Gavin Schmitt Interviews Actor James Marsters
James Marsters is an actor who should need no introduction, but I’ll give him one anyway. For better or worse, he is best known for playing the character of Spike on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, and its spinoff show “Angel”. But this just scratches the surface. He has also been on “Warehouse 13”, “Supernatural”, “Smallville” and “Torchwood”. When I say he is a geek icon, I say it lovingly… because he’s been on just about every sci-fi/fantasy show over the last 15+ years.
People may not know his other work. Aside from endless acting credits, he is the vocalist and guitarist for the rock band Ghost of the Robot. Somehow after all this, he still finds time to heavily tour the convention circuit.
On February 25, 2016, I had an absolute blast discussing his newest movie, “Dudes and Dragons”, with plenty of off-topic discussions.
GS: How often are people surprised you’re not an English actor?
JM: They are, even to this day, often surprised, depressed and even betrayed that I’m not British. And my response is always, “Ha ha! Fooled you!” Since the fourth grade I’ve been drawn to acting because it makes me feel like a con man, like a grifter. My fellow grifters are the other actors and the director, and the audience is our mark. The difference is that we’re trying to give them a gift rather than take something away from them. So it’s a good con. And it’s also kind of delicious to fool people.
GS: Having been part of “Buffy”, “Smallville”, and even a little bit of “Supernatural” and “Warehouse 13”, has there been a particular set that you enjoyed working on the most?
JM: Oh, man. I’ve been so lucky, Gavin. I’ve enjoyed every set, but for different reasons, I don’t know if I could pick one. The friendliest set I was on was “Supernatural”, which is not to say others weren’t friendly, but there was something magically friendly about “Supernatural”. There were others. “P.S. I Love You” was like that, “Torchwood” was like that. And “Witches of East End” was like that as well. Everyone was happy to be there, enjoying working with everyone else. Never any friction on any level.
Film and television are high pressure, so much so that you can almost hear the money going away. Ding! A thousand dollars. Ding! Another thousand dollars. Every couple seconds, another thousand is spent, so we’re all trying to get things done. And under those conditions, people tend to butt heads. But on a few sets things are working so harmoniously that this doesn’t happen. And I can’t say enough about the two leads from “Supernatural”. They’re very humble, very unaffected and uncorrupted by fame. Fame is sometimes toxic to the human soul. I also can’t say enough about Hilary Swank, Kathy Bates and Gerard Butler on “P.S. I Love You”. These are Oscar-winning actors and they’re just happy and humble and grateful. It was a joy.
“Buffy” was full of nice people, but Joss Whedon was a very ambitious guy. The show got the nickname “Buffy the Weekend Slayer” because we would work up to 20 hours a day. Most shows cut off after 12, because that’s when you have to start paying the crew double. But we’d blow past that all the time. 14 or 16 was the norm and we’d go up to 18 and 20 all the time. We were being worked to death (laughs). Joss had a lot he wanted to accomplish and he was aiming really high. People would get cranky and there would be arguments. Not often, but the pressure was definitely there.
And on the flip side, on “Buffy” we were working with the best writers in Hollywood. Drew Goddard, who is up for an Oscar this year (for “The Martian”). Steven S. DeKnight. Jane Espenson and David Fury. Oh, and Marti Noxon, another genius working on the same level as Joss. I was the beneficiary of their work. They were unknown, brilliant, hungry, and they all came together into this sort of Camelot. That just doesn’t happen where you’re surrounded with so many amazing people all putting their heads together on one thing. And they’re invisible. If I do my job right, everyone thinks I came up with something. So I get the credit for their genius.
GS: You are most known for working in the fantasy genres. Is this something you seek out or are these the scripts that come your way?
JM: It’s something that gravitates to me, probably because people know me from “Buffy”. When I first came to Hollywood, I was being cast as nerds in cop shows and medical dramas. I had a couple episodes on “Northern Exposure”, a hit show about a doctor in Alaska. Then Joss made me a “cool guy” in a fantasy show. And I enjoy it. I’m a big fan of Star Trek, Star Wars, Planet of the Apes and Twilight Zone. I love all that stuff, because genre functions a lot like the jester in the medieval court. We have a deniability. We can always say “this is just about vampires” or “this is just about spaceships”, and this allows us to comment on society and be more brave than a cop show could be. I value that. The original “Twilight Zone” really explored the pitfalls of a Cold War mentality. The original “Star Trek” was peddling hope as a powerful force. When a tyrant takes over a nation, the first thing they crush is hope. So “Star Trek” said to everyone, if you have hope, you can live in any environment. Not to mention they had the first interracial kiss, which made people beautifully uncomfortable.
“Buffy” was going after the lie that women couldn’t defend themselves. That doesn’t seem so revolutionary now, but at the time it was. We had the first teenage lesbian kiss. When Columbine happened, we had a show with a student in a bell tower with a high-powered rifle. Buffy goes up and talks him out of it. A cop show wouldn’t have aired, because they didn’t have the deniability, but we did. And the list goes on and on. A lot of writers are drawn to genre because they have the freedom to speak their mind. So I have no problem with doing genre. As someone who thinks of themselves as a subversive artist, it’s kind of a perfect place to be.
GS: Today we’re talking about “Dudes and Dragons”, but I’ll be calling it “Dragon Warriors” because I’m not a fan of the new name.
JM: (hearty laugh) I agree. Yeah, I know. I think the distribution arm wanted to very squarely let people know it’s a comedy. But I went through the whole production calling it “Dragon Warriors”, so I’m still wrapping my mind around “Dudes and Dragons”.
GS: Obviously, it’s very funny, but I feel like you were left playing the straight man, not getting the laughs the other characters do.
JM: I don’t know. I was laughing. What drew me to the character was that he was a villain, a powerful sorcerer, a man who is dealing with issues, and underneath all that he is just a frightened child. There’s something adorable and a bit pathetic about that, which can be kind of delightful to watch. That’s why I took the role, because I saw him as both frightening and adorable.
GS: Okay. I’m not sure about the adorable part.
JM: Oh, come on!
GS: Was the humor evident from the page, obvious that it would translate to the screen?
JM: For the first five or ten pages, I was actually confused and wondered what this was. But after that, I sort of “clicked” into this world they created and I started laughing. And I didn’t stop all the way through, which was beautiful. My favorite directors do that to me. The Coen Brothers do that to me. When I first saw “O Brother Where Art Thou” I didn’t know what I was seeing and shook my head. I had expected “Blood Simple” or “Miller’s Crossing”. But then I clicked in to what they were doing and now it’s one of my favorite films. When I come across someone who is doing something new or surprising with its own unique style, I love it. I don’t think you’re going to see another film like “Dudes and Dragons”. The only corollary I can think of is “Princess Bride”. It’s light, but smart, and works for both kids and adults.
GS: The writing really is very clever. Even the “Star Wars” and “Lord of the Rings” references seem fresh and now just throwaway gags.
JM: Yeah. Like, “We’re going to do this, but can you catch us?” I got to play Emperor Palpatine from “Star Wars”. We’ve all done that in the bathroom, but I got to do it in front of a camera.
GS: Are the rumors true? Is it more fun to play the bad guy?
JM: Oh my god, yes. Oh, yes! Playing the good guy is such a struggle. People usually say I’m a nice guy, but if that’s what they think it just means I’m not expressing all the bile I’m feeling all the time. Holding it in is an act of will. Being the bad guy allows you to release all that, let go of your insecurities and just barf it all out. It’s kind of relaxing. Plus, when you play the hero you’re always caring about people and feeling guilty about not saving enough people. It’s very tiring. As a bad guy, you just have to lurk in the shadows and wait for the girl to come by and then – pop! – you’re out of the shadows! It’s a lot easily. The script will build you up to be just as powerful as the hero. The downside is that you’re probably going to lose the final battle, but up until then it’s all good.
GS: You’ve worked with CGI many times. On “Dudes and Dragons”, was acting all imagination, or did they have some sort of prop to indicate a dragon was near you?
JM: (laughs) Yeah, they had a guy with a green dragon head on a pole. That was pretty silly, especially because you had to act like it was a very serious dragon. But I come from a background in theater where there’s a lot of imagination. If you sit on a chair, it’s a chair. If you hold a knife, it’s a knife. But if you look at the horizon, there’s no sun. That was kind of the experience on “Dudes and Dragons”. (affiliate link) We had some rocks, the costumes and a few props, but nothing else. But I’m very comfortable in doing that. Plus, when you read the script, you think it’s going to be brutal to film with all the horse riding and battles. But if it’s green screen, you’re indoors with air conditioning and padding.
GS: You’re sort of a god among the geek community…
JM: (laughs) Oh, for chrissakes. Thank you, thank you.
GS: Is there a character you’d be interested in playing in the Marvel Universe?
JM: I don’t give any thought to that. I find that the universe, as much as I wish it were different, does not reorder itself to whatever my expectation is in the morning. What comes across my path is always more interesting than what I expect to cross my path. John Lennon popularized the saying, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” So thinking “I would love to play that” is an exercise in frustration. I will take what comes to me and be happy with that.
GS: But if they called you up and offered you a superhero, you’d take it.
JM: Oh, hell yeah. I love comic books. I’m a Marvel guy. My brother was a DC guy. I had a collection as a kid, and I spent all my allowance on my comic book collection. It was depressing later on when I tried to sell my collection and I got like 3 bucks. That was a wakeup call. I love comics. Comics are basically a storyboard of a movie. And for the most part there’s no budget so you can tell whatever story you want. And that’s what’s great about these Marvel movies, because they are giving the stories the budget they need to realize the stories. We can finally deliver on them in a believable way.
A note on heroes, by the way. I think the real heroes of the world are those who sacrifice their time and energy for other people. Most of those people are called “parents”. There are firefighters and cops and other people, too, but most of the heroes that people experience on a daily basis are their parents. We need to reach out through the TV screen more and let these people know that we see what they’re doing and it’s worthy. Put a cape on it and let it fly! We should celebrate sacrifice.
GS: You have a movie coming out soon that you co-star with Terry O’Quinn, “Nouvelle Vie”.
JM: I had a fabulous time doing that movie. It’s an independent film, a love story. The producers are very experienced in making movies. I haven’t seen the final cut yet, but my experience was very easy and when it’s easy that means it’s working. Acting is a delicious job. If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong. If everyone is walking around with furrowed eyebrows, it’s not working. If everyone is saying “this is too easy”, it’s falling into place and the film is probably going to be good.
GS: Thanks for much for your time, James.
JM: Thanks, Gavin!