Exclusive Interview: JAMES MARSTERS GETS PLUGGED INTO 'CAPRICA' - PART ONE
The actor talks about his recurring role on the Syfy series, SMALLVILLE, the news and Spike
By ABBIE BERNSTEIN, Contributing Writer
If you need an actor to play a character who remains dynamic and charismatic while committing some questionable, perhaps even reprehensible, deeds, especially if your alma mater as a writer is BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, you naturally think of James Marsters, who played Spike. If you’re Jane Espenson, one of the producers/writers of Syfy’s BATTLESTAR GALACTICA prequel series CAPRICA, that’s who you wind up getting for the role of Barnabus Greeley, a major figure in the Soldiers of The One. In CAPRICA’s society, where worship of many gods is the norm, believers in a single God are looked on with suspicion. It doesn’t help law-abiding monotheists that the Soldiers of The One do things like blow up trains, which happened in the opening episode.
Marsters, on CAPRICA for a multi-episode arc that may resume next season, talks with us about playing Barnabus and all the other things he’s been up to lately.
iF: Had you and Jane Espenson been talking for awhile about working together, or did the call to do CAPRICA come out of the blue?
JAMES MARSTERS: Every time I ever saw her, we talked about how fun it was to be up on the mountaintop [working on BUFFY]together, and how lucky we were to find interesting work after our experience together on BUFFY and ANGEL, but that something was still missing, and I always thought it was because we weren’t working together [laughs]. That was the combination. And so one day, I got a call that she was pushing to have me included in the CAPRICA cast, and it was for a different character at first, and I don’t know if I was right for the character, but she wanted me on that show [laughs], and when it didn’t work out for that character, she kept pressing for something else that I think has worked out really well. Nothing changed at all [in the relationship with Espenson]. It was, “Oh, my God, we get to work together again!” We’re just little kids.
iF: And former BUFFY writer Drew Z. Greenberg is on CAPRICA, too.
MARSTERS: Yeah. He’s fabulous. I didn’t get to see him up there, but that’s a really good addition.
iF: Had you wanted to play a terrorist before this?
MARSTERS: [laughs] Yeah. One of my favorite films is V FOR VENDETTA, which is not to say that my personal choice is to take up arms. I myself am in the middle of a nonviolent revolution, but I have to say, the only difference between me and my character on this show is that Barnabus has decided that it’s okay to hurt people for the revolution.
iF Isn’t Barnabus also sort of a religious fanatic?
MARSTERS: Yes. However, and follow me here, because I’m playing the role, I have to understand where he’s coming from. What I love both about BATTLESTAR and about CAPRICA is that there are lots of gray areas. There are people that are fighting for what they believe in, and they’re making mistakes anyway. But Barnabus, my character, is living in a world that’s like ancient Rome, where [in virtual reality] they’re having mass executions and mass orgies and feeding each other to animals, and it’s a society becoming unhinged with decadence. And just like I can understand people being swayed by Christianity in that background, I can understand Barnabus getting swayed, too, to really want there to be one God who has answers and who has rules, like “Don’t hit your sister,” “Don’t pee in the pool,” “Forgive each other,” almost like a parent helping us to stop hurting each other. And that’s very seductive, to not have the answers about how to fix the world but want them to be provided to you by this wise hand. The only difference is that I’m a Jeffersonian Christian, which [means] that you just pay attention to the New Testament, and you don’t care if Jesus walked on water, you just listen to the philosophy, the one that went down through Gandhi and then down to Dr. Martin Luther King. The major part of that is, I believe, you can change the world without hurting people. Barnabus has chosen something different. He is going to change the world by hurting people. That’s where he diverges.
iF: In playing Barnabus, do you as an actor engage in physical fight scenes, or does Barnabus delegate the hurting of people?
MARSTERS: He so far is delegating, but he is definitely a character who could mix it up. As we’re playing him, he’s a very dangerous character physically. But he hasn’t gotten into a fight scene yet. I can’t wait ‘til they let me do that, though – they’re going to be very happy with dailies that day [laughs].
iF: Apart from not getting physically violent yet, what’s Barnabus like?
MARSTERS: Well, here’s the thing, and this is what was so fun – the first day, I was working with Michael Nankin, who was directing the episode, and they were filming it with three cameras at one time, which meant that they got the close, the medium and the wide shot at once. Michael would tell me, “Okay, do this one like you’re so angry, you want to kill him.” And we’d do that take. And then he said, “Okay, now turn around on a dime and it’s just like you want to love everybody. It’s all about love. Wipe that away, and now I want you to be really proud, now I want you to be really meek.” And it was so freeing and so scary at the same time, to leap off the cliff in a new way. It was just wonderful. I remember coming back from that day just flying. But if you asked me what they’re going to use, I don’t know!
iF: Did Nankin have you play the scene in a multitude of ways so that he could have choices in editing, or was it because the producers/writers were still contemplating how they wanted to write the character further down the line and they wanted you to preview different options?
MARSTERS: It’s because they knew I knew my lines and they got printable takes on the first one. They had time, so it was like, “Let’s play.” And yeah, we think we know where the character is going, but we’re finding out right now, because all the writers and producers were there and they’re all talking. Certain things they planned didn’t work, like they had me in a kilt in the beginning, and it seemed very cool, but they took some photographs and, “You know? No.” Boom, new costume. Within five minutes, a new look was provided. “Yeah,” “No,” “Yeah,” “No,” and then the third costume came through and the final thing was, “Okay, now make him dirtier than a mountain. Just put so much dirt on him.” And then finally I was ready. It was wonderful, very confident, and by the end of the day, you’re like, “Man, that was some of the best stuff I think I’ve done.”
iF: Do you have to rethink anything you’re doing when multiple cameras are shooting simultaneously?
MARSTERS: No. I tend to kind of forget about the camera anyway, unless they’re telling me I have to keep my light in my eye, I have to watch out to keep open to a camera when I pass the pole or whatever. Otherwise, I just trust the cameraman to shoot me. I always feel that actors, like models, look best when they’re not even aware of the camera. I’ve noticed that when I’m watching the monitor in between takes and they’re just focusing on the actor’s face and they’re just talking to someone normally and they’re not performing or they’re not aware – we’re always prettier in those off moments.
iF: Are most of your scenes at this point with Magda Apanowicz, who plays monotheistic high school student Lacy Rand, and Polly Walker, who plays manipulative Clarice Willow?
MARSTERS: Yes. Most of my scenes are with Magda and Polly. Both of them are very fun. Magda is a pistol. She’s full of life and full of laughter and welcomed me right away. She came to my trailer personally and just said, “Welcome to the set,” and we’re having a good time and it really kind of set the tone for the fact that it was a friendly place to be. And Polly and I, when we met each other, we were in character, so we were kind of like [sizing each other up], “Hello …” We’re at odds. But in a very cool way. She’s very funny.
iF: CAPRICA shoots in Vancouver. You had a recurring role as Milton Fine/Brainiac in several season of SMALLVILLE, which also shoots in Vancouver. Are the vibes on the two sets at all similar, or are they very different?
MARSTERS: It is similar in that it’s a very competent, very talented crew and cast, and everyone seems to be [hired] with an eye toward being a decent human being. So it’s a very comfortable place to be. In that, yes, similar, and all the mountain backdrops are the same. But frankly, the ride that I’m taking with CAPRICA is so much more serious and has so many more things to say, I think, about where we as a society and where we’re heading as a society. It’s not afraid to take on some very large issues in a very dramatic way, with the robots running around shooting each other with lasers and hovering trains and all the bells and whistles. But like BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, there’s also some heavier stuff going on. Whereas I think SMALLVILLE is a really good, fun ride, deliciously fun villains and beautiful damsels to be rescued.
iF: Have you watched BATTLESTAR GALACTICA?
MARSTERS: I think I’d only caught five or six episodes, and I loved all of them, but I didn’t get the big sweep of it, and I’m beginning to sense that I’ve really missed out. I’ve had multiple family members tell me I needed to watch it. My girlfriend is an avid fan. I need to get my head out of the news and watch some good fiction. When you’re watching good fiction, you’re in the hands of an artist who has something to give you, some love or some point to give you, and that’s nourishment, whereas oftentimes the news is just an act of frustration.
iF: And sometimes incredulity. I mean, before she appeared on the national scene, would you ever have thought the political trajectory of Sarah Palin was possible?
MARSTERS: [sighs] In my most cynical times, yes, of course. In some ways, I love Sarah Palin, because she seems so clownish that she could never get elected [as President of the United States] and she’ll split the vote of the right, which will be an easy win for us if the vote is split, but then again, I think, “What would happen if she actually got elected?” So sometimes I laugh at her and sometimes I feel like a fool for not taking her seriously. What does one do? The country is changing. The color of the country is changing. And we’re not a white Christian nation. If we ever were, we’re certainly not now. And there are a lot of people who are very uncomfortable with this change.
iF: Speaking of people uncomfortable with society, Is there any difference between playing somebody who’s off doing his own thing and somebody like Barnabus, who’s a leader of people?
MARSTERS: Yes. The nice thing about playing Barnabus is that he’s sure that he’s right. There’s no doubt, or if there is, it’s shoved so far down as to not really be in play. And that just is a very simple, safe thing to feel, whereas Spike had some of that in a few seasons, but that was taken away from him very quickly, so he was existing in doubt all the time, which artistically is great, but it feels a lot scarier. There are similarities, too. Both of them really don’t care what the wider world thinks of them, both of them are extremely dirty [laughs], both of them in a way are at war with the world. But Barnabus is fighting for an idea. Barnabus is fighting for a greater cause that he believes is greater than himself, which makes him both inspirational and very dangerous. Spike was fighting very much selfishly, but had a lot of love that he was fighting for.