Though Stargate Atlantis has reached its triumphant fifth season, David Hewlett has been playing Dr. Rodney McKay for some eight years now. His character was introduced in the fifth season of Stargate SG-1 (“48 Hours”), and went on to win fan acclaim as a main character in the spin-off series.
As David tells us in this new interview, however, that wasn’t always going to be the case.
GateWorld caught up with David Hewlett just a few days after the SCI FI Channel and MGM announced that this year will be the last for Atlantis — though they plan to make a series of movies starting in 2009. The actor candidly shares his disappointment, tempered by the optimism of an actor who is ready to try new things.
GateWorld’s interview with David Hewlett is 20 minutes long. Listen online at your leisure, download it to your MP3 player, or subscribe now to the iTunes podcast! The full interview is also transcribed below.
Also be sure to listen to Episode #8 of the GateWorld Podcast, in which Hewlett joins us for a special, extended discussion of “The Shrine!” Look for the podcast on iTunes, subscribe with your favorite podcast program, or listen right here at GateWorld. Our thanks to David for spending time with us.
GateWorld: Tell me when and how you first heard the news [of Atlantis‘s cancellation].
David Hewlett: Well, the weird thing for me was it was actually one of the first days in months that I wasn’t at work in months. It was this weird scheduling thing where I was in the first scene of the day and then was off for the rest of it. So I literally got a phone call — I got a phone call from Joe and Paul.
It’s such a weird profession this way. There’s a sense when you are doing it that it will go on forever … but everyone knows that it won’t. So there’s that weird sort of duality the whole time, realizing that while it feels like this will go on forever it doesn’t mean that that is necessarily going to be true.
GW: For viewers it’s like you guys are family, and you are our family in an extended kind of way. But the industry is transitory.
DH: Incredibly so. And it’s entirely market-driven and business-driven, and you sort of lose track of that sometimes. I think actors lose track of it more than other people, because you really — I’m not ashamed to say I love McKay. I think in the same way as fans, I’m going to miss him on a weekly basis. I’ve really had an awful lot of fun doing that part.
They’re talking about the movie stuff, and that’s great. We’ll see what happens with that stuff. Again, as usual the business has to step in now and figure out how to make those work. But the film thing is a wonderful concept because you’ve just got so much more time to get this stuff out. The weekly grind of knocking out an episode every week is — we’re nearing the end of the season now, and it’s just exhausting. So I don’t think it’s really going to sink in for me until I’ve had time to chill out.
I think it’s very odd for everyone. It’s a bit like a break-up. It’s a bit like a relationship where you’re living with a woman, you’re living in her house, and you have nowhere else to go for three weeks! So you’re chomping at the bit to start rearranging the furniture, but you really can’t because you’ve obviously got work to do. It’s definitely a very strange situation.
And it’s very funny — though “funny” is the wrong word — to watch the emotional roller coaster that everyone goes through: from sadness, to anger, to giddiness. Because as an actor, we didn’t get into this for secure jobs. We didn’t get into this to do the same thing every day. So you can’t help but have a part of you be a little excited about the prospect of different things.
But, I tell ya, McKay is definitely one of those characters that I hope is around in some way, shape, or form for a long time. Because he really is such a pleasure to play.
GW: He’s just such a great character for you.
DH: I think that’s the saddest thing, for me. That, and obviously the crew and stuff. It really is one of those things that I think is going to hit me on the hiatus, the extent of a dramatic change this is in one’s life.
GW: Obviously you’re a young guy and you’ve got a lot of years ahead of you …
DH: Ha-ha! You’ll get a lot of argument from people on that, I think. [Laughter]
GW: How do you feel about being remembered for McKay just as much as Tom Baker is remembered as Doctor Who?
DH: Hey, if you’re going to be remembered for anybody, I think McKay would be the one for it. There’s always that need to go on and move on, and there’s always the hope that there will be other, McKay-like characters that people will identify with. But I feel like for five years I did everything I possibly could to make that character come alive, and I’m very, very proud of the years we’ve had. And I’m very, very proud of the people I’ve worked with, and the crews, and everyone for everything they have put into this.
You know, when you’re up there and McKay is saving the planet, it’s easy to forget that there is a whole infrastructure behind that, that makes that possible. They’ve just done an incredible job.
GW: I’ve got a special place in my heart for Atlantis, because that was the first year that they brought me up to the set, for your first year. You were shooting I think the first episode after the pilot [“Hide and Seek”].
DH: Was that the first time?
GW: Yeah! So I was all nervous and green, wet around the ears …
DH: As probably was I!
GW: I just remember covering the show, and covering the press releases and stuff when they first started talking about Atlantis. Doctor … what was his name? Who became McKay …
DH: Oh, Ingram!
GW: Yeah, Ingram, the African American doctor …
DH: Who knows! Maybe Ingram will go to Universe. Maybe they’ll finally find their Ingram.
GW: But then the press release came out with the casting, and instead of Ingram it said: “David Hewlett as Dr. Rodney McKay.” And I thought, “Ohh … that’s going to be brilliant.”
DH: “What a disaster that’s going to be!” It was an odd choice. And they took a risk, and I’m really glad that they did. And I get the sense that they are, as well.
There’s something very nice about coming in basically as a secondary character — when I came in for the pilot, the understanding was I would be following Torri around and doing a couple of days here and a couple of days there, like the commander does. Basically the commander would command and I would stand behind her and say, “Oh, my God! We’re losing power!” And it was so nice to have it expand into a character … he came into his own, and I feel like I did, as well.
The other thing I liked about Atlantis is Atlantis has this fantastic sense of humor to it that SG-1 certainly started — but I really feel like Atlantis came into its own in that it had this fantastic ability to … not “wink” at the camera, but it felt very inclusionary. It felt like we were including the people who were watching this in the fun. If that makes sense. It wasn’t just about sitting there and watching these people have their adventures. It was about sharing the silliness and the awkwardness of being in space and trying to be heroic about it!
GW: Yeah. And Rodney came into his own early. I remember that episode, “Hide and Seek,” where he’s got the personal shield and he’s the hero at the end. Then you got that line at the end of the episode where Sheppard says, “You passed out.” And [Rodney] says, “Oh, thanks for not saying the other thing.” (“You fainted.”)
DH: Yeah, yeah. And again, that established the Sheppard/McKay banter, which is I think such a big part of the show.
It’s been a lot of fun. It’s going to be very, very odd without it. And I shouldn’t say “without it,” because they’re working very hard on getting these movies together. But I’m such a pessimist — I can only work with what I know. And right now I know we won’t be back for next season, so I just have to apply myself to other things.
GW: Do you feel like Atlantis has been given the short-shrift at all, when the show is I think creatively still on the upswing, and the [ratings] numbers are doing well? Do you feel like you’ve been cut a little too soon?
It’s really hard to say. I don’t know — you never know. You never know what Season Six was going to be like. I do understand the financial issues with doing another episode of Stargate. I know that that is certainly more expensive than starting up something else. I have to trust that they have made the right decision — and the fact is, I don’t have a choice. The reality is that they’ve made their decision and I’m not going to question that.
Would I have liked to do a Season Six? Of course. I would have loved to come back. In my heart I’d always kind of hoped that we’d go 10 years as well, and surprise everybody.
I think there’s good and bad. There is a possibility here for us to do some really neat stuff, outside of the episodic arena. And I know for myself, there’s something really nice about actually having the time to learn my lines! As opposed to spending every waking hour of the season trying to cram those lines into my head. I think it will be really nice to see what they come up with. And I really do hope that the films work out, because they’ve just spent to much time developing these characters and the Atlantis portion of the franchise that I think it [would be] a shame to see it just go.
DH: But I’m less surprised that Atlantis is cancelled than I was that SG-1 was cancelled, frankly.
DH: I was truly shocked when they cancelled SG-1. [With] Atlantis, I understand — the numbers on cable aren’t as good as they used to be. And not just us — I think everyone in general is having problems with ratings these days. But I know, as you know, that the people who watch Atlantis are a savvy computer bunch that are going to be watching this thing either with PVRs or through iTunes, or that kind of stuff.
I think it’ll be nice to see it “grow up” into a movie or a series of movies. That would be ideal! I would love to come up and do a couple of movies a year. That would be perfect.
GW: That would be fantastic — tell some bigger stories.
DH: Well, that’s the hope. I think that you’d have more resources to throw at it and hopefully come up with some exciting stuff. On the downside, I suppose, if we were to do a Season Six there’s the chance that we may not have had the budgets we needed to tell the stories we wanted to tell. You don’t want to watch a show that every third episode is either a clips show or — “Oh, my God! We’ve gone to a planet where there’s nothing! We must stand around and discuss nothing!”
And on a purely selfish level, it’s nice to have some time to start really pursuing the stuff that I’ve been working on while I can. But I say that … the reality is I have a sneaking suspicion I’m going to miss it as much as the fans do.
GW: One of the things that Brad [Wright] said — I got on the horn with Brad, it must have been Thursday, and did a phone interview. And the way he explained this decision was [to say]: We really wanted to have Atlantis go out on a high while there was enough life left in it that it would support movies. Because he is really committed to the movie format.
DH: It just makes sense on so many levels. SG-1 has proven that that’s a model that can work. And I think movies are exciting. It’s a really exciting process to come in, and you know you are there for a month or two months (or whatever it ends up being), and you can really focus on it. And then you can sort of let it go.
The “light at the end of the tunnel” while you are shooting is really important. And sometimes with episodic, and certainly with the frantic pace that we shoot Atlantis at — I mean, we’re literally shooting two or three episodes a day, sometimes. Obviously not the whole episodes, but scenes from three different episodes at the same time. And for a character like McKay, that is pretty daunting. It’s like, “Whoa, wait a sec! What power is failing now?”
GW: Yeah, I think you’re definitely the hardest working actor in Vancouver!
DH: [Laughter] Well, you know, I think I’ve found my niche! And my niche unfortunately involved a lot of dialogue.
We had RDA on set the other day, which was sort of a neat, full circle thing. He was just visiting (unfortunately). And I went up to him and said, “You know, I’ll never forget sitting on the plane with you, and there I was wading through this massive amount of dialogue with my highlighting pen marking my lines. And I looked over and there you were with your damned two sheets of faxed paper, marking …” — I think he made two marks on the page. One of them was to cross out a line and the other one was to mark it!
And he just sort of turned to me and said, “You know, if you get them wrong they don’t give them to you any more.”
GW: [Laughter] Yeah, it’s because you keep doing them so well!
DH: I think if I were to be acting more like RDA and making those cool little one-liners, as opposed to making these massive, huge, long monologues work instead … I think I deserve everything I get.
But it was neat. And I tell ya, there’s something about having RDA say, “I’m sorry that you won’t be coming back next year” that kind of makes it worthwhile. I don’t know why, but of everybody who said anything to me about it, I felt like he knew more than anyone what it was like to have to walk away from a character like that.
GW: Wow, that’s great.
GW: With Stargate Universe starting up, do you think that maybe Atlantis has suffered from a bit of “Middle Child Syndrome?” Is it the Deep Space Nine of Stargate?
DH: [Laughter] Do I have to worry about the middle child thing? Because now that we have the children thing, I have to worry about “If we have another one, is it going to have that syndrome?”
No. Atlantis came in, and personally, if I was on SG-1 and Atlantis showed up I would not be that thrilled. In the same way where if you have a second kid, and the second kid is taking all the attention. I think it would have been much stranger for the SG-1 people. And was always very conscious of the fact, and I tried to make it very clear, how beholden we were to them for establishing this stuff and these characters.
I think Atlantis came into its own, and I think it got the attention that it deserved. I don’t feel that … You know what I think honestly would have been harder for people? And purely in an ego way — I think it would have been more difficult for us to be doing Atlantis Season Six while they were also shooting a new show. Because that’s just got to be weird. That’s got to be really strange. Because obviously the attention is going to be on the new show and what they do with it.
The thing about Stargate — and I apply this to all of them — it’s sort of a “rabbit” and a “hare” sort of thing. It’s just been delivering these consistently good science fiction with a heart and with humor. And I think that’s not always the sexiest thing that month. But we’ve seen so many other sci-fi shows come and go that have been highly acclaimed and highly watched … and then they disappear again. I think there is something to be said for the hard work. Stargate is a perfect example of consistent, good work, you know?
GW: Just keeping it up, day in and day out for going on 12, 13 years now.
DH: That’s it. And not trying to be … I think there is a danger in trying to be new for the sake of new. Science fiction is not a “new” genre, you know what I mean? It is strangely very old fashioned in some ways. It deals with the future, but its heart is always about the people that it is dealing with. It’s always about how those changes in the world relate to the people in it. And I think that that’s something Stargate has always been incredibly good at delivering.
DH: Not to say that I don’t watch a lot of other sci-fi! There’s a lot of other stuff out there that I enjoy, as well. I think Stargate is really a unique creature.
I keep saying this to Jane: I don’t think it’s over for McKay. I think we’ve got a few more McKay years in me! In some way, shape, or form. It may be dinner theater! It may be “McKay Dinner Theater” of some sort.
GW: [Laughter] When the show wraps up in January, will McKay have a happy ending?
DH: [Laughter] I have to confess that I actually haven’t read the last episode yet. I’m afraid I’ve been a little overwhelmed with line-learning! I’ve just read “Vegas,” which is really interesting — and an absolute departure. It’s really one of those ones where, if you are flicking channels it’s going to take you a little while to figure out that this is Atlantis.
GW: Are you going to go down to Vegas with those guys?
DH: I don’t think that I go down to Vegas, no. I do a lot of talking and it’s all inside. So my hunch is I’m probably not going to go to Vegas. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s just Joe.
Now, on the plus side, by not going to Vegas it means that I’m wrapping almost three weeks earlier than Joe is. I think I’ll call him on a daily basis and tell him how much fun I’m having.
GW: Good, good! That’s important!
DH: It is. Or tell him what I had for lunch. He loves that, too.
GW: Any thoughts then on what you are going to be doing next year, in addition to the movie?
DH: I don’t know! We’ve definitely started things up, pursuing some of the things that we’ve started so far. I’m hoping to have some news that I can share with you guys in the next couple of weeks. There is one thing in particular that I am definitely excited about.
DH: There’s definitely a number of things. I would very much like to concentrate on some of my own stuff. But that depends on — we’ll probably end up in Los Angeles again, so we’ll see what’s going on down there. We’ll see whether they need any Hewlett types for their various and sundry television shows!
But I’m definitely also going to take some time off. I can’t wait to spend some time off with the Baz …
Jane Loughman: Woo-hoo! Vacation!
DH: [Laughter] Jane is in the background doing her little dance of joy. Jane was surprisingly not too upset about the fact that I didn’t have to go back next year. Obviously, she is. But at the same time …
It’s amazing how nice it is, the prospect of acting getting to see your son on a daily basis, as opposed to missing him because he’s not up in the morning early enough, and he’s asleep again by the time I get home.
But yeah, for next year — who knows? It’s the acting thing: You never know where you’re going to be. Five years ago I assumed that this character named Ingram was going to be the part. I was literally just hoping I’d be able to do a guest star every once in a while. It was quite a shock to me to get cast in the first place. And it’s been a lovely surprise for five years, basically.
So who knows? Who knows what can happen next? That really is the thing that excites me about this industry and this profession. You never know. Who knows where we could be next year? That’s kind of a cool way to live your life, I’ve got to say. It’s kind of the way I dreamt it would be. I think that it’s the double-edged sword of being in this industry. It can change with one phone call. It’s like winning the lottery — every time you go in for an audition you’re basically buying a ticket, and that ticket can take you anywhere and make you anything.
GW: Well, you definitely have a very positive attitude about it!
GW: Meanwhile fans are rending their garments and wailing! I’d buy you a beer if I was there … at least!
DH: [Laughter] I’m not going to pretend that I’m not upset about it, because I am. But at the same time, you have two choices. You can either pick up and carry on, or you can wallow. And I’m not going to wallow about it.
God knows I get enough e-mails from people around the world who talk about Stargate and tell [me] how it’s helped them to move on from their various and sundry problems with their lives. I think the best thing to do is follow that example. It’s a good thing — you have to look at the good side of these things. Otherwise you’re stuck in the past the whole time.