Widely known as Spike, the loveable blond English vampire in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, James Marsters went on to play the alien super-villain Brainiac on Smallville. He also played time-travelling Captain John Hart in the British sci-fi series Torchwood and the terrorist Barnabas Greeley in Syfy‘s Caprica. Marsters next appeared in the 2007 movie P.S. I Love You and as Victor Hesse in the first season of Hawaii Five-0.
In the hilarious fantasy-comedy Dudes & Dragons, Marsters plays Lord Tensley, a powerful wizard who vows to rid the land of love through the use of his fire-breathing dragon. In this one-on-one interview, Marsters reveals what he liked about the role and how he enjoys playing loveable villains—like Spike.
What drew you to this film and the role of Lord Tensley?
James Marsters: When they offered me the role, I read the script, and after the first 5 or 10 pages, I was confused. But after that, I kind of clicked into the style. I realized what they were going for, the world they were creating, and I started laughing. And I didn’t stop until the end. I was reminded of some of my favorite filmmakers who often do that to me. They’ll confuse me until I understand the world they’re painting. Like the Coen Brothers: When I first saw O’ Brother Where Art Thou, I said, “what the hell is this?”
I can imagine a lot of green screen work with the dragon. What was that like?
JM: For me, working with green screen was very freeing. I come from theater where that’s kind of the environment. We had a few chairs, rocks, props and costumes—everything else was up to our imagination. When you’re acting, you’re supposed to have fun. In theater, they call it a play for a reason: No one pays money to watch you work. Your job is to play it. So when I did this film on green screen, it was glorious. If we’d actually filmed this is the real world, we’d be fighting horses and just getting our butts kicked. I heard about what the Hobbits went through in The Lord of the Rings, going through all that snow and ice water getting hypothermia. When you’re doing theater, it’s temperature controlled. But when you’re on location filming, you’re dealing with a certain level of discomfort because of the weather. I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but you never see puffy coats in films. Actors are in these thin, fashionable coats pretending to be warm. But the truth is, they’re freezing to death.
What did you find most challenging?
JM: I didn’t really find that much challenging. When acting works, it’s effortless. When the script and props work, and other actors are supporting you, and it’s all working, you almost feel like it’s too easy. The temptation is to start acting more because you feel like you should be doing something. So filming this was just a joy. There was the challenge of not laughing at the dragon because the dragon was a guy with a stick and a green dragon head walking around. It was supposed to be very scary and serious but he looked silly inside.
Where did they shoot the film and what was that like?
JM: In Salt Lake City. We found a really good space with a scooped cyclorama that looks like the inside of a swimming pool. It has a nice even green tone for a background, and it had a very high ceiling for high and low camera movement.
What do you like playing these evil off-kilter characters?
JM: The thing I liked about playing Lord Tensley was that his evil was destructive, powerful and angry; but underneath it all, he’s kind of a frightened child and heartbroken in romance, which makes him kind of adorable at the end of the day. Having that combination is delicious. I don’t know if he’s sympathetic, but you can take him into your heart and regard him as a poor little boy. So trying to achieve that was what drew me to the part. If I could bring that off, it would be really fun to watch. Playing a comedic villain, not scary, but a little more pathetic is what I liked.
Going back a few years, what did you love about playing Spike?
JM: My favorite thing was just being able to say those words. My acting process is basically just memorizing my lines and dreaming. I’d be sitting up in bed the night before, getting the lines down and letting my imagination take off. The better the writing is, the more fun that process is. I’ve never had such a consistently fun time playing Spike. Drew Goddard was one of their writers, as was Steve DeKnight, Jane Espenson, David Fury, the list goes on and on. I was working with people that would go on to be the movers and shakers of Hollywood. They were all poor, hungry and new, and working together to make one product. You get that level of talent around one table and it’s like Camelot. All that got funneled down into a script that I could enjoy.
I also liked giving Sarah (Michelle Gellar) and David (Boreanaz) a headache. I’m a bit of a punk rocker subversive, and when I see someone with power, I have this instinct to balance the scales. In Hollywood, you have to be oh so polite to the lead. They’re both great people, but being forced to do that brought out a bit of rancor in me. So between “action” and “cut,” I’d stress them out a bit, seeing if I could mess up their lines, get under their skin and make them uncomfortable.
What can you tell us about Abruptio?
JM: Oh, that’s a disgusting film. I was reading the script and thought there’s no way I’m going to be part of this. It’s too much, it’s going too far. Then I got to the end of the script and it all says something worthy. And it’s going to be done with puppets. When you see that, it becomes very interesting. I play this character who lives in his mom’s basement.