Written by Christina Radish Monday, 08 March 2010 07:00
James Marsters has become best known for playing the cool bad guy in such popular genre series as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Smallville and BBC's Torchwood. Now, he can add the monotheistic terrorist Barnabas on the SyFy drama Caprica to the list. During a recent interview, the actor told IESB about how much fun it is to play the cool bad guy and that he sees Barnabas as a revolutionary more than a terrorist. He also revealed that he would be open to reprising the role of Spike, if they could come up with a way to make it look like the vampire hasn't aged in the seven years since he last played the character, and how he'd be open to returning to Smallville and Torchwood, and even to making a cameo in the Dr. Horrible sequel, if the opportunity were to arise.
Q: What do you feel like you're playing such a devout religious character, after playing so many anti-religious characters throughout your career?
James: I love anybody who has convictions enough to make mistakes because only people who make mistakes get into enough trouble to be called drama. I'm playing the character, so I actually feel like I understand why he's doing what he's doing. He's living in a time which is coming apart at the seams, just like the Roman Empire did. And, in his world, people are committing human sacrifice, mass executions and mass orgies, and friends are shooting each other in the head for fun. In Rome, it was called the Coliseum and, on Caprica, it's called the V-Club. But, it has the same psychological effect on people. He's seeing society ripped apart, and he sees that the religion is not being helpful in spearing people towards moral behavior, so he wants to have a religion with one god that's going to tell people exactly what to do and exactly what the punishment is, if you don't do it, and what the reward is, if you do. That's a very comforting thought. He's willing to try to make a revolution and he's willing to hurt people.
Q: You recently mentioned that Caprica scares you because it's a look at where humanity is headed. What do you mean by that?
James: Well, I don't want to get too morose about it, but we are much like Rome. The cycles are going faster now because of technology. Rome had an empire for thousands of years, where ours seems to have lasted about 50. They say civilizations go through barbarism and civilizations in decadence. I don't know where the civilization part happened. Maybe it was the ‘60s. But, it may be true that we are starting to become decadent, as a society. And, this cycle is repeated in all societies that dare to call themselves empires. You can call it Caprica, so you don't have to call it America or the world, and you can be an audience member and say their world is about to end and they don't know it, but we've seen Battlestar Galactica, so we know what's going to happen. They don't, and there's something amazingly dramatic in that, but it also reflects where we are. It gets pretty depressing, if you really go there. If you talk to climatologists, if you talk to the people who are providing energy for the world, if you talk to the food production, if you talk to people who are experts on fresh water supply, it just gets depressing. You've got to watch it when you turn on the Discovery Channel these days. It can just trip you out. So, the people who do sci-fi and fantasy can address these issues fairly directly because we just change the name and we give you some spaceships, laser guns and robots, and we can all think about the stuff we don't want to think about, but need to anyway.
Q: What is the deal with the barbed wire around the arm? Is Barnabas a pain freak?
James: No, it's flagellation. It's got a long history in the Christian church. It may have history in other religions as well, but I know it from the Middle Ages. The flagellants thought that the Black Death was a curse, and that the black plague was God's punishment for human sin, so they punished themselves, going town to town, beating themselves with whips that had these metal pieces in them, and they would just spray their blood all over each town, as they went trying to lift the plague by suffering. Besides the rates, they were more responsible for spreading the plague because of all the blood. But, it's this idea that, "If the Bible says that I should be like Christ, and Christ suffered on the cross, then I should do that, too."
Q: You've done a lot of great sci-fi projects in your career, but what attracted your interest when you were a lot younger, like 5 to 10? Did you daydream a lot, or write any short stories as a child?
James: Early on, I was into genre. One of my favorite books was Fahrenheit 451, and I was also into George Orwell's Animal Farm. I was so blown away by Blade Runner when it came out. I thought 2001 was just incredible and bottomless. I was drawn to science fiction, but stuff that had meat on the bones and stuff to think about. Then, later on, once I hit puberty, I got into acting. I was really into acting. For a long time, I was just into Robert DeNiro and John Savage, and anybody that was in Deerhunter. I was totally into anybody that was in that cast and followed their careers. And so, I got very much into the gritty, late ‘70s Hollywood movies, like Dog Day Afternoon, all the way through the ‘80s with Sid and Nancy. There's a lot of that stuff that I was very into.
Q: How much does your character know about Zoe's (Alessandra Torresani) involvement?
James: I don't know a whole lot about Zoe. I probably know anything that Lacy has told Keon (Liam Sproule) about Zoe. I'm being a little bit opaque about it because I'm not supposed to reveal too much. I play a man who wants to change the world and is willing to break however many eggs he needs to, to achieve that.
Q: Battlestar and Caprica both seem to have one major thing in common, besides their storyline, which is the fact that they bring in icons from other shows that are just big with fandom. What do you think about getting to have your own accent for this role?
James: I've always been really thankful that I got to play a character (Spike) that got to wear so much makeup and bleach his hair and have a cool English accent. But, I was also really aware that I needed to get beyond that, if possible. So, I actually cut my blond hair off, the day after Angel went down. But, anytime that you have writing that is this good, you're going to get almost any actor that you want because everybody wants to do it. The producers had so many good actors on Battlestar that, when they decided to do a spin-off, they got a lot of good actors to choose from. They got Eric Stoltz, so they're going to get anybody they want. I'm glad that Jane Espenson working with me on Buffy because she fought to get me on Caprica. I'm just very lucky to be working with them, frankly. They're insane. They come up with wild ideas and then they just change their minds and say, "No, that sucks. Let's do something else." And, they do and it works, and it's fabulous. It's like being at the circus. I follow writers. In my little mind, I cast my own group of writers around Hollywood, the ones that, if I was forming a production company, I would call and try to get together and, if any of those people call me and they're writing for something, I'll go. And, Jane is on the top of that list. She had called me for a different role on Caprica, and I auditioned five or six times for that role, and they finally said, "No, you're really not right for that," but Jane said, "No, get him on the show," so they thought of another role, which I think is actually a lot more. I like playing a monotheistic terrorist. It's just great.
Q: How do you see Barnabas? Is he a terrorist or a criminal?
James: No, he's a revolutionary. How I see him is how he seems himself. You could say that George Washington was a terrorist. He was using different battle techniques. If you compare the English who were just coming at them in formation, standing people up in open fields and just marching forward, he was just hiding in the bushes and shooting. That's a little bit like the new tactics that we're facing in Afghanistan and Iraq. The terrorist is trying to instill terror in a civilian population, and they're definitely expanding the battlefield to civilian populations, which is something scary. But, in my mind, and in Barnabas' mind, he is trying to save the world. He's trying to give the world a new religion that will give guidance to people. He recognizes that not all, but some people really do need a superman to tell them, "You will not pee in the pool and, if you do, I will kick you out." They need a God and they need the 10 Commandments. They need to be told, "Thou shall do this. Don't do that or you'll burn. You'll go to Heaven, if you do." They need a daddy figure. Without that, you really face what Rome faced, which is people giving into sensual desire, to the point that the whole society wrecks. The Roman society had the same religion that they have on Caprica, which is a multi-deity mythology. All the Roman mythology had nothing to do with what you should do or what you should try to become, it was just trying to explain human psychology. The Gods behaved in very human ways and it was really just exploring why we are the way we are, but that doesn't give guidance. You can argue that that's exactly what you should do, but Barnabas sees it differently because he's going into these V-Clubs and he's seeing best friends shoot each other down for fun.
Q: In preparation for your role as Barnabas, did you watch any episodes of Battlestar, or even the first episodes of Caprica?
James: I had seen some of Battlestar. Everyone has. I hadn't watched all of it, but I've seen good chunks of it. But, I really had to try to forget that because we were doing a prequel of it and it was really important that nobody understands how serious it's about to get. We're still in the time when we think that a fight with the girlfriend is the most important thing that week. And so, I did watch the pilot of Caprica and, within the first 10 minutes, I got so shocked and horrified, not because there that was much gore on the screen, but just the ideas that were presented were so hard for me to watch, being a parent myself. I turned it off and, after 30 seconds, I just went, "That is incredible. As soon as I grow the balls, I've got to finish watching that." It was fabulous. I loved it and it terrified me, which I think is gold.
Q: How many episodes are you going to be in?
James: I've filmed five so far, and then there's a bit of a hiatus, and I'm hoping I'll return. They were hinting that they wanted to keep the option open, for having me back. They've left the door open for doing that, and I hope that they do.
Q: Is Barnabas alone? What is he driven by? Is it just his convictions, or is there some other, more human side that we'll see?
James: He is not alone at all. He is able to gather people to him to help him try to change the world. There are a lot of people around, in the world, that have the same frustrations and concerns he does. So, he just needs to find them and gather them into a unified force.
Q: Does he have any personal relationships with anyone, or is this all driven by this one purpose?
James: He does have relationships, but he uses everyone around him for his goal. His goal is motivated by the fact that he lost his father to this. He used to respect his father a lot, but his father has become addicted to these V-Clubs. He found him in there doing things that he doesn't even want to remember. So, it comes from a personal place, but it has become a very large thing, in his mind. He's going to save the whole world.
Q: Who is your favorite character and/or star of Caprica, besides yourself?
James: My favorite actor would have to be Eric [Stoltz]. It's all I can do just to remain professional and not gush, when he comes in. He directed me in the final episode I was in, and I was just trying not to embarrass myself. He just rocks, on so many levels. My favorite character on the show is Barnabas. He's the most interesting character. He's the monotheistic terrorist. How can you get better than that? I don't think you can get better than that.
Q: Which episode would you consider to be your best one?
James: Usually the episode that your character is introduced in because you have more to do and the plot is more focused on what you're doing. I had more meat to chew in the first episode, which was directed by Michael Nankin. That's always a very intense episode for an actor because you don't really know what you're doing yet. If it works well, it's always a really nice triumph. I have to say, with every episode, I loved working with the director. When Eric directed, he just walked on the set like he was born there. He cracked exactly the right amount of jokes. He just knew exactly how to do that. I'm sure that he had watched other directors fill those shoes, and he was just fabulous. He had a really free mind. In fact, he gave me more license to experiment than I was able to take advantage of because I was too sleepy, and I kick myself for that. But, all of the directors were very playful, very willing to try new things on the spot and very willing to throw away huge amounts of dialogue, if they don't think it's working, and re-write it right there. Usually, the writer is directing, or they'll call the writer down, squat over the monitor and come up with another page and a half. It's the first time I've seen that amount of bravery on a TV set.
Q: Do you think that there will ever be a possibility of you reprising Spike, at any point?
James: When Joss [Whedon] came to me and asked me about that, which is, "I'll follow you to Hell. I'll follow you to Heaven. Just give me a call. I'll do one line for you. I'll do 10. Sure, I'll do Spike for you." But, it's now been seven years, and I don't want to do some lame line like, "Oh, he's drinking pig's blood right now, so he's aging slowly," or some stupid thing like that. I look in the mirror and I've got to say that, if I'm rested, I look okay with the proper lighting. But, as the years go, I get more and more nervous about that. We should just do a screen test and see if we can light this character to look like I haven't aged. If we could hold that, that would be cool.
Q: How was the reunion with Jane Espenson?
James: I haven't seen Jane. My reunion was on the telephone. She's making a universe. She's winding up Caprica and she's very busy. And, unfortunately, I am, too. But, that is exactly what it was like on Buffy. We communicated through the scripts. I like to say that we tried to make love to each other through the scripts and through the dailies because I tried to take everything that Jane gave me and then just add my own layer to it, so it would be just a little better than she was imagining.
Q: Having played Spike, what do you think about all the new vampires out there, with True Blood, Twilight and The Vampire Diaries?
James: I like them. They got my niece to read. She wasn't reading a lot, and she picked up Twilight and read those books, like 5 to 10 times. Now, she's onto other vampire romances and she reads a novel a day now. So, go Stephenie Meyer. It follows the tracks of Interview with a Vampire. Anne Rice didn't really explore vampires as hideous monsters of the night. They're ancient creatures with a heart, and they want to be loved, and they want connections, just like we do. A lot of the rougher edges of the more traditional vampire stories have been softened or taken away. That's a refreshing new look. But, that was not was Joss was going for with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He really wanted the vampires to be ugly when they were vampires, and then very quickly dead. He was talked into the character of Angel by David Greenwalt, who is his writing partner. He fought it. I don't think he was too excited about it, but he allowed David to do it, and then the character just took off through the clouds. He always remembered that, and he was only going to allow one Angel-like character on the show, and all the other vampires were going to remain hideous, in some way.
Q: What percentage would you say is you seeking out a genre role because it's something you enjoy, and what percentage is people seeking you out because you are such a known entity in genre entertainment?
James: I guess about 50/50. I was in London doing a music tour and I couldn't get the tour manager to come after the show and have dinner with me. She said, I'll have dinner with you, but come up to my room because Dr. Who is on. She just went off about Russell T. Davis and how he's taken Dr. Who and re-imagined it, and that he was the guy who had done the original Queer as Folk in London. She just went on and on about him. She said, "Come check him out. Check his writing out. You'll just be amazed." So, I went and had dinner in her room and watched Dr. Who, and just fell in love with this amazing writing. And so, I called them and said, "I want to work with Russell," and Russell said, "I don't really need you on Dr. Who, but there is a great role over on Torchwood, which is a spin-off. You want to come?" I said, "Are you writing it? Are you producing it?" And, he said, "Yes," so I jumped on board. So, in that way, I followed the writer. David Fury would make sure I was seen for 24. I haven't gone in for that yet, but we always are dreaming that we'll work again together. So, yes, roles just come to me, but other roles I have to audition for. I had to audition to play Buzz Aldrin.
Q: Do you ever have a fear, like many actors do in this genre, of being typecast at all?
James: What, as the cool guy? Yes, I fear that, every day. If I was playing Urkel, then I'd have a problem being typecast, but when you're typecast as the cool guy, the tough guy, the potent character or the jerk who mixes things up, that's the one you'd want. I really don't have a problem with that at all. I don't have a problem with my cool guys who are evil, or not even evil. I played a cowboy who saved a town from bug invasion, last year. I played the best friend in P.S. I Love You, who was the typical best friend that was always there for his friends. He was not evil at all. So, other things do come along. But, my favorite Shakespeare role is Macbeth, so I really don't have a problem playing the guy who's making mistakes.
Q: Do you have any musical performances coming up?
James: I just finished up playing in London and New Jersey, and my last show in New Jersey was one of my best, if not my best. I think I'm getting marginally better, as time goes by. I'm just cutting some tracks for a new album, in Sacramento with Charlie DeMars, who was the lead guitarist of Ghost of the Robot, which is a band I was in years ago. It's good to get back working with him. And, my son, who is 13, is a monster on lead guitar. He's just scary good. If you go to YouTube and search for James Marsters and son, check out Moonshot and you'll hear him play. He wrote that lead.
Q: How did you get involved with doing the audio for Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden novels?
James: In the books, I saw a really cool combination between this film noir detective stuff, that was freshened up with pixies, werewolves, vampires and wizards, in this really interesting, magical world that could become scary or funny, and you contrast that with the really dry delivery of film noir, of a character who's a nice guy, but he just got his foot shot, his rent is overdue, his girlfriend just left him, he hasn't had a sip of water in three days and he's just about over it, but he's trying still to be a good guy, even though he's not in a good mood right now. Jim's people contacted me and said, "Do you want to try it?" And then, the first one was so painful. It was so hard. I don't even know if it was that good, but my learning curve was pretty good and, by the time we got to the second one, I was pretty comfortable.
Q: Have you talked to Russell Davies about coming back on Torchwood in the fourth season?
James: No, but he knows I'm his bitch. I'll go wherever he'll call. If he has work anywhere, for anything, whether it's five lines or the lead, I'll go. Whatever he needs.
Q: Would you be interested in returning to Smallville before the series ends?
James: Oh, yes, I'd love to. They are just a really good group of people. Only Tom [Welling] could play this character, this long. That's just fabulous. I love that they're getting another season. And, I think that he's going to have a career after Smallville because he's so good.
Q: Any chance on a James Marsters cameo in the Dr. Horrible sequel?
James: I hope so. That'd be fun.
CAPRICA airs on Fridays on SyFy