Stargate fans recently met veteran actor Mitch Pileggi as Colonel Steven Caldwell, who made his debut in the Stargate Atlantis season premiere, “The Siege, Part 3.” Caldwell commands the Daedalus, Earth’s new top-of-the-line battleship. In addition to nine years on The X-Files as F.B.I. Assistant Director Walter Skinner, Pileggi has appeared on such shows as Law & Order: SVU, The Mountain, ER, and China Beach. He also hosted the 2000 paranormal reality series In Search of …
GateWorld’s editors had the rare chance to sit down with Pileggi on the set of Atlantis during the filming of Season Two’s “Trinity!” In our interview, the actor discusses joining the cast of Atlantis in a recurring role, and how much fun he is having commanding his own starship. He also shares his perspective on Colonel Caldwell’s antagonistic relationships with Dr. Elizabeth Weir and Lt. Colonel John Sheppard.
GateWorld’s interview with Mitch Pileggi is available in MP3 audio format for easy listening, and is about 15 minutes long. It is also transcribed below. Or, download the interview to your MP3 player and take GateWorld with you!
GateWorld: You’re one of the brand new faces on Stargate Atlantis this year! Tell us first of all about how you got hooked up with these guys.
Mitch Pileggi: My agent called me one day and said that they were interested in this new character, and they were wondering if I was interested in playing it. So I said, “Well, let me take a look at it,” and they sent me a couple of scripts. I liked what I saw, and as soon as I saw that I had my own space ship, my own command chair — I have my weapon’s officer on the right and my pilot on the left, and a big window in front of me — I was like, “Yeah, OK, this works!”
So I get to be Captain Kirk! I get to be Picard. I liked the shows, and I had been aware of Stargate from when we were up here doing The X-Files, they were doing it. And so I thought it’d be a lot of fun.
GW: Did you get to see any of Season One of Atlantis?
MP: They sent some stuff over that I watched. And then I immediately started Tivoing everything that was coming on. So I kind of started getting a feel for the show and what was going on. I didn’t get to watch the whole season. I just got bits and pieces here. So there’s still a lot of stuff that I — a lot of questions that I, things that I don’t know or understand that daily I will have answered.
It’s a great group of people to come onto the show and be working with. They were very receptive from the get-go. And David Hewlett walked up to me one day after the first couple of episodes and he goes, “You know, it feels like you’ve always been here.” And it’s like what a sweet thing to say! And it’s like, you know what? I feel like I’ve been here for a long time. And I just immediately was comfortable and very pleased to see a group of people that were working so well together.
GW: I imagine you’ve done a lot of work probably with Torri, and with Joe Flanigan, with the role that Caldwell has on Atlantis. How are those guys to work with?
MP: They’re great. We’re building these relationships between us, and there’s these contentious situations that are arising which makes for great drama and for character development. And so I can kind of see where they’re taking these three characters, and all the characters in general. And it’s appealing to me. I like it.
GW: Tell us a little bit about Colonel Caldwell, and where he comes from, and …
MP: So you’re asking me if I’ve come up with a history for this guy! You’re putting me on the spot!
GW: As much as the writers have given you. Or if you’ve said, “Hmm, I think he really likes ice cream …”
MP: [Laughter] “Well, I think he really likes ice cream!” You know what? There’s a lot of stuff that I obviously have come here replacing the Pegasus — is that right? What was the other ship? The Prometheus. And I’m commanding this new ship, the Daedalus, which I guess is a new breed of … I don’t want to say battle–
GW: They call it a battle cruiser.
MP: Do they call it a battle cruiser? It’s something, I guess, like an aircraft carrier in space. And so he’s come, and he’s now, I guess — if you’d call him a shuttle between Earth and Atlantis, at least one-way. Because they’ve got the gate to go through and it ain’t big enough to take it through! So I actually, at one point I say something, “Well, you can go through the Stargate. I’ve got to fly back and forth. It ain’t fair!”
GW: Kind of an intergalactic bus driver sometimes?
MP: Exactly! That’s OK. I’ll drive that ship.
But now he’s here to support them, I guess. And then obviously there are military situations that occur with the Wraith presence. So that’s kind of what’s going on with him.
GW: Approaching the role of playing a starship captain — do you draw on the archetypes or the Star Trek figures of Kirk and Picard, more or less? “He’s got a lot of Kirk in him,” or “I don’t want to be Kirk at all?”
MP: No, I don’t. No, and it’s not that I don’t want to be Kirk or I don’t want to be Picard. I think they were both great characters. I don’t think it would be wise for me to try and emulate what other actors have done with roles. I just try to take what’s on the page and make it real for me in the situation. And that’s what I try to do with everything as an actor.
So, I just want to bring my own truth to this character and to the show. But I do have to admit, though: When I’m sitting in that chair it’s like, “Man, I’m Captain Kirk!” [Laughter] Have you been on the Daedalus set?
GW: We’ve been on the Prometheus set — is that the same?
MP: No, actually I think it’s different now. Because I think they might have used the same set, but they updated it and they juiced it up a little bit. But it’s really cool. It’s really cool. I dig it. I like being on that set.
GW: I was eying your chair this morning — I didn’t sit in it! That looks awfully comfy.
MP: Yeah, it’s cool.
GW: Well, you’ve done a lot of sci-fi. Is there anything about the genre that specifically appeals to you?
MP: Well, I’ve always been a sci-fi fan, all the way back to the first time I read “Stranger In a Strange Land.” It just grabbed me. And I liked — the genre was very attractive to me. And Kurt Vonnegut. It’s just over the years has been something that I’ve found very interesting.
I just recently bought “[The] Dresden Files.” Are you familiar with those? It’s pretty cool. It’s about a detective in Chicago who is a wizard. So he’s a flat foot but he’s got these wizardry powers. And that’s kind of cool. So, anyways, maybe somebody will do something with it at some point.
I like sci-fi, and the fact that I fell into it doing The X-Files, and now this, is — it’s fun. I’m playing Army, you know, which is what I did when I was a kid. And obviously I haven’t grown up! Now it’s given me the opportunity to have my own space ship and fly around, and shoot at Wraiths, and blow stuff up.
GW: Do you have a particular favorite moment so far that you’ve filmed?
MP: You know what? There’s battle sequences that have occurred. [When] they shoot, they do what they call “block and shoot.” They’ll shoot maybe five or six different scenes, cover a lot of different pages. But a lot of the scenes are just small bits and pieces, and you’re cutting back and forth from one of the Jumpers to a fighter to the Stargate command center to the Daedalus. And while you’re having battles with the Wraith, and the hive ships and all this stuff …
It’s really daunting, because you have to memorize all this stuff over all these pages. And a lot of times they’ll just feed you, because I get lost. I’ll know the lines, but I don’t always know where they’re at because it’s such a huge piece of area to cover. They’ll just kind of remind me where we’re at. But there’s lights flashing and smoke is coming out, and we’re getting hit and shooting stuff. And I’m getting to throw out these commands, “Fire forward rail guns at will!” The battle sequences are really cool.
But, then again, the more intimate scenes between myself and other characters — the writing is so good that it’s really fun to play those scenes, too. They get some great, meaty stuff to go after. And it’s fun.
And these guys are great. I’m having a lot of fun working with them. It’s a great group of kids. I call ’em kids, the old man that I am!
GW: Have you gotten any sense yet as to how recurring you’re going to be, how many episodes you might do?
MP: I don’t know. That’s a good question. I don’t know yet.
GW: Have you had any conversations with the writers about where Caldwell might be going, as far as character development?
MP: I haven’t yet. I probably should. Yeah, that’s something that I should do.
GW: How many episodes have you done so far?
MP: This [“Trinity”] is my fourth one, and I was originally contracted to do five. So I’m going to be doing another one in a couple of episodes, which will be my fifth. And then we’ll see where it goes from there.
GW: So they’ve really, with the Daedalus, they’ve really made this connection. In Season One Atlantis was off, and they were stranded and they couldn’t get back to Earth. But the Daedalus allows for this kind of on-going exchange between Earth and Atlantis?
MP: Right, right. So I guess they go through the gate to get back to Earth. There’s a lot of this stuff I still haven’t grasped! But I think they go back to Earth through the gate, and then I bring them back on the ship. Because you can only go one-way through the gate, right?
GW: Yeah, you need a certain piece of technology — a Z.P.M.
MP: A Z.P.M., right — which I bring to them and give them. But still, I think that they’ve still got the one, so they’re only able to go in one direction. And I think it’s like a 3-week trip for the Daedalus to make it back to Earth and get back. Because at one point I do say to Weir — she says something, and I say, “Well you can go back through the Stargate. I’ve got to fly all the way back! And I’ve done it several times, so I think I know what I’m talking about.”
So there’s some pretty juicy exchanges between Weir’s character and Caldwell, and also between Sheppard and Caldwell. There’s some contention that’s being developed. But then again, it’s there but I don’t want this guy to be — and I don’t think they want him to be — a jerk. So there’s always got to be a reason behind everything that he does. And there’s got to be a valid reason, I think, in his mind.
GW: Do you think he’s going to be an antagonist?
MP: Not in his entirety. A little bit, to a certain extent. And they’ll determine how far they want to take that. I try to put in, if there is an antagonism in a scene, I try to pull it back as much as I can so that it’s not overbearing, it doesn’t override everything that’s going on in the scene. Because to me that’s boring.
GW: But he’s not exactly striking up friendships, and watching football games with Sheppard.
MP: No, but he gives him his props when they’re due, too. If he does something, if he pulls something off that Caldwell deems as being that he did a good job, he’ll tell him. And I have. Sometimes, even if it’s not written — he’ll do something and over the radio I’ll go, “Good job.” Just to show that he does have an appreciation for this guy. This guy’s a stud — he’s an ace pilot, and he’s really good at what he does.
So he’s gotta have some admiration for his ability. If he doesn’t — I don’t want to be one-dimensional. I want him to have a lot of stuff going on. There’s another character that I played in another show that I think got to be a little one-dimensional after many years. And I don’t want to do that again.
GW: Well, you’re filming “Trinity” right now, which has a lot of those interpersonal relationships, a lot of the head-butting: “We’re on the same side, but we kind of have different philosophies and maybe subtly different agendas.”
MP: Right. And there will be shifts between these characters, too, as far as — at one point Sheppard and Caldwell will be unified in how they feel toward something, and trying to convince Weir that they’re right. And there will be times when Weir and Caldwell or Weir and Sheppard are trying to tell Caldwell, “Look, it ain’t gonna work. Believe us, we know.” And he’ll take some convincing.
And then you’ve always got Dr. McKay there who’s always trying to … do whatever he does, man! God bless him for all the dialogue he’s got to pull off. I told him today, I said, “You know,” — he was going through this long schpiel and I said, “It’s your own fault because you do it well! That’s why they keep giving it to you.” I said, “If you didn’t do it so well they wouldn’t be writing this stuff for him.”
He’s amazing. I told him, I said, “If I had to do what you just did — if I had two weeks working on it, I’d still blow it. Or blow my brains out trying to do it.” I applaud him after every take. Phew! It’s killer.
GW: Well, thanks so much for your time. We really appreciate it.
MP: You bet! My pleasure — good talking to you all.