Over the course of the past two decades, Derek Mears has carved out one of the most eclectic resumes you can find in today’s entertainment industry. The results of his hard work, dedication to his craft, and infectious positivity are undeniable. His epic journey has taken him from a shy small-town boy with a thirst for improv comedy, to a Hollywood leading man. Whether it’s donning the mask of one of horror’s most iconic killers in Michael Bay’s reboot of “Friday the 13th,” or breathing life into an array of out-of-this-world characters, he is fearless when it comes to pushing his creative limits as an artist. The best part is that he’s just getting warmed up!
In May of 2019, Derek Mears’ most challenging role to date will be revealed when he portrays the titular character in the highly-anticipated DC Universe series “Swamp Thing.” In the series, produced by James Wan, Mears stars opposite Crystal Reed, Will Patton, and Ian Ziering. The story follows Abby Arcane as she investigates what appears to be a deadly swap-born virus in the small Louisiana town of Marais. Derek shines as the swamp creature with audiences quickly finding out there is more to him than meets the eye. “Swamp Thing,” which hails from James Wan’s Atomic Monster in association with Warner Bros. Television, is set to premiere May 31st, only on the DC Universe digital subscription service.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Derek Mears to discuss his career arc, evolution as an actor, and what might lie in store for him in the years to come. Along the way, Derek offers an exclusive inside look at the complexities of breathing life into one of the DCEU’s most complicated characters
You worked in the entertainment industry for two decades. How did you get involved with the arts early on and what led you down the path to do it professionally?
To sound like the total nerd that I am, I remember my Mom asking me as a child, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” I said, “I want to play with my friends. I don’t need to be rich or famous. I just want to make enough to play with my friends, so that I can create.” I was hugely into “Dungeons & Dragons” and role-playing games as a child. I thought, “What’s the closest thing? Oh OK, cool. Playing pretend with acting? Cool, let’s do that!” [laughs] That’s my start! That’s what sent me in the direction of doing improv comedy, going to college for acting, doing theater and musicals, and taking the big chance of moving out to LA. I’m still doing it, which is crazy! I don’t understand how I keep working but the phone keeps ringing and every day I’m very thankful!
What went into finding your creative voice as a young person? Who did you look to for inspiration?
I found my own voice through improv comedy. Growing up, I was the different kid. I have this disorder called alopecia and my hair would fall out. So, at the time, if you were white and bald, it was either you had cancer or you were a Neo-Nazi. I’m like, “I’m neither! It’s OK. I’m healthy! Really, I’m neither of those things!” [laughs] I used to wear wigs in school or cover my hair up because my self-confidence wasn’t there. At 17 years old, I fell into doing improv comedy after going to see my first improv comedy show. I took classes to learn some of the theater games from that show, which really broke me out of my shell. Then they asked me to join the main company at 17. I was like, “Umm, but everyone else is way older than I am!” They said, “Yeah, we know.” I said, “OK, I’ll keep doing this!” [laughs] I remember a turning point with improv because creatively it let me have my own voice and gave me the confidence of knowing whatever it is, as long as you are in the moment, it’s OK. It’s you. Before doing shows before a hundred seat audience, we would warm up out back. I wouldn’t wear my hair around my close friends. I remember one show, the turning point for me, where I was going to do a show and said, “Oh, I have to put my hair on.” I grab my hair off this little wig stand and I had a friend in the show who asked, “Why do you wear that?” Believe it or not, no one had ever asked me that before. I paused for a second and thought about it. I thought, “Why do I wear this?” I put the wig back on the stand, put a bandana on and, like a trial by fire, I confronted my own fears, my self-image and who I am. I did the show with the bandana on and I never wore the hair again, which is crazy! Improv really gave me that line of being able to go anywhere and do anything. It’s a doodle pad or like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute on and you’re gonna figure it out on the way home.
Talking about influences, when people ask me who my favorite actors or artists are, I really don’t have a favorite in general. However, the person I think influenced me a lot through his work was a gentleman by the name of Mike Patton. He’s a musician, lead-singer of Faith No More, Peeping Tom, Fantomas and Mr. Bungle. I remember reading an article about him at a young age where he was talking about creation, having no boundaries and trying things that are out of the norm or outside the box. He discussed his creative process and I found it liberating and beautiful, that I’ve carried with me ever since as a creator. I’ve never met Mike, though we have mutual friends. They’ve asked me, “Do you want to meet Mike?” I don’t think I ever do because he’s been such an influence with my career and what I do, that if we ever had a bad instance that it would just crush me. I’m sure he’s not that way but it would crush me! So, yeah, he’s been a huge influence on me creatively.
When did things start to break for you as an actor?
When I moved to LA, I came to do acting and comedy. My first audition was for the Universal Studios “Wild, Wild, Wild West Stunt Show.” The stunt show took actors and crossed them into do stunts and they took stunt people and crossed them into acting. I was an actor and at the time for the role I was auditioning for, they either had giant Conan-looking body types or the heavyset Hillbilly with a belly type. At the time, I looked more like the banjo kid from “Deliverance.” I was like, “I don’t fit these roles.” I got cast and I learned that if I worked out, I could be the big bad guy in TV and films, so I started training like crazy! The show was a balance between comedy and action, so that’s how I fell into the physical side of things. I have a background in martial arts, but I became friends with all of the stunt guys. They would say, “Hey, we’re going to go learn air ram or wire work. Do you want to come?” I was like, “Yeah, sure!” For awhile, I started making a name for myself doing both acting and stunts. At the same time, I got my SAG card by doing an independent film, which was very “Of Mice and Men” type, which was called “The Hurricane Festival.”
I started making a name on the acting and stunt side but it got to the point where the acting side was taking off so much that I don’t do the stunts anymore, although I have the skillset. At the pinnacle, the independent film that I did, which I don’t think is available anywhere now, started things. My first big Hollywood blockbuster role was “Wild, Wild West” with Will Smith. That’s when I was like, “This is how Hollywood works?” [laughs] I learned so much by Will’s example. He was so kind and, from the caterer on set up to the main producer, he treated everybody equally and with such respect. I knew it was a good note to make for the future and something I had to remember. I brought that into my own work ethic. Now, I constantly preach that we are a group of artists working together. Whether you are doing a TV show or a film, all of the different departments come together and work as a team.
Tying this into “Swamp Thing,” this is the kind of show you dream about as a kid before moving to Hollywood. There’s no, “Do you know who I am?” or “Listen, I’ve done this or that … ” We’re a group of talented artists, especially the Wilmington crew here, where the goal is the same. It’s the mindset of rowing the boat in the same direction to reach the destination with the best product possible. It’s a joy to go to work every day and everyone is super excited and stoked about us doing “Swamp Thing.” You see people interacting to determine how their art can help someone else’s art. It’s really a team/family. I really can’t wait to show the rest of the world what we’ve been incubating over the past seven months! We’re definitely excited to give birth to this crazy show!
I’m glad you mentioned that! I couldn’t have been more excited to see you attached to “Swamp Thing.” What drew you to the project?
I originally found out that I was on the short list for the character and I went in for a meeting with the producers and showrunners. A lot of times, I don’t know who’s who, doing what and where/when it comes to specific projects. I’ve been working steadily for the past 20 years, which I’ve been so fortunate to do but I kind of just focus on the work. With that said, here’s a funny story about the dum-dum I am! [laughs] After my first meeting with them, I was talking to my manager. He said, “Wow. It sounds like it went really well. They seem to be really interested in you.” I was like, “Yeah.” He said, “What’s up? You kind of sound disheartened?” I said, “I just don’t understand how they’re going to pull-off a CW-style, watered-down, for all audiences version of ‘Swamp Thing.’” He goes, “Uhh, that’s not what they’re doing for this. They are doing this for the DCU platform. It’s Hard-R and it’s based off of Alan Moore’s run of ‘Saga of Swamp Thing.’ James Wan is the head producer.” I was like, “Wah?! I did NOT know that!” So, then I went in for the second meeting and that’s when I got a little nervous. I was thinking, “To do ‘Swamp Thing’ right, like how the fans see it and how the Alan Moore run is, this could be amazing! OK, I’m onboard for this!” All of the feedback I’ve been hearing, and 100% not in a bragging sense but just from what I’m hearing on my end, is that the show tested really high. Everyone’s super happy about it. Also, to show the confidence in the show, I had assumed when they released the first image of Swamp Thing that they would kind of hide the face or backlight it so you can’t see a lot of the details. The feedback I got from the publicist was, “No. Everyone is so confident in it they want to show it!” The original plan was to kind of hide it but the powers that be were like, “No. SHOW IT! Let the fans see it. We’re really confident in it.” That’s amazing! We will see how it all comes together because you never really know because you are so close to the project but everything I’ve been hearing has been delightful. I hope the fans enjoy it!
Tell us about preparing for the role of Swamp Thing and the challenges you faced as you slipped into his world?
First of all, there is the physical aspect of it and, of course, being in a suit for the duration of an entire television series. Then there is the mental side of it. I approached it as I would any other character, where you make the character viable and do all the appropriate search from the mythos of the character and what’s in the canon and what’s not. Also, going deeper into that subtext was very important. Ultimately, we are telling a story of an existential crisis through Alec Holland. When he is dealing with the ideas of “Who am I? How do I exist? What is my reality?” and him adjusting to being Swamp Thing, you go down this existential rabbit hole! You find different paradoxes and you start questioning things in your own life! [laughs] I did so much research on philosophy, psychology, existentialism and theology to prepare. I even delved into botany to find out more about the symbiotic relationship of plant-life and humans and how we need each other. Swamp Thing is the balance between the two of those things.
One of the challenges of the role is that there is such a pathos to the character. On one extreme there is such a sadness and the other extreme there is such an anger. Being able to play that radio dial between the two is kind of maddening in its own way. When you’re dealing with a character like this, there is so much of the unknown that you have to surrender to it. It’s almost like diving into a sea of black. I say that because when I’m starting, I don’t know how the series ends and I’m going through the emotional torment and mania of figure out who you are when you don’t have any firm ground to start on, if that makes any sense! You start to delve into madness in a sense and what that means. Then you parallel some of the emotional experiences from your own life and use them as a springboard. A good analogy for it is a belaying pin, if you are rock climbing. You say, “OK, I’m here but emotionally I have to be over here. How do I reach there through examples in my own life or through doing research?” The character has been so complex! I’m really happy the producers have been so receptive. At one point I talked with them and said, “I’m very excited that it’s not just black and white. There are so many different levels and richness to the character that we are exploring!”
It’s not just a straightforward story, so we will get to the adult themes and the depth that Alan Moore created. Hopefully, we learn through the character and through him see our own humanity through Swamp Thing. I also hope it lets us question what we are doing here in this world, what our purpose is and who are we exactly? I bring up the question of “When you take everything away that we identify as human, what’s left?” It’s deep! I really applaud the producers for tackling this subject matter because it’s no easy task!
The creature effects on this series are simply amazing. Tell us about that aspect of the role.
That’s a beautiful question! I’m so happy to share this side of the business. Fractured FX is the company that made “Swamp Thing.” Justin Raleigh is the head of it and Bernie Eichholz, who I worked with on “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunter,” designed the Edward troll outfit. They’re geniuses! I literally get to wear art! The way they design these things, how they move, how they’re functional, how you can see the seams is amazing. With a character like Swamp Thing, they also account for me being in water or other times where I am fully submerged. They think, “How do we make this in a way where it dries out? What materials do we use?” The amalgamation of science and art together is just phenomenal!
Kevin Kirkpatrick and Ozzy Alvarez apply my makeup. When I first signed on for this, for what I thought they were talking about with the suit, I thought it would be around four hours a day to get in and out of the suit. That’s before we shoot even one frame of film! These guys are so talented and have done such huge projects that they’ve gotten it down to where it only takes me 2 hours to get into this thing, which is unheard of! I remember when I first met with them and saw the mechanics and design of the suit, I literally was so emotional going in! I said, “This is absolutely beautiful! I can’t believe I get a pilot that’s a beautiful Cadillac of a rocket ship that has so many new, cutting edge designs!”
They said to me, “Is there anything you want to put your two cents on? You’ve done this for so long? Is there anything you want or need?” Out of the five or six things that I mentioned; it was like going down a checklist! [laughs] I was like, “Have you guys thought about this? What if we did this? This was kind of a new idea I had on my own.” They were like, “We already added it!” I was like, “OK. What about this?” They were like, “Yup, already did it!” It was insane! The suit moves so well, its mind blowing! If I wanted to, I can kick over my head with it! It still is what it is. By that I mean, it’s still difficult to be in a suit and locked in for so many hours a day, in addition to some of the emotional scenes you are doing. What I didn’t take into consideration is that when you are emoting so heavily and committing sincerely to some of the sadness or the mania, your heart rate gets so high inside this suit and there is nowhere for that energy to go. That makes you physically drained, as well as emotionally drained.
On the acting side, one of the treasures is the way they have done the prosthetics on my face, it moves incredibly well! When it comes to the emotion, I don’t have to overdo or underdo anything. Whatever I’m thinking or feeling, you can completely capture through the makeup. It truly transcends through the makeup and, from the footage I’ve seen, I’m so proud to wear this and represent Fractured FX for this project.
You mentioned how this series wouldn’t be possible without the talented folks in front of and behind the camera. What did they bring out in you creatively?
It’s really beautiful because, like I said before, there is no hierarchy. Everyone wants the best for each other. There is a lot of etiquette and humility amongst everyone involved. People realize that everyone has different techniques or ways to view things, be it through the eyes of the cast or the director, so we all adapt to each other. We all get what each other needs but, most importantly, we all listen to each other. The cast itself really is special! Immediately, Virginia Madsen became the matriarch of the group and the glue that has kept everything together. Right off the bat, she started doing get-togethers at her house while we were filming, so that people would flow with each other. What she did was build this really unique family environment, which usually doesn’t happen, from what I hear, until Season 2, if it happens at all. We had this clubhouse safe haven where we were all able to vent or talk about ideas. Then we would have new episodes start where we have new directors come in, who we haven’t met. The directors would come to the house so you could get to know them ahead of time and start to understand what their directing style is. You get to meet them on that human basis before going into work mode. I tell ya, man, it’s so much fun going to work and there is such a buzz on set. The Wilmington crew worked so incredibly hard! It’s like going to work and partying with your friends but, at the same time, you are making art! Everyone is bringing their A game!
On the performance side, something I keep finding myself saying, is that everyone is playing the entire show like it’s Chekhov! If there is an emotional scene, no one is holding back. They are stepping on the gas pedal! Some of the cast members were balling or losing their minds on camera. Afterwards, you’re like, “Are you OK? Do you need anything? I know you’re just acting but holy cow! I’m in tears behind the monitors watching you perform because your crying is affecting me!” I’m really excited about the support system we have on this show. I really can’t wait for everybody to see it. Like I said, the buzz on set has been phenomenal.
“Swamp Thing” is the latest chapter in your amazing story. Looking back on all you accomplished through the years, how have you most evolved?
I have learned a lot! The main thing I have learned is the team aspect of the business. Sometimes I will see actors who are like, “I’m amazing” or it’s their first job as a guest star so I see them talking down to people on set. I’m like, “Hey man, can you make food for 250 people? No! That’s that person’s art. Yours is playing pretend and bringing emotional truth to the story you are telling.” I really just learned to respect so many different people but also to respect myself in that sense and what I bring to the table. On occasion, these bigger, powerful CEOs and producers have this attitude of, “I have so much money and power. Bow down before me!” [laughs] I’m like, “Man, you have a skill-set with production. We all have our different skills in different places. Like, right now, if things went sour and I lost my mind, could your lawyers or money stop me from strangling you?” [laughs] No! There is no way that’s going to happen! Don’t get me wrong, I would never ever do that, but you have to put things in perspective. I sound like a horribly violent persona and I’m not that way at all! [laughs] What I’ve learned from the career that has bled into my own life is no matter where you go or what you do, we all have something that the other person doesn’t have. We have to work together as a team to bring those gifts forward! That was a big lesson. There is no single, one cut way to do art. We all do it in a different way. It’s kind of like handwriting. How you make the letter “A” and how I make the letter “A” are totally different. At the end of the day, it’s still an “A” even though it’s different. The most important thing I have learned when it comes to art is that if it’s true to you, it’ll be true to other people.
Where do you see yourself headed when it comes to the material you take on?
When it comes to my career, I always say that if it ended right now, it’s been an amazing run! I don’t understand how I keep working! I say that because I have so many talented friends who are artists in different mediums who aren’t working. I really want to make opportunities for them to share the spotlight. My wife reminded me recently that everything I have said I wanted to do has been coming to fruition. She said, “You watch a show on Netflix and say you want to work with these guys because they understand the balance between violence and humor. Next thing you know, you’re working with them in Germany!” I also said I wanted to do more voice overs for cartoons, and I ended up doing more of that. It’s so weird! With “Swamp Thing,” for example, I remember doing a Q&A at a convention. Someone asked, “If you could play any character, who would you play?” I said, “I want to do a character like Frankenstein but not necessarily Frankenstein. Something that explores an existential question of who we are while playing different emotional levels. I want to dive through those emotional depths of existence and find the balance of being scary and passionate.” It’s so weird because I didn’t even think of “Swamp Thing” but I got the call for it to come in to meet. I was like, “How does this happen!” [laughs] As far was what the future may hold, I still just want to create with my friends and keep telling stories. Ultimately, with television and film, we are telling modern myths. The purpose of myths, in my opinion, is to tell people that it’s going to A.) Be OK or B.) to give you a way to live your life. So, I look to a lot of projects that have parables or, if it’s not in the project, I try to put them into the project, so we have something with more of an emotional depth to grab onto.
My background is in improv comedy, so I also do a show called “The Resistance.” There is no script and we improvise a live action/adventure movie on stage at UCB Sunset here in Hollywood. I just have such a passion for it. It’s so much fun. We have stunt pads on stage, we tell a whole story and build scenes with ladders, pads, ropes and carts. We also go out into the audience and include them as well. There are six guys on stage and guys off stage who are scoring it live, doing lights live and pulling stuff from the Internet. We tell full improvised stories that make sense and it’s such a hoot! I would love to explore more of that, possibly in a live TV setting. I’d be pitching a live TV show where it’s not scripted but we’d be making a movie live, right in front of your face and pull this crazy magic trick! The people I get to perform with are top-notch talents and I want to share the spotlight with those guys because I have so much fun doing that high-wire act in front of an audience!
You continue to inspire people around the globe with your work. What’s the best lesson we can take from your journey?
Ya know what? It’s important to remember that there is no one like you. Find out what makes you different. So many times, I see so many people who are ashamed or have insecurities about something about themselves, whether it’s how they look, how they act or how they are. I found out a lot about myself from having alopecia. As a kid, I felt like the unexpected monster because I looked different. What I realized when I moved to Hollywood is that what made me different was my gift. It’s my power. I try to empower people when I do Q&A’s at conventions or do interviews. I want people to know that whatever it is that makes you different can be your strength. We are all insecure about something, whether it’s being too big, too small, we have crooked teeth or a disorder. Whatever it is that makes you different is what makes you special. Step on that gas pedal! It’s very similar to the journey of Swamp Thing. It’s about acceptance! He’s trying to get this outward acceptance, but you have to realize that it starts with yourself. In a nutshell, the best lesson is, “Whatever makes you different, accept it, move forward and bring it to the forefront. Being you is enough and it’s OK!”
That’s great advice and a beautiful way to look at things! Thanks so much for your time today. I can’t wait to see where your journey takes you!
Thank you so much for your kind words! I sincerely appreciate it. Thanks for doing this interview, it’s been nothing but a hoot! Hopefully, we will talk more soon!
Absolutely! Take care and we will make it happen!
Follow the continuing adventures of Derek Mears on social media via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Catch him in action when the ‘Swamp Thing’ live-action series premieres on May 31st, 2019 on DC Universe.
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.