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Tahmoh Penikett GALACTICA.TV interview 3
Written by Marcel Damen   
Monday, 16 November 2009

Marcel Damen did a follow up with Tahmoh Penikett, better know as Karl C. "Helo" Agathon on the Battlestar Galactica 2003 series. This interview, which was done in collaboration with the All About Tahmoh Penikett website has only been published in audio so far. It was done in December 2008 at the Starfury convention. Tahmoh talks about his part on Battlestar Galactica, Dollhouse and his future plans.

First of all, I'd like to thank you for doing the interview.

My pleasure.

You've been on Battlestar Galactica for 4 seasons now as Karl C. Agothon or commonly called Helo after his call sign. I've always wondered what the C. in Karl C. Agathon stands for?

Hmmm... Karl C. Agathon... You know what? I've never figured that out. Karl C. Agathon. I'm curious about that.

Lee Adama is now Lee Joseph Adama.

When did we discover that?

When he was sworn in for President.

Ah, then it comes up. That's hilarious. I never did find out. I never asked.

What do you think? What would you like it to be?

His name is already Karl. How many names are there with a C. It could be Christopher. It could be... What else starts with a C.

It should be some Greek name or something.

Yeah, that's the point, realistically. I don't know a lot of Greek names -- especially ones that start with a C. Not from the top of my head anyway. I'll have to get back to you on that one.

As long as it's not Cylon...

Right, who knows, maybe at the end of the season you guys are in for a big surprise. Maybe I'm the Fifth.

 

Tahmoh Penikett as Karl C. 'Helo' Agathon on Battlestar Galactica 2003

Tahmoh Penikett as Karl C. 'Helo' Agathon on Battlestar Galactica 2003

 

Did you ever discuss with the writers what the name Helo stands for? Obviously fans suggest it might be slag for "helicopter" since the raptor is visually based on an Apache helicopter.

And Helo is one of the new characters, not from the original series. I think Ron Moore maybe took some influence from that. Helios is always brought up, since he's the Greek god of the sun. Something like that. I think there might be a combination of the two. It's a cool sounding name. It's probably where he got it from.

Did you personally devise any backstory for Helo over the course of Battlestar's 4 seasons?

Of course. I did it right from the top. That's my job as an actor. I made some choices and they weren't always the right ones though.

[Michelle Forbes passes by]

Tahmoh: "Look at you smiling at me."

Michelle: "If Tahmoh is smarter than me, I'm going to be really angry." (all laughing)

Tahmoh: "You and I both can be brilliant -- Profound, profound interviews."

Michelle: "No, I laughed throughout the entire interview, so you be serious."

Tahmoh: "I'm going to get all serious. What was the question again? What was I answering?"

What the backstory was...

Oh yeah. That's your job as an actor. I meet some... Originally they had this write out for each of the characters and I read it and it was like... it obviously changed a lot. The original writer from the Miniseries said that Helo was a guy with a perpetual tan and loves the ladies and I said: "Ah, okay" and then I read the Miniseries and didn't think this was really the case. There's more to this guy than a woman chasing, compulsive tanner. You know what I mean? So yeah, I made a lot of choices. A lot of them are personal. I not often share my choices that I made, but I gave him a backstory. That's your job as an actor. It gives it a lot more layers when you do that. Sometimes those choices worked for me, sometimes they didn't. The writers often made different choices and took it into a different direction. I had to honor that and go with it.

Okay. Helo is very loyal, a friend you can count on, fighting for human rights, always protecting the innocent and the weak even if they're his enemy. Was it a character you were proud of playing or someone you could really relate to in real life?

Obviously I was really proud of playing him. He was... Even when the rest of the fleet, you know, humans... Especially like, his command... He just had this moral sense of doing right. He could never not do right. That's so interesting about him. There was no way you could... Playing a character like that, who is willing to take those risks, who has endured everything he and his wife had - the animosity, the racism, the prejudice - striding through and loving his family, doing whatever it takes to protect them, to do whatever he feels is right... There are so many admirable qualities in him. He's a really brave, selfless man. Yeah, I was proud and honored to play him.

Obviously they kept on writing in that direction. I never knew the direction in which they were going to take Helo. They just continued in that direction, slowly, bit by bit. Every time I saw they were heading in that way with the character, I was always just really proud and happy that they were going in that direction. Sometimes it's -- even as an actor -- it's hard to play that, because we got into our roles many times in the series. Even the other actors felt that you were out of place because you were playing that character and you had to commit to it. It was like you were going against the grain. You're sympathetic to the Cylon situation often times.

It's like... It was an interesting ride. The writing was done so well, that they made it easy to commit to the character and those situations.

 

Tahmoh Penikett as Karl C. 'Helo' Agathon on Battlestar Galactica 2003

Tahmoh Penikett as Karl C. 'Helo' Agathon on Battlestar Galactica 2003

 

How much of Tahmoh is in Helo? Or the other way around?

Well, I think there's a lot. When an actor plays a role, he's bringing a lot of himself to it. I think the choices that I made and the interpretation of the text that they gave me and the situations they put my character in, I brought myself to it. That really influenced the direction it was taken. I think a lot of me is actually in Helo. There's qualities that we share for sure. I don't know if I'm as brave as that guy is, but I think that anyone would like to think that they are.

Helo and Starbuck have a very close relationship. You once suggested they might have been in the academy together. Close enough to stop Starbuck from shooting a pregnant Sharon, but not close enough to trust her on the Demetrius and take her out of command? Also he doubted the fact it was really her when she returned from the dead. If anyone would know she was the real Starbuck it would be him, right?

You'd think so, but at the same time this is a guy who was also fooled by his own wife, the original Sharon and Boomer character. He knows... He likes to think it's her in the beginning, but he's just cautiously approaching the situation and is trying to figure out if it's really her.

When it comes to the Demetrius situation, it's not so much that he's doubting her character but it's more her sanity and where her head's at in that situation. The fact that she's putting everyone at risk. Katee (Starbuck) has wiped the entire crew. They're about to have a straight up mutiny on board. He's been trying to quell it for a long time and it's obvious that his loyalty lies with Starbuck. He does believe in her and is following her command for a very long time -- past the point that many would have. Ultimately when it comes to that situation, it hurts man. It's like questioning your sister and having to take her off command was a really hard thing for him to do, but he knew he had to do it at that point. She was not making rational decisions as far as she was concerned. 

 

Katee Sackhoff as Starbuck and Tahmoh Penikett as Helo on Battlestar Galactica 2003

Katee Sackhoff as Starbuck and Tahmoh Penikett as Helo on Battlestar Galactica 2003

 

You also said yesterday that there might even be a love interest between them. They could have had a one night stand together?

Knowing Starbuck and her sometimes promiscuous ways... Everyone in the fleet being the hard partying soldiers that they are, living... I think if you really believe in that situation that these pilots live in and everyone in this world of Battlestar Galactica lives in. There's only so many humans left and your life is at risk every day, you are putting your life at risk. A lot of people are living for the moment. All be it, their situation probably happened before the attacks on Caprica -- the attacks by the Cylons. Whatever. It doesn't mean anything. If anything it would probably be one night. If that thing happened, that they had a situation when they really got together... It just gives us backstory, you know. Katee [Sackhoff] and I talked about that and there definitely was a possibility. It would have been one those things where two friends took it to a place and...

I also wondered if that brought about the boxing match, because Helo chose Lee to box with. Do you think he might somehow have felt jealous of him, because Lee's friendship with Kara was turning into something Helo never got: love from Starbuck.

No, I don't think that's the situation. If you look at the Helo and Starbuck situation there's no [love]... it's no jealous thing in any way. I don't think Helo ever pined or missed her in that way or wanted her in that way. I think honestly they're more like brother and sister...

So were Lee and Kara.

Yeah well, it's very much love interest with them. More than anything else those two love each other. They want each other but they can't work together for any reason. They've gone in different directions. They're too scared to actually make it work with each other.

So why did he pick Lee for the boxing match?

Why did Helo? Who knows? For whatever reason. I don't think he even made a strong choice like that, because the storyline changed so much. Originally I wasn't going to fight and then I was going to fight and they were having me fight Lee and I was like: "Great!" They have to make a choice. If you really thought about it, it could be a million different reasons. Lee and Helo often differ in opinions on many different things. Obviously Helo's sympathy towards Cylons, because he's married to one and has a half-Cylon child... Him and Lee disagree on many different issues. It's a good way to let it out. That was the whole point of the boxing. In the fleet -- like Adama says -- it's a good way for everyone to let out their tensions -- together as a team, as a cohesive unit -- in the ring. Leave those arguments and those disputes behind.

What has been the biggest difference between working on Battlestar and working on Dollhouse?

The biggest difference? Well, I think the obvious difference is that Battlestar in the last few years -- the last two and a half years or whatever it was - we became a family. We were working on a series, we'd become a cohesive unit on a beautiful, unique, groundbreaking piece of art. Now on this new one... Potentially it will become as good and it's not there yet. We're in the beginning of the first season. There's a lot of insecurity in the first season, a lot are still finding their feet, the writers are still trying to find the characters, the actors are still trying to discover their characters... So the biggest difference is that I'm on a new show, a new project and it's all about finding its feet in the beginning. Hopefully in the future I'll be able to say some of the great things that I've been able to say about Battlestar Galactica about Dollhouse, but we'll see. Take it step by step.

As a character outside the Dollhouse, working to discover its secrets, has Paul interacted with much of the Dollhouse cast?  Is it similar to Helo being isolated on Caprica in Season 1?

Ironically enough, coincidentally enough, it's very similar in the way that I'm only in directing with a few different characters in the beginning, originally. In the original pilot I interact with Eliza Dushku's character right off the bat. That's not the case with the new storyline -- we've taken it in a totally new direction, that's good. I like the new storyline to be honest with you. Joss [Whedon] and his writing team are more than capable. They're extremely talented group that has worked together on many successful productions. So yeah, there's only been a few actors, a few of the main cast that I've been able to work with in the beginning of the series, but I've been really happy to work with them because a couple in particular -- without giving away any of the storyline -- all of them are really talented, but the ones I've worked with in particular, they're really good. They're great. They're really capable artists and I'm really happy to be working on the same project which is important in the beginning.

What's it like working with some of the same crew on Dollhouse as you did on Battlestar like writer Jane Espenson, Felix Alcala, Rod Hardy...?

Yeah, I just finished working with Felix [Alcala] and that was awesome. That was really awesome. He was great, because Felix and I worked together already so much on Battlestar. He did the movie (Battlestar Galactica: Razor) and the nominated episode ("Exodus, Part 2") -- he did an incredible job. We have a really good connection. I felt it funny enough on the Dollhouse [episode] that we did (episode 8: "Needs"). Obviously my role is a little more prominent on this series to an extent. There was not a large cast, especially in the episode that I was doing with him. We had some good scenes together and he gave me some great direction. I'm really happy about that. I think it worked really well. I'm eager to see the final product.

Same thing goes for Rod Hardy. It's been great to be able to have worked with the directors I have already, because there's already an established relationship and a trust. Often times when a new director comes in there's a little bit of... getting to know each other. There isn't that built in trust. You don't have the trust and communication between you. That you can understand each other and that you're moving into the same direction. Rod was great -- I've worked with Rod for years. It was good.

Have you bumped into any actors of other FOX shows while filming Dollhouse?

Well, I saw Kiefer Sutherland. There was no way I was going to approach him because he's Kiefer Sutherland and everybody wants to approach Kiefer. I'm a big fan of his, always have been. I hope to meet him in the future though when the time is right and I hope I don't come across like some fan girl, because I probably will. He's a great actor, man. He's been around for a long time. He's a good old Canadian boy like me and I'm just really proud of his work. He inspired me to be a professional like him.

Did you ever read for 24?

I've never read for 24.

Too bad.

Yeah, it is too bad, because I would have liked to.

 

Tahmoh Penikett as Karl C. 'Helo' Agathon on Battlestar Galactica 2003

Tahmoh Penikett as Karl C. 'Helo' Agathon on Battlestar Galactica 2003

 

How does working in LA compare with working in Vancouver?

LA is great. I mean, the weather is awesome. It's neat to be in a new city, what have you. I do miss home often, because I've got my family and my friends [in Vancouver]. It's my town. I know that city so well. I know everything in it. It's a very comfortable place for me. I'm an outdoor enthusiast. I do a lot of snowboarding -- a lot of outdoor activities -- camping in the summer, snowboarding in the winter. So those are the things I'm missing right now -- those activities in particular. But I've got a great opportunity here. I'm working on a new series and I'm excited about it, so... I'm really focusing on that and fell blessed that I'm working. I'm grateful that I'm working on a new show.

Do you get recognized more in LA?

I wouldn't say more, but I do get recognized. I do get recognized, but in Vancouver it's the same thing though. I get recognized a lot there too. There's a lot of fans of Battlestar in Vancouver.

What's the last movie you saw? Or what are you reading now?

The last movie I saw was The Fall. It's an incredibly, visually stunning film. It's about a stuntman who gets paralyzed in doing some sort of crazy stunt, because he's in love with the lead actress and he's got a broken heart. He's friends with this little girl, like 6 years old. She's obviously from some Eastern Block country or whatever and she's got the cutest little accent. English is obviously her second language. He befriends her, tells her stories, but part of the reason he befriends her is because he wants to commit suicide and he wants her to steal some morphine for him, so he can actually commit suicide. It's a beautiful, stunning, visually stunning. The cinematography in it is just awesome, because as he describes, as he's telling her stories, she imagines -- in a child's way -- these beautiful landscapes and characters and what have you. It's so well done. Wow. It's really heartbreaking, but it's a beautiful story. I saw that on the plane coming over here.

I just finished [Truman] Capote's In Cold Blood. I finished that yesterday. I've just started this new novel by Jim Webb. Apparently he's a senator now, but he was also a Vietnam war vet and this is considered one of the best books on Vietnam.

Field of Fire

Yeah. I just started it.

Who do you admire as an actor and who do you admire as a person?

I admire so many actors. The list could go on and on.

Kiefer Sutherland.

Love Kiefer Sutherland. I really like his work. A younger actor, my age or a little bit older than me: Joaquin Phoenix. His body of work is just incredible. He's really touched on everything. I'm really impressed by him. The late Heath Ledger; incredible. The character work he started doing the last couple of years. I think it's a natural progression an actor takes, hopefully. You see them often times in safe, leading roles or what have you and then they start to do character work. Hopefully, if they have the chops for it, if they're given that opportunity and they make the right choices... Heath started doing that. Seeing him do that, taking it to the next level, with the physicality and all of that. All those levels of it that you can do when you got a good character. Look at him in Brokeback Mountain. Even the way he spoke -- he barely moved his mouth. I remember reading an article. He was talking about how he played that character. He was like a wound up piece of rope. He barely moved because he had so much tension and pain and hurt in him that he never wanted to touch that emotion. His performance was brilliant in that. You watch him in Dark Knight, same thing. It's too bad we're robbed of such a talented artist at such a young age. He was just going to get better. It's really a shame.

Like I said there's a lot of actors out there, who I really, really admire. Charlize Theron is another. She's just a brilliant actress. What was the second part of the question?

 

actor Tahmoh Penikett

actor Tahmoh Penikett

 

Who you admire in real life?

Who do I admire in real life? Well, there's a lot of people I admire. Specifically in our branch of work I specifically admire actors who use their celebrity for good. They bring awareness and attention to charities and charitable work and situations in the world that need attention brought to -- with full commitment. I'll give you an example. Obviously Angelina Jolie. She's always known as a bad girl. She's a very talented, Academy Award winning actress, but she took a turn where she just stopped doing... She was not in the press anymore. She just completely committed to bringing awareness to AIDS organizations and a lot about the situation in Africa. The amount of work that she has done and was able to do because of her celebrity is incredible.

George Clooney is another one. Matt Damon brought a lot of attention and awareness to the international community -- just the public in the West - to the situation in Darfur, Uganda... It's great. I think that it's really admirable when you get to a point that you're that successful and you realize you can touch a lot of people in the international community through your celebrity and bring attention and awareness to causes like that.

How about any political figures? How do you feel about [Barack] Obama?

I'm very hopeful and excited about Obama. He's obviously a very intelligent man. There are some people doubting him, but I think the majority of the world is really happy that we have intelligence in the White House and I'm excited about it. I think there's going to be good things to come -- really good things to come. It's an interesting time that we're living in. We'll see what happens in the next couple of years.

Okay. I'd like to thank you for taking the time.

Thank you!

 

This interview is a follow up on two earlier interviews we did with Tahmoh Penikett in 2006 and 2007: Tahmoh Penikett GALACTICA.TV interview and Tahmoh Penikett GALACTICA.TV interview 2

 
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