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Jane Espenson - "Serenity Found" Book - Usatoday.com Excerpt

Wednesday 28 November 2007, by Webmaster

Exclusive excerpt: ’Serenity Found’

I just posted an interview with Jane Espenson. Now here’s one essay from her book, Serenity Found: More Unauthorized Essays on Joss Whedon’s Firefly Universe. It’s written by none other than the star of the film and short-lived TV series:

"I, Malcolm"

By Nathan Fillion

Sometimes it’s hard to separate an actor from the character he plays, if for no other reason than the fact that they have a tendency to look so much alike. Sometimes actors come to resent this association with a character, and they struggle to carve out a space for themselves separate from the character, but sometimes they feel about it exactly as we all hope they would. Listen here to Nathan’s voice ... the humor, the authority. Isn’t it a little ... I mean ... isn’t it a little Mal? And isn’t that fantastic?

Somebody once asked me what it was like to be Malcolm Reynolds. Usually I get, “Why was Firefly cancelled?” and “Is there going to be another season/sequel?” But what was it like? Specifically, to be Mal? I wasn’t quite ready for it. I mean, sure, it was great. Boots. Coat. Gun. Ride horses. Shoot guns. Shoot guns at horses. Stinks like awesome. But what was it like? It was so long ago it pieces together like childhood memories, complete with those moments of clarity that suddenly strike you with, “Oh, yeah! I remember that!” and a lot more moments of, “Really? We did that? Was I drunk?” But like those childhood memories there are images and feelings that are indelible.

Getting the job was stressful. I’m convinced the process of auditioning is designed to weed out the weak. Yet somehow, I still got it. There was the other actor up for the role, of whom I’m a huge fan. There was the fact I had to do the audition four or five times. There was the huge stack of contracts in triplicate to sign, potentially spelling out how I was going to spend the next seven years—or eight months, whatever the case may be. The stakes continue to rise throughout the process. Actors get knocked out of the mix, narrowing the choices. More and more faces show up to watch you pretend to be a spaceman. The offices get bigger and there’s a special room for the audition. Meetings are held afterward while you wait outside. Trying to keep your cool during this traumatic affair is down to the individual, because there isn’t anything that anybody can say to make it any easier. You are on your own. But I wanted this part badly. All the things we love about Mal were staring me in the face. The humour (spelled that way on purpose for Canadians), the questionable morality, the darkness, the anger, the almost imperceptible softness. It was all just out of reach like some toy in a window at Christmas, with Tiny Tim on the cold side, fogging up the glass. Or a brand new crutch or something. A gold crutch. No, a cure. Anyhow, it’s safe to say the part was all I wanted.

So, there I was. Going to get a tour from Joss of the not-yet-finished ship. I met him at the Firefly production office (which weren’t the offices we eventually wound up in) with the show logo on the door (which wasn’t the logo we eventually used). The sound stages were huge, and we had three. The ship was enormous and incomplete. Strange, how it first struck me as so bizarre and unreal, and then later became a home. Know this: I had never been on an hour-long, single-camera show. The entire process, the scope alone was new to me and very impressive. They had built an entirely new world, made up of scraps from the past and future. There were a lot of people who put a lot of work into making the quality of that show what it was. As the show went on, I quickly understood how much I depended on those motivated, creative, hard-working ladies and bastards (typed with love, you bastards). Certainly, I was a small cog in a smooth-running (almost all the time) machine that produced product. Bottled sunshine? White lightning? Liquid gold? Red kryptonite? Call it what you will, it was great, it had kick, and would probably take ten years off Superman’s life.

The first scene we shot was up on the catwalks in the cargo bay. It was me and Sean. This was it. The ship was ready. The lights were moody and the camera was running. Nobody really knew anybody yet. I knew my lines, but I didn’t have the handle on Mal that I have now. I was about to work with Joss. All the questions I had asked myself—“Will everyone get along? What will they be like to work with? Will I get along with Joss? Will people like it?” — were about to be answered. Then there are the questions you never think to ask that get answered. You learn these things as you go. It wasn’t ’till “Our Mrs. Reynolds” that I knew Mal was a rancher. Yet it wasn’t two days before I knew I could go to the little lunch camper out back and build a sandwich that would embarrass Dagwood. These things come with time. Until you experience them, the best you can do is smooth the gaps between the transitions, or bring lunch from home.

Certainly, there are a lot of technical considerations when acting on camera versus on stage. Three years of working with talented, seasoned professionals on daytime taught me how to ignore, or work with, the distraction of the technical. (Thanks, all of you at OLTL.) Past that, I got to live a self-centered kind of fantasy. As the captain, I got to be the center of my own universe. I got to be closed off, angry, bitter, and enraged. I fought my demons in bars, punished myself in fights I couldn’t win, trying to feel something. In my daily life, I don’t get the opportunity to swing myself onto a horse and feed my murderous energy into the animal for a primal burst of speeding revenge. Yet how many countless hours of my life did I spend daydreaming of heroic exploits? I needed that in my real life. I think maybe we all do, and sadly, few get the chance. When I played Mal, I wasn’t playing me, I was playing me if I had been through what Mal had been through. I don’t think of myself as a hard man, or closed-off, but I know this: Mal and I have a very similar sense of justice. I think comic books gave that to me, along with an over-developed sense of vengeance. I felt Malcolm was crusty, yes, but on the right track. More important than believing Mal was right, was knowing that Mal believes he is right.

I remember feeling like I owned the ship. When I was in costume and could find a moment on one of her two sets (lunch was the best time), I’d walk Serenity and just be Mal. I’d take in all her details. Nothing would escape my attention. It was just like the feeling I had for my 1975 Cadillac Eldorado, if the Caddy had somehow saved my life. I remember Serenity’s switches, lights, cables, and wires. I would try to fix things that were broken (try). I had a place at the head of the table. Either end, too. Other people could sit there, but it was understood that it was my place. ’Least in my mind. I had a rocker. I’d sit in it and space out in Mal’s head. Very cathartic. The ship had a smell. Dusty garage and bitter metal, like a penny. As for what she tasted like, you’d have to ask Richard Brooks.

The cast ... I can’t say enough. The rest of the cast played a huge role in how I played Mal. By virtue of my role, I got to work with everyone. Sometimes all together, but mostly just one or a few at a time. What satisfied, and impressed, me most was the process of discovery. Putting a scene together with actors who could find the real life, the moments that define characters and the relationships that live between the lines. I didn’t just watch; I was living it. Right there. Though for only moments at a time, I could be Mal. I couldn’t help it. You’ve got everyone dressed up, in the cargo bay, looking at, talking to, and treating me like I’m the captain. There were strange moments, weird suspended seconds when I bought it all. If you have ever watched an episode and felt a connection with a character, felt he was speaking to you, or for a moment were somehow transported and felt you were on the ship listening to the conversation beside you — that’s the feeling. Those instants that take you away, pull you in. I WAS THERE. I lived those moments. I got my ass saved by Zoe so many times. I mooned over Inara. I hit Jayne with a wrench. There were moments I could believe it. You’d have believed it, too, thanks to Joss. Looking at Kaylee, I could tell what kind of man Mal was. Speaking to Zoe, I could tell what kind of leader Mal was. Arguing with Wash and Jayne, I knew the limits of Mal’s patience. They made me Mal. Looking back, I know now that everyone in the cast was, in essence, his or her character. What makes Jayne so Jayne, is that Adam is a Jayne. Jewel is a free spirit who was cast as a free spirit. Alan is a clever smart ass who questions authority. Ron once gave me the shirt off his back (true story — still a favorite of mine), Gina is alluring and powerful, Morena is elegant, Summer is grace, Sean owes me money. Off camera, I was able to spend my days with these people, and on camera, with their characters. I got to have them as friends twice. And I have been accused of being the leader when we were just hanging around. I’ve thought long and hard about this, because I feel it makes me sound pretty cool, but I want to be accurate. It is true that occasions arose when we wanted to spend some time together as a family — both cast and crew — be it a lunch date or a more serious shindig over the weekend. Sometimes I would watch as folks tried to agree on a time and a place, maybe an activity. As it can sometimes be when trying to organize ten or more people, it would get a little complicated, or no decision would be made at all. I remember taking the helm a little bit as far as saying, “We’re going to this restaurant at this time.” Or, “My house, Saturday.” But that was the extent of it, really. So, it wasn’t so much that the captain-y thing rolled over into my real life. More so, I simply had the desire to be with these people outside of work. I just wanted to continue connecting. I just wanted to be with my friends. I wanted them around me. I wanted to be around them. You’ve seen them. Can you blame me?

So, we’ve established it was great for me. The whole thing, heartbreak included. Super duper, really. (Realizing now I haven’t the words to adequately describe the experience in a sentence, so: super duper.) I’ve also seen how the show has affected others. At unexpected times and strange places people reach out to me. They speak of Firefly with reverence, as a dear departed friend we had in common who did so much for them and died far too young. More than any other work I’ve done, I’ve seen that people are touched by Firefly. There is something in those characters that people identify with. I see it in people’s faces when they try to convey to me why or how it hit home for them. A specific episode, a moment, or a line that was particularly truthsome to them. Others have trouble putting their finger on it, but I see in their eyes a little Firefly burning. I understand, my friend. You ask me? It’s family. A group of people who, though flawed, would cross through hell for each other. For you. You’re feeling what I was feeling. I understand. I was the captain.

It was only a short time, but Firefly changed me. It changed my whole life. Rotten it’s over? Sure. Regrets? No. No way. What happened, happened. Anything bitter made everything else all the sweeter. I fought the good fight. I was a part of something that resonated with people, and still does. I made lifelong friends who have improved the quality of my life. So, what was it like to be Mal? I don’t know. ... I guess, imagine wanting, all your life, to be able to fly. Daydreaming about it, fantasizing about it. Imagine that flying was all you ever wanted. Then, for a few months, somebody gave you wings. ... Ooo. That’s good. I’m going to write that down.

Nathan Fillion has permission to participate in your book, and is allowed to go on any field trips that may be included with promoting it. We are so happy that his university education was not for naught. He has had so much fun with that show and we can’t believe how it just keeps popping up again and again! Let us know if there is anything else you need, and please make sure Nathan eats the apple we put in his lunch and don’t let him lose his mittens.

— Cookie Fillion

Excerpted with permission from Serenity Found: More Unauthorized Essays on Joss Whedon’s Firefly Universe edited by Jane Espenson (Benbella, $17.95).