The NBC comedy spy series Chuck has had its share of villains and shady organizations in its four seasons, including Mark Sheppard as the mysterious director of The Ring and Chevy Chase as an associate of FULCRUM. Yet nobody’s been as bad a guy as Timothy Dalton’s Alexei Volkoff, the arms dealer and thorn in the side of Chuck Bartowski (Zachary Levi) this season. In Dalton’s first episode three weeks ago, Volkoff passed himself off as British agent Gregory Tuttle before revealing his true identity, destroying Chuck’s late father’s intelligence and almost killing Chuck in the process. (He was saved only by his mom, played by Linda Hamilton, who was working undercover in Volkoff’s organization.) On Monday’s episode, Volkoff forces himself into a Bartowski family dinner — with nefarious machinations, no doubt. “It’s hard work – you do an hour’s TV time, which is what, 44 minutes, in seven days? It’s a brutal schedule. But with the pressure comes some good things and everybody’s been hugely embracing of me and what I’m bringing to it,” says Dalton, the British actor and one-time James Bond who checked in last week while filming his fourth Chuck episode. Dalton also has a small role in next month’s The Tourist, with Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, as well as a voiceover part in the straight-to-DVD Tinker Bell and the Mysterious Winter Woods next year. Read below for his thoughts on playing villains and other key roles in his career.
Photos courtesy of Warner Bros. Television Entertainment/Michael Ansell, Disney
In your first episode, you went from a good guy to the main villain of the whole season by the end. That’s a decent character arc for one hour.
That’s one of the reasons why I came to do it. When [executive producers] Chris Fedak and Josh Schwartz asked me to do it, they sent me a whole bunch of DVDs of the show to let me know what kind of work they were doing. I love the show, I thought it was great — it had this wonderful, anarchic quality to it. And then they told me what kind of character they had in mind for me. It was such fun to literally play one character and then absolutely turn into another character altogether! The challenge if course is that both of those characters were Volkoff. Yes, you can say he’s schizophrenic — he’s different all the time — but nevertheless inside everyone of those parts he’s played, he is the same man. So you have to tie that together. It’s an interesting arc.
Will you have a Russian accent at any time?
No, absolutely not. It came under discussion, of course, but ultimately if you can play Tuttle in a way that makes no one suspect he’s a Russian, then he doesn’t speak with a Russian accent, does he? If he was going to go and play an Englishman with a Russian accent, they might have some doubts or a pause for thought. [Laughs] If he can speak English that well, he can’t have a Russian accent. Although it would be fun to play with a Russian accent, it’s quite limiting at the end of the day. I think we’re going to go along with the convention that bad guys speak with English accents and the good guys speak with American accents. [Laughs]
That has been a theme for many years.
Indeed. In many movies.
Do you get a definite thrill playing a dark character like Volkoff where you really get to be big and evil?
Well, only if there’s some pleasure in it for the audience. I don’t think it’s very nice just playing nasty people – I don’t like that at all. If there’s complexity in it and there’s fun in it, and the audience gets pleasure from it, then that’s fine, yeah. I’ve done a few in my career. Sometimes you could say, when you read a lot of scripts, the heroes are often quite bland. [Laughs] It’s the bad guys who are interesting, and the interesting roles are always roles you might want to play.
Zach directed Monday’s episode. How is he as a director?
He’s lovely. I mean, he’s an actor, so he knows what actors look for, knows what actors want, knows how to talk to actors. He totally understands the world because he’s immersed in it! In my experience over my life, good directors want you to bring things to the party. They want you to produce, they want you to create, they want your imagination, they want you to give them stuff. That is a director’s greatest joy in every department, whether it’s the lighting, camera, editing or whatever. Then they’ve got things that they can shape and play with. He understands that fully and wants that. Again, in seven days it’s very hard, but he knows all the basics.
Are most of your scenes with Linda Hamilton?
The relationship with Linda is important, I will stress to you. It is integral to what we’re doing. But that doesn’t mean to say that my scenes are with her all the time. They’re with Zach, and there are different storylines in each of these four. They’re not really a continuing storyline except perhaps to learn who he is along the way.
I’ve watched Chuck since the beginning, and there have been a lot of small-time villains. You seem to be the baddest dude we’ve seen so far.
Yes, I believe so. Forgive me for sounding so pragmatic, but if you’ve got a good role, it’s great. If you don’t have a good role, it’s not great. [Laughs] So obviously, to be the main bad guy is a good role, and they’ve used it well. The writers on this show are just fantastic and one of the best rooms to go into on this entire show. There’s a central room that’s just full of old pizza and coffee and a bunch of writers who are brainstorming, and it’s like electricity. It’s like a furnace of ideas.
You’ve done a lot of roles who’ve inhabited the shade of gray, like Prince Barin in Flash Gordon 30 years ago. He was heroic but also kind of a jerk, too.
And that was the fun of it, wasn’t it? He’s not the stiff, hero cartoon caricature type of person, which I find very funny! [Laughs] Unless you’re playing in a cartoon, human beings are complex. We’ve all got so many different sides to us: We’ve got strengths, we’ve got weaknesses. There are things we could call good, things we could call less than good. We are what we are — we’re human. Good writers write characters like that, and good actors play people like that. You don’t want to limit a performance by just going down one road. You want to bring richness and color to characters. Make it human.
You were on that really good two-part Doctor Who season finale two season ago, too.
You watch all the right things!
Well, I’m a geek so I watch a lot of that stuff.
You really do — Flash Gordon, Doctor Who. Alright, you’re a geek. I’m an older geek than you. I’ve been watching Doctor Who since I was a kid — not all the time, not every week, but yes, I watched Doctor Who! So when someone comes along and says, “Will you play a Time Lord in the final episode of this particular Doctor Who series?” of course you come and play a Time Lord. Who wouldn’t? If you care about these things.
You ruined me early because Flash Gordon was the first movie I ever saw in a theater.
Well, what a nice movie to see. It never went down that well in America. That year, it was the second biggest-grossing movie internationally in the world. Everybody loved it except the Americans. And the kind of criticisms it got were “But spaceships aren’t like that. Why would they have a red and gold spaceship? Why does Flash have a theme where it’s like he’s playing American football?” It was that kind of criticism: “Why does he say, ‘We’ve got 10 seconds to save the universe’? You can’t save the universe in 10 seconds!” [Laughs[ I think for some reason the critics just failed to get it.
Now’s a different time in pop culture than it was 30 years ago. That sci-fi campiness plays better now.
Maybe. Also, I think it’s inexcusable to say, “Why would a spaceship be red and gold and look like a 1950s automobile?” You’re doing Flash Gordon, you’re doing a cartoon. They had just seen Star Wars or something, and didn’t make the connection that it was a cartoon and it was fun.
Speaking of cartoons, you had a neat role in Toy Story 3 as Mr. Pricklepants. I wished he had had more screen time.
Me too! [Laughs] I really loved that movie. It shocked me when I saw it. It’s so moving and so adult in a way, in the themes it deals with. And I was really lucky and pleased to be part of it. I’m going to give most of the credit to Lee Unkrich who directed it and Darla Anderson who produced it and all those people because they created not only all the characters, but they certainly created Mr. Pricklepants. I turn up and have fun with a microphone for a couple of hours.
We unfortunately don’t see you probably as much as we’d all like—
Can I concur with you in that?
Sure! Is that where you are in your career now, looking for only the most spectacular things you can find, big or small?
I would always turn something down that I didn’t think I was right for or that I couldn’t bring something to. You’ve got to give yourself a chance of being good and being special. It doesn’t always work, but people do come to expect certain things. They expect you to be interesting! [Laughs] When anyone gets over 50, and I’m well over 50, the amount of what you get offered diminishes, which is actually rather nice. I’m used to getting offered lots of guest roles and bits and pieces in things that are quite interesting. Yes, you don’t see me as much as I’d like to either, but that really comes down to the nature of the business. You can only do what you’re offered, and a lot of what you’re offered you don’t want to do anyway.
At what point in your career did you hit that moment where you realized you only wanted to do what you thought you could do well, or have you always been like that?
Always, right from the beginning. I’ve always liked taking on challenges. Maybe foolish challenges sometimes, but I’ve always got to believe I can get to the top of that mountain. Not on TV, but people pay money to come and see a movie and it’s expensive. They shouldn’t be coming to see you in something that’s ordinary, and I can assure you that although many films are often sometimes disappointing, there isn’t a person on any of those movie sets that isn’t trying for the best. That’s got to be your goal always.
On the movie screen, we’ve always seen you in meaty roles, whether it’s as James Bond or the bad guy from The Rocketeer or Simon Skinner from Hot Fuzz.
And don’t forget, I am British. If you want a post office worker in the United States, you’re going to get an American. I suppose you could do a New York taxi driver because he could be English, but when you’re British and not natively American, you would tend to cast American actors before a British actor for an American role. We do tend to find ourselves playing villains or playing in wonderful but perhaps not quite mainstream movies. There are more limited choices, I think, if you’re not an American actor.
Is there a positive in there at all somewhere?
No, I don’t think so. I think we should be working on good work all the time. That’s what every actor would want to do.