Though Alexis Denisof has worked extensively in film, television, and theater, he’s best known as a member of Joss Whedon’s acting troupe. Denisof first popped up in a Whedon production in the third season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer as a young watcher named Wesley. The character, originally intended for a short guest arc, stuck around and expanded as the season went on, then transferred over to the Buffy spinoff Angel, where he evolved from the ineffectual naïf of Buffy to a dark-hearted demon hunter destroyed by lost loves, all in impressively short order. Since then, he’s appeared in other Whedon projects, including Dollhouse, The Avengers, and the upcoming Shakespeare adaptation Much Ado About Nothing, where he’ll play one of the romantic leads, along with former Angel love interest Amy Acker. Denisof has also appeared in a variety of other TV series, British and American, including How I Met Your Mother and Private Practice, as well as several films. His newest project is the web series H+, the story of a technology (called H+) that is embedded in the brain and gives people the Internet connectivity right in their heads—until a virus is unleashed through the system and kills a third of the population. Denisof recently talked to The A.V. Club about what he likes about smaller-scale filmmaking, Wesley’s character evolution, and whether he has any accents he hasn’t used yet.
The A.V. Club: Web series are just coming into their own as a storytelling format. What surprised you the most about working in that medium?
Alexis Denisof: I love the way this format is being offered. Yes, it is in shorter pieces. Each piece stands up in its own right and is compelling on its own terms, but it also fits together into a larger story that is incredibly powerful. I also really like the interactive aspect, where the viewer can be the editor of the storyline: This series will allow the viewer to watch it in script order, watch it in a time chronology, watch it through the eyes of one character or one storyline, or choose a location and see how the story unfolds in that place, and I think that’s really cool.
If you look at fan sites, people are always wanting to take scenes or pieces of scenes and weave things together in their own way, and this will offer that in really easy packages you can stitch together. I think you can even work the credits in in your own way if you want, then offer this story back out into the world in another way.
AVC: Did you have to shift your performance at all to deal with all those different ways of watching the show?
AD: I think in the big strokes, it was the same. I would say there was a little adjustment in knowing these scenes could potentially be seen on their own, out of context of the larger storyline. I did feel that the emphasis, then, is making each scene have some charge, in and of itself, so it holds the viewer, and then it remains in your mind for later when you come back to that storyline, because it spans such a large timeframe and crosses so many international boundaries and so many people, you want to put a lot into the pieces you have, so those are clear.
AVC: This and Dollhouse both deal with people getting things put in their heads. What do you think is appealing about a story of people mucking around with their brains?
AD: I think we’re all fascinated and a little mystified by how the brain works. One of the most mysterious of the physical sciences is neurological science. We’re still having new breakthroughs in that field that are redefining how the neurons in the brain work. So that’s one thing.
The other thing, is we’re all incredibly excited by and reliant on technology now. I think most people in the developed world would admit to carrying some sort of handheld device, whether it’s a laptop or a cell phone, at all times. So this series takes that one step further and suggests that rather than having that device in your hand, it’s now implanted in your brain, so you are, in fact, wired 24/7. I think that is a very comprehensible, approachable place to start with a story, because we’re close to that.
AVC: Do you think that sort of technology, if it existed, is something you would be interested in?
AD: I think if you watch this series, it’s going to frighten you a little, but it’s also going to fascinate you a little. We really explore how it would affect your everyday life, having this ability. The ability to multitask on this level, simply through the layers of vision in your eye, that you could be doing as many things at the same time as you want. You could be at work, but watching the basketball game and also talking to your kid at school. You can be monitoring their movement, your health can be monitored, your diet, your location, traffic, news. It’s all happening, all at the same time, so the question is: Can your brain actually keep up with what this technology is capable of?
On the other hand, if we do become reliant on this technology, as the series suggests, then the series also offers some of the problems that will arise as a result of that. Specifically, the virus that eliminates 33 percent of the population.
AVC: There are post-apocalyptic aspects of this, and there is a lot of post-apocalyptic storytelling out there right now. What do you think sets this apart?
AD: I would say the intimacy, the human touch, that this series has. It gives you the scope and horror of an event, but it’s felt very much by specific people. We see several storylines follow them through before, during, and after the event, and see how they are affected by it, emotionally, intellectually, physically, so I think that’s what sets this apart: We really take the time to look at what that means.
Post-apocalyptic can be a term that’s just thrown out there, and your mind immediately goes to Mad Max or something. And while it’s true that the story allows for some small militia groups, which might be the case, it’s not specifically a lunatic-fringe experiment in a world where everything has broken down. We’re looking at all sorts of ways in which the people who survived that event are affected.
AVC: This and Much Ado About Nothing were both shot on a smaller scale. What appeals to you about shooting on that scale?
AD: I think with the smaller-scale projects, the burden for success falls more squarely on the shoulders of the actors and the director and the script. To me, those three things are what make a project viable, and it’s what makes something worthwhile, and it’s also where things fall short. For me, if the script isn’t good, or the performances aren’t good, or something has been poorly directed, then no amount of special effects is going to make up for that fact. I know that’s not true for everybody, but that’s how I feel.
When I read a script I am excited about, I immediately want to be a part of it, and that’s the case with H+. If you then add in actors, directors, or a role you want to play, it becomes even more exciting. That was the case both with H+ and Much Ado About Nothing. I really liked the character in H+. He’s a sort of loveable Irish writer, and we follow a very intimate aspect of a relationship in which H+ is an opportunity for helping the relationship, but also an opportunity for destroying it. We look at that in a pretty personal, human way.
Much Ado About Nothing was also shot on a low budget and shot quickly, and so again, you need to bring it on the day and be ready to have the thing live or die based on what you and your fellow actors and the few people that are working on this with you, directors and crew, [do]. It really makes a tight-knit group, and I like that, feeling like it’s us against the world. I think people rise to the occasion in those environments.
I’ve got nothing against big-budget values. I mean, I was very proud of The Avengers, the part that I played in it, albeit a small one. It was thrilling to be part of it. But it’s so huge that you can never really wrap your mind around it. I don’t think anybody in that movie had a feel for the whole thing that’s being attempted there, because there are things that go on for months before the movie is made, and there are things that go on for months and years after that have nothing to do with your performance, that are just sound editing, CGI work. All of the layers that go into making that kind of product are so different. I think as a performer, you get a little bit more of that feeling of, “It’s up to me to walk out there on the day and deliver my performance and hope that carries the piece.”
AVC: On Much Ado, you were working with Amy Acker again in a sort of will-they/won’t-they type of relationship. Was that an easy chemistry to fall back into?
AD: Oh yeah. Of course, I’m always happy and honored to share screen time with Amy Acker. She’s a friend. I’m a huge admirer of her work. I just love being her acting partner. She’s terrific.
AVC: On Angel and Buffy, Wesley shifted over the course of those series. How much of that were you aware of when you started work on either series?
AD: The truth is, at the outset, there was no concept of the journey for this character. You may or may not recall that he started as a guest on Buffy, and in fact, that contract was, I think, one or two episodes at most, with no promise of going beyond. But the character struck a chord, and we were having fun with it, and Joss and I hit it off working together, and it was fitting into the world of Buffy in a nice way, as a counterpoint to Giles. So there was a lot of room for that character to be explored in that world.
And then Angel was taking off in the summer that season three of Buffy wrapped, and I think it was just a lucky chance that the showrunners, David Greenwalt and Joss, suddenly saw a fit for Wesley over there. Once that was the case, we did talk about retooling the character: We needed to create a little bit of time for the character between Buffy and Angel, so he could evolve a little before and lay in some character notes right off the bat with Angel that we could come back and explore later in deeper and deeper ways. I think that’s how it worked with Wesley; it was kind of a spiral that was moving in both directions, so that he was evolving down and up at the same time.
AVC: Is there room for another season or series of H+ at the end of this first group of episodes, or is it a complete story that’s over?
AD: Yes to both. It’s a super-compelling story that gives you a satisfying conclusion, but it also leaves the door open, and the character threads are fantastically exciting. There’s lots to explore if another season happens, which in my opinion, it should. It’s worth it.
AVC: Between this and Wesley, you’ve done a lot of accent work. Is there an accent you really wish you could break out for something, that you have just waiting in store?
AD: Let’s see, H+ was my Irish. Wesley was my English, educated English. I’ve done some American. Oh, I had my eastern European. I’ve done that villain. What’s left? Oh, I did alien. We’ve had alien accent. So no, I think I’ve tapped them all.