A permanent fixture in the beginnings of Stargate, Neil Denis added to the lexicography of the groundbreaking television series as the Jaffa Teal’c’s young son, Rya’c. Now nine years and six episodes later, Neil is not ready to hang up his battle armor and settle at the side of his fictional wife Kar’yn just yet.
Denis met with GateWorld on Granville Island, Vancouver, to discuss the development of his character over the past decade. In our interview, he lets us in on some of the fun he’s had with the cast and crew of the series, from enjoying hockey playoffs with Richard Dean Anderson to getting soaked to the bone on location in Vancouver. He also talks about coming of age as Teal’c’s warrior son, including pivotal moments like the holding cell in Season Two’s “Family.”
GateWorld’s video interview with Neil runs 28 minutes, and is also available in an audio-only version for your convenience. The full interview is also transcribed below!
GateWorld: Neil, thank you for being with us!
Neil Denis: No worries, thank you for having me!
GW: Great to have you here. How did you first get involved with Stargate SG-1?
ND: Wow, long story. About eight years ago my agent called me up — Tyman Stewart. He said, “We have an audition for you on this great show. It’s gonna be huge. They sent me the script and I looked at it. I was really young but I could still see huge potential in Rya’c and the show itself. And of course I’d watched the feature film so I was really excited in doing it.
I went down, auditioned for Lynn Carol who was the casting director at the time, and never looked back from there.
GW: So you’ve been on board ever since?
ND: Yes, since the first season!
GW: Are you, yourself, a fan of sci-fi?
ND: Yes, I am. Totally. I guess it’s a little bit of escapism for me which is inherently why I act, just to get away from reality every once in a while. So I think sci-fi’s a little more interesting and allows you to use your imagination a bit more.
GW: What are the particular sci-fi shows that you particularly find yourself latching on to?
ND: I was really into, obviously Stargate. I liked the premise of Seven Days that was on UPN. That was a cool show while it lasted. In terms of kind of edgy stuff, hmm … It’s kind of hard to say. I don’t watch that much TV. Being involved in acting you kind of learn to see a little bit through the tricks.
If I had to pick a particular sci-fi show besides Stargate — let’s see, what would it be — that I personally watch. Hard to pin it down to just one. I like to watch Andromeda late at night. That’s a cool show. They’ve been doing cool stuff with that. I know there’s one that I’m missing and it’s going to come to me later on today. I’m going to hate myself for not saying it. [Laughter]
But yeah, that’s pretty much it. I did a sci-fi show for YTV. Every once in a while, to boost my ego, I watch that.
GW: You being the son of a main character, were you told that this could easily be recurring?
ND: Yeah. I pretty much had a clear idea that, barring me doing a horrible job and getting killed off by the writers, that yeah, Rya’c had a potential to be recurring. I’ve been lucky with the fact that they’ve given me many an opportunity to be in the show, with the direction they’ve taken the plots.
Chris Judge was nice enough to write me into a couple of episodes. And he’s a great writer, so it’s nice working with his scripts.
GW: You’ve technically been in six episodes, including “Redemption” 1 and 2. Which would you consider to be your personal favorite?
ND: Tough question. You know, Rya’c as a character has developed in every episode that I’m on. I try to learn something from the experience. I try to bring something to the character. So I’d say the last episode that I did, “Sacrifices,” overall, I got to be a little bit more involved in terms of the action. My character got developed a little bit more, getting married. So I’d have to say that that is definitely my favorite episode because it brings the story along.
If I could choose one besides that it would be “Redemption, Part 1.” [That] was one of my favorite episodes, in terms of the acting. It’s very difficult.
GW: You had to play that a little bit darker.
GW: Had to beat the crap out of your dad.
ND: Yes, that I did. [It was] interesting shooting those scenes. In fact, the scene outdoors where I’m literally hitting Teal’c, I connected with one of those hits, on Chris Judge, actually hit him in the face. Those staffs are heavy. It was intense. We kept on going and I think that was pretty much one of the cuts that we used. I actually made contact, yeah. Thankfully Chris is a tough guy. He fought through it.
GW: Tell us about working with Christopher Judge. You called him “The Judge.”
ND: Yeah, “The Judge.” Chris, I have to say, is one of the actors that had a lot of influence in my career. When I first started the show I was a little kid. He went a long way to making me feel comfortable. He’s always making jokes. He’s always making sure that everyone on the set has a big smile on their face.
Working with Chris is kind of like hanging out with one of your good buddies. It’s a very, very comfortable feeling. And that goes for the entire cast. Michael Shanks, Amanda Tapping, Rick Dean himself. RDA is probably one of the funniest people ever to work with because he’s always got an idea of what’s going on better than you have. And he knows it.
I like working with this cast. You walk onto the set and it’s like clockwork. Everyone knows what they’re doing, even the people behind the camera. I have no complaints at all working with this production. And that’s saying a lot. If you want to hear an actor complain, give ’em a job, right? So, no complaints from me.
GW: What about Tony Amendola?
ND: Ah, Tony, man. What can you say about Tony? Working with him is like sitting at the feet of a sage. He’s just got this energy. When you’re doing scenes with him you can’t help but be brilliant. He just gives you so much to work with and he just pulls you into the moment. No matter what you’re doing, he pulls you into it. If you’re working with Tony just kick back and let yourself go because he’s gonna help you. He’s going to help you in a scene.
[He is] probably one of the most developed actors in terms of his craft that I’ve ever worked with because it’s like a switch. He just brings you into the moment. I can’t say anymore than that. His energy just really pulls you into it. There’s nothing you can do but be there with him.
GW: Out of all these years of working on the show, what is the most poignant memory? What’s the first thing that hits your mind after all these years?
ND: It’s being in the GVRD [Greater Vancouver Regional District] when it’s raining, and I couldn’t tell you specifically what episode it was. But you’re on hour 12 or 13 or 14 and it’s raining, and everybody’s cold — and that feeling you get when you’re on the fourteenth page of your script and it’s just like clockwork. Everyone’s working together and everyone’s making compromises and gritting down and bearing it. The sense of teamwork that comes off this crew is just amazing.
I always remember down at the eleventh hour when we’re running out of daylight. The pressure’s on and everyone buckles down together. It’s just a feeling of teamwork. It’s like 200 people all working towards the same thing, the same beautiful thing. That’s my most poignant memory, is that feeling I get.
GW: Awesome. So it’s, like, getting close to evening.
ND: Yeah, the sun’s going down. We’re losing the light. There’s all this pressure and it’s raining and people are cold. By all accounts we should be miserable and complaining but you look around and everyone just loves what they’re doing. Everyone’s a hundred percent dedicated to it.
And this show, it takes every single person to be there. If we’re missing one person out of the crew the show would fall to pieces. That’s my favorite memory.
GW: Did you ever relate to Rya’c being estranged from his father?
ND: No. That was definitely a stretch for me. My dad and my mom and I are super-close. In fact, my dad comes to the Stargate set with me, even now that I’m 20 and I don’t need him to come to set with me any more. I like having my dad on-set, and he likes being there. We were really, really close. Even when I was a kid I also had my dad with me.
It was a bit of a stretch, trying to feel that alienation. I couldn’t tell you what motivated the way my acting came across. I think it was a stretch, and all I could do was just think, “What it would be like not having my dad around?” Even just saying that right now I get a feeling of loneliness, because my dad’s always around and we’re friends.
So that’s really were the performance came from, just thinking about, “What if my Dad wasn’t there holding on to my hot chocolate? As soon as the director says ‘Cut’ he’s going to hand it to me.”
GW: Rya’c experienced a great deal of loneliness, probably, especially after his mother died. And that spawned quite a bit of anger in him because he believed that Teal’c was greatly responsible.
ND: Right. I mean, the conflict for Rya’c was trying to justify his dad’s behavior. On one hand he’s trying to start the rebellion. On the other hand, “Hey, he should be here with me, teaching me things.”
Sitting back and looking at the character, those feelings really play a huge part in how the performance comes across. More so than I thought they would. Once I see it on film it’s like, “Wow, there’s a lot of angst.” Hopefully this season and with “Sacrifices,” Rya’c is trying to resolve some of those issues and work through them. And I hope he does. I hope I have a chance to show that because, yeah, his father wasn’t there for him.
But he’s not a kid any longer. He’s got a huge part to play in this rebellion. It’s time for him to buckle down and just realize, what’s in the past is in the past. And now we need to muscle-down and see if we can take care of this rebellion.
GW: Right. Drey’auc — she was played by both Sally Richardson and Brooke Parker. Were there any challenges to bonding with a new mom?
ND: Good question. I don’t think so. Personally, I didn’t have any problems. I know that, maybe for Chris, getting that emotional attachment — we laugh but, yeah, Chris had to get emotionally attached. He’s very connected with women. [Laughter] No, he taught me all I need to know about the ladies, I’ll give him that much!
But I never really had a problem connecting. I think the idea of having a mom, especially in acting, can go from one person to another because it’s the same sort of values. It’s the same sort of relationships, so it can bounce around from one to the other. Thankfully they’re both great actresses, so that helps a lot, too.
GW: Season Two’s “Family:” You had the interesting challenge of playing your role in two ways. In most of it he was Dark Side the entire time. Did you enjoy going in that direction?
ND: Yeah. The scene where I was in the holding cell with Chris, and I spit in his face … As a young actor that scene was like a milestone in my career because up until that point I’d been playing the kid. Just really simple roles. When I looked at that script I thought, “Wow, I really have to prepare [and] buckle down.” At the same time I was excited because, all my life, I’ve wanted to do the hard parts. The difficult parts.
GW: Spitting in an adult’s face?
ND: Yeah, of course! [Laughter] And yeah, when you’re rehearsing that scene, Chris said, “If it’s going to help you, just get in the moment. Really spit on me. I don’t mind.” I was, like, “Wow.” So it was actually my spit.
The crew on that particular day just helped me so much, build up that angle. It took about six hours to shoot that scene and I was really pacing. I can’t really explain it to you. It was like having butterflies in your stomach constantly, and it kind of gnaws at you and you build up this tension. I remember punching the door. In one of the takes I punched the door really hard and put a dent in it, and of course it’s continuity so we had to pull the wall out and replace the door and put it back in, which added to my frustration.
I have to say that was one of the first moments in my acting career when they said “Cut” and I actually had to step away from the moment and let it go away from me. And Chris really helped me with that. He wasn’t afraid to hold on to me and squeeze me. He said, “Man, swing that chair to hit me. Swing it to hit me. Don’t swing it to miss.” So he really helped me along. That was a big moment in my acting career, that scene.
GW: That had to take a lot of trust, too, because you were swinging to hit him and you just had to trust that he was going to stop it.
ND: Yeah, of course. And that, of course, adds to our relationship. Chris and I have a lot of trust in each other, which is cool. Very casual. I walk on the set, I haven’t seen him in six months. “Hey, man, how’s it going?” “Ah, not too bad,” like we’ve been hanging out all week. It’s a very relaxed, trusting atmosphere.
GW: You were away for four years.
GW: And then you returned in Season Six in the opening two-parter. How old were you when you returned?
ND: I was 17.
GW: At that point did you think you weren’t going to be back?
ND: Well, I’d been watching the show and keeping my ear to the streets, discussions about how the seasons were going. I knew it was winding down, and had to bring some resolution. So I was just waiting. I knew that they couldn’t just completely ignore the character anyway.
I didn’t feel abandoned or anything. Coming back was a great feeling, though. Don’t get me wrong. It had been quiet that year, and so MGM really gave me an opportunity to get back in my craft, which I was very thankful for. And especially a two-part thing. I was laughing. I was very happy to do the two-part. I wasn’t worried about my character, though. No.
GW: GateWorld reader Fred would like to know if you had to do anything to re-familiarize yourself with the role after being away for so long.
ND: Well, that’s a really good question. Yeah. Before I come in to the show, Fred — I’ll do that right in the camera for you, man — I totally watch a couple of episodes, go to the Space Channel, and I watch Chris a lot. I try to get into that vibe, show his side of the very indelible warrior, like nothing’s going to faze him.
To a point, the more stronger side of Rya’c’s personality is his mom’s side. And we didn’t really get to see too much of my mom, so I try and think about, “OK,” I’m the son of a respected warrior but I’m also more of a poet. I always thought of Rya’c, his strengths being in philosophy. We haven’t got a chance to see it yet.
Physically, I’m not the biggest individual. Even though a Jaffa warrior is three times stronger than a human, I still think Rya’c’s strength is in his mind more than anything else. So I just try and really focus on how that I’m going to bring that to the character, appropriately to the script. I don’t want to work outside of what the writers have given me. Otherwise you’re not being true to the story. So good question, Fred.
GW: [Laughter] And there’s more!
GW: GateWorld reader Christina — she would like to know if you could single out one particular thing you have liked about playing the character.
ND: Hmm. Well, Chris — and I’m sure that’s a nickname of yours — my favorite thing about playing Rya’c is that kind of — I want to say “hoity-toity,” but that carriage he has to himself. The noble air he carries himself with. It’s fun to walk around and pretend to be royalty for a bit. That’s probably my favorite thing about playing Rya’c.
Or the chance to work in a little bit of martial arts with the staffs. It’s really something I pride myself on, being physically fit. I’ve always been interested in martial arts. Being Rya’c, he’s a warrior, and that aspect. You don’t see it too much on film, but I always try and brush up on my martial arts before I get on the set. In case they ask me to do anything, then, I can actually pull it off and make it look real.
GW: You said you sometimes consider Teal’c and his family as being royalty.
GW: That dynamic is very interesting because, in a lot of ways, Teal’c is considered as a high-exalted one among the Jaffa. Do you think that could change Rya’c’s personality down the road?
ND: I think there’s a lot of responsibility, a lot to live up to, being the son of Teal’c of Chulak, First Prime of Apophis. When I said royalty, I didn’t actually mean he’s part of the monarchy of this Jaffa culture. But he’s royalty in my eyes and in every other Jaffa warrior out here rather than loyal to the cause or not. They cannot help but accept the fact that he was First Prime of Apophis. They have to admire him, and it’s a lot of responsibility.
I think it is a very interesting dynamic, and I’d like to see how my responsibilities play into that. If, during this rebellion, if it gets even more to a point, will people look to me and say, “You’re the son of Teal’c — you should know what to do?” It’s interesting to see how they’re going to play it out. But definitely, it’s an aspect that is never far from my mind.
GW: GateWorld reader Malinda would like to know if the cast and crew ever treated you like a child, or [if it was] more of an equal.
ND: The cast and crew didn’t treat me like a child, per se, as the rules of our union — our actor’s union — treated me like a child when I was younger. I could only work 10 hours a day, maximum, and then I’d have to be off-set no matter what.
I would get really mad. I’d want to stay and I’d want to work. “Please let me finish this scene! I want to do it. I don’t care about the rules!” But the rules are the rules, and we have to watch our young performers and make sure they don’t get taken advantage of.
So the cast and crew was really, really good to me. They never patronized me in any way, shape or form, though. When you’re on a set you get treated like an adult, like an equal, which is really cool.
I have to say I grew up quick, quicker than most, just because you’re hanging out with adults. And you get treated like an adult, and you have to pull your own weight. They never patronized me. They treated me like an equal. The rules were the only thing that kind of reminded me I was a kid. But now I don’t have to worry about that. I can work 16 hours if I want to.
ND: I have to say, yeah. I’m satisfied in the way the character’s developed. That is to say there’s always room for improvement. I’d really like to see him get involved in more of the action stuff, per se. I’ve done quite a few action things on my own — the bombing run, which was very cool to do. But I wouldn’t mind going on to a planet with the SG-1 team, getting involved more to a point.
Rya’c has these capabilities. He’s a very good warrior and he’s very stealthy. I like to think of him as stealthy. My personality’s developed great and my personal life — Ryac’s personal life in terms of getting married and becoming a man — is getting along great. I’d just like to see a little more action. But that’s just me and my manliness, testosterone. [Laughter]
GW: Have you ever been a victim of Chris’s practical jokes?
ND: Thankfully, no. I’ve more been an accomplice in Chris’s practical jokes. He never did anything to me, thankfully. If he’s going to slip something onto somebody’s costume and not let them know during the scene, like a gummy bear on top of [a] buddy’s forehead, I’ll put in a little distraction.
Needless to say that is if Chris is on camera and I’m off camera, I try and mess with him to get a little revenge for everybody else.
GW: Like how?
ND: Well, say we’re doing a scene, but I’m off camera. The camera’s over my shoulder. It’s very serious. I’ll flare my nostrils and I’ll move my ears. Just something subtle — just something subtle, to see if it’s going to throw him off his game or not.
GW: Did it ever?
ND: No, it didn’t. Chris is on his game. We’ll give him that.
GW: Emily — she would like to know some of your most memorable moments from behind the scenes. Besides the rain and getting darker.
ND: There’s a lot of memorable moments. Trying to narrow it down to a few here. I remember sitting behind the monitors with Andy Mikita and Michael Greenburg and just listening to those guys work over the creative process. You really pick up a lot. You really pick up just so much sitting there, and I have to say just the learning experience. They’re really open about what it takes to produce a show, what it takes to direct.
I mean, putting a camera up is not as simple as putting up a camera and pointing it. You’ve got to do the measurements for every point you hit in the scene, and then someone’s got to pull focus and you’ve got to make sure the lens as the right depth of field. You learn a lot. That’s really one of my fondest memories, sitting there with those guys, huge influential guys in the film and TV world and just being able to learn from them.
Another great memory is watching the playoffs with RDA in his trailer, because he likes the hockey. He likes his hockey. Actually, The Characters, my agency where we’re sitting right now, they throw a Christmas party every year. The whole cast of Stargate — well, most of them — are represented in Canada by The Characters, and the rest of them just show up anyway because they’re invited. That’s one of my fondest memories too, partying with Michael Shanks and The Judge, sitting there, telling good tales.
We’re really like one big family. There’s so many jokes and so many little moments that you share together, it really adds up. It’s really like hanging out and trying to point with one of the moments with your friends and saying, “Oh, What’s your favorite moment hanging out with your friends?” It’s kind of hard to put down.
That was a long, bumbling answer, but there you go. [Laughter]
We’ve got to bring some resolution. That is to say hopefully not everyone gets killed off or anything. It’s looking like I will be back. I believe my last line in “Sacrifices” was “I will see you soon.” Or one of my last lines is “I will see you soon, Father.” I didn’t write that line, so hopefully someone out there at MGM is looking out for me. [Laughter]
GW: If your days on Stargate are over, are you satisfied? Are you fulfilled?
GW: You’re not?
ND: No. Simple answer — no, I’m not. I think it’d be unfulfilling to the fans. I left. I got married. What happens? Okay, if I’m going to settle down and live the married man’s life, let us know.
But I’m not satisfied, and I don’t think anyone in production is satisfied with that, really. We’ll see what happens. I think I’ll be back.
GW: Did the show teach you anything as an actor?
ND: Oh, tons. Totally. Acting is like — it’s something you’re constantly learning at. Even Anthony Hopkins says he constantly tries to refine his craft and work and learn at it. Just having an opportunity to work with the same character for all this time really allows you to develop how you, as an actor, have these little nuances.
I’m at a stage now where I do all my prep work and I try to get in front of the camera and do my scene. I couldn’t tell you what goes through my head. I’m at a point where I don’t think about it while I’m doing my scene. This show’s really helped me do that and get comfortable with my own process, because I’ve had so many opportunities to work on the same character.
So it’s taught me tons. Working with Peter DeLuise — he will call you when he sees it. He will call you and say, “No, I don’t believe it. Let’s do it again!” So it’s definitely a learning process. No one’s afraid to call you on it. So the show is very good to me in that respect.
GW: There’s been the formation of a Jaffa nation near the end of Season Eight. How do you think that’ll affect your character? More responsibility, I’d imagine.
ND: Well, of course there will be more responsibilities. I think eventually it’s leaning toward a Jaffa parliament, a senate almost. A consortium of these people. I think Rya’c could have many different large parts to play in that, be it one as a diplomatic role or more of an upfront, I’m going to fight and be on the front lines.
This is what I’m saying. There’s lots of places to take the character. There has to be resolution. If this is the final season it has to be resolution. We’ll see where they take it. It could be interesting. It could definitely be interesting.
GW: Do you think Rya’c would prefer a desk job, or do you think he would be on the front lines with the troops?
ND: I don’t think taking a diplomatic role — I don’t think he’d see that as a desk job. He’s definitely an eloquent-enough speaker. Whether he’d be happy with that in a permanent position? No, of course not. He’s a warrior at heart. He’s going to want to be out there fighting the good fight, but he wouldn’t flinch at sitting down and being diplomatic and discussing and trying to organize the rebellion better.
GW: Is there anything you would like to say to fans who have been watching you grow up all these years?
ND: Thank you for sticking with me. Thank you for your support. I was lucky enough to do my first Stargate convention, and it was just overwhelming. And such a great feeling to meet you guys, and see the support, and know that there’s people out there who appreciate it.
So thank you. I really appreciate it. I never really got to see that side of things until I did the convention, got one-on-one with the fans. And it’s just an amazing feeling. I’m in debt to you guys for that.
GW: Neil, thank you. Very much.
ND: Thank you very much. Awesome. Thank you.