Heroes come in all shapes and sizes. Some began life as mere mortals, and then found themselves endowed with superpowers through circumstances outside of their control. Others transformed themselves into bigger-than-life characters in adulthood as a means of dealing with childhood trauma. Some have no superpowers at all, but they still risk their lives and perform heroic acts in dangerous situations. And some, quite simply, were just not from around here. They were born on fantastical, far away planets, and they carry amazing abilities that, while commonplace on their native terrain, far exceed normal here on Earth.
But they all started as ordinary within their natural surroundings. They all began life within the pages of comic books or comic strips. And they all have endured the test of time: none of these characters were created during the days of disco or the era of flower power. They've all been around for more than four decades.
Flash Gordon first appeared on the funny pages in 1934. The Flash came racing up behind him thru Flash Comics in 1940. Girl power took flight in the late 50's with the appearance of Supergirl from DC Comics. And in 1962, The Incredible Hulk burst onto the scene courtesy of Marvel Comics.
Like anything, the popularity of superheroes tends to go in cycles. In recent years, as the real world finds itself sinking into deeper and darker forms of chaos and distress, superheroes have enjoyed not only a resurgence in popularity, but their appeal has broadened to include the mainstream population. Batman, Superman and Spiderman have all received the big screen treatment, and spawned multiple sequels. On the small screen, NBC has capitalized on the trend with the out-of-the-gate success of Heroes, which not only features ordinary people with extraordinary powers, but a storyline centered around a painter whose graphic novel/comic book-style paintings are frighteningly prophetic.
From one perspective of the population at large, superheroes seem to fill a broader purpose than mere entertainment. They exist to give people hope in times of darkness. They help us to believe that salvation is at hand, the goodness will triumph, or that the meek and mild can become great and mighty. From an actor's perspective, playing a superhero allows for experiences and opportunities not normally found in sitcoms and courtroom dramas. There are special costumes to wear, and cool toys and gadgets to play with. And what actor's self-confidence wouldn't soar if playing someone who could start a fire with his/her eyes, move faster than the speed of sound, or lift 100 tons? Or even fly...
Here, four super actors talk about the problems and pleasures of taking on such iconic roles as The Flash, Supergirl, Flash Gordon and The Incredible Hulk, and whether playing a superhero has helped them to forge a super career.
Actor: John Wesley Shipp
Character/Show: Barry Allen (a.k.a The Flash)/The Flash
Network/Timeframe: CBS, 1990-91
Superpowers: Supersonic speed
Basic Storyline: A freak accident involving lightning and chemical contamination turns Central City police scientist Barry Allen into The Flash. When his older brother, Jay, who was a street cop, is killed in the line of duty, Barry avenges his death by donning a special suit that can withstand the rigors of hyper-speed and becomes Central City's central crimefighter.
Other Superhero Connections: None.
Previous Credits: Dawson's Creek, The Guiding Light, As the World Turns, Santa Barbara (TV); The NeverEnding Story II: The Next Chapter (Film)
Current/Upcoming Projects: Karma Police (actor), Whittaker Bay (director)
Q: What appealed to you about playing this role? Did you lobby for the part, or were you...
A: No. Comic books had been treated on TV as highly camp, or like the old Spiderman series where they used to hold the rope off-camera and throw it onto the actor. Plus, the characters didn't seem to be taken very seriously. I was coming from New York and had done theater and been on Broadway, and I had two Emmys for daytime — some pretty psychotic work I did on As the World Turns and on Santa Barbara — so I fashioned myself a serious actor of sorts, with aspirations to be taken seriously and wanting to do meaty, meaningful things.
I went to Germany to do NeverEnding Story II, and the casting director of that project became my manager. He brought me out to LA, I guest starred on a show, and the rumble was that they were going to do The Flash. Actually April Webster, the casting director, contacted my manager and asked, "Would John be interested?" My first response was, "No, not really." Then she said, "Well, have him read the script because we're doing it more on the order of The Dark Knight. We're taking it seriously; it's not going to be a pair of red tights. It's a big budget, and they're going to construct a suit..." They spent $100,000 to build four suits — two for me, two for the stuntman, Dane Farwell, who I can't rave enough about.
So I read it, and she was right. There was humor in it, but it was humor based on character. It was realistic, it was dark, not like Hugh Hollywood Hero Comes Out to Save the Day. It was kind of Regular Guy, the unblessed child in his sort of family. M. Emmet Walsh, who is terrific, he was the father. Of course, he preferred the older brother, who was a street cop. He had been a street cop, and I had agreed not to be a street cop, but go into the lab because it would be safer.
So, this accident happens in the crime lab, and suddenly I'm reaching for a cup of coffee and it's smashing against the wall. I run to catch a bus, and I end up thirty miles away in the ocean. I'm understandably freaked out, and I go to Star Labs, and I meet Dr. Tina McGee, who's done some research on cell modification, and my first reaction to it is, "I don't want to be studied. I don't want to harness my energy for anything. I want to be rid of it. And that's the deal: you can do your study, but your study is bent on getting rid of this freak abnormality that I don't want to know anything about." And it's not until my brother's killed, that I think, "Okay, I'm going to avenge his death." So indeed, it was a dark, human motivation I could get behind, and I liked the subtle, quirky sense of humor in the character. When they did go for character, it was smart and fun, and I thought I could riff with that as an actor. And we found out the budget was going to be really big, and so I went in.
They had told me I was the first guy they saw for the part; they saw about sixty guys and ended up casting me. So, that's kind of how it came about. And not speaking artistically or creatively, but purely from a career path orientation, we were at a point where, for the first time, the lines between television, features, stage, they were all becoming blurred. Bruce Willis had made the leap. It was like the action character seemed to be making the leap — bridging the unbridgeable gulf between television and film. And I was coming primarily from daytime, and that was also a gulf to be bridged, between daytime and primetime. So, this represented for me — at least in terms of career — a vault into primetime. And those were the considerations on my part.
Q: Were there concerns about being cast as a comic book character? About being typecast in that kind of role?
A: No, I don't really think in those terms. By the time The Flash came around, I had already been a professional actor to the exclusion of anything else for ten years, and I had played widely different parts. It wasn't in my thinking about being typecast because I think I had enough raw faith in my own ability. You simply do something else. If you're afraid of getting typecast then you pick a different kind of role, and I'd already proven in a different arena that I could go from one end to the other. All of my concerns revolved around "would it be taken seriously?" and "would I be taken seriously as an actor if I did it?" So, no, I was not afraid of getting typecast.
Q: Did you do any research or physical training to prepare yourself and understand this kind of super speed?
A: Well, no, not the speed specifically, but I was already kind of a workout freak starting from the early soap days, so I was comfortable in that arena. In terms of preparing, for me the preparation was psychological. Who is this guy? What are his relationships? What are his hopes and dreams? How has he limited himself, and how does this freak accident propel him beyond his own and his family's imposed limitations? What is the relationship with the father? How does he feel about his brother's death? Why does he assume the powers? What are the effects? And then — and I would've liked to have explored this in subsequent seasons — once he gets a taste of that, what would the inclination be to abuse them? What is the human toll in terms of metabolism, physically and psychologically? That's what makes it interesting for me. And for an action adventure show, with all the special effects, in the reviews they talked about the acting. The Washington Post review I'm particularly proud of "...the real plus is John Wesley Shipp." TV Guide talked about the subtle sense of humor, and self-effacing... In other words, they talked about the acting in a show that is propelled by special effects. So I had felt like I had done my job. But I tell you, I hated that friggin' suit! It was brutal to work in. It probably would've been easier had we gone another season.
Q: So one of the disadvantages to playing a super hero is the costuming?
A: Yeah, and the need for special effects, and how tedious that is, and the repetitive action necessary in order to get the speed effects...I mean, all the jokes about my metabolism, speeding up so I'd have meltdowns, and I'd have to eat, eat, eat, eat constantly. Or card tricks. I'd be rearranging cards for six or eight minutes. Or cleaning up the apartment — I'd be going one way, and Dane would be going the other, you know? We would be doing that in repetitive action, and then they'd speed it up, and it would take like seven seconds of screen time. So that — the repetitive action stuff — that was tedious.
Q: What were some of the advantages?
A: It was extreme. I mean, it's almost operatic. When you put in the possibility of super human speed as a reality, and you play the truth of that, it's intense. It's larger than life. You can push the envelope of your reactions and it's still truthful. What might look like over-acting in a different reality would be absolutely truthful in this context.
The Flash was the biggest show Warner Bros. had ever done for television. It was being developed at the same time as the dark Batman. Everyone was looking at comic books as adult entertainment, so it was gonna get a lot of friggin' attention. And it did. We were an industry hit; it's just that they were too confident in the pre-reviews. They put us opposite Cosby and The Simpsons at their height: head-to-head competition right away. Then we were pre-empted for baseball because CBS had the contract. Then we were pre-empted for the Gulf War. Then Bush threw up at a dinner in China, and we were pre-empted for that! And then they moved our time slot! It was impossible even for comic book audiences to find the show. I was getting letters, "We can't find you." And when your core audience can't find you...? Hopeless.
In fact, they even admitted it. One of the executives saw me at the Tony's, and he said, "You know, we killed that show. We so badly mismanaged it." Also, CBS was the oldest viewership, so any free, in-house advertising that we would do was going not to our target audience. So, it was a combination of factors.
Q: Were you pleased with the development of the character throughout the short run of the show?
A: Yes and no. I got to do some fun things. I felt once it started it was like a runaway train; we were all just trying to keep up with it. We were always up against our deadlines. We were always over budget. Overtime was crippling...I didn't have time to watch the show. There are still episodes I've never seen. So, working that fast, and under that kind of duress... And again, what was the arc? Where does the character start off at the beginning of the season? Where does he end up? What are the relationships? Are Tina and Barry going to have a flirtation? If so, what's that going to look like? How do we develop it, episode to episode?
I enjoyed the Pollux episode, "Twin Streaks." They clone The Flash, and instead of playing it as just an evil character, I played it as a real innocent. This whole thing between Barry and the clone, which freaked him out — it was a part of himself that he wanted to die — and he ends up dying in his arms. For me, that was a real challenge as an actor; I enjoyed that.
Are you ever totally satisfied? No. I go back, and I watch the episodes now, and there are some hits and misses, but generally I'll go, "Yeah, I own that."
Q: Did you have much input into the development of the character?
A: You know, it being my first primetime series, I don't think I realized at the time how much input I could have had. Once I got the scripts, my input basically was limited to saying, "This doesn't ring true." And they trusted me. So, I'd say, "Well, I don't feel like this is what Barry's trying to say." And they'd say, "Well, what do you think Barry's trying to say?" And I'd say, "Well, what I think Barry's trying to say blah blah blah blah" and they'd say, "Great. Let's write it." And we'd write it on the spot, I'd memorize it, and we'd go. So in those ways I had input. But I would've pressed harder, and I would've been more in contact with CBS except that I just didn't know how much power I really had. And certainly the powers-that-be on the show (who are always afraid you're going to turn into a monster) had an investment in not letting me know that. But it was what it was. It was grueling.
Q: Overall, would you consider it a success?
A: Yes, I would. It was a critical success. And it was an industry show, so it could easily have gone the other way. It could so easily have been a joke, and I would've been a joke with it. But it wasn't. It achieved its purpose for me.
Q: Do you think that playing a superhero has set you on a path to a "super career?" Has it given you opportunities that you may not otherwise been afforded?
A: Well, the fact that a lot of people in the industry did watch it, a lot of people felt like it didn't get its due, and that the response to me was so favorable — having TV Guide say that I ran circles around my big screen competition, including Michael Keaton, and Warren Beatty — having that kind of press out there, having Jay Leno be a big fan of the show, being on The Tonight Show twice, having two TV Guide covers...you know, it propelled me into a different league. There was no doubting my primetime credential even though the show ultimately was not a financial success. There was no way it was anything but a benefit for me and my career.
Q: How has playing a superhero like this impacted you on a personal level?
A: Oh, I don't know that it has, other than it's a big lie, you know? I'm really just a big dork. But that's what Barry was — kind of a dweeb who had these extraordinary powers. But in terms of other people, in terms of other relationships, maybe in terms of romantic relationships, playing superheroes and super dads on Dawson's Creek...you know, it's a variation on the old Rita Hayworth quote, "They go to bed with Flash or Mitch, and they wake up with me." So, in terms of that...? Maybe. Perhaps. Probably.
Q: Would you ever consider playing another superhero?
A: No, 'cause I don't know about superheroes or comic books. I was not a comic book fan as a child. Mark Hamill, for example, he lobbied CBS to play the Trickster. He's a huge comic book fan, has been his whole life, had a comic book store in Vancouver. At the end of the episode, when I ripped the gold ears off the costume, he was running around big heavy cables and garbage cans trying to get those gold ears. That was not my experience at all. When they said The Flash to me, I thought they meant Flash Gordon!
I just want to play complex characters with hopes and dreams that are fighting against obstacles. Tortured characters, who have some particular twist. I don't care what arena that's in — just characters with layers and substance and interest. Certainly the modern day treatment of superheroes fits that bill. And since the show came out on DVD I've been doing these conventions and... You know, it's a fantasy. A fantasy for the people. If you're feeling disempowered in any part of your life, or you can't have an effect, or you're frustrated...I mean, what a wonderful escape piece! "I have all of these powers, I'm doing all of this good, and I can't let anybody know. But I know."
Actor: Laura Vandervoort
Character/Show: Kara-El (a.k.a. Supergirl)/Smallville
Network/Timeframe: The CW, 2007-?
Superpowers: Same as Superman: invincible body (except around krypton), x-ray vision, heat vision, super strength, super speed (faster than a speeding bullet), super agility (able to leap tall buildings in a single bound), and self-propelled flight (often mistaken for a bird or a plane)
Basic Storyline: Kara-El was sent to Earth (and to the Kent family) by her parents to save her from the impending destruction of Krypton. There she is reunited with her cousin, Kal-El/Clark, and must learn to adapt to a new life in a new world. From Kara Clark learns more about their planet, their people, their powers, and the House of El, while he teaches her about Earth, human beings, controlling their powers, and family.
Other Superhero Connections: None.
Previous Credits: CSI, The Dresden Files, Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye, Mutant X, Mom's Got a Date With a Vampire (TV); The Lookout (Film)
Current/Upcoming Projects: Instant Star (ongoing)
Q: What appealed to you about playing Supergirl?
A: I enjoy it because I get to play a strong female. Not only physically, but she uses her brain more often than not — and that's a nice change. Most of the roles I've played in the past are typical cheerleader and stuff like that. So this has been a nice challenge. And the scripts are great. And just playing a superhero that can do absolutely anything is pretty awesome. Oh, flying obviously, as well.
Q: Did you lobby for the part, or were you approached to do it?
A: I auditioned for it. I heard they were casting for it and I put myself on tape; I couldn't make it to LA. They pulled my tape out of the pile, and lo and behold, I got it.
Q: Did you have any concerns about playing a comic book character?
A: No. Obviously, I went into it worried that I wouldn't be able to fill the shoes of Supergirl, and people's expectations of what she is and what she represents, but I put what I could into it and I think people are happy with how I'm playing her. But again, comic book fans have known her a lot longer than I have. I was just worried that I wouldn't be able to fulfill what they had hoped I would, but so far so good.
Q: How do you go about making somebody who has such extraordinary abilities believable and real?
A: Well, one of the things that they taught me on Smallville is that their show is based on the actors truly believing what they're doing. They don't laugh at themselves on the show; they take it very seriously. I mean, when I'm talking about re-shaping the world's surface, or something that is absolutely out there, I need to relate it to something I know. Flying I always relate to driving. You just got to bring it down to home, and understand what it means to her. That's the only way to make it realistic.
Q: Had you been watching Smallville before you were cast in it?
A: I had. I'd seen the first two seasons. I stopped watching because I lost a lot of time — I was at school and working — but I was aware of the show, and the great quality that it was. I was excited when I heard that I had gotten the role on it, but not only that, I was star struck when I met the cast.
Q: I know you have a second-degree black belt, which must have helped you with strength. But how did you go about researching or preparing for Kara's super powers?
A: Yes, I have a second-degree black belt. But there's no way to prepare to have super powers. I mean, when it came up in a scene that I was using my heat vision I would ask Tom (Welling, who plays Clark Kent) how he would do it, and he kind of gave me an idea how he'd done it in the past, 'cause the continuity of how he does it has to match with how I do it, so I just took notes from him, and put my own little spins on it.
Q: So you didn't go into any physical training for anything?
A: No. For flying, I did a lot of stunt harnessing. They put me up on a harness, and on weekends we rehearsed my technique for flying, and things like that. So that's how I prepared for green screen flying. But I have a great stunt girl who does most of the stunts that are dangerous. It's cool. It's cool when you see it put together 'cause when I'm doing it it's just fans blowing on me, and I'm in a silly position. But when they add the special effects it looks awesome.
Q: I know you're not terribly far into the season yet, but have you been pleased with the development of Kara's character so far?
A: I have. She's got a lot more layers than I had thought. Every episode I read I'm finding out something new about myself. And they're really throwing some cool scenes at me, and some great challenges, acting-wise.
Q: Do you get any input into her general development?
A: Not really, no. I just read it, and go along with it.
Q: What are some of the advantages and the disadvantages to playing a superhero?
A: The advantage is obviously that you get to do more than a typical acting role. You get some cool scenes out of it. And I guess the disadvantages would be realizing that in real life you don't actually have those powers.
Q: I realize this is still relatively new for you, but does it feel that playing a superhero has put you on a path to a "super" career? Are you getting opportunities that you otherwise wouldn't be afforded?
A: Yeah. I mean, just being on Smallville the recognition's a lot higher than some other shows that I could've been on. But yeah, when I tell someone that I play Supergirl, they automatically perk up, 'cause that's an iconic character. I mean, most people would probably want to be a superhero. I think it opens up a few doors because I'm not just an actress; my character stands for strength and all of that. She's an empowered woman that I think people want to see more of.
Q: How has playing a superhero impacted you on a personal level?
A: Well, when I got the role I had to move away from my family so my life kind of turned upside down; I was in a different city, and away from everyone and everything I knew. It was a big change for me in my career and family-wise. But it hasn't really impacted me in any other way. I mean, I'm excited to be playing her, and it's shown me a lot about myself — what I can and can't do, what I can and can't handle. But I mean, nothing else has really changed other than my location.
Q: Are you going to the Comic Con, or any of the conventions? Are you being recognized at all?
A: I went to Comic Con in San Diego when I first got the role. That was fun. And I went to a convention in Texas several weeks ago, and have another in LA in April. So they're keeping me busy with that. People don't really recognize me as much as they kind of look at me, and wonder where they've seen me before. I don't think they've really put two and two together yet.
Q: Do you think you'd ever like to play another superhero?
A: I would love to, but I don't know if that would be a conflict. I mean, it would be hard to picture Tom as anyone but Superman because he's done it for so long. I'd love to, though.
Q: Who would you like to play?
A: Wonder Woman would be great.
Q: Is there any fear of being typecast from playing a superhero?
A: At this point, I'm not really worried about that. I just started playing Supergirl on Smallville. I mean, I'm sure that happens when you play a certain character for an extended period of time — and even maybe a superhero for a season on something, people kind of see you as that. But I don't think that's something I'm going to be thinking about right now.
Actor: Eric Johnson
Character/Show: Steve "Flash" Gordon/Flash Gordon
Network/Timeframe: Sci-Fi Channel, 2007-?
Superpowers: None, buts he runs really fast and enjoys traveling through space
Basic Storyline: Track star Steve "Flash" Gordon, and sidekicks Dale Arden and Dr. Hans Zarkov, find themselves defending Earth against Ming the Merciless and other inter-galactic forces of evil
Other Superhero Connections: Eric played Whitney Fordman, Clark Kent's high school rival for Lana Lang's affections, on Season 1 of Smallville
Previous Credits: Smallville, Everest (TV); Legends of the Fall, The Work and the Glory I, II and III (Film)
Current/Upcoming Projects: Nothing outside of Flash Gordon, pending the outcome of the writer's strike
Q: How is it for you to play a superhero without super powers? How do you build on his natural abilities as a track star to fight evil and save the galaxy?
A: The thing that I love about playing Flash is that he has no super powers. When he gets into these extraordinary circumstances the only thing that's going to get him out is sheer human will and determination — and, every once in a while, a good right hook. That's really what it comes down to, and that's why I think he's so relatable and so much fun to play. He's just an average guy. You know, a little more MacGyver and Indiana Jones than Superman. So, he's gotta use his brains, and I think that's what makes him relatable to the audience. He's just an average guy.
Q: What appealed to you about playing this role?
A: The big thing was that each episode was an adventure, and it had a really unique, sarcastic, self-deprecating sense of humor that I was immediately turned onto. It just jumped off the page, and I realized that it was very unique. I haven't had a lot of opportunities to be able to find that in a show — where you get action, you get to run and jump, and there's the drama as well. It was like this is a perfect combination for me. I'm a little like a Golden Retriever: if you just keep throwing the ball, I'll go and get it. And the more fun the game is, the more enthusiastic I'll be. And it's just been a riot that way 'cause we get to do comedy and drama and stunts all in the same day.
Q: Did you lobby for the part, or were you approached to do it?
A: I definitely wanted the part, and made my case for it. And thankfully they agreed that I would be the best Flash Gordon ever.
Q: Were there any concerns about playing a comic book character?
A: Well, this leads me back to the question about having the super powers. The thing is that he may have an iconic name, but it's not a shtick. There was no fear about getting typecast, or getting solely identified with this character, because he's just a guy. If he had x-ray vision or laser vision, something like that, then that would be what people would really recognize about Flash Gordon. But because it's far broader than that, I wasn't worried about forever only being linked to this character.
Q: Were there any concerns about playing a character whose origins were from the comic book world as opposed to an originally developed character for television?
A: No. I mean, if we were talking twenty years ago there might be more of a concern, but comic books have become such a part of the mass media stream that it's not just relegated to obscure comic book shops and that fan base. They really are part of the mainstream, and are such big business for Hollywood that it wasn't a concern at all. It's more like, "Hey, I actually get to do one. This'll be fun."
Q: Have you been pleased with the development of the character through the run of the show so far?
A: Absolutely. When we started the show he was just a guy who lived in his mother's house. So he's quickly developed into an intergalactic good guy and it's been a lot of fun. And the show itself has progressed; I think we're all very proud of how far we've come. I mean, in terms of TV shows, we're on the lower budget side of things: The only way our show is good is when we work at our highest level from the top down, and when we put out a show that's as entertaining as it is it's because of that hard work. It's a dream job for me. It's the most fun I've ever had doing this.
Q: Do you get any input into the development of the character?
A: Well, I probably would be vocal if I didn't like what was coming on the page. The good thing is that they're very open to me ad-libbing in little flashes, and things like that on set. They're not caught up in, "This is what Flash has to be, and you have to do this." It's more like, "You know what? Go with it. You're doing great." And so we're able to just go out and play.
Q: Are you set to get through the strike? Do you have scripts in place?
A: Our writers were amazing. They burned the candle at both ends for a few weeks and got our season complete, which, I think, was like four scripts in four days. They're amazing. We have a thing at work called "The Flash Gordon Hero of the Week," and it sort of exemplifies someone who goes above and beyond. We've been passing that around the show since the beginning — it's a really horrible ugly trucker's hat — and we sent that hat down to the writers for their amazing work, and for getting us our full season.
Q: And I'm sure they appreciated it! Can you talk a little bit about some of the advantages and the disadvantages to playing a superhero?
A: Well, I think the biggest advantage going in is that you're dealing with something people already know about: You're not having to establish a whole new character and explain it from the get-go. But at the same time, that's a disadvantage because people have an idea of what your show should be in their mind, or past versions of your show, or who your character was. So it's a blessing and a curse. There's no way you're going to make everybody happy. But at the same time, the only thing you can do is go out and do the best show you can do. And with Flash Gordon, he hasn't really changed in 75 years, whereas other superheroes have evolved, and there have been many different incarnations. But the Flash Gordon mythology has stayed pretty much the same since its original plot. They took on the task of making it a more modern story, and I think for a lot of people that were fans of the original Flash Gordon that was tough to take, but at the same time I think we're finding a new fan base and winning over some people who might have thought that we weren't all that out of the gate.
Q: Do you ever get approached by Flash Gordon fans? Do you go to the Comic Con?
A: We went to the Comic Con the week before we premiered, which was very cool. There was a lot of anticipation there. We walked the floor, and it was quite the experience. I'm kind of glad we went the week before because some of the die-hard Flash Gordon fans that were there were a little angry after the premiere. I think they've relaxed now that they've realized we are, in fact, doing Flash Gordon. But in television it takes a little longer to tell a story than it would in the movies, so we can't introduce the entire mythology in the first hour of the show. You want to spread it out over a season, and give people more and more. The good thing about doing that is you can go deeper into the storyline, the characters, and the mythology. The Comic Con was a trip, and I actually came home with a light saber! It was a lot of fun.
Q: Did your time on Smallville prepare you in any way for playing a role like this?
A: Absolutely. I think what Smallville provided was a really good insight into this comic book world, and the world of fandom: the expectations that come along with it, and how people can celebrate you and tear you down at the same time. It was a great introduction to that world. I mean, I wasn't exactly the most loved character on Smallville! It very quickly allowed me to develop some thick skin, and a sense of humor about the whole thing, and realize that as long as people are watching it — if they're hating you or loving you — it's all good because they're paying attention.
I really loved the stuff I got to do on Smallville. Generally I got to do some fun stuff and lots of fun stunts. The hardest thing for me about Smallville was not being there every day because I just love what I do. And the great thing about Flash Gordon is that I get to be there every day! Even with a new baby at home, it's still great to be able to go to work every day.
Q: Would you ever consider playing another superhero?
A: Yeah, absolutely. I don't see why not. Again, like I said earlier, it's such a part of mainstream culture now that to be able to play an iconic role like that does not necessarily mean the death of your career. Maybe it used to have had that stink on it — I mean, there are new comic book series and television series every year. So, if someone said, "Hey, why don't you play the Green Lantern", or who knows what else, I'd love it. Like if someone asked me to play Robin Hood; I'd love to play Robin Hood! They're fun, cool characters, and you get to do things you'd never get to do if you were just sitting at a desk playing a lawyer.
Q: Is there a superhero that you in particular would love to play?
A: I don't know. As a kid I always loved Batman, but Christian Bale has a lock on that job, and he's pretty darn good at it.
Q: Do you think that playing a superhero has set you on a path toward any kind of "super career?" Are you getting opportunities you may not have had otherwise?
A: I guess we'll have to wait and see. I mean, if we get picked up, and they ask us if we can do ten years of it, and it's a huge hit in Europe and our DVD's can't be kept on the shelves, maybe. But we'll see. I think it's still too early to tell. The important thing is that every day that I'm on set, I enjoy it and feel I become better at my job. I think if anything, playing a superhero gives you a lot of confidence going into the next part; you've tackled some pretty big things. And being the lead of a series is not necessarily an easy thing to do, but it can be a lot of fun. So, I would definitely have no reservations about jumping into those shoes again.
Q: How has playing a superhero impacted you on a personal level?
A: I think I stand up straighter. That's a big thing! And I understand there will be a group of kids, no matter how small they are, that will really look up to me. I take a great deal of pride in that. I think there's a good deal of responsibility in playing an iconic character, in upholding the dignity of that character. That's very important to me. I think it's really allowed me to come into my own. It's been great that way.
Actor: Lou Ferrigno
Character/Show: The Hulk/The Incredible Hulk and sequels
Network/Timeframe: CBS, 1978-82
Superpowers: Incredible strength
Basic Storyline: Traumatized by guilt at not being able to save his wife from a terrible car wreck, Dr. David Banner looks for ways to tap into the hidden reserve of human strength that often appear in times of crisis. He believes the answer lies in gamma radiation. An accidental overdose of the stuff mutates his body chemistry, and now, whenever he becomes angry, he is transformed into the huge, green-skinned Incredible Hulk.
Other Superhero Connections: Voice of the Hulk (uncredited) in The Marvel Action Hour: Iron Man and The Marvel Action Hour: The Fantastic Four
Previous Credits: The Incredible Hulk (movie and series), The Return of the Incredible Hulk; Bride of the Incredible Hulk; Billy; The Incredible Hulk Returns; The Trial of the Incredible Hulk; The Death of the Incredible Hulk (TV); Hercules, Sinbad of the Seven Seas, Hulk (Film); The King of Queens
Current/Upcoming Projects: Developing a reality show
Q: What appealed to you about playing the role of the Hulk?
A: The fact that it was a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde situation where he was a good guy but people viewed him being a monster. And what was startling to me, it was about power. He had incredible strength to do different things, and he was acting out of his alter ego.
Q: Did you lobby for the part, or did the studio approach you about doing it?
A: Well, they had tried out someone before me who was playing the Hulk - Richard Kiel, who played Jaws in James Bond - and the director's son was on the set, and he said, "It doesn't look like the Hulk." And they felt like the Hulk should look like the character in the comic book. They did a nation-wide search, and I got called to audition for the part, but they were looking for a guy who looked like the Hulk with big muscles, able to act. So, I went down to audition, and won the part. But at the same time, I was training for competition, so it was like the right time and place.
Q: What was your reaction to playing someone with a superpower?
A: Well, I knew the Hulk my whole life, and I knew that I was very close to that character. I just knew that it was mine.
Q: How long have you been body-building?
A: I've been competing since I was 21. When I auditioned for the Hulk I was a World Body Building Champion. I was Mr. Universe twice, Mr. America...I won many different international titles. And I was 24 at the time of the Mr. Olympiad competition. I was competing against your favorite governor, Arnold, and then that's when the audition came along. I made the decision to put my career on hold to do the Hulk because I knew that I was able to portray the character, and be very successful in the TV series.
Q: Did you have any concerns about playing a comic book-based character?
A: You mean, at the time? No, because I was ecstatic. I was excited because I knew nobody could play the character better than I could. I was an avid Hulk comic book reader since it came out in the early sixties. I was very passionate about Hulk comics.
Q: The Hulk is such a big guy — not just physically, but he's huge emotionally as well. How do you make someone like him believable?
A: With pantomime — acting without speaking — I was able to show the sensitivity that makes the character believable, not just a big green guy with muscle.
Q: Were you taking acting classes at the time? Had you any interest in pursuing an acting career at that point?
A: I did have an interest. I did not take acting classes, but it came to me very naturally because I knew the character so well and they were impressed about how much I knew. I was able to show my sensitivity through the make-up. That's what made the character special.
Q: Were you happy with the development of the character during the run of the show and in the subsequent TV movies?
A: I was very happy. The only thing I was a little disappointed with, I wish I could've done the voice. I've done the voice for the Hulk on the cartoon. But at the time, I don't think they were ready to do the voice. But if I had been able to do the voice I think the character would've been even more popular. That's my opinion.
Q: Did you have any input into the way the character was developed?
A: Yes, because I worked with the producer, Ken Johnson. I remember many times I would be asked questions. And they were very happy with the way I portrayed it. They would just tell me, "Do your thing." It just came to me very natural.
Q: Right. What are some of the advantages and disadvantages to playing a superhero?
A: Well, of course you get typecast. But for me though, I've still been working because I just got finished working on the new Hulk movie three months ago. And for the rest of my life I'll be famous for the Hulk, and today most people on different TV series, they're forgotten, but the Hulk has been good to me, and has stayed with me all these years. It has given me a chance to travel the world. And every country has embraced the Hulk because the Hulk is green — it's a neutral color. And every language, every generation loves the character. I never heard a person come up to me and say anything negative about it. They just love it, or they're afraid of the character, but that's how powerful the character was. It's been with me for thirty years, and it's made me what I am today. I've done like thirty-six different movies, sometimes to break the typecast. But that's the only disadvantage.
Q: And what are the advantages?
A: It got me into show business. It made me famous. And it gave me a chance to pursue other opportunities.
Q: Does it feel like playing a superhero set you on a path to a "super career?" Has it given you opportunities you may not have had otherwise?
A: Yes. The new Hulk movie wouldn't be around today if it wasn't for me doing the TV series. So, it continues; the legacy of the Hulk character. The Hulk and Spiderman are still the most successful characters. And that's why I've gone back into body-building in the early nineties to compete again. The popularity of the Hulk put me on the map with the general public.
Q: How has playing a superhero impacted you on a personal level?
A: It made me popular with children. Kids come up to me all the time. I do a lot of conventions, autograph signing, and the fans, you know...the kids get excited because I'm more real to the children. It has to do with the muscle. It's not putting a cape on, or hiding behind a mask. I mean, this is actually me: I'm like a real-life superhero. That's why people relate to that.
Q: You mentioned you're involved in the new version that's coming out next year, can you tell me anything about that? What role are you playing?
A: Oh, I have a great part in the movie with Ed Norton, but I can't talk about the scene, the part, because of confidentiality. But the Hulk's gonna be taken to the next level - and he's gonna be more like the TV series. They're gonna have a great story, and I think they're gonna have a great impact among the public.
Q: Would you ever consider playing another superhero? Is there somebody else that you would really like to play?
A: I would like to play another superhero, something closer to like a John Wayne character, or someone different. But if they came up with the right type I would definitely want to do it. I love playing superheroes because, like I mentioned earlier, it has to do with their power. They give out a wonderful message about hope, and saving lives, and now especially when it comes to world affairs.