James Marsters might have landed the role of Victor Stein on Marvel's Runaways because he understands the troubled genius inventor all too well. A fan of science, he's comfortable chatting about physics theories and mathematical philosophies, so when he got the audition for the character, he tried out a little improvisation as Victor addressing the employees at his company, Nemo industrial, which would reveal both his visionary-Elon Musk side, as well as his darker tendencies.
"Okay, guys!" Marsters started. "NASA just called me up this morning, and they need help. The Mars mission is a no-go at this point, and the thing that's holding up the whole thing is poop. They cannot figure out how to get the water out of it. The entire capsule has to be closed loop, and they've figured out how to recycle the oxygen, they've figured out how to recycle the water in everything is, but they can't get it out of feces. So the coffee is free, and I want something on my desk by tomorrow that interests me. It doesn't have to solve the problem, but it has to be interesting. Do not come to me with boiling or heating it up; any caveman can do that. It's got to be something else. Go. And if I don't find something on my desk in the morning, I'm going to fire somebody."
Recalling the audition moment during a conversation with SYFY WIRE, Marsters chuckled, noting how, outside of shielding the crew from radiation and insanity on the long journey, that this was an actual hang-up with Mars missions. "It equalizes the human race, you know?" he laughed. "We think we're so amazing, but really, what trips us up is feces." Impressed, showrunners Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage signed him on: "Okay! There's Victor."
Sometimes, Marsters is too close to Victor Stein. When they started filming the pilot, the actor was able to predict plot points even before the showrunners had addressed them, and know what his character should do. During a discussion about fixing the glowing sacrifice box, which the fellow members of Victor's conspiratorially-minded Pride group use on their teenage victims such as the runaway Destiny, Marsters posed an interesting question to the team.
"What if we didn't fix it?" he asked. "What if Victor didn't fix it? What if the body is still there? What happens then?" They paused to consider, and he answered for them. "Well, of course, we'd have to kill her." Aghast, Savage and Schwartz said no, they couldn't. But Marsters then pointed out, "Why not? We've already decided to kill her. You can do it with the knife, or you can do it with the box. It's the same moral decision. But we can't let her go."
"Stephanie and Josh were just like, 'Oh my god! You are Victor. You're scaring us, how much you're like Victor,'" Marsters recalled, laughing. They then, of course, followed his train of thought to its logical conclusion, turning the Pride into a much more dangerous operation. As Marsters put it, "If I had to kill someone in order to save the human race, would it be more moral to say, 'Okay, I will sully myself, so that the human race can survive,' or would it be more moral to say, 'No, let everyone die, I want to die with a clean soul.' Which would be more heroic?"
While Victor is stuck in the box himself, pending regeneration, Marsters has had plenty of time to examine his character's actions during this first season of Runaways — from abusing his wife Janet and son Chase, to doing a 180 and embracing them anew, to attacking them once more, provoking his wife to shoot him. (Hence the need for regeneration).
Joking that Victor might seem from the outside like a "complete douche," Marsters then dug deeper, and questioned what it would do to a man's soul to be required to make extreme sacrifices — in this case, to lie and murder — over an extended period of time, all for the greater good of his family.
"In Schindler's List, there's this really great performance by Ralph Fiennes, who plays the head of the concentration camp," Marsters explained. "Under different circumstances, he probably would have been a really great person. But because of what his job was, what he was forced to do, he was going insane, going psychotic, because of all that stress. His inner self was screaming, 'Don't do this.'"
Likewise, Victor Stein is also under an incredible stress, and his inner self is just screaming at him that he's doing the wrong thing. "But if he stops, Jonah would kill his family," Marsters pointed out. Ultimately, Victor takes it out on them, even as he's trying to protect them. He's perhaps hardest on his son because Chase doesn't understand the sacrifices made so he can just waste his potential, as Victor sees it. "His son is growing up in a beautiful lifestyle, without a care in the world," Marsters said. "It's arguable that Victor is too tough with Chase, but which is worse? Getting too tough, or not getting tough enough?"
The mere fact that he pays attention to how Chase is doing in school, and is engaged with him, even if it's in the wrong way, is a sign of Victor's love, which he couldn't hide while under the influence of Jonah's serum. "I think Victor was high as f***!" Marsters said. "I shouldn't say f***. High as heck. But the euphoria made the love come out."
Marsters said that ultimately, the show is about the inevitable gulf that opens up between parents and children, and what happens when children become aware of the sacrifices their parents make on their behalf.
"If I come home, and I'm asked, 'Why do you look sad, Dad?' I don't say that the doctor says I might have a melanoma, and I'll find out the results of the skin sample in a week. You don't say, 'Well, we're trying to make the house payment, and we're a little tight.' It's destabilizing, and you don't want to put that on children," Marsters said. "But they're not stupid. They can tell when you're not being truthful. And on top of that, parents cut moral corners, in order to feed our families. If I have to do things I'm a little uncomfortable with at work, so be it. But our kids get old enough to see that, and they're repulsed."
Marsters feels that pinch more keenly when he thinks about his past work as a theater producer in Chicago and Seattle, a job he quit when he moved to Los Angeles to become a television actor, in order to take care of his son. "You'd have to ask my kids what they see when they look at me, but I'm sure they don't see a subversive artist, when in my heart, that's what I always wanted to be," he said. "I've been lucky. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a subversive show, and it subverted the lie that women can't fight back. Torchwood subverted the lie that gay people can't be heroes. And Runaways is examining the very interesting issue about the gulf between generations."
Still, he said, he's part of a machine that sells a lie -- "that there are people in Hollywood living the life that you need to have."
"I'm living in Los Angeles, and I'm telling you, it's not perfect," he said. "We're not happy all the time. All human beings are equal, but in a celebrity culture, we're telling people that celebrities are more equal than others. It's inescapable."
Even in the Pride, some characters are more equal than others, as we saw when the parents debated which one of them should die, so that Victor could live (again) — "and not because Jonah likes Victor, or thinks that I have the best hairstyle," Marsters said.
At the point of the finale, which streamed Tuesday, the actor guesstimates that Victor has started the decomposition process, and is "starting to smell." The good news, according to Jonah, is that Victor's mitochondria are still functioning, which gives us some hope of revival. But what will Victor be like, should he return? And could the resemblance of Victor Stein's name to that of another evil genius scientist (cough, cough, Victor Frankenstein) be a clue?
"He might come back looking like a zombie, or he might come back looking like a Greek god," Marsters said. "If it's a zombie, make it as horrific as possible. Don't make me pretty. On Buffy, I was always like, 'Put a big wound on. Just slather me with blood. I don't mind.' But I want Jonah to fix Victor up! I want his mitochondria to be sparkling! I want everyone to go, 'Oh my god, you lost weight! Were you working out in there? You've got a six-pack!'"