No one gives back to fandom with his colorful TV characters quite like James Marsters. The actor rose to geek infamy in the late 1990s playing the deliciously malevolent blond vampire Spike opposite Sarah Michelle Gellar on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, then hounded a young Clark Kent (Tom Welling) as the robotic Brainiac on Smallville before throwing down with John Barrowman in the BBC’s popular Torchwood. Marsters adds to the list starting tomorrow, when he begins the first of five episodes on Syfy’s Battlestar Galactica prequel series, Caprica. His Barnabas Greeley is a rogue member of the enigmatic religious zealots known as Soldiers of the One, who believe in a single supreme god. He comes into conflict with Clarice (played by Polly Walker), who heads the STO faction on Caprica. “She’s too much of a pacifist. She’s like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and I’m like Malcolm X,” Marsters says. “He does not really agree with the way she’s doing it, and he’s starting his own faction with his own people.” Marsters just came back from working on a new album in London and New Jersey to spend time with his two kids — son Sullivan, 13, and niece Brittany, 12 — and took time out to talk about Barnabas and his other screen personas. Read below for our conversation and check out a sneak peek of Friday’s episode of Caprica.
Photos courtesy of SyFy, The WB
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How much leverage did they give you to make Barnabas your own?
I feel like I climbed into a playpen with a bunch of energetic children who were just playing. I got down there and the word was I was going to be in a kilt, which I thought was fabulous. I was running around in kilts the first day. We took pictures of that, the pictures went upstairs and they said, “Nah. Not cool enough.” They started throwing other stuff on me to the point where by the time we were filming, it was just like dark jeans, dark T-shirt and just a LOT of dirt. That worked great. And then a really cool jacket on top.
You’ve played some pretty famous characters over the years. Do you find that shades of any of them feed into Barnabas?
As Laurence Olivier said, an actor’s lucky if they have three characters in them and they’re just doing shades of that. I am hoping that there’s more than three. Maybe I have five. [Laughs]
Don’t you already have five by now?
[Laughs] I did do MacBeth before anyone knew about me, and that really helped me admit that I could be grossly evil if I was ambitious enough. Spike kind of furthered that, just to give in to being evil and just glory in it and realize that that is part of me. The robot on Smallville taught me how to manipulate the heck out of people and pretend that I care when I don’t. Doing Buzz Aldrin [in the TV movie Moonshot] and a cowboy for the Syfy movie High Plains Invaders last year helped me be steely, to cut myself off from all the emotions that swirl around the modern head and just be a fighter pilot or a cowboy — someone who does not cry. It all feeds into it. But as far as Barnabas, I feel like I’m maybe exploring a new place. He’s both intellectual but also really firmly rooted in his crotch and his stomach – he’s very visceral but he’s very intelligent at the same time. He’s very passionate about the cause he has. He lost a loved one to decadence, and he wants to help change the world. When was the last time I played a fanatic, someone who is so convinced they were right they were able to destroy things and still think they were good? I’m not sure I have.
Do you consider him a villain?
Hell no! You can’t. I’ve never thought [that] of any of the characters I’ve played who were making mistakes or hurting people. We’re all villains! It depends on if you’re hurting people or not on that day.
You’ve got a very fervent fan base, and you’ve kept feeding them cool characters over the years.
I’ve been very lucky. When a show needs a character that needs to pop, to really stir up the pot and change things a little bit, they tend to think of me. I keep getting handed these roles that are just designed for you to hit a home run, and they do everything they can to support you. Wow, if that’s my cross, I guess I’ll bear it.
When you were starting out as an actor, did you have that same reputation, in smaller theater groups or with people you worked with?
I never really thought about that. I tended to find a way to pop, whether that was supposed to happen or not. [Laughs] I never tried to steal the scene. I was always trying to serve the script, but yeah, I would get good attention and a lot of jealousy from other people. I discovered in fourth grade that I when I got in front of a group of people, we could have a lot of fun together.
You used to front the band Ghost of the Robot and now you’ve gone solo. Are you still doing a lot of music these days?
Yeah, I just did some scratch tracks for a new album with Charlie De Mars, the lead guitarist and songwriter for Ghost of the Robot. He and I have been playing with my son Sullivan, who is monster good at lead guitar now. Just strangely good, like “Where did that come from?” He was really good in baseball, and I just sucked at baseball when I was young. He was a pitcher and I’m trying to catch really fast fastballs and just fearing for my life, because I’m not that good a catcher. So when he picked up guitar, I was like, “Right on! Now he’s in my home turf. Now I’m going to be the guy who shows him all the ropes.” That lasted for about two weeks. I’m a rhythmic guitarist, and he just passed me like I was standing still.
Do your kids have a favorite James Marsters character?
No, none of them are interested in the slightest. In general, kids care about what happens after you come back from the office. They don’t care that much about the office itself. Sullivan was interested to see me play Buzz Aldrin and the cowboy, because they were both heroes. When I got Torchwood, I gave him a call and I said, “Dude! I’m playing this time agent, man! I’ve got two guns, a sword and a time wristwatch that lets me go back and forward in time at will. It’s so cool.” And he goes, “Dad, do you win?” I’m like, “What?” And he goes, “At the end of the episode, do you win or do you get your butt kicked like always?” “Well, I’ve got to play the villain so yeah, I get my butt kicked.” He’s like, “Alright. What else do you have to talk about?” He doesn’t want to see me do evil. He wants me to save people.