Sam Witwer is a 35-year-old American actor who has pretty much covered all the Nerd bases in the last few years. Appearing in Battlestar Galactica and Being Human (US) is bad enough, but when you also include the fact that he was in The Mist, directed by Frank Darabont and based on Stephen King’s short story, Dexter and CSI then he becomes something of an icon. Then you add on the fact that he’s been a zombie in The Walking Dead, is the voice of Darth Maul and the Son in Clone Wars and on top of that is a bona-fide part of the Star Wars universe with his portrayal of the apprentice, Galen Marek, in The Force Unleashed games and suddenly you have an actor who has been on our list of ‘must interview’ for a long time now, so as you can imagine, it was our absolute pleasure to sit and talk to him…
FTN: Sam, before we begin, I just want to tell you that we all at FTN are really big fans of your work and this has been something we’ve looked forward to for a long, long time.
Before you landed the role of Doomsday in Smallville, were you a Superman fan?
SW: Certainly. Of the Christopher Reeve movies, that is. When I was a little kid, the only way my parents could get me to put on a suit was if I could wear my Superman shirt underneath, cuz then I wasn’t wearing a suit… I was Clark Kent. As for the comics, I’ve read more now, post-Smallville, than I did before.
FTN: Were you aware that Doomsday was the one that Killed Superman. Was that daunting in any way?
SW: I hadn’t read it, but yes I was aware and yes it was daunting. This stuff is beloved by a lot of people and you certainly don’t want to let anyone down. I knew the idea about giving Doomsday a human alter-ego was not going to be popular once announced, but if we did it well we might just come out looking good on the other side.
So yes. I was hired to mess with something that was very important to a lot of people, and somehow I got away with it.
FTN: Were you worried about fan backlash when you killed Jimmy Olsen?
SW: I was. I was not happy with how the arc ended. It’s not that what they wanted to do was impossible, it’s just that we hadn’t earned it. We hadn’t created a character that would do what he did in the way he did it. I felt it was an artificially dramatic left turn.
Having said that, TV is hard. Everything is done on tiny schedules and tiny budgets, and one moment the network/studio wants this, and the next moment they want that. I think the writing team did me far more credit than disservice.
On killing Jimmy Olsen: “I was not happy with how the arc ended… I felt it was an artificially dramatic left turn.”
FTN: Have you watched the British version of Being Human and what did you think of it?
SW: I have. I love that show and recommend it unreservedly. It’s really wonderful.
FTN: How did you approach bringing your own spin to the vampire mythology as Aidan in Being Human?
SW: When we started Being Human, we stayed away from the BBC original entirely. We had to make our own characters and seeing someone else’s take on similar material was only going to muddy the waters. When we wrapped season one, I bought everyone the boxsets and we became fans.
As for the mythology – Well, I originally turned down the audition. I read the word “Vampire” in the first three pages and immediately thought, “Oh man. Why do we need another one of these guys?” I then closed the script. Thankfully, a very smart friend of mine named Laura Terry shamed me into going back and actually reading the material. To my horror I saw a really cleverly told story about a drug addict trying to go clean. I loved that.
So my first task in approaching Aidan was to create a recovering drug addict. That’s what I think I’m doing. Everything else is just letting my mind run wild with what it must be like to be 260 years old, etc. I haven’t watched much Vampire stuff so I don’t know how other people are doing it.
FTN: You were also in the movie adaptation of the Mist. It had one of the most shocking endings ever. Were you a Stephen King fan?
SW: I was a casual King fan. Funny thing is, my buddies back in Chicago had been complaining to me that no one had ever made a movie adaptation of the Mist… This was two years before I got the audition. How did I get the audition? A woman dropped a bag of stuff in the middle of the street and I helped her gather her things. She was a casting director and asked me if I wanted to read for something. She gave me 15 minutes with some pretty difficult material, put me on tape, and next thing I know, Frank Darabont hires me. It was very strange, and I’m damn glad I didn’t know I was auditioning for Frank.
What I value most from that experience is my friendship with Frank.
FTN: You were a zombie in the Walking Dead. You’re a vampire. All you need now is to be a werewolf and you’ve completely the big three. Are there days when you wake up and as a normal person think, that is so cool?
SW: It is definitely a bizarre job. As for the “this is so cool” factor, that’s the Star Wars stuff. I was a huge fan when I was a kid, so it’s fun to now get to play around in that universe.
FTN: You have done a lot of voice-over work for computer games etc. Do you find that a harder medium given the performance is all in the vocals?
SW: It’s getting easier. Some people say voiceover is easy… Well, I’d say that’s not true. If you wanna do anything really well, it’s difficult. There’s a lot to learn. The voice actors I’ve worked with are, quite honestly, better at that stuff than I am. Now, I may bring my own unique talents to it, but there’s a whole skillset that the best voice actors have to draw on, and I’m just trying to make a really good wrench… OK, maybe now I’m working on a screwdriver as well.
The only thing I have to fall back on is my taste and my dramatic sense. The vocal stuff is coming, and it’s getting a little bit easier.
FTN: Galen Marek is honestly one of my favourite Star Wars characters, certainly in the EU, how does it feel to be such a strong and unique character in the Star Wars universe?
SW: Well there was another daunting role. To create a Star Wars protagonist for a project that had a budget more on the scale of a feature film, that was pressure. Star Wars fans are not shy about telling you when they think you got it wrong. So I worked hard. Very hard. Did a lot of homework. What homework? Well, I already knew the Star Wars stuff… but what I wasn’t maybe AS familiar with was Flash Gordon 1930s serials, Kurosawa films, 70s acting styles, Wizard of Oz, etc. I thought it was important to reflect on the influences that MADE Star Wars and not just Star Wars itself.
What did I learn? A lot of things, but chief among them? Star Wars is better when it’s bigger, performance wise. Subtlety doesn’t read, because it’s shot in masters and two shots like an old film. You have to fill that frame with personality. Also? If you’re gonna say it loud, might as well say it fast. The joke that people level at George Lucas is that he only ever gave the direction, “Faster, more intense” to the actors.
Well, guess what? Faster, more intense works quite well in a Star Wars movie. … Watch 1940s movies to get a feel for what I’m talking about.
FTN: Galen’s Story was left open-ended at the end of Force Unleashed II. Do you think we’ll see him again?
SW: You never know with the Mouse now running stuff. If they crack the books and see what the biggest financial hits are, they’ll see Battlefront and Force Unleashed topping the list, so there’s always hope.
On Dave Filoni: “He is the real deal and I truly hope Disney understands what they have there in him. I wanna see him to get a shot at a live action feature.”
FTN: When you were cast as Darth Maul were you as hesitant as the fans to embrace this character again? Obviously we love him and he’s been brought back to great effect but there was some worry…
SW: Well, it was Doomsday and Starkiller all over again as far as pressure. Here we were doing an idea that would not sit well with the fans – we were bringing back a character everyone was pretty damned sure was dead. It was George’s story. The only way we were gonna get away with it is if we did it really well… not just did it well… but told some deeper mythological elements of stuff like the force… ya know? How was this even possible? How could this guy who was cut in half survive?
Well, I approached it like, “Hey, if you saw Revenge of the Sith and ended it when Vader was cut up and burned to a crisp, you’d think it was impossible for him to survive too!” What’s the answer? Well, the Sith do not conceive of anything beyond their life. There’s no life after death. When Alec Guinness says, “if you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine” that doesn’t make ANY sense to Vader. These guys hold on to what they have because, well, you can’t take it with you. Death? That’s it. That’s the end.
So these sick jerks use all of their resources and powers to unnaturally preserve themselves. In the case of Anakin, he kept himself alive when his body died. In the case of Darth Maul, he did something similar… But in his case, he’d been crawling around in the garbage for 10 years, long enough for him to go quite mad, and long enough for the dark side to cause pieces of garbage to stick to him, eventually creating these spider legs.
What does it all mean in the larger mythology? It’s Star Wars goes to hell. It’s showing the audience for the first time what the Dark Side really is, and it’s madness, despair and grief. What Darth Maul is on screen is what Darth Vader experiences underneath the mask and in his private moments.
So if you tell THAT story, the audience tends to forgive little things like, “but he was cut in half.” …And then you get an Emmy nomination.
FTN: Because of the roles you play, do you worry about fandom and its reactions,?
SW: Always. Always. But the fans have been quite kind and generous in accepting these curve balls, which makes me wanna take on more challenges.
On the roles he plays: “the fans have been quite kind and generous in accepting these curve balls”
FTN: In the Mortis trilogy you play the son, part of a trio of characters who really get to the heart of the Force. Being such a big Star Wars fan, did you know how massive the role was going to be? How did you feel on first reading the script?
CW: I really didn’t know until I got there and discussed the situation with Dave Filoni. The Son character was meant to be the ghostly embodiment of the Dark Side of the Force, so… no pressure. It was pretty intimidating to have to play an iconic element of that mythology… a theme really. I’d never played a THEME before… AND to be new to voice acting. The first day, I was a worried. We were doing the first episode and The Son didn’t have much to say. I asked Dave, “Are we worried this guy is gonna sound too much like Starkiller?”
Dave responded: “Well, Starkiller had a connection to the Dark Side, and this character IS the Dark Side, so he can sound a little like him.”
That got me thinking… If that’s the way it can work and we can hear some Starkiller in there, should we not hear ALL of the villains of Star Wars in there? Should we not dip into Vader, Dooku, Palpatine, Maul?
So I came back the next day to do an episode where the Son had a lot to say, and I started doing executing on this crazy theory. Filoni stopped the session and hit his talkback button: “I think I know what you’re doing.” … And I said: “Um… so should I do it less?” He says: “Do it more.”
Before I move on, a word on Dave Filoni. You work with a lot of people in this business. Some are competent, some are sadly not, and some have half the skillset but are sadly deficient in some ways. TV/Film is hard and it’s a miracle that anything at all turns out good. Having said that, I’ve found Dave Filoni to be among the most talented, most intelligent, most motivated people I’ve ever worked with. He is the real deal and I truly hope Disney understands what they have there in him. I wanna see him to get a shot at a live action feature.
“The Son character was meant to be the ghostly embodiment of the Dark Side of the Force, so… no pressure.”
FTN: You’ve done them all at this stage, BSG, The Walking Dead, Being Human, appeared in a good Stephen King adaptation – directed by the legend that is Frank Darabont, played the man/creature that would kill Superman, owned the Darth Maul role and lived an integral Star Wars character in Galen Marek… is there anything left that you would really like to do?
SW: Indiana Jones. … Or a hard boiled 1940s private detective. …Or hey… Why not Corwin of Amber? I am now officially throwing that out there.
On roles he’d like to play: “Why not Corwin of Amber? I am now officially throwing that out there.”
FTN: Sam, thanks so much for taking the time and if you ever feel like chatting about Star Wars, comics or any of that good stuff we have a weekly radio show here in sunny Ireland that would be honoured to have you on it.
SW: Thanks so much, man.