There is an old saying that nice guys finish last. Fortunately, that is not always true, especially for Tahmoh Penikett. Good-looking, congenial and, most importantly, talented, this Canadian-born actor has made quite an impression on TV audiences with appearances on such shows as Cold Squad, Smallville, The L Word and Stargate SG-1. Earlier this year, he not only finished a four-season stint playing Captain Karl “Helo” Agathon on Battlestar Galactica, but also made his debut as ex-FBI Special Agent Paul Ballard in Joss Whedon’s new series Dollhouse, season two of which premiered last Friday night on Fox. Having seen Penikett in Galactica, Whedon already knew who he wanted to fill Paul Ballard’s shoes.
“My manager called me in late February or early March  to say that Joss Whedon [Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel] wanted to speak with me, and without hesitating I said, ‘Give him my number,’” chuckles Penikett. “So Joss and I met and had a great conversation. After telling me that he was a Battlestar fan, Joss began to talk about a new project [Dollhouse] that Eliza Dushku was going to be the lead in, and a character named Paul Ballard that he had written with me in mind, which was incredibly flattering.
“Joss and I really clicked during that first meeting. After he talked about the premise of the series, I told him about a book that I had read and found very similar in tone and sadness to this particular piece. Joss had also read the same book and agreed with me. He then told me, ‘You’re my choice for the role of Ballard, but, ultimately, you have to read for the network,’ and I said, ‘No problem.’
“The people at Battlestar released me from work for a few days so I could fly down to Los Angeles and do the network test. Eliza was nice enough to come all the way back from Peru, where I believe she was traveling with her brother, to read with me, and then the rest was out of my hands. When I heard I got the part, the people at Battlestar, being the incredible people they were, released me last April  in the middle of shooting our last three or four episodes to go back down to LA and film the original Dollhouse pilot.”
In Dollhouse, Penikett’s character of Paul Ballard is assigned the task of investigating the Dollhouse, a mysterious organization that is home to a group of individuals called “Actives” or “Dolls.” These operatives, including Echo (Dushku), have had their personalities and existences wiped clean for the purpose of being reprogrammed with a new persona, sometimes multiple ones. Depending on who hires them, these “Dolls” can be used to do everything from commit crimes to fulfilling the ultimate fantasy. While most of his fellow agents treat the Dollhouse as a joke, Paul is determined to find it and rescue Echo. Like all new acting jobs, it took Penikett a little time to settle into his role.
“When you’re playing a new character you have to make some strong acting choices,” he explains. “Starting out, it was somewhat of a hectic shoot at times because of the rewrites as well as the hype that the producers and writers had to deal with as far as what it [the series] was going to be and what it had to be. As a result, we didn’t have much of an opportunity to talk at length with Joss about our characters and the direction that they’d be taking. I mean, yes, he did provide me with some essential information, and, thankfully, Joss and his writing staff are extremely talented, but there were times where I had to do some guessing and choosing on my own. That’s why it’s often somewhat easier with a miniseries or even a feature film because you’ve got a beginning, middle and end. So there’s something you can work towards in terms of choices and direction with regard to where your character is going to end up.
“So it was a challenge in the beginning with Dollhouse, but once we got into it and everyone got over their nerves and began to find their characters, it really started coming together,” enthuses Penikett. “I feel the second half of our first season was especially strong and everyone should be proud of it. Now that all those initial jitters are out of the way, I’m even more excited about the second season.”
Nearly halfway through Dollhouse‘s first season, Paul Ballard’s efforts to prove that the Dollhouse does, in fact, exist, are rewarded when he comes face-to-face with Echo in Man on the Street. “That was my first big episode of the show and one that pretty much concentrated on my character,” notes Penikett. “I thoroughly enjoyed shooting it; there was a lot of martial arts involved and I had a number of scenes with Eliza as well as several of my castmates.
“There’s another episode where Paul discovers that Mellie [Miracle Laurie], who’s this woman he’s fallen in love with and has been having an affair with for a while is, in fact, a Doll [codenamed November]. It’s almost too much for Paul and he can’t believe it. My character is devastated and absolutely shocked, and in this episode there’s a scene where Mellie takes him into the bedroom where they’re about to make love. Paul is taking his shirt off when suddenly she witches personalities, and my character thinks she’s just messing with him at first. That was such a well-written scene and a lot of fun to play. I just love Miracle. I think she’s a very, very talented actress and an angel. I really enjoyed working with her.”
In Dollhouse‘s year one finale, Omega, Paul is suspended from the FBI and subsequently captured by two Dollhouse operatives, Boyd Langton (Harry J. Lennix) and Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams). With limited options, he agrees to help the group find Alpha (Alan Tudyk), a rogue Active, in exchange for Mellie’s freedom. With Paul Ballard facing an entirely new set of personal as well as professional hurdles in the show’s second season, Penikett has one or two things on his “wish list” when it comes to his character’s on-going development.
“I’m hoping we’ll get to reveal a bit more of Paul’s past, because I think it would help audiences come to grips with his somewhat brooding, darker side,” says the actor. “He’s got some demons and has been thorough a lot. Paul is somewhat of a lone wolf, but he chooses to be one. Why is that? What happened in Paul’s past that has made him so averse to getting help from other people? Why is he so self-righteous? I think we should explore that a little more in season two, but not too much. After all, we want to leave something for season three,” he jokes. “Again, if we explore that side of my character a bit more, it might help the viewer, maybe not empathize or even sympathize with Paul, but perhaps better understand him because I think he’s confusing to some people.”
Prior to Dollhouse, Penikett became a familiar face the world over for his performance in the aforementioned Peabody Award-winning drama Battlestar Galactica. The actor first appeared as Helo in the 2003 miniseries, which at the time looked like it would be the character’s swan song as well when he gave up his place on a rescue ship to Dr. Gaius Baltar (James Callis) and remained behind on the enemy-occupied Caprica. Luckily, the show’s producers recognized Helo’s, and Penikett’s, potential and decided to keep them both around.
“Helo’s story arc became a more integral and important part of the overall Battlestar story as each season went on, and I’m truly honored that that was the case,” says the actor. “There were a lot of opportunities with that and the writers took what I was giving them and went with it. That’s a testament to how talented they were, because a lot of the stuff was just subtle choices that Grace Park [who played Penikett's on-screen wife Sharon "Boomer" Valerii] and I were making regarding our characters’ story and giving it more backstory. The writers realized this and wrote for us.
“My character starts out as a young man at the beginning of the series. He has a lot of good qualities but he’s still a very young man, like most of the people in the miniseries and before the surprise attack by the Cylons. However, after war breaks out once again between man and machine, Helo has to grow up very fast and he proves that he doesn’t like being a loner. He has a true and extremely real ethical and moral sense like no one else has. Helo is obviously a leader and not afraid to fight for what he believes in. He’ll stop at nothing to save his wife and child and express his feelings when he disagrees with a decision that those in command are making.”
After five years of conflict and animosity, the surviving humans and humanoid Cylons come together on a new Earth-like planet to establish a brand new civilization in Galactica‘s two-part finale Daybreak. Not surprisingly, these remaining episodes were bittersweet ones for the show’s cast and crew to shoot.
“Being the finale, we knew that there were going to be some huge as well as scary and jaw-dropping moments,” recalls Penikett. “Ultimately, the work that everyone did in the final episodes of Galactica was incredible. Everyone shines. I had the opportunity to do an amazing scene with Edward James Olmos [Admiral William Adama] again, along with some incredible scenes with Grace, which I always loved. I also got to act with some of my fellow cast that I hadn’t really had the chance to do before.
“That’s what stands out for me about those final episodes of Galactica; the beautiful and truthful work and the pride we had about being part of a show that completely broke the mold of the stereotypical Sci-Fi TV series. We reinvented it, so when shooting the finale I focused on just being there every day and enjoying every moment that I was having with these people who I probably wouldn’t work with again for a very long time. Grace Park and I were totally on the same page. Even during those 16-hour days, we’d be sitting there looking at each other and smile, tease one another and laugh. Our last day and the last scene I shot was a very emotional one. We all had a good cry. It was a fulfilling and sad moment at the same time.”
Penikett spent most of this past May and part of June shooting The Syfy Channel miniseries Riverworld, in which he plays the starring role of Matt Ellman. Prior to moving back down to Los Angeles to begin work on season two of Dollhouse, he filmed an independent short film called Hostage, written by Brent Cote. “This is a piece that Brent pretty much wrote for me and Aleks Paunovic,” says the actor. “Aleks is an excellent actor and one of my best friends in the world. We’d been looking to do something together for a while and Brent wrote an amazing script that I got to produce as well as star in with Aleks. So I was pleased to have the chance to do that before trying to get organized for LA.”
Later this year I’ll be running a detailed interview with Tahmoh about his work on Riverworld to coincide with the airing of the miniseries on The Syfy Channel.
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