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Callum Keith Rennie GALACTICA.TV interview
Written by Marcel Damen   
Sunday, 23 December 2007

Some time ago Marcel Damen caught up with Callum Keith Rennie, better known for his part as Leoben Conoy in the Battlestar Galactica 2003 series. Callum didn't turn to theatre until he was 25 and had his first professional acting job at 33. He told us how he finally ended up in the business and talks extensively about his part on Battlestar Galactica and other parts he did recently.

Below you can read the transcript of this interview. If you rather listen to the audio of this interview then click the "PLAY" button below to start.


 

First, I'd like to thank you for doing this interview of course.

Oh, thank YOU!

I'd like to start at the beginning of your career, because it is said that you didn't turn to the theatre until you were 25. Had you acted before then? Or what were you doing before then?

I was just working on jobs. I really had no focus of what I wanted to do. Some friends had started at radio, doing a live theatre show at Edmonton, through the University of Alberta and asked if I wanted to be a voice on it. One thing led to another and then they were putting on a play during a big French Festival in Edmonton. They decided they wanted to do a couple of plays and they'd like to get me involved in those. So I did those and things went really well, but they couldn't really take it seriously because they didn't know anything about it, so things went sort of, you know, back to my regular life. It took quite a few years more before I got some more theatre stuff and got committed to it again. I did a little bit more and I didn't really like theatre the way I thought I would. I had done a strange film in Edmonton when I was in my late twenties, I guess, but the first professional gig was when I was 33.

 

actor Callum Keith Rennie

actor Callum Keith Rennie

 

Okay. So at what point did you actually decide this was going to become your career?

Uhm, I think last week? (both laughing) I keep asking if this is going to be my professional career. I think at 33 and I had a couple of options to take my life a little bit more seriously, and I thought I would give it a year, because the theatre didn't really work for me in the sense of work. I didn't know why it worked and it seemed I had a lot of anxiety about the format of it and as soon as I had done some film work I was able to modify how I worked. You didn't have to be perfect every time. There is something about it of who I am and it worked a lot better, so as soon as I had done my first gig I realized I could follow this up.

So let me ask you then, if this wasn't your career what would be?

Pffff.... (laughs) I really have no idea. Uhm, I think somehow I would be involved in the arts. whether that would be a painter or something along the same lines, but doing something creative because I can't .... I worked at a lot of jobs and none of them worked. It didn't matter how much money I made, it didn't really matter how much I lacked... If there was a creative element and I enjoyed it, that was it. So whether it would be writing, painting... I still paint now, because I like painting. Something to do with the arts. I don't know what [exactly].

Other actors say that Vancouver has a small pool of actors running into each other, often in different shows. You've been in The L Word, Da Vinci's Inquest, and several other shows that other Battlestar Galactica actors have appeared in, like Tahmoh Penikett and Aaron Douglas. Though you've done The L Word later, did you work with them or any others before you started work on the Battlestar Galactica Mini-Series?

Ok let's go back to the last question because you didn't really give me a choice of what I would like to be or what I think I will be good at.

I would like to be a golf professional. Professional golf for a living, I would enjoy that.

You can make quite a bit of money with that, if you're good.

It's one of those dream jobs that if you're any good at it you can make a living and I really think that would be a fun thing to do.

Ok, back to.... It is kind of small, I guess relatively small compared to the amount of work that happens around here. It's kind of similar in Toronto or Montreal. I'm not sure, for many years I didn't really work in Vancouver. It's only been the last few years. I seem to have worked anywhere else in the world but Vancouver. I actually just did an episode of Men in Trees and there are people around that have been around for ten years, that I have never worked with and actually have never really met, like Nick Lee. I've seen him around, but I actually have never worked with him, or got to do a scene with him, and there are quite a few people like that in town. And on the Battlestar [Galactica] show, I've never worked with any of those people before. So for it being small here, I really worked a lot more in Toronto and sort of across the country than I had worked here.

You formed a punk rock band with Bruce McCulloch, from "Kids in the Hall"?

Nah, that just says it on that crazy IMDB site that almost has everything wrong.

So that's not true?

I don't know why it has almost everything wrong. But no, I never did. But I grew up with Bruce, we went to high school together and went to college together. He was always involved with music, and he loved friends who played music. We did listen to a lot of punk rock together and drink a lot of beer and have a lot of fun.

Did you play an instrument or something?

No. I have a friend, Tom Holliston, who is in a band which is called "No Means No", "The Handsome Brothers", it's the same, Tom's band. He tried to teach me to play the guitar and to be in a band called "The Showbiz Giants",  but I really had no dexterity. I just really couldn't get it together to sit long enough and be patient to learn it. It seemed to be bouncing off the wall and when I got it right I laughed my head off and I couldn't follow up on it.

 

actor Callum Keith Rennie

actor Callum Keith Rennie

 

Also, another thing I picked up from IMDB, so let's see if this is right then, is that you were offered the role of Alex Krycek on X-Files.

Yes.

That is true? But you turned it down, because you didn't want to commit to a regular series role?

Well... That was sort of a money thing that we sort of agreed to, my manager and I, at the time. And we felt like it wasn't met. I mean, it wasn't an exorbitant amount of money. The show had just started to take off as the sort of culture hit it was going to become and there was no real, you know... Part of it was me being locked into a show, and at that time I don't think I was ready. I was still very new to the industry, so I thought it would be better that if it wasn't going to be a good financial reward over the next couple of years, then it would be better for me to work on as many projects as I could, starting as late as I did. For me to play a whole bunch of things and to figure out myself through the industry was probably better off for me.

Did you regret the decision afterwards?

No.

Never?

No, that's the thing to me. You make those choices. It wasn't about the money. It was more about what I needed. It's always implied, that okay, if you don't take this it will be foolish, but at the same time you have to trust that the kind of work you want to do, is what I wanted to do, so... The character always dangled as you could be rewarded with this... It depends on what you want to commit to and what kind of work you want to do.

So I've heard you wear glasses, because you injured your eyes in a bar fight?

Yes.

Did somebody call you a toaster?

(laughs) He didn't exactly call me a toaster, but yeah I was in a dust up in a pub here. God, that's been 14 years ago, and much of it my own fault and eh, hammered out of my mind and yeah, it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Maybe, THE best thing to ever happen to me, because it sobered me up and actually opened up options to take decisions like looking at trying to be an actor now .

So do you still get into bar fights?

Nope. I wasn't much of a fighter, I was just mouthy and if I got a couple of drinks in me.... I'd cause trouble. It seemed I caused a lot of trouble around (laughs). But no, when I read that it makes me cringe, because it makes it sound like I was a bad ass and I was really just someone who'd got lost in their life and I had sandals on. Ok? I had sandals on and I wasn't looking for trouble.

Did you watch the original Battlestar Galactica series when broadcasted back in 1978?

Yes, I mean it was on the air. I wasn't a big fan and mostly didn't watch it. I didn't know what I watched back then.

So you've never seen the movie in the cinema?

No.

But you've heard of the series, right?

The Original Series? Yes. But I've only seen it recently, in the last couple of years, because they've been replaying it here. I've seen it, but it has such a minimal reference point to, I think, the show that I work on.

 

Callum Keith Rennie as Leoben Conoy on Battlestar Galactica 2003

Callum Keith Rennie as Leoben Conoy on Battlestar Galactica 2003

 

That's true. So, you were with Battlestar Galactica right from the Mini-Series. How did you hear about this show, the new series?

Well, the new show really showed up as a... you know, they sent material, I read it, an offer came in to play that part and I agreed. There wasn't an audition, I was offered the part and I was excited to work with Edward [James Olmos] which was great, and great to meet him, and great to work with him on that pilot episode. I didn't know where it would go from there because there was nothing signed to continue or anything like that. So then they did start to slowly bring me back into the fold every now and then, and then last year I'd got to work on quite a few episodes, which was great. It's been a slow process.

So that's quite an honor to be asked for that part. You didn't even audition for other parts as well because a lot of the actors also auditioned for other parts.

No. The casting here is very familiar with my work and just said: "Callum would be great for this." and Michael Rymer reviewed my tape and said "Ok, he's great so let's hire him". It's always nice, you know. Sometimes you have to go up there and earn the part and other times you get the job while you aren't after any part. So there are two different ways, auditioning and not auditioning.

So, you play Leoben Conoy, one of the 12 Cylons. Leoben says that he has deep religious convictions, but he isn't past lying or playing mind games to get what he wants. Would you agree with that assessment?

(laughs) I think in his form on how to enlighten someone maybe he has some... He's able to sort of spin the truth to get what he wants. Which may or may not be evil. Which may be something quite bad, I'm not exactly sure yet.

He seems to view God as in all beings. He told Starbuck that "We're all God". Does he believe that, or is it mind games?

I actually think that, for me it's, because there is that line in that episode where he says "God created robots, well... God created you and you created robots so God must be inside me". So why wouldn't he believe that? It's literal and it's kind of sweet... and strange! (both laughing)

 

Callum Keith Rennie as Leoben Conoy and Katee Sackhoff as Starbuck on Battlestar Galactica 2003

Callum Keith Rennie as Leoben Conoy and Katee Sackhoff as Starbuck
on Battlestar Galactica 2003

 

It is! The first time we meet Leoben is at the Ragnar Station. Claiming to be an arms dealer, he and Adama are later separated and Adama discovers that he is a Cylon. First, what was is like working so closely with Edward James Olmos?

One thing I loved for many years and have always appreciated is always, you know? It's an honor to work with someone who worked a lot, and is very, very good at it, and is so solid. I had a great time, he's completely professional and fun and great to watch and really loose. I really get a kick out of it. I mean, that was really the pull into the show. I hadn't done a lot of science fiction before, and they said most of my scenes were going to be with Edward and I thought this was going to be fun, and it was fun. And you're always a bit anxious but it was, yeah, I thought it worked out well and we worked out well together.

Was it more difficult to work, because of all the physical aspects of the scenes, since you were trying to kill each other?

Eh, it was just the material, the style and the material I hadn't worked before, like space. Some of the dialogue, some of the language and the concepts were a little unfamiliar, but once I got going, it was fine.

During the Mini-Series, was there ever talk about doing a regular series?

I think they said, it may be picked up. Like you never know, many pilots and mini series are shot and then they don't go on with them, but I think that was their plan from the start, not that they did inform me with it. So I didn't know what was... Usually with most pilots or mini series that are planning to go on for a series will sign a certain amount of cast members to contracts, because that a guarantee that it's going to move in one direction which they didn't do with me so I wasn't sure what would happen, or that was the end of me or... 

Because also, you didn't appear again until episode 8 of the First Season. Did they ask you to come back as soon as they decided that they were going to have a regular series?

Yeah, as soon as they did but they couldn't find a ...during that spring they were calling, checking availability, but they weren't really sure when they wanted to use me. They knew there was an episode somewhere in there, but yeah, it was kind of a waiting game of fitting me in at the right time on the show.

That was a great return, because in that episode, "Flesh and Bone", a copy of Leoben claims to have hidden a nuclear bomb on one of the ships. He is then brutally interrogated by Starbuck. And it looks brutal. Did you have any injuries, or worry about drowning with your head stuck in the bucket for so long?

No, I like that kind of thing. (both laughing) No, I mean it's ... I like the physical stuff. I like it when it's like that. I like that you know that the next day you're always going to have some bumps and bruises and things, that in the moment you don't notice it that it's happening. That is much like as in life, you hurt yourself when you're involved in something without paying attention. No, for those types of scenes we're trying to make it as real as possible, and it's not about taking care of yourself, and more sort of uncomfortable and the more physically weird it is the better.

 

Callum Keith Rennie as Leoben Conoy and Katee Sackhoff as Starbuck on Battlestar Galactica 2003

Callum Keith Rennie as Leoben Conoy and Katee Sackhoff as Starbuck
on Battlestar Galactica 2003

 

So you did all the scenes yourself? No stunt doubles?

Yeah.

Leoben then makes predictions of the Kobol and the fleet to Roslin. Of course he also claims that Adama is a Cylon and is thrown out the airlock. Will we ever be able to figure out which are truths and which are lies with him?

I think that's what the writers can leave up in the air. Where they get different directions to go depending upon how they want the series to play out. I think it works as a great device as to changing the way things move or, you know... Creating questions where there were none. And I think, that's what his role is, within the Battlestar fleet system and kind of like on the show as well.

We don't see Leoben again until Season 2, episode 20, which is more of a cameo compared to the Cylon occupation in Season 3. Did you wonder if they forgot about you?

Ehm I didn't because it was like 8 episodes before they brought me back the first time and I didn't really know if they .. It's been one of those, like last year was the first time that it felt as though, because what they said was we'd like to use you for ten episodes for the next season, and then you are there and you know that they are committed to using you for that period of time.  But until then you're just, if I were available and they checked and they... I just came in when they asked me to and I was happy to do it. I love working on the show so it was never... We just tried fitting it in to the schedule and everything worked out.

 

Callum Keith Rennie as Leoben Conoy and Katee Sackhoff as Starbuck on Battlestar Galactica 2003

Callum Keith Rennie as Leoben Conoy and Katee Sackhoff as Starbuck
on Battlestar Galactica 2003

 

During the occupation, Starbuck is locked into an apartment with Leoben, and he lies to her and says that Kacey was created from an egg from one of her ovaries. She kills him five times, but he keeps coming back. Does he really love her? Because you'd think that with a woman, who has tortured and repeatedly killed him, that he'd get the hint.

(big laugh) I don't think his mission was accomplished, because she at that point still wasn't believing anything that he was saying. So he had to continue on, filling her mind with what he needed to tell her, about herself and about what he knows. Through the episodes and though the writing, this is a very tiring thing to do. It's not the best thing to want to keep doing to yourself, because it's actually quite painful and it runs you down as a Cylon to continue to download and to come back but obviously he needed things to be said and things to be understood by her which have actually not played out yet.

 

Callum Keith Rennie as Leoben Conoy and Katee Sackhoff as Starbuck on Battlestar Galactica 2003

Callum Keith Rennie as Leoben Conoy and Katee Sackhoff as Starbuck
on Battlestar Galactica 2003

 

Revelations from Leoben about Starbuck, plus things she is finding out for herself seem to point that maybe she is a Cylon herself, or perhaps has some religious connections. He also claims that their lives are entwined. What does that mean? Will we see more of this?

I'm not completely sure about that one, but they are, because I'm there and that's it. Even though, I watched the episodes last night. Like me being on the show has almost exclusively been with her. As the voice in her head, as this person beside her as this thing, whether it's a conscience or a destiny or some part is connected to her and I don't know where it goes.

We also see a similar thing between Baltar and Six. So, do you think there is a mental connection?

Yeah, but that's the thing about the show. I can't tell where the show is going most of the time for me. I read the script and go: "Okay" and I try to piece it together for myself. Where I think we are going and what is going to happen, but I don't know most of the time.

In the First Season, when Six has sex, we'd see her spine light up. How come the men in the series are left out?

(laughs) Seriously? Say that one again?!?

(question is repeated)

You mean, why we don't get our spines to light up?!?

Yeah, we see Cavil laying on his back with Helen, but how come Aaron and Leoben don't get some spine action?

I want spine action and I thought they were going to put that in, but I guess... maybe they don't want devilish.

But Cavil is pretty devilish.

(laughs) Yeah, no, I don't know why! I might have to find out that answer for a few of these. Sometimes I just don't know.

 

Callum Keith Rennie as Leoben Conoy on Battlestar Galactica 2003

Callum Keith Rennie as Leoben Conoy on Battlestar Galactica 2003

 

In the episodes "Torn" and "Measure of Salvation", a Cylon Baseship is infected with a deadly virus. Many of the Cylons die, and some are taken on board the Galactica. The plan is to wait until the Cylons are close enough for them to download and infect the other Cylons, but Helo cuts off the air to kill the prisoners before that happens. Was it tough to play that?

The sick part?

Yeah.

Pfff. Yeah, it was a bit tough. It was fun though. It's such a good group of people to work with, and that stuff in the moment maybe feels odd and sort of takes off and becomes its own thing. The sick stuff, you want it to be real, but you don't want it to be cheap. You know like "Flesh and Bone", the physical stuff which is actually happening to you while you're playing it than to conjure it up yourself.

And is it also tough when you are playing different versions of yourself in the same scene?

Well no, because you're there in your particular spot and then the other one is around you. It's a bit disconcerting when you are seeing yourself, that's all.

Is it difficult to get the timing down? Or do the directors help with that?

Yeah it's the director most of the time. They've been really, really good.

Because all the other Cylons also have to do the same thing, so you kind of mix. So it seems hard to figure out how everybody has to walk and everything.

Yeah, the big scenes are always a bit complex with the large group scenes and on the ship, but maybe that's why I like the one on one stuff with Katee [Sackhoff] so much because it's very personal. On the bigger scenes there are lots of people, lots of effects, lots and lots of copies of everyone and it's a lot of distraction.

If you stop and look back at your character, he's had it rough. Fighting and being bludgeoned to death by Adama, tortured and killed repeatedly by Starbuck, he died from a virus, and he's also dying when Helo is cutting off the air. Whew. Maybe he should go into a less stressful career.

He is the anti hero. He's the anti hero Cylon.

 

Callum Keith Rennie as Leoben Conoy on Battlestar Galactica 2003

Callum Keith Rennie as Leoben Conoy on Battlestar Galactica 2003

 

With his penchant of mixing lies and truths with mind games, maybe he could be a politician?

Exactly, maybe he is. He keeps on ticking. He takes a beating, but he keeps on coming.

With episodes that we haven't seen, can you tell us if we see any more of Leoben? If so, anything we should be watching for with his character?

I don't know... You are in Europe, right?

Yes, but I download the episodes - and later buy them on DVD of course. :)

So did you see the last one? "Maelstrom"? I don't know where it goes from there. That's it, like for me I'm always curious on what's happening with the characters and I'm curious what's happening to me. So I don't know, and all I know is that's most of my work was with her [Starbuck] and now she appears to have died. So I don't know what happens next and that's what's funny about the show too, like there is a lot of piecing together for me, because I'll be away. I shoot an episode and then I'll come back four episodes later, but I will not have been able to have read those other scripts so it's sort of piecing together to what happened to that timeframe on the show.

 

Callum Keith Rennie as Leoben Conoy and Katee Sackhoff as Starbuck on Battlestar Galactica 2003

Callum Keith Rennie as Leoben Conoy and Katee Sackhoff as Starbuck
on Battlestar Galactica 2003

 

They are picking up Season 4 and they are making an in between movie [Razor]. Were you also asked for that?

Yeah, we haven't talked properly about those yet, so I don't know if I'll be doing those. I hope I am.

Us too!

Yeah, I have fun. It's good.

 

Callum Keith Rennie as Leoben Conoy on Battlestar Galactica 2003

Callum Keith Rennie as Leoben Conoy on Battlestar Galactica 2003

 

Do you also have time? Because I saw next to Battlestar, you have quite a few movies and TV things coming up.

A lot of that stuff got shot last year, like The Cleaner, The Invisible...

Butterfly on a Wheel, Silk, Ferriswheel...

Actually Ferriswheel was just a quick day. That was shot late November of 2006. Case 39 and Battlestar have been great, because they signed me to do the ten episodes and then there was space and time where I was able to go off and do Case 39 with Rene Zellweger, which was great. That'll be a great, little movie. It's been good. The Invisible was shot the year before, but had been delayed being released.

So what was your favorite from those?

From all of those? They're all my favorites! (both laughing) It's all completely different, right? Like to work with Rene was it's own thing because she's so great and the director Christian Alvart, a German from Berlin, was fascinating to work with. The whole... David Goyer, with whom I had done Blade: Trinity with, he promised he would get me another job later on and he held true to his word, which I felt was fantastic so I got to work with him again which is always fun. They are all specifically different and good.

So what do you look for in a role? What do you think is good? What do you like to play?

There is a conception depending on what you've done, like in Canada there has been a lot of work that people see and they decide that I'm the crazy guy or the weirdo. So right now, I really feel like moving towards more heroic characters rather than the crazy guy, the crazy, insane, bad man. It just goes through phases, because if you try to look for stuff that you have never done before, and stuff that stretches you as an actor and your ideas. That's it. If you play too much of the same thing, it all becomes the same thing rather than actually being a bit terrified than what you're choosing is a little bit better for me.

So do you still have any parts that you would like to play, like a historical piece or something like that?

No. I wouldn't mind doing a western at some point. That might be nice or gangster movie or all the genres. In Canada, they don't really do genre pieces. It's usually limited by budget and certain restraints of how things are set up. They don't really do genre, so... A lot of the Canadian stuff is very character oriented. There's a piece coming up. I shot a film for a guy, Carl Bessai, that's been over a year ago and he has a movie coming out that he wanted me to do, that is called Normal and it's a really nice piece and I'll be playing an academic, a professor at University, and he's kind of coming apart during the entire movie which is going to be nice.

Early in your career you did Lonesome Dove didn't you? That's a western.

Yeah, but it's not a movie though.

No, it's not a movie, but it's a start. (both laughing)

(laughs) Yeah. No, I liked it. I grew up in the prairies, so I like that kind of thing.

There's not a lot of westerns shot in Canada.

No, there's some, but not shot by Canadians. I like that. What else would I like to do? I don't know. It's really, when you put your mind to it, you just... Whatever comes next is pretty good most of the time. If I were to sit down and chase those things then I don't know if they would come to fruition. It's obviously some sort of where you are at and the thing that comes around the corner next is usually about right. This one for Carl [Bessai] is a really good fit for me to sort of try something that is completely different. To be a very conservative, to be a very normal type of character with very normal problems. Well not ... [I mean] very human problems.

Would you still like to do more science fiction? There's also a lot of scifi shot in Canada.

Yeah, I'd do more scifi. I mean it has been a great experience for me doing scifi, so... Doing the television show, I would be happy to do more.

All of this sounds like it takes all of your time, but do you have any hobbies you'd like to share?

I do play golf. I like playing golf, that's the major one. I've been playing for the last six years. Probably have a four handicap and any time I have the chance I play again. And it travels well. I've been able to play, I've played in Los Angeles, I've played in Japan, Africa, Nova Scotia, it's been a great thing to do.

Sounds like a nice way to travel.

Yeah. To take your clubs and you get to meet local people in a completely different way, because you are with them for hours around and I like it.

So maybe you can be a professional golfer someday.

Oh yeah. Maybe do the senior tour at 50, in four years.

You can retire with that.

Yeah (both laughing)

It still will take a long time [before you retire], right?

You have to be... It's such a tough place between a really good golfer and a great golfer. The line there is so hard to get to. To play a great round sometimes takes forever to get to it and then you just try to hold on to that. It's like a career, and I find it very similar to acting. A lot of it is trying to stay calm and just getting into the flow of what you're doing, and relax and it'll all work out. It's very similar to the game.

 

actor Callum Keith Rennie

actor Callum Keith Rennie

 

So do you also learn your lines during golf?

I thought about a lot of characters playing golf when taking lines down to the driving range and hitting balls as I'm learning a line, and then go hit twenty balls. Yeah, it's not a bad way to do it.

Because it sounds very peaceful, a peaceful time to learn the lines. It's nice and quiet.

And you're kind of physicalizing it at the same time, you are doing something physical at the same time. I started running a couple of years ago as well and that's also a good way. When I go to the gym there is always a platform where you can put your lines and you can just run and read half the script. As long as you are not running too fast.

(laughs) Okay. I'd like thank you for doing the interview.

Oh, thank you very much and maybe talk to you again in the future.

 
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