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Batwoman's Alex Morf on why Victor Zsasz enjoys pain: it's the 'boldest flavor in the meal of life'
Zsasz, a recurring supervillain in DC comic books who has appeared in Fox's Gotham, the Birds of Prey movie, and briefly in Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, made his way to Batwoman this week as an over-the-top assassin/hitman in the service of emerging Gotham City player Safiyah (Shivaani Ghai). As played by Alex Morf, Zsasz's skin is covered with self-inflicted, flesh-covering tally marks representing all of his victims — and he's looking to drive that number up.
SYFY WIRE got on the phone with Morf, who played the similarly murderous John Healy on Netflix's Daredevil and Sykes on Fox's Gotham, to ask about his personal affinity for superhero stories, what he thinks motivates Zsasz's bloodthirsty ambition, and how the killer will tangle with Ryan Wilder (Javicia Leslie) in Season 2.
You've been cast in several comic book-related projects across your career. Were you into comic books at any point in your own life?
I wasn't a comic book kid when I was younger, but I did always love the comic book films. I was pretty obsessed with the Christopher Reeve Superman movies. And I was pretty obsessed with the Michael Keaton Batman, and then pretty much all the Batman movies after that. So I've grown into a comic book fan. And I've been a gamer at different points in my life, playing the superhero games.
There's a pretty broad spectrum of tones to choose from when playing Zsasz. What helped you most in dialing in your approach to him?
One hundred percent. The writing helped me out the most. I was familiar with Victor Zsasz both from the Arkham Asylum video games, and I had seen some of Anthony Carrigan's stuff on Gotham, and I think that he's just brilliant. So, I had some knowledge of the character. And then it was a quick Wikipedia search for backstory and stuff like that for the audition. From that it was just following my instincts about where all those little clues take me.
And I will say, my manager is a huge Batwoman fan. I did a couple of different takes for tone and I sent them both to her and said, "You watch this show. Which one's right?" She had a really strong opinion about it, so I feel like she deserves a tip of the cap for helping me out with the tone some too.
When did you finally see the complete script with his full introduction?
I didn't get the script until I was on the plane heading to Vancouver, and then you get to find out what you're really gonna be doing. It's kind of exciting. And then [there] was two mandatory weeks of quarantine that I had to let it bake in.
Did the showrunner or the director call with any specific notes on how to play him?
Mostly it was me, like a crazy person, walking around in my hotel room talking to myself because there wasn't anybody to talk to. [Laughs.] I was just sort of daydreaming about who he was. I definitely read a bunch of stuff about the origin story, different arcs in the comics, and looked at a lot of images. And then you get to set, and it was so weird because everybody's wearing masks and you can't even see anyone's faces. But the director, Holly Dale, was so good and just helped me almost right away find the right zone. I think the thing that really clued me into him was that there is a lightness and enjoyment of life with him. It really provides a beautiful contrast to the brutal things that he does in his nature.
He's given quite the cold open introduction, which frames his weird humor and brutality with a lot of impact.
So, so juicy and fun. I love that stuff. I like doing stunt work. I wrestled for 21 years, so I'm really comfortable with hand-to-hand stuff. It's a brilliantly written scene. It's surprising and a little bit funny and terribly brutal, and is a great intro for the character. I really enjoyed it.
What do you think distinguishes Batwoman's version of this villain?
I think there were a couple of things. One is that he's a little bit later in his career in this version. And I think that there's something about the fact that he doesn't really have anything to prove. He's a master at what he does. And he doesn't have to prove anything to anyone. But I also think that there's something a little bit introspective about him.
And the other thing that really helps was the idea that he loves to feast on the meal of life, and the boldest flavor in the meal of life is pain. That was really sort of a hook: He seeks that in a big way. That's part of the reason why he is instantly so interested in Batwoman. He sees the potential for somebody who can inflict pain, or even possibly destroy it, which is what he's most looking for.
How was it having a full-body scar prosthetic applied to you and did it help you feel more Zsasz-y?
Because my face didn't have to be covered in a giant prosthetic, I found that whole process really pretty enjoyable. I had five amazing artists working on me for like nine or ten hours. I listened to them talk, and every so often, I would talk to them. But mostly, I just got to look in the mirror at my scars on my body and just daydream and find where Victor sits in my body and make up stories for the big scars. It allowed some time in silence to let things sink in a little bit, which can really be a gift as an actor sometimes. As a result, when I got to do that [carving] scene, it was one of the first big moments where I was like, "OK, I'm here. I know what I'm doing now."
What was the first scene you shot for the episode?
I started in the Hamilton lab [scene]. It was interesting because I shot that scene, and then there was a little bit of a break in production for me so I actually ended up having to fly back to New York, and then come back. I had a big break in between that scene and all the rest of it.
Victor doesn't know it, but he gets to interact with both halves of the Batwoman –– in the suit and just as Ryan. And he seems to read her well. How was it playing those scenes with Javicia?
I really love what she's doing with Ryan and Batwoman. That scene was really cool because it helped me to understand my character. I love that he's perceptive about people. And I think he's curious about people, which is a fascinating thing for somebody who places no value on taking human life. It doesn't bother him at all. And that's the kind of contradiction that is extremely fascinating to me. I think that he is perceptive about her and that catches her off guard a little bit, that he sees her. Because he is perceptive, he sees what she's capable of, and it's selfish for him, but he wants her to step it up because he wants her to be top of her game.
He got beat but he's definitely not out of this game. Any teases for how he re-enters the story?
You know, I really can't say. I can tell you that he's not dead. And with Victor, you never know when he's gonna pop up. He's unpredictable that way.
And now he's got a big dent in his head to go with those scars.
That's a great question for the future of the makeup department. [Laughs.] I do suspect that every time you see him he's probably going to have more scars. I don't think that he goes very long without killing somebody.