Mark Sheppard photo by RavenU
Last weekend at C2E2, we covered a lot of panels for the web site, most of them comic book related. ReedPop's Chicago convention is still mostly about the funny pages, though this year they had a few more entertainment panels than last. Still, if I could only make it to see one media guest star, I wanted to check out Mark Sheppard. He had key roles in Battlestar Galactica, Supernatural, and yes, Firefly. (The room was filled mostly with Firefly fans, who quickly pointed out when the moderator forgot to mention the show during his intro.) Mark Sheppard covers almost all of my non-comic-book-related interests.
The following are my notes from the panel. They are mostly paraphrased, but I tried to be as accurate as possible while typing on a tiny laptop. Sheppard has a long history of acting in some pretty popular science fiction television shows (including The X Files, and recently, Dr. Who,) so he has a lot of anecdotes and quotes about fellow actors, directors, and writers.
Mark Sheppard: "Television used to be the less prestigious part of acting, but tv now is so good, it's become the great place to tell a story. Film has suffered in the last 10-15 years to have to sacrifice a lot to become a huge success. You can't turn The Sopranos or The Wire or Firefly in to just one movie. TV is now written by people just like us with really cool jobs. They're the 40 year olds that couldn't get a job in a comic book store."
He's got some strong opinions about the state Hollywood films: "Movies are crap with some rare exceptions. I thought Star Trek was great, but my dad's in it so I have to say that." Apparently Groupon is desperately trying to sell movie tickets to people to get them out in to the theaters, and he finds this sad. "If we stop paying for shit, people will stop making it."
"How many box sets of Star Wars can we possibly own? With or without Jar Jar. Jar Jar in 2D, Jar Jar in 3D. The Jar Jar Binks years. I am excited to see the new Star Trek, Superman, and Spider-Man movies. I thought the last two Spider-Man movies were atrocious, though. What was the last one? A musical?"
When asked why he likes to play "morally ambiguous" characters, or "villains," Sheppard was quick to point out that he actually is portraying adversaries with different points of view: "The roles that are the most fun to do are the ones that resonate. They resonate with the fans because they resonate with you.
"Romo was the last sane man in the universe, Crowley is similar. There's no such thing as bad guys, just a character with another point of view. On The Practice I played a guy who stabbed someone seven times and he called it self defense. David Kelley is brilliant at writing two arguments with equal weight. Heath Ledger's Joker has equal weight and importance as Batman, he is the moral compass. It's far more interesting that way. When you start to realize someone has a point of view, you realize that's a real person. Those speeches [in The Dark Knight] are frightening, because there's no ambiguity there, it's very distinct point of view. Writers are starting to give us better stories because of that. Bad guys are getting more interesting."
As far as mentioning Firefly goes, Sheppard points out that Joss Whedon had very different plans for Firefly season two. Season one was all about "world building," and that of all Whedon's shows, Firefly was "the most realized."
"If they left us alone we'd make really great tv. For some reason they didn't touch Battlestar. One of the executive producerss, at the end of the first season [of Battlestar] said that he thought it was really a great show, but he didnt understand it." Apparently that's the sort of support that Mark Sheppard thinks television creators need from the network. He stressed repeatedly that ratings systems like the Nielsens are "archaic," and that no one knows how a show is going to perform when it actually airs, even if producers and executives take credit afterwards for predicting a show would be a success.
Apparently, TNT's notes for the first season of Leverage (a show which Sheppard also guest stars on): "wouldn't fill the page. Sometimes they just leave it alone. Deadwood and The Wire were those series that didn't have a lot of notes. There is no formula for it or every show would be great. There is an interaction between the suits and the audience, and the audience response is what dictates what happens to the show. The system that rates what viewers want is so archaic you don't actually know what people are really watching. There are people on the internet and you don't know what they're doing.
"Eddie asked me one time, 'If there's only a million people watching,' ...sorry [starts to impersonate Edward James Olmos] 'If there's only a million people watching, why can't we walk down the street?'
"Firefly got so big because we were robbed. [audience applause] If you steal something, there's a sense of loss. Halfway trough the pilot of Dollhouse, FOX went 'Oh my God, this is about sex!'"
From then on it was downhill, and they were fighting a battle to keep what they were trying to do on-screen. Apparently, a similar thing happened with Bionic Woman, or, as Sheppard calls it:
"Bionic Woman: It Really Wasn't That Bad. That was the real tagline. David Eick got some amazing people, the Rome guy that went on to do the Mentalist." (He means Bruno Heller, who produced a few episodes of Bionic Woman, but went on to create The Mentalist for CBS.)
"The person that greenlit the pilot for Bionic Women left NBC and went to FOX and greenlit the Sarah Conner Chronicles. The pilot [for Bionic Woman] was amazing, but the note that came back was that it needed more tits and humor. David said 'I don't remember what show that was, it wasn't Bionic Woman.' It's the micromanagement that will kill a show. They have no idea what's going to be popular."
Mark Sheppard is a huge fan of science fiction, and it's no wonder. His father, the actor William Morgan Sheppard, has been in just about every production of Star Trek, including The Undiscovered Country and the J.J. Abrams reboot two years ago -- so he's grown up around the genre. (If you're me, you remember W. Morgan Sheppard most from Seaquest DSV. Yeah, the show with the talking dolphin. I know the rest of you were busy watching Lois & Clark instead, bully for you.) Sheppard's hope for the future is that with less studio interference, more quality programming can eek its way through, and: "...scifi will no longer be the bastard poor cousin of television."
"I'm just an ordinary scifi geek with a really cool job. I think entertainment has a responsibility to not only entertain but to provoke thought. Scifi does that more than other things. Procedurals don't really speak to me any more. The 'what if' sorts of questions all come from great scifi."
He quoted Ron D. Moore, from a time when they were standing in Moore's kitchen: "There's two types of people in the world, those that think that Ancient Rome had a purpose, and those who don't."
The types of shows like Battlestar Galactica and The Wire have many little stories to tell while trying to make one big point. Those sorts of shows are few and far between, because -- in this writer's opinion -- they ask a lot of the audience. You have to really get invested in something and have faith that it will pay off in the end. According to Sheppard, he will never do something like BSG again, because it was so serialized, "and it is very hard to get that right."
Apparently Mark Sheppard has made friends with lots of television writers, and this is not a bad position to be in. At some point, he guessed around the time he was working on 24, he stopped having to try out for parts, the characters were being written for him. Warehouse 13 was shooting and the writers realized they had 9 pages of dialogue to shoot in one day. (I don't have much experience working in scripted tv, just live television. But, based on my days shooting big budget studio films, nine pages is A LOT. We'd be lucky if we got one page shot in a day on a major backlot.) So, the Warehouse 13 people said, "let's get Mark Sheppard."
Romo was written for him. He was working on Leverage and Joss Whedon called him and wanted him to do a role on Dollhouse, so he asked if he could see [the script.] He reads it and says: "He's called Tanaka. I don't think I was the first choice. But it looks funny. So I did Tanaka. And when I arrived on set, I told Joss I was keeping the name. And Joss said 'I knew you'd say that, maybe your stepfather was Japanese.' And I replied: 'Or I married a Japanese man.'"
Ben Edlund created Crowley, and Sheppard had to audition for it, it wasn't a character created for him. Sheppard takes the time here to quote from The Tick, and then calls it: "The greatest animated series of all time. Rewatch it, I can't believe he gets away the references. I can't believe my children get the references. It was Pre-Adult-Swim Adult Swim."
Edlund created Crowley as "a sexually ambiguous crossroads demon." The most surprising thing they discovered about shooting Crowley's opening scenes was that they couldn't find a dayplayer in Vancouver that would kiss a man. Actors in their seventies wouldn't do it. (If you don't follow Supernatural, the main "crossroads" demon has to seal the soul-selling deal with a kiss, which is fine in the first few seasons when the demon was played by a curvy young actress. After Sam kills her, though, she's replaced with Sheppard.)
He found it "the most uninspiring thing, other than kissing Jim Beaver. They're nice people but there were no chubbies going on there. The worst part was actually touching the back of the actor's head to kiss him. I told my wife 'His head was sweaty and his hair was wet and it was weird' and she said 'Now you understand dating.'
"Supernatural always tries to push it. Americans like violence more than gay kissing, unless it's on Glee. Torchwood was so interesting because it was like WHAT THE FUCK and England was like 'Yes, men kiss. No big deal.' Pretty men kiss, ugly men kiss."
He talked a lot about Supernatural, which pleased me to no end. He's already sick of Crowley being dead, although he claims "No one's ever really dead on Supernatural. Maybe Sara and Eric will get tired of the pissed off fans and will bring Crowley back." He sees the Supernatural cast and crew all the time and will visit when he's in Vancouver. As far as the rest of the show goes, he didn't like the third and fourth seasons as much as the first two seasons, but five was "really great," because it "got back to the spirit of the first season."
He also calls "J2" (Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki) "the Short One and the Tall One," but then laughs, because "Jensen being the short one is hilarious, he's 6'2"."
So Mark Sheppard's not just an actor on your favorite shows, but he's a fan, too. If you want proof, just know that he has theories for why Crowley either isn't really dead or wasn't firstly a demon to begin with: "I realized that we never saw Crowley's eyes flash red." (Other demons on the show have their eyes flash black or red or whatever, so you know there's something else going on in that meat suit other than the usual soul business.)
(Here's the trailer for the next season of Doctor Who.)
He claims he's been very lucky to work with such great people, which led to talk about Dr. Who. If you don't know, Mark Sheppard is guest-starring on the two-part season premiere; part one is debuting April 23rd at 9 pm ET on BBC America. He says:
"Matt Smith is so much fun, sexy little bastard. I like my doctors sexy. Tom Baker was sexy in a seventies way. If you want to be the Doctor you want to be cool, not geeky. But Matt is dweeby, geeky, and sexy all at the same time. I really love Doctor Who, and you can't be like 'So and so is the REAL Doctor,' because the Doctor is always evolving. I think it's better now. The last three doctors were brilliant -- Eccleston, Tennant. Matt showed me how every single button and lever in the Tardis works. He knows if they're held together with string, sealing wax, what pulley lifts which latch, et cetera. Matt breaks everything, so [the propmaster] is constantly following him around, having to fix the sonic screwdriver when bits fall off.
"Doctor Who was a guilty secret but it needs to be mainstream now. It needs to have massive numbers so they keep making it. Did you guys see Sherlock?" (The audience applauds.) "Steven Moffat can make tv that's not Who. Sherlock was amazing. Let's keep him making Who. Watch it when it's on. Find friends who have Nielsen boxes. Get a Tivo-brand Tivo, and watch it within seven days. That's how they don't take it away."
Talking more about the other great actors he's worked with, he says "The first film I ever did was with Pete Postlethwaite and Daniel Day Lewis, and that's not a bad way to start." He really loves what he does, and he recalls his father's favorite quote: "A young Welsh actor went to Richard Burton and said 'Mr. Burton how do you do the acting?', and Burton said: 'Give the other actor your whole heart, and if he doesn't give it back... you kick the shit out of him.'"
He goes on to say that "Five years on a regular show would be really nice, but it doesn't work that way. Michael Caine did The Swarm because he thought he'd never work again. It's an industry built on rejection.
"The reason these shows endure is that they're not cynical crap that's ripping us off. It's working hard to share with us. The reason I do cons is because, on tv, I'm only performing for maybe a hundred other people -- the cast and crew. And that's acting for yourself. You don't get to share it until you come to a convention and then it's like doing theater. I've watched episodes of shows at cons with crowds and you hear the cheers and it's amazing, it's the greatest feeling in the world. I'm just as much as fan as you are. It's a shared experience. And I really enjoy doing it."