A little over a year ago many Stargate fans did not know the name Joe Flanigan. Now, he leads the lens on one of the greatest television series to kick off in the 21st century. GateWorld is proud to bring you an interview with actor Joe Flanigan, Stargate Atlantis‘ Major John Sheppard!
In this interview, Joe tells us about the amazing happenstance that led to his landing the role of Atlantis‘ leading man, the sometimes daunting series of which he has become a part, and its impact on his life as the parent of two young boys. He also talks about how pleased he is with the shows ratings, and what he hopes for in the show’s potential.
GateWorld’s audio interview with Joe Flanigan is available in MP3 audio format for easy listening, and is about 31 minutes long. It is also transcribed below.
GateWorld: This is David Read for GateWorld.net. I’m on the phone with Joe Flanigan, Major John Sheppard on Stargate Atlantis. How are you doing, Joe?
Joe Flanigan: I’m doing very good!
GW: Glad to have you with us! Joe, can you tell us about the moment you found out you had won the role of John Sheppard?
JF: Well, there wasn’t exactly a specific moment that I can recall, but it happened within a 24-hour time frame. What happened is my manager was at the Golden Globes, and one of his clients had won a Golden Globe. And the president of MGM Television went up to congratulate him and in the course of this conversation he said, “I don’t know what to do, I’ve got this new series I’m starting and I can’t find my lead guy. Do you know anybody that fits this description?” And he said, “Actually, I do, and why don’t you meet with him tomorrow morning?”
And so I met with him the following morning and it was pretty much a done deal. It happened much more quickly than most auditions come together. It came together really fast. It was relatively painless. We didn’t go through one of these long, lengthy negotiations. It was really nice. It was the type of experience you hope to have.
GW: Rachel [Luttrell, “Teyla Emmagan”] said she went through five or six auditions.
JF: She did, and I was there with her, because I read for her. After that I read with all the other actors who were auditioning for the parts. And, yes, they took her though a much more painful process, so she deserves more.
GW: Right. What was it that they were looking for that MGM just said, “Wow, we’ve got the guy right here?”
JF: You know, it’s hard for me to objectively tell you what it is. But I would probably say that it might be a mix of lightness, a little sarcasm without a little cynicism. It was a fine balance. I knew what they were going for, so for me it was relatively simple. They explained it very well and I knew exactly what they wanted, and it wasn’t very far from a few characters that I’ve played before. So to me it was relatively easy to do that. I guess that’s what they wanted, because they hired me.
GW: Rainbow’s screen test — in some of his dialogue he talks about how Sheppard went back and disobeyed orders from a superior officer, and went back and saved a couple of fallen comrades. But that’s not necessarily canon because it was a screen test, and we didn’t know really much about it. I was wanting to know if you knew, specifically, why Sheppard was so at odds with Sumner, in terms of recognition of authority.
JF: Well, it actually does — it goes back to that specific event, and it is for disobeying direct orders. That’s the back-story. The back-story is, in Afghanistan, there was a situation where a couple of his comrades needed rescuing, and that was a direct — the order was not to rescue them. Sheppard does, and consequently he’s sent unceremoniously to a different post in the Antarctic.
GW: Right, to McMurdo.
JF: Yeah. No! Was it McMurdo, is that where it was? You may know more than me. All I know was it was a big ice thing …
GW: Basically for latrine duty!
JF: You’re right! That’s a good one! [Laughter]
GW: I have to tell you, my dad is a helicopter pilot, and he was absolutely tickled to find out that there was a helicopter pilot leading Atlantis. He thought that was so cool.
JF: It was also the funnest part to shoot.
GW: Really, to do the flying sequence?
JF: Yeah, that was a blast.
GW: Are you a science fiction fan?
JF: You know, it’s interesting. I’ve been asked that question a lot, and I’ve always said, “No, I’m not really a science fiction fan.” In contrast to the avid science fiction fan, I never considered myself a science fiction fan. But when a lot of people asked me what my favorite movies were, and TV shows, I found myself actually listing, predominantly, science fiction shows. And I realized that really I was a science fiction fan, but for some reason I didn’t see myself like that.
GW: Like, did you define it as something else and like, “Hmm. Maybe I am!”
JF: You know, I defined it as something that was … For one, I missed a lot of the Star Trek craze. And so I pictured Trekkies, people who knew all the details of every show and everything. I, instead, found myself really into things like “Blade Runner” and “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and a number of other things like that. And in the process I realized I that was a science fiction fan, from a slightly different nature. And now I’m actually a newly converted science fiction fan.
GW: Do your boys get into Atlantis?
JF: My little boys?
JF: Oh. You know, one’s four and a half and one’s two.
GW: Oh, OK. A little too young!
JF: The four and a half year-old, he likes it quite a bit. I’m somewhat selective about which to let him see.
GW: Oh, of course, yeah. There were a couple of those that were …
JF: Because sometimes he’s not quite sure. When I go to work and I walk out the door and jump in the van, he thinks that I actually go out into space and kill bad guys. And the sad thing is I don’t want to dissuade him from that because that’s a fairly heroic thing for a son to think his father does. And pretty soon he won’t have such high opinions of his father … so I want it to last for as long as possible!
GW: So from his point of view Atlantis is real!
JF: Well, he’s been to set. It’s very interesting. I’m fascinated with what actually takes place in his little mind, because I don’t know what he knows is real and what is fiction. He knows there’s work and he knows there’s an actual set. And I’m not sure he knows what’s real and what isn’t.
GW: Well, that should be interesting, to see him grow up with the series in the coming years.
JF: It will be, yeah.
GW: One year of shooting has been completed already. Is the experience, as a whole, different than what you imagined when you first started?
GW: It is?
GW: OK. Have you stopped to think, “Oh, God! What have I gotten myself into?”
JF: Um, yes! [Laughter] I have thought that on a few occasions, but that’s nothing unusual because I’ve thought that on a lot of projects. Science fiction tends to focus on special effects, on sets, on gadgetry and very technical jargon that I’m not used to with my previous projects.
And so I was a little taken back by that on a few occasions, because it became clear to me that we had this big, expensive set that had to be seen, and I had come from the tradition of shooting one-hour dramas where the sets were not that important. What they did is they primarily did close-ups and they dealt with interpersonal tensions and all those types of things. And it was a different animal. It was a little harder to get used to, in that regard.
But then when you see all the pieces put together it was really entertaining. And then I pretty much surrendered to it, and it’s been a lot of fun.
GW: What is your favorite show from this year?
JF: I think, so far, my favorite show is probably “The Storm” and “The Eye,” the two-hour — then the second part being particularly good, which is “The Eye.” And “The Eye” will actually air in January when we return. That’s really good. “Underground” was also really good.
And then we have a few more that are coming up that are really a lot of fun. The more action there is, to me, the better the episode. So I can’t get enough action. I’m always asking for more action. And action is expensive, so you have to be somewhat careful about how much action you can feasibly put into an episode.
And also action is time consuming. So you have a 50-page script, and it’s kind of broken down — or 44 pages, roughly, is what a script is — a minute a page, roughly, if it’s dialogue. But if 10 of those pages are action, you’re probably talking about a much slower pace then a minute a page. So you have all these variables.
But the reason I like action is because we do air all over the world and I think it’s something everybody can relate to. More importantly, I have a lot of fun doing it.
GW: Yeah, “The Eye” — we’ve seen some preview shots for “The Eye.” You definitely get a lot of physical workout in that episode. We’re looking forward for that here in the U.S. We haven’t got it yet though.
JF: That’s the only exercise I actually get!
GW: What is your most poignant memory from this past year? What first comes to mind out of the entire year?
JF: I would say, I think it was the second episode we shot, or the third episode, called “Thirty Eight Minutes.” I was on the floor for eight days shooting the episode, and I had a bug on me. And it was this big, classic, ugly bug that looked, you know, completely phony. It hurt like hell, and I was on my back. And I thought, “Well, I don’t know what the producers are doing but there’s something very sadistic about this.” Because, I mean, I actually die in the episode. I don’t know, we’re getting off to a rocky start here!
And I just thought that it was very funny, sitting there, lying on my back for eight days with a bug on my neck. And you hear people saying things like, “Oh, put more blood on the bug!” It became clear to me that I was actually fully immersed in the science fiction genre at that point. That was a funny moment.
GW: When they pulled that thing off that was absolutely — it grossed me out, and I’ve seen a lot of gory stuff.
JF: It was — I mean people, like I said, it’s remarkable. These guys are really good at what they do. Because if you saw the bug, I mean, we were joking about it. We thought they should take the ACME label off. We thought it was phony and ridiculous, but by the time they got finished with the special effects it looked like a good one. So, you know. What you experience there in reality and what you obviously see on screen are two very different things.
GW: Very different. Right.
JF: Oh, yeah.
GW: Do you have a wish list for Sheppard in year two?
JF: Actually, I don’t so much think in terms of a wish list for the character as I do for the show, because they’re kind of inextricable. I think about Sheppard and the show. I don’t just think about Sheppard — I think they’re just intertwined.
And what I’d like to see the show do, and I think where the show’s going to go, is that the city of Atlantis is essentially the size of Manhattan, and it’s empty. So we get to explore the city, which is really exciting, and there are endless discoveries to make.
And the city actually has a potential. It has a higher cosmic purpose, and it will slowly come to life and fulfill the higher purpose of why Atlantis was built and why it was moved. And I think that’s going to be exciting, but it really requires us incrementally building the mythology of our show — which will take a few seasons. And then these pieces will fall together and it will become a fairly sophisticated mythology — a self-sustaining mythology. And then, I think, that’s what I wish for. I think that’s where we’re headed, and I don’t think it’s too optimistic to think that this’ll happen.
GW: Have you had discussions with the producers to that end?
JF: Yeah, I have! And it’s pretty exciting. We have so many options that it’s really exciting. And the great thing about science fiction is that you really have no limitations. When people said, “Oh, you’re going off to do this new science fiction show” — it’s really exciting. I had a couple fellow actors that were telling me how exciting it was and how much they wanted to do it, and one of their reasons was there are no limitations. You take any idea, it can be explored. You’re not even constrained by the time-space continuum! So it is exciting.
GW: The only limit really is the human mind to come up with this stuff.
JF: That’s exactly … well, the human mind and, of course, that nagging budget issue.
GW: [Laughter] That’s right!
JF: That’s the other one. That’s our time-space continuum.
GW: Do you feel Sheppard is compared to O’Neill too often?
JF: You know, before we actually aired we were compared all the time. And now, after the show’s aired, I never get asked that question anymore.
JF: Yeah, it’s kind of interesting. I take that as a good sign. And there’s no doubt that when they went off to write this new series that they wanted a male lead character who, potentially, had the ability to lead a group of people through all sorts of adventures. And they like Richard Dean Anderson quite a bit, but they didn’t want a Richard Dean Anderson copy. That was a question that I think was the most asked question as we led up to our premiere, and then since the premiere nobody has asked me that question.
GW: Well, I’m sorry. [Laughter] I can take it back!
JF: Well no, I mean, you’re more than welcome to ask that question. But actually I was just saying that it hasn’t been asked anymore and I just take that as a sign that people are accepting the characters as their own characters. And listen, I think he’s a great character — I don’t think that it would be a bad thing for the character. They are really fundamentally different characters.
I think that the primary difference is that Sheppard really is, by nature, an optimist. He does believe in things. He does believe that people will do the right thing, if given the opportunity, and he does believe that things will work out. And I think that that may be the difference between the two characters, more than anything.
GW: Well, it seems to me that one of the hallmarks of Stargate is sarcasm and making fun of science fiction while science fiction is being brought to the screen.
JF: Yes, yes.
GW: And a leading man presenting that would definitely have to have some of those qualities. So that’s where I think they’re in common, but other than that, two totally different people.
JF: Yes, and you know what, I wouldn’t even want to do the show unless that was there. That, to me, is the single greatest strength of Stargate and Stargate Atlantis, is that ability to constantly — you know, a little wink of the eye to the audience. It is. We are having fun with the genre, yet we aren’t making fun of the genre. We’re twisting it and we’re having fun with it, but not enough to mock the material.
And when you said, “What were they looking for in the character,” that was an important part of it, was the ability to put sarcasm in the character without mocking the material. I just think that’s the best part of the show. We get to talk about Star Trek, even talk about MacGyver. I mean, and to me that’s the future of television — it may be self-referential, but it makes for great television.
GW: Are you pleased with Atlantis‘ ratings?
JF: Oh yes, very much.
GW: Are you surprised by them or was it something you were expecting?
JF: I am surprised by them. I had done a number of pilots and things for — and I’ve learned not necessarily to lower my expectations, but I’ve learned to extend my expectations. It’s very hard to know what’s going to succeed and what isn’t going to succeed, and I just simply extended my expectations. It’s hard to extend it, but I put them in a somewhat safe place so I wouldn’t be disappointed in case things didn’t go well.
And I was surprised our numbers were massive. I really expected to always be coat-tailing SG-1, and instead our numbers have been stronger. So I can’t imagine asking for anything more in that regard.
GW: Statistically, people have been saying that Atlantis has actually been helping SG-1 to get higher ratings.
JF: Well, there’s a lot of theories, and when you get on set and you talk to the guys on SG-1 and the guys on Atlantis, it’s the source of a lot of competition. People have a lot of fun with theorizing, you know, which show is supporting the other show!
GW: Are there any qualities about SG-1 that you hope Atlantis will take on as it matures and gets older?
JF: You know, it’s hard for me to answer that, because, I mean, what I want is a long-term, loyal fan base. Why they have a long-term, loyal fan base? I couldn’t even tell you. I’m sure there’s different reasons for different people. I can’t think of anything. What I just want is characters that are three-dimensional, and multi-faceted, entertaining.
And you know, I think a lot of entertainment — I go to just as much entertainment as anybody else — I don’t like watching movies or TV shows where you can’t root for your heroes, because your heroes aren’t that great of people. And so, I think that I like rooting for people if I like those characters, so I want characters that people find redeeming and entertaining. And if SG-1 has that then I want it, too.
I can’t think of anything really that SG-1 has that — I just think we’re such a different show. I haven’t really thought of it that way. Let’s put it this way: I really haven’t thought about it. But I would like us to get back to Earth.
GW: Oh, yeah, and that’s going to be happening. The producers have been saying that you’re not going to be Stargate: Voyager forever.
JF: No! That’s exactly right. Battlestar Atlantis?
GW: [Laughter] Yeah, that’s right! What interpersonal relationships between Sheppard and the others would you like to see strengthened in the coming years?
JF: Well, I think that what I’d like to see is — and I think some of our better episodes have been when there’s a real nemesis for Sheppard. I think that it makes for a good show.
GW: Like Kolya.
JF: Yes. And I mean a really powerful one that has a long-term, multi-episode life that’s a real threat. I think that that makes for a really good show, and it’s also fun to work against. The more obstacles there are for your character, the more fun it is to take that character around. So I’d like to see some, you know, real obstacles by way of a real nemesis.
GW: Our forum in particular really embraced the “Steve” Wraith, and it really took off with you playing against him and him being in the cell for so long. Was that a good experience as a villain that Sheppard just didn’t take seriously?
JF: You know, actually that was funny. We talked a lot about that scene, because Brad [Wright], our producer, loved the name “Steve.” And I thought, and I really believe this firmly, that “Bob” was a much better name. And so we sat around and argued about this. I was like, “Oh, Bob’s so much better!” “No, Steve’s better.” And literally we talked like this for quite a long time. He said, “Nope, we’re going with Steve.”
So we went with Steve, and the reaction to it was kind of crazy. People went nuts for the guy. But what was interesting was that scene, when we shot it, was right during the Abu Ghraib prison problem. And we were sitting there in our uniforms, with our flags — we all have our country’s flag — and I thought that we had to be really sensitive about this, that people would draw a comparison. Maybe they will and maybe they won’t; and chances are some will and some won’t.
So it actually took us in a direction that turned out to be kind of interesting, which was kind of more of a sympathetic approach to the prisoner. And sure enough, people were really sad to watch the guy die.
GW: Well, they just thought he was so short-lived! Like he could’ve went on for so much longer.
JF: He could have! We’ll there’ll be more Wraith to come.
GW: Right. Isn’t there like another Wraith that you name?
JF: Yes, there is. There is.
GW: Well, it’s interesting that Weir made the comment about the Geneva Convention, and I think it was you that said, “Well, if the Wraith were at the Geneva Convention the Wraith would’ve tried to eat everyone.”
JF: That’s right! It’s a thinly-veiled comment of today’s current topics, right?
GW: Right. And that’s what sci-fi does so well.
JF: It really does.
GW: Do you feel the writers will take Sheppard and Teyla’s relationship the distance, or is this just something temporary?
JF: Well, I think they just have to be really careful. I think this urgency that the team has in these episodes has to be paramount, and that when they start getting into romantic thinking — in some ways, it doesn’t seem appropriate. And yet at the same time, it’s also real life. People in the middle of war have relationships.
So, it’s done, it just has to be done in a way appropriate to the context and what the situation is. Our situation’s fairly dire, so dilly-dallying around, liking various people and flirting with them, in some ways, I think deludes the urgency of our show. So we’re going to do it but we’re going to do it in a way that I think will satisfy both groups.
GW: OK. Will Sheppard ever get to make use of your skateboarding skills?
JF: God, I hope so! I keep telling them. I say — no, the surfing! I said, “You know, we’re able to get a vast, giant ocean. I think we have some massive waves here. I think it would make a great episode.” They kindly nod their heads and they say, “Poor kid just misses Malibu.”
GW: Well it’s not every day that the lead man can skateboard around the lot all the time. And I just thought that would be a really cool little addition.
JF: You know what, I feel deeply attached to that thing. I love it. I love getting around on that thing.
GW: I have to say that’s a beautiful board that you have. I’ve never seen one quite like that.
JF: I contacted the guy at the company and I told him that we’re spending a lot of time — people are asking a lot of questions about it, so he sent me up a new board.
GW: Oh, really?
GW: Awesome! Totally cool.
JF: I know!
GW: Do you hope to cross over into SG-1 in the future, for like an episode or two?
JF: Yeah, I do, and vice versa. And I think that will happen, but it won’t be like this open avenue between the two shows. I don’t think it can be. I think you have to be really careful about that.
GW: Do you plan to stay on board Atlantis for as long as the show lasts?
JF: I don’t know how long it’ll last!
GW: Ain’t that the truth!
JF: If we’re looking at 35 years from now if you ask me that question, I’ll have a different answer! I plan to definitely stay on board for us to develop a solid, syndicated package, which is 80 to a hundred episodes. And I really want to get the show to those numbers. And after that, then we’ll take it one step at a time.
GW: Right. You’ve signed on for six years, is that correct?
JF: You know, I saw that, and I said to myself, “I don’t remember that. I’d better go look at that again.” Maybe I should hire you as my agent.
GW: [Laughter] Well, Joe, I appreciate you taking the time to chat with us.
JF: You bet.
GW: And we definitely look forward to talking with you in the years to come.