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James Callis GALACTICA.TV interview
Written by Marcel Damen   
Friday, 12 February 2010

Marcel Damen recently talked to James Callis, better known as Dr. Gaius Baltar on the Battlestar Galactica 2003 series. He talked about his education at London Academy of Music & Dramatic Arts , how he got into the business as an actor and how he started out, his part on the Battlestar Galactica 2003 series, working with Tricia Helfer and Lucy Lawless, and what he's currently working on now the series has ended.

Thanks so much for doing this.

It's a pleasure.

At what point in your life did you decide you wanted to become an actor?

I'm not sure it was a conscious decision. I acted in school plays at a really young age. There were like town competitions for kids, set up by the local youth group or something. I was a bit of an extravert, even as a young kid. I wanted to sing a song or do something. My earliest play was when I was eight and it was this school play. Even at an early age it was so much fun doing this in class. It wasn't like doing math or anything else . The reading out... I remember, even at a young age, when someone wasn't on some level being a character or doing the lines justice, reading the lines like (in monotone voice): "Oh, come over here.", I was like: "No, no, it must be with some inflection or something." So I was already realizing that at a very early age. When I became an actor much later, for a long time I felt I was just a performer. I wasn't sure they were the same thing.

 

actor James Callis

actor James Callis

 

Can you pinpoint one moment when you decided that this is what you wanted to do for the rest of your life?

No. It's interesting, because I don't have that as well. A lot of things interest me. Acting is only one of my many interests.

Okay. I've read your parents own and run a bed and breakfast? What did they say when you told them that you wanted to become an actor?

Very supportive. My parents wanted all of us to be happy. I've also got two sisters and they said to all of us: "Do what you want to do." I love how people are worried in the way you ask that question: "Oh dear, your son wants to become an actor. What are you going to do?" but they never had that. I think my mother had done some acting before and my grandmother was going to be an opera singer, but when my grandmother was younger it wasn't correct -- in my family -- for a young lady to be on stage. That was like a disaster. Things had changed a lot by the time I came around, so they were very supportive. I think they knew it would make me happy.

You graduated with a degree in English and Related Literature at the University of York and graduated in 1993. What made you decide to go to the London Academy of Music & Dramatic Arts 3 years later? What happened in between?

I didn't go 3 years later. I don't know where you read that, but that's not true. Actually I left University and I had a gap year -- one year. A lot happened in that gap year. I wasn't sure I was going to get into University. Oh wait, you're talking about afterwards... (pondering the question again) I think the time span between University and going to Drama School was more like 6 or 7 months, not 3 years. I left school, I went on a gap year and I actually went touring around Europe with an amateur theatrical company. The person who was directing that is now actually my best friend, but the play that we did was a disaster. It was really... A lot of people don't do this stuff anymore. It was like taking a play around Europe in one of those Volkswagen campervans. A lot of people didn't get on, we were young and we didn't have audiences. It was tough as all hell.

Then when I went up to University they were all: "Oh my God! You've done this for your year out? Then you must be... You know, a lot of people don't do this kind of thing." We weren't paid, so it was like... They said: "This is very good. We're interested in you, not because of the English, but because you're going to bring something to the University. This is an unusual thing that you've undertaken as a young man." and I wasn't aware of it, but what I actually did in that dreadful play, actually helped me get into University. While I was in University what I tried to do -- to be really fair -- wasn't very good. I didn't do all that much, except drama and plays. I then converted some of my degree to writer play and staging, as part of my degree, rather than reading all of [Charles] Dickens. I didn't quite get around to that.

Then leaving University I did a number of jobs and ended up working in a kibbutz for about 3-4 months. After that I found out I got into Drama School, because I'd auditioned. I had auditioned at several places and got into several places as well. I liked LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art), I liked their energy and their teachers. When we had to audition, we actually auditioned in a huge group -- maybe 15 people - and then somebody goes: "Right, this is what's happening: You all work at an office. You work out whatever you are going to do. Suddenly the fire bell goes and you all got to get out of the window and try to make it away. It was just like having a great time. You were thrown into this situation and you were auditioning. Totally different from just me doing a little audition speech or something. I really liked the dynamic they chose from the group, in the sense of if you worked well with people and people who were not into that at all didn't get in. Very early on they did that thing where everybody was standing in a circle and without saying anything everybody would walk into the centre of the circle at the same time -- in the sense of you being in touch with everybody there. Everybody who stepped into the circle at the same time got into the school. That was kind of interesting

 

actor James Callis

actor James Callis

 

How did you first hear about the revived Battlestar Galactica? Did you audition for the Miniseries? Who else did you know that also auditioned for that?

I arrived in Los Angeles for the first time. I had a manager and he suggested that I should go for the role of Gaius Baltar. Jamie [Bamber] was already in the show and I'd worked with Jamie years ago in The Scarlet Pimpernel. Actually we hadn't worked together on the same show. He got killed in one episode and I got killed in the episode after so we didn't actually act together. We met on set, but we didn't act together. The rest is kind of history. I went to several auditions and I suppose on some levels I didn't really try, I was just being me, but that kind of was what they were looking for. I think it was also because I was new to this as well which formed some sort of energy that a lot of other people didn't quite have. On some big level I wasn't desperate to do the job.

I grew to love it, but initially I was quite dispassionate about it. I do remember in being in one interview with a very pretty girl who was auditioning for Number Six. She asked me: "Who are you going up for." and I said: "I'm going up for Baltar." She said: "I really hope you get it." and I said: "I really hope I don't." (both laughing) That was kind of interesting.

Was it fun acting scenes with and without Tricia Helfer?

More fun with than without her actually.

Was it difficult or strange as everyone acted around you when you were acting to a person who wasn't there?

What I wanted to make it look, was to make it look as real as possible. It was a difficult thing initially, and then it got into the fact that I was really pretending that somebody was there when they're not. So you don't care when anybody is looking at you. You become less self conscious.

 

James Callis as Dr. Gaius Baltar and Tricia Helfer as Number Six on Battlestar Galactica 2003

James Callis as Dr. Gaius Baltar and Tricia Helfer as Number Six on Battlestar Galactica 2003

 

You and Tricia Helfer just have an amazing chemistry on the show, wouldn't you agree?

I think so, but I think Tricia would have an amazing chemistry with almost anybody.

Neither of your characters would have been popular without the other.

Definitely, absolutely. Gaius Baltar wouldn't have nearly been so interesting without Number Six at all. She was his muse and she was everything. I think she was a rather brilliant creation of the series and rather incredible casting with Tricia in that role. Everybody benefitted of having her there in that way.

So Baltar gave up all his secrets to a woman that turned out to be a Cylon. How come he never noticed the glowing spine in the dark when he had sex with her? Or did he just think he was doing a really, really good job?

(laughing) I just don't know about that myself. I imagine on some level in the relationship that she was always on top. That's about all I'll say.

No character in the series, including Apollo, has reinvented himself as much as Baltar. You went from being the odd ball crazy scientist, to the reluctant politician, to the Cylon puppet king, to the self proclaimed messiah who appeared like Hugh Hefner with religious delusions of grandeur, only to end up, probably, as a very monogamous family man and farmer? All the actors we spoke to were always very jealous of enormous diversity in the character you got to play. Which was your personal favorite?

My least favorite was being the Cylon puppet. It was really hard, slog, because he had to be. It was sickening. Hmm, which one? (pondering the question) I don't know if there was any favorite part. That's one of the things about this ridiculous, crazy character. The writers allowed him to metamorphosize practically in front of your eyes. Favorite one? I liked having fun. Whenever there was an opportunity when everybody was very serious, I liked to be one who liked eating a biscuit where the crumbs come down -- on some level to be perverse in the scene. If somebody was really, really happy then I'd try to be not or contrary. I liked having fun on all levels, because he had so many avatars and incarnations all the way through. I don't know which was more fun. There's no one favorite there. Sorry.

 

James Callis as Dr. Gaius Baltar on Battlestar Galactica 2003

James Callis as Dr. Gaius Baltar on Battlestar Galactica 2003

 

I also heard you were quite a prankster on set?

Not really. Not much more than anybody else.

I heard a story where you stepped in for Eddie Olmos in a scene with Michelle Forbes, because Eddie was gone.

He wasn't there and the camera was not pointing at him. You couldn't see him because it was this big shot wide angle and they carried on. I just felt like: "If they had to stop and they'd have to get Eddie, it would have been like another 10-20 minutes and then somebody would shout. Nobody knows and it's not on our faces anyway and this is just for the wide. Why don't I just carry on?" I kind of didn't even do it as a joke, but the thing was that it had everybody laughing. Then the director went: "What the hell is going on? This is a very serious scene." Only then they realized that Eddie wasn't there.

What did I do? (pondering the question) Oh! One thing that I've done that was quite funny -- it was a total joke... Lots of the scenes I did, didn't get aired. I'd be naked or close to naked or Tricia would be close to naked and it was always us! We were doing a scene with Lucy [Lawless] once and she wanted a body double in one of these things -- actually in the end they didn't use the body double, so she was actually naked -- but the reason why she possibly didn't get used was, because I said to Lucy as a joke, and Tricia started with me: "When your body double gets out of the bed and you see a huge spot on your bottom, everybody will think that's your bottom." which was total rubbish! (both laughing) Lucy then said: "I think I don't need a body double, etc." Those kind of stupid, ridiculous things were quite funny.

In one scene you shared the bed with both Lucy Lawless and Tricia Helfer. I know as an actor you're very professional and there probably wasn't anything sexy about doing the scene with twenty crew members standing around, but as a guy weren't you thinking: "Cold Shower! Cold Shower!" at the time?

No, not at all. Three people in bed is kind of unusual for me anyway. (both laughing) It's not what I'm used to. It's like you say: there are twenty people around. Lots of people talk about these scenes. I think on some level it looks sexier than it is. Tricia is beautiful, Lucy Lawless is beautiful and I'm not! What I mean to say is that when we were there lying in bed, it's just a shot (snaps his fingers) and then it's: "Get up, get out." and it's not like we're in bed for a couple of hours. Perhaps in the viewers mind it's like: "What would they do to get into this situation and where's it going to go?", but we never film that. You can't see where it came from or leads to. You know, it's done wonders for my credibility!

 

James Callis as Dr. Gaius Baltar, Tricia Helfer as Number Six and Lucy Lawless as Number Three on Battlestar Galactica 2003

James Callis as Dr. Gaius Baltar, Tricia Helfer as Number Six and Lucy Lawless as Number Three
on Battlestar Galactica 2003

 

I wondered about that. Is it like James Bond? All the woman look differently at you now, because you played this role?

Not really. I think I was duplicitous enough not to be like James Bond, because he's the hero. Gaius doesn't have the same thing.

Was it hard to play the emotional scenes where Baltar completely breaks down?

I think it's hard for anybody to play those kind of emotional scenes really, especially if they're invested in some truth. It's very emotional. You use a lot of energy in a different way. Comedy has kind of like its own energy, it propels itself. You can see people on set smiling and stuff. You're like: "Yeah, this good." When you're kind of getting sad, you can see as well that everybody is a mirror for each other. It brings the whole energy down. Things take longer, it's slower. That thing is, on a weekly level, kind of how I feel. I went through that thing. Every other day you'd finish and there was this thing and I'm like: "Oh my God. I'm covered in blood and grime and shit and tears. I've got a headache, my head hurts from those cigarettes we had to smoke, which had some really strong tobacco -- they were nauseous things." So I was like: "Yeah, I'm on Battlestar Galactica." That weird thing was sort of Gaius in his comfort zone. That's where he kind of... He wanted salvation, so he was always ending up at some point, feeling desperately ashamed for all the things that he'd done and whatever. So it never comes easy. You have to dig for that. It's tough.

What's new for you now? What are your future plans?

I'm actually going off to Puerto Rico to be in a film with Edward James Olmos and Lymari Nadal (Edward James Olmos' wife). I've got a small part in that. And I have lots of things on the burner...

What's the name of the movie?

At the moment it's called America, but I'm not sure if that will be its title eventually. I have things planned and booked for next year (2010), but until I'm in them, I can't talk about them unfortunately.

How about returning to London to do Law & Order: UK?

No, I don't think so. I think Jamie [Bamber] has done that perfectly.

Maybe as a villain or guest part.

I don't know. After you do something like this, then it's kind of... it's not... On some level it's like your options slightly decrease and not increase. Because you really were wedded to something quite incredible. That's essentially the writers, the creators, who made this incredible thing that we could inhabit. Then you read other stuff and it doesn't come anywhere close to the moral complexity, ambiguity, tarnished nature of the human soul. So it's hard finding things that for me have the integrity that this show had. I think that will be a problem for everybody who was involved in Battlestar Galactica essentially.

Thanks again for your time.

My pleasure.

 
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