Actor James Marsters, popular star of TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Angel (1997-2004) as Spike returns to the stage with his costar from Buffy Juliet Landau in a world premiere comedy The Bells of West 87th at Greenway Court Theatre opening September 7. In our chat, Marsters talks confidently about his successful rock band Ghost of the Robot, acting, doing other plays he would like to pursue as actor/director/producer...and of course, this new play by Elin Hampton The Bells... where he claims fans will not recognize him...his character is so radically different from the villains they're so used to seeing him play...
Tell me about the play and your role in it.
I play Chris Germain in a play called The Bells of West 87th (Street) by Elin Hampton. Elin Hampton is a comedy writer who worked on television for a long time very successfully. This play I think will be the first of many. I come from theatre and I like to think that I can recognize good writing, and I truly think that Elin is a great continuation of Neil Simon. She's able to combine pathos with a frothy light comedy. It's a character-driven comedy more than situation comedy, which is a lot harder to write. Like Neil Simon, she handles it so deftly that you don't really notice. I really think we will see more of her in the coming years; I'm excited that I get to be one of the first actors to get her work up onstage.
Are you responsible for bringing the project here?
No, I'm just lucky to be hitching a ride. My character is probably the most clueless character I have played in a long time. I got a note the other day to combine Stan Laurel with either Bill or Ted (Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure from 1989). It would be my choice. I'm choosing...it's been so long... whoever is not Keanu Reeves. Nothing against Keanu, but I think the other guy was more exuberant. I think that that's what they were going for. He's a loving, pure soul, a very likable person...not an idiot, but not highly intelligent, and with a blind spot the size of Australia. Most of life goes over his head. He could probably watch news about Egypt and think it was a happy story. The play is about Juliet's (Landau) character Molly, who is waking up to the fact that she's servicing a bunch of freaks and needs to get out and start her own life. There's a great line in a Tennessee Williams play Camino Real "the violets on the mountains have broken the rocks up"; Juliet is the violet and we are the rocks, in a funny way. And so I'm loving, I'm likable, I'm happy, but I'm of very little use to my girlfriend.
Juliet is an astounding actress. I've interviewed her before when she did Danny and the Deep Blue Sea in North Hollywood. She's right there in the moment.
Yeah. I remember working with her back in Buffy... She would go straight for the insanity part of the character in a full-throated way that other actresses would be too afraid to go for. "Oh, I'm not going to look glamorous" or "I wonder if they're going to think I'm really insane". She went straight for it. She took no prisoners, and she earned my respect over and over again. I'm happy to be able to return the favor, 'cause this time she's the lead, she's the one who's a little more normal, and I'm the freak. And I'm trying to be as brave about going for that freak as she was about going for hers.
You'll have to forgive me but I never saw Buffy. I do remember you from Torchwood (2008, as Captain John Hart). I was a big fan of that show. It was so imaginative, but it didn't last as long as I would have hoped.
That was a deeply subversive show. I produced theatre in Chicago and Seattle and we were a fairly subversive theatre company. The one thing about subversion, it doesn't last all the time. There's always a pushback against it. We subversives, we don't want to offend people, but we often do because we're trying to divest people of lies that we get taught before we know we're being taught. Some of these lies can be: You can buy Christmas. Violence works. Old people are boring. And Gay people can't be heroes. Torchwood just went straight at that last lie and tore it up. I was very very proud to be part of it.
Who is the favorite villain you've played in these TV shows? I understand besides Buffy and Torchwood, you played a villain in Smallville as well (2005).
(He laughs) Brainiac. I got to pretend care about Clark Kent. I remember Tom (Welling) and I had this scene up in a barn. It was like an inch away from a love scene; I was just reeling him in the whole time. I was like a father figure to him, giving him advice, (he gets into Brainiac's manner of speaking) "Clark, what's important about life, is you've got to love people..." But...in reality, I'm going to kill him by the end of the episode, or I'm going to try; that was fun. To answer your question, I think I'm most proud of Buffy.
You certainly had a good run and you must have gotten a lot of teenage fan mail.
Yeah. It was about how do you get over adolescence, how do you wake up to the fact that your parents are idiots and your teachers only halfway understand what they're trying to teach you. The world is a very messed up place, and how do you face that without giving up? The vampires and all that were just a metaphor for all the challenges you face in that period of your life. I think that's a really great theme that never gets old, and that was a very imaginative way to approach it.
You've done a lot of great theatre. In Chicago you were at the Bailiwick, Goodman...Do you have a favorite play from that period?
Robespierre was one of the ones I'm most proud of. That was an original play called Incorruptible at Bailiwick. A six hour play about the French Revolution, and I almost never left the stage. The second half of the play which is three hours, we only got that about two weeks before opening, but we got it up on its feet, sold out and won awards. A lot of heavy lifting in that play.
You're also a rock musician.
Yeah. I'm going off to Atlanta to play. The band is called Ghost of the Robot. Our last album debuted at 98 on the top 200 on iTunes. We've old out venues in London, Germany, Paris, Amsterdam, all over the United States...we haven't played Thailand yet (we laugh), but we've been almost everywhere else. I have to say, my favorite thing is when we go into rock clubs where the sound man has like heard everybody, and when we go into sound check, the guy's like, "Hi, Mr. James Marsters, television star and whoever the hell is with you..." No respect at all. Then after sound check, the guy's like, "Hey, you guys are pretty good." And then, without fail, after the show, the dud's got his fists up in the air going, (he feigns raspy voice) "You guys rock! You guys frickin' rock. I love you." And we earn it. I lucked into meeting some really good musicians, some of whom were playing jazz at Lincoln Center, but were teenagers at the time, so they had both the ability to bubble like jazz but the teenage thing about they could hit hard and really mean it. Yeah, we don't suck; we're good.
OK, here it comes, the big question, if you had to make a choice between being an actor or a musician, which would you choose?
(laughing) I refuse to choose, man! I live my life thinking that one doesn't have to. I like to cross-train.
Any way that I can express myself, that I can remind myself and the audience, that I'm not alone, express some strange idea that I have or a hard emotion that I'm going through, whatever it is, and put it in a delightful way hopefully. The audience can say, "Hey, I felt that too". We don't feel alone together. I paint, I write, I write music, I do about anything expressive that I can think of.
Do you feel that you're good at all of them?
I think I'm a good writer. I'm a mediocre painter who means it. My painting is not really to show people; it's more so that I can look at the world and notice how beautiful it is. Painting makes you stop and look at one thing for a long time, and really notice what light is doing to an object. That's a good experience. I write pretty darn good songs, I have to say. My chord structure tends to be simple, so I write good blues, folk, straight ahead pop stuff. I also like my lyrics which are pretty straight-forward. very honest and sometimes very funny, sometimes a bit naughty. A lot of guys that are at shows, they get dragged there by their girlfriends, and you see them with their arms crossed giving you the scowl, but by the end they're like bopping and going, "I felt that too. A girl did that to me one time too, man!" In all honesty, I did make the choice. I was playing guitar in bars when I was thirteen, but I chose to go to college for acting. It's acting. But later in life, you get to expand.
Is there a role you're dying to play?
I have found that whatever I expect to happen, the universe has other plans, so unless I'm willing to produce it myself, there's no point in saying what role I really want to do. I like to be surprised by what comes ahead, but I would say that I would like to produce again. I have playwrights that I would love to do. I produced a play called Kvetch in Seattle, fabulous, very difficult for actors to perform. It was a difficult rehearsal process, but we got it. It hit like gold. George Walker, Canadian playwright, who writes about the under class in Toronto...I would love to get back to him. I directed Criminals in Love,
and I don't think I quite got there. I'd love to direct a Mamet play. You have to have actors with a facility for jazz, actors who can speak languages if they're playing jazz, because it's all about rhythm.
Mamet's a bit like Oscar Wilde in that there is a rhythm dictated that you have to do, and if you do that, it all goes off like gangbusters. If you can come up to the work, the work will do it for you. I'd like to do Wilde too; I love that sense of music.
Any upcoming TV you want to promote?
I do want to plug a book.on.tape series called the Dresden Files. Those are really quite good, a combination of Harry Potter and Sam Spade. Those books always have a little more meat on the bone than I expect. There's always a scene or two that stick with me as far as emotional impact. I think the author (Jim Butcher) has plans to do 25 books, and we've done 14 so far. It's a long series, and with every book the main character Harry Dresden gets more powerful as a wizard and as a private eye, as the world gets more and more chaotic. His ability to pick up the stakes with every book has just been incredible.
One final thing about this play, The Bells of West 87th. Your ad!
Come to the play and expect to be surprised! If you think that this is going to be like anything you've seen me in before, guess again. I'm going to shock you, but hopefully delight you by the end.
Marsters is a sharp, fast-talking and totally likable actor who knows who he is and what he is capable of..it seems to me after talking with him...the sky's the limit...Go see him in The Bells of West 87th at the Greenway Court Theatre!