Nathan Fillion’s just a stand up guy. It’s not like I had that much time to spend with him, but the man just exudes trustworthiness. It’s a good thing that Firefly came along, because the guy needed to be in a cowboy role. It suits him.
I had a chance to get a one on one with Fillion at the Serenity press day. When I came into the hotel room where I would interview him, he was checking out his press day goodie bag – which included a Mal Reynolds action figure.
Q: How do feel about the toy? Is this your first toy?
Fillion: This is. There are two versions. This one has a lot of forehead, I noticed. It’s not so much a forehead as an eight head.
But it’s nice. You ever see the movie The Specials?
Q: James Gunn! Of course.
Fillion: The Academy Awards of superheroes. It feels pretty good.
Q: Are you going to play with it or keep it in plastic?
Fillion: This one I’m going to keep in plastic because I already have one that’s unwrapped at home. And they gave me the comic books.
Q: You got the comics. I heard the story about how you couldn’t get that.
Fillion: You heard that story? I was pretty mad about that.
Q: What ended up happening? Did you ever hear back from that comic book store that wouldn’t sell you the first issue of Serenity at a reasonable price?
Fillion: I never heard back from them. I don’t imagine they’re the kind of people who would say, ‘Yeah we were lying about gouging you.’ I don’t see those people being redeemed. They’re not going to change their business practices. But certainly it was vindicating to get the support. There was a ripple when I called out for the Browncoats. That was pretty cool.
Q: You have this army that you can mobilize at a moment’s notice.
Fillion: My mom got very concerned that it would get out of control. She’s very level headed. But I was very upset. You can charge what you like. Price gouging is your call as a businessman. But what you can’t do is lie and say that’s what it’s worth. When it came down to that he lied and stole money from my mother, I became very upset. I don’t know what his mother is like, but my mother is a saint. Everything I’ve heard about this fellow is that he has poor business practices anyway.
Q: You have Serenity now and Slither in January – this is a new phase for you, the leading man phase of your career.
Fillion: I’m completely unprepared. We just did a couple of junkets in the UK. I felt like it was a good warm up for actually doing it now.
Man, I can’t believe – this has been such a long time coming, I can’t believe we’re actually here. It’s a couple of days before the premiere now.
Q: Is this the direction you saw yourself going in, being the leading man?
Fillion: I dreamed about it. Was it my plan? No. My plan was to just to keep going and get the next job. My plans were small. My dreams were specific. I wanted to be shot on TV. I wanted to shoot a gun on TV. And I wanted to ride a horse on TV. And in Firefly, the pilot, I got to do all those three – including shoot a horse.
Then at that point you have to have new dreams. It was always a dream of mine to be on a movie poster – done. In a comic book? That was something I thought about when I was in a kid, being in a comic book. But the potential was never really there – how do you pursue that? But now I’ve got it. Being an action figure, having trading cards, these are all new to me.
Q: Listening to the commentary on the Firefly box set, I was struck by how your voice – not your actual voice – but the way you talk and phrase seems similar to Mal. Is Joss writing Mal specifically to fit you?
Fillion: He says that in writing that he hears voices. Which you know, can’t be good. But he says he hears them speaking and then he’ll write a scene. He’ll go back and ask, ‘What was it that they said,’ and educate himself by going back to read what he wrote.
That must be amazing. I think what Joss did when he hired this cast is that he hired people who – this is a very specific way of speaking, and this cast is made up of people who understand it. They look at this and understand exactly what it is, what the rhythms are of this Joss speak.
Then it started permeating my real life. I started saying things like, ‘Them as can.’ What? Yes, actually. Why did I say that. ‘Gorram’ worked into my vocabulary.
Q: So you do say gorram?
Fillion: Not on purpose. I remember saying it one time, and that was like a month or so after we got cancelled.
Q: It’s satisfying to say.
Fillion: It’s guttural. It’s got a snarl.
Q: Joss is similar in his specific dialogue style to Mamet. People who do a lot of Mamet can talk naturally, and sometimes talk outside of Mamet movies, like Mamet.
Fillion: [laughs] I think you’re right. It rubs off on you. It’s very natural. And very unnatural at the same time. You find it. Like I said, this entire cast found it and understands that and makes it live.
Q: At the press conference you said that you’re the clueless good guy in Slither. What is your role exactly in that?
Fillion: He’s the chief of police. He’s the quintessential high school football hero who had life handed to him in a small town. It’s a depressed small town in South Carolina, and here he is with a cushy kind of government job. He’s a cop in a town where there’s no crime. He doesn’t do much during the day, it’s not a dangerous job, it’s not a technical job. He just sits back and doesn’t have to worry too much. He and the other characters in this movie (one of them Elizabeth Banks and another Gregg Henry, who also spent some time on Firefly – he played a sheriff in the first episode, The Train Job. He’s the mayor this town, Wheelsy ) they’re just simple folk. Flawed people. Regular people who are blissfully unprepared for an alien invasion and potential world domination. These people react as you think real people would react in that situation. These people are clueless, they don’t know what to do, they don’t have a plan. This is a guy who has never had to be responsible for his entire life, and now he’s faced with saving the world. He’s not prepared.
Q: The Thing is obviously a touchstone here, but you’re not playing the Kurt Russell character here.
Fillion: Certainly not. Kurt Russell had it together. Kurt Russell is one of those guys you look to when the shit hit the fan. Bill Pardy, not so much.
Q: On Buffy you played a complete son of a bitch. Which do you like better – the Mal, who while he’s sort of a son of a bitch is really a good guy, Bill Pardy, who’s sort of over his head and unprepared, or Caleb, who’s just evil?
Fillion: You know what? If you play out your life like a movie, if you think about it terms of being a movie, you’re the hero of your movie. Everybody thinks they’re the hero. Caleb didn’t think he was a bad guy, he thought he was doing the right thing. Caleb was saving the world. This was going to be for the best. Do I find it fun to play characters who are unlike me? Yes. Being a superpowered villain with immense strength and punching little girls and making them fly across the room and killing them and poking out people’s eyes – that was something I had never been able to sink my teeth into. Caleb was creepy and I liked doing that.
Bill Pardy, kind of hero-esque. Not quite a hero, sort of a faux hero, a quasi hero. I enjoyed playing him because he was helpless. He didn’t know what to do. He was scared.
Malcolm Reynolds – I have a special place in my heart for Malcolm Reynolds. There are times when I feel very badly for Malcolm Reynolds and I wouldn’t want to be him, but there are times when I think he would be really appropriate for any time you have a confrontation in your life – what would Malcolm Reynolds do right now?
Q: You’re going to be Malcolm Reynolds forever, regardless of what happens with this film.
Fillion: I’m OK with that.
Q: You’re cool with that? Your obituary may very well reference this character.
Fillion: [laughs] I’m OK with that. I would say that Firefly is absolutely the best work I have ever done – until I did Serenity. I look back with pride and I like Malcolm Reynolds. I like playing him.
Recast the role. Let’s say I died. Who would you have play him?
Q: I couldn’t. You’re very much wrapped up with that character in my head.
Fillion: I agree with you. Without me, Firefly is dead!
Q: There’s a lot of comparisons in the press, and I guess Universal is pushing this, between Mal and Han Solo. And that’s the same thing – Han couldn’t be in the Star Wars prequels because he couldn’t be Harrison Ford. And if it’s not Harrison Ford it’s not Han.
And you’re OK with being compared with Han Solo?
Fillion: I won’t say, ‘Yeah, Malcolm Reynolds is exactly like Han Solo!’ I won’t say that. Are there similarities? Sure. You can throw some similarities in there. People can easily identify Han Solo, so people say, ‘Hey, go to this movie, you’ll like it, this guy is like Han Solo.’ People would say, ‘Oh I’m into that, I like Han Solo.’ They’ll go to this movie and be pleasantly surprised. They’ll say, ‘Yeah, he was Han Solo-esque, but certainly not Han Solo.’
Q: You’ve worked with writer/director Joss Whedon and writer/director James Gunn. Compare the two guys.
Fillion: Very much the same, actually. Self deprecating, relaxed. They know what they want. They’re clever, they’re funny. They can say ‘Don’t do it like that,’ without saying, ‘You failed just now.’ They can keep you comfortable enough to change what it is that you’re doing. They’re open to ideas. They’re very, very similar. Butt of their own jokes all the time. And they make a comfortable atmosphere.
Being an actor is not super tough work. It’s not heavy lifting, it’s not rocket science. What’s important for me, what I find almost imperative, is that where I go to work has to be stress-free. You have to trust the people you’re with to be able to open yourself up and try some ideas and say, ‘This is how I’m to play this beat or this note. Let’s work together.’ If there’s stress and angst, you’re not going to find people opening up. You have to work with people in such a way that you have to pretend you have a relationship with them when you don’t yet have a relationship – or at least that kind of relationship that you’re acting out. So both Joss Whedon and James Gunn make for an atmosphere that is conducive to being relaxed, to letting people tell the story.