Beware of minor spoilers for the Stargate Atlantis third season episode “Tao of Rodney” in this interview.
GateWorld’s Christmas present to our readers for 2006 is an exclusive, two-part audio interview with David Hewlett, Atlantis‘s Dr. Rodney McKay!
In Part 1 of our interview, GateWorld discusses the big McKay episode from the first part of Season Three, “McKay and Mrs. Miller.” We discuss the complexities of filming advanced visual effects shots like split screen, the pleasures of working with sisters, and the fulfillment of Season Three thus far. David also takes time to answer fan questions from members of GateWorld Forum!
GateWorld’s interview with David is available in MP3 audio format for easy listening, and runs over 24 minutes. It is also transcribed below. You can also download the interview to your MP3 player and take GateWorld with you.
GateWorld: For GateWorld.net, I am David Read, and I am on the telephone with Mr. David Hewlett who is trying to get through Christmas as best he can. How you doing, David?
David Hewlett: The Davids are surviving, it seems!
GW: Yes, we are getting there! [Laughter]
DH: I keep being asked, “Just say something for the fans for Christmas,” and it usually goes something like “Bah, Humbug.” And I just leave it at that. Here’s a dime, go buy a turkey.
GW: Production on Season Three has wrapped earlier this year. What are your thoughts looking back?
DH: It was a killer McKay season! Season Three was, not season of the witch, it was season of McKay. He just seemed to be everywhere, doing everything, all the time. The scheduling was very funny. You tend to sort of look ahead and try to plan some kind of a life, which I should know by now to give up on, and just get a sense of what days you were going to be working, what days you were going to be working hard. And there [were] a couple of episodes where I was scheduled for eight days out of a six day shoot.
GW: You’re kidding.
DH: They’re already two days into the next episode and I’m still shooting second unit stuff for the episode before. That said, there were definitely some of the most fun I’ve ever had doing, doing episodes in the past. I’ve done everything from super powers to splitting into double personalities to sisters. We did everything in Season Three.
GW: [A] kaleidoscope of McKay.
DH: Exactly. I’m a little concerned that maybe next year McKay might be at home doing nothing. They’ve pretty well covered me. I don’t know what else they could possibly do to me. I’m waiting to become a Replicator, and then I’m really screwed. [Laughter]
GW: What do you feel were some of your most powerful performances this year, and what would you have liked to make better if given more time?
DH: Wow. [My] most powerful performance is probably just trying to be polite in the morning when I’m still not awake. That’s when the best acting happens. Trying to care what happened to people the night before when it’s six o’clock in the morning and they want you in makeup and hair. I think without a doubt, the most challenging episode for me in that was “McKay and Mrs. Miller”
GW: The first time you did split screen.
DH: The split screen thing. And the computer-controlled camera stuff is unbelievably technical. I’ve always considered myself a fairly technical actor. I’ve been doing it long enough I get a sense of roughly how to hit your mark and all that kind of stuff. People will tell you otherwise, I’m sure. In my books the technical side of it, to me, is one of the things I pride myself on. That will throw you for a loop so quickly. You literally go into robot mode. You have to hit the right marks at the right time, say the right lines at the right timing. They play back the lines that you’ve just said to yourself, so you have to get your timing right.
So the first day I went up to Martin Wood and I was like “You’ve got to stop this!” And then once I got a sense of it, because I’ve never done that before — once I got the sense of it I kind of started enjoying it. Because you think “Well, who else? The opportunity of working with David Hewlett comes along so rarely.” I get to play opposite myself, so I can’t really complain about it.
GW: And maybe somewhere in there you’ll get to act a little bit instead of just hitting marks.
DH: Exactly. Well that’s what’s funny! At some point you go “Oh, my God. This is supposed to sound like I mean it, too!” You’re talking to a tennis ball with a little — the crew was nice enough to put a little smiley face on. And you’ve got your little sister there looking at you, because it’s her first experience on Stargate. And she met with the grumpiest McKay you could ever come across. [Laughter] And she was sweet. She came up to me and said “I can’t believe you can do that!” I was, like, “Shut up and go away!”
GW: Jane may have told you about my film that I did for my final.
DH: Yeah, now I’m curious about this. What’s the deal on that?
GW: It took months of planning. We sat down, and one of the scenes we were going to do is split screen. But I don’t have any computer-controlled cameras, so any time we did a split screen we had to lock the camera down, and it was one of the most difficult things that I have ever attempted.
DH: Well that’s the classic way of doing it, right? That’s the old-school way. And it can be incredibly effective! And we use some of that in the show as well. It is very difficult.
GW: As long as you keep a distraction going.
DH: Well, and eye lines. The biggest thing is eye lines. Because that’s the killer. If you’re off just even a tiny bit, you’re like “Who’s he talking to?” Sometimes it’s not even a noticeable “Oh, they’re not looking at him.” It’s just that sense of where they are. The hardest thing for me, when you’re acting one of the roles, is remembering in time where the other character is. Martin Wood, he’s such a bastard. He’s always moving the camera. And it’s like he went out of his way to move it more during this one. There’s lots of camera trickery things where it can’t be two people. Oh yes it is! That kind of stuff.
GW: I discovered myself, we were doing some long shots, and I decided to take advantage of depth of field. But something like “McKay and Mrs. Miller,” far more sophisticated, actually have a budget. It was much better than anything we could’ve done!
DH: You know what? It’s so much fun, though. When we can do everything digitally — there’s still something about optical effects. There’s something slightly more real to use optical effects. The digital stuff is fantastic, brilliant, and when used sparingly, perfect. But there’s something about being forced to —
Sam Raimi said this. He had just done Darkman. He had just done all his “Evil Dead” movies. “Evil Dead,” they were made for nothing. Darkman was his big-budget film. All those years doing “Evil Dead” movies, it’s like “You need to get someone to fly.” You’re like, “OK, where can we put ropes? Or we don’t have ropes.” So he just sort of “Holds himself here.” All these ways of working around himself. In Darkman, he needs to fly, and he’s like “Great, go build a flying machine.”
Millions of dollars later they come back and they’ve got something that may or may not work. It becomes a logic puzzle when you have no money. And I truly believe that it leads to better filmmaking. There’s an honesty to that kind of stuff. Even if, technically, your stuff doesn’t pull off as well as computer-controlled cameras and all that nonsense, the reality is if the intention is there and there’s an honesty to it, I think that people will forgive.
GW: And the simplest explanation usually equals the better one.
DH: Yeah, exactly.
GW: If you try to go fancy, it may not work.
DH: And you know what? Mistakes are the most beautiful thing on film. The biggest thing I learned in making “Dog’s Breakfast” was those little fortuitous accidents are the things that, all of a sudden, just make a scene, make a shot. You’re screwed for time and you’re like “How the hell are we going to shoot?” Well, you’ve seen the film. “How the hell are we going to shoot a scene where we have three scenes to shoot and we have an hour to do it?” All the sudden it becomes one scene and we’ve shot inside and outside, and then you’ve shot three scenes.
GW: Yeah but in that timing issue where things are tight, it’s amazing how something will come out to make that sequence so much more real than had ever been put on script.
DH: Right. Well I think the biggest thing — I’ve worked with many different types of directors, and went into this thinking “Oh, my God, I’m just assuming I can do this. I have no idea if I can or not.” The biggest thing for me just was “You know what, when things go wrong, you solve them.” That’s it. You can’t possibly hope to have plans for every possible outcome. You just have to laugh and go “Okay, what do we do instead?”
GW: You’re right. Back to “McKay and Mrs. Miller.” When we met you on set you mentioned concern about playing a cool McKay. Was it indeed difficult to play “hip” for once instead of the geek? By your own admission you are more comfortable with McKay as he currently stands.
DH: Oh God, yeah. I always get nervous. Any time I have to play suave I’m far more nervous about that than nerdy, because for years and years and years I played cool. When I was a kid growing up, acting from ages like 18, anything you see from me play from 18 to 26, I played the cool but slimy drug dealer, or the bully at school. Which was ridiculous. I was pencil thin in the most un-terrorizing-looking individual. And the best realization I had as an actor was suddenly going “Wait a second, I can drive around on motorcycles. I can wear leather boots and all that kind of stuff.”
But the reality is I’m just not cool. I’m just not a cool person. And getting rid of that was the coolest experience for me, because all of a sudden you are who you are. If you walk into a room and you trip and fall or you spill a drink down your front you can either get angry and fight it or you can just go ‘That’s me.”
GW: Make it a part of the character.
DH: That’s it. The Rod character, I actually originally wanted to go even cooler with him. The Martins [Wood and Gero] were concerned about it being too forced, I think. But I wanted to go full on, Flanigan meets Jason Momoa. A deeper voice and all that kind of stuff. The weird thing is [though] he is a cooler version of McKay, he’s still not the Fonz.
GW: Yeah, he’s still a McKay!
DH: He’s less a cooler version of McKay than he is just a nicer version of McKay. Or a secure version of McKay, maybe. Whereas McKay has all these insecurities, in a strange way Rod is like me discovering that it’s okay to be not cool. Whereas McKay is still frantically trying to be cool in his own way without realizing what a complete nerd and idiot he’s making himself on many occasions.
GW: We talked with Kate, as you know.
DH: Well don’t believe a word she says. [Laughter] The woman’s a liar. I’m not even convinced she’s related. Apparently we have “Hewlettisms.” That’s what Gero called them. We have certain Hewlettisms, which means we’ll be doomed to play brother and sister for the rest of our days.
GW: How was it working with Kate on Stargate? I mean, you’d already worked with her in A Dog’s Breakfast.
DH: It was such a treat because having done … A Dog’s Breakfast, part of the reason — other than just the fact that Kate’s a very good actress — part of the reason for putting her in “Dog’s Breakfast” was I really wanted to give her an opportunity to have something to do that the Stargate people might end up seeing. I thought it’s not going to hurt that she’s got a feature film or two under her belt by the time she came in to start auditioning. I just assumed, at some point, she’d be able to audition for Stargate. Hopefully. Doesn’t need to make it sound conniving, but it just seemed smart.
And frankly, like her brother, she’s very cheap. We got her on the “Dog” pretty quick without having to pay her that much. But the problem with A Dog’s Breakfast was I was obviously rather preoccupied, because I had to direct and we were still working on the script, and of course the acting side of stuff as well. And wrangling the dog, and just the general things that go along with making the film. Obviously [producer] Jane looked after anything I didn’t get to. Although she pretty-well handled everything, come to think of it.
Jane Loughman: Not the directing!
DH: Not the directing or the acting! So in the scenes where I didn’t have too much of the Rod McKay stuff going on, it was just really nice to act with Kate. For example, my favorite scene with Kate was Flanigan, Kate and myself at the very end there. And it was just one of those scenes where I think it was near the end of the shoot, actually. I don’t think there was much more Rod stuff to do.
GW: Right, Martin [Wood] saved that. That whole scene with “Letters from Pegasus.”
DH: Yeah. He saved that till the end? Was that on purpose?
GW: Yes, he did.
DH: Oh, good for him. It worked out nicely because there was a sense of relief. I was like “Oh, thank God.” Well, you saw it. Pages and pages. I do all the talking half the time anyways. I was now doing the other half as well. So it was just such a relief to go in and get to act with Kate, and of course tease her mercilessly. The first time she did the scene she totally broke down. I was like, “Oh, my God, she’s good!”
GW: Right, she’d never seen that before. The clip.
DH: Well she’d never seen the clip before, and she’s an emotional wreck anyway. And as she said, she probably said this to you — she said it to me and I thought it was kind of cute — she said “I just got caught up in the whole thing. Here we are working together on a TV show, which is kind of a nice thing.” Of course Kate — I know she told you — the first take she did she started crying. She got embarrassed and dropped out of frame.
DH: They’re like, “And cut.” And I’m like, “Yep! Good instincts there, Kate! You do this brilliant piece of acting and then you disappear out of the shot for it.”
GW: It’s a tricky balance, one of the things I always wonder about, when you do something that’s unexpected on a take, if you can hold it together they may be able to save it and that may be the best one there is. But you have to keep all your ducks in a row!
DH: You walk a fine line. If things are going really badly I will goof around. It’s very easy to build up a lot of tension on set. The set itself can get very tense. I think, in a strange way, one of the actors’ job is, I think, to keep things moving and to keep things light. Obviously when they need to be dark they need to be dark, but I think there is a responsibility as an actor — you can come onto set as an actor and you can either exude tension or you can come in and relax. There are some actors who will walk on set and you can feel the crew getting a little tense about stuff.
GW: Yeah, “What’s this guy got up his butt?” Yeah.
DH: And what to do and what to say. And then other people will come in and there’s this great sense of warmth, and people are happy to be there. Mitch Pileggi is a perfect example. The guy comes on set. He plays the biggest ***holes on the planet. On set it’s just this fantastic personality to have around. Actually I would say all of our cast. You get the odd guest star now and again that’s terrifying. The cast themselves are really pretty good about keeping things nice and light. I probably get more chances than everyone.
GW: Well I think it’s just a shining example that RDA’s model holds true to its form. It’s something that’s continued.
DH: RDA is very good at that. Yeah, it’s true. And you know what? I think you do yourself a disservice to come in too uptight, too. Well, “uptight” — I can’t get rid of that. The camera picks up everything. The camera picks up stuff that you don’t see in person. And I think there’s a looseness that you need to forget that the camera’s there, that really helps a performance. If you get the sense that people are playing to camera or hamming it up for the camera, or even just aware of it, it can ruin a scene. The more relaxed you can be in front of the camera, and thus around the camera, the better I think.
GW: Let’s move on to a fan question here from “TheXym.” I think I pronounced that right. “The X-Y-M.”
DH: What is it? How is it spelled?
GW: “What particular scene interaction has been the most personally and professionally satisfying for David Hewlett the actor. Or which scene do you feel gives the most insight into the workings of David Hewlett the person?” … Ouch.
DH: Boy, they’re not holding any punches there, eh? I think McKay-wise … There’s two big ones. Obviously the first one we were just talking about. The one with Kate and Joe and myself at the end of “McKay and Mrs. Miller.” Just because it’s a side of McKay you haven’t seen before. There’s two episodes that do that, I think, in Season Three.
GW: “Tao of Rodney”
DH: The “Tao of Rodney,” yeah exactly. “The [dow] of Rodney.” I’ve got to start saying that right. It is “dow,” isn’t it? The whole point of that script was to break down the McKay character and see how he ticks.
GW: Wasn’t that refreshing? That was something I was waiting for.
DH: It was great! It was fantastic. And it’s unfortunate — because it was running long there was a scene with Paul McGillion that we didn’t end up shooting. Which I was really disappointed we didn’t do. I was like, “Just shoot it anyways. We’ll put it on the DVDs or something.”
DH: Because I really get to connect with all of the characters in a way that McKay’s never done before. I thought the stuff with Joe — and again it proves how funny Joe can be. Joe is the best straight man you can have on something like this. He just sits there and just keeps that completely nonplussed face as you ramble and rant and babble. Again it’s that RDA thing. Just being able to knock in those lines. So that stuff was great to do. The stuff with Torri, I thought, was really interesting. You’ve got Weir and McKay on this whole other level that they’ve never really dealt with before. You know what I mean? He starts hinting at this love thing going on. What is that? It’s just kind of neat. So that was definitely, without a doubt that is the most you’re ever going to find out about McKay.
GW: I think you hit it on the head there. One of the things I think is interesting with that episode is the focus on utilizing McKay, not as he currently is, but going out of his way to utilize the character in ways that he is uncomfortable with. Spirituality. Friendship.
DH: The nature of drama is tension. Conflict, right? You don’t want people in comfortable situations. Another one that I absolutely love is the one with Ronon. The scene with Ronon. To me that’s beautiful sci fi to me.
GW: We needed that.
DH: You do! Poor old Jason, when he gets an episode it’s more about his history than it is about himself. If that makes sense. And the reality is the guy studies films. He watches films all the time. Old classics. Looks at actors. Looks at acting. It’s nice to do scenes with him where he’s not having to shoot and be cool.
DH: Buddies. It’s the “cool by association” thing for McKay. But most like Hewlett? I think the most like Hewlett I’d probably have to go back to “Grace Under Pressure.” The neat stuff about “Grace Under Pressure” to me was actually being able to act like a human, not like a hero. Again, you put me in that situation, and I would not be able to solve the things that McKay can solve, but my reactions to those things would be very similar to that. The combination of complaining and feeling sorry for yourself and then having to “Buck up, little soldier. We’ve got to fix this.”
GW: And that’s a real compliment to Martin Gero.
DH: It is. Well it’s so funny, because Gero’s not really a science fiction writer. He’s on a science fiction show writing science fiction, yes, but his strength and his interest is in characters.
GW: Look at what he’s writing right now!
DH: Well look at that movie. Exactly. And that is only about the characters. And the characters without clothes on. Or more so. Sci fi, like anything else, is all about the characters. Firefly. Firefly, yeah, it’s a science fiction show, but I almost forget that compared to the characters you’re dealing with. So there you go. I think I covered — what was your name again?
GW: “The Xym.” I’m just calling him “The Xym.”
DH: Xym! Alright.
The Official A Dog’s Breakfast Web site