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Let’s Go to the Maul with The Clone Wars’ Sam Witwer

Star Wars: The Clone Wars had a banner year last season. That was in no small part to the thrilling four-part season finale that saw the return of everyone’s favorite horn-pronged hellion, Darth Maul. Sam Witwer has been a rogue Sith apprentice, an unstoppable killing machine that dates Superman’s best friend, and a vampire with an odd choice in roommates. Now he can add Kenobi Enemy #1 to his list, as he voices the Sith Lord, who’s all better half. We talked to the actor in anticipation of the return of the Clone Wars tomorrow morning.

Nerdist: You get around quite a bit. Between Smallville and The Clone Wars and all of these projects you’re working on, you’re kind of a poster child for genre television.

Sam Witwer: It’s weird how that’s happened. I don’t think I ever planned it out. I try to jump right into the major franchises, be it Battlestar, Superman, Smallville, vampire stuff. You name it.

Nerdist: When you get a script, are you attracted to it because it’s genre? How do you react when something comes in?

SW: Really, it’s another thing. I initially turned down the Being Human audition because I was like, “Why would anyone need to make another vampire show now?” But it wasn’t until I read the script that I went, “Oh, wait a second. This is a really cool show about drug addiction. I’ll do that. That’s cool.” Being Human happened just after I did a completely non-genre pilot from the guy that created Revenge that didn’t go. It’s weird. There are non-genre jobs I do here and there, independent films, this and that. It feels like the ones that are most successful, and therefore the ones that happen the most are these genre projects. It’s funny how that works.

Nerdist: Is it weird that I think you’d aesthetically fit in on Revenge? Everyone seems to have really cut cheekbones on that show. I don’t know why that is.

SW: Maybe Mike Kelley’s got a thing for cheekbones. I’ve got no idea. He’s a hell of a nice guy.

Nerdist: Hell of a good show, too.

SW: Yeah, totally. My buddy Nick Wechsler’s on that show. I am a genre fan, though. That’s what kind of makes these jobs all the more fun.

Nerdist: You’re Starkiller in The Force Unleashed. That’s one of the recent additions to the Star Wars canon outside of The Clone Wars to which people really responded well. How did you take that when that came out? Were people very gracious? Did you hear the other end?

SW: Relieved. We were trying to create a character closer on the timeline to the original Star Wars. We felt like, “OK, let’s give it that 1940s taste with the faster, more intense dialogue, and try to give a ’70s style performance so that he feels like Han, Luke and Leia, that type of situation.” We had all these series, but you never know how it’s going to play until the public gets their hands on it. I was just relieved that we got away with it. There isn’t a week that’s gone by since 2008 that someone doesn’t ask me about that project. I am very grateful because the type of character, that I did the mo-cap; also, Lucasfilm chose to make him look like me. I also did all the vocal stuff. It really helped my career in a big way.

Nerdist: That leads to my next question, which is about playing Darth Maul in Clone Wars. Was that something that came from that relationship? Did you get approached completely anew?

SW: It came from the relationship. Lucasfilm is interesting. It’s a company that takes care of their own. If you do a good turn for Lucasfilm, they definitely remember it. What happened is I guess Dave Filoni played Force Unleashed. He was casting for a role called the Son in these episodes of The Clone Wars where you meet a character that represents the Dark Side of the Force. He basically is the Dark Side of the Force in this weird dream world. Liam Neeson is in the episodes. It was really very cool art. I guess Dave Filoni had the idea of, “Wouldn’t it be neat if we got the Starkiller actor to do that?” They called me up. They told me what they wanted me for. They said, “Do you want to do it? It’ll be two episodes.” I said, “Sure.” Then, I found out it was a tremendous hit they were offering to me. I had no idea at the time. I had recently myself fallen into The Clone Wars. When it first came out, it wasn’t necessarily for me. It seemed more like a kids’ show. But as the show evolved and became more adult and the storytelling became more sophisticated, I became extraordinarily, extremely interested in the show. When they called me up and wanted me to be on it. I said, “Yeah, whatever you want me to do. That’s fine.” That’s kind of how that came along. Then, The Son led to Darth Maul. When we were recording The Son, it was three episodes. By the third episode, Dave Filoni, “No, I might have something for you down the road.” And I’m, like, “Oh! Cool. Like a bounty hunter or something?” He’s like, “Eh, something like that.” Then, he calls me up later and says, “Hey, man, Darth Maul.” They’ve been awesome to me. I’m ridiculously lucky, man. I’m pretty much the luckiest guy that I know. I could tell you stories that would blow your mind. I could tell you about a woman coming across the street, dropping bags in the middle of the street that she was carrying. No one was helping her, so I went to help her gather her things up. That led to her bringing me into an office and saying, “Hey, do you want to read for something?” I’m like “Sure.” That led to me getting The Mist to work with Frank Darabont, another genre situation.

Nerdist: That is possibly the greatest casting story I’ve ever heard.

SW: There’s more details to it. But those types of things have happened to me. They’ve helped tremendously. I’m just lucky. I’ve got a great job. I get to work on all this stuff I enjoy working on. It’s cool.

Nerdist: You’ve always come across as a very happy, joyful guy, but you’re playing characters where there’s no joy there at all. How do you prepare to go into the booth and just deliver these lines of “I’m going to kill everybody!” Is that taxing at all?

SW: [LAUGHS] The whole intention me and Dave Filoni talked over and he and George talked over — really, what we were striving to do, and maybe we didn’t articulate this clearly at the time, but it’s a clearer sense than “This is what we’re trying to do”: Darth Maul is insane, right? It’s this cost of having been hurt badly. We had an inkling that’s what we were doing. But once we started getting into it, we realized exactly what we were doing. We wanted to show you what is happening to Darth Vader under the mask. What are his private moments like? What is that guy hiding from you? What is he filtering from the people that deal with him? What he’s filtering, what all of these bad guys in Star Wars are dealing with, is madness and despair and anger. There’s a lot of sadness in there. We were really going for that. They all encouraged me to go as dark as I possibly could, to bring some psychological complexity to that condition. Then, going forward, we had that subtext and the undercurrent for the character as he started becoming the quiet Sith Lord that we’ve known from Phantom Menace.

But there’s always an understanding that that madness is kind of with them all, all those bad guys. George talks a lot about, “What is this whole Star Wars thing about? What is at the center of Star Wars?” It’s simply this: you have the Jedi, or the good guys, whatever you want to call them. They’re about, “Hey, what can I do for other people? What can I do to make a positive impression in this world? It’s not about me. What can I do to benefit everyone else, because this is all bigger than me?” That’s such a really good guy take on Star Wars. The bad guy take is, “I want things. Give me things. I want things for myself.” That’s the most important thing. In fact, that’s the only thing, after a while, that these people to see. Take that classic scene from the original Star Wars where Obi-Wan says to Darth Vader, “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” Metaphorically, Obi-Wan is saying, “Hey, man: as a martyr, I’ll be far more effective than I possibly could be as a human being. In fact, I have fulfilled my role. I have passed on some knowledge and wisdom to the younger generation. I have served the greater good. I will serve even greater good if you end me right now. I dare you.”

Now, Vader cannot conceive of that. That doesn’t exist to him. For the bad guys of Star Wars, once you die, that’s it. There’s nothing more to it. You can’t accumulate any more stuff if you’re dead. You can’t take it with you. These guys just become ridiculously obsessed with holding onto absolutely everything they have. This also means when they get injured or hurt or when horrible things happen, they still hold onto it. Even more jealously they hold onto these things, because the ultimate consequence for not holding on is that if they pass on or die, they’ve got nothing. They’re these very short-sighted people, these horribly grotesquely self-obsessed people that are these Star Wars villains. From a mythological standpoint, in terms of the discussion of what is evil, I think it’s fascinating that evil is becoming so self-obsessed that you really, actually do become insane.

That’s really what we were endeavoring with the Darth Maul character: to give you another flavor of that, to help inform the Darth Vader or Emperor character, or all these characters that people have been in love with over 30 years. It’s our opportunity to give you another facet of that, in this case to give you the pure, unadulterated, “Here’s the Dark Side of the Force. It sucks. It’s not leather suits and cool laser swords. It’s madness and despair and sadness.” It’s all those things. I just went off on a complete geek rant for you.

Nerdist: No, that was amazing. 

SW: What’s cool about it, and I think it’s a reason I’m a Star Wars fan, is that model is a wonderful representation of evil in any kind of storytelling or in life. The people that I have had the hardest time dealing with are the ones that are more self-obsessed. Even things like love and wanting to have someone in your life can actually come from twisted motivations. Are you doing something for that girl you like because you actually want her to benefit from that, or are you doing that because you want something back from her or want to keep her for yourself? It’s fascinating stuff to think about.

Nerdist: What was interesting in the lead-up in the introduction of Darth Maul, and I don’t know how much you were exposed to, was that people got really apprehensive about seeing the character return. Then, it was almost unanimously praised when it actually happened. How much of that did you have an exposure to? How much weight did you feel going in playing this character?

SW: A lot. It’s anything with Star Wars. With Starkiller, you’re like, “OK, we’re making a Star Wars protagonist. It’s hard, especially when going in different directions. Usually, Star Wars protagonists have blonde, ’70s haircuts. We went with a dark-haired guy and a no-haired guy. [LAUGHS] We were going thematically and visually opposite. When it comes to Darth Maul, we were going with something that had already been established and was already beloved by the fan community. We were all concerned. I was concerned. Even when Dave Filoni called me up, he said “Hey, I need a Darth Maul. Can you do that?” You answer, “Yes.” That’s the only right answer to that question. It’s placing confidence. You know, let your boss know that, “Hey, yes, I’ll take care of the job. I’ll get it done. Don’t worry about it.” Then, you go off by yourself, and you go, “Shit. What happened? Can I do this right? I don’t know.” The cool thing is that the fans were more accepting of it once they saw both episodes. I’m sure first episode, when you see Darth Maul in the grips of madness, you see this spider creature, this guy who’s become so mad that over the years with this connection of the Dark Side of the Force. You see pieces of garbage started sticking to him. Over the years, those pieces of garbage grew out into these spindly spider legs that were extensions of the Dark Side of the Force and his madness and his wounded psyche. This is risky business, man. This is not like, “Hey, this is the character you love. Here he is.” No. We changed it quite a bit. You can’t bring back Darth Maul the way that he was because it’s horrible storytelling. The guy was cut in half. There has to be a physical consequence of that. Moreover, there has to be emotional and psychological consequence to that happening. If he just kind of showed up and was like, “Hey boys, I’ve been waiting for you. I’ve been working out. I just got on a weight set and a Bowflex. I’m ready now after ten years of training.” No, that’s stupid. No. He can’t be the guy he was, or at least not right away.

The story that we tell is to describe that damage and what he went through, and then slowly put him back together over a number of episodes. When I first saw him, some people thought it was awesome. Some people thought, “Whoa, that’s not the character. They screwed it up.” Then, when they saw that he started regaining himself, they were like, “Oh, this is interesting. This is a story I’d like to follow.” One of the things that we get to do in the fifth season is we get to bring him closer and closer to the character was in The Phantom Menace. At the beginning of the fifth season, he’s not even there yet. But he’s starting to do things. There were things that were planned  for him around the time of The Phantom Menace. After all, this was Palpatine’s guy. This is the future emperor’s apprentice. He was going to play a huge role in The Clone Wars, but then, he gets killed. Now, he’s back, and he wants to put some of those plans into motion. That’s really fun to watch him do. He makes the mistakes, but the fascinating thing about the guy is he never makes the same mistake twice. The other thing that we were also attempting to do is really ask ourselves, “OK, this was the apprentice to Darth Sidious, the emperor or the future emperor. Who would this guy have to be?” He has two lines in The Phantom Menace. He’s like a hit man. He says little, and he fights really good. Me and Filoni were like, “Well, yeah. Great. That’s awesome. That’s one facet of the character, but there can’t be all there is.” If you go with this whole thing of “There can only be two Sith Lords,” if you’re shopping for an apprentice, it can’t just be someone who fights good with swords. It’s got to be someone who can do everything well, who is not only a brilliant warrior but a tactician and a potential general, and also possibly even a politician. He’d have to be brilliant. He’d have to kind of be the complete package.

Throughout these Star Wars movies, all of them, we see Palpatine continuously looking for that perfect apprentice. He thinks he found it, finally, with Darth Vader, but even that gets messed up. He gets damaged, and he never turned out to be as good as he could have been had he not been cut up. Finally, at the end of all the movies, he meets one guy. He’s like, “You know what? This is the guy I was waiting for, which was Luke Skywalker.” And that’s the guy who does him in, him and Vader. There’s really a wonderful symmetry to all of these things. These are all things we talked about when designing the Maul character. We’d be like, “Who was the first? Who was the guy who Palpatine built up from a child to be his successor?” That’s what we’re attempting to show this season.

Nerdist: You and Clancy Brown, your voices play really well together as brothers. Do you work with him in the booth or is it recorded separately?

SW: Not every producer or show runner understands the actor’s job. Dave understands it well enough to know that, “Hey, the performances are better when you get the actors in the same booth together.” As often as we can, we are all working together.

Nerdist: I understand you’re on-set in Montreal. What are you working on?

SW: Being Human. We’re shooting our third season.

Nerdist: When it was announced there was going to be a U.S. adaptation of that show, a lot of people said, “Why do that?” But fans watching the American version don’t feel like they’re just getting a diluted, re-done version of that. When you went into the project, were you hesitant at all? Had you seen the original show?

SW: I saw one episode. I felt like I had to get an idea of where they were going. After that, I dropped it. I said, “I can’t watch this. I have to develop a different character. I do my own thing.” You’re hesitant because there are fans that already have expectations. But I also looked at it like, “Hey, if we’re successful, we’re going to help their show. They’re going to get more exposure. If we’re not, they’re going to be fine either way.” We’re not screwing anyone over here. We’re all in this together. We really respect what they did. Having said that, I feel very lucky that it worked, that everyone brought their A-game and everyone knew how to do their job. That’s not always the case in this business. Shit, man, I’ve been in projects where you read the script and you’re like, “Wow, this works.” Then, you get a cast together, and you’re like, “Oh, my goodness. This is awesome. Oh! These pieces are coming together. Look at these locations. Look at this, the art direction, and oh! What a great cinematographer we have on set.” Then, one key position, like the editor, sucks, right? Maybe there’s no more resources to do it again. It’s like you’re screwed. The entire thing goes down in flames.

There’s not a lot of appreciation for how difficult this whole art form is. I remember I was talking shit about some show, and my buddy Frank Darabont just schooled me. He was like, “I just want to remind you you’ve been there. This is really hard.” I’m like, “All right, good point.” He’s like, “No, you’re right with your critiques, but remember it’s really hard.” I’m like, “Thank you.” [LAUGHS] With Being Human, I’m just happy that we are now starting to hear from British fans of our show. That, to me, is the ultimate test. If we can get some Brits to feel like we are adding something new to that mythology, then I’m very thankful. Having said that, once we are done with our first season, I bought everyone a boxed set of the Blu-rays. We watched everything that the British show has done up to the fourth season. I haven’t seen the fourth season yet. I’m a big fan of what they do. A huge fan.

Nerdist: That’s interesting you’re able to watch the show and it does not influence you at all. I know some people would be like, “I’ll never watch it. It’ll never happen.”

SW: I was interested to watch it. I wanted to see what these people had done. I had a sense of it, but I really wanted to appreciate their hard work. Ultimately, we benefited from their hard work. Toby Whithouse is a fucking genius. I’m very, very lucky to have benefited from his genius.

Nerdist: Did you happen to see his episode of Doctor Who recently?

SW: No, I didn’t.  I would love to work directly with the guy. He’s a consulting producer on our series. He benefits from us. I’d love to actually sit down with the guy and get something done.

Nerdist: This is based off a Tweet you sent this afternoon: which superhero would you like to play in the DC Universe?

SW: [LAUGHS] I’m not the campaigning type. If they ever go back to that, they’ll cast who they want. And I got it. I almost rather they don’t. The Nolan movies were so amazing. Let that sit for a while. Let us enjoy the fact that we got three damn great movies, and that’s that. Having said that, if they ever go back to it in the future and have an interesting take on it–Batman is pretty deep, and there are other takes you could have it. You’re hard-pressed to come up with something as good, but you never know. Having said that, sure, look, [LAUGHS] I would certainly love to play Batman. There are elements of that person’s psychology that maybe have gone a little bit unexplored. That is no slight on any filmmaker that’s working on it, because you have to focus on a specific type of thing that supports your story. The Batmen that we’ve seen thus far had their own stamp. They had their own theme. They’ve followed those themes. I would like to know a little bit more about a guy who’s crazy enough to throw on a cowl and run out in the middle of the night. Michael Keaton definitely gave you the sense that that guy wasn’t right in the head. I loved that.

Nerdist: Your portrayal of Doomsday is somewhat controversial, but a lot of people still liked what you brought to the table.

SW: [LAUGHS] I’m thankful. I feel that was another bullet I dodged.

Nerdist: You made him sympathetic, which may be what some fans disliked, but ultimately people almost didn’t want to root against him for a bit.

SW: I want to thank the writers for that. That was always their plan to make him sympathetic. That’s how they sold him to me. They said, “Hey, we want to do this. We want to make him essentially a good guy with a terrible, terrible condition.” The writers really came up with the strong concept. They executed on it well. Then, they let me do my thing beyond that, which is a generous of them to let me mess with their stuff. [LAUGHS] I think that I probably insisted on messing with it because I had an awareness of “I’m playing Doomsday. If this isn’t right, they’re going to go after me. They’re going to locate me on-site in the middle of the street. Let’s get this right.” Thankfully, their concept was extremely strong.

Nerdist: Is there any chance of you showing up in L.A. Noir?

SW: There’s a very good chance. In terms of where, when, and what, who knows? Frank and I already talked about it. He wrote me a part I just can’t play because I’m doing Being Human. Having said that, our schedules don’t totally overlap. It is conceivable that I could go over there and play with those guys. Boy, I’ll tell you, man, I’ve seen it. I saw and screened it at his house. Jon Bernthal is amazing. Simon Pegg just kills it, especially with the American dialect. It’s really fun to see Simon as one of us. Everyone is really, really wonderful on that show. Milo, I think he’s never been better. It’s really, really fun to watch.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars returns to Cartoon Network tomorrow (Sept. 29th) at 9:30 am.

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  1. Brian Walton says:

    No, he was correlating his portrayal of Darth Maul with something we would have liked to have seen from Darth Vader. He was implying that his approach is trying to give insight on all of the Sith.

  2. Bree says:

    “But once we started getting into it, we realized exactly what we were doing. We wanted to show you what is happening to Darth Vader under the mask. What are his private moments like? What is that guy hiding from you? What is he filtering from the people that deal with him? What he’s filtering, what all of these bad guys in Star Wars are dealing with, is madness and despair and anger. ”

    Did he mean Darth MAUL there…?

  3. MG says:

    Sam Witwer is my hero. Gotta appreciate his passion for his craft and how much he loves Star Wars. It’s so far beyond just “cool this is Star Wars!”