King of the Castle

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Photo Source: Jamie Painter Young
Nathan Fillion has a reputation. On screen, the actor has flawlessly embodied confident characters you love despite (or maybe because of) their brash confidence. Think "Firefly" leader Malcolm Reynolds, "Dr. Horrible" hero Captain Hammer, or his current incarnation as self-assured mystery writer Richard Castle on ABC's hit "Castle" for examples of how Fillion expertly walks the fine line between obnoxious and charming.

But in real life, the easygoing Fillion is known as one of the nicest guys in Hollywood. Perhaps it's a Canadian thing; Fillion was born and raised in Edmonton, Alberta, the son of teachers who, as a child, he can remember adults approaching on the street to thank for changing their lives. Those parents, he says, helped instill in him a sense of gratitude and appreciation, which seems to go hand in hand with his self-deprecating humor.

Of his prolific career, he says, "I think I've been really good at surrounding myself with really talented people. I've picked the right coattails to ride on." Despite having won countless numbers of dedicated fans from his time on such cult series as "Firefly" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," not to mention starring on hit shows like "Desperate Housewives," he maintains, "I don't expect anybody to know who I am." And when told that this writer has several friends who have guest starred on "Castle," the first thing he wants to know is "Did they have a good time?"

The answer is yes, and every one of them has cited Fillion's professionalism and kindness as a primary reason the "Castle" set is so inviting. And it's not just co-stars who sing his praises. Writer-director Joss Whedon, who cast Fillion on "Firefly" and its film spinoff "Serenity," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," and most recently as an arrogant superhero in the Internet sensation "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog" has referred to Fillion as "one of my most valuable players."

James Gunn, who directed Fillion in the horror-comedy "Slither" before casting him as a wonderfully bad adult-film actor in the Internet series "PG Porn," has Fillion cameo in his upcoming film "Super" as a Christian TV superhero. "Every time I have worked with him, he has given me what I expected and gone a whole other step," Gunn tells Back Stage. "He goes above and beyond the call of duty. And he's fascinating to watch. I remember in 'Slither,' he made these little talking scenes in a horror movie interesting. And it's not easy to be compelling in a talking scene in a horror movie where you're really waiting for a woman to explode."

Tell all this to Fillion and he's flattered but nonplussed. "I love what I do," he says simply. "And why not be nice? I mean, I've seen people who work and they're apparently not enjoying it, and they're making sure everybody knows it. And I just say to myself, 'Where would you rather be?' Because I know where I would be if it weren't for this job: I'd be freezing my ass off in Canada. I've got a fantastic life. I enjoy what I do for a living. I see the blessings; I'm not blind."

Back Stage: You were still in college in Canada when you booked the role of Joey Buchanan on "One Life to Live." Were you able to get your degree?

Nathan Fillion: I was at the University of Alberta in the education faculty, but I was an art major and drama minor; or maybe it was the other way around. Which means I probably would have been teaching math, which was my worst subject. I was four and a half years into a five-year plan—just four months shy of graduation when I left. They send me notices now and then saying, "Hey, why don't you think of donating?" I'm like, "Hey why don't you hand me an honorary degree?" At the time, I was enjoying acting and feeling some success there, but I told my folks I would get my degree and it would be my Plan B. But I got the call from "One Life to Live." January 28, 1994, I moved to New York, and three months later I was on the air.

Back Stage: How were you able to land the job out of Canada?

Fillion: I had just barely passed one of my courses and was thinking I would go back for a summer session to pull up my GPA, and the phone rang and a lady casting out of New York for "One Life to Live" had found a tape that I had sent the year prior to Vancouver for a Canadian movie that I didn't get. And that tape went from Vancouver to L.A. to New York without my knowledge. Just casting directors passing it on over the course of a year. They called me and said, "If you're still interested, we'll fax you a script, you FedEx us a tape. Three weeks later, I'm living in New York City."

Back Stage: You performed Theatresports with the Rapid Fire Theatre Company, improvising a soap opera every week. Was that good training for doing an actual soap opera?

Fillion: [Laughs.] They're two totally different animals. Nothing could have prepared me for the kind of work that was ahead of me on daytime. It's a 44-minute program every day that they put out. One scene will be seven minutes or 10 minutes, and you just keep going and you don't stop. I can't even imagine going back now, even having had that boot camp. But my experience there was so positive. If I wanted to learn something, there were people that have been there 30 years who are willing to say, "No problem, let me help you. I find this works for me, maybe it will work for you." Everybody was ready to share. I'd heard of places where this wasn't the case, but that was not my experience. It was very nurturing and a great place to be.

Back Stage: Was it then hard to leave, particularly at the height of your popularity on the show?

Fillion: I had a great storyline between Erika Slezak and Robin Strasser, the two heavy hitters on our show. And it was incredibly difficult to fail between those two. But the guy who played my uncle, Bob Woods, sat me down two years into my three-year contract and basically told me how things were going to unfold and how I had a choice in front of me. He encouraged me to move to Los Angeles and try it out. He said, "First this will happen. And if you say this, they'll say this. But if you say this, this will happen." And events unfolded, exactly as they said they would. I couldn't believe it. He told me word for word what people would say to me, verbatim. That gave me a lot of confidence. And I got a good start; on my last day of work, I got a job on a pilot for DreamWorks and NBC called "708." On Friday I was on the soap and Monday I started the pilot.

Back Stage: You seemed to work a lot right out of the gate.

Fillion: When I moved out to L.A., I got four or five jobs in a row that were fantastic. I did "Saving Private Ryan" and "Blast From the Past" and I did these guest spots that I had a great time on. And then I went for nearly a year without working. Still auditioning; sometimes five times a week, and I couldn't get anything. I was paying my rent on credit and waiting on a tax return so I could pay off my credit card bill. I was so anxious to work again. I didn't want to do anything else; I didn't want to wait tables, I wanted to continue acting. I wanted that feeling back of going to work every day and collaborating with people and doing good scenes. I was reaching for the phone to call "One Life to Live" to ask about coming back. And the phone rang and it was for a guest shot on a sitcom with Faith Ford. I did that and the following week I got a job on a sitcom next door to it, which was "Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place." I did 10 episodes with them, and they invited me back as a regular. And I did two seasons.

Back Stage: Were you good at auditioning?

Fillion: I don't know how good I am at it, but I've done it enough that I know what to expect. I've been in some awkward audition situations. I remember going to this audition and thinking this character was kind of outlandish and goofy and trying to lend some truth to it and make it real. And the casting director said to me, "Do you know that kind of stereotypical surfer dude character that's vapid and vacant?" And I said, "You mean like: 'Whooaaa man?' " She goes, "Exactly!" I said, "I don't think this part's for me." And I needed the job too.

Back Stage: You headlined "Firefly" for Joss Whedon but had actually auditioned to play Angel on his show "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" originally. Did you have any idea when you didn't get the first job it could lead to something better down the road and this ongoing collaboration with Whedon?

Fillion: Not at the time. You understand your job as an actor is to audition. Your job is to go out there and look for work. Thank God for "Castle"; I'm having such a great time. But the majority of my career has been looking for work. "Firefly," "Drive"—we were on the air for nine days. So you can see how fleeting it is. I've auditioned more times than I can possibly remember, I've done more scenes in more offices and shed so many tears, it's ridiculous. But I know now that it's not about that one role or that one audition. The chances of you getting a part are slim to none. Then you get one. It's a game of numbers. In the meantime, you're developing relationships. You're showing a casting director that if he or she pulls me into an office to audition, I can deliver, I will be pleasant, and I can take direction. So when another thing comes up, they know they can count on me. I'd see the same casting directors over and over, because they kept pulling me in.

When Joss found out that I auditioned for Angel—he didn't know—he felt bad. He said, "I don't remember you." I told him not to worry, I never made the first cut. When I finally did meet Joss, I remember going into [casting director] Amy Britt's office, and she was behind her desk next to this fellow in a purple sweater with scraggly red hair and a beard and a hole in his sweater. I remember thinking, "Who's this guy, and when does Joss get here?" And Amy stood up and said, "Well, I'll leave you two alone." Joss and I chatted for 45 minutes; it was just a meeting. We talked about the show, we talked about work ethic, we talked about family, we talked about goals. Then he said, "I'd love for you to come in and audition for this role," and then he brought me to the network and there we go. And when "Firefly" was canceled, he said, "Come and do the last five episodes of 'Buffy' for me." And then, of course, "Dr. Horrible."

Back Stage: You recently made news by saying if you won $300 million, you would buy the rights to "Firefly," which started a fan campaign online. What does Joss think of your plan?

Fillion: Oh, my God, listen: It makes me scared just to say something nice about "Firefly" when people then say, "Let's gather money." Please, don't send money. I made an offhanded comment about "Wouldn't that be great?"

Back Stage: So you were joking?

Fillion: It wasn't a joke. It's a dream. I was dreaming about if I were to win $300 million, what could I do? But please, don't send money to a website. It's not that easy—you're looking at a television program that costs $1 million an episode to make. I really don't have a plan. I have lots of ideas when it comes to $300 million and the lottery, but I'm not really looking into property in the south of France right now.

Back Stage: You've got to love the enthusiasm of fans.

Fillion: I do, I do. And it only goes to show you what incredible enthusiasm and energy and intelligence and motivation that they have. "Firefly" is something I will always stand behind. It changed my life. No one would look at me for a lead role until Joss Whedon. No one. It was always, "He's good, but we don't know if he can handle a lead." Until someone gave me one, no one would know. And Joss Whedon was the man to do it.

Back Stage: You've developed a number of relationships with filmmakers, like Whedon and James Gunn, where you've become sort of a repertory player of theirs. How did those relationships develop?

Fillion: I've done this enough to know if Joss Whedon or James Gunn calls you up and says they have something, just say yes. They're great. They're good people. I used to hear the phrase "It's not what you know, it's who you know," and think that was a dirty thing. Like that was evil, the wrong people were getting the jobs. Then I started working and knowing these people, and you keep returning. You realize, "I enjoyed this work experience, I know I can count on this guy." Patrick Lussier is another one. I love this man. I met him nine years ago on "Dracula 2000." I auditioned for a role in the movie that I didn't get. He called me up and said, "You did a great job, but the studio wants to go another way. Would you come and play this smaller role? It's one day of work, but we'd love to have you involved." I said, "Absolutely." And he told me, "We're going to work together another time." Nine years later, he called me up for "White Noise 2."

Back Stage: Was the job on "Castle" an offer?

Fillion: I had a holding deal and a stack of scripts to look at. I was going through them all and I remember reading it, I was 15 pages in, and I turned to my girlfriend and said, "I'm going to read this out loud to you. You tell me if you don't think this would be a ball to play." We laughed and laughed and read our way through the script. I was working on "Desperate Housewives" at the time but only for the year. And the "Castle" producers were kind enough to come to my trailer for a meeting. I told them, "Stop looking. I'm your guy. I can do this, I know just what to do." [Laughs.] Which I've never done.

Back Stage: You've played comical superheroes before, and you've done the voice of the Green Lantern. Why aren't you playing a superhero in a major studio franchise?

Fillion: Well, listen, you get Ryan Reynolds—my God, there's a guy who can act, he's a good-looking fellow, and he's heroic. That's pretty easy casting. If I were making the choice between me and Ryan Reynolds, I'd pick Ryan. However, there are superheroes left. There are more out there.

Back Stage: So you're open to it?

Fillion: Oh, yeah. Before Stephen J. Cannell passed away, he'd be on "Castle" as one of Richard's poker buddies. We'd have these authors come to play poker to lend validity to this reality that Richard Castle is a bona fide mystery writer. I'd always nudge Cannell between takes and say, "So, this 'Greatest American Hero.' I notice nothing's been happening with it for a while.…" I'd love to do a revamp of "The Greatest American Hero." I think with the technologies available now, you could do some updates to make it really cool and introduce the typical problems you'd experience if you were introduced with a super suit you didn't know how to use. And then actually go somewhere with the idea of: What if someone else had one too? And they weren't totally on the up and up.

Back Stage: You've been working from such a young age. Have you ever had any formal training or studied with an acting coach?

Fillion: I took some drama classes at school and learned some neat things. I learned something from Mrs. Gietz in seventh-grade drama class that I still use to this day. She had us stand above the tiled floor at school and memorize the tile. I thought we were going to draw it later, so I really studied it. But it was an exercise for, if later on in our acting we felt the need to laugh or were thrown, to just click into the tile. Remember the marble, imagine the thickness, how cold it is—all these mundane details about a linoleum tile on the floor, I still use to this day. The same tile. I could draw it for you right now.

And when I moved to New York for "One Life to Live," they didn't want to start me right away and sent me to an acting coach on the Lower East Side, and she'd feed me bagels and orange juice and taught me a system to break down a script quickly since I had to do it every day. She gave me some great tools I would need and its stuff I use to this day.

– Other films include the independents "Waitress" and "Trucker"
– Co-founded with author PJ Haarsma the nonprofit organization Kids Need to Read, which seeks to help provide books to underfunded schools and libraries
– When asked how much he's like his character on "Castle," he notes, "My family teases me, 'If people knew you, they'd see how much acting you aren't doing.' Part of it is finding something real within yourself that you share with a character. So I just try to find truth in things."

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