Daily Dragon: Were you interested in science fiction before Battlestar Galactica or was this something new?
James Callis: I never necessarily thought that I would be in a science fiction show, but I never know what I’m going to be in from one moment to the next. As a kid, I didn’t know any kid who hadn’t watched Star Wars or Star Trek. I watched Battlestar Galactica, I saw Space 1999, I caught up with Star Wars, but never got to see it at the cinema when I was a kid. I don’t know why. But as a kid, one of the funniest things that I’d ever heard, that could really make me laugh, was there was this kid who said, “I’m going to go and see Star Wars.” And some other kid looked at him and said, “Star Wars? Who’s that?” And I really thought it was hysterical that this person thought that Star Wars was a person and not actually a movie! [laughs]
And I think that as I got older, I realized that there are so many of these things, the fantasy elements and the imagination, that are ingrained in our culture and our psyche. And as an actor, I become more interested in storytelling. There’s a great book by Joseph Campbell called The Hero of a Thousand Faces, which I imagine anybody who knows Star Wars knows that the producing team very interested in what Joseph Campbell had to say. And in this sense, we are reiterating the Hero’s Journey.
DD: As the “brilliant scientist” of the show, were you looking forward to the technical aspect of Baltar or were you more into the political side?
JC: [grins] I was just more interested in Trisha Helfer, to be honest. I’ve never been a scientist ever. I think that science was not well taught at school. If you very early on have someone who’s inspiring and exciting and makes you see something—guess what?—You really might have some facility for it. But half the people who taught us had no idea. I mean, we had these physics experiments that never, ever worked. We had this one match on a clamp and then a torch shining through a mirror and then through another mirror, concentrating the beam to make the match go. I remember one class, we’re all just watching this thing for forty-five minutes, and nothing happened. We put the thing at the back of the room and about five weeks later in the middle of class, the match started burning!
A lot of the people who taught sciences at my school were really, I’m afraid to say, glorified rugby teachers. They taught rugby really amazingly but they were like, “Well, you can’t just teach rugby. You have to teach physics or chemistry for the dummies.” I was in that class. [laughs] I had a few inspiring teachers—mostly they were in English class—that kind of led me to this thing from very early on. I think probably one of the real geniuses I met was somebody I studied biology with. And I had a real affinity for that because the guy was one of these “professors.” He used to walk around the class going, “I do the teaching. You do the work!” Or “It’s all about intellectual honesty. What’s the point of writing the f*cker down if you’ve no idea what it means?” So I’m like, you have to be inspired. But I always tell people, “It is acting. I play whatever genius on television but I’m not like that.”
DD: Speaking of Baltar, what resources or influences have you drawn from to create the character?
JC: There is someone in London, who will remain nameless, who is a brilliant, double-first, Oxford scientist. He has more letters and things after his name and he is possibly the worst liar I’ve ever seen in my life. I know him quite well. He’s absolutely brilliant and he’s remained, in some fashion, like an infant. He’s always remained a bit like a kid. I remember he was on the phone to his wife one day and he’s like “Oh, I can’t believe it!” You know, it’s just total bare faced! And I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to play someone who’s really brilliant who’s a really bad liar. [laughs] He’s pretty transparent. That was something that I thought I could bring. That’s the initial thing, and then it exponentially grows. The writers check out what you’re doing and yeah, it grows.
DD: Much has been made with your on-screen interactions with Trisha Helfer, for good reason. But what is it like with some of your other co-stars, like Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell?
JC: We have a phenomenal cast. I was speaking to someone recently in Los Angeles and I was like, “Isn’t it clever that you got these brilliant, collective people around, and we sell the image when we’re on camera, but actually off camera everybody is so nice and supportive?” And I was looking at this guy going, “Isn’t that brilliant casting because you must have really thought about that?” And this man, who was in casting, was like, “Nobody has time to think about things like that. If you all get on and support each other, you might be the exception to the rule. Because we don’t have time to think about what you might be like outside.”
I recently had the amazing good fortune to work with Omar Sharif. Now, he’s not just a star, he is an icon; he is a legend. And you would not find anybody more graceful or natural or wonderful. So, the people who walk around with their noses up in the air and don’t do this and whatever, I’m like, “You’re not there. You’re just not there. “ Because there’s some part of you that’s not quite right. You need to do all that crap; you need to play games or be a bit weird.
Mary is not only brilliant, she’s very sexy and gorgeous. And Eddie. Without Eddie we’d all be lost. I can’t imagine anyone doing this show like him. We were going through lots of names of other people who could have been cast. It would have been a disaster because if anybody embodies or personifies the grit of Battlestar Galactica, it is Eddie. He’s amazing and generous. All these people are generous. And the only thing they ever do is, “I think you might do this…” and it’s only to enhance your performance. To make you better. Cause if you’re better then they’re better. And that goes across the board, not just with the actors. With the producers and directors. It’s a great set-up.
DD: You finished shooting One Night with the King, with Omar Sharif. Could you tell us a little bit about the movie and your character, Haman?
JC: Yeah, sure. It’s quite interesting. Haman is possibly the first, on record, genocidal maniac. He’s a perverted anti-Semite. He’s a beast, to be quite honest. There were things when we were doing it, people were like, “Do you think you want to be subtle?” I don’t want the audience to go, “Oh, he’s so misunderstood, this bloke!” He was revolting. And it was quite interesting playing him because everyone was like, “Oh, you’re playing Giaus Baltar, and he’s an evil villain.” And he’s not. Baltar has this conscience which constantly makes him human. And this man, the only thing he wanted to do was to go down in history as having killed the Jews.
This is the story of Esther, which is set during the Jewish festival of Purim; “Pur” means “the lots” because Haman wanted to draw lots for the day when they would annihilate all of the Jews of the kingdom. When you mention his name in a synagogue, people still stomp their feet at the thought of this man and his name. He was a ghastly, dark, nasty flipping person and I couldn’t wait to wash that off, in a sense.
We filmed for three months out in India. It was the most spectacular experience. We stayed in a palace. The filming of it was beautiful. I actually took the part because I thought the script, certainly the lines I was going up for and saying, were mesmeric. I read this thing and was like, “What the hell is this?” in the sense that I didn’t want to be in a Bible story necessarily. But there was a brilliant scene where a man gives me money; I’m the client, he’s my patron. And he’s like, “Thanks for finding out all this nasty information for me. Here’s some money.” And when my patron goes away—and this was in the script and this was the thing that made me want to it—Haman looks at this pack of money in his hand and he just pours it into the lake. [pause] He’s like “It’s not about the money.” Doesn’t that give you a chill? It’s just so dark! It was a phenomenal experience to play.
DD: As well as being an actor, you’ve written and directed screenplays. Are you planning any other projects for that soon?
JC: Actually, I’m getting some inspiration from walking around Dragon*Con, I really am. Just right now, I walked into the bathroom, and they’re playing some epic soundtrack. “There will be one,” and all that. [laughs] While walking into the bathroom! I think there is a great story to tell here, and I think, at least in the sense that there is a story to tell, and there is an opportunity to set it around this place.
DD: You had said in a previous interview earlier this year that one of the projects that you had wanted to work on but haven’t had a chance yet was for a James Bond picture. So would you want to play the villain on a James Bond picture or Bond himself?
JC: As an actor, and I’ve been asked this, it’s “What do you want to play? What is your part,” and everything. I really find it more interesting, in a way, for somebody to cast me. Because as soon as I put my idea, like “I’m a –this- kind of person”, I think that there’s a vanity that comes into it about “And I want to be in a jacket like this and I want…” I want somebody else to place me. Listen, ask any man whether you would like to be Bond or the villain and I imagine ninety-nine percent of us would want to be Bond, of course! We grew up watching Sean Connery and Roger Moore. I think Daniel Craig is going to be the bee’s-flipping-knees! Have you seen Munich? I can’t take my eyes off it. That man’s amazing. He’s got a force and a power. I imagine he’s going to go on so long, that I’d be fifty by that point so I might have to be a villain!
DD: This is your first Dragon*Con. What do you think of our little slice of heaven?
JC: It’s unbelievable. Kate Vernon yesterday said this was like Adult Halloween and she’s not wrong. What I find interesting is the devotion. I saw a guy being Mister Tumnus yesterday and don’t people wilt? How many people are walking around with dehydration? Like Darth Vader and the stormtroopers, and it’s boiling here. It’s so hot. And everyone’s boots are enormous and like carrying your own body weight and twice more all day long? I find that to be a real commitment and honestly, as well, so many people will look at something and it makes you smile and it makes you think. [pause] It’s kind of incredible. If you haven’t been here, you have no idea. You can’t possibly describe the insanity that is Dragon*Con. Or the excitement, really. There is a lot of imagination. So, yeah… you’ve got to see it to believe it.
DD: Thank you very much for taking your time out to talk to us, thank you for coming and we hope you enjoy the rest of your convention.