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Nerdist and the Whale – An Interview with David Anders

David Anders is a familiar face to television fans. If you missed him as Sark, the slimy British villain on Alias, you probably caught him as Josef Bazhaev, the son of a Russian crime boss, on Fox’s 24. Even if both of those shows were not your particular cup of tea, he’s also appeared in The Vampire Diaries, House, and Arrow, and he’s currently on both Necessary Roughness and Once Upon A Time, in which he plays the original mad scientist, Doctor Frankenstein. We caught up with David via phone to talk about his career, his musical theater roots, and the numerous times this native Oregonian has been mistaken for a British man.

NERDIST: Before we dive into Once Upon a Time, which you can probably say the least about, let’s start instead a bit further back. You’ve got a lot of theater and musical theater in your background.  Seems to be a big interest for you.

DAVID ANDERS: Yeah. That’s something that I’ve been wanting to really get back into, because I haven’t been onstage in probably four years or something like that. Last show I did was a musical in New York, but yeah, that’s where I started, you know? I started doing plays in my high school when I was about 15 years old. Then I would do a musical in the summer. Play football, tennis, do a musical at school…

N: Musical in the summer? Like a theater summer camp?

DA: I did. It was in my home town in Grant Pass, Oregon actually.

N: As a musical theater fan and with Once having the whole “fairy tale” theme, we gotta know, have you done Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods?

DA: Oh, man that would be very apropos. I haven’t. That’s kind of my dream part, to play the Wolf/Prince. I’d love to do that. I’d do anything in that show actually. I’d play the Baker. I’d do anything. (laughs) That’s one of my favorite shows of all time.

N: Us too. Sondheim is a master. He’s the best.

DA: He’s a genius. That (Into the Woods) and Les Miserables are my favorites. I think Les Mis is my favorite of all time. Not the movie, mind you.

N: (laughs) What’s the dream role in Les Mis?

DA: Marius. (laughs) I mean, Jean Valjean… I’m not quite there yet but… you know.

N: Obviously that’s the bar to reach if you’re in Les Mis. Okay, so you end up transitioning from theater to TV, was that where you wanted to end up?

DA: Yeah, I moved to L.A. not with dreams of being in the theater. I’d have moved to New York City if that was the case. You know, everyone comes to L.A. with stars in their eyes. TV, Film, that’s always been my end game, but I’ve found myself more recently wanting to get back to my roots, back to the stage, because it’s more fulfilling, I think. Living the arc of the character from curtain to curtain and the immediate reaction you get from the crowd is awesome. I’ve been lucky. Television has been kind to me. Movies not so much, but I’ve made a few… ha ha.

N: You talk about living out the arc of a character; certainly, the instant gratification of audience reaction in theater can’t be matched. There is something to be said about the longevity of TV, though. For example, you got to live with Sark, your character on Alias, for a very long time. You spent many seasons living in his skin. How does that differ from playing the same character night after night on stage? 

DA: Absolutely true, Sark and I spent a lot of time together. It is a different way to live an arc of a character. But whenever I would think about creating a backstory for the guy (on Alias), the writers would come out with a script that completely contradicted everything I had thought up. So I didn’t do any of that. I just let the writers come up with their magic.

N: In that regard you still have a little more creative freedom in theater because you create whatever backstory you want and there are no rewrites coming a week later.

DA: Exactly.

N: Sticking with Alias for a second, when you first got the role, did you have any indication you would stick around as long as you did?

DA: I did not. I thought I was gonna do a few episodes and be gone. I remember… I thought my time was coming to an end in the first season so I asked Jennifer (Garner) for an autograph. I mean, I got my SAG card on that show. So I asked her for a headshot and to sign it for me. And she wrote: “Dear David, Get comfy, you’re gonna be here for a while” And I was like, ‘what the f**k do you know that I don’t know?” And for a while it turned out I was the last bad guy standing. I also still have the headshot framed and hung up.

N: That’s fantastic. But yeah, Sark ended up in the wind somewhere, so you really were last man standing. Does not having any closure on a character you lived with for so long bother you at all?

DA: No. Not at all. You know, you live with them for a moment in time and then he’s off doing his thing. There was talk of a Sark spin-off for a second but that door opened and closed pretty quickly. But that would’ve been awesome to live in those clothes and in his skin. It was a pretty cool character. Probably my favorite character of all time. So far.

N: If Sark is your favorite character, what was the hardest job you’ve had? Something maybe not as easy to slip into as Sark.

DA: 24 was kind of interesting; we go back to arc again. Each episode is only an hour in a day, right? So we’d do an episode and then for the next episode you’d want to do something different but you can’t do anything different because it was just an hour ago. You don’t have much room to grow from episode to episode.  The most physically challenging was probably Heroes. The sword fighting and the hundred pound suit of armor were pretty taxing in the 100 degree L.A. summer sun. But it was a blast to play.

N: It’s interesting what you mention about being locked into your character on 24. Did you find yourself making any initial decisions that you then regretted having to commit to?

DA: (laughs) Yes. Absolutely right! Okay so, the first two episodes I did were kind of shot simultaneously  They had two separate directors.  I was Russian on the show. I played the son of a Russian crime boss. I auditioned with a Russian accent. So I got the part thinking I was going to be (slips into Russian accent) heavy, heavy Russian. The first director said, “yes, I want a little Russian.” Then the second director said, “Dude, I’m first generation Ukrainian and I talk just like you.” So it was bizarre because I was like, “but we already established my accent…”

N: Wow. Really?

DA: Continuity, shmontinuity. He talks different in every episode. I mean we got away with it.

N: Well sure, the character is a master chameleon.

DA: Yes. That’s it.

N: Now on Alias you played a British character. We didn’t realize you were American for a very long time. Did you run into a lot of that after playing Sark for so long?  Did it affect your booking jobs right after Alias wrapped?

DA: It did. There were directors who didn’t believe I was American. There was a time I couldn’t get arrested as an American, which is weird, being from Oregon. But then I booked Heroes, where I continued to use my English notoriety, so to speak, and now there are still people that are convinced I’m British. It’s validating. I love it. I love to fool the real McCoy.  That’s always been my endgame. If I can fool actual English people then… here we go. Right? (laughs) I’ve done good. There’s been times at conventions across the pond where English people will say, “do the accent.”  And I’m like, ‘you’re doing it perfectly and asking a kid from Oregon to do it?”

N: Awesome.

DA: Acting is is 75% voice to me. If your voice if f–ked, if I don’t believe your voice, then I don’t believe your performance. In so many cases there are English people who can’t do American accents. I guarded against being a casualty of that.

N: There also seem to be a lot of Australians who can’t do a Brooklyn accent.

DA: Aussies are much better than the English at doing the American accents, but, yeah, sometimes you can hear then trying too hard to do the New York thing.

N: Recently you appeared on Arrow as Cyrus Vance. Cyrus, much like Sark, appears to have lived to return another day. Which is always a good thing in the world of genre, where any episode could be your last.

DA: Yeah! I’m not dead on that show. I think I’m just in jail… So that’s a good thing. When they offered the part to me they said it would be multiple episodes and so far I’ve only done the one.  It just so happens I was up in Vancouver working really hard on Once Upon A Time  when they offered me the part. I was glad to be able to do it. It was a fun character to play and a chance to get back into my evil roots. Also he was the first villain created outside of the comics. He’s completely original to the show. That was a pretty cool distinction.

N: The fan reaction seems positive and it’s always good to see a new character introduced to an existing universe that already feels like he’s a part of that world.

DA: Yeah. I would go back in a heartbeat.

N: Your career has managed to keep you hovering in the genre world, between Alias, Arrow, Vampire Diaries, and now Once. Does genre appeal to you? Do you have nerdy leanings?

DA: Not particularly. I’m not really… I’m pretty nerdy about Game of Thrones. Nothing crazy but I think it’s a really fine show. And all my video games are literally all sports games. I have Madden, NBA… all sports. (thinks a minute) Oh, and I have the Alias video game too. (laughs)

N: So, when you got cast on Heroes were you a fan beforehand? 

DA: No, to be honest, I wasn’t a huge fan of the show. I think there was just too much going on at once. Too many characters.  There was some really cool stuff here and there but… I was happy with all my scenes, you know? Also I thought I had job security on that show because I had the power of regeneration, but they found a way (to kill the character)! I had a fun time doing it though, especially the samurai stuff and when I was allowed to be funny.

N: Well you’ve been given a chance to do more comedy on Necessary Roughness.

DA:  That’s right, it’s on every Wednesday on USA. I play a sports agent. John Stamos and I run a high powered sports agency.

NIs it nice to get to play someone less intense than your usual fare?

DA: It’s great, actually. I love comedy and I would love to do a lot more of it.

N: Plus it seems like it’s more up your alley as far as personal interests go, being a sports show and all. Are you happy to be outside of genre?

DA: Yeah. Look, I love genre. I like playing within the confines of these worlds I’ve been fortunate to be a part of, but it was nice to just be a regular guy. It’s nice to not be worried if in the next script I’m going to be killed off. I’ve got no special ring, and I don’t hunt vampires and I’m not Frankenstein. It’s a lighter show and that’s something I’ve been striving to do more of. More comedy.

N: You have a knack for it. It would be nice to see you do more. Although I don’t think Once Upon a Time is going to be the place for that this season. When you were offered the role did you know from the beginning that Dr. Whale was going to end up being Frankenstein?

DA: Oh, yeah. That’s why I took the part. To play Frankenstein. I didn’t know it would take a whole season to get into it but I’m very proud of the stuff we did in the black and white world. the Frank-centric stuff we did last season, and hopefully this season we’re gonna go back there (to the Black and White home-world of Frankenstein).

N: The producers came to you with the part of Frankenstein, not Dr. Whale?

DA: No. I would’ve demanded to know what I was playing. At the time the show hadn’t aired yet. I think I’d read for Charming at one point, I don’t remember, but the casting director explained that everybody plays two characters and told me right away that my character would be Frankenstein. I didn’t understand how that fit into the fairy tale world, but I said, “Sure, I’ll play the sh-t out of that.”

N: Yeah!

DA: I love Frankenstein, but  I automatically go to Gene Wilder when I think of Frankenstein, I think of Young Frankenstein.

N: On the show, everyone plays dual roles. They have the person they were before the Curse, their fairytale self, but then they also have this real world persona created for them. How do you balance the two personalities?  Do you think of him more as Frankenstein or as Whale?

DA: Ah. I don’t know.

N: Hahahaha.

DA: I’ll be honest with you, it’s more about just buying in. You know? I just have to buy into what I’m supposed to do. I think Dr. Whale, when he was under the curse he became this sort of womanizing leech, whereas the Frankenstein persona is all about work, work, work. So there are two very contradicting characteristics within the same man, but once you put on the steampunk lab coat and the guy-liner and all that stuff it’s like, there’s no Whale in him. Then with Whale, I’m trying to find little places to insert bits of Frankenstein into him but it’s hard, because it’s not written that way. I’m finding it a little difficult at this point, but maybe there will be more opportunity in season 3.

N: Anything you can tease coming up?

DA: I have no idea. I can’t tease at all. I know nothing and even if I did… I wouldn’t tell you.

N: Fair enough. Is it safe to say you have a lot to do this season?

DA: I don’t know if it’s safe to say but I will be back. I can guarantee you that.

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