This past January saw the announcement of numerous cast members who will feature in Stargate Universe, the third television series based on the 1994 hit film! Among the names was 27-year-old Brian J. Smith, selected to play Lt. Matthew Scott in the new show.
GateWorld’s David Read got on the telephone with Brian for a unique interview. Our mission was not to get any insider scoop on the upcoming TV series, but to get to know the actor before he gets to know his character. The result is an interesting insight into one of Stargate‘s future faces.
Brian tells us about growing up in Texas, living in the Big Apple, and the excitement of getting cast in Universe. We also discuss fans loyal to Stargate Atlantis, and get his feelings about working with the likes of Robert Carlyle.
GateWorld’s interview with Brian J. Smith runs about 35 minutes. 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.
GateWorld: So you are in New York right now!
Brian J. Smith In New York, yeah. I’ve been here for five and a half years. I moved up here to start school up at Julliard. That was four years ago. Graduated about a year and a half ago and it’s been insane. This place is crazy.
I grew up in Texas. We had three acres of land and the miniature horses and the ATVs and mini-bikes and riding lawnmowers. Before you know it I’m living in the Big Apple. It just doesn’t make any sense.
GW: I didn’t think anyone in Texas had under ten acres of land. I grew up on two and a half and I’m from St. Louis!
BJS: Yeah! Well we actually grew up in a part — it’s just north of Dallas, a place called Lucas. It was probably about 15 minutes away from a lake. Of course large parts of Dallas now are very, very suburban. Even more so since I grew up there. You would just watch whole fields just get eaten up with housing development.
GW: Don’t you hate that? Don’t you feel like you’re cutting out a part of your soul?
BJS: Yeah, it’s absolutely depressing. Three acres was cool to have. Everyone around us had land and it was a really cool way to live. It was nice.
GW: Did you always want to be an actor and move to New York?
BJS: I don’t know, I just wanted to do something cool. I loved movies when I was a kid. Really more than anything I think when I was in High School I just wanted to be a part of a group — part of something. I didn’t really fit into any of the roving cliques. There was this crazy theatre group. They always seem to get along. [I thought] It’d just be neat.
I auditioned for a show when I was a sophomore in High School and got in. I’m the kind of person, I don’t just want to do something. I kind of want to do it really well. I started reading up on Stanislavski. I didn’t know how to act so I just figured, “There’s got to be a book out there that tells you how to do it.”
I mean, someone teaches you how to throw a football. Someone teaches you how to skate. There’s got to be some kind of book out there, or a coach, that teaches you how to act well.
So I found this book by Stanislavski, “To the Actor.” That really set off a fascination I had with good acting technique. I think it started in High School. I became really fascinated with how actors work, and how good acting happens. That was something that became kind of an obsession with me, I think, when I was in High School.
GW: Wow. OK. How long ago was “Come Back, Little Sheba?”
BJS: “Come Back, Little Sheba” was exactly a year ago. That was the past winter. I got out of school, did an off-Broadway show, then I did two independent films in a row, and then I came back from New Mexico where I was shooting this film, “War Boys.” Kevin Anderson and Zoe Kazan. That was great. It was a year ago. It was a really magical time.
GW: I just got word that you were on Law and Order.
BJS: Yeah! Actually I just shot it a week ago for three days. Oh, God, I am so excited about this character I can’t even tell you.
GW: David Sherman. Or Derek Sherman!
BJS: Yeah, Derek Sherman! That’s right. Where’d you get that from?
GW: Uh, [reads] “I just got an email from a gal in the Law and Order production office with info on his upcoming guest spot he just filmed. Episode, ‘Crime Busters,’ Character, ‘David Sherman.’ ‘Derek Sherman!’ What is it with me??
We know everything, Brian! Just get used to it. We got forwarded that from the production office.
BJS: Oh, that’s awesome. That’s awesome. I think it’s going to be a cool thing because that’s going to air probably in March. We don’t have the exact air dates yet. they’re actually still filming the episode. I think they wrap on it today or tomorrow. I think that’s going to be a really cool thing for people to see me do because he could not be more opposite from Lieutenant Matthew Scott. He’s incredibly tortured, very bad character. So fun to play.
GW: OK great. Well we’ll definitely have to take a look at that. I’ve been reading online, and people have associated you with phrases like, “The best talent to come out since ‘when,'” or “When he hits the big time I’ll remember Brian Smith because I saw him when he did ‘this.'”
BJS: Are you serious? God.
GW: I have not kept it a secret that I think that Stargate needs a re-infusion of really good acting. Not just faces, but really good actors. So I think it’s important that we get people in who can really mop up the floor.
BJS: Well I hope the proof is in the pudding! Every project you start — and it doesn’t matter — I’m serious, I think any actor will confirm this. It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing a McDonald’s commercial or off-off-off Broadway play, or a Broadway play, or a TV series.
I think you start every single project with an overwhelming sense — maybe this is just me, I don’t know — an overwhelming sense of not fear, but it’s an emotion that’s very similar to fear. It feeds you and it also intimidates you at the same time.
I think some of that, too, is this idea is starting to bubble up. You’re starting to become passionate about the character. I think the more you become passionate about the project the more the anxiety rises because you want to meet the level of the potential that’s there. At least that you feel or that you sense in the character.
GW: Well that’s got to be terrifying when you receive a script to ask yourself “Do I have what it takes to service this character to the potential that I see on the script?” I can’t imagine going through something like that! At some point you just have to give it up to whatever power and say “I can do this. That’s why they hired me.”
BJS: Yeah! Well the best way to begin is just to begin. You show up on set the first day and you shoot a scene. You do a set up, you do your coverage, their coverage. You go bit by bit, moment to moment, scene by scene, episode by episode, and it just builds on itself.
That’s the great thing about TV and film. It allows you to work in small little chunks. You don’t have to present the whole thing in perfection the first time. You can loosen up. You can suck for a couple takes. [Laughter]
Ideally you don’t want to suck at all, and you hope they don’t use those sucky takes in the editing room, but you’ve got the opportunity to breathe and loosen up a little bit.
Over the course of three takes you can definitely get into the zone where you’re not even thinking about it and something comes out of you, a look or an inflection or a movement or something that you couldn’t have planned. And that’s what’s so cool about TV.
GW: I bet you’re really looking forward to that first read-through, then, trying to figure out where you’re going to find yourself. Not just on the page but in your room.
BJS: And that’s always one of my most favorite moments. It’s one of the moments when I’m least on myself. You know what I mean? I don’t know if that makes any sense. For the first time you’re not dealing with something on a page. You’re actually in a room with other human begins.
You’re starting to see what they look like. You’re starting to see … and I’m talking to the character. He’s a little stronger than I thought he was, this Colonel Young. How do I adapt to him? How do I find the best way to influence him or get done what I need to get done with him in my way?
It’s such an exciting time because you start getting yourself in relation to other people, and you realize that it’s collaborative. The whole project does not hinge on your performance. This is a group and this is a team, and you’re part of a team. And that’s incredibly freeing and exciting. It’s my favorite part of being an actor.
GW: Well yeah! I mean sometimes it is a solo, but most of the time you are working as an ensemble, depending on the episode, depending on the scene. S yeah, it’s not all you! [Laughter] That would have to be freeing.
BJS: I had a teacher at school, and her thing was just a phrase that I’ll never forget. “It’s never about you.” Not just when you’re acting. Not just when you’re in the scene. As far as your ego is concerned when you’re working on a project and you’re tired or you’d rather play Rock Band.
You have to realize it’s not about you. You’re in a unit. You’ve got to carry your weight and other people are going to carry your weight, too. It’s not about you. You sacrifice yourself so that other people can be as good as they can be.
GW: How did this audition process come about? You told me some of it beforehand but let’s hear it again. Did you send in a tape? Were you in front of a casting director? How did this come about?
BJS: My agent and my manager both have a really good relationship with this guy, Paul Weber, I’m pretty sure he was responsible for helping find the series regulars. They have a really good relationship with him. They got a cast breakdown and decided “Hey, let’s put Brian on tape. He might be good for,” at the time, I believe the character was Nash.
So we put him on tape, and I think there’s even some sides form a Stargate Atlantis script because they didn’t have the complete script yet. I don’t even know what characters they were. But they had us read a scene from there. I’m going about my business.
I think at that point I had just finished a show here in New York called “Three Changes.” It was a Nicky Silver play which was such a trip. He’s, like, my favorite writer. And at this time I was bar-tending. I was like, “Oh, jeez, what’s coming up next? There’s nothing on the horizon.” And we started getting some nibbles from Paul. Paul was like, “He’s right for this role. He’s great.” So he’d send me more scenes. We’d put those on tape, and send it back.
The producers were “Wow, cool.” And then before you knew it I was on a plane my way out to LA for the screen test, and the rest is history! [Laughter]
GW: You got the call? How long did it take for them to turn around? How many auditions did you have to go through?
BJS: It was two or three tapings up to my agent’s office and then just the one screen test up in LA.
GW: Oh wow. That’s fantastic.
BJS: And it was great! You walk in the room and it’s, like, this office. And there had to have been a dozen people there. I think Rob Cooper was there. I know Rob Cooper was there. Brad Wright was there as well.
Robert Carlyle was there. I get chills when I just consider getting to do a scene with him. I am so in awe of him as an actor. I think he’s one of the most talented guys in the business. What a treat for me to get to work with him.
But anyway, you do the screen test and I believe I did it and it went really well and the casting director came back out and said, “They want to see you one more time.” Went in and did the scenes again, and that was it. I was on my way back home a couple days later and then we got the great news.
My poor mom, oh man, she was calling me every five minutes. I could hear the nails grinding beneath her teeth over the phone because she was just so nervous and excited. I mean, this is a big deal for me. Not only is it a great concept — the show itself is a great concept and a great project to get to work on.
You know, you’re talking about a kid here who’s just been doing the off-Broadway New York thing for a year and a half and just going week to week. This is one of those moments that they talk about in your career.
GW: Oh, yeah it’s a complete life change!
BJS: It’s a life-change. It’s a life-change, and I’m still walking around in kind of a daze. I’m so grateful and so happy, but at the same time there’s a lot of work to do and you can’t let this get to your head. This is going to be a lot of work which, to me, is the best part.
GW: When are you heading out?
BJS: I’m going to head out a week from Friday [January 30]. I’m going to move into my apartment, and just kind of walk around the city for a couple days, get my bearings. We have a couple weeks of screen tests, looking at makeup. Looking at hair. Looking at the costumes. Trying at some point doing some rehearsals and playing around with some shots and trying to get a feel for how this thing is going to live shot to shot and moment to moment, which from what I understand, is going to be very different.
GW: Now had you seen any Stargate before this casting?
BJS: I’d seen a couple episodes of Stargate and that’s it. They’re actually going to ship me — I’m waiting for it to get here, actually — the Stargate movies. I think Continuum …
GW: … OK, and Ark of Truth.
BJS: And Ark of Truth. I want to see what the world is. I need to know exactly what SGC is. Who these people are, how they’re trained. What kind of weapons they use. What the uniforms are. That’s all really important to me. So becoming more familiar with the franchise is going to be part of the research for the role.
GW: Have you gotten in touch with any of your fellow actors yet?
BJS: No, not yet. I think they’re arranging a big get-together when we show up that first week there. I think we’re all going to go out for dinner and just get to see each other and be in a room together for the first time which is really such a cool experience.
GW: Well, yeah! You’re getting the first vibes as to who’s going to click with what. Obviously the writers are all looking for cues because that’s going to inform later episodes and future seasons. You’re being watched!
BJS: I love that. Hey, I don’t mind being under the microscope. [Laughter] If it’s for the good of the show use me. Use me!
GW: Well you’re on stage! How much more of a microscope can you have? Stage is for people who enjoy performing and enjoy being out there.
BJS: It is! I mean, talk about walking a tightrope. Being on stage is … It’s crazy being a theater actor because you have so much control. Just based on what I do or how I react you’re able to give focus or take focus. Your mind is so much more active on stage. Not that you’re not active in speaking when you’re on TV or film. It’s so funny so many of things you think about as an actor on stage are actually being taken care of for you by the camera. Just the presence of a frame does a lot of the work for you.
GW: Yeah. It doesn’t matter what you do — it all comes down to how the editor cuts it together. You may have made a moment and created a sequence of expression but if the editor doesn’t recognize it and plug it in you’re screwed. He may go with some other different direction.
BJS: Totally. Or they may even take a reaction shot. You might have been reaction to a whole different line and it just worked better for that moment. So I find that really exciting as an actor because you kind of get to loosen up a little bit. You’re always at performance energy but you give the work away a lot more. There’s a little more freedom, I think. I’m really jazzed about that.
GW: The franchise aspect, the entity that is Stargate, does that spook you at all or are you just going to jump into the water and get swept away?
BJS: Ignorance is bliss. [Laughter] At this point ignorance is bliss! The more I hear I’m starting to understand how amazing and passionate the fans are, and at the same time I am aware of the fact that we’re hot on the heels of a show that a lot of people liked that was cancelled.
I can’t let it get to me because when the director calls “Action,” it just doesn’t help. It really doesn’t help. I’m sure I’ll learn a lot more about it but the most important thing really is just doing good work.
I think if the work is good and if we’re telling a great story in a way that’s got a lot of integrity I think that people will watch and appreciate what we’re trying to do. If they’re so upset about a show being cancelled that they can’t watch it we couldn’t have reached those people anyway.
GW: You can’t do anything about that. And to Atlantis‘s credit it is not done. It’s got DVD movies. So always keep that in mind.
BJS: Absolutely! Absolutely. Jeez, we might be talking five years form now. Stargate Universe is getting cancelled. [Laughter] Look, that’s the way this business is. That’s the life we all lead as actors. I’m glad that those Atlantis actors all have a great job to go to. They can get to shoot those films.
For me I completely empathize, though, because again, as a theater actor you’re hoping week to week that that check is coming in. You hear one week that you don’t get to show up to work the next week. It’s a devastating, devastating piece of news especially when you’re relying on that paycheck to pay your rent. I do understand. This is a brutal, brutal business. But that’s part of why we do it. Because it keeps it exciting.
GW: Tat’s exactly right. I’ve talked with a number of actors. I’ve done over a hundred interviews in this particular franchise. There are some actors who enjoy not knowing what’s coming and not knowing from week to week, and then there are producers who said “I tried acting and that’s why I’m a producer now. Because I couldn’t stand not knowing.”
BJS: Yeah! It’s all that uncertainty. The payoff is the good moments are really, really great. The payoff is really amazing. But you also sacrifice a little bit. The uncertainty can be very, very stressful. I’m not the kind of person who can work in an office. I couldn’t even bartend. I was a terrible bartender because I just got bored doing the same thing for six hours.
GW: Well you won’t get bored on set! That’s for sure.
BJS: Bring it on!
GW: I know a lot of people say that when they do series television they have to put your life on hold. It absolutely sucks you up. It sucks up every bit of time that you have.
BJS: Yeah. Well, I’m in the time of my life right now where everything I’ve got is going into — not just into my career, per se, but doing the things I need to do to grow as an actor.
I think something I wanted to do was to spend as much time as I possibly could in front of a camera, in front of a crew, on set. On a TV or a film set. A whole new great set of skills and I think it’s kind of the last company experience we have.
We don’t really have theater companies anymore. This is an opportunity to really be part of an ensemble for hopefully a couple of years. And you grow more as an actor in those circumstances. That’s the most exciting part of this whole thing for me. Just the possibility of the growth.
GW: Good for you. Yeah, exactly. I mean, we’re young. We haven’t had to make that many compromises in our lives — yet. So put life on hold and let’s do something extraordinary for a couple of years.
BJS: The only thing is I really wish I could get a dog. [Laughter] I really, really, really … We grew up with dogs and I don’t know how I’ve gone the past six years of my life without a dog.
GW: You can get a dog, Brian.
BJS: Maybe I could. I don’t know. But the thing is, too, coming back to New York when the year’s up. I don’t know! It’s definitely something to think about and I’m sure I’m going to get up there and get really tempted.
GW: Torri Higginson, who played Dr. Elizabeth Weir on Atlantis for years, her dog was around so much they made it a character on a show.
BJS: OK. I think you pushed me. You definitely pushed me over the edge! Oh, dammit. OK. OK. You know what? I have no excuses anymore.
I’m thinking about a beagle. The thing is they bark a lot. I’m kind of caught between a beagle and a Yorkie. Oh, shoot, there was another kind out there. Ideally I would get a golden retriever. That’s my dream dog. Maybe if we go into a second season maybe that will be my treat for myself.
Oh my God. If my landlords complain I’m just going to blame it on David Read! [Laughter]
GW: That’s right! Are you going to a place that allows pets?
BJS: That’s a good point. In New York I could sneak it in. I know there are other people that have dogs here in my building which is, like, a thousand years old. And in Vancouver, we could work it out!
I’m really excited about the Sky Train.
GW: Yes. I rode on it once. It is crazy. You like it now, but when you get to set and you realize that it goes over every five minutes you’re going to be giving the SkyTrain the finger.
BJS: Is it loud?
GW: I cannot tell you how many interviews I have held in the lunch tent outside where we have to pause as the SkyTrain trundles over and then we go back into the piece.
BJS: You serious? The place I’m staying at is just a couple blocks away from the SkyTrain. I was hoping for the first couple months, I was going to hold off on getting a car so I can take the SkyTrain into work. Now, with my dog in my lap. Do they let dogs on the SkyTrain?
GW: I don’t know! You’re going to have to go online and check that out.
BJS: I’ve heard there is a really good paintball team up in Vancouver. I was talking to Tanya [Stargate secretary] and she was saying there’s amazing paintball fields about 20 minutes right outside the city.
GW: Are you a big player?
BJS: I was shooting a film in New Mexico and every second I could get away I was up there in one of those paintball fields either with the crew or by myself. Love it.
GW: Cool! Do you have a whole set of armor, your own gun and everything?
BJS: No, I just rented it when I went there, but maybe I’ll get some of my own! Maybe what they can do is the costume department can make me a Stargate uniform to play paintball!
GW: I was thinking more along the lines of you start your own league on the back lot.
BJS: Or something like that! [Laughter]
GW: On the effects studio, you know?
BJS: We’ll just have to watch out for the dogs!
GW: That’s exactly right. [Laughter] So we were talking earlier, you said you got the script and you mentioned some impressions from reading the script. Reiterate that, please.
BJS: I was perfectly content here in New York. It’s hard. New York is not an easy place, don’t get me wrong. But I kind of liked my life. I was doing off-Broadway shows working with new writers on exciting new American plays. Some classic American plays. Some classic American plays.
I was like, “This is what I’m supposed to be doing as an actor. I feel really comfortable and satisfied doing this.” And then my agent was like, “Look, we’ve got this script from a sci-fi show. We want to put you on tape for it. We think you’re great for the role.” Initially there was some reservation. I don’t watch TV, which is kind of a shameful thing to say as an actor.
GW: No it’s not. You’re in front of the camera. You’re not sitting down watching the television.
BJS: OK, good point. I’ll take that. You win! Again, I got the TV — I’ve got my 18-inch zenith from 1998 with the foil on the tips. [Laughter] I had never seen anything on the SCI FI network before. I had an idea in my head of what a sci fi show was and I was immediately like, “No I’m not interested.” And my agent was like, and my manager too, they’re like, “Read the script. Read the script.”
GW: Yeah, put your nerd inhibitions aside and watch this.
BJS: Well there is my inner nerd. I was a huge, huge Trekkie. My dad worked at the Plano Texas Convention Center. He still works there. And they would have the big Star Trek conventions for North Texas.
GW: Sweet. So you would go? Did you get free tickets?
BJS: I would go! He would take me behind the scenes. There was Geordi. There was Worf. There was Data. There was Jean-Luc Picard. [Laughter]
GW: Patrick Stewart. Engage!
BJS: I got to meet ’em all! Yeah, I was deep into it! That was my inner nerd growing up. I did hide it from all my friends in High School. Not High School. This was middle school. I think I was 12, 13. Around High School I just got too interested in girls to even care about all the other stuff. I was a major Trekkie. And I think my favorite characters were the Romulans.
GW: Oh, really? Pointed ears.
BJS: Yeah, they were best. But anyway, where was I? I was talking about the script.
My agent was like, “Read the script. Just read it, trust me on this.” Again, my agent’s a guy who reads hundreds of scripts a month, if not a week. He’s very, very knowledgeable about the business. My manager’s the same thing. These are two very business, industry-savvy guys. “Read the script,” they were telling me.
“OK.” And I read the script and I called them right afterwards. “Yeah, I want to do this. I definitely want to do this.”
My God, it was so funny. I’ve read four episodes into the season so far. Some of them are writer’s drafts. They’re going to change. But the first time I read them all through I cried. I know that sounds really dorky and silly but it was so exciting to read that. And this was after I got cast.
It was so exciting to read that and go, “My God. I’m going to get to say those words. I’m going to get to be on that ship. I’m going to be in those situations. It was so, so exciting. And I am so impressed at the writers with what they’ve been able to do with all these characters.
And even with Matthew Scott. There’s some definite curveballs in there. He was not who I thought he was initially. I think he’s a real special character. He’s really starting to mean a lot to me.
GW: You said earlier how surprised you were at how well-written the story was.
BJS: Well dialogue too. Not just the story. Again, the plotting of it. I have no idea how these people get in a room and they’re able to juggle different plot lines. How they’re able to set things up in a way that it’s going to work four, five six, a hundred episodes down the line.
The concept itself allows for an incredible amount of longevity and it’s also just exciting. It’s the kind of thing you want to watch. And also the people they put in there, none of them are heroes. They’ve all got flaws. They’ve all got something that they’re up against.
There aren’t going to be a bunch of people who, “Oh, this was tense for a little bit but we took care of it.” In every episode for every mistake is made there’s a price. And I think that TV loses that sometimes. The central characters are heroes and they overcome every obstacle. Life isn’t like that and frankly I’m not interested.
GW: No! Yes, I want to see something fantastical but I also want to see something that makes sense.
BJS: That makes sense. And that’s how characters grab you. When you’re able to see yourself in these people. And I think everyone’s going to see themselves in at least one of these characters. Maybe see themselves in combinations of these characters. But there are repercussions and mistakes are made and people pay a price.
I think that’s huge. I think for me as an actor that’s huge. Otherwise there’s no stakes. If you go into every single situation knowing you’re going to prevail then why bother?
GW: What’s the journey work? Why take it?
BJS: Yeah. That’s why it’s so exciting to watch someone in a circus on a high wire. Are they going to fall? “Oh my God, they almost fell.” You know? Because the risk is real. The risk is present.
I think that’s why more people would rather watch sports then they would scripted television.
GW: Spontaneity, you mean?
BJS: Spontaneity comes form a human being dealing with a constant crisis that requires their full attention. That’s definitely present, I think, in the writing which is such a gift. It’s great.
GW: Awesome. Well like I told you earlier I was certainly cautiously optimistic about this new series but I am honestly looking more forward to Universe than I was before this call.
So that is a gift that you have given me and I appreciate that. As a long-term Stargate fan I think it’s important to be re-energized every once in a while. You go along and you say, “Well, when are they going to do something new here?”
“We’ve run and gunned how many times through this corridor how many times before? We’ve had these conversations with these characters how many times? I want to switch it off. I want to find something else.” And I think Universe is going to be that something else.
BJS: Yes. I think you’re right. And it’s still going to be Stargate. This is not going to suddenly turn into a different show. You’ve still got Brad and Rob at the helm. you’ve still got people like Joe [Mallozzi] writing for the series.
I think the difference is they’re challenged. They’re re-energized. They’re doing something that’s new. And you know what? That’s when some of the best work happens. You’re really challenging yourself. I think that tension’s going to really create some great work.