Nathan Fillion’s career seems to come in two shades. On one side are the mainstream dramas which launched his career: One Life To Live, Desperate Housewives, and the short-lived Drive. On the other, he fronts fringe projects (most helmed by Joss Whedon) with small but powerfully loyal followings—Firefly, Serenity, and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. But regardless of the role, the Canadian-born actor always brings a commanding presence and the precision comic timing of the greatest vaudevillian performers; it’s doubtful the iconic Dr. Horrible line “The hammer is my penis” would have soared from less-capable hands. Lately, he’s starring in ABC’s Castle, playing an egomaniacal crime-fiction writer who tags along on homicide cases for creative inspiration. The show affords Fillion the opportunity for a few zingers, but more importantly, it’s an opportunity for him to play straight to his wheelhouse—for a mainstream audience, no less. The A.V. Club recently called Fillion during his flurry of a shooting schedule to talk about his turn as a lead, his exodus from soap operas, and Matt LeBlanc.
The A.V. Club: Castle is being called “The Nathan Fillion Project” all over the Internet. Were you always involved?
Nathan Fillion: What happened was, there was a list of pilots ABC was interested in producing, and I was weeding my way through. Nothing quite got me fired up. You want to do a project that’s potentially for seven years, you want it to be something that really lights you on fire. So I came to Castle, and I remember the night I read it, I was sitting with my girlfriend, waiting to meet some friends. We had some time on our hands, so I said, “Oh, I’ve got to read this pilot,” which was on my iPhone. I was about 15 pages into it, and I turned to her and said, “I’m going to start at the beginning, I’m going to read this pilot out loud to you, and you tell me if you don’t think it’s awesome.” And we had a great time. The two of us would take different parts, we’d do the scenes together and laugh.
AVC: Wow, Hollywood life is exciting.
NF: The producers and the creators were coming to meet me; I was working at the time, so I didn’t have time to go to their offices. So we had a little meeting in my trailer. I simply—and this was the first time I’ve ever done this—said, “Listen, I don’t know what I need to tell you, but I am this guy. I can do this part forward and backward. I know exactly what to do. I will not fail you. Stop looking. Just hire me, let’s move on.” I mean, I’m not sure how many people they saw for the role. I’ll ask them. But no, it certainly wasn’t a pilot that was written for me, specifically for me, by no means.
AVC: What about the character resonated with you so strongly?
NF: Well, somebody said to me recently, “What kind of show do you want to do?” And I said, “I don’t care, so long as I’m doing good stories and working with good people.” And then I did Desperate Housewives, and it was exactly that. It was good stories with good people, I made good friends. But I realized, “You know what? I come to this show and I sit around in a living room and I talk to people. ‘So, she going to lie to her again? I’ll back you up on that lie, no problem.’ And I go home.” And I realized that’s not what I want to do with my job. I want my job to include a little adventure, a little more of a heightened reality than what I’m actually living. And Castle has that. He gets this opportunity to tail these homicide detectives, and he’s driven by that. He’s a little immature, but he’s obviously loving life.
AVC: When did you get to the point in your career where you realized you wanted to seek out parts like that?
NF: I kind of found a niche for myself after Firefly. I found something that I enjoyed doing and that I did well, but as far as how I seek out a part, it’s always different. It’s always something that lights you on fire when you read it. It might be just one scene, it might be one line that defines the character for you. And you say “You know what, this one scene informs the entire—I love it, I want to do it.” There are no hard-and-fast rules written in stone.
AVC: So Firefly allowed you to be more selective?
NF: I don’t know if it let me become selective, and I think that people imagine that I have about six or seven scripts laid out in front of me and I go, “You know what, I think I’ll do sci-fi again, that’s what I’ll do.” That’s not how the process works. You go out, you audition, you have meetings, you try to convince people you’re the guy for the job. Firefly was my first lead role. Often I would audition for parts and people would say, “Yeah yeah yeah, Nathan’s really good, but we don’t know if he can carry a show.” But they weren’t willing to give me that chance until Joss Whedon came along and said, “You’re the guy, you’re the guy. You can do this.” He handed me the keys to the ship, and off I went.
AVC: What did you have to do to convince him you were a lead-type?
NF: I was doing a sitcom at a time—Two Guys, A Girl And A Pizza Place. 20th Century Fox was the production company, and they were kind enough to invite me to have what they call a holding deal. They said “We don’t have anything for you yet, but you hang tight and we’ll find something for you.” And they kind of put you on reserve, so you don’t have to really worry about a job or income at the moment. From that deal, I got a meeting with Joss Whedon. I remember going into this office with Amy McIntyre Britt [from casting]. There’s this other fellow in the corner, sitting on a little lower, lounge-y chair, purple sweater on. The sweater had a hole in it on the left side of his chest, and he had this orange scraggly hair and orange scraggly beard. Amy said, “Well I’ll just leave you two guys alone,” and she got up and left. I thought, “Who is this guy, and when is Joss Whedon going to get here?” And then the conversation starts, and I realize, “This is Joss Whedon.” I’d seen a photo of him, but he looked nothing like this guy. He was planning on playing a small part in Firefly, and we wound up not actually doing that, but he was getting prepped to be all scruffy for that role.
So the two of us sat down and we started chatting. And he’s a very easy conversationalist, we chatted for about a good 45 minutes about Firefly, about his journey in the industry, about how I got to where I am, and about work ethic. We had a very, very easy, very good conversation. And at the end of it he said, “All right, I’d like you to come in and read for Malcolm Reynolds.” And that’s how it went.
AVC: Sounds pretty simple.
NF: That was the first time we ever met. I think he was being forced into a bunch of meetings with people that had deals with 20th Century Fox. And he didn’t know who I was, but we had this good meeting. So I came in and I auditioned, and then he had me come back for a network screen test. That’s a terrible, frightening process. You sign a contract in quadruplicate, and it’s 30 pages long. And everything says “in perpetuity” and “17 years,” and has all this legal jargon on it, and you’ve got to press hard enough so it goes through. It raises the stakes. You just want to go in and do a good job on this audition, and you’re doing this legal stuff. It gets really spooky.
AVC: Within the industry, how familiar do people seem to be with your work on Firefly?
NF: I find that if I go to a casting office or a meeting of some kind, all it takes is for one person in that office to be a fan. If it’s Firefly, or if it’s Waitress, great. If it’s Drive, no problem. But all it takes is one person to be a fan in that office, and they get everybody riled up. [Excitable fan voice.] “Oh my God, it’s Nathan Fillion? I can’t believe it! Coming here, oh my God, what am I going to wear! Okay. Yeah. Oh my God, you have no idea. Okay. Just. When he gets here, don’t tell him I’m a big fan, okay, don’t tell him about that.” I find that it really raises the excitement level, so that when I arrive, it’s a very warm welcome. They say, “I know of your work, but boy, these people, they way they react when we say, ‘Nathan Fillion’s coming in,’ I can’t believe the reaction you get.” And I say, “Yeah, yeah, I get that a lot.”
AVC: Do you follow your following—the cult fans, the online chatter?
NF: I don’t spend a lot of time online. My mother’s really good at picking out if she sees a really great review, and she’ll forward it to me. She’s like my little Internet filter. It’s always nice to see something going up; if I want to find something on Nathan Fillion, I do know where to look, but I’ve got a nice little delivery system in my mom.
AVC: On your MySpace blog, right around the time Dr. Horrible came out, you wrote about how it was a great example of what happens when TV gives creative control to the people who are actually creative—in this case, Joss Whedon and his team. How do you reconcile those beliefs with working on a big network show like Castle?
NF: I don’t have any feelings that I feel need to be reconciled. We had a very interesting experience. You want to put out a TV show? If you have the money to do it on your own, by yourself, and you have a TV network, you can do it by yourself. But the nature of the beast is, art needs finance. That’s how this industry works. So until the Internet becomes our source of entertainment—and watch it, I believe it will—this is how things go. Your experiences will be many and varied—I’ve had experiences where the studio or network has to have their fingers in there and say, “We don’t get it, we don’t like it, change it to this, what if it was this, and now you have to—oh, but, you know what, we should be funnier or pull down on the funny, we should be a little more dramatic. More car chases. Why aren’t there any aliens?” You’ll get a lot of comments and you go, “Ugh. Just, you handle the network stuff and the numbers, let us handle the story.” Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog was a story about a guy who was unhappy with the way things were and said, “Power needs to be in different hands. There’s a problem with the system. I want to change that.” And that’s what Joss Whedon did with his project, he put the power in the hands of the storyteller. We didn’t have to answer to anybody. We did it exactly the way we wanted to do it. It was a very interesting experience. When I signed the contract, it was half a page long, and it was the most fair contract I’ve ever signed. It was generous. To a fault. It says, “Hey man, we all did this. We all did it together. And it belongs to all of us.” And how much more fair can you be?
AVC: What turned you on to comedy? You did short-form improv with Theatresports back in Alberta—
NF: Yes I did, I sure did. What turned me on to comedy was—well, first of all, I like being able to laugh, I like people who can make me laugh. And it’s been a real journey kind of discovering what that is. How do you make people laugh? But the foundation upon which I built my comedy church was what those guys taught me back in that little theater in Edmonton, Alberta.
AVC: How did you get involved with them?
NF: I went and saw a show, and they said, “We’re holding workshops. We’ll teach you how to play.” There were two workshops: a three-week one and a six-week one. I said, “Sign me up for the three weeks.” The guy said, “Why not six?” and I said, “‘Because I can’t afford it.” He said, “Sign up for the six, pay us for the three, we’ll call it even.” That’s the kind of family and the kind of artists that they were. I was delivered straight from their hands into national television—to New York to do a soap opera for three years.
AVC: What specifically did they teach you?
NF: I’ll tell you this: One of the things they taught us to try and steer away from is what they called “gagging,” which meant ending a scene on a big joke. Like, doing the “A-wocka-wocka-wocka!” to wrap it all up. It was always, “Don’t do that, it’s not high-quality, we’re looking for quality here.” But I could never help myself. I’d always see an opening for a gag, and I’d take it. Which has actually helped me out, because here we are on Castle, and we’ll be doing a scene, and the director will come and say, “Once you’ve finished your last line, just go nuts. See what happens. Say something. Wrap it up with a gag.” It’s the freest rein I’ve ever had on a television show; I keep pitching and swinging, they’re not all home runs, but once in a while you strike some comedy gold.
AVC: What do you find particularly funny nowadays?
NF: I’ll tell you this: I learned a great deal from watching Friends. When I started, Matt LeBlanc was my least favorite character, because he played dumb. And somewhere in there, he figured something out, and he started playing smart. And I realized, dumb people don’t know they’re dumb. When people try to make me laugh and they try to be funny, that’s when they lose me. I find a lot of comedy in honesty.
AVC: Going back to the soap opera: At the time, were you happy with where your career was headed?
NF: Well you’ve got to realize, I was four months away from graduating from the University of Alberta. I was going to be a high-school teacher, and I fell backward into that job on One Life To Live. They gave me a phone call and said “Hey, we found an old audition tape of yours from a year ago for some other project in Canada, and how would you like to audition for this?” Three weeks later, I’m living in New York. So it wasn’t really my plan at all to be on TV and to do those things. Sure, I wished it, but anything that happened to me after that point was like winning the lottery. I consider myself a lottery winner three times over.
AVC: What prompted you to eventually leave One Life To Live in pursuit of other parts?
NF: When you work on a soap opera, that’s three years of you working every day. There was no time to do anything other than the soap opera—you’re locked in. I do remember this: The fellow that played my uncle on the soap, he played the character Bo Buchanan. His name was Bob Woods. About two years into my contract, he said, “Come with me,” and sat me down in his dressing room. He cracked a beer, handed it to me, and said, “I’m going to tell you something.” And he proceeded to talk about how they were going to come to me and say, “Let’s renew your contract.” And he says, “I’m here to tell you, don’t do it. Pack up your things, move to Los Angeles. Live in a car, eat macaroni and bologna if you have to. But make a go of it in Los Angeles. If it doesn’t work out, these guys will always take you back. Daytime dramas are the golden handcuffs. They’re gold. You can make a lucrative career, but they are handcuffs. The longer you stay here, the harder it will be to get out.” Sure enough, three months later, I got a call to go upstairs and have a meeting about renegotiating my contract, about staying longer. And everything played out exactly the way he said it would. This is a guy who had been on the show 30 years by that time. He knew what was going on. So I followed his advice to the letter. And every time I go back to New York, I buy a nice bottle of scotch, I go to One Life To Live, and I present him with it and say, “Thank you, Bob Woods.”
I moved out to Los Angeles, and went for nearly nine months without working, thinking, “Boy, I really did enjoy being on that soap opera doing my craft every day, having a support system around me of all these other actors who are doing the same thing.” And there I was, looking for work every day.
AVC: Was it depressing?
NF: Oh my God. Someone said to me—an actress who did very well in soaps and then moved on and did very well elsewhere—“When you move to L.A. and don’t get these parts, never take it personally.” I didn’t know what she meant until nine months of being unemployed. Too tall, too old, too young, too this, too that. But I slowly came to realize that this job of being an actor, you spend most of your time looking for work. That is your job. Your job is auditioning. You spend very little of your time actually working. After a while, you just say, “All I want to do in this audition is just do the best I can do and leave the room with my dignity.” Which wasn’t easy.
AVC: In other interviews, you’ve referred to your preferred character type as the “not-so-hero.” What do you mean by that?
NF: I worked with an artist in London who said that our society has changed to such an extent that we need to change what we consider a hero to be. We need to change our conception of heroism. You can watch TV and watch the movies and—I mean, in real life, we don’t really have any Superman. We don’t have a guy who’s ultimately powerful, who can solve problems with his fists or a gun, and he’s always fantastic. That’s not reality. I’ve found a real comfort in the idea of a hero that has flaws, a hero that is real, an actual person. Not everybody is good all the time, that’s reality. Sometimes as a hero, or as the hero of the story, you have to make hard decisions. Firefly taught me that. Joss Whedon taught me a great deal about the hero that’s not quite a hero. He taught me about bad guys—bad guys don’t think that they’re bad guys, bad guys think that they’re heroes.
AVC: As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
NF: I came from a cold place, but I used to see Hollywood in my television—I’d see the palm trees, the warmth. And I just wanted to get inside that box.