When you are in a strange place it helps to make friends, and not many places are stranger than the setting for the new Syfy Channel miniseries Alice. Innocent people from our world are being taken and brought to a parallel universe known as Wonderland. Once there, their memories are forcibly erased and they become prisoners in a casino where people never lose. The resulting emotional “high” helps sustain Wonderland’s residents, most importantly its ruler, The Queen of Hearts, and her husband, The King of Hearts.
When Alice Hamilton arrives there in search of her kidnapped fiance Jack, she turns to come of the locals for help, including a slightly shady character called Hatter. Having not long finished his third season battling dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures as Connor Temple in the hit British TV series Primeval, actor Andrew-Lee Potts was excited about the idea of a potential trip across the pond to work in Wonderland and play Hatter.
“When I first got a call from my agent to go in and read for Alice I thought, ‘Oh, wicked! That sounds fantastic and right up my alley,” enthuses Potts. “Then I found out that it was for the character of the Hatter, and straightaway everything felt right for me, and even more so when I eventually received the script and discovered it was written using the type of humor that I often use in my work.
“So I taped my audition with the British casting director and I just did my thing. [Director/writer] Nick Willing wasn’t there in the room; it was just me and the casting director. And sometimes with that type of situation, especially when you’re doing overseas casting, things can get lost in the translation – i.e. how you should be playing the part.
“And it’s funny because I went into the audition and played the role as I thought it appeared to me, and was more sarcastically comedic as well as a bit eccentric. Hatter is a hero of sorts in the story, and the casting lady suggested, ‘Maybe you should try being a little more sexy?’ and I [jokingly] said to her, ‘What do you mean? Am I not being sexy?’ So I tried that, and later on when I met Nick, he told me, ‘Your first reading of the role was perfect, but then you did something really strange and went all serious.’ So although I’m glad I did it both ways so that he could see either interpretation, I’m really pleased that my initial take was what Nick was looking for and that I eventually got the job.”
A week after Potts received word that he had been cast, he was on his way to Vancouver, British Columbia to start shooting Alice. “We actually had a few days rehearsal before filming began, and that was really interesting for me,” recalls the actor. “I haven’t done that many plays and things of that nature, so I’ve tended not to rehearse a lot of the parts I’ve played in the past. I like to keep my performance as fresh as possible because I never quite know what I’m going to do with the material. That’s something I began doing during Primeval, and as a result they [the producers] allowed me to be a lot freer with the dialogue and to try, I suppose, to get the humour and keep things really lively.
“On my first day of work on Alice, I actually shot my final scene as Hatter, and then went on to do my first scene, which was something like seven or eight pages long. It was just me being the Hatter in his teashop, so I had to gt into the swing of things straightaway. I was a bit nervous, but at the same time really excited. I was playing the character the way I wanted to, and it was a relief to see that Nick looked happy when he came out from behind the monitor after the first few takes.
“I suppose as an actor you always think, ‘I hope I’m doing the right thing and they’re not going to recast me.’ I remember we started out filming in this abandoned mental institution up in Kamloops. It was hot and the Hatter wears a leather jacket throughout the whole story. Being British, I’m not used to the heat,” he says with a chuckle, “but I survived and it was a lot of fun. Both Nick and I hit the ground running with the character and we carried on having a good time with it.”
In this telling of Alice, the Hatter is part of a resistence force led by Dodo (Tim Curry) and The White Knight (Matt Frewer), whose goal is to overthrow the Queen’s (Kathy Bates) tyrannical reign. While eager to take on his character’s re-imagined role, Potts also wanted to imbue his performance with some of The Mad Hatter’s original personality.
“In the back of your mind you’ve got the original story where you know The Mad Hatter as being eccentric, crazy and all that kind of stuff,” explains the actor. “However, in Alice, we don’t have The Mad Hatter, we have the Mad March [Geoff Redknap], who was originally The [Mad] March Hare. So my character is supposed to be the sane one, but what I tried to do the first time you see the Hatter is go with a little bit of his eccentricity because I thought that might be enjoyable to the audience.
“We tip our hat to every single character in Alice in Wonderland. With Hatter I wanted to keep an element of fun and spontaneity of the original. You never quite know what’s going on with him. Sometimes he goes really fast and other times he slows down and tries to take control. The first time Hatter meets Alice [Caterina Scorsone] it’s an assault of information on her, and from there he tries to take control. He’s a hustler and a very conniving one, and I wanted to play him slightly dangerous at the start as well. We have no idea what Hatter is capable of, and as the story unfolds, he does things that constantly surprise you.
“At one point I had to do a hat trick, so I had to have a lesson and learn a bunch of tricks. That was cool, but, unfortunately, the hat I wore was really lightweight and the guy who came in to teach me the tricks was struggling because of that. They usually use a weighted hat, so I had to try to work around that. My character uses his hat as a bit of a distraction tool, especially in fight situations, which was quite fun and interesting. I’m quite handy with my fists in this, as opposed to Connor in Primeval, who couldn’t throw a punch to save his life, but Hatter is the complete opposite.
“The stunts were neat to do, too, and quite challenging as well because I did nearly everything myself. That included learning how to ride a horse, which I had never done before. I’d never even sat on a horse before. So I went to horse training, which was brilliant. I loved galloping as fast as I could on top of a ridge in the middle of nowhere and thinking, ‘I hope I can stop,’” he says with a laugh.
Although Hatter’s relationship with Alice starts out as a purely selfish one, it becomes more of a friendship as the story unfolds. “In the beginning, he sees her as a money-making tool,” says Potts. “Alice is initially useful to the Hatter in very different ways to the ways that she’s useful to him at the end. I think my character finds her absolutely fascinating because she is very headstrong and sure of herself. Even though she’s been flung into this incredibly strange world of Wonderland, where the things she sees would instantly blow away most peoples’ minds, she manages to keep her feet on the ground and continue searching for what she’s come to Wonderland for.
“Again, Hatter finds that attractive in a way, but I don’t think he understands exactly why. Like I said, he’s a player. He’s used to having many women in his life, but not really connecting with any of them. In a weird kind of way, his and Alice’s heads work in a very similar fashion. They’re equally matched intelligence-wise, which furthers his challenges with her, and they spend a great deal of their time arguing, which leads to some very amusing situations for us to play. Alice has a lot of trust issues and she finds it incredibly hard to trust anybody. At the start, I don’t think anyone would trust Hatter, and that’s something else I tried to explore with the character. I wanted to make the audience go, ‘He’s just plain mean,’ and that’s the fun with Hatter. You’re supposed to expect the unexpected with how I played him.”
Potts relished the opportunity to work with Nick Willing in developing the many levels of the Hatter that viewers are introduced to. “One of the brilliant things about Nick is that, yes, he has his own ideas, but he doesn’t trap you inside them,” notes the actor. “He likes to throw everything up in the air and see where it lands. I always feel that that’s what makes a better show. Going back to Primeval, I think one of the reasons why my character worked so well is that the producers had the same way of working as Nick does. Connor was supposed to be your typical nerd who liked Star Wars and that sort of thing. He’s quite cliché in the original script, but then we did something completely different with him, which was to make him eccentric and more of an accidental hero as well.
“So they were very open-minded in Alice with how I delivered a lot of the dialogue, and also with making it suit my voice as well, being that I have such a strong Northern accent. At first they wanted an English accent, but Nick said he really liked the Yorkshire in my voice, and also up in the north of England we always enjoy a cup of tea, so it’s kind of fitting that my character should run a teashop. I love that the first time we see the Hatter, he’s drinking a cup of tea. I’m so pleased with the way he’s been written. You don’t expect Hatter to be such a strong force in the story. I know it’s Alice’s journey, but she catapults him into his own journey as well within hers.
“Hatter has been living in Wonderland for years, unhappy with his life as well as with the system and the way things were going. He had a lot of resentment built up towards the Resistence and the Queen’s side of things. So he’d kind of been living in a no-man’s land until Alice came into his life. She opens my character’s eyes and suddenly Hatter has something to fight for, a girl, and he doesn’t even realize it, which is lovely. Hatter is a little slow on the uptake with things like that,” he jokes. “He thinks he’s fighting for himself. Up to this point, Hatter has lived his life very selfishly. One of his lines is something like, ‘I’ve lived life playing both sides of the court and trying to keep everyone happy.’ But in this story he actually does good by himself and Alice, which is terrific.”
While there is no sign of prehistoric wildlife in Alice, Potts feels that his work on Primeval was excellent preparation for this project. “Having done a big CGI [computer-generated image] show, I actually feel qualified for the first time in my life,” says the actor. “I thought, ‘This is easy. I’ve been doing this for the past three years. I can run away from these monsters.’ So that was a blast but in a different way because it’s less about monsters in Alice and more about the CGI world that we’re in. There are a lot of extended CGI sets, which was something I wasn’t used to, and far more green screen work, too. We didn’t do much green screen on Primeval.
“So every day has been fascinating and I feel extremely fortunate to have been given this role. I felt ready for it as well, though, if that makes any sense, and I don’t know if I would have had the same confidence before Primeval. A lot of the stuff I’d previously done were one-off films and projects like that where you only have a short period of time with a character. With a TV series, though, when it progresses, you have the chance to explore all these different angles of your character. And during the four hours on Alice, Hatter shows every side of himself and way of behaving. So hopefully playing Connor on Primeval has helped me in portraying Hatter.”
The first two hours of Alice airs Sunday, December 6th from 9:00-11:-00 p.m. EST on The Syfy Channel and concludes Monday, December 7th @ 9:oo p.m.
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Tags: Alice, Alice in Wonderland, Andrew Lee Potts, Caterina Scorsone, Connor Temple, Dodo, Entertainment, Fantasy, Geoff Redknap, Hatter, Kathy Bates, Mad March, Matt Frewer, Nick Willing, Primeval, Queen of Hearts, The Mad Hatter, The Syfy Channel, The White Knight, Tim Curry, TV