Actor David Hewlett ALMOST didn't get to play McKay on Stargate Atlantis. That's not to say he wasn't set to play another character on the show, just not McKay, Hewlett told Blastr in an exclusive interview about his new Hulu web series, State of Syn, and about his career in entertainment, starting with his turn in the Stargate universe.
“My favorite character,” said Hewlett about Dr. Meredith Rodney McKay, the brilliant, egotistical, obnoxious scientist who saved the Stargate Atlantis' characters' butts more than anyone else on the series over the course of the show's five-season run.
“It's the actor's dream. The actor's dream is to come in knowing that you're only supposed to do one episode and then come back because people liked it. I was just very fortunate that the character was written in such a way that he was so obnoxiously fun that I think he hit the right nerves along with the wrong nerves. It was fun. Strangely, just 'cause I'm perverse that way, the idea of people truly hating a character was just really fun to me,” he said.
“Honestly, I think I was surprised. I remember being online when it was announced that Rodney was coming back, and people were like, 'What? Ten years of this brilliant television series and wonderful characters and that's the one you decide to bring back?' I think I even responded. I said something like, 'I'm with you!' I was just as surprised, I think, as they were,” said Hewlett.
When it came to Stargate Atlantis, even though he'd established the McKay character on Stargate SG-1, his participation wasn't a given. In fact, it wasn't even what the producers wanted at first.
“What was funny is I auditioned for it. For Atlantis, the bastards made me audition. It wasn't originally supposed to be McKay. I'd done this McKay character a couple of times, loved it. I was in a situation where I'd done these great guest-star episodes. And then I heard [Atlantis] was going and I actually called my manager and said, 'Look, I really enjoyed working on that. When their new show goes, do let them know I'd love to come back.' And I didn't mean as a regular. I meant like, I'd love to do an episode here or there. And then I called my agent who was in Toronto at the time and said, 'Oh, it's a Canadian show. Maybe you could look into this.' Nothing happened. Nobody followed up on anything. And then I heard it was being cast and I was like, 'Oh, that's too bad.' Then I got this email from one of the casties saying -- it's the most horrible term in the film industry of all time -- but 'They're going black with the role' was the term,” said Hewlett.
“It means they want to cast a black actor. … It's still funny. It's the most offensive way of putting it, but that seems to be the term that one uses in the film industry when it comes to these roles. As I said, I was just looking for a guest star here or there. And at the last minute, there was this turmoil. There was this mixup and various racial choices in characters got switched, and all of a sudden the character was now open to all ethnicities,” he said.
“So I went and auditioned for this role. It was still written ... I can't remember the name of the character now, but I did, once upon a time, before I had a child and I had a memory. I went in and read for this other role, and in the audition, the guy was like, 'Look, they don't want McKay. They want this completely new character. So don't do him like McKay.' And I, devilish as I am, I went, 'Oh, yeah, no, for sure,' and then just did McKay. He would say, 'Well, no, I think it's still sounding very McKay.' And I was like, 'Oh, is it? Oh, okay. Let me do it again.' And I would just do it again very McKay. So the poor guy had this look of 'Oh, I guess that's not going to work out.' And off I went. Then I got the call saying, 'You're doing it, but you're doing it as this new character.' I was like, 'What? How is that going to work? An episode ago I was somebody else,'” said Hewlett.
And, in fact, when he got on the set his character had a different name and was supposed to be a new character. “You'll notice that the first episode of Stargate Atlantis, he's not very McKay-like. His lines are not very McKay-like because he was written as someone else. And then in the second episode they just jumped straight back into full-on McKay,” he said.
Hewlett, an English-born Canadian actor, originally thought his character would be less front and center.
“They lulled me into this false security, like, 'Sweet! Two days a week? Best job on the planet!' And then the second episode it's like 'I'm in every day? What? How did that happen?' That was it, basically. From there on in, I was in there every day, talking up a storm,” he said.
And the fans love the neurotic McKay, who did soften up a bit over time and eventually fell for Jewel Staite's Doctor Jennifer Keller toward the end of the series.
“I love it. I love being loved.”
While Hewlett's latest project is the graphic novel-esque web series State of Syn, which he stars in with fellow Stargate Atlantis alum Jewel Staite, he's also working on another new project, which he's writing and directing, called Starshippers.
The half-hour comedy comes from the State of Syn gang over at Shaftesbury and Smoke Bomb. “Of course, I couldn't make it simple. It's set on a spaceship. But it's really, I think, very funny. There's very few comedy sci-fis that have worked for me other than the classics, like Red Dwarf and, of course, Hitchhiker's Guide. I love that stuff. So I wanted to do this hybrid, the urgency and the peril that I love and the scare factor of Doctor Who, combined with that wonderful silly comedy of a show like Community or something like that. We're working on that right now,” said Hewlett.
“Right now it's called Starshippers,” he said. But Hewlett isn't sure exactly where or when Starshippers will appear.
“We don't know yet. We're not sure. It's at that stage where we don't know what's happening with it yet. We're developing it. It's a half-hour. I think most likely the smartest place for us to put it would be the web, but knowing Smokebomb and those guys, they'll end up figuring out a way to make that work,” he said.
Another recent Hewlett project, like State of Syn, is also a bit of a Stargate Atlantis reunion. The actor/writer/director wrote a movie called Debug, which stars Jason Momoa, who played Ronon in Atlantis.
“It's one of my little experiments gone awry. The point was just that one of the buyer guys said, 'Science fiction is really hot right now.' And I couldn't help thinking, 'When is it not?' It may not be 'mainstream,' but there's always a market for science fiction. When I go to Netflix, when I go to iTunes to get a movie, I always look for something sci-fi, but there's never anything there. That's why I wrote Debug. I want more sci-fi movies that aren't $200 million movies that I have to wait for and generally be disappointed with. They're so few and far between, even when they're coming as quickly as Hollywood can put them out,” said Hewlett.
“So I wanted to explore this. Ever since I was 10 years old, when I saw Kubrick's 2001 – my father took a 10-year-old's birthday party to see 2001: A Space Odyssey. My only regret being, of course, that I didn't pee during intermission, so I had to pee the whole last part. But I was obsessed with this idea of this computer turning on humans, but more from the other perspective. I kept thinking, 'Well, if I was him, I'd be doing the same thing. Are we supposed to be rooting for the human when the human is trying to kill the computer in the same way that the computer is trying to kill it?' Even at 10, I'm thinking, 'Hey, what about the computer? Why is he the bad guy?'” he said.
Debug's description on imdb.com is “Six young computer hackers sent to work on a derelict space freighter are forced to match wits with a vengeful artificial intelligence that would kill to be human.”
Hewlett admits his description might be a little different. “That's funny. See, I would have written it the other way around. I would have said, 'An artificial intelligence battles for survival against six humans.' Jane [Hewlett's wife] was laughing because when we were working on the script, she kept saying, 'You don't like the humans, do you?' I was like, 'No, no, I really don't. I prefer the computer.' Which is one of the reasons why I love the movie Her,” said Hewlett.
“I just wanted to do a fun kind of ... for want of a better reference, Final Destination in space-type thing. I wanted to do people turning against each other when faced with this computer program. And somehow, I managed to talk Jason Momoa into playing our evil computer,” he said.
Only Hewlett would consider taking hunk Momoa and making him into a computer.
“I think Jason wanted to do something different. He's always doing [the hunky guy, shirt-ripping stuff]. The poor guy. He's blessed and cursed with his looks. I think in a way he'd almost be happier if he was just an ugly little troll of a man like me and he could just go off and do his art and focus on that stuff. He's ridiculously good-looking. The press loves him, and the camera loves him. But he's an artist. We're absolute polar opposites. I mean, we're absolute negatives. He's this wonderfully outgoing, free-spirited beatnik, almost, and I'm just the most uptight, by-the-rules guy. He does this found-art stuff. He finds pieces of garbage or trees or whatever and puts them into pieces of art that are really quite clever and beautiful. He's now making films, and the stuff is breathtaking.
"I mean, he's incredibly talented. But because of the way he looks and because of his past in the film industry, he's only ever seen as the scantily dressed savage, basically. So we thought, let's let the animal play mineral. He really embraced it. I just owe him a huge debt of gratitude. I don't think anyone else would have got him on a budget and a timeframe like we did. He really stepped up for us. He's matured so much since Stargate. He truly is a movie star now in all of the right ways. He understands the business, he knows his place in the business and how best to work that and how best to make his art happen because of that. He came in for us and was just fantastic. The whole idea is that he's playing with them, he's playing with them intellectually and really messing with their heads and turning them against each other. I don't think it's a role that he has the opportunity to play very often,” said Hewlett.
Momoa plays the computer, Iam. “Not the pet food. There was so much debate on his name. We went back and forth, just these heated arguments about what to call him, and then finally I said, 'Guys, it doesn't matter, because names are so entirely personal to people.' Like, I like the name Rupert and someone goes, 'Rupert? That's a stupid name! I hate that name!' Everybody's got these associations with names. Iam, it's almost biblical,” he said.
Hewlett hopes Debug will get sold in the summer.
“So people probably won't see it until later this year, at least we hope. It's such a huge endeavor. My pitch for this little movie, all set on a spaceship, we can do it all low-budget ... and then when financiers and investment came in, all of a sudden, it became a much bigger film. Now we're looking at almost 900 visual effects and still working with the same small number of visual effects guys that we were working with back when it was supposed to be much simpler. If you want things to look good, it takes longer. The poor nerds are feverishly working away at all the visual effects now, and once we have all those put together, we can actually get into the final mix and stuff. But it's looking great,” said Hewlett.
The actor, who grew up reading Batman and Swamp Thing comic books, admits he's thrilled with his new projects. Still, he can't quite leave behind the Stargate of it all, or his Stargate friends like Jewel Staite and Jason Momoa.
“It's funny how quickly you fall back into the Stargate rhythm where you end up in a corner bitching and complaining about stuff again and making fun of things, especially each other. It's really fun when you work ... well, I shouldn't say that, because it's not always the case. But the Stargate cast really got along. Not always in that 'everyone loving each other' way. We truly were like a family. There was this wonderful dysfunctional family. It never takes long to click back into that again,” said Hewlett.
Right now Hewlett can be seen in State of Syn, which has its first season on Hulu.