|Interview conducted by Lauren Berkley|
For those of us in the States, the third season of Syfy’s Being Human premiered back in January.
Star Wars: The Clone Wars also just had aired its fifth season finale.
What do supernatural creatures and the Jedi have in common?
Well, they both star actor Sam Witwer, who plays vampire Aiden on Being Human and voices Darth Maul and The Son in The Clone Wars.
I spoke to actor Sam via email about his love of Star Wars, voice acting, table-top gaming, and why he thinks show rivalries are dumb.
I remember my dad bringing home a bootleg VHS tape of 20 minutes of Star Wars. That was special. I watched the hell out of it. I think it started with the Obi-Wan/Vader fight, so those moments were pretty defining and evocative for me. Later, he brought home a bootleg of the whole movie, and then it was all over.; I was hooked.
How did you get cast as the voice of Darth Maul, such an important and now-iconic character in the SW franchise?
My work with Star Wars began with “The Force Unleashed” as Starkiller. That was my introduction to the company. At the time, [director] Dave Filoni and his crew were starting up Clone Wars. Our teams had some awareness of each other.
In any case, Dave played “The Force Unleashed,” must have liked what I did, and I got a call out of nowhere to do Clone Wars. I had no idea what the role was other than Lucasfilm Animation insisting it was “really cool.”
I honestly had assumed the “really cool” descriptor was an effort to get me to say yes. It wasn’t until I kept hearing, “The role is really cool” that I then began to think that maybe this was gonna be, in fact, “really cool.” But of course, no information was forth-coming; no one would tell me what I was playing.
Then just before the first record date, I got the first script and word that this was to be three episodes; that was a surprise. I read the script and realized, much to my shock, that they were asking me to play a character called “The Son” and that he was meant to be the living, slightly ghost-like personification of the Dark Side of the Force. So, suddenly I was feeling a lot of pressure.
During that first episode record, I felt like I wasn’t doing that well – just lackluster, nothing special. I asked Dave, “Hey, are you concerned at all that The Son is sounding a little too much like Starkiller?”
Dave responded, “Well, Starkiller had a connection with the Dark Side, so it’s ok if you hear a little bit of him in The Son.”
That got me thinking: “If you should hear a little Starkiller, then shouldn’t you hear ALL the villains from Star Wars in The Son? Dooku, Darth Sidious, Darth Vader, Darth Maul?”
We weren’t recording the next episode until the next day, so I took the script and worked out what moments would lean toward what villains – just little touches that feel like familiar characters and moments. The next day, we’re recording…
After a time, Dave Filoni says through the talk box, “Hey, Sam, I think I know what you’re doing.”
I say, “Um…yeah. Do it less?”
He says, “Do it more.”
And thus began Dave’s and my little nerd collaboration. We had ridiculous fun with it, and at some point he goes, “You know, there might be something down the road for you.
“ I say, “What, like a bounty hunter?”
“Something like that.”
And a year later he calls me up and says, “Alright, listen. I need a Darth Maul. Can you do that for me?” And there’s only one correct answer, no matter how much self doubt or pressure you feel, and that’s “Yes!”
Who is your favorite Star Wars character?
Luke Skywalker. He’s a ridiculously well-drawn character, as written and performed in those movies — especially well-performed, in fact. Here’s a little acting lesson for anyone who doesn’t realize how great Mark Hamill is: At what point in the original three movies do you ever look to Luke and it’s not clear what he’s going through, what his opinion is? What he wants? The answer? Never. There isn’t ONE vague or unclear moment in that performance. The guy is making bold choices, and they’re all the right choices.
Young actors these days are at best subtle and at worst, shy and afraid to make bold choices, and the result is a muddy story that’s not making a clear statement. You may dislike the fact that Luke starts as a nerd, whines a bit, is off-balance as a younger character, but he grows and matures and makes interesting choices. So did the actor.
Besides, in life don’t we all start off a little awkward and not on our game? Make no mistake: Star Wars works because of Mark Hamill. We owe him big.
How do you feel about JJ Abrams helming Episode VII? What about the announcement about movie spin-offs/origin stories?
He’s right for it. He rebooted an ailing franchise, and took iconic characters that were impossible to imagine any other actor playing, and successfully recast them; that’s no small feat. But moreover, he’s an adept filmmaker who turned in an action-packed movie filled with charm, humor ,and enthusiasm – Which sure sounds like Star Wars to me. How about you?
What else do you “geek out” over?
A lot. Classic films. Old school stuff. Music technology and its evolution. Mixing and mastering techniques. Comics. Video games. Building and rebuilding computers. Tabletop RPGs. Fitness stuff. Now, cars a little bit.
I read you were a huge video and role-playing gamer. How did you get started? Were you ever bullied for it?
I got started when my pal Matt Alef (who’s now a doctor over at Harvard) ran me through a quick D&D adventure when I was 11. I was hooked immediately.
As for bullied: I was bullied. Not for stuff like this, but mostly just because I was not someone who would fight back and people knew that. I think most people have some form of experience with this. Anyway, that carried on until the start of high school when I forced myself to stand up for myself. I made sure the first bully who tried anything was made an example of.
After that, no one bothered me, and by the time I finished high school, I had a fair amount of respect. I was this long-haired musician who was also an unlikely student body president. I was always more interested in hanging out with people who had enthusiasm for the stuff we’re talking about now.
Between Star Trek: Enterprise, BSG, Dexter, CSI, Bones, Star Wars, The Mist, Smallville, The Walking Dead, Being Human;..the list goes on. Do you seek out these roles on purpose? Because you seem to have become heavily involved in the morbid and/or supernatural-slash-fantasy-slash-sci-fi…
Never sought it out. I’ve done a fair amount of work in non-genre stuff, but it would seem the projects that have been the most successful have been genre projects. That suits me just fine. Genre fans are incredibly loyal and besides, I’m one of them. May as well be doing these gigs.
Were you familiar with Being Human beforehand? How were you approached?
I was not. As I understand it, they went through hundreds of guys for Aidan and were having real trouble finding him. The casting director, Dede Bradley – She apparently was like, “Ok. We’re looking for a guy who’s a monster but doesn’t wanna be. I think I cast a guy in Smallville doing something that sounds like that.” So, I got the script, read 3 pages, saw the word vampire, and closed the script [and] promptly turned down the audition.
Not because I have anything specific against vampires…Well, hell, who am I kidding? Of course I do. There’s just too many of them. Too many of US, I imagine I should say.
The image of some pasty guy hissing and sucking his cheeks in doesn’t do it for me. Bela Legosi, Christopher Lee, Gary Oldman? Those guys are ok by me.
So, a friend of mine named Laura Terry got a hold of me. ”
You turned down the Being Human audition?”
“Did you read the script?”
”No you didn’t. Because if you did, you wouldn’t turn it down. How about try reading the script.”
So, I read the script and quickly discovered what a huge idiot I am. I nearly made a very large mistake. This was a wonderful story about a heroin addict trying to go clean. I read the second script, loved it. So, I humbly asked to be reinstated into the audition process.
As for the wonderful BBC version, I stayed away from it until we’d shot the entirety of our first season. After all, our first season’s 13 episodes followed the story they did in their 6 episodes — needed to have a fresh take on that. After that, however, I bought everyone the box sets and we’ve all been fans ever since.
Regarding Being Human: Without giving too much away, you and your antagonistic mentor, Bishop, were at odds and faced off in a dramatic, climactic way at the end of last season. Now, you’re in trouble & must face the vampire queen. What can we expect from Aiden this season?
Interesting…what country are you watching the broadcasts in? I know some places are about to play our second season. If that’s the case: In our second season, we’re going to see why everyone describes Aidan as dangerous and psychotic. We’ll watch as options are taken away from him and he backslides towards the man he was in the past 200 years — the addict, the hit man – and not the man he’s been trying to be.
If you’re stateside and watching our third season: We watch a slightly PTSD Aidan try to re-acclimate to “civilian” life, as he tries to reclaim what little humanity he has left. What’s worse, clean blood is extremely rare. He’s an addict in a situation where all the “heroin needles” come with life threatening diseases.
How difficult is it to please the fans of the BBC version of Being Human, while still making it something new? You know how fans can be…
You know, we can’t think like that. We have to tell these stories the best we can without second guessing ourselves or we’d be plagued with self-doubt and unable to do our jobs. I have extreme and tremendous respect for the BBC version and boost it whenever I can. My feeling is we’re all part of the same franchise. What’s good for us is good for them and vice versa. For example, I remember a talk I had with Rob Pursey (one of the creators of the BBC version) when he was visiting the set. I said, “Hey, this ain’t bad for you, huh? If we fail, your show is still great. If we succeed, we send more viewers your way. Hell, if we fail, we still do.”
He agreed on the win-win nature of our remake. He was quick to point out, though, that he wouldn’t be visiting if he didn’t feel our show was working.
The fact is, they are two different shows that belong to the same family. There are things we do better than them, and there are things they do better than us; Hell, I could rattle them off. I know both shows pretty well and I’m known to be pretty objective when it comes to my show. Spending 14-20 hours a day creating my show does nothing to lessen my enjoyment of their show.
In fact, it enhances it. I’m very invested in what they do.
Then there are the fans.
I’ve talked to British fans, American fans…most are great. Many watch both. Some prefer one over the other.
In fact, I had a great run in with this guy at a restaurant who started with the BBC and then came to watch ours without losing love for theirs. I engaged him on this subject, not just because he was [rock star] Alice Cooper, but because I find the ability to watch both to be correct. He prefered ours, but that’s neither here nor there. Our show’s American with an American sense of humor, and he’s American.
There will always be fans who LOVE Star Wars and feel they must HATE Star Trek. [Those] who LOVE the BBC [version] and feel somehow slighted, insulted, threatened that we DARED do our version, no matter how much the ratings and marketing data would indicate that we helped the BBC show by getting their name out there to a greater degree. People are competitive. People like rivalries. I just wish more people were a bit more evolved than that, because this rivalry only exists in their minds. It does not exist between Anna Fricke [Executive Producer of the American version] and Toby Whithouse [Writer/Creator of BBC version] or our cast and theirs. I always tell people to watch the BBC version. Every opportunity I have, I extoll their talent to our fans.
But then I like Star Wars AND Star Trek, so there’s that.
Unfair question: Vampires or Zombies?
Speaking of rivalries, bullets to the skull for everyone.
Pirates or Ninjas?
Pirates trained in ninjitsu.
For more on Sam, follow him on @SamWitwer!