He’s no stranger to fantasy, having appeared in the television series Neverland and Olympus, nor to the myriad world of games, having voiced characters in Assassin’s Creed: Revelations and Halo 4, nor to science fiction having played a major role in Duncan Jones’ Source Code, but now Cas Anvar faces his greatest challenge yet, piloting the commandeered Martian Congressional Republic Navy corvette Rocinante on new SyFy show The Expanse.
One of the headline guests of the third annual Edinburgh Comic Convention, while in the capital on the afternoon of Sunday 3rd April 2016 the gregarious Canadian actor was good enough to brave both the notorious Scottish weather and interrogation by Geek Chocolate.
Geek Chocolate – I’ll start you off with the most obvious question. The Expanse is based on an ongoing series of novels by James S A Corey, the sixth of which, Babylon’s Ashes, is due out this coming November. Had you heard of them prior to being cast as Alex Kamal, have you read any of them, and if so, how far into the series are you?
Cas Anvar – No, I had not heard of them. I’m a huge sci-fi lover, I kind of pride myself on knowing what’s going on, and I’m ashamed to say I didn’t know about The Expanse and I didn’t have a chance to read anything before I auditioned. I just knew I wanted to get the role that was described as “Mars-born Pakistani east Indian fighter pilot with a Texas accent.” And I said, you know what, that’s gotta be me.
Once I got the role I started reading Leviathan Wakes and I finished that as we were shooting. I went chapter by chapter with each script because I found it really helpful to be going through the novel at the same speed as we were shooting because there were a lot of things that got missed, because transposing a novel into a script a lot of little things can get overlooked.
As an actor my job is to preserve as much as I can of my character. I would take little things from the book, and they would be like “oh, yeah, we forgot about that, let’s put that back in.” Now I’ve read Caliban’s War, and that’s where I’m stopping because we’re about to do season two in a month.
GC – Despite the complexity of the universe, the diverse locations and factions, the polyglottal dialogue, SyFy obviously had a lot of faith in the show, the expansive sets, the sprawling cast, and the second season commissioned before the first had even finished airing, which you’re just about to start filming. Are you excited, reassured, apprehensive?
CA – Very excited, very optimistic. I’ve never seen a show get the reviews that this has been getting. We’ve been getting non-stop positive reviews from the biggest of the critics, we got a “thumbs up” from George R R Martin who gave us “this is the kind of sci-fi you’ve been waiting for,” we’ve been called “Game of Thrones in space,” we’ve been called “the next Battlestar,” so all things look good.
We’ve got five novels already written, so we’re not really worried about where we’re going. It’s not going to be a Lost situation, it’s very much like Game of Thrones.
GC – It’s been the standard approach of television adaptations of novel series – the first two seasons of Game of Thrones, Outlander, True Blood to some extent – to do one book per season, but you jumped straight to the way of the later seasons of Game of Thrones, half a book for your first season.
While that allowed the inclusion of some material from two of the short stories, The Butcher of Anderson Station and The Churn, which naturally fitted into the narrative at those points, it did mean a lot of the momentum which made the books so exciting was lost. Do you know the reason for that decision and with the second season thirteen episodes, how are you going to compensate?
CA – We didn’t just add The Churn and Butcher, we also added the entire storyline of Chrisjen Avasarala from Caliban’s War, she is an amazing character and we had to have her in the first season because you’re privy to everyone’s thoughts and the history and there’s all sorts of descriptive narrative that gives you a context. If you don’t have Earth in your understanding as a viewer you don’t understand The Expanse, so we had to put Avasarala and Earth’s stake in the show in the first season.
That’s a huge amount of material that now gets put into a book that didn’t have it before, so that had to take up some space. We feel that The Expanse is a very intelligent, very story-driven series which is a bit of a slow burn, kind of in the sense of Breaking Bad. If you watch Breaking Bad, the first five, six, seven episodes it’s like “what’s going on?” and it just gathers momentum season after season and becomes more and more addictive.
It’s not always an action festival, and so Expanse is in the same sense a slow burn in that deeply rich narrative, deeply layered plot, and rich characters are both interwoven and developed, and by the time we get to season two we are ready to light the powderkeg and open Pandora’s box in terms of pacing because all of our main characters are now established. We’re going to add one more character from Caliban’s War then we’re off to the races.
GC – Is that Bobbie Draper or someone else?
CA – That’s Bobbie.
GC – Cool. I like her. The launch pattern was a bit unusual for the first season, online for free viewing before broadcast to build awareness, an atypical move for a commercial network, yet conversely, despite the Blu-rays being imminent, there’s no UK pickup announced. Has the strategy paid off?
CA – We definitely had a great launch. I think they were brilliantly wise that we’re now in an Internet world, streaming is the way to go, Netflix, Hulu, Crackle. Despite being on a network like SyFy, streaming is the way to go if you want to get word of mouth out there, make it available online, make it so the fans can watch it whenever they want. You follow that model, you’re guaranteed a success. I think they were brilliantly smart.
They also knew that the first four episodes of our show, it was a datadump. We had a massive amount of information to convey to the audience, in a creative and interesting way, but a massive amount of information and really deep, rich characters that we weren’t going to rush through. Don’t make them wait a month to get to the action. Give them all four episodes so that they can binge-watch it in one night.
We found that when we tested it that by the time the audiences got to episode four, they were hooked. If we got them past episode four, they couldn’t stop, because episode four, CQB, was a spectacular action festival and you’ve fallen in love with all of our characters by then.
I think it was a brilliant choice, the numbers prove it, I think we’re averaging four million people per episode when you add everything up and that’s an extremely high number. When you think Buffy was like seven or eight million in it’s heyday, four million for the first season of a brand new sci-fi is pretty good.
GC – Despite the huge cast, the nature of the show means you spend a lot of your time bottled up with your buddies on the Rocinante, often with you alone on the bridge in your snazzy Martian Navy uniform, or when you’re not, stuck in a holding cell. Half of acting is reacting, so that has to be frustrating for your as an actor, to be isolated.
CA – Yeah, they’re going to change that for season two. I spend a lot of time in the pilot’s seat, but I kind of like the subtlety that allows me to do. I get to do a lot of soft, gentle reaction shots and I’m usually aware of all the work that the others are doing on the show because we have a lot of rehearsal, and I listen and I watch and I see what’s going on, so by the time we get to the shooting of it and I’m in my little pilot’s seat, even if the other actors aren’t there I know what they’ve done. We’ve worked it all out in rehearsals.
Once you’re alone and you’ve got the camera right in your face and you’re really intimate, you get to do a lot of subtle acting that a lot of times you don’t always get to do when you’re interacting with someone else, they gotta worry about coverage, but when it’s just you in the scene it’s just you – “I’m going to do this again, I’ve got another idea, I’m going to do it like this, do you mind if I just throw in an improv?” All these kind of things are available because it’s just you, and that’s kind of fun.
GC – The two parts of James S A Corey, writers Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, came on board for the episode Windmills which is ironically probably the one which gave you the most to do, because of all the crew of the Rocinante, Alex is the one we know least of from the books. Have you been able to discuss the character with them, and have you been lobbying for more in the later books?
CA – I talk to Daniel and Ty all the time, we’re very close. They’re heavily involved in the show, they’re writing episodes on the show in the writer’s room, they’re on set every day when we’re shooting, so Ty and Daniel are there as a resource all the time and quite honestly it’s been amazing. It’s enhanced the show.
We’re always talking about our characters, about what we want in the future. I think the first season had to be about Miller and Holden, their journey, because they propel the first season. Alex is a support, he’s a very integral part of the show.
These guys are all young, they’re all hot-headed, they’re all very volatile, got a very damaged background, they’re all ready to break apart, Holden, Naomi, Amos, Miller, all of them, they’re fractured. Alex is the only guy who’s got common sense and a calm head prevailing. He’s the only guy who has real military training and has probably been in some rough spots before.
Even though Holden has military training he got court martialed and sent down with a dishonourable discharge so Alex is like the big brother, the uncle, and that all came from the creators. They’re actually the ones that told me that Alex is the glue that holds the team together. They’re the ones who guided me on his position in the team.
GC – Speaking of the Rocinante, the set is fantastic, but we’ve only seen a few areas. What is it like to work in that environment, to be the guy pressing the buttons that makes the ship fly, and will we see any more of the ship this season?
CA – Absolutely there’s more to be seen. I’ve already seen some drawings of different parts of the ship. The Rocinante is a big ship, it’s meant for thirty to forty people and there’s just the four of us on it, soon to be five, and there’s plenty of room to explore, plenty of rooms to look at.
The ship has been built in its entirety, we have crew quarters, we have a galley, we have an armoury, an airlock, an ops deck, a flight deck, a gunnery chair, and I think that there’s another couple of rooms that are being built for this season, all of which you’re going to get to see in season two.
It’s an amazing experience to have. As an actor, that’s like being in a playground with all the monkey bars and all the equipment to just play. We don’t have to CGI it, we don’t have to imagine it, it’s all there, and I get to decide how is it that my ship flies?
GC – I was just about to ask that, did you get to make up how the control work or you given guidance, either by the directors or the set designers?
CA – That’s usually the props guys and the actors that figure all that stuff out, if it’s written into the script. For example the juice is written into the script, they’ve figured out how the juice works so there’s a very specific physical process for getting our juice, and that process is different on the Canterbury and different on the Rocinante.
GC – They made you learn two ships?
CA – The Canterbury is an old rustbucket, the Rocinante is a state of the art Lamborghini, it’s like a Tesla, so it’s two completely different technologies and I actually suggested that the Rocinante juice should be better than the Canterbury juice. I think it’s a higher quality drug, that is smoother and cleaner. It’s the good stuff. They all liked that idea, that Mars juice is the premium juice.
GC – Four of your first ten episodes were directed by Terry McDonough who, although British, he’s been pretty much ubiquitous in episodic American television as well as directing An Adventure in Space and Time, the fiftieth anniversary docudrama looking behind the scenes on the early days of Doctor Who. The pilot of any show very much sets the tone of all that follows; what did Terry bring?
CA – Terry brought an incredible sense of character. Terry is a legend, we all love working with him. He was specifically someone that the actors fell in love with. He has great vision. He comes from the theatre, he was a director of the theatre, and it was very clear from how he handled us in our rehearsal process, he actually instilled in the actors a work ethic that actually carried us through the entire ten episodes of rehearsing every week on our own on the weekend.
We would get together every weekend for three hours, we would go through the episode once, we would go through it again, and we would work the scenes, come up with all kinds of cool shit, and then we would write all these notes down, we would give them to the writers, and so by the time we get on set we know our stuff inside and out and the producers actually commented on it, they said “you are the most prepared of anyone we’ve ever worked with, and it shows,” and that all came from Terry.
GC – Fantastic. You spend a lot of time flying around the minor bodies of the solar system, Eros and Ceres. When first discovered, along with Vesta and Juno, they were designated planets, which with Pluto actually brought the number to thirteen. They were downgraded first, with the International Astronomical Union redesignating Pluto a dwarf planet just a decade ago. Where does Alex Kamal stand: planets or not?
CA – Alex was born to be behind a stick. He has to fly.
CG – All just points on a compass to him?
CA – Yup. He lives to be on a ship. That’s it. His background is based on his inability to stop, his hunger and desire to be behind a stick.
GC – Completely changing tack, one of your most prominent roles in cinema was as Dodi Fayed in Diana. It would be mendacious to say the film was well received, but to me the most important thing was that you go to work with Naomi Watts. The first thing I saw her in was Mulholland Drive where she gave an astonishing performance, and I’m so excited that she’s working with David Lynch again on the new season of Twin Peaks. What was it like working together?
CA – Oh, she’s a lovely, generous actress, very much into her character. I didn’t actually get to know her personally very much because she completely stayed in her world of Diana. She had a lot of pressure on her with that role as well.
She really did focus on maintaining the role of Diana while we were working. She was very generous, very sweet, no diva, no attitude or ego whatsoever, just really focused on the work.
GC – I know the director of Diana, Oliver Hirschbiegel from his film Der Untergang which was a powerful, even intimidating film. It must have been a huge challenge for you, portraying such public figures who are fully within living memory. How do you approach that, balancing the dramatic needs of cinema against the desire, possibly conflicting, to be honest and respectful?
CA – It was very difficult to do a character who was a real human being whose family is still alive, and who passed under very controversial and difficult circumstances. It’s a little bit easier when you’re dealing with a historical figure hundreds of years ago because there’s no one really around who feels the sting of it the way it does when there’s people who remember it.
My friends knew him personally, and there’s also not a lot of research on Dodi Fayed, so it was difficult on numerous levels, and when you’re doing something like this I found you have to be respectful, you have to be mindful of the people who are seeing it, people who are family, and at the same time try also to be truthful.
Don’t make any huge leaps of interpretation, don’t say anything or do anything that is not documented or proven just to be creative. That’s my belief. You’re doing a real person, there’s people still around, do what you know, don’t do what you think because you’re not doing anyone any favours by doing that, you’re just opening up yourself to slander and libel and misrepresentation. I just try to walk that very fine line of being respectful and true to what was really known.
GC – Going further back, you were in Duncan Jones’ Source Code, alongside Jake Gyllenhaal who beat you up at a train station, a man who catapulted to A-list without artistic compromise, not a thing to do, and Michelle Monaghan, one of Hollywood’s most interesting leading ladies. It was a very different film from Duncan’s debut, Moon, his first Hollywood studio film, and now he’s off playing Warcraft. What was that experience like?
CA – Working with Duncan was wonderful. I think most people know that he’s David Bowie’s son and creatively and talentwise, he’s definitely a chip off the old block. He has incredible vision, he’s an incredibly strong director, he knows what he wants. This was his first big budget movie and he attacked it with confidence and fervour.
Jake was a beautiful person to work with. He’s a great actor. He’s a very focused, serious, professional actor with a great sense of humour. He’s fun to work with, he’s always joking around and it’s always about the work. I hung about a little with him off set, he’s a nice guy.
Michelle is super sweet, kind, generous, warm, giving, very talented actress, very relaxed. It was nice to be around all of those people because they helped me raise my game.
GC – I always like her because she has such a sense of humour in her roles. She never does the expected thing.
CA – Yes, exactly. She’s a smart actor.
GC – You’ve travelled the solar system but here you’re a stranger in a strange land. Are you going to be able to see much of Scotland while you’re here?
CA – I will not. I’m out tomorrow morning. I’m doing the vampire tour tonight.
GC – Cas Anvar, glorified and glorious Martian bus driver, thank you for parking your ship in our harbour today.