He’s obnoxious. He’s insensitive. He’s a citrus-hating jerk.
Fortunately, Dr. Rodney McKay is nothing like his real-life counterpart, actor David Hewlett. Always kind, down-to-earth and unceasingly funny, David recently welcomed us into his trailer once again on the Vancouver set of Stargate Atlantis.
In our latest interview, David talks about the big changes to come in the fourth season of Stargate Atlantis, which is now in production. He has plenty to say about working with Amanda Tapping (“Samantha Carter”) on a regular basis, and about how far Rodney McKay has come in the past few years. Finally, he fills us in on his other projects, including the new independent film A Dog’s Breakfast and the sitcom pilot Starcrossed.
GateWorld’s interview with David is available in MP3 audio format for easy listening, and runs about 33 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’m Darren Sumner. I’m here with Mr. David Hewlett — Rodney McKay on Stargate Atlantis.
David Hewlett: “Sir” is fine. Just “sir.” “Your Lordship” is great. “Your Grace.” [Laughter] Season Four. “Season of the bitch.” Sorry, you carry on with your introduction that you were trying to do.
GW: Thanks for being with us.
DH: A pleasure indeed, as always.
GW: Before we talk about what you’re working on now, let’s look back at Season Three a little bit.
GW: What stands out in your mind?
DH: Well, there’s the obvious: the losses. The casualties of war, so to speak, which obviously had quite an effect on cast and crew. It’s funny how you get involved in a television show. You suddenly realize that it works like life. There’s this weird sense of randomness to what happens to us and our characters and all that kind of stuff, and how we really don’t have any control over it. We come in, we do our lines, we play these characters, but the reality is that we’re a part of a world that changes and creates and destroys.
So it’s kind of an interesting, almost religious-like experience last year with the way things were going. And the end of the season puts us all in incredible peril. It’s always an interesting way to end the season because it always feels like it could be the end. That’s the goal of the end of every season.
But this one definitely felt very — there’s considerable changes this year. All the Atlantis folk, the SGA team, are definitely growing up. The youthful days are over now. I’ll handle the old stuff.
GW: How did you feel about the episode “Sunday” when you read it?
DH: Well, I had a sense that it was coming. We weren’t completely blindsided by it. Certainly we were told it was going to happen. But it’s still very shocking. But again, that’s the point. Unfortunately, that’s a part of television. You need to shake things up. You can’t keep things the way they are all the time because people get bored, they move on. You need to feel this is a living, breathing entity that acts like we all do — that there’s a sense of fate, a sense of danger there.
Unfortunately, if you don’t kill the main characters once in a while, people believe they’re immune, and you lose that sense of peril when you go into stuff.
The beautiful thing about science fiction is that there’s always a way to cheat death. I’m hoping that will be the case with Mr. McGillion as well. As you know, I’m a huge fan of McGillion. Obviously I wrote a part for him in the film [A Dog’s Breakfast], and given my time off I actually took the opportunity to work for him.
GW: Share how you feel about some of the major cast changes this year. You’re gaining Amanda and Jewel, but at the same time you’re also losing both Paul and Torri as [regulars].
DH: Yeah, it’s a big upheaval. There’s a whole different feel to the scenes now. There’s definitely been a hole where Paul was.
Jewel’s not replacing Paul. I should make that very clear. It’s not like she’s come in and taken his place. They didn’t recast Paul. They obviously felt that it was a smart move from the series standpoint to shake things up a bit. Frankly, given the hooting and hollering that’s going on, they’ve succeeded in that.
[There is] press attention, there is fan attention. This is the kind of stuff that I’m assuming producers want, because people are talking about the show. I think that’s a good way to mix it up.
But Jewel is a completely different character. She comes into it with a very different sense of humor, but still a sense of humor. She’s a very smart lady, and she plays the character really well. It’s fun to have scenes with her because she’s doing some really neat stuff. And to me, she’s a television icon because of Firefly. Jane and I watched Firefly religiously, and she was one of our favorite characters. It really is a breath of fresh air. She’s definitely brought this great, light sense to her character, which I’m really enjoying.
And she’s just a pleasure to be around. And I tease her mercilessly, and she reacts to it. Generally that’s always a good thing for me. If I can make someone’s life a misery in the first few episodes, it’s always fun to do that.
And Amanda — I feel like I owe all of this to Amanda. Had she not given me the freedom to play the way I did in SG-1 when I came in … There’s not a lot of actors who will give you that much leeway to be so offensive, and just so obnoxious. And she did. And effectively that’s what got me on this show. If that chemistry hadn’t worked I don’t think I’d be back. I was surprised to be back anyway, given the jerk I was playing.
Again, having her around is fantastic. And again, in the same way that Stargate Atlantis is not replacing SG-1 by any way, it’s just the way it changes. The way it grows. Different little offshoots of characters come out of it. I think Amanda as a controlling force to Atlantis makes sense. Even in the world that we live in, the sci-fi, Stargate Atlantis / SG-1 world, it makes sense. If anyone is going to know what’s going on, it’s Sam Carter. So why not put her in charge? [As] much as McKay hates it.
Again, I love it from my standpoint because I’ve got Jewel to work with, playing Keller. Keller, [a] very smart doctor. Very pretty. Very quick-witted. Someone to bounce off.
McKay is never good with women, so I say the more women characters who come in the better. He doesn’t know what to do. Especially if they’re smart. And Carter, of course — I love that dynamic. It’s fun to find. We’re doing scenes where we’re in peril and there’s all sorts of techno stuff going back and forth, and it’s just fun finding those little moments of conflict, where you get to butt heads.
That’s what it’s all about. If all the characters got along it’s not much fun to watch on television. This is just more characters to mix it up. It’s a very welcome addition. And again, I talk of it as an addition, not as a replacement. As we’ve seen on SG-1, the favorites come back. They’re very good about that, and I hope to see that happen as well.
GW: Those two characters, Carter and McKay, have been bouncing off each other on an occasional basis for, like, six years now? Since you did “48 Hours?” So now she’s not only a regular, you’re in there almost the entire season together — but the relationship is different because she’s your boss.
DH: Yes, which she never fails to point out. Not so much Amanda as Carter. Yes, that’s definitely a bone of contention for McKay, and it is addressed in a very amusing way in the episode where she gets thrown into power, as the case may be. So that’s really, really fun stuff to play with. I’m looking forward to that. It just adds a nice dynamic for McKay to play with.
And also Amanda, again. Amanda as someone to work with … that woman, it’s amazing. She just lights up a set. She just shows up [and] everyone loves her. Everyone loves working with her. It’s just a pleasure to do scenes with her.
Torri’s exactly the same way, but Amanda, our history goes back to the SG-1 stuff. It’s nice for me. [Laughter] In a completely selfish way. McKay’s very happy with the changes, I think.
GW: Now according to the writers, the first half of Season Four is going to have some spotlight episodes for each of the main characters. I don’t think I know what McKay’s episode is yet.
DH: I don’t think I do, either! I’m holding my breath! It’s funny, the spotlight episodes for the other characters generally tend to be — you’ve got “Sateda” [with Ronon], and “Common Ground” with Sheppard.
GW: Did McKay get all [his] spotlight episodes in Season Three?
DH: Maybe that’s it! I’ve used up my spotlight tokens. No, no, they’ve definitely got some ideas which I’ve heard about, which sound like a lot of fun.
I’m a little nervous about it because, usually, McKay episodes involve some kind of pain or torture for me. If it’s talking to myself or being hung upside-down or stuck in a Puddle Jumper for the full episode … we’ll see what kind of torturous episode they’ve got worked up for me. I’m convinced that it’s not so much writing as them coming up with different ways of making my life [a] misery. It’s a karma thing, I think.
GW: And we’ve been told that Jeannie’s coming back a little later.
DH: Oh, great! I wanted to mention that but I wasn’t sure if you guys knew that. I heard that as well. And Kate [Hewlett, “Jeannie Miller”] is thrilled, of course. I talked to Kate the other day.
GW: What a great episode of Season [Three].
DH: Oh, I know. When you get the Martins together, the Martins and the Hewletts. It seems to be a good combo. That was a really, really great episode. And it’s just so much fun. Again, the thing I loved about that episode — forget that it was obviously fantastic to have Kate around, and it was a fun episode with lots of things going on — to me it reminded me why I loved science fiction as a kid.
When people get to see, for the first time, a world that they believed was out there. And not necessarily the specifics of it, but believing that there was something out there that they meant to do.
When she first comes and sees the Stargate and first gets taken out into hyperspace, and [sees that] all these concepts that she’d been working within university were now the reality — I love that part of sci-fi. I think we all grow up thinking that we’re meant for something better than this world. Everyone wants to be the Chosen One. The Matrix … all these escapist sci-fi things are what appealed to me, and I thought that was a fantastic episode for that because we saw, through Jeannie’s eyes, this world all the nerds — certainly the nerd in me — secretly hopes exists. [I] still keep stepping through the gate hoping something actually happens.
That was one of the main reasons I loved that. Obviously Kate being around was not exactly a bad thing. Unless I’m a really horrible brother, and say “you should stay at home.”
DH: They are indeed. Yes, the Replicators. Well, it’s kind of hard to kill a self-replicating nanite, as we’ve discovered. And there’s a neat twist on that at the beginning of the season as well where we use a bit of the old Replicator tech for good as opposed to evil. And I think [it] establishes a very interesting possible character arc for one of our regulars.
Yeah, the Replicator stuff is really good. And again, having David Ogden Stiers on set is a pleasure as well.
GW: Yeah, Oberoth is back!
DH: Yes, Oberoth is back. And lots more hands in foreheads and things. And twists on that as well. It’s funny. Joe [Mallozzi] and Paul [Mullie, executive producers] were really excited about, I think, playing with the established stuff. Leading people to believe things are going to be like they were, and then throwing them a curve. There’s some great use of that, especially with the Replicator stuff, where the Replicators are getting stuff thrown back at them that they’re not expecting. We fight back in weird and devious ways. I enjoy that.
GW: And working with David Ogden Stiers?
DH: What a bastard. He’s like the nicest guy. He always plays jerks. It never fails. He’s always some uppity, snobby guy, or some evil villain, and he is just the sweetest guy on the planet. He shows up, he knows the lines, he loves science fiction. He’s so positive about everything.
The guy’s been doing it for how long? He still walks on set. He goes, “Ooh, how’s this work?” I hope that when I’ve been doing it as long as he has that I still have that childlike interest in the way things work that he does. He’s lovely to have around.
Plus, he’s a big eco-geek. We talk about wind turbines and solar panels and reclaimed water. We nerd out on all that kind of stuff. He just bought this new, completely electric car that he’s all excited about. And I just bought this bio-diesel car that I’m all excited about. As I said, I’m more than happy to help save the environment as long as it doesn’t really inconvenience me really that much.
GW: Atlantis is now carrying the torch, with SG-1 over — as far as television goes, continuing in DVD format. Do you think this is a positive change for this show? Does it feel like “Boy, it’s about time?”
DH: Well, it’s weird. There’s the selfish and there’s the selfless. From a selfish standpoint it’s nice to be the show. We’re the Stargate on television now. It is nice from that aspect. And again, what’s funny, this year actually isn’t a good year for that. They’ve got the two films going at the same time. In a way it feels a bit like it was before anyway.
Yeah, it feels like there’s been more time. The writers have had more time this year than they have before. They’re well in advance of the scripts. Instead of having to do 40 episodes they’re doing 20. So it’s nice. Not that I thought they were suffering before. There’s a little more time to play with the stuff.
We’re doing read-throughs, which we didn’t do before, because there is time to do that. We can all get together, sit down and go through the scripts, which I think is a great idea. At least it makes sure we’ve all read the scripts, even if that’s the only time we get through them. It’s nice for the writers to hear them actually spoken the way they are before we get to them.
So it’s kind of nice. It definitely feels a little bit more relaxed because of that, I think. Of course you go upstairs and ask them, they may find it completely different. But from our perspective it seems we’re a little further ahead than we would be otherwise. And I’m sure for them it must be such a relief. You’ve got to turn out 40 original ideas for an hour long television a year? That’s brutal! So now they’d just better do a damn good job of 20.
GW: What would you say has been the most fun or the most challenging work that you’ve done so far this year?
DH: I think it’s coming up on Monday. Monday we’ve got nine and a half pages of Torri and I in the Puddle Jumper, screaming out commands on how to reprogram Replicator mainframes. I think that will be the most challenging part.
GW: Well, the techno-babble you’ve got no problem with.
DH: God, I wish! I wish it got easier! I keep thinking I’ll get to the point where I just look it over a couple of times and you get it.
GW: You don’t have to hang upside-down when you do it this time.
DH: That’s true. The physical peril may make a difference. I think the biggest challenge is always when we’re all in the scene together. I think we have too much fun. It’s always hard. You remember halfway through the scene: “Oh, God, that’s right, we’re all about to die. We need to stop laughing and giggling about these things.”
Again, this year was really strange. Last year when we came in I felt the hiatus was gone in a second. I felt like we ended the season and started the new one and I don’t even remember anything in between it. It was so quick. We felt like we were right back at work and such.
And this year it’s just been incredibly fun. I think maybe it is partially because of Amanda and Jewel that maybe we’re all on our best behavior. We’ve got David Ogden Stiers as well in the first couple of episodes. It’s almost too much fun.
I feel guilty getting paid … Not that guilty, really. Actually, not guilty at all. But a nice turn of phrase.
It’s definitely felt much more relaxed this year, for some reason. [A train passes] I don’t know why … the trains are just as loud, and they still shake the trailer as much! It’s nice, when you’re actually eating you can watch your food move across the table back and forth. For some reason every studio I’ve worked in has always been located right beside a train track. I’m not sure why they do that. You think with sound it’d be an issue, but no.
GW: What do you think Season Four needs to accomplish?
DH: Hmm-hmm … I don’t know. I think they should definitely be either a “McKay loses his voice” or a “McKay becomes stupid” episode. Jason and I were talking about that today. That would be my hope for Season Four. An episode where someone else has to do all the talking. Amanda’s here now. Maybe she could do some.
I think I should revert to child-like intelligence. The intelligence of a 10-year old. Something like that. I have no idea. Tuesday we go and shoot a dream sequence in a boat with a clown and a whale. So I don’t have that kind of twisted genius.
GW: You just make that up?
DH: No, that’s what we’re doing! That’s literally what we’re doing that on Tuesday! It’s kind of hard for me to pretend to imagine what we could possibly do in Season Four. If someone had told me that’s what I would be doing for a living in a few years time, I probably would’ve laughed at them. But that’s what we’ll be doing on Tuesday.
What to expect for Season Four? I don’t know. When it starts like that I’m not even going to hazard a guess.
GW: Rob has told us a little bit about “Doppelganger.” What are McKay’s deepest, darkest fears? And nightmares?
DH: It sounds like whales and clowns are way up there. There’s definitely a nasty family secret about whales. And clowns, obviously. Again, who the hell doesn’t find clowns creepy? Ever since Poltergeist and the whole clown thing. Or IT. Well, that was Stephen King. Yeah, yeah, that’s true. With Tim Curry as a clown … that was Tim Curry wasn’t it? Tim Curry with the little sharp teeth.
Clowns, definitely clowns, yeah. That’s a very neat episode, too. What I like about what’s happening this year is while there’s obviously external forces working on us and putting us in danger, it is all about us dealing with our own demons and such, and getting over our own fears and insecurities and personality traits that have gotten away previously. I think it’s a good start to the season. There’s a lot of character-based stuff going on.
As you say, the thing that’s nice this year is while it was fantastic last year to have a lot of McKay-centric episodes, I think this year we’re seeing a nice spreading-out a lot. It’s feeling a lot more ensemble than it was at times last year. Which of course I hate, because I think they should all be McKay-centric episodes anyways! But I think from a general viewing audience standpoint they may enjoy the fact that we’re exploring some of the other characters, for some reason.
So I’m sure looking forward to seeing how that goes. And looking forward to not having to work so hard for those episodes, too.
GW: Would you sign a contract for the third Stargate TV series if it was Stargate: McKay?
DH: What else would it be? I can’t even imagine what else it would possibly be.
I can’t believe they’re doing a third one. It’s amazing. I hope that works out. Yeah, I’m there. Whatever. Hell, I’m going to be there anyways! That would be great. Gimme two trailers. I’ll just walk over to the other one.
GW: How has your character grown over the last year, and over the last three years, since Atlantis started?
DH: His waist is much bigger. I think, generally, he’s grown in the gut area. A lot of the free lunches and snacks on set are taking its toll.
McKay is one of those weird characters. He sort of grows and reverts, and grows and reverts. I think he learns things and then he forgets them. He’s a victim of his own success. If he does solve problems he wonders why anyone ever doubted him, and if he doesn’t then he beats himself up. Then he tends to overcompensate by being even more arrogant.
I think he’s learning to work in a team, which is the big thing. When he came in he was definitely his own separate entity, and forced to work within the confines of these guys. Now I feel like he’s found his place. When we open up the hundred thousand year-old Ancient space ship, he knows to start getting the power going and seeing what’s available — all that kind of stuff.
Strangely, he’s become more of an explorer than he was before, whereas before he was very timid. When he arrived on planets it was “Let’s get out of here before something goes wrong!” This year, again, and by the end of the last season, he wants to push the bounds of things. We started off being scared of stuff and worried about screwing anything up; now he’s going further the other way and messing things more up because of his curiosity than being to timid as he approaches these things.
He’s definitely found himself enjoying the exploration aspect of it much more than certainly I thought he was going to. I really saw him as the tech guy in the control room. I was amazed when he started leaving the base. Now it’s kind of weird to be in the control room again. He’s like, “Yeah, let’s get out on the road!”
GW: You can get attacked by a giant iratus bug creature now and not go home and have to cry himself to sleep.
DH: Exactly. Well, not just faint on the spot — although I think that could happen, too. Again, it’s that weird thing about series television. You want to give people what they like, so you want to do the things that have worked before, but at the same time you want to change it up so that there is the parallel concerns of “How do I make this the same and make it different?” Which is always fun.
Luckily with McKay, there’s only a few different responses, none of them usually very good. You can go with cowardice or exaggerated bravery or just some kind of physical failure in some way, shape or form.
GW: Changing directions a little bit: When we were here last year we were talking about A Dog’s Breakfast, and you were in the middle of shooting it.
DH: Was it that long ago? Wow. Yeah, makes sense.
GW: So, now the movie’s done.
DH: We’re done.
GW: Distribution deal — what kind of update can you give us?
DH: Yeah, yeah. We’re working with MGM now. They bought the film for worldwide rights. Say that ten times fast without slurring — especially after lunch. So we’re looking forward to them getting the DVD out so that people can see it around the world.
But we’ve also been doing, they’ve very kindly allowed us to do these screenings. Generally if it’s more than 10 or 15 Stargate fans standing around, we’ll suddenly throw up a screening. We’re running and saying hello to the convention and then seeing if people want to see the film. It’s been kind of fun.
GW: You did London.
DH: We did London, yes. [In] London I was sick as a dog. I ate a bad oyster. I was food poisoned for the entire time.
But that was fantastic. The film sold out in 20 minutes. We put it online, it sold out in 20 minutes, and crashed the server they were using to do the transactions. So we put on another show which sold out in three hours. In fact, we have no idea [how well we’re selling in Vancouver]. I have no idea how we’re selling this weekend. Although giving this weather I’ll be amazed if anyone shows up.
So the screenings have been doing fantastically. And what I think we’ll probably do is start doing some screens where we’re not [present] … we usually show up as well. To me it’s like the idea of a screening — you might as well watch a film on DVD if it’s not an event, if that makes sense. I like to get it going, answer questions and say hi to everybody. It makes it a little more fun [and], for want of a better word, meaningful.
So we’ve been doing that as much as possible. I think we’ll probably do some screenings without us in the near future, to sort of have some good places to put it together. It’s an HD film so just find theaters that will do HD projection.
But it’s fantastic. It’s opened up a lot of doors for us. It’s one thing to say you want to make a film. It’s another thing to be able to walk in and say: “There you go. Now, let’s talk about this or that.” We’ve got another film lined up for next year which should be kind of fun. I’ve been working on the Starcrossed series with NBC/Universal and SCI FI.
GW: How’s that going?
DH: Really good! Really good. We’ve got a pilot script sorted out. They seem very happy with it. Yeah, apparently there was much giggling on the pilot, which is good.
GW: Will that be going into production any time soon?
DH: I don’t know! Again, at this point it’s sort of up in the air right now. We’ve passed the first hurdle, which is to get them to commission a pilot. They’ve been incredibly positive about it and very supportive and, unlike all the clichés in Hollywood, gave us incredibly good notes. We got notes on the first draft that were just fantastic.
And then that’s it. They seemed to like it from there. So we’ll just have to see what they plan on doing with it.
GW: So for fans who haven’t read yet, what is the basic pitch for what Starcrossed is? Is it the same Starcrossed that we see in A Dog’s Breakfast?
DH: Well, that was what spawned the idea, really, because we had so much fun shooting that. Someone said, “You should make Starcrossed into a series.” “Well, that is such silly sci-fi. I don’t know if you could maintain that for a full hour of television.”
So I started thinking about it and just thought: behind the scenes. We’re privy to making Stargate and Cube and all the other sci-fis, Boas vs. Pythons, and all that kind of stuff that I’ve done in the past. I’ve seen how silly it is to make serious sci-fi.
So yeah, basically we went in and pitched SCI FI on the idea of doing something like The Larry Sanders Show, only instead of it being about late night television it would be about making science fiction television. [The] Office kind of stuff. And they really responded well to the pitch and then commissioned the script from there.
So that’s basically the idea. It’s, for want of a better word, a situation comedy about the making of a science fiction show, because there’s really nothing sillier than serious science fiction. There’s just nothing like some poor guy dressed up in a big rubber suit, covered in hair gel and, while we’re being terrorized by this creation, there’s a man in the background eating a sandwich picking his nose while we’re trying to shoot.
It’s just fun. It’s very loosely based on a Stargate kind of thing, but it’s not Stargate. It’s not a spoof. It’s just the silliness of the day-to-day life of trying to make a television series.
GW: Finally, what would you like to say to fans who are getting ready to tune in to Season Four this fall?
DH: Ah. Thank you for waiting so long! God, how long has it been since Season Three aired? What would I say? Make sure you go to the bathroom before you start because we’ve got some scary episodes coming up. You will not want to leave.
Give the new kids a chance. See what you make of them. You’ll definitely enjoy the new additions, as well. And look for some familiar faces. Something like that.
But definitely, make sure, if you’ve got to pee, go before. Because you’ve got an hour of television there and you do not want to hold it that long. Because there’s going to be an accident.