shook the hand of a guy who helped build the Curiosity.
Obviously, he would have known you through your work on Buffy, Torchwood, Smallville, etc. Is there something about these sci-fi and fantasy shows that particularly interests you, or is it just a case of going where the work is?
No, I'm a sci-fi and fantasy fan from way back! My favourite television shows, besides the original Honeymooners, were Star Trek, Planet of the Apes – which was a depressing show – and the original Twilight Zone.
As I've gotten older, I've realised the thing I'm proudest about is that fantasy and science fiction can address social issues head-on, in a way that realistic drama just cannot. I'm put in mind of the court jester of the Middle Ages, who was the only person in court who could call the King an idiot. As long as it was funny, he could get away with it, and he was known as the most important person at court besides the King, and really looked to for wisdom.
I remember on Buffy, right after a horrible school shooting in Columbine... that week we happened to have a story about a student up in a bell tower with a high-powered rifle, and Buffy goes up there and stops him, and they sit and talk about why he was up there. We also had the first teenage lesbian kiss. Buffy talked about how hard it is to grow up, and how hard it is to realise the world is a messed up place, and how not to give up on it. Hamlet addresses that, Catcher In The Rye addresses that, but to be able to get it out in popular media for a lot of people to see is really quite exciting, actually. I'm a subversive artist, so it's perfect for me.
Do you think sci-fi still serves that function? If you look around in 2012, are there a lot of sci-fi shows or movies that are commenting on society?
Well, yeah! God, do we have enough time? Caprica was very brave. You know how you put a frog in water and boil it, and if you bring up the temperature very slowly it won't jump out? Caprica was saying, 'hey guys, you're the frog, and you're cooking yourselves'. We're cooking our own planet. The future is dire disaster, and nobody down here realises it. Of course, Caprica is talking about a different planet and a different set of circumstances, but just watching a culture blind to the fact they're about to die... I thought that was brilliant, and fantasy is probably the only way to really think about that.
The Wachowski Brothers are also really good at doing this. I thought The Matrix, and this is a while ago, was a fabulous rumination on consumer society. V For Vendetta, right here in the States... I couldn't believe it, a few years after 9/11, to have a hero blowing up buildings. So it definitely continues, yeah.
Speaking of contemporary fantasy... when Spike was introduced in Buffy, Joss Whedon wanted to downplay the character's popularity, because he didn't want the show to be taken over by romantic vampires. In 2012, the world's been taken over by romantic vampires. How do you feel about that?
I know! And he's pulling his hair out, man! The poor guy! There was a reason why, when we got sharp, sexy teeth, we also got an ugly forehead. He did not want us to be anything other than ugly, dangerous, and very quickly dead. We were a metaphor for all the problems a person faces when they are in that important stage between childhood and adulthood, adolescence, when they're figuring everything out.
He got talked into one romantic vampire, that was Angel, by his writing partner David Greenwalt, and of course Angel shot up like a rocket. So he said, 'that's it! No more! That's all you get! I'm not doing this; I don't like that Anne Rice stuff!' Spike was not supposed to be... I was not supposed to be romantic. I was supposed to be grungey. I was supposed to be like Sid Vicious. It didn't work out that way.
I remember Joss backed me up against a wall, and literally got in my face, shaking his finger, saying, 'I don't care how popular you are, man, you are dead! Dead, dead, dead!' I was like, 'dude, it's your football! It's okay, it's alright!'
You must have been surprised when you became a recurring character.
Yeah, I was surprised every week! Like a lot of actors, I read the scripts backwards, looking for my death scene, and never found it! I was so amazed!
I suppose one of the only things Buffy and Twilight have in common, aside from vampires, is that they both generate an inordinate amount of fan fiction. In your darkest moments, have you ever read any Buffy/Spike fan fiction?
No, I haven't! I haven't! But I think it's absolutely beautiful. I think it's one of the most exciting things... I come from stage, right? And in stage, the script is just the beginning point of a conversation between the actors and the audience. On a human level, on an emotional level, it's a conversation between the audience and the actors. It means the audience cannot be sleepy. The audience has to be there to give as well.
If you ask a sculptor or a painter what their piece is about, they'll ask you, 'well, what's going on with you right now?' I'm trying to elicit a response, and if I'm not getting a response then the piece of art is dead. It's not working. It's not for me to tell you what to feel about it. It's supposed to make you feel any one of a number of things; tell me what your experience is.
So having an audience take over the conversation and create whole new topics for it is like... that's the best reaction you could hope for. Did you know, by the way, that 50 Shades Of Grey started as Twilight fan fiction?
I did, yeah. Isn't that wild?
Yeah! I mean, I'm not advocating... I don't know if I'm a complete fan of 50 Shades Of Grey, I don't know if it was written as well as it could have been, but I think it touched a nerve, for sure. It's selling a lot of dildos over here, and that's always a good thing! Go, girls! But to see that cross-pollination, to see the audience become the artist, is great.
One of the things people liked about Spike was his London accent. It's rare to see Americans play Brits, but it's not unusual to see a Brit play an American. Why do you think that is?
I think that's because their training regime is more technical than ours. But I went to Juilliard, which is a very technical acting school. So technical, in fact, that it probably doesn't help one get work in America. It's like they're training you for the London stage! I would imagine that is the reason. Doing different accents is just something that's pounded into them, and was pounded into me, to some extent, frankly.
Did you meet people who thought you were actually from London for a long time after Buffy?
I got it last week! It happens all the time, yeah. Especially when I go over to London. All the girls go, 'give us your sexy British accent', and I go, 'what's wrong with my American one? Isn't it hot?' And they say, 'no, not so much'.
That's just a form of narcissism, isn't it? If British people think the British accent is hotter...
Don't you think? But the fact that so many Americans agree kind of reinforces the narcissism.
You said about seven years ago that you'd only come back to Spike if it happened within seven years. Now that it's been seven years, what are your thoughts on that? Are you officially closing the door?
Well, you know, I discovered this wonderful product that tightens your face! A friend showed it to me, I put it on, and I was like, 'holy crap! Maybe I'm back in the game!' If a reunion comes up, I'll get a big bucket of it and just submerge myself in it. Maybe that'll work!
I think I've held up better than I thought I would, but you'd have to be careful. You'd have to do some screen tests to make sure you didn't corrupt that image. I would not want to ruin people's memory of the character, and I think one of the coolest things about being a vampire is that you're immortal. If we could come up with a story that would maintain that, let's go.
There's also a great computer program that they use for newscasters which takes about ten years off your face...
They used something like that in the X-Men films, to make Patrick Stewart look a little younger in flashbacks...
Yeah. And in two years, it'll be cheap enough. I guess I don't want to close the door, but if the door were to open, I'd want it to be right.
Yeah. One of the other cool things about your filmography is that you've played both Braniac [in Smallville] and Lex Luthor [in Superman: Doomsday]. I think you're the only person who can say that. Who was more fun to play?
Oh, wow... oh, man, I can't pick. Those are both iconic villains. I have to say, I loved pretending to care about Clark Kent [in Smallville]. That was just delicious. 'Come here! Your father died, I'll be your dad for a while, I'll explain how things work... come here, little fly!'
Frankly, Braniac freaked me out as a kid, too. I read mostly Batman comic books, but my brother loved Superman, and whenever I was done with my comics, I'd read his. Braniac freaked me the hell out, because he was a robot, but he was sadistic and maniacal and grinning all the time! That just... that flipped me out. I was able to get that kind of maniacal sadism into the show, at least in one scene, during one of the fights Tom [Welling] and I had. I had a great time doing that.
But then Lex is just so damn smug! About the only direction I get when I do Lex is, 'you are the smartest person in the room, you are the smartest person on the planet, just own it. These are primates to you. Seriously, go for it.' When you're ordered to be egotistical, that's a lot of fun for an actor!
Man, I'm guessing you could talk all day, but we're about to get the wind-up. Thanks for taking the time.
Oh, hell yeah, Rohan! That was my pleasure.
James Marsters will appear at Supanova Brisbane (RNA Showgrounds, November 9-11) and Adelaide (Adelaide Showground, November 16-18).