You’ll remember James Marsters as the vampire Spike in the cult hit Buffy The Vampire Slayer (and later Angel) – a role that earned him three Teen Choice nominations and three Saturn Awards from The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films.
He’s now starring in another hit series, Marvel’s Runaways, where he plays Victor Stein, who he described to AVClub as ‘Elon Musk if he was a murderer.’
We caught up with the actor on the set of season two, which is now first and only on Showmax in South Africa, to chat about why he feels like he sold out, why he believes the gulf that opens between parents and kids is inevitable, whether killing a teenager a year might be the moral thing to do if it stopped global warming, and why actors are less important than plumbers in the bigger scheme of things…
Why did you want to be part of Runaways?
It’s shot in my hometown. Not that I don’t enjoy 14-hour plane flights to work but being able to shoot and be close to my family was huge. For this show I would have been willing to travel though; I would have gone far.
I love that there’s a lot of superhero stuff at the moment. I think heroic action is helping somebody when it hurts, is sacrificing, is doing something good when it’s inconvenient. I think there are little acts of heroism all around us. I used to tell my children, ‘There are heroes in this world. They are all around you. They’re called parents.’ They didn’t get it.
What’s the main theme of the show for you?
One of the big themes of the show is the gulf that opens up between parents and kids.
It’s inevitable. I started lying to my kids with Santa Claus – I wanted them to have a magical Christmas and have fun but I lied to them. Then round about age 9 or 10, they figured that out. They might have forgiven me for that but at the same time they can’t forget the fact that they were being lied to for years.
The lies just keep going. ‘Why are you upset Dad?’ And what you don’t say is, ‘I just came back from the doctor and I might have a melanoma but the biopsy is going to take a while.’ You don’t say that, or that you don’t know how to make the mortgage payment this month, or whatever the thing is that you’re trying to keep your kids from finding out so they have a good childhood.
It’s all lies. Kids may not know the specifics of the lie but they know they’re being lied to. Emotionally they’re a lot smarter than we think so they can tell that things are being kept from them and that just opens up a divide.
Then at some point kids become teenagers and they get to be about 16 and they can see very clearly. They can tell that you are not the person that they were hoping; that you are somewhat less than that; that you’ve made compromises. They turn around and say, ‘You talk the talk, Dad. But you’re not really walking it are, you? You kind of sold out…’
I was a subversive theatre artist before I was a father. I got great reviews. I lived on the razor’s edge. We offended people. We inspired people. And I ate beans because I was very poor.
I was a total artistic rebel in Chicago and Seattle and that’s who I feel like I am.
But I became a father and I heard this voice that said, ‘Go to Los Angeles and make money, dammit. Sell out. You decided to be a poor artist but this little baby that you just made did not make that decision so you now have to make money above all.’
So I did.
And instead of being this subversive theatre rebel, I came down and joined the consumerist state and got co-opted by the devil.
I’ve been very lucky to be on some projects that were also subversive. But I’ve raised my children to question authority and to be a little subversive themselves and I’m sure when they look at me they don’t see a subversive artist – they see a TV actor, who gave up some of that lifestyle so I can provide for them.
Before I was a father, I was trying to change the world, one heart at a time, one audience at a time. There was a French revolutionary who was a total jerk – Robespierre – who said this really great thing: to change a nation, you must first change the hearts of people.
That’s what we artists do and what I was doing. Then you become a father and you think, ‘I’m going to use the status quo to try raise a good person and that’s how I’m making my contribution to the world.’ That’s how I’m changing the world – by giving it one more good person. And I’m selling out to do it.
You’ve been a subversive theatre actor and now a TV actor. Which feels like your true self?
I think they’re both me. But at the end of the day, if I’m really being wise, I’m a dad. That’s the most important thing and everything else is really a way to provide for the kids.
This is a great job; this is fabulous. But really, if I’m looking at it correctly, it’s a way to pay for medical insurance and tennis shoes and college and all of that stuff.
Why do you think Runaways has been so popular?
It takes this inevitable tragedy – which is that you give up everything for your kids and then your kids turn around and go, ‘You’re not so great’ – and turns it up to 11.
I was joking with Gregg Sulkin, who plays my son. We were shooting season one. He was like, ‘It’s about to come out; I hope people like it.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, the theme is kids who think their parents are supervillains, which is basically every teenager on earth, so it’s probably going to be pretty popular.’
Being a dad is clearly important to you. Did that make it hard to play a violent father like Victor?
This is a game I like to play. I’m really not a psychopath. However, I’m going to talk as Victor.
‘I am trying to revolutionise energy production and transportation. And if we don’t do that, the human race is going to burn. Our children and grandchildren are going to die an early, horrible death. Because this planet is changing. If we don’t stop lighting things on fire to warm ourselves like cavemen and if we don’t find a better way to do that stuff, we’re all toast. Someone has got to change this.
‘I don’t see anyone else – either with the brainpower or who cares enough to try – and I’m going to do that. Once I accomplish that, you guys can go back to giving each other your backrubs and your Christmas presents and loving your children but until then someone is going to have to do the hard thing.
‘What is more moral? If you could snap your fingers and eradicate global warming, would you do it, if you had to kill one teenager a year? What would you? What’s the moral choice?
‘Is it more moral to say, “I will corrupt myself and I will live in horror of my own actions if my race can live.” Or is it more moral to say, “Let the race die, as long as I die clean, I’m good.”
‘It may be more moral to say, “I’m going to dirty my hands here, someone’s got to.” That is what tied me into Jonah. That was the deal. I went in with eyes open. And then it starts getting worse and worse and the devil wants his due but it becomes very clear that there is no way out. That if I try get out or any of the Pride try to get out, Jonah’s got us and he’s got our kids. I might be willing to die to stop this but I’m not going to endanger my child.’
But you do anyway?
I’m hard on Chase. I will admit that. But Chase has a 170 IQ and he’s getting C’s in high school. So at what point does a good parent stop saying, ‘Good job, Chase. Whatever you do is good with me. Keep going, buddy.’
At what point do you say, ‘This is not good enough. You are better than this. You have got to pick up your game now.’
So yes, you can argue that I am too hard on Chase. That I’m making a mistake by going too far that way, but what’s worse? Going too far that way or going too far the other way and just saying, ‘Oh, you’ll be fine. I’ll give you money later.’?
What is more damaging?
I’m not saying Victor is perfect; I’m just saying he may not be as damaging as other parenting styles.
He loves his son so much and he sees so much potential in him. Unfortunately that passion expresses itself in that tragic way.
How do you understand Victor’s violence towards his wife?
Victor was raised in a violent household; his father was violent. And there’s a switch. If you witness that, if you experience that as a child, life happens and you get frustrated or you get fearful that something’s going to get taken away from you or something important is not going to happen, there’s a flash and the fist comes out. And then you may feel really bad about it later.
How have you found your interactions with Runaways fans?
I didn’t really put it out there because I like to have friends who don’t care what I do for a day job. But my friends are all coming to me and saying, ‘Your show is amazing.’ So the reaction’s been really good. Almost uncomfortably good. I was reading the reviews and I was like, ‘We’re not that good. Are we that good?’ So I’m in a delicious space to be part of this show that’s firing on all its cylinders.
Are Runaways fans ever scared of you?
No, because I’m a total goofball. I get, ‘You’re really nice in person’ a lot.
Have you given the younger cast any advice?
Mainly it’s just Gregg because I shot with Gregg and because he is so patient. It’s really just a warning. ‘You are about to go through a crucible that especially when you’re young can be very dangerous. This position we’re all in right now is going to tempt everyone to take ourselves seriously and that’s just death – artistically and personally. If you ever feel like people aren’t treating you nicely enough, or you deserve better than this, or the thought that people are wasting your time comes up, you are in trouble. Watch out. If you ever lose sight of the fact that you are lucky, so lucky to be right here right now, then let’s talk.’
And Gregg is like, ‘That’s very good advice, James.’ But I can just tell that genetically he doesn’t even need to hear that. He’s already been famous for a while and I think he’s worked through all of that. He’s grateful and just a really cool dude.
I’ve seen other young actors go through this and it’s not healthy for them. Fame is toxic to the human soul. It’s like radiation: the longer you’re exposed, the worse it gets.
How have you stayed grounded?
I try to surround myself with people who really don’t care about that stuff and I can just be normal. Because to be happy, I want to be in connection with other people but if everyone is thinking of me as a star that connection is a lot harder and almost impossible to really make. So it’s important to have friends who just take me down a peg.
This is how I frame my job: I’m like a cake decorator. I can admit that I’m really good at it but a more important job would be a plumber. I’d rather have a working toilet than a TV show. I would choose the plumbing in a second. Or paving the streets or teaching the children; there are so many jobs more important than mine. I’m a cake decorator. I can’t solve world hunger; I can’t make peace with people; I can’t guarantee your marriage will last. But if you hire me to make your cake, people will say at the wedding, ‘Great cake.’
How have you found working with the younger cast?
I just love all the younger actors. They are all just so good and so nice, and you just want to say, ‘Just don’t do what I’ve seen other people do, please.’ But so far they’re all great. The kids on this show are all wonderful – they’re all balanced and a pleasure to work with and a pleasure to be around and just unfairly talented. I’m sick of their scenes being better than ours; I’m sick of it.
Binge both seasons of Runaways first and only on Showmax.