SUPERNATURAL CHARM. In his career, Sam Witwer has played many fantastic roles, everything from a spaceship pilot to a supervillain to an evil Jedi. These days you can catch him playing a vampire on the TV show Being Human, which just finished its third season. He talks to DA MAN about playing the undead, playing with his band the Crashtones and how being a geek has helped his career.
Outfit by Ted Baker
Sam Witwer dreamed of being famous when he was younger, but as a rock star instead of an actor. And while he and his band the Crashtones have earned quite a following, he spends most of his working days on the set of Being Human, a supernatural drama in which he plays a 200-year-old vampire who happens to share an apartment with a werewolf and a ghost. Based on a BBC series of the same name, the US series has proven a hit, having recently been renewed for a fourth season. Starring in a show with supernatural elements is a natural fit for the actor, who is a self-admitted geek that earned many of his acting stripes playing sci-fi heroes and otherworldly beings in genre shows and games ranging from Battlestar Galactica to Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Smallville.
DA MAN: First of all, congratulations on Being Human getting renewed for a fourth season. With plenty of other supernatural dramas also on TV, what would you attribute Being Human’s unique success to?
Sam Witwer: Two things. One – it’s grounded approach to the supernatural scene. At our best, we’re doing a show that’s more concerned with issues like “How do we pay rent this month” or “How do I get that girl to go on a date with me” rather than “A supernatural war between werewolves and vampires.”
Two – it’s humor. While we are indeed a drama, the comedic chemistry between the lead characters tends to balance out the darker elements of our show. Without that humor, we lose the humanity, and our show IS called Being Human, after all. It’s that comedic self awareness on the part of the leads that makes these dangerous people a lot of fun to be around. I’ve been told by many fans that the characters on Being Human are people they’d like to hang out with.
DA MAN: Did you watch any of the British original before you started work on the series?
Sam Witwer: No. I decided to stay away from watching the BBC version while I was establishing my character. The other actors elected to do the same thing, although I do believe Sammy Huntington peeked quite a bit. We were always quite clear that we were creating new and different characters from our BBC counterparts, so this isolation was key to honestly approaching the material. Having said that, as soon as we were wrapped on season one, I bought everyone the boxsets of the BBC series and we have since all become great fans of their show. I absolutely love it.
DA MAN: With a character with as long a history as Aidan, how much of his backstory did you know before it was revealed on the show, and how did that affect how you choose to portray him?
Sam Witwer: Aidan’s backstory was at first only known to me in little pieces. All that I really knew was that these vampires hid who and what they were from the world. This informed my approach on the first big challenge with portraying this guy which began with our opening scene. The first thing we see Aidan do is murder a young, beautiful woman. Then a minute and a half of screen-time later, he’s joking with Josh. How the hell are we supposed to get behind this jerk?
I reasoned that the audience might be inclined to give him a chance if I made it absolutely clear that he was emotionally in shambles over having done what he did, and that became the sub textual key to making this character work. Adam Kane, the director, and I looked for places in the script to give the character a moment or two alone where the audience could see how bad he’s feeling. Then when another character would show up, we would have Aidan snap out of his despair instantaneously and flash an untroubled smile.
So long as we could maintain this character’s inner life in stark contrast to what he shows everyone, we thought it might work. And considering that the metaphoric heart of this character was a man dealing with drug addiction and the backsliding that can sometimes happen when trying to go clean, it made sense that he’d keep who and what he was secret. As for the literal 200 year backstory, we certainly get a lot more of that story by the time season 3 ends.
Outfit by Sarar
DA MAN: Do you remember the moment when you first decided to pursue acting as a serious career?
Sam Witwer: I’d never intended to be an actor. Well, to be fair I had some notion at 11-years old that I would be an actor and live in LA, but by the time I got to highschool I’d become more of a realist. I decided I was instead going to be a rockstar. I’d done plays in highschool, but that was just fun and games. I was more focused on my band.
Next thing I know, my parents convince me to audition for Juilliard and somehow I tricked them into inviting me to join their 20 person-a-year drama division. It was stunning and unexpected, and I really didn’t know what to do with it. In fact, I was somewhat resentful to have to leave my band and music behind. Long story short, I embraced some things about the Juilliard training and rejected others and this led to Juilliard kindly asking me to leave.
It wasn’t until I’d spent some time reflecting at home in Chicago that I decided to actually pursue a career in acting. I’d figured I had already trained for 2 years, didn’t have a better idea, and secretly I was intrigued by film and television. So I decided to give it a go. As a side note, I also wrote Bruce Campbell an email about how the hell he decided to do the same thing. He wrote me, “I made the call and never looked back.”
DA MAN: Earlier in your career, you guest starred on a lot of notable shows. Which one do you have the fondest memories of?
Sam Witwer: Dexter. Neil Perry was the name of the character. Those three episodes helped my career immeasurably. Before Dexter I would only be seen by casting to play thuggish, brutish parts. Dexter called for a squirrely little computer programmer guy. At least that’s how they described it. I figured, hell, I’ve programmed computers…I know how to minimize my physical stature. I’m kinda a trained actor after all! So I bought glasses, a bunch of loose fitting clothing, altered my posture and my voice, and they bought it. After that, casting people would see me for just about anything.
DA MAN: Your roles have predominantly been on shows in the sci-fi/fantasy genre. We know you are a sci-fi fan yourself, so was it always your goal to work in that genre or is it just a happy accident that your career moved in that direction?
Sam Witwer: Happy accident. My enthusiasm for genre tv and film definitely helps, though, in that I understand what casting/producers are looking for. A small example would be that when I audition for Battlestar Galactica, I pronounced things like Caprica correctly, and said frak with authority.
DA MAN: It’s well known that you’re a big Star Wars geek, and you’ve gotten to work on some Star Wars projects like The Force Unleashed and The Clone Wars. Do you think your passion for the material helps you improve your performance?
Sam Witwer: Certainly. In this case, I’m a huge Star Wars fan so I’ve been doing my homework since childhood. The trick was understanding these performances as an adult actor. Take the original Star Wars for example. The joke on the set is that George Lucas would only give two pieces of direction to the actors. There was “faster” and there was “more intense.” And sometimes George would just go for it and say, “Do it again, but faster, more intense.”
As funny as it is to poke fun at him for this, if you watch that movie, that’s exactly the right direction for that movie. It has a fast 1940s pace to the dialogue which, taken slowly, is quite clunky, but taken in a faster, more intense direction, is really quite exciting and old school. It’s Bogart and Bacall. It’s Buster Crabbe. Star Wars works best when it’s fast and loud.
So to answer your question, yes, I love that particular mythology. But part of the fun of being an actor is taking something apart and understanding how and why it works, then putting it back together in your own particular way. And hopefully when you figure these things out, the audience feels it. They have an instinct that it’s been done correctly, even if they don’t understand how or why.
As for projects like Force Unleashed, that came out in ‘08 and there hasn’t been hardly a week since then that someone hasn’t mentioned or asked me about that project, so I’ll take that as encouragement that the work was perhaps well received. And Clone Wars? Well, I think all the recent Emmy nominations speak for themselves. Proud of those guys.
Blazer, shirt, and jeans by Sarar, shoes by Generic Man
DA MAN: What would you say is the coolest piece of geek paraphernalia you own?
Sam Witwer: When I did Force Unleashed, I was Darth Vader’s Secret Apprentice, so I felt that it was entirely appropriate to have a Darth Vader replica helmet that looking down over my office.
DA MAN: You are the lead singer of the band The Crashtones. With your busy acting schedule, Is it difficult to find time to play and practice?
Sam Witwer: Difficult is an understatement. Music was my first love and it became my chief creative outlet when, early in my acting career, I was sitting around waiting for the phone to ring. Fast forward and the phone has been ringing for several years now. Problem is that it leaves little time for my own creative projects. I have a half finished album for The Crashtones and it will be completed. Just need some down time to devote to it. These are good problems to have. For right now, my fans will have to be okay with “Colorful of the Stereo” which can be found at www.cdbaby.com and iTunes.
DA MAN: When you were growing up, did you dream more about being a Hollywood actor or a rock star?
Sam Witwer: Depends on what age you’d asked me. However, it’s interesting to note that when I was around 10 or 11, I called it. I said that I would be an actor living in Los Angeles and that I’d make music with my cousin Michael Witwer. All these things have since came to pass.
Outfit by Etro
DA MAN: As a fashion magazine, we have to ask, how would you describe your personal style? Are there any designers you prefer, especially when you are picking your threads for red carpet events?
Sam Witwer: In everyday life, I’m a jeans and t-shirt kinda guy. Diesels and 7s. At events I’m an Armani suited suitor.
DA MAN: Besides making music, what else do you like to do when you’re away from the set?
Sam Witwer: Write music. Write scripts. Build computers. Jog. Lift weights. Read comics. Read books. Play games. Drive. I’m a little all over the place.
Photographs: Eric Silverberg
Styling: Alexa Rangroummith Green
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