Known for his solid work in a bevy of high profile roles in some of science fiction’s biggest franchises, Sam Witwer quickly established himself as a young actor on the rise in Hollywood. Following the international success of the acclaimed BBC original series “Being Human”, the US remake of the darkly humorous, provocative drama stars Sam as the heroic “Aidan”, a sensual and brooding vampire in a house full of supernatural creatures struggling to keep their dark secrets from the world. His excellent work was noticed soon after the show’s premiere, as Sam received a Gemini Award nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in a Continuing, Leading Dramatic Role. The series has gone on to become a staple for the Syfy network and will return for a fourth season early 2014. Witwer has become a fan favorite through his extensive work in the genre. He began his career in the memorable role of “Lt. Crashdown” in SyFy’s ‘Battlestar Galactica’ and played “Davis Bloom/ Doomsday”, the man fated to kill Superman, on CW’s ‘Smallville.’ ‘Star Wars’ fans and the gaming community will also recognize Sam as Darth Vader’s vengeful apprentice, “StarKiller” in the LucasArts’ video game sensation ‘Star Wars: The Force Unleashed’ (Parts One and Two). Sam was also nominated for an Emmy for his incredible voice work on the fan-favorite ‘Star Wars: The Clone Wars,’ the award-winning animated series on the Cartoon Network as the iconic sith lord Darth Maul in season four and season five. Continuing her showcase his arsenal of talents with captivating and highly emotional performances, Sam Witwer have definitely started turning the heads of critics and audiences alike. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Sam Witwer to discuss how he got his start in the entertainment industry, landing his role on “Being Human,” his evolution as an actor, his often overlooked musical side and much more!
Let’s start with your early years. What got you started on your journey into the entertainment industry?
It all started when I was a kid. I thought a few things. I thought I was going to go and make music with my older cousin in California and that I was going to be an actor. As you get older, you grow up a little bit and decide certain things aren’t very realistic, so I wasn’t going to be an actor. When I got to high school I said “I’m going to be a rock star!” [laughs] So that was my idea early on — go from one realistic goal to another! [laughs] What I really wanted to do was hang out. I had figured out a very sort of Zen way to be not very ambitious. I wonder if that was a good thing or not? I had a certain level of ambition that caused me to want me to take over the high school, which I kind of did. I always wanted to do stuff, creative stuff. I thought “Hey, I am just happy to be with my friends. I will get some sort of job and I will play with my band.” That is exactly what I did. My parents said “What a about college?” My grades were terrible, so how was anyone going to let me go to college? They said “You do all of these school plays.” I said, “It’s just for fun though.” They pointed out that they don’t look as heavily as your grades if you try to go in through the drama division of certain colleges. Fast forward to me auditioning for all of these schools. I had one audition for a school that I really didn’t want to go to and my parents had to force me to go. I thought it was a big waste of time because they only took twenty people a year. The school was Juilliard. I went through that audition having learned my Shakespeare monologue that same morning and was really not taking the whole thing very seriously. I was in ripped jeans and a t-shirt with long hair, while everyone else was dressed up and looked like serious acting students. Somehow, I got a call a week later. I got called out of class and went to the student activities office where there was a phone call for me from Juilliard inviting me to go to that school. That was a bit of a shock to me. I was like “Wait? I am going to train to become a professional actor at Julliard? I didn’t even want to be an actor! What the hell is this?” [laughs] I was thrilled yet disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to play with my band because now I had to go away and launch myself elsewhere. I did and maybe because of who I am and maybe because I wasn’t sure I wanted to be an actor or maybe because of a lot of things, I don’t think that school really worked for me. Some things worked and some things really didn’t, so they very politely asked me to leave after my second year. [laughs]
The good news is that I had some encouragement from some of the founding members of the school. Whenever they would give me encourage me, they would take me aside secretly, as if they didn’t want to be seen encouraging me! [laughs] Nobody wanted to behind the punky kid who wanted to be a musician who doesn’t do what he is told! [laughs] I had a few people come and tell me they were going to recommend and push for me being out of there but that it was for my own good. That is basically what they were saying. They were saying things like “Look, it is a wonderful school. I helped found it and completely believe in it but this particular school will take something away from you that you may never get back. You need to leave before we take that from you.” It wasn’t until years later that I understood what they were talking about. It was good that I had people saying to me on the way out, “We think you are going to have a career.” I was like After that, I was like “Really? That is news to me! Alright! I will give it a shot!” That is how I got my start; by accidentally tripping into tripping my way into Julliard, tripping my way out and then launching from there.
You have been a huge part of a terrific series on Syfy, “Being Human.” You are several seasons deep at this point. How did you get involved with the project initially?
It is an interesting story. I did a show called “Smallville.” I don’t know why they hired me for that. They decided they wanted to hire me for it and I had only read once for them. I bypassed the entire screen test process and all of the other stuff they put people through. They hired me, whichwas a very generous move on their part! I don’t know why! I don’t know what it was they saw in my work that made them think I should play that role. The role was “Doomsday,” who is monster who didn’t want to be a monster. He was a good guy. I did what they wrote and played a conflicted guy — a good guy who had a bad condition. I think I may have temporarily burnt a bridge or two with the “Smallville” people. I don’t really know if I have or not. I am not sure how they would react if I saw them in public. These days I don’t know if I would have been as honest when people asked me “Hey, what did you think of the finale from Season 8?” I said I didn’t agree with it and I don’t’ think I went much further than saying that. At the same time, that is not supporting your own work, even just saying you didn’t agree with it. If you are in something, you should be in it. I think because of that and a couple of other things, they tried to give me another role on the show once my character died. They were going to do it in a way that made sense that he would look the same. I didn’t really want to do it. I think between those two things, I probably left a sour taste in that casting director’s mouth.
Flash forward; they were having a really hard time casting “Being Human.” It is about this character who is a really good guy, who has this really messed up condition and doesn’t want to be a monster. Apparently, even after looking at hundreds of guys, they were really having trouble casting the role. The casting director said “I think I actually know a guy who could do this.” Then they called me in for an audition. They sent me the script, I opened it and read three pages before I saw the word “vampire” and closed it. I thought “We don’t need another one of those guys.” [laughs] Why would we need another vampire? I wasn’t going to go in to audition. Luckily, a friend of mine named Laura Kerry called me up and said “Are you passing on Being Human?” I said “Yeah.” She said “Did you read the script? No, no you didn’t because if you did, you wouldn’t be passing.” She told me to be a responsible actor and read the damn script! She shamed me into reading it! [laughs] The shame grew as I continued through those pages. They had sent the first two scripts and they were just amazing! They were fantastic. That is when I realized it wasn’t a vampire as much as it was a drug addict. I thought, “This is really cool!” I went in for the role and saw the casting director I thought was pissed at me again. I even asked him, “Hey, am I OK in this office?” I think someone said, “Yak know, for a while you weren’t but I think we are fine now.” [laughs] I went in and met with Anna Fricke, Jeremy Carver and Adam Kane.
Thankfully, that audition process was very, very easily because they made it known very plainly that they wanted me to do it. In fact, even at the screen test there would be moments where they would take people aside and make adjustments before they go in again. They talked to them for about ten minutes. Adam would take me aside and say something like “So, how was your weekend?” It took me by surprise and I said “Uhhh, ok. Do you have any adjustments?” He said “No but we have to stand here and wait ten minutes, so it seems like no one has an unfair advantage, so how was your weekend? What did ya do?” [laughs] They really made me feel like I had the role from the moment I walked in. I appreciated that because some actors don’t do well when they feel unwelcome. There can be a psychological impact there and with “Being Human,” I was made to feel very, very welcome. I couldn’t not audition well because I felt like they wanted me there. That is how the role came to be.
You have some very talented writers on the show. What do you feel you might have brought to your character that may not have been in the original scripts?
I think all of us have really brought a lot to the characters. We are at the point where we know these people very, very well. The first thing you see of my character in episode one is him murdering a girl and then in a minute and a half of screen time later, I am making jokes with Sam Huffington. We didn’t want to make a show that takes the murder of an innocent woman lightly. What we had to do was create a character who compartmentalizes. He is like the Titanic with all of these separate watertight compartments. They isolate each part from each other but they also leak and make him sink! [laughs] That is the character, right? You have to figure out a way to have him be in the depths of despair one moment and when someone walks in, he immediately hides it, smiles, is gracious and it is like nothing is wrong. I figured as long as we could create a subtext for the character where the audience is looking at him and he can be smiling and joking around but they are like “We know this is a lie. We know he is darker on the inside.” If we did that, it would allow us to get away with murder and mayhem because we know that he feels guilty about it. Even when he is acting dopey we know he feels it because we see glimpses of it. The other part of it is that you give a character and inner life like that, and then the audience tends to wonder about them. They have a tendency to wonder what is going on underneath the hood or behind the curtain. The other thing I think I brought to it was the process of figuring out how it all worked. I asked Jeremy Carver if he wanted me to give him the verbal sense, through his use of language, that he has been around for 260 years. Carver said “No. He sounds like us.” I said “Ok. If he sounds like us, then he sounds like us from different time periods as well. He should sound like us from the 50s. If he sounds like us from the 20s, he should sound like us from the 20s. He has coverage or an act he is always putting on to blend in to his surroundings.” That is something the writers and I discovered together as we were playing and talking about this stuff. The most important thing was to make sure I was playing an addict always. Even today, I am still playing an addict and still doing that. Thankfully, the writers have not gotten sick of writing that stuff because I find it fascinating! He is a guy who is constantly being challenged by this.
When it comes to the characters you play, is there a particular process you go about when you take on a new project?
The process is always different depending on the project. It requires different things. If I am doing a “Star Wars” thing, I will definitely put a little more theater into it. That is using a different part of your brain, so to speak. “Being Human” has become this interesting exercise in playing extreme stakes and letting comedy slip out as almost an afterthought or a mistake. That requires a lot of spontaneity. There is a very improv type feel on the set, which is wonderful! Some jobs require you to really think your shit out before you get in there. You have to really know what you are doing. “Being Human,” at this point, is a job where we have all certainly at this point we have all done our homework. It is now about arriving on the set and being totally open to wherever that stuff takes you and having a real sense of humor about all of it. The most fascinating thing I find about the job that it is drama and we go to some very dark places, especially this year! We go to extraordinarily dark places but we make tolerable by giving you fun characters to hang out with. They are people. They are real people. We don’t play the comedy of it in an over the top, sitcom-like or campy way. We have it come out of the situations and play it like this the crazy crap that comes out of your mouth in these situations! I really have to give credit to my co-stars for being able to pull that off as well as they have. I feel I have learned a hell of a lot from them when it comes to that skill set. Not to toot my own horn but I am a very funny guy! [laughs] I always have been. In college, everyone thought I was going to go off and be a comedian, rather than an actor. Sure, if you put me in front of people and tell me I can be as over the top as I want and make them laugh, I will do something ridiculous to make myself look like a dick to get the laugh. What I didn’t know how to do before “Being Human” is play this guy who is going through all of these grave circumstances and play it straight but make it funny anyway. That is hard to do. There is a reason why when you see like the brilliant “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” are great. They bring out the humor in so many things and exaggerate things. On “Being Human,” we are not doing that. We are trying to play it totally straight but still have it be really funny. A lot of that is the writers being hilarious people. The other half of that is our ability to pull it off. Again, I didn’t quite have that ability before the show.
Here is an interesting thing which is almost a little bit of a spoiler. We do, for brief moments, spend time with Josh and Aidan around Season One time, for brief moments. Maybe not so brief moments, I don’t know. I’m trying not to spoil you here! [Sam] Huntington and I had to wrap our brains around what we were doing in Season One. I was very, very internal and very subtle. That really worked to create a mystique for the character. Huffington was huge! He was just all over the place with giant performances. As time has gone on, I have become a little bit bigger and more external and he has become a little bit smaller and more internal. While are both on our sides of the fence, we have come together and learned a lot from each other. Going back and playing Season One Aiden felt like I was putting on really comfortable jeans. I was like “Awesome! I know exactly how to play this guy! I remember this guy! I love this version of the character. At the same time, there would be something going on with Sammy and Megan on set and they would be doing their thing, as we have a lot of improv on our set, and here would be these comedic targeted opportunities floating right past me! I feel like I have a sniper rifle now and I was letting them go one by one! In Season One, I didn’t know how to do that yet! I wasn’t as quick as I am now comedically and I don’t know how to slip those things in. Obviously, none of us were as good at these characters as we are now but it was interesting to limit myself to re-create the Season One character. There were points where I had to say “No, no, no! Season One Aiden doesn’t do that!” In fact, what is funny about Season One Aidan is how annoyed he is with his roommates. He walks into a scene; he constantly has a headache and really doesn’t want to deal with Josh. He is straight man to josh in Season One. That is how we do it. Yeah, it was fascinating to go and revisit a place you grew up in a way.
Evolution is a big part of what you do as an actor, as you hinted about there. What do you consider your biggest evolution as an actor has been from the beginning of your career up until this point?
Probably the fact I have ended up being able to make a living! [laughs] I am still pretty shocked and amazed that happened! It is a very rare thing. What has been my biggest evolution as an actor? I don’t know? I can do things I couldn’t do before. Whenever I run into old work of mine on TV, I will watch something I am doing and say “Interesting. I see what I am trying to do and now I know how to do that. I was just a kid then.” Then there are other times when I wonder if I can still do some of the things I used to do. There are times I see myself do things in my old work where I say “Whoa. What the hell did I just do there? I am really good at that but I haven’t done that in a while.” It is an interesting thing. There is a shift you find in your work.
You also have a musical side which, as you mentioned, was a big part of your life. Any plans of revisiting that aspect of your career?
Yes. I am very excited to finish my second album. In fact, I have been doing some writing this past weekend. That is the first time in a long time that I have written any music. I have a half finished album just sitting there. I have been so busy with everything else that I haven’t been able to get to it. There will be at least one Crashtones’ song that will be in “Being Human” this season. I am really happy about that! It just had never occurred to me before to present it to the production. “Hey guys! I have some music!” [laughs] That is all it took, so that is kind of cool.
What are some of the musical influences that inspired you early on?
There was music constantly when I was growing up. My Dad is real deal musical talent. He really is quite brilliant. He has managed to teach himself all kinds of instruments and plays them with an extreme amount if precision. My cousin Michael and his father are both extremely talented as well. Music was always present. I listened to a lot of music as a baby and then as a young kid. I think that is where my love of music comes from, due in no small part to my father’s encouragement. When I showed any interest towards music, he helped facilitate my development by buying me an instrument. If I wanted drums, I got them. If it was a bass, I got a bass. That was an awesome thing for a parent to do.
What can you tell us about your songwriting process?
I always record while I am writing. I am always record because I don’t know proper musical notation because I am self taught. My way of keeping it together is to record it, listen to it and construct it from there. The recording process is literally a building process for me. It always has been. Even back in high school, before all the digital stuff, I had a Tascam 388 recorder, which is the same machine Primus’ “Frizzle Fry” was recorded on. It is a wonder old, reel to reel, 8 track tape recorder. It was 8 channels with a mixer built in. I would mic up the drums and go into the other room and play the drums in a certain pattern. Then I would return to the other room and start laying down bass. I would then play guitar over that. You would build it as you go. Sometimes you have an idea in your head and are hearing it already but sometimes you are just winging it. There are a few instances where I had a song pretty much fully formed. I knew how it went and I knew some of the lyrics already, so I started laying it down. That is the process.
For those who haven’t heard the band, how would you describe your music sonically?
I would say it is James Brown meets Peter Gabriel meets Mike Patton meets Red Hot Chili Peppers meets Incubus. You name it; it is all over the place! [laughs] Every song is kind of a different story with a different character telling the story. The sonic principles are always different, as are the drums, guitars and the voice. It is a very challenging thing to manage. Usually when you are doing an album you have a predetermined sound you stick with and I had to be ambitious and create a different sound each time with greater degrees of success or failure depending on what song you are listening to. All of the songs are very, very different. That is what it is. The Crashtones “Colorful In The Stereo” is what it is called.
What is the best piece of advice piece of advice you can pass along to young creatives who look to you as an inspiration?
Here is a really good piece of advice given to by Sir Patrick Stewart of all people! He says, “Do what you do. Do your work. Do the best that you can and then don’t give a damn.”
Are there any charities you are involved with at the moment that we can help spread the word on?
Yeah. The International Advocate For Glycoprotein Storage Diseases is a great organization. The website is www.ismrd.org. They focus on muscular degenerative diseases that affect adults and a lot of children. I am hoping I can raise a little bit of awareness on them.
Thanks for your time today, Sam. I appreciate it and look forward to seeing what you have in store for us in the years to come.
Thank you so much Jason!
Check out Sam Witwer’s music and latest happening at his official website, www.samwitwer.com. Connect with Sam on Twitter at twitter.com/SamWitwer. Make your calendars as ‘Being Human’ kicks off it’s exciting fourth season in January 2014!