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James MarstersJames Marsters - About his career - Televisionwithoutpity.com Interview
Thursday 27 September 2007, by Webmaster
So up until this point, I can honestly say that I give myself some degree of credit (although said degree has varied) for getting every interview I’ve ever done for TWoP. That streak has now ended, although given the interviewee, I’m not exactly complaining. I’d like, on behalf of TWoP, to thank James’s publicist Jenni, who was a total sweetheart in arranging this interview, and, of course, the man himself, the former star of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel, who gave me about fifty minutes when we were scheduled for twenty. He’s a real good and fun guy, folks, and here’s what he had to say.
Couch Baron: You grew up in Modesto, a small inland town in Northern California.
James Marsters: Yeah. Good place to grow up. A lot of orchards and dirt roads.
CB: Nice. I see that you wanted to be an actor from a pretty young age.
JM: Yeah. From sixth grade.
CB: Did you eventually get a case of the small-town blues there? Were you dying to get out and pursue your dream?
JM: Uh…yeah! My father lived near San Francisco, and when I first saw San Francisco, I was like, I want to live in the city. I just liked that rhythm.
CB: Did you go to theater down there?
JM: Yeah, I went to ACT, which is a really good theater on Geary Street. Byron Jennings was sort of there, Michael Winters was there — that was a great, great company. In fact, they were so good that when I went to Broadway, I was like, "You know what, this is okay." Not that great, actually.
CB: Really! San Francisco was better.
JM: Yeah! I saw two complete seasons on Broadway, and I was like, I’m not seeing it. And I finally kind of came to the conclusion that Broadway was a for-profit market, and therefore the direction had to be a little simpler. I would see plays where I’d seen them in a not-for-profit theater, and they were more complex — the same plays, same scripts. Good actors, on Broadway, but it just was simplified because it was a different market — they’re not trying to make art. They’re trying to make money, and they want to widen the audience, I guess.
CB: Interesting. Well, you’ve done some really serious, committed theatrical productions…
JM: Yeah. [laughs] I broke my hand once, man.
CB: What happened?
JM: Oh, I almost punched the preacher, man. This guy interrupted…we were doing a Sam Shepard and a Joseph Chaikin play — Joseph Chaikin’s a great playwright who suffered from aphasia, and Sam went to him as he wrote these plays to try to be a kind of therapy for Joseph. It’s about an angel who falls to earth and is disoriented ["I believe it’s called The War In Heaven: Angel’s Monologue" — CB] , and it’s very emotional — the angel gets caught by a cop and everything, and the good old pastor comes in and sits in the front row right next to me! I’m playing the angel and there’s the other actor, and we’re playing a scene where we’re about to kill each other, and we stop and we’re like, "Ed, what is it, is there a fire, an earthquake, what?" "No, I’m just watchin’." "Well, Ed, you can’t interrupt rehearsal. We’re going to have to go back forty-five minutes to get this." [George W. Bush voice] "Well, you know, just carry on. I ain’t leavin’. I’m the pastor here. You act, now." And, you know, I finally got him out, but as soon as he left, I punched the floor and I totally broke my hand and I had no medical insurance. So I talked the hospital into treating me because I was a service to the community! [both laugh] But the doctor just kept re-breaking the bone — they wouldn’t pin it because that was like, too much money, so they just kept re-breaking it every couple weeks.
CB: Oh my God. You don’t have any lingering problems with it, do you?
JM: Uh, not yet. They say I’m gonna have pretty bad arthritis later.
CB: That sucks.
JM: Yeah. It sucks ass.
CB: Well, you started your own theater company in Chicago and then moved it to Seattle. Did it have a particular focus, or was there a niche of theater you were trying to explore?
JM: Nope, not at all. We were doing…my then-wife, Lianne Davidson, and I were doing this production of a Brian Friel play, Lovers. Great script — sad and happy and fabulous. And it was, despite not the best production…well, it was the direction, I guess, it still was a success, my then-wife and I kind of looked at each other and said, well, you know, "We can fuck it up this good." [both laugh] Let’s try this out ourselves, you know? And we did a pairing of Lanford Wilson’s Home Free! and Leonard Melfi’s The Bird Bath, and it was not a critical success — the critics, like, took after us, but we were told…my friends told me that they do that to every actor that dares to start doing something like that. But luckily we were right across the street from Steppenwolf and they noticed us, and they kinda took us under their wing and kinda helped us a little bit. We had a better success with A Phoenix Too Frequent, the first play from Christopher Fry, and…that was a great story that almost ended in violence as well, as a matter of fact!
CB: [both laugh] I’m sensing a theme here!
JM: Yeah, we were renting this huge space in the West Side of Chicago. It was like, half a football field, but twenty-two-foot ceilings, twenty-five-foot ceilings — huge. And my scenic designer, Greg Musick, said cool, and I take one look at the space and I’m like, I can’t afford to fill the space. And Greg goes, dude, don’t worry about it, I can do it. And I’m like, fuck you! I put up my little hand and I was like, "I can afford to fill this much space." Like, nine feet by ten feet. I don’t have the money! And he’s like, trust me. He tells me that he just needs me to get him a bunch of sheets. Three hundred sheets. And he was gonna dye them to look like rose marble, and put them in huge columns, sweeping columns from the roof, and then plait them on the sides of the thing, and it was going to work beautifully. So we spent the whole winter making…I got the sheets from hotels that were turning over their sheets, and we just worked on our knees, made all the rose marble, and we had…we were ready by the time we were gonna start rehearsal. And we were two weeks into rehearsal, and the owner of the place says, oh, we can’t do it, I’m moving downtown. There’s no theater space where I’m going. And we’d already spent money on rights, on advertising, on all that stuff.
CB: And you had three hundred rose-colored sheets!
JM: [both laugh] Exactly! Worked the whole winter, right? So I said, let me see what you have, and I’ll tell you if you have theater space. So I went down there and there’s nothing, and I said, come on, there’s got to be a closet, show me anything. And he showed me a basement, which was like, unused for thirty years. But again, my scenic designer was like, "Oh my God, it’s perfect, it’s perfect," like, dude, are you fucking kidding me? It’s a tomb, dude, it’s a tomb! And so we mucked it out, with no plumbing — we had to put buckets in there, and opened it up, and luckily, one of the lighting designers from the Goodman Theater, which is a great theater down the road, was passing by, and one of my producers who could talk anybody into anything, she talked him into watching rehearsal, and he came and lit it for us! We only had, like, coffee cans as lamps, but we had lots of them, like thirty of them. They’re called festival lanterns, and he placed them really carefully and made it look so beautiful. And we opened, great reviews, didn’t have enough seats for people. And two weeks later the guy comes and is like, you know, we’re doing plumbing, you gotta get out. The same landlord is like, you gotta get out, two weeks. And I’m like, I got a hit! So I’m screaming at him over the bar, and I try to leap over, and Greg and my wife pull me back, and then they start in on it, and then my ex-wife tries to leap over the bar, and Greg and I pull her back. But we ultimately had to get out.
CB: Man! So outside your acting, you’re a professional musician. Have you been interested in music as long as you’ve been into acting?
JM: Um…well, I started learning guitar about the same time — maybe like two years after that. And I was playing in bars when I was thirteen, fourteen, and I was with a band called The Vandals for a while. But when it came time for college I decided to study acting, so guitar was just in my personal life. And then I got on TV, and then clubs found that out, and knew that they could sell tickets whether I sucked or not, and I played and I sucked, and they sold their tickets and I kept trying, and I met a guy, started a band and learned a lot, did that for two years, at which point I went out just playing solo, which was terrifying. [laughs] But ultimately, people said they liked it better, because ultimately I was just singing my own songs, and everyone sounds better when they’re singing their own songs. Frankly, Charlie’s stuff was just too high.
CB: That was Ghost Of The Robot, right?
JM: Yeah! Yeah. That was a great band ’til the fuckin’ singer started singing! Then it was horrible! [both laugh] And it’s just a terrible feeling when that guy is you! And you’re like, "I don’t have the notes, dude!" Finally, we were recording the second album and I finally had the notes required for the first album. I was working on it, ’cause you know, he’s a tenor, he writes for himself and then makes me sing it, but I’m like, a baritone. But you know, I finally had the notes for the first album, and he added three on top! I’m like, you fucker! I can’t! I can’t!
CB: Heh. You’re not the only famous actor to tour professionally. Without speaking for anyone else, do you find part of the appeal to be the performance aspect, especially in front of a live audience that you don’t get when you’re doing TV?
JM: Yeah. Definitely. There’s a danger and also a freedom, that you definitely don’t get with TV.
CB: So I’d imagine you don’t get the same sort of thrill out of recording an album in the studio, either.
JM: Uh, no, but luckily I’m working with such good people that I’m more nervous in the studio than I ever have been in front of an audience, and I’ve been terrified in front of an audience. I’m working with Ben Peeler, a guitarist from The Wallflowers, for a couple days and he’s just so fucking amazing! I think he’s going to be working with us all through it. Also Blair Sinta, who’s just an incredible drummer who’s worked with Alanis Morissette, and Curt Schneider, the bassist ["from Five For Fighting" — CB], and GOD, he’s amazing. And I’m working with Ryan Shore as a producer, who does a lot of soundtracks for movies and stuff. I had a lot of different sounds that I wanted to kind of try to make into one holistic album. [laughs] So I needed a guy who understood a lot of different kinds of songs. So ultimately, in a recording studio, no matter how wonderful it is, it’s a different sort of pressure and it’s a different sort of experience; it’s really fun, and in its own way it’s dangerous. But when you’re in front of an audience, you know, you’re entertaining, more than anything else you’re entertaining them, and you’re using either your music or if you’re doing a play you’re using your words, because you’re trying to make a conversation with the audience, basically, and you’re using whatever medium you have at the time to do that. So that’s the cool part of it. And sometimes, the audience will want to talk back, you know? [both laugh]
CB: After your theater company, you eventually made the transition to television and film. Technically, those are like night and day.
CB: You might be doing a thirty-second scene, cutting, going six times in a row. How did you cope with that transition? Was it jarring for you?
JM: Yeah, totally. And I knew it. I knew before I moved down to L.A. that there was a whole different need for film than onstage. I quickly sussed out that I needed to dump basically everything that I’d learned. I was thirty-four, and I hadn’t conquered the stage, but I was a good usable actor in Seattle and Chicago, and thought I knew basically how to do the job. And I basically had to just flush it. Okay, here it is: onstage, you’re like a Benihana chef. You ever been to Benihana, where the chef comes out and serves it to you?
JM: And all the costumes and the script and the lighting and everything else, that’s like the celery and steak and onions and it’s all of your ingredients, but at the point of sale, when you actually create the product, it’s just you, and you use the ingredients as you do. And you know, I hate to say it, but the playwright could be dead. The producer could be dead. And the lights could fail, frankly. You’re right in the driver’s seat, making product and selling it to the customer. But in film, you’re the celery. [laughs] And so, if you try to tell the story, you’re really barking up the wrong tree. If you try to manipulate the rhythm, or try to hang up words in the air to try to make a certain color or effect, you’re way up the wrong tree. Like I’ve heard, I don’t know if it’s true, but I heard that Meryl Streep doesn’t even focus on where the scene comes in the story. Like she reads the script once to see if she wants to do it and then she just focuses each scene as if it’s its own play.
CB: That’s interesting.
JM: Yeah. So I had to dump everything, absolutely everything, and, like, I knew it, and I told the producers on Buffy that I knew it, and, like, I remember Joss once told me, "A little less Laurence Olivier and a little more Tim Roth." I was like, "I know, I’m trying! I’m trying!" But it only really worked when I was completely apathetic. I was so tired, and I came to work and I really didn’t care anymore. And then I saw that it was the best stuff I ever did.
CB: You seem like kind of an anglophile these days — you’ve spent a lot of time in England touring. Had you spent a lot of time there before Buffy?
JM: No. No,. I wanted to, but I was always poor. My family, Marsters, is in The Book Of Domesday. We were part of the original Saxon invasion — 1056, I think. Yeah, and we were recorded — we were the masters of something, and we were given a lot of land, right after Norman The Conqueror’s invasion. Norman gave us a bunch of land and titles, and made us lords of our dominion. [both laugh]
CB: Nice! Well, the reason I ask is that I’m sure you’ve heard a million times that you did a great job with your accent as Spike. I think I read — was it originally supposed to be a Creole accent?
JM: No, it was supposed to be…it was originally supposed to be English, and then as a lark, they said, well, can you do any other accents? And I was like, yeah, well, what do you want, basically. They said, well, can you do southern, and I did it in an old N’Awleans fifty-year-old white man, like, white people don’t talk this way. ["This bit is in that accent, which is awesome." — CB] And that kinda was cool, but ultimately I don’t think it was as inherently violent, or at least to the stereotypes we have.
CB: So did it come naturally to you, doing the English thing?
JM: It’s just kinda funny, I was talking with a theater friend about this and we were laughing, ’cause in the theater world it’s just totally not a big deal to be able to do a bunch of accents. Anything you could be hired for. And basically, I do all the white-guy accents. Like I don’t really do Korean that well, but anything I could make money off of — Russian, French, Norwegian, South African — you have at least an auditionable one in your pocket, and if you get the role, you get it better. And Spike was not that great starting out, man. Spike went Southern a couple of times, totally.
CB: Did playing that character with the accent get you a lot of notice in England?
JM: Um, yeah. They just thought I was English. They were like [in English accent], "Rock on!" Digging me in England.
CB: So when you meet English people and you talk like yourself…
JM: They always go [English accent], "Talk in your sexy British accent!" And I’m like, what’s wrong with the American accent? Isn’t it sexy? And they’re like [English accent], "No. Not really."
CB: Heh. I lived in England for a couple years, and I know what that’s like. Spike had a real punk vibe — I think the Sex Pistols was a pretty apt comparison. Were the punk music and ethos things you were into before?
JM: Totally, yeah. I grew up…in high school, I graduated in ’80, so I remember when the Sex Pistols’ "Never Mind The Bollocks" came out, that was…my junior and senior year, The Clash came out with like four albums, and one of them was the double ["’London Calling’" — CB], it was just a great time. Patti Smith was rocking. We went to the Cow Palace, man, and saw The Clash, and we snuck in some tequila, and like, the Cow Palace doubles as a basketball court or whatever, so they put out a trampoline wooden thing over it to protect it, but we all, like, pogoed. The Dead Kennedys were there — I’d like kind of passed out. I took a bunch of No-Doz, but they didn’t kick in, and so I kinda passed out, and I remember trying to stay up for the Dead Kennedys but just not really being able to, but finally I heard "AND NOW, THE CLASH!" And all my senses popped on — I was like seventeen years old, and I fought my way right down the center of the pogo line, and by the way, we ruined the Cow Palace. They didn’t allow any more rock concerts in there for like twenty-five years, ’cause we ruined the floor with pogo-ing. It was just that dance style where you jump up and down. But right down the center of the floor — basically, it was the left against the right just smashing up against the center, and I went right up the center and threw my tequila bottle up onstage! And Joe Strummer was like, "ONE! TWO! What the fuck?" [both laugh] And he picks up the little tequila bottle and goes, who the fuck threw this? And I kind of raise my little hand, and he goes, "Thank you!" And he takes a swig and they all pass it around, and finish the bottle, so at that point, I think I’m friends with the band! So I try to get backstage, take like three steps backstage and get thrown out. But I talked my way back in. It was good. So yeah, punk was good.
CB: I see you list "Once More, With Feeling" as your favorite Buffy episode. Was that partially because you got to meld your acting and music abilities?
JM: No, it’s mainly because as a company, mainly the actors but I’m sure the cinematographers as well, everybody was just terrified, because of the extra needs of doing a musical. All the more tracking shots, the more items, the stuff people have to come up with. And the actors, really, they didn’t sign on to be musical actors. Tony Head and I were already singers, so we were like, "Right on!" It’s fun, and it was just a walk in the park for us. But everybody else, they were like…well, you know, you might be the best dramatic actor around, but you might not be a comedic actor. And if suddenly you’re on this great drama and it suddenly decides to be a comedy one episode, you might go, you know, I didn’t sign on for this. I’m gonna be made a fool of. And if they say, suddenly it’s a musical, and you didn’t audition for a musical, suddenly you know, it’s like, there’s enough egg gonna fly around here that it’s gonna catch me right upside the head. Like, all the other actors went through this. They bore down and learned their parts, you know, dance parts and singing parts, and came up with the goods.
CB: Yeah, I thought it was really brave of a lot of them.
JM: Yeah. And the thing was, it wasn’t very long before we realized it was gonna work. Joss released a little bit of tape, and we saw that it was going to be actually really good. So as a company, we went from just, like, people just depressed and angry and GRRRR! to just flying. And it reminded me more than anything of being in theater, when sometimes you do a play…like, we did weird shit. The Interrogation was just like a four-hour play about the 1965 Nazi trials in Frankfurt, Germany, and it’s all real, it’s just edited from the transcripts, where, you know, the guards stand up and tell their side, and then the prisoners stand up and tell their side, and that’s IT. For like, four hours. And we did it. [laughs] And it was a hit. And it reminded me of when, I would tell cast, we’re jumping off the cliff with this one again, and we’re either gonna fly or we’re gonna splat, so let’s start flappin’. It reminded me of that.
CB: Nice. Did they look for your input at all in doing the songs, since you’re a musician?
JM: Noooo. Joss doesn’t look for input.
CB: [laughs] He’s not an input kind of guy, huh?
JM: No. [laughs]
CB: All right, then. Well, let’s talk about Without A Trace.
JM: Right on.
CB: Your character, Detective Mars, is going to be introduced in the season premiere. What can you tell us about him?
JM: Um…he wears brown. So he’s a trustable cop. In the cop world, if you wear blue, you might be dicey, or you just might be sexy. But if you wear brown, then you’re the trustable cop. I’m the good guy. Which means I wonder if I’m going to be just killed and slaughtered and come to a bloody end. It’s gonna be a bloody end for me! It’s Mars! They named me Mars. It means fuckin’ pain. No, he’s a good guy that’s been chasing criminals who do horrible things to young women, and it gets a lot larger than he thought it would very quickly, and he gets caught up with the FBI. He’s from Baltimore, and he kinda gets sucked up into an investigation…he kinda starts the investigation because the most recent killing was in his city, and then they move to New York, and he kind of follows it from there, and starts working with the FBI. We’re just in the beginning of it, so frankly, I don’t know more than that.
CB: How many episodes have you shot?
JM: Uh…two? Or it might be one. I don’t know — it’s a B-plot, so they can just lay it in as they want.
CB: Sure. Well, you alluded to it earlier, but I’ve read about the plotline surrounding your character, and it’s pretty dark material even for this show. You’ve found a lot of humor in dark roles in the past — do you think you’ll be able to do that here?
JM: I don’t know if they’re gonna need that here. I think what they need from me is just the gut-reaction stuff of the normal good person. I don’t think there…you know, dude, I don’t know. We might get into it and decide that they need some gallows humor, I mean, at some point you have to have that.
CB: So talking about how you’re the good guy, how does that play against some of the other regular cast members so far?
JM: So far, I’ve only shot with Marianne [Jean-Baptiste], and all they’ve told us is that they need more warmth from us, that’s all. [laughs] And we joke about that, and then we talk about Aretha Franklin. But, you know, I think that…I may be inferring something, but I think that they’re two good cops, and they both want to catch the same person, and they find no reason to distrust each other, and I think they…I don’t know if they’ll become, like, best friends or anything, but I think that they don’t think that they’re dicks. I think that they wanted some kind of connection, some kind of, like, you know, I guess we were kind of dry out on the helicopter pad in the first couple of takes, and they said, "We need more warmth." That’s all I can tell you! And then we gave them warmth, and I batted my eyes at her. [both laugh] She’s fabulous, by the way.
CB: She’s great. Speaking of Marianne, we talked before about how you’ve spent a lot of time in England, but I think you’ve spent a good amount of time in Australia as well?
JM: Um, you know, I’ve been to Australia, I think it’s three times now. And I haven’t really been able to see Sydney yet, because they keep trying to find me, like they keep, on radio shows, they’re like [Australian accent], "Find James Marsters!" And so I stay in the hotel room. But I was in Melbourne, and that was really good. Melbourne kind of reminded me of a Seattle kind of feel.
CB: Well, the reason I ask is that Marianne is obviously English, but Anthony LaPaglia and Poppy Montgomery are from Australia.
JM: Wow, I didn’t know that!
JM: Two more great actors from Australia! What is it? You know, they know how to do clothes. Australia knows how to do male clothes — simple, strong clothes.
CB: Well, given that you’ve only worked with Marianne, is that fun to be working with an English person? Because when you look at Without A Trace you think American procedural, but then you’ve got this sort of international cast in there.
JM: Yeah, I’m kinda tempted to go, man, I kind of earned some living doing an English accent, and now you’re earning some living doing an American one. [laughs] That’s the great thing about joining the circus, man. Yeah, she’s just been very light, and very fun, and…they’re obviously a very good company, and they know what they’re doing, and you just kind of stand on your tape and say your lines and they move on. It’s easy, and there’s not a lot of futzing and there’s not a lot of oh, dear, we gotta go back to this, we blew the focus or we gotta change this angle, they just have already figured that out fifteen minutes ago, and you’re just not even aware of it. So I get to fool around with Marianne and they tell us to shut up, and then we say our lines, and we both know our lines, and then we move on. Kind of a Woody Allen kind of deal. Or like Clint Eastwood — like, they say Clint sometimes just puts out word, "I will not take more than two takes. I’ll probably only take one, so be ready." And that’s when it’s really good. I think the first take is the best.
CB: So with a procedural such as Without A Trace, it seems like, by design, every episode is pretty much going to be a stand-alone. You want people to tune in and know what’s going on — it’s not like a show like Buffy where if you come in in the middle of a season there’s a lot of mythology to get straight. Yet it seems like the most interesting characters dramatically, both for the audience and, I would think, for the actors are the ones that go through fundamental changes. How do you balance that in a procedural? Do you look for an arc with your character? Or do you just sort of see what they throw at you?
JM: That’s a really good question. Um…I tend to think that there’s always an arc. [laughs] You just can’t help but go there, and whether the writers know it or not, there kind of is. And if you give over to the writing, and explore it honestly, then they see the dailies, and then they are more aware of what they’re doing. Sometimes you just clarify, or make obvious what they’re not even admitting to themselves. It’s kind of a dialogue that you go through. But you really…one of the great things about procedurals, I think, is that they don’t really address character very much. Character is best defined through action, through what do I choose to do now. From this room, we’re gonna go to where? And where we go says a lot about who I am.
CB: Absolutely. And especially under the stress you see in procedurals — the life-threatening, life-changing decisions you’ve got to make.
JM: Exactly. And it’s not…realistically, it’s not so much…to address character in television, oftentimes you have to stand still and talk about yourself, which is not that interesting. And that’s the great thing about procedurals…but the thing is, for television, it’s a lot more efficient. You can actually explore character, because just going through action is very expensive and it takes a lot longer to write, frankly. But so procedural a lot of times just doesn’t address that, and just trusts that the actors who are playing these characters will imbue them with a human quality that will give a reality, but it really is just about, "Are we gonna get this guy?" Like David Mamet says, it’s much more interesting to feel emotions than to watch them. You know, if you watch House Of Games, some actors can deal with that, and some actors, it’s hard for them. And I think he’s a little too maniacal about wiping off all emotion, but he’s got a good point. So I think I don’t want to play too hard on finding an arc for my character, but in the back of my head, there’s always that. There’s always, "Who is this guy?"
CB: Right. So you think by being honest and exploring what’s on the page, the arc will come.
JM: Yeah! I’m exploring what they give me, and hopefully if I’m in tune with…it’s kind of like, you know, I write a song, give it to the bassist and drummer and they take it, and they…it’s like magical! It’s like, how they treat my dream, how did they know that’s what I love? And they’re just exploring what the song is. They’re not trying to change it, or trying to make it a different song, they’re just trying to address it on its own terms, and it’s just a great process.
CB: Well, speaking of that, can you talk a little bit about your acting process? Do you have any people or methods that are particularly influential for you?
JM: I think Brando. More for what he said, ’cause you can’t try to be Brando. You know, one of the things he said that I think is so good, is he said you can’t be bigger than you are. And that can be a joke, because, you know, he was a little overweight, but that’s not what he meant. You can’t be more interesting than you are, you can’t be more fiery than you are. You can’t be anything more than you are, and it’s really silly and funny to see someone fake it. And only when you are just who you are, do you start to get power. And so that one stayed with me, that’s always been really good. He also said just ’cause they say "action" doesn’t mean you have to do anything. [laughs] What it means, to me anyway, is you’re totally in control. Once they say action, they have to shut up. They’re just counting on you to do something filmable at that point, so you are absolutely in the driver’s seat for that moment. You know, it’s very freeing. And ultimately, if you want to keep your job, you’re gonna do something.
CB: So if I’m not mistaken, you did a lot of your own stunts on Buffy and Angel.
CB: Did you have any martial-arts or acrobatic training, anything like that?
JM: Uh, yeah, I had judo when I was growing up. I think I ranked brown, or purple, by the end. And so, that was about it for formal training. I had friends show me stuff for fun, and then just, you know, stage work. Stage work, you seriously with stage work, especially Shakespeare, you have to do stunts. So they train for that in acting college. So by the time…when I got to Buffy, I was like, "Stunt man? You don’t need a stunt man! Do it yourself, man!" But yeah, my kind of rule is, if the character’s feet are on the ground, it’s me. And if the character’s feet…if both feet are off the ground, either flying up against the wall or doing a fancy kick where both feet are off the ground, that’s not me, that’s Steve Tartalia. And Steve is a maniac who does stuff that other stuntmen would never touch. He comes from Hong Kong — he’s American, but he cut his teeth in Hong Kong. He was the principal Caucasian actor in Hong Kong, and his reel is just…it’ll make you queasy.
CB: So you’ve done more than your share of dark roles. Would you say you’re more drawn to them than other roles?
JM: Mmm…I don’t know! I guess so! Because I certainly get cast in those, and then I…I don’t feel like I’m an asshole, you know, I always feel I’m kind of the nicer guy. But I guess all assholes think they’re the nicer guy. Uh…I gotta say, it’s very liberating to play a decent person, because sometimes, especially when you play really horrible people, you have to dredge up things that you don’t normally want to think about. But now I’m playing a decent guy who’s gonna be confronted with horrible things, so they’re gonna come in anyway. [laughs] I don’t consciously try to go for darker roles, but I seem to keep getting them. To some degree that’s because I got known for a dark role, and to some degree that’s probably because I do pretty well in them.
CB: Speaking of Spike, one more question about him. Obviously, I don’t have to tell you how popular a character he is, but if you can separate acting ability and looks from the equation, what is it about his essence that makes him so alluring?
JM: Hmm…that’s a really hard question for me to answer, because I wasn’t objective about it. I think at the end of the day, it’s either of two things or both of them, and one is probably more for women than men. But the first is that the show wasn’t supposed to be about sexy vampires. It was supposed to be about ugly vampires who die. The mythology was that the vampires stood for what sucks about high school, and so Joss got talked into Angel, which was not in his ground plan, and the character just took off, and he’s like, that’s it, it’s one sexy vampire, I will allow you no more. And then I come along, and I think that he was trying to keep a cap on…he recognized that I was thematically dangerous to his show. He didn’t want it to become a soap opera of sexy vampires. And so he, uh, marginalized the character, and it’s ironic, because the show is about outsiders, it’s about people who are not the popular people, and he didn’t really realize it, but he created within…so the show is about these outsider outcasts, and in this group of outcasts, there’s this other outcast. So he made me the super-outcast, and the show speaks to everyone who feels sometimes like an outcast, which is pretty much everybody. So thematically, I don’t know that he meant to set it up that way, but it kind of went down that way.
CB: What do you consider the most challenging role you’ve done so far?
JM: Toby Belch, in college. Just picture me at age twenty-one, and I looked probably sixteen, doing Toby Belch in Twelfth Night. Big, Falstaffian, loud character, drowning in sweat and failure. That would be the most challenging role. [laughs]
CB: Wow. Awesome. What further acting aspirations do you have?
JM: Ahh, well, I’m realizing one of them is that I’ve wanted to be in a procedural, because they seem to hire good actors for procedurals. It takes an ability to take very dry language and invest it with something. And I’ve wanted to do that ever since Buffy and Angel went down, I said I want to get on these cop shows and just talk about story. So that’s one that I can say I did it. [laughs] And, you know, beyond that, I would like to work with good writers. I got spoiled on Buffy — all the writers that worked on Buffy are just now hugely successful and are the engines behind some very popular shows. And I’d like to do that again, and I think that it’s just…it’s false. If you ask an actor, "What do you want to do next," you know, he’ll take good work. There’s a very small percentage of us who say, yeah, I would like to do a crime drama now, and then they get a bunch of crime drama scripts. Probably like, you know, a hundred people in Hollywood can do that. I would like to work with writers who are exploring themselves in a dangerous and honest way.
CB: Cool. And what about music?
JM: I would like people to buy my new album! [both laugh] And I wish I had a title for it. It’ll be available on November first, and I would like them to buy the holy hell out of it, so that I can do another one. I had twenty songs, we cut down to twelve, so, you know, I’m one more good visit with my girlfriend away from a double album, but I’m only producing twelve, so I’d love to do it again. I would like to do a tour with at least two more musicians, at least — I’ve been going out by myself for many years. It’s getting better, but man, is it nice to talk to another sound, like that.
CB: Is your girlfriend a musician as well?
JM: She writes the blues pretty good, actually. And she plays piano. She’s not a professional musician, but she plays piano pretty well. She writes some nice, strong blues chord progressions. And they’re not, like, locked in E like mine. [both laugh]
CB: Was she involved with your album?
JM: No, but she’s my muse. It’s a happy album, because she treats me well.
CB: Awesome. Well, that’s all I’ve got for you, James.
JM: All right, man.
CB: Thanks for doing this and being so generous with your time!
JM: Right on. Talk to you later, man.