Battlestar Galactica's James Callis

Battlestar Galactica's James Callis

To tackle the most complicated character on one of the most complicated shows on TV, James Callis used an old weapon: humor. Callis plays Gaius Baltar, the brilliant, cowardly, and possibly crazy scientist who was tricked into destroying practically the entire human race. While Baltar struggles with the guilt he feels and the friction he endures with his fellow survivors, he brings a sly wit to the job, making some of his most craven moments feel human. Callis came to the role after several years of film and television in Britain, including parts in Bridget Jones's Diary and its sequel, Bridget Jones: The Edge Of Reason. He spoke with The A.V. Club during production of Battlestar Galactica's final episodes, and discussed how he broke into acting, Baltar's religious beliefs, and what the whole cast thought when they learned the identity of the as-yet-unrevealed final Cylon.

The A.V. Club: You went to college at the University Of York and studied English, and then went on to study at the London Academy Of Music & Dramatic Art. How did you get involved in acting?

JC: I've been acting for years and years, at prep school—you know, school plays, that kind of thing. That was always very high on my agenda. I went to study English for two reasons. Principally because when I was in university, studying drama wasn't considered an option. You couldn't get a degree course for it. And so many plays and things that I was interested in landed themselves in a broader spectrum of literature.

From university, I tried to get into the profession almost immediately, and just got kind of kicked back in London, by lots of people saying, "Well, you know, we'll need to see you in something. And the easiest way for you to get seen in something is drama school. That is the best way to get an agent."

You know, film and television as a medium has only very recently begun to be taught at the great drama schools in the UK. When I was at drama school in the UK, I was there for two and a half years, and we did one week of television and film. It's right before you leave. It's like, "We've taught you Chekhov and Shakespeare, you are likely to be in a washing-up soap-liquid commercial."

AVC: When you got out of school, were you planning to do more TV and film?

JC: I was desperate to do more TV and film. Because I considered myself to be a theater creature. A theater animal. I was convinced that I was going to be onstage for the rest of my life. Because it's something I can really do. I thought I was pretty good at it, and it's kind of stupid, but I was concerned that people would go, "Oh yeah, he's very good onstage, I'm not sure he can do television."

AVC: How did you get the audition for Battlestar?

JC: I went to Los Angeles, because I have a manager, and—I can't remember when, but we met in London maybe six months or a year beforehand, and he said, "Listen, if you really want to get a job out of L.A., you really need to come." And I was like, "Well, can't I send a tape or something?" And he was like, "No, no, you need to come." [Laughs.] There wasn't very much going on in London about five years ago, and I just took a ticket on spec and went to Los Angeles. I think it was in my second week that I auditioned for Battlestar.

I got the script, and initially, I was not delighted that anybody could consider me to be the part of Baltar. And I was very "Oh gosh, I want to be in television, I want to be in something, but I don't know if I want to be in this."

I suppose I did play up, even in the very early auditions, the humor. At least I found it very funny. The bits that I was doing, or rehearsing for, were funny. He's caught in bed with a woman, there's another woman—I'm like, "That's hysterical."

Gaius is perhaps a very big reason why so many other things happened in the show, but in the miniseries, I think the directors, the writers, the powers that be very much had a picture of the whole, and the whole was a tragedy. And so this kind of little bit in the middle—me, this anomaly—I think initially people were slightly unsure of. It was like, "Yeah, I'm not sure it's supposed to be funny."

AVC: You said you were uncomfortable at first—was it because of the character, or the genre?

JC: I think both, to be honest. I did worry about being in a science-fiction show. The bits that I was reading, I felt were funny, and I felt the man was childish, [so] I really did ask initially, "Is this for kids?" [Laughs.] And the thing that came back immediately was like, "Hey, take a look at this whole thing again. This is definitely not for children. How can you think that?"

AVC: You start out with a pretty logical role in season one: You're a scientist, so you become the scientific expert for the fleet. And then as you go on, you become the vice-president, the president, a prisoner on the Cylon baseship, and Saddam Hussein. And now you're this kind of messiah figure. Do you think it's been an easy transition to each new role, or did any of them seem like a stretch? JC: The thing about transitions is that the closer you look to pinpoint something on an electron microscope, the more difficult it is to pinpoint. You can't find that moment when you became somebody else, because everything is in flux. So as it were, the torturous period where you are changing, you are transforming—I think that can be very hard on somebody's system. You don't necessarily realize that is what's happening. So have these transitions been easy? No, not necessarily. But they've been totally organic. [They're] the result of so many factors. And I think that some of the transitions have been extreme.

The trial [in season three] was perhaps the best thing that ever happened to him. It's all out in the open, you can't run away from it any more. Which is terribly helpful to him. I think the most important thing—and something I have been saying to the writers—is that if Gaius had the opportunity, he would kill himself. He doesn't want to live. We had some stuff written this season, and perhaps beforehand, "Well, you know, Baltar's the weasel, and he's gonna plead for his own life and everything—" and I just said, Listen, he's not in that place. He tried to kill himself in his cell. If somebody wants to take him out, fantastic. He's not about saving his own skin like that any more."

I don't know if you've seen this, but in the newspaper, did you read this thing about this guy in China? I think that there should be a Gaius Baltar Award for Moral Cowardice given out to people every year. And this man—it's just, seriously, reading it, I was like, "Christ, this guy is Gaius Baltar!" He's a schoolteacher. The earthquake hits. And he said, "Stay still, everybody, you'll be fine," and just ran! He ran for his life, without any of the kids who he's supposed to be looking after. And the miracle of it is that the earthquake didn't touch his school in the same way. He went back to the class, and they're all alive, thank God. And they were like, "But teacher, why did you run away?" And his replies are just extraordinary. It's like, "I'm not a brave man. I am a coward. And in situations like this, it's every man for himself. I don't really feel very guilty, because I didn't cause the earthquake, and quite frankly, if it had been my own mother sat next to me, I would have left her as well."

AVC: What is your take on the religion that Baltar preaches?

JC: On a personal note, I have difficulty with this as a performer. Because this season, I say one thing, and then I say something totally different. It's what I've been saying to the writers and the directors. "How do I say this?" For example, one moment, "There [are no gods]! It's all rubbish! They can't help you because they don't exist!" And then the next minute, "There is a God, and He's our salvation, He loves you." I'm like, "Which one of these is it?"

Then the writing staff and the directors come back to me and go, "But James, that's what all of these horseshit people talk about! One minute they're talking Latin, and then they change their mind! Just look at some of these people—" And the name that comes up again and again is Jim Jones. [But] Gaius is not Jim Jones.

To be honest, I don't believe it. I don't believe it as James Callis, and I don't believe that Gaius believes it either. Because he couldn't. And I think a lot of it comes out of, "Well, you've set yourself up on a dais, and you've got a microphone, now fucking have you got something to say?" And actually, he doesn't have something to say. He's constantly treading water with the most woolly—I mean, it's terribly woolly. And the thing about that is, the more you say about anything, the more explanation there is to an idea, the more complex an idea is, and the more it's not really going to be encapsulated by the thing you're talking about.

On a personal note, myself, I find religion—I can understand it, I can understand why we have it, as a kind of force on the planet. And I also at the same time think it's ludicrous. My Latin education teaches me that religion comes from religio, which means, "to bind." To bind with rope. And that's all it means. So whenever I hear somebody go, "I feel so religious right now!" I'm like, "Well, you're tying yourself up in knots, are you?" There's no spiritual connotation to that word whatsoever. And while it binds you to a rope, because it's about belonging, it alienates you to others. That can't be part of God's plan, if there is a God.

So I do find all of those things really tough, to be honest. Belief is everything when you're performing something. If you don't have the belief behind it, then that actually puts a shunt on the character. It's like, "Does the character believe this for a minute?"

AVC: Well, do you think he believes it? Is he really coming to believe that Head Six is the angel of God, that there's really something speaking to him?

JC: You know, I don't think he will ever believe that. On some level, I think Gaius thinks he's crazy. He can't believe that she's an angel, but doesn't know what that is. I think Gaius, like so many of us, like myself, wants to believe in something. You're stuck in a spaceship, and you've been there for four years, and you're just sitting here in a tin can, you would really hope that there was something else. And that sustained hope might actually keep you alive. Because depression is an illness. And if it gets too bad, then you're irrevocably damaged and there's nothing to live for, and there's nothing to hope for.

AVC: There's always been a mystical component to the show, and things that just can't be coincidences, affecting Baltar, Roslin, the whole fleet. There are definitely weird, unexplained things going on, and right now, it seems like the explanation is going to be supernatural.

JC: Yes, I think that everybody's going to be pleasantly surprised by the way things tie up. And I think that's got to be a question in people's minds, actually, right up until the end. No one sentence, and no one prose little paragraph is going to explain away so many things that have happened in our show. It works itself out, and there are conclusions, but they're open-ended. And the audience will get to decide.

AVC: A lot of things happening in the real world, in politics or the war on terror, find their way into the series. Do you think it's important that these dilemmas are portrayed here—that you guys effectively remade the trial of Saddam Hussein, for example?

JC: I think it's terribly important. Sorry to quote a boring Shakespeare, but we are holding a mirror up to nature. And that was one of the reasons for me having a beard and long hair [in season three], was like, "I want to look like the guy who's been taken out of his foxhole."

I think [the parallels] are brilliant and very, very clever, because—well, it's like looking at an argument in a slightly removed situation. And that then calls into question all of your own allegiances. Like in the real world, I think this. Now I watch this show, which is like the real world, and I don't think the same thing. That's going to have to make me think about the real world.

AVC: Do you think the show's attitude to current events is more experimental, or missionary? Is it more to say, "What if this happened?" Or do you think there are messages behind these stories?

JC: I think knowing [producers] Ron [Moore] and David [Eick], I would say it's a bit more academic. These guys are some of the smartest people I've ever had the good fortune to sit down with. And you know, if they're on a mission, the mission is to experiment. To play around with it. There's some phrase, I think it's in Chaucer, about how everything that's written is didactic. As soon as you write something down, as long as it's not a shopping list, it's some idea about the world. It's Michel de Montaigne writing his essays, it's Plato writing The Republic, it's Ron writing Battlestar. All of these things concern human beings, and somebody's idea about them. Everything that we write is to teach ourselves in some way to behave better, to think more, or to think differently. And if the thing you're doing doesn't actually address any of those, then maybe you are writing a shopping list.

AVC: Baltar is very intelligent, and strong-willed in a lot of ways. But he seems to be guided by some unseen thing that puts him in the right positions, makes some of the decisions for him, and saves his butt when he can't do it. In some sense, do you think he's a fool?

JC: I've certainly tried to play upon that, definitely. But the things that happen to him, the supernatural experiences—to his mind, he's talking to a blonde woman who appears in his head. I've pointed to this bit on the map, but it didn't feel correct, but then it turns out that it's right. So he doesn't feel touched by the hand of God. It just is like, it can't be anything else. It's a bit like being in The Truman Show. If I move left or right, it doesn't really matter.

But on another level… I think this was one of my problems with [science fiction]. It's like, everybody's all heroic, and "Press this button now," and, "I've got to go and do this." Everyone's quite determined. The baddies are determined, the goodies are determined. And I was like, "What if we have a character in this mix who's not determined at all?" And to bring up all of the things in somebody's personality that irk you, that get you. Rather than, as an actor, I want the audience to like me, I'm going to smile beautifully and I've got everybody's sympathy—what about showing the moments when somebody is unbelievably petty? Or really selfish? The faults, the little things, those are the things that interested me about playing the character.

AVC: Viewers right now are speculating about who will be the final Cylon. I know they didn't tell the cast until pretty near the end. Has it been a crazy guessing game with you guys, too?

JC: It has. Of course it has! Of course it has. And not that we've put bets on it or anything, but… all I can say is, shocking. Shocking. [We were] shocked, and excited. I can't really blow the surprise. I think it's fair to say that you know, the repercussions of this thing is like, it could be anybody.

AVC: What do you have planned next?

JC: I'm talking to two people about two films, [but] I never talk about what it is until I'm actually on the set and I've got the job, because otherwise—"Oh yeah, I'm going to be so busy," and then you're going to see me in McDonald's in two months.

Those films could be happening quite quickly. Otherwise, I don't have any long-term plans, but this show has been so amazing, and personally incredible for me. I really want to think hard about what I would do next, because I've worked with the most incredible people on the most incredible material. What is going to match this kind of a thing?

What would I like? Some very silly comedy where I don't have to think about anything, but it could be a lot of fun. And if it's not that, then I'll want to be involved in something where it's like, you're really dredged up to the neck in emotion, where it's as exciting as the premise of Battlestar.

But I think on that level as well, I've got to take a bit of a break from science fiction. As much as I've loved this stuff, [I'm ready for] a different century or a different time period as an actor, as an individual. Something that's, what's the word, something that's not involved with spaceships.

AVC: Something on Earth?

JC: I was going to say—if Galactica ever flipping lands and we do find a place to stay, either Gaius is going to be put out of his misery and shot before he gets there, or when we touch down on Earth, maybe he'll find an agent and get another job.