Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: It’s a familiar story within the fraternity of actors who’ve been fortunate enough to secure a series-regular role within the Star Trek universe, but Alexander Siddig spent a significant chunk of his career trying to convince Hollywood that there’s more to him than the seven seasons he spent playing Dr. Julian Bashir on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. After working alongside George Clooney in the 2005 film Syriana, however, Siddig’s star began to rise (no pun intended), resulting in a number of high-profile roles, including a several-episode arc on 24 and, more recently, a turn on Game Of Thrones. Currently, Siddig can be seen in the new miniseries Tut, airing on Spike.
Alexander Siddig: They came to me for the role, actually, and… I mean, I’m surprised. [Laughs.] It’s always lovely when someone actually comes to you! But I was doing a play in London and I couldn’t audition. And they were, like, “Can you, please?” Because they always want you to audition. And I just couldn’t. I was, like, “We just don’t have time!” So eventually they went, “Oh, come on, just do it anyway,” which was great.
I was immediately very excited, because it was a period that I’ve always been fascinated by. I’m old enough to remember that there was a tour of an exhibition called King Tut, and it was the big mask and everything. The first one, I think, was in the ’70s, and it was just amazing. I was taken to it by my parents, and I had a magical time. Also, I played Tut when I was 14 or something! It was for the BBC, and I didn’t have to speak, so it wasn’t really a thing, but it was for a segment in a children’s show, and they just wanted someone who looked like Tut. I’d never acted before, but one of my parents’ friends was doing it, and they were, like, “Can we borrow Siddig to be Tutankhamen for us? He’s just got to hold a couple of dogs.” [Laughs.]
So I did that, and then I was also born in Omdurman, which is in Sudan, which is where the confluence of the Nile, where this great river passes through, so I’m intimately acquainted with the most important thing about ancient Egypt, which is the river. So there’s all kinds of reasons why this was a kind of perfect storm for me, and it was just so much fun to dream about doing this. This was way before I did it. This was when I was deciding whether or not to do it… and, of course, it took me maybe 15 seconds to decide!
AVC: Do you remember the name of that children’s show?
AS: I think it was called something like That’s Extraordinary? Or perhaps just Extraordinary. But it was produced by a woman called Valerie Solti, and she I knew because she was the wife of Georg Solti, the conductor. But she was also a producer, so if you look her up, you can find the name of the show.
AVC: I’ll do that, because that’s too funny a coincidence not to mention.
AS: Oh, it would be hilarious if you mentioned that! Yeah, that was me at, like, 13 or 14. That was my first ever thing, and… I don’t anyone’s ever known that before!
AVC: That’s what we like to hear. Now if we can just find a clip…
AS: [Laughs.] Well, that would be great, if one exists. But the BBC has a horrible habit of burning their archival footage.
AVC: To fast-forward three and a half decades to Tut, who is Amun?
AS: He was the high priest. He was basically the holder of the religious keys. The Pharaoh himself was the head of the church—and “church” is probably the wrong word, but, you know, I’m going to use it anyway—and the priest was his lieutenant, the guy who actually got stuff done, did the services, made sure that the right sacrifices and rituals were performed, insured that the calendar of ritual was executed in a way that made sure that it rained on time, that it stopped raining on time, that the Nile swelled and flooded the plains and watered the plants, and basically kept life going on the calendar.
The Nile was everything, and these guys would sometimes get up to trickery to make sure that things happened the way they wanted them to. So they would go, “Behold! God has given us water!” But they had secretly just unlocked a little log, and water has come out through a channel, which they control. They’d do all that stuff, and they’d also entertain the masses. I mean, these guys had no movies. [Laughs.] And no particular theater, except for religion, so all the festivals and all the rituals surrounding religion would’ve been a source of edification and entertainment for them. So it was a great character to play.
AVC: In terms of doing period pieces like this, do you enjoy them as a challenge, or do you quickly grow weary of the costuming?
AS: You know, I actually don’t mind the costuming. I quite like it! I’ve done a number of them, haven’t I? I’m thinking back in my head, and… I’ve done a lot of weird costume things! [Laughs.] But I have to say, I really enjoy it! What I also really enjoy is the freedom to be larger than life. Because you’re constricted by some of the political roles I’ve done, where you really must not overplay your hand. It’s the subtler, the better. But this is great fun, because it’s actually really challenging to be big as an actor. I find it much harder than being small.
You really expose yourself when you try and go to up the volume and up the size of your performance, and this was a real opportunity to do that. Whenever I get an opportunity to do that, I ambitiously try to do so… and maybe I’ve fallen flat on my face, because there are scenes farther on in the piece where it gets quite big. [Laughs.] The services in particular are quite huge, because, you know, how did these guys do a service? How did they perform it? What did they sound like? Did they sing? Did they chant? Did they go into a trance? What happens? So kind of making that stuff up was really good fun.
AVC: It looks as though your first on-camera role as an adult actor was in Sammy And Rosie Get Laid.
AS: Yeah! I was an extra in a movie by Stephen Frears, and I was jazzed! I was acting school at the time. I met Claire Bloom for the first time, who was a hero actor of mine, and Shashi Kapoor, who was an actor I’d worshipped, too. An Indian actor—a Bollywood actor, in fact—but he was in a movie that I loved more than any other called Shakespeare-Wallah, which was made by Merchant-Ivory back in the day. It’s just an exquisite movie… and this actor was on set! And I was there with him! Because there were only, like, 10 extras that day. I got to sit next to him over breakfast, and he would talk to me in his big, expansive Indian accent, and he was just overgenerous, offering me tea and coffee, making sure I got more eggs. I had a wonderful time. It was just one day, but I earned £65, and I was over the moon.
AVC: Insofar as your introduction to acting, there was certainly a history of it in your family, with your uncle Malcolm McDowell, for example.
AS: Yeah. There was no mystique. [Laughs.]
AVC: At what point did you decide that you wanted to pursue it as a career?
AS: When I was about 41… and that’s true! I had been kicking and screaming to be a director for the best part of my life. I was directing onstage when I was 23 or 24, I did about five shows and never earned a penny, and I was thoroughly enjoying my romantic garret existence. And then I was offered this job on a TV series called The Big Battalion, because I was pretty much the only Arab actor of my age in the U.K. at the time, and they needed an actor who could go to Mecca without being shot. My [birth] name, Siddig El Fadil, was acceptable as a Muslim name, so they couldn’t bar me from entering Mecca. So that was how I got into acting, in the sense that it was my first real foray into the business… apart from my early appearance as Tutankhamen. [Laughs.] And you know what? I was paid something like £1,500 a week. And I was paid nothing as a director. So I thought, “Well, this is just great!” So I ended up falling into other projects because of that. And I literally was a word-of-mouth actor: I very rarely had an agent putting me up in the early days, so it would be someone seeing me in a show and asking me if I could do another show, and that culminated in doing Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. So I’ve failed upward most of my life.
AVC: There are worse ways to fail.
AS: There are, indeed. [Laughs.]
AVC: What inspired you to pursue directing?
AS: I just loved picking apart scripts, you know? I loved the pathology of acting. I loved taking apart and examining the corpse of someone’s imagination, whether it be a Shakespeare play or an Edward Albee play or what have you. Movies, you can’t really come back and reexamine those in the same way, but I’d like to do that, too! I’d love to go, “I’ve got an opportunity to remake Citizen Kane. How am I going to do it?” And that sort of investigative element really excited me as a kid, and still does! I’m probably more into being a producer now than I am a director, but I just love searching for meaning, and doing it over the whole process, throughout the whole script, was very satisfying on a holistic level. And I was okay at it. You know, you tend to be okay at things you really love… and I was okay at it. [Laughs.] I got successful enough to have a little company, and we filled the theater that we had in London, and we were doing great. So I loved that element. I loved the investigative, historical element of asking, “What’s going on here?” I can’t think of a better way of putting it, other than pathology.
AS: Great fun. David Goyer, that’s the first thing that comes to my mind when you say that. That’s another show I didn’t have to chase. That came to me. I met Goyer in London someplace, and we talked for, like, an hour and hit it off and bitched about all the people we knew in Hollywood, and I just loved his mind. I think—but I’m sure—that, in the end, the show didn’t really live up to the expectation that even Goyer had of it, because of whatever constraints were placed on it by… whoever the constraint fairies are. [Laughs.] The stuff that comes out his head is always really exciting and interesting to me, whether it’s a movie or a TV show, and it’s very much of today, very contemporary.
He’s really part of the zeitgeist in the kind of TV that the world seems to want to watch at the moment. He was coming up with these kinds of ideas at the same time the brilliant people at Game Of Thrones were coming up with their ideas, and there was a kind of corollary between the two. They’re very similar sort of areas. Obviously, Game Of Thrones just went and did it, and David was, like, “Okay, and then this is going to happen.” He was kind of improvising much more, and it got very complicated. And he was really doing millions of projects. Anyone would’ve had trouble keeping focused! [Laughs.] But I loved him. I love him still. So that was what was exciting: just being part of a figment of his imagination was interesting to me.
AS: That was a really difficult period of my life. I’d just become divorced; I lost my mom; I’d moved to England to look after my mourning stepfather; I couldn’t get run over in Hollywood by anybody to get work. I mean, it was just impossible. I had the stigma of Star Trek over me at that point, which seems to exist and you really have to figure out ways of getting out of that. So I just left town, went back home to the farm, and sat there, learning to garden and starting to try and figure out who I was. And this part came up to play this guy, written by a writer called Howard Brenton, who is a writer I was familiar with because, as a young director, I loved his plays. They were really intense social plays from the late ’70s.
So my eyes lit up when I saw this name as the writer, and he didn’t disappoint. He wrote this really amazing character, and I have a feeling that it may have kick-started my career, actually, even though only a few people saw it, because the people who did see it had enough influence to start giving me roles that counted. It was such a good part that you really couldn’t fail it, and I was just really lucky to have that role. And I’m very happy not to be credited, because in a weird way it lives in a kind of gray area in my history. [Laughs.] In the sense that I was a relatively lost soul at that point in my life. It’s appropriate that somehow I’m omitted from it historically.
AS: Oh, yeah! That was my first proper feature. You know what? My agent, in desperation to get me out of the arid desert that is post-Star Trek work, just made her good friend and talented director Martin Campbell… She just blackmailed him. She said, “You’re taking this kid and you’re putting him in your movie.” And Martin went, “Sure. I like you, maybe I owe you, and I might want another of your actors one day. I’ll put him in my movie.” So I got in this movie through the back door. And it turned out to be a really cool experience.
It was part of the reason why my marriage failed. I mean, that’s not necessarily the cool bit. [Laughs.] That just came to my mind. But it was because I was in New Zealand for six months. And I remember that Martin Campbell and myself sat at a table at some party at the end of this movie, this long, drawn-out movie which was a million miles away from everywhere for six months, and just leaning over our Vodka Absoluts or whatever they were and going, “Both our marriages failed because of this movie.” Because his failed, too! So we had a wonderful sort of symbiotic thing that happened between us during that film, and he used to refer to me as the soul of his movie. Which was lovely, because I played this kind of sherpa dude who was the nod to the ethnic. And it began a long line of nod to ethnics that I had to play in various TV shows and movies. But I actually really enjoyed it, because it was my first experience of being grown up in feature films and not doing Star Trek or stuff like that. It was before Spooks, so it was really my break, and then I did another movie after that, and now I think I’ve done quite a lot.
AVC: It’s funny, but I didn’t realize quite how much of a cult following that film has developed over the years, but a number of people either asked about it or commented on it when we spoke to Scott Glenn for this feature.
AS: Oh, wow! Well, he was great. But he is weird, man. [Laughs.] He really is! We used to get in this old… I guess it was a Huey helicopter that had somehow survived the conflicts in Vietnam and it had been bought by this enthusiastic pilot who was probably a military freak. But it was a late ’60s model aircraft, one of those helicopters that was actually used then, and he kept it in good shape, ’cause apparently you can keep airplanes for, like, a hundred years and they’ll still work. So he had this thing, and this took us to work nearly every day, because we filmed on glaciers. People would go out in the morning and basically insure that we wouldn’t be killed by avalanches by setting off cannons. And you could hear avalanches all day, all around us, when we were on this glacier at however many thousand feet.
But Glenn would always cross his heart and mumble some weird prayer when we were in the helicopter, because that’s what he remembers about Vietnam. And then Ben Mendelsohn, who was also there and who’s one of my favorite actors and who’s just crazy and fun, would be shouting, “These things go down, you know! These things go down!” So we’d be sitting there like dejected stormtroopers, waiting to be thrown out of this helicopter at 11,000 or 12,000 feet or whatever it was, with Ben yelling, “These things go down!” and Glenn… [Hesitates.] Scott Glenn? Or Glenn Scott?
AVC: Scott Glenn.
AS: I keep forgetting. He has two Christian names! Who has two Christian names? What’s the point of that? That’s just confusion waiting to happen! [Laughs.] Anyway, he’s crossing himself and saying prayers, and with these things, it was actually quite traumatic going to work every morning!
AVC: But at least if Mendelsohn had been right, Glenn would’ve been ready.
AS: You’re damned right. Damned right! He was ready! You know what? He’d’ve survived, like, 40 years out on that glacier, because he knew survivalism. I mean, you know that guy studies survivalism, don’t you? You don’t even have to know him personally to know that he knows how to look after himself in the wild. He can skin stuff. He can smoke things. He can make sure that he can eat 50-year-old rabbit because he’s preserved it. [Laughs.] He can do all that!
AS: Oh, yeah. One of my finest. One. Of. My. Finest. Roles. I have so many stories about that experience that I don’t even know where to start. [Bursts into laughter.]
AVC: Yeah, that sounds about like how Danny Huston described his role.
AS: [Cackles.] Exactly! That was possibly the lamest movie I’ve ever been in. I mean, you know, there’s some times when you do duds, and I must’ve been rubbish, because I think there was all of one minute more of performance that I may have done that didn’t end up in the movie. So 50 percent of my performance was cut, and… yeah, there’s not much you can say about that.
AS: Oh, yeah! Written and directed by Neil Marshall, filmed in South Africa with Bob Hoskins! How cool! And also the first time I’d ever been in a movie with Malcolm [McDowell], my uncle. That’s true: That was the first time we ever worked together. Ironically, we didn’t meet each other on the movie! Which is the way movies go, isn’t it? He arrived as I left. I shot myself in the face and exited stage left. [Laughs.] It was part of a long list of deaths that I’ve had. I think I must be one of the record holders for an actor who dies on film. One of these days, someone’s going to have to make some kind of a greatest-hits of my deaths.
AVC: A super-cut?
AS: Yeah! It’d go on for, like, 25 minutes, because I’ve died nearly 20 times, which is actually really hard to do, given that most actors spend their careers trying not to die on-screen. Apparently, it’s really bad luck! So I’m hoping I live forever, because I’ve tried it all. I’ve done ’em all. You’re not gonna surprise me, God! [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you have a Bob Hoskins story?
AS: It would be unfair to come up with a story about him, because he was just such a sweet man. I mean, he really was.
AVC: Oh, it doesn’t have to be a bad story.
AS: Oh, but I love bad stories! That’s what it’s all about! But Bob was just such a gorgeous gentleman. He was slightly like a little gnome. [Laughs.] But he was an adorable little gnome. And, you know, I watched The Long Good Friday and a number of movies he was in, and I just thought he was one of the coolest guys on the planet. He just had this way about him, and he was so much bigger on screen than he was in real life, which is a talent. He was just sweet. A gentleman. And he had this lovely lady with him, who I only vaguely remember because she was so discreet, so difficult to pin down. But she was obviously his rock. So there was some lovely picture that he invoked in me when he arrived in the mornings, and he was always sweet and always gentle.
AVC: In regard to your uncle, did you spend your youth watching him and just thinking, “This is what I want to be”?
AS: To a degree, maybe I did, subliminally. I didn’t know it at the time. And I certainly didn’t know it when I started acting, because I started doing something else. I didn’t want to act. It was only when I made Syriana that I eventually went [Exhales loudly.] “Okay. I’m acting. I’ve got to confess that I am now officially acting for a career.” And as I said earlier when you asked me, I was over 40 at that point!
But Malcolm made some astonishing movies, like If… and one called Aces High, which really appealed to me as a kid, and O Lucky Man! The Lindsay Anderson stuff. I didn’t get to see A Clockwork Orange, because it was banned in British cinemas. I didn’t see it until much later, and I don’t think it travels through time as well as some of the other ones.
I guess what Malcolm did do for me, though, was deconstruct the mystique of acting. It wasn’t something that seemed unattainable, because there he was doing it. And I would see him quite often, because he was my mother’s brother. We wouldn’t meet at Christmas and stuff, but we would go on vacations together, and I got to know his wives and kids and all that. That’s really lovely. His kids are doing great stuff today. So he was a major force in my life.
AVC: You mentioned it offhandedly when we were talking about Da Vinci’s Demons, but how did you enjoy the Game Of Thrones experience?
AS: It was great fun, actually. I was expecting it to be. [Laughs.] I don’t think I’ve been more hyped to do a role, ever. I seemed at that point to be the only beneficiary of any public attention before the run-up to season five for some reason. It was, like, everybody’s focus was on the fact that I was in the show. It must’ve been incredibly disappointing, because I was in it for five minutes all season. And I’ll probably be in it for five minutes more this season! Nevertheless, I was very well heralded, and everybody knew I was coming, to put it mildly. And it was great!
It was beautiful in Seville. I knew it was going to be a smooth operation, and it was. And the producers are just adorable. You know, they’re the kind of producers who are so successful that they can afford to be really chill and really nice and go out to dinner with you and make sure that you’re eating properly and do all that sort of stuff. They were really, really great. And I’d worked exclusively with Nikolaj [Coster-Waldau], who plays [Jaime Lannister], the guy with the brass hand. Actually, I think it’s a gold hand. Anyway, that guy. [Laughs.] And he’s really nice: a family man, a normal guy who, if he stops for more than five seconds on the street, he gets swarmed. So he has to keep moving.
I remember being at a Starbucks in Seville… I know: “A Starbucks in Seville? What are you doing?” Nevertheless, there it was, and I was sitting there, and I was, like, “Hey, Nikolaj!” And he was, like, “Hey!” And he kept on moving, and I thought, “Well, that’s kind of rude.” And he clearly thought to himself, “Well, I think I’ve just been kind of rude,” so against his better instincts, he turned back toward my table to stand there and say “hey” properly to me… and that was his mistake. Because he’d stayed in one place for more than five seconds, before I knew it, 45 people had arrived and swarmed him. [Laughs.] And he went away with this swarm, like a bear who’d just taken a paw full of honey, off and down the streets of Seville, trying to shake these guys who’d just arrived from nowhere. So if I should ever see him in the street, I will never stop him to even acknowledge him, because I don’t want him to have to deal with that again!
Family Guy (2006; 2009)—“London Silly Nannies Player”/“Lead Archer/Onlooker”
Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (2014)—“Isaac Newton”
AVC: You provided the voice of Isaac Newton in an episode of Fox’s Cosmos.
AS: I did indeed, yes.
AVC: Was that as a result of the Seth MacFarlane connection from having done a couple of voices on Family Guy a few years earlier?
AS: It was! I was Seth MacFarlane’s, um, go-to “British fag accent” guy. [Laughs.] I’m sure there’s a more politically correct way of putting it, but that is kind of what I did. Because whenever he needed someone in the background who wasn’t distinct, who wasn’t really a main character or anything, but he was, like, “I need someone to say something really uncool and British and make him sound as if he has very limp wrists and screams like a girl,” they would come to me for that. And I was obviously flattered. [Snorts.] So, yeah, Seth came to me to do the Cosmos character, and I kind of pulled out the same accent again!
AVC: Is there a project you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
AS: Um… No, I think that everything has been fairly treated. [Laughs.] I mean, I’ve had top projects that I wished had gotten love, but I think they didn’t get love because they didn’t deserve it. Like, I did this thing called Inescapable a couple of years ago about Syria with Marisa Tomei, and we had such an opportunity to deal with the Syrian thing, but for some reason we just couldn’t turn that ship around and give it the weight that it deserved.
Now, to be fair to the director, Ruba Nadda, who I love and who is incredibly talented, the Syrian thing was unfolding as we were doing it, so to react to that would’ve been conjectural and probably really wrong-headed. But I remember Marisa was really determined to do something weighty about that, and I had to protect the director, because I was the lead guy and I knew that changing the course of the ship at that point would possibly mean losing our funding and all kinds of problems. It was a real introduction to the sharp end of movie production like I’d never had before. So I think I regret that not nailing it as much as it should have done. There were pages left unwritten in that book, and they were right in the middle of the book, where you just don’t need them.
AVC: You mentioned earlier that The Big Battalions was your first acting gig, but IMDB actually has A Dangerous Man listed as your first. What’s the story there?
AS: A Dangerous Man was done after Big Battalions but released before Big Batallions. And it was the last feature that David Puttnam—Lord David Puttnam now—made, who was the producer behind The Killing Fields and a bunch of other amazing movies. Midnight Express is another one, I believe. He’s actually the finest producer ever to come out of England, I think. Or certainly one of the finest within a very small group, along with Merchant and Ivory. But I thought he was the finest one. A rum character, but a nice guy, if kind of eccentric. But we made that movie, and it got me the job on Star Trek, so I’m sort of forever indebted to it, because I think Star Trek probably gave me a career… even though you have to fight for that career! [Laughs.]
AS: Rick Berman, who was the executive producer on Star Trek, saw A Dangerous Man, and he had really eclectic tastes, because that was by no means a commercial movie, but that’s what he chose to watch on whatever night Masterpiece Theatre was happening, or whatever the hell it was shown on in America.
AVC: Great Performances.
AS: Great Performances, there you go. [Laughs.] But, yeah, he watched it, and he gave me the role of the captain, actually. And then he realized that at the age of 26, or whatever I was, I was way too young to be the captain of his new show, and he made up a role for me on the spot. So I was incredibly lucky. This doctor who was gonna be called Amoros, who was gonna be from Central America, ended up being me.
AVC: So what are your thoughts on Bashir’s character arc over the run of the show? Were you happy with it or frustrated by it?
AS: I think I was really happy. I mean, we had a devious plan: we wanted to build a character that we knew wouldn’t go down well in ’90s American culture. This was a time when, you know, 90210 and Melrose Place were all the rage. These were the shows that everyone was watching, and they celebrated the mediocrity of the perfect youngster, the beautiful young Adonis, and it was all about ready-made, cookie-cutter characters, as far as I was concerned. And I do remember a conversation with the execs on Deep Space Nine. We had some really good writers. It was a really good room for writers in those days. Ron Moore, Rene Echevarria, Ira Behr, Michael Piller… A lot of these guys have gone on to do stuff. And there were others, those are just the ones off the top of my head.
But they said, “Well, what if we do a character that we know isn’t going to go down very well? You know, he’s going to be pretty unpopular. He’s going to be not the perfect article. He’s going to be pretty un-heroic. An antihero, if you like. And then we change it up and see if the public follow us and see if everyone comes with us.” And there was a moment when we did an episode where I emulated James Bond on the holodeck… and that was the point, obviously, where we decided—well, they decided it. I wasn’t part of the decision about when to change me, but I was part of the devious plan as far as the aim of the arc of the character. But they decided that that was how they were going to do it, so they did it, and—weirdly, as if by magic and nearly overnight—my character started to improve in the polls. [Laughs.] And I suddenly became one of the favorite several characters, actually, as opposed to easily the least favorite. The studio tried to fire me every year for the first three years. Rick Berman had to say, “Over my dead body,” because he had a plan. So there was kind of a weird social experiment that went on in that show, and I was really lucky to be part of it. So I can only say that I really enjoyed that.
AVC: How did you feel about the whole “enhancements” story aspect?
AS: Oh, well, I felt a little fucked over with that. [Laughs.] I thought that was a bit cynical. I got the sense that, by the end of the run, there were other Star Trek shows that were coming out which were more popular, pulling ahead of us. Deep Space Nine, you have to understand, in its time was not performing as well as the studio wanted it to or needed it to. And that was down to the fact that it was built on what was, at the time, a very wobbly foundation of long character arcs. These weren’t shows that were over in one episode and moved on to the next planet, dealt with that, and moved on again. These things went on forever, and people had to tune in again and again and again to find out what happened to these characters. That was unheard of at the time. And I think that now, because it’s more fashionable, Deep Space Nine has become a lot more popular and a lot more interesting to a lot more people.
So when that thing came along about enhancing me, I felt they were really trying—cynically—to make me more like Data, so that I would be more popular still, and I felt betrayed. It wasn’t part of our plan! So I just ignored it. And whenever the lines came up, I just screwed them up. It wasn’t that I didn’t deliver them, but the lines that referred to that, I just messed up. The actor has that power. At the end of the day, they have a veto, and that veto is expressed in just making the line rubbish, just losing it. So I’d say the line, because that’s my job and I’m paid to do that, but I said it in a way that hopefully it drifted off and no one really noticed it.
AS: Oh, yeah, I really loved that. I really enjoyed that. That was really good fun. I remember being in a desert in a trailer for most of my existence. [Laughs.] Shooting with Ridley Scott is, like, you spend a lot of time in your trailer, waiting to be called onto set, ’cause he’s doing something so extravagant with a flag and a puff of smoke that it takes 15 hours, and you’re waiting to get back there. But he’s such a perfectionist. I really enjoyed that, though. I think it was the first Hollywood movie post-9/11 that went, “Hang on, guys: there’s two sides of this coin. The Arabs aren’t actually as terrible as we’re making them out to be. The Muslims aren’t as frightening or as bestial as we’re making them out to be.” And for Hollywood to do that was brave, and I think Ridley was… [Hesitates.] I may be wrong, but I think that was the first time Hollywood came out and went—and it was pretty quick, too—“You know what? The Arabs are really honorable, cool guys. Let’s give ’em a break.”
Saladin was actually one of the people who invented chivalry. He was the idea of chivalry in [Thomas] Mallory’s Morte D’Arthur. It was based on his character. So there’s a reason why Saladin was this icon of chivalry, and Ridley made sure that got into the show. He put this character—my character—in, who was actually a genuinely nice guy who got on with the other nice guy, Orlando Bloom’s character, and they met up going, “I’m really sorry we’re at war with each other, but I really like you. You’re a really good guy.” And that was, politically, a really interesting thing for Hollywood to do, especially Fox.
AVC: And did you end up saddle-sore by the end of it?
AS: Did I? In armor on a horse for three or four hours? Oh, God, yes. [Laughs.] And I remember my cornea was cut. And I didn’t realize it at the time, because, you know, you can’t see your own cornea. But I was, like, “My eye stings!” And they were, like, “Well, get over it.” But it was done by filming in a sandstorm and not being able to shut your eyes, because the camera needs to see your eyes. So they were, like, “Keep your eyes open!” And I’m like [Straining.] “Okay! I’ll try!” And meanwhile sand is literally lacerating my eye. So that was bad, and then being saddle sore, plus it was really hot… Yeah, it was torturous. But I suspect that every one of Ridley’s films is torturous to some degree!
AS: Wow, we’re covering the whole thing, aren’t we? [Laughs.] The only thing I remember about that was the first day. The first A.D. came into the trailer where we were all having our makeup and shit done, and he was, like, “Guys, I need your attention, please.” And we were, like, “Yeah?” And he said, “Um, Mr. McConaughey’s gonna arrive on set in about 15 minutes, and I have to give you a directive—which comes from the producers—that you are not to call him ‘Matthew’ or ‘Mr. McConaughey’ or anything to do with his real life. You must call him Van Zan.” Van Zan was his character name. “And even if you meet him outside in the road, even if you meet him out in town in Dublin,” where we were shooting this movie, “you must call him Van Zan.” And that is exactly what I remember about that movie, because as that first A.D. left the building, I shouted—rather lamely—“And he’s got to call me Elvis!” But he didn’t call me Elvis. In fact, he didn’t call me anything!
AS: Oh, yeah, yeah, that was good fun. I really enjoyed that. I like Kiefer Sutherland, who has a weird memory thing. He has what I would classify as an eidetic memory: He can look at a page and he knows the lines. And it’s kind of annoying, because… [Hesitates.] I think this was season six, so by that time he was king of the heap, ruler of the roost on the 24 set, and he had a habit of rewriting the damned day’s dialogue in the morning for the first 20 minutes or half-hour of every day. And because he’d written it and therefore seen it, he knew it. And I had to just learn all these pages of dialogue from scratch, having lost all the dialogue I learned the night before because I’d suddenly been rewritten. And he was, like, “Come on, man! Keep up, keep up, keep up!” [Laughs.] I was, like, “Dude! I cannot keep up! I don’t have this weird-ass alien memory thing that you have going on!” But he was really cool. Really cool.
But I remembered that I’d been booked to do this art film that probably cost about four bucks. I was only booked to do a couple of episodes of that show, and it ended up being quite a few because it rolled and morphed, so at a certain point I said, “Look, guys: Thanks, but I’ve gotta go. I’m already booked. It’s a matter of honor. I told this woman I’d do her movie, and now I must do her movie. It only cost 50 bucks, but they’re the hardest ones to get going.”
And one of the producers on that called David Fury—and his name I’ll never forget, because his name was so appropriate—came up to me in the lunch queue and went, “Alexander, you fucked us! You fucked us!” I was, like, “What? What happened? What did I do?” “You’re leaving us!” And he was absolutely livid. He was so angry that I had decided to turn down 24. Because they wanted me then to go on to do more seasons. And it was a real compliment, and it probably would’ve made me wealthy and famous. But I promised to do this other movie, called Un Home Perdu, which was in French and meant me wandering around Jordan for weeks on end and was a thoroughly difficult experience. So they decided they’d blow me up. They just blew me up, unceremoniously. And that came into the script because they were so angry about the fact that I had apparently fucked them. So there you go.
AS: That was a really grown-up job, and I hadn’t done many grown-up jobs in my career. I’d done mainly genre stuff up until then, and doing that with [George] Clooney—who I very much think will probably be president one day—was kind of my first foray into grown-up acting with the big boys and all that stuff. And I had a good time. It was really challenging, because the director loved me one day and hated me the next day, loved me one day, hated me the next day, so it was a completely hot-and-cold, bipolar experience with this guy. But he was very bright, and maybe that just comes with the territory. So he would regret casting me and almost sort of crumple in tears, and then the next day he would be jubilant. Ecstatic. [Laughs.] It was incredibly hard to keep up with him!
And Clooney, of course, was incredibly nice, incredibly generous, and incredibly presidential, actually. [George W.] Bush was elected for a second time while we were shooting that movie, so we changed the ending. Or Clooney changed the ending. I didn’t do anything. I just sat there and said, “Yes! Good idea!” [Laughs.] But, yeah, I think it probably put me into the league of the serious for a couple of minutes. Or maybe I still am. If I am, it’s because of Syriana. It’s funny, you know: I’m not necessarily a good actor, but once people start saying you are, you are. And I know that that’s a truism, and there’s obviously nothing important in that particular statement, but it’s really about the fact that people create you as a good actor. You’re not actually being a good actor all the time. But people now refer to me as a good actor because they read it someplace, not because they’ve made up their own mind. So I’m very lucky! And I know that Clooney deserves his Oscar for it, because he got that shit off the ground.
AVC: Ironically, your grown-up role seems to have brought out the inner teenager in one of our readers.
AS: [Laughs.] That’s brilliant. But do you know what? I think he’s probably right. I think it was a really good film, and I think it really pinpointed the dilemma that we had at that time, which was that we felt our governments were corrupt. Part of the system was corrupt. Bush had gone to war with these people, and it seemed like Haliburton were all over this, and they were making money out of these wars, and… it all sucked. It all really stunk. And if movies can do anything, they can go, “Hey, we’re going to blow a whistle and point in this direction, and you guys can figure it out from there.” And it did a really good job of that. And for that, I feel honored to have been involved in it.