Posts Tagged ‘Jeananne Goossen’

Riverworld’s Tahmoh Penikett – Serious Heroics

April 18, 2010

Tahmoh Penikett as Matt Ellman in Riverworld. Photo by James Dittiger and copyright of the Syfy Channel

He has battled the criminal element in Cold Squad, fallen in love with a humanoid robot in Battlestar Galactica, and doggedly pursued those in charge of a mysterious organization capable of creating the ideal human being for any situation in Dollhouse - such roles have allowed Tahmoh Penikett to exercise a wide range of his acting talents. In the Syfy Channel miniseries Riverworld, (Sunday, April 18th from 7-11:oo p.m. EST) the actor once again reached deep down into his bag of thespian tricks to bring the character of Matt Ellman to life. It is a role that he admits to having an instant connection with.

“This has only happened to me a few times, including with my character of Helo on Battlestar, which is when I first read the [audition] sides for the character of Matt in Riverworld I thought, ‘I understand this guy; I know where he’s coming from,'” says Penikett. “When the pieces fall together like that, you’ve got to trust your instincts, so I was really eager to get into the audition room.

“I met with [Riverworld director] Stuart Gillard and, honestly, I was a bit rusty as far as the audition process goes. You can be a professional actor who has been working all year long, which I’d been, but if it’s been a while since your last audition it can feel a little weird. So in this instance I had a couple of rough starts, but I subsequently worked on three scenes with Stuart and he seemed pleased with what I’d done.

Matt (Penikett) doesn't quite know what to make of his new surroundings. Photo by James Dittiger and copyright of the Syfy Channel

“A week later my manager phoned to tell me that we were in negotiations to get me the part. At that point I still hadn’t read the entire script. When I auditioned it was last minute; I got the sides and just had to go in and do it. So when I began reading the script and realized that Matt was the lead in the piece, it was kind of an extra bonus.”

Based on the series of popular award-winning novels by Philip Jose Farmer, Riverworld follows the adventures of daredevil war correspondent Matt Ellman (Penikett). When he and his fiancée Jessie (Laura Vandervoort) meet an untimely demise, they are reborn on a strange world where billions of other deceased humans have been reborn as well. Ironically, it is Matt’s almost obsessive desire to do some good in the world that has landed him and Jessie in this predicament.

“Matt is a young man who has been tempted and put himself in a number of very dangerous situations,” explains Penikett. “There’s a part of him that gets off on that, and there’s also a bit of a sadistic side of him that likes punishing himself. My character has a lot of guilt because of past experiences that’s he’s been through, and one, in particular, that we touch upon in our story. It haunts Matt every day and is part of the reason he constantly takes on jobs as a war correspondent that most other people would turn down. Matt is forever putting himself and his cameraman in danger, but not out of selfishness. I think he feels in some ways that this is his attempt at redemption. Either that or he’s literally just punishing himself for mistakes he believes he’s made in the past.

Matt (Penikett) shares his thoughts with Tomoe (Jeananne Goossen). Photo by James Dittiger and copyright of the Syfy Channel

“My character is excellent at what he does, but he’s also a little bit careless. Matt is an incredibly ambitious man when he starts out as a war correspondent and he’s a brave man, too. Well-educated and raised by loving parents, he goes into this job with a great deal of drive and determination to make a difference because he believes he can. And then this one event takes place that changes him. It’s something that he cannot forgive himself for and he continues to put himself in harm’s way, probably even more so than he did in the past, in an effort to redeem himself.

“I think it’s clear right off the bat about what kind of bond Matt has with his best friend Simon [Arnold Pinnock]. They’ve been through so much together and literally saved each other’s lives multiple times. Through their relationship, you get a sense of what an incredibly loyal guy Matt is. He doesn’t have a lot of people left in his life, and when the story opens, you find that Matt and Simon have just been through yet another hairy situation. And my back story on this incident is that once again Matt sees how fragile life is. He realizes how quickly it can be taken away from you and how important it is to move on. That’s when my character decides to marry this incredible woman who he’s fallen in love with and only known for two months.”

Sadly, Matt and Jessie are victims of a cruel twist of fate, which is how they end up on Riverworld. One of the early scenes in the miniseries is of Matt being reborn. This was among those filmed on the first day of the production and one that sticks out in Penikett’s mind for several reasons.

Our hero emerges from the banks of the mysterious river. Photo by James Dittiger and copyright of the Syfy Channel

“My number one memory of that day is the location that we shot at, Britannia Beach, which is just outside of Squamish in British Columbia,” he says. “This is God’s country and the geography is incredible in that you can have whatever type of look you want. Drive four hours away and you’ve got desert-like conditions, while in and around Vancouver you have gorgeous rainforests, beautiful oceans and majestic mountains, and this location was beautiful. We were blessed with terrific weather, too, and we had an excellent DOP [director of photography, Thomas Burstyn] as well, so all the shots are outstanding.

“The very first thing we filmed on-location is the scene where my character wakes up in Riverworld and literally comes out of the water. So within an hour-and-a-half of getting a little haircut and having make-up put on, they threw me in the ocean. Man, was it ever cold. I froze my ass off for a couple of hours doing that,” says the actor with a chuckle. “It was early April and not exactly warm for that time of year up in B.C., but, again, it was a gorgeous day.

“I also had one of my first scenes that day with Jeananne Goossen [Tomoe], and funnily enough it’s one of the last scenes in the miniseries. It was an interesting test as actors to film what essentially was an integral beginning scene, and then jump right into one of the end scenes. It was good, though, and everything felt right. I really liked the crew straightaway; everyone seemed to be on point and Stuart and I had already established a little bit of a relationship beforehand just discussing the Matt character and his back story. I immediately had a good feeling about him and he proved to me on day one that he was going to be an excellent director. Stuart was an actor, and I often find that some of the best directors are actors, were actors or at least tried it. They know how to talk to actors and understand us. Their dedication to do that is just incredible to me, and I can’t tell you how much it means to an actor, too.

Who is this mysterious blue individual and what is he or she saying to Matt (Tahmoh Penikett)? Photo by James Dittiger and copyright of the Syfy Channel

“Actors need to be communicated to. We’re here to serve the story. We make strong choices and as you become more experienced and confident in your craft, you’re going to bring a lot to the table. But a good director can always bring out the best in you, and Stuart spoke my language. He was completely open to any suggestions I had to try to better the script or anything I could offer up that might allow us to touch on a different angle or aspect of a scene. For my first leading role, to have that kind of relationship with a director who is so open and so intelligent was, for me, a real confidence builder as well as inspiring and I learned a great deal from Stuart.”

Although Matt has known Jessie for only a relatively short period of time, there is no doubt in his heart that this is the woman for him. “If you’ve done any traveling in your life and spent a week with someone else, that’s like knowing that person back home for four or five months,” says Penikett. “Oftentimes when you’re travelling you’re not bothered or distracted by responsibilities. You’re completely present and focused on the individual you’re with, and in my character’s back story that was the case with Matt and Jessie.

“He saw her helping an old lady in the street and couldn’t resist introducing himself to her because it truly was love at first sight. Matt had never experienced that before. This is someone who has had a lot of loss in his life. In the back story I came up with for Matt, he lost his older brother as well as his parents. The only family member he has left is his sister, so in a lot of ways he’s very guarded and closed off to true love. So when he sees this girl he just can’t believe it. Jessie is the most beautiful girl Matt has ever laid eyes on, and then the two of them share eight passionate weeks together and they just click. They’re soul mates, and Jessi is one of the few people who can break through all the pain that Matt carries with him and help him deal with it. That’s why when he finished his last assignment with Simon, he realizes, ‘I have to go for this. You only get this chance once in your life, and this is the woman I want to be with.'”

Jessie (Laura Vandervoort) and Matt, destined to be together forever...or are they? Photo by James Dittiger and copyright of the Syfy Channel

They may have died together, but when Matt and Jessie get to Riverworld they are separated. Penikett’s character sets out to find her with the help of a few others, including a 12th century Samurai warrior named Tomoe.

“There’s an immediate connection and attraction between Matt and Tomoe,” notes the actor. “Yes, Matt is madly in love with Jessie and his first and foremost goal is to find her, but he and Tomoe are thrust into this situation and they form a bond with and love for each other. They go to amazing lengths for one another, and it’s a neat parallel to Matt’s and Jessie’s relationship in that as that story goes on, the respect and friendship that Matt and Tomoe share continues to grow. So there’s a lot of potential there with them too, you know? I also think that it’s confusing to both of them, but Tomoe’s loyalty and bravery is obvious.”

Matt and friends travel up the mysterious river in search of Jessie on a riverboat, courtesy of Samuel “Mark Twain” Clemens (Mark Deklin). “I was very excited about the paddlewheeler because I’m from the Yukon and they’re historical up there,” says Penikett. “Most of them were burnt down, but the S.S. Klondike is probably the most famous one that’s still in the City of Whitehorse. I grew up with that being an historcial site. These boats were from the Gold Rush days when everyone was coming up from Skagway and trying to head up to Dawson City to make their fortune.

Matt (Penikett), Simon (Arnold Pinnock), Sam Clemens (Mark Deklin) and Youseff (Kwesi Ameyaw). Photo by James Dittiger and copyright of the Syfy Channel

“So I couldn’t believe it when I found out we would be shooting on an actual paddlewheeler. We did a ton of scenes in and out of it, and it’s very much another character in the miniseries. Within days of us being on it, Mark Deklin was saying, ‘This boat is an integral and important character in the story,’ and we all adamantly agreed Some of the most important scenes in this four-hour miniseries play out on that boat.”

Our heroes eventually cross paths with British explorer/adventurer Sir Richard Burton (Peter Wingfield), who claims he can lead them to Jessie. Matt, however, is less-than pleased when the arrogant and duplicitous Brit admits that he has developed an affection for her, and vice versa.

“That really throws my character off,” says Penikett. “The Powers That Be in Riverworld let Matt know that he and Burton have a connection that needs to be dealt with, and possibly only one of them will survive. It’s a strange experience for Matt, but all the signs keep on showing him that there’s this truth out there and he doesn’t have a choice in the matter. So he ponders carefully and moves forward as he tries to deal with it.You’ve got to understand that Matt and everyone else in this place want to know, ‘Is this a nightmare? Are we in heaven, or hell? What are the rules? Are we here to atone for the mistakes we’ve made?’ There’s a total sense of loss and confusion there, which really messes with Matt and most of the relationships he has in Riverworld.”

Could this be it for Matt (Penikett)? Photo by James Dittiger and copyright of the Syfy Channel

Matt and Burton eventually come to blows, literally, towards the end of the miniseries, and Penikett enjoyed the physical challenges associated with putting together as well as executing this fight. “Our head stunt coordinator, Marshall Virtue, was excellent,” he praises. “His family is a legendary stunt family from here in B.C. They’ve worked on a lot of projects and Stuart has worked with Marshall’s father Danny for 25 years.

“Marshall is a smart kid and for this project he brought in one of the best martial arts fight coordinators in the business, Larry Lamb, and to get to work with someone of his caliber is just exceptional. I’m a martial artist myself, and Larry and I connected right away. Having done a great deal of this [type of fighting], too, I tend to pick up the fight choreography fairly quickly. With Riverworld, we were constantly changing things, and that’s just the nature of filming.

“Oftentimes you’ll choreograph an incredible fight, but due to time and delays in shooting, parts of it will usually be cut out. When we went to shoot our big fight, we actually ended up cutting out a couple of little chunks. No matter what, though, it’s really important to always be safe with the fighting. If you take a wrong swing or use the wrong hand, there’s a chance that someone is going to get hurt. I have to give a shout out to our stunt guys because they were amazing. On the day of filming there was a point where I jumped off the stairs and straight-kicked one of them. I’ve got a big foot and I didn’t actually hit him, but because I was above him, I did hit his stomach pad. He went flying off the stairs, but he took it like a champ.

Matt (Penikett) and Tomoe (Jeananne Goossen), a dynamic fighting duo. Photo by James Dittiger and copyright of the Syfy Channel

“I also had this one final scene between Matt and Burton, and once again I was fighting with a stuntman. We rehearsed it numerous times and I was supposed to throw a roundhouse kick at him. Well, my pants were so loose that they kept slipping down, which, of course, is going to impede how high you can kick. Right before the roundhouse kick, I did a bunch of other kicks. Well, my pants came down, but I didn’t realize it and I went for the roundhouse kick, which was probably a good two inches lower than it should have been. Luckily, the stunt guy ducked right under it.

“Fortunately, we all walked away pretty much unscathed. I love that sort of stuff, though, and the more I do it, the better I’m getting at the whole fight choreography thing.”

Who will live, who will die? Who will win Jessie’s heart, Matt or Burton? You will have to tune in to Riverworld to find out, and Penikett is confident that audiences will enjoy the ride. “Every actor in this miniseries really invested himself or herself in their character and I think the bar was set high right from the start,” enthuses the actor. “I worked my ass off and so did the rest of the cast as well as the crew. Everyone was very focused, ambitious and present. Ultimately, we did everything we could to make the best story possible.”

Steve Eramo

As noted above, all photos by James Dittiger and copyright of the Syfy Channel, so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any kind. Thanks!

Riverworld’s Peter Wingfield – Not So Mr. Nice Guy

April 17, 2010

Peter Wingfield as Richard Burton in Riverworld. Photo by James Dittiger and copyright of the Syfy Channel

Peter Wingfield is just itching for a fight today, but, in fact, he is not the only one. It is a warm and sunny Friday in Vancouver, British Columbia, and one of the last days of filming on the Syfy Channel miniseries Riverworld (Sunday, April 18th from 7-11:oo p.m. EST). Inside the warehouse studio, a two-level platform with stairs has been erected in front of a huge green screen. This is where Wingfield, who pays Sir Richard Burton, and the show’s leading man, Tahmoh Penikett (Matt Ellman), have spent the better part of the day shooting a fight that took quite a bit of time to prepare for. 

“Last Sunday was the first time that Tahmoh and I actually looked at this fight,” says Wingfield during a break in filming. “There are several fights in our story and the stunt guys as well as Tahmoh have been really busy all the way through. The stunt choreographer had gone off and created this fight with his guys, and then last Sunday, Tahmoh and I spent two hours at the gym working through what the fight would look like. This week we’ve tried to find time during lunch breaks and such to, not practice it physically, but just sort of talk through the shape of the fight. 

“Now here we are on set-today and because of the constraints of the location, we have to change bits of the fight. So things that we learnt, we’ve now got to wipe those from our minds and stick something else in there instead. We’re also dealing with time constraints, so we’re shortening the fight, which is comprised of 60 or 70 moves, in one of the parts. 

Burton (Wingfield) plots his next move. Photo by James Dittiger and copyright of the Syfy Channel

“This is a big throwdown, knockdown, smackdown conflict, and that makes sense given that it’s the end of our characers’ journey and their final conflict. We have a quick exchange at the start of the story, then we have the journey, and now we get to this point and this fight is absolutely personal. My character surprises Matt, and he could have simply knocked him out and killed him, but doesn’t. Burton chooses to get into a fistfight, the reason being that he wants to cause Matt pain, and he wants to see it, too. Burton wants to relish the physical contact and the suffering. It’s all rather dark and ugly,” says the actor with a smile, “but it’s also a really good, really cool, intense story.” 

In Riverworld, Sir Richard Burton is among the countless human beings who, following their deaths, have been reborn on the riverbank of a mysterious new world. Intent on reaching this great river’s headwaters and destroying this place, Burton hijacks a riverboat being captained by Samuel “Mark Twain” Clemens (Mark Deklin). Clemens and his passengers, including an American war correspondent, Matt Ellman, and a 12th century Samurai warrior named Tomoe (Jeananne Goossen), have been searching for Matt’s missing fiancée Jessie (Laura Vandervoort). Carrying on with their search, they must now also deal with this unwanted adversary and any other dangers that await them along the way. Like a few of his fellow Riverworld actors, Wingfield’s character is, in fact, based on a real-life individual. 

“In-between putting a couple of audition scenes on tape for Riverworld and receiving a call to meet with the director, Stuart Gillard, I was sent the script,” he recalls. “I read it and did some research on Victorian explorer Richard Francis Burton, who was quite an extraordinary guy. He spoke 25 languages and, with dialects, was probably fluent in 40. Burton was also an explorer and visited several countries. He went on a pilgrimage to Mecca disguised as a Muslim from Afghanistan. This was at a time when if they had known that an infidel was in the holiest of holies, they would have cut him up into little pieces and eaten him. 

Vivienne (Meg Roe) has a rather unsettling exchange with Burton (Wingfield). Photo by James Dittiger and copyright of the Syfy Channel

“Burton translated The Kama Sutra as well as One Thousand and One Nights, what we know now as The Arabian Knights. He seemed to be interested in so many different things. Burton was an explorer in the most general of senses, but not just of the physical lands but the emotion and cultural landscapes as well. He was a poet, too. However, the thing that struck me was the sense of danger about this guy. He was a James Bond-type character, not only going undercover, but dangerously undercover. 

Riverworld is based on the books by Philip Jose Farmer, which use the idea that Burton, along with the rest of humanity, has been reborn again on this other planet. When I read the script it had this interesting Sci-Fi flavor and an alien-created world, but the concept allowed you to bring in these various characters from human history, which seemed like a neat idea. So for instance, we have Mark Twain, or Samuel Clemens, and the Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro [Bruce Ramsey]. I really liked that because it means you can bring in anybody, and you can also kill them off and then decide to bring them back again. How perfect is that for TV?’ 

Burton (Wingfield) decides to take the upper hand. Photo by James Dittiger and copyright of the Syfy Channel

Having done all this research, there was only so much of it that the actor could apply to his portrayal of Burton. “The thing is, there are several different [research] sources that are not identical,” explains Wingfield. “You’ve got the real person, then the character in the novels, and finally Burton in this miniseries. While they’re related to each other, they are not the same. The novels aren’t about the real Richard Burton. They are taking the idea from the historical facts of his life and how he might have lived in this fantasy world. Meanwhile, the miniseries is not a literal translation of the novels, but rather a reinvention of them. So there are some things that you can take with you, and others that are not the same. 

“Ultimately, the story that I have signed up for and that I’m telling is of Richard Burton on the miniseries,” continues the actor. “All the information that is significant is in the script of this four-hour TV movie. So there’s a lot of juggling going on. I’ve taken inspiration from a number of different places, but the facts that I have to work with are just those in the script. And to me what is, I think, the most powerful and demanding of these facts is the darkness of my character. Burton is a scary guy. He’s a really dark and violent man, and yet he is also tremendously witty as well as charming and sexy. I mean, he has love scenes with the two major female characters in the story, and they’re both very different and tell you a great deal about the character. 

“I’ve always felt that love scenes, just like fight scenes or a dance, reveal aspects of a character. Very verbal or very intellectual characters have some sense of control over what they’re saying and what they reveal to you when they’re speaking. However, when you watch them doing something physical, particularly something where they have to some extent lost control, such as a love scene or a fight, they reveal different things about themselves. 

Burton (Wingfield) and Allegra (Romina D'Ugo). Photo by James Dittiger and copyright of the Syfy Channel

“One of the great joys about playing Burton is that there are two dissimilar stories involving the two women with whom he has liaisons, and I was quite interested in just the visual imagery of that. One of them is a very verbal scene, and the other is completely without words. I spoke at length with our director about this, because we wanted to be telling very different sides of Burton’s story. And that’s been both the challenge and the thrill of playing him, those extremes that are within him. He has a high level of culture and education, but then there’s a brutality and connection with an almost animal-like quality and rage inside him. It’s been quite a trip for me [acting-wise]. I’ve tried to make him the most complex character that I’ve ever played because, again, I feel the Richard Burton who genuinely lived was an extremely complicated individual.” 

Although this is Burton’s first encounter with Matt Ellman and vice versa, Wingfield’s character seems determined to get rid of him. Why? “I didn’t realize when I began this project how simple the heart of this story is,” he muses. “It’s a love triangle. When it all comes down to the final showdown, it’s a woman who has very different sides of herself fueled or expressed by Burton and Matt. However, both men recognize something in each other. Yes, they have a conflict because of this woman, but they also see the world almost the same and yet slightly differently. 

“It’s that slight difference that has taken Burton and Matt in opposite emotional and spiritual directions. From the outset, Burton has been described as a bad guy, but having read the script I thought, ‘In what world is he the bad guy?’ There is a part of Burton who wants to see the world the way Matt sees it, and there’s also clearly a part of Matt that wants to see the world the way Burton does. 

Determined to be the victor in his "final conflict," Burton (Wingfield) prepares to strike. Photo by James Dittiger and copyright of the Syfy Channel

“So once they’re in absolute conflict with each other, there is a sense of recognition insofar as the equality of both these warriors. Here are these two adversaries who are worthy of the fight, and that has very much developed throughout the filming of Riverworld. I didn’t see that initially. However, as we’ve gotten towards the end of shooting I could see that that was where it was going. I looked back at the story we told during the filming and realized it was there all the time.” 

Wingfield recently guest-starred on the TV series Human Target and Caprica, and can be seen in the upcoming Syfy Channel Saturday Night Movie Stonehenge Apocalypse. Prior to shooting Riverworld, he played a multi-episode arc on 24 as well as reprised his role of Dan Clifford back in his native UK in the TV medical drama Holby City. The actor also appeared as Dr. John Watson in the first season finale of the hit Syfy Channel series Sanctuary

“That was a great character,” says Wingfield. “In Sanctuary, John Watson was supposedly a real person who had inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write Sherlock Holmes on the stipulation that he would also write the detective a sidekick and call him John Watson. 

Burton channels his not-so-nice side when threatening Hal (Matt McCaull). Photo by James Dittiger and copyright of the Syfy Channel

“So he was a brilliant man from Victorian times and Watson and Dr. Helen Magnus [Amanda Tapping] had a history together in that they were part of a group called “The Five.” In this episode,  the four surviving members reconvene and we learn that through his brilliance and ingenuity, Watson has kept himself alive by creating a machine that could fight off aging. 

“It was such a fun part to do. I’d known Amanda Tapping from Stargate SG-1 years ago, but I hadn’t worked with Chris Heyerdahl [John Druitt] before and it turned out to be a real pleasure. There are some actors who you just connect with and it works, and Chris and I had a relationship where we immediately trusted one another and could play with the scenes – not just get through the lines, but mess with them and change the intention. So they would always remain alive, interesting and fun. 

“There was this one really powerful scene that we were shooting. It must have been two in the morning and the end of what had been a very long day. And I remember it with great affection because once we finished, the crew, who had probably done a 17- or 18-hour day, were all totally focused and concentrating on this scene. Over the next few days, one after the other said how great it was to have been a part of shooting it. That doesn’t happen very often.” 

Allegra (Romina D'Ugo) and Burton (Wingfield) appear surprised by someone's unexpected arrival. Photo by James Dittiger and copyright of the Syfy Channel

While working on Riverworld, Wingfield had the chance to spend some time with his young son. Of all the roles he has had, the actor considers this one to be his most important. “Fatherhood is the only thing of significance I’ve ever done in my life,” he says. “It’s the real thing, and all the rest is just mucking about. 

“I love being a father and it’s tough in this business to be a solid fixture in your child’s life. I have a fabulous wife, though, and whenever he’s able to, my son comes to visit me if I’m away filming. He’s had his Spring break while I’ve been doing Riverworld, so he was up here in Vancouver for a week, which he absolutely adored. We still have family here – his grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins – and he spent a couple of days here on-set hanging out with me along with the rest of the cast and crew on a paddlewheel steamboat. His favorite department is props because he gets to see all the guns and swords. He especially enjoys hanging out when we do the special effects, like blowing stuff up and setting fire to things. It’s tough to impress nine-year-old boys, but if you can blow stuff up they’re usually interested,” notes the actor with a smile. 

Steve Eramo 

As noted above, all photos by James Dittiger and copyright of the Syfy Channel, so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any kind. Thanks!

Riverworld’s Mark Deklin – Southern Comfort

April 14, 2010

Mark Deklin as Samuel "Mark Twain" Clemens in Riverworld. Photo by James Dittiger and copyright of the Syfy Channel

If you are an admirer of Samuel Langhorne Clemens a.k.a Mark Twain, then you probably know him best as an author and humorist. Did you also know, though, that he had an interest in, among other things, becoming a steamboat pilot? Having spent two years studying 2,000 miles of the Mississippi River, Clemens received his steamboat pilot’s license in 1850. In the upcoming four-hour Syfy Channel miniseries Riverworld (Sunday, April 18th @ 7:oo p.m. EST), actor Mark Deklin gets to put Twain’s expertise in this area to good use. It is just one of the things that makes his portrayal of this real-life literary figure unlike any other previous feature film or TV incarnations.

“I’m playing the historical Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens, but in a very different context and one that, obviously, the Sam Clemens we know never ever experienced,” says Deklin. “The other neat thing is that not only is it fictionalized, but it’s heightened as well. My character isn’t this sort of older Sam Clemens or the icon Mark Twain who we’ve all come to know, but he’s not a young man, either. He’s an old man who’s enjoying a young man’s body.

Sam Clemens reborn - an old man enjoying a young man's body. Photo by James Dittiger and copyright of the Syfy Channel

“This Sam Clemens has been reincarnated in the prime of his life, but he’s still an old man with all the wisdom and pain of an old man. Funnily enough, that wasn’t so much a challenge to play as it was a pleasure to sink my teeth  into. My character is written as swashbuckling, fun and spirited. He’s also a literary genius with a healthy sex life and who’s going around kicking ass.

“I have an English degree and there were a couple of years where I was trying not to be an actor and I taught English, specifically Mark Twain. In addition to Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, I taught some of his lesser-known works as well, so even in terms of getting into the mindset of Twain, I felt very familiar with his work and where he was coming from. Here was a hard-fighting type of guy who loved confrontation, but he was also a pacifist who hated war. He wanted to be an Atheist, but wasn’t because he believed in God, he was just mad at him.

“Twain was a Southerner through and through, but at the same time he was a stanch abolitionist and hated slavery. He was an artist and an intellectual, but he was also a manual laborer. All that made sense to him, which is what made him so American – essentially 19th century American – and I was more than happy to hold onto those contradictions when playing him. It’s sort of like when you’re rock climbing and you look for oppositional holes. You grab one and use it to push off to find the next one. So every contradiction was, for me, something that made my job of portraying Twain that much easier, and I had a blast. I’ve been very lucky to play some very rich roles, and this may well be my favorite.”

Simon (Arnold Pinnock), Youseff (Kwesi Ameyaw), Matt Ellman (Tahmoh Penikett), Tomoe (Jeananne Goossen) and Sam (Deklin). Photo by James Dittiger and copyright of the Syfy Channel

Riverworld is set on another planet where human beings are supposedly reborn on the banks of a massive river after they die. When Matt Ellman (Tahmoh Penikett), an American war zone reporter, and his fiancée Jessie (Laura Vandervoort) are killed, they awake in this strange new world. Separated from Jessie, Matt joins forces with a 12th century Samurai warrior named Tomoe (Jeananne Goossen), and Sam “Mark Twain” Clemens (Deklin). They journey upriver on Clemens’ paddlewheeler in search of not only Jessie, but also to find out exactly where they are and who brought them there. A number of scenes were shot on-location in Squamish, British Columbia, an experience that Deklin thoroughly enjoyed.

“Technically, we were filming on this fjord,” explains the actor. “It’s a salt water inlet, hundreds of feet deep, surrounded by these sheer cliffs and we were actually on a riverboat. They brought up this rear-wheel paddlewheeler and we would spend our days from pre-dawn to post-sunset on this riverboat in the mountains. These were long, hard days, but Tahmoh and I would eat lunch up on the roof of the boat and we’d just look at one another and go, ‘How lucky are we? This is our job. We’re being paid to sit out here on a riverboat on this gorgeous day in the mountains. What’s not to like about that?’

Clemens (Deklin) onboard his paddlewheeler. Photo by James Dittiger and copyright of the Syfy Channel

“Our crew was given some tremendous challenges and, again, we worked really long hours. For the most part we were lucky with the weather, but logistically it was still a difficult shoot. However, we were very fortunate with our producers and our director, Stuart Gillard, who’s not only a top-notch director, but a top-notch human being as well. I think the tone and attitude on a set starts from the top and works its way down, and I suspect Stuart is the same kind of guy who George Washington was in the sense that he’s a leader you want to rally around. Even when it got tough and you felt like complaining, you’d look over at Stuart, who was always working so hard and aways cheerful and attentive, and tell yourself, ‘You know what, I can suck it up.’

“So having acknowledged that this was a challenging project, I think all in all everyone really had a great time and appreciated being there. We all believed in this project and not only author Philip  Jose Farmer’s original vision for his books [on which Riverworld is based], but also how we’d extrapolated from that. We really poured our hearts into it and I hope it shows in the work. I think it does, and like I said, on the flip side, even though the crew had it hard, for my money, I think us actors had it easy. It felt like it a vacation. I was thrilled to go to work every day. I’d take pictures outside my trailer and think, ‘This is my office. This is where I work.’ So I was biased,” he reveals with a chuckle, “and I loved it.”

When asked about a favorite scene in Riverworld, the actor has a hard time choosing. “That’s a difficult question to answer only because I had so much fun with the whole project,” says Deklin. “I was extremely fortunate, and aware of that, too. In fact, Peter Wingfield, who played [British explorer/adventurer] Sir Richard Burton, and I talked about how lucky we were to both be playing characters who were writers, so we were given really juicy things to say. A lot of times as an actor you have your great scenes, and then there are scenes where you’re a bit superfluous. You’re there, but in the background and not the star of the scene, which is all good and part of the job. However, this was one of those characters where if he was onscreen, he had a reason to be there, and it was a good scene. Please believe me, I’m not tooting my own horn, it’s just that that’s the way the script was written.

Mark Deklin (Clemens), Tahmoh Penikett (Matt), Riverworld executive producer Robert Halmi Sr., and Peter Wingfield (Sir Richard Burton). Photo by James Dittiger and copyright of the Syfy Channel

“I don’t want to give too much away, but there’s a flashback scene where Sam Clemens is remembering his last night on Earth. It takes place in 1910 in Connecticut, and my character is 75 years old. Now, they could have hired an older actor to play that scene, but Stuart Gillard didn’t want to do that. He wanted me to do that scene, and I’m so grateful to him for that. So he and I sort of made a point of saying, ‘We need to make sure that this make-up is right. It can’t look like cheesy young man in latex make-up. This has to be convincing, or else we’ve blown our credibility.’

“Well, boy, oh, boy, talk about an incredible job. Our head make-up artist and the prosthetic specialist she brought in, who was a friend of hers, did it so right. I was stunned when I looked in the mirror, and in a way they did a lot of my work for me. By that I mean I didn’t have to so much act old because it was already there for me. And that particular scene, which was between Sam and his nurse, was quite beautiful. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but this is an historcial fact – Halley’s Comet was in the sky the day that Sam Clemens was born, and it was in the sky when he died. He had a premonition that when the comet returned, that it would be his last day, and he sort of made a joke of it in typically grim Mark Twain fashion.

Mark Twain (Deklin) and his nurse. Photo by James Dittiger and copyright of the Syfy Channel

“He said, ‘I’m certain this will be my last day, and if it isn’t, then it’ll be the greatest disappointment of my life because I’m sure God looked at me and Halley’s Comet and said, “These two freaks need to leave at the same time.”‘ So there is this terrific [story] beat in Riverworld where Clemens and his nurse are sitting by the Connecticut River watching Halley’s Comet go across the nighttime sky and he’s telling her, ‘This is it. I’ll be dead in the morning.’ Of course, she says, ‘Don’t be silly,’ and he’s insisting, ‘I mean it. I’m really serious.’ It’s such a lovely scene and as an actor it was a real treat to do.”

Deklin also enjoyed filming his scenes with actress Romina D’Ugo, who portrays Allegra, a 16th century Venetian courtesan and Clemens’ lover. “The way it was originally written, she was just using my character,” notes the actor. “In a sense, they were using each other, and that was fine. However, the more Romina and I worked together – and she is one of the most present actresses I’ve ever worked with – we found all these little nuances in their relationship, and it actually has a journey to it. So when you first meet Clemens and Allegra they are, in fact, using one another, but by the end of our story they’ve developed a true relationship, which is nice.

“At one point, Romina and I were doing this sort of passionate scene. It wasn’t a sex scene, but still quite fiery. Our characters are bickering but it’s also romantic, and because Romina is Italian she was throwing in bits of Italian all over the place, so I asked her to give me a few Italian phrases to throw in there as well. I got the notion that because Sam Clemens was such a scholar and a well-traveled guy, it made sense that he would have picked up little bits and pieces of all kinds of languages. So I asked Stuart Gillard about that and if I could throw in phrases from random other languages and he said, ‘Absolutely.’

Allegra (Romina D'Ugo) and Clemens (Deklin). Photo by James Dittiger and copyright of the Syfy Channel

“So when, for example, we meet Ludwig on the Zeppelin, he and Clemens have a couple of brief exchanges in German. There’s also a point where I thought that Clemens and Tomoe needed a moment of connection. So I looked over at her and said a phrase in Japanese that literally means, ‘You must be very tired,’ but it’s meant as a sign of respect. It’s basically saying, ‘I respect your work. You’ve worked very hard; you must be very tired, and you’ve earned it.’ So she and Clemens had this brief exchange as well, and that’s one of the little things that I hooked into and decided, ‘That’s a part of Sam. That’s who he is. He’s a guy who knows how to relate to different people in different ways and is very adept at doing that.'”

The actor and his fellow Riverworld castmates and the crew were together for quite a while shooting the miniseries, and he looks back at that time with great fondness. “There were 50 people in the cast, so I can’t say that we all became close, but the core cast did,” says Deklin. “There were no big egos in this cast, and there were no divas either. Everyone was there to do the work, and because we all have sort of nurturing personalities, we’d look out for one another and have each other’s backs

Youseff (Kwesi Ameyaw) dresses Clemens' (Deklin) wound. Photo by James Dittiger and copyright of the Syfy Channel

“So it was one of the best working environments I’d ever been in, and I felt so free as an actor, whether I was working with, say, Tahmoh, Peter, Arnold Pinnock [Simon] or Kwesi Ameyaw, who plays Youseff. Again, talk about someone who’s present. There was a scene that Kwesi and I were doing where our characters had just killed some people, and Clemens is saying how he recognized that they needed to kill them, but he still didn’t like it. We did a couple of takes and Kwesi was so present and right there with me. I knew I was with a friend and in friendly space if you will, and the tears just started rolling out of my eyes as I was delivering this monologue. Never in my mind did I think, ‘I’m going to cry here.’ It just happened because Kwesi was so present.

“There’s another scene involving me, Matt McCaull, who plays Hal, and Arnold, and Arnold and I actually became particularly close. We called each other our brother from another mother,” jokes the actor. “In this scene, Arnold kind of threw down the gauntlet and said, ‘Sam is always so together. I want to see him really lose it for once.’ So I asked Stuart Gillard, ‘Would you indulge me in this one thing. I just want Sam to go off on God for what he’s just done. I know you won’t use it in the final cut, but it might help me get to the place I need to be.’

“Of course, Stuart is so great, and he said, ‘I’d love it.’ Well, we’re up on this cliff, the wind is blowing, it’s beautiful, and I don’t know what it was, but everything just began pouring in on me at once. Stuart said, ‘Action,’ and I just started screaming my head off and cursing God out. Then I sat down and thought, ‘Surely he’s going to cut the camera now,’ but Stuart just kept going. So we all sat there looking out at the valley and then we finally collected ourselves. Clemens made some grimly humorous remark and off they went. It was just such an unreal moment because Stuart had the insight to realize, hey, something really special is happening here between these three actors and we need to just let the camera roll. So that’s what he did and it was tremendous.”

Matt (Tahmoh Penikett) and Clemens (Deklin). Photo by James Dittiger and copyright of the Syfy Channel

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Deklin began performing onstage in school plays, but back then he never thought he would ever become a professional actor. “My Dad was a sub-contractor/building supplier, so I grew up on construction sites with contractors,” he recalls. “That to me was a real job. Acting was just something I did for fun, and it seemed sort of ludicrous that someone could ever contemplate making a living doing that.

“I started out as a journalism major in college and then switched to English literature and history. After I graduated, I worked on a construction site for a while and then I went to work for Greenpeace. From there, I worked in publishing as an editorial assistant before going to grad school for English literature. I was still acting on the side, just for fun, and one day I came home from rehearsing a play and I felt just great. It’s that high you get when you’re creating a character and you just feel like you really belong to the universe. I sat down to work on my thesis and suddenly it hit me. I thought, ‘Who am I kidding. I should be doing what I love.’ It really was one of those light bulb moments.

Simon (Arnold Pinnock), Youseff (Kwesi Ameyaw) and Clemens (Deklin). Photo by James Dittiger and copyright of the Syfy Channel

“So I called the head of my department to tell him that I was dropping out and he couldn’t have been happier for me. He said, ‘Ive seen you onstage and I think that’s what you should be doing.’ Then he went on to say, ‘If you want to stay here a little longer, you can drop out of the English program but I’ll keep you on as part of the faculty. You can teach classes and if you also want to be taking acting classes while you’re here, great. This way you can be working and saving some money while figuring out what you want to do.’ That was really kind of him, so that’s what I did.”

A year later, the actor moved to Seattle where he got his MFA in acting from the University of Washington. Deklin stayed in town for a while, performing onstage as well as doing a little bit of TV work, before deciding to relocate to New York. There, he worked as a bartender and continued doing theater, both on and off-Broadway, along with more TV and some feature film work. In 2001, the actor was cast in The Lion King and spent the next year-and-a-half with that stage production before moving out to Los Angeles to pursue more movie and TV work. One of his first jobs there was a guest-spot on the Aaron Spelling series Charmed.

“I played a low-level demon called Bosk who had sort of an Indiana Jones fetish and was looking for a lost city,” says the actor. “He dressed like an archeologist, had a genie in a bottle, threw fireballs and rode on a flying carpet, which was a lot of fun. It was all green screen work, which I always get a kick out of. They built what I can only describe as a bucking mechanical bull but with somewhat better gyroscopic technology. They put a board on top of it, and a carpet on top of that. I’d kneel on the carpet, then they’d put a see-through strap across the back of my legs so that they could really throw me around, and off I’d go. We spent a week or so shooting all the flying carpet stuff, but in the final cut it was only like 10 seconds long. Still, it was an awesome experience and I enjoyed myself.”

Sam (Deklin) takes aim! Photo by James Dittiger and copyright of the Syfy Channel

Nip/Tuck, Life on Mars, Desperate Housewives and CSI: New York are just a handful of Deklin’s other TV credits, with his more recent small screen work being guest-spots on such shows as Two and a Half Men, Better Off Ted and The Mentalist. While some people pursue an acting career in the hope of gaining fame and fortune, this actor has always focused on another goal.

“I find fame a little scary,” muses Deklin. “A certain degree of fame might be nice, but there’s nothing appealing to me about the paparazzi following you around 24 hours a day. And with fortune, sure, who doesn’t want to be rich; that would be wonderful.

“For me though, I’ve always thought that when I’m an old man and look back at my life, what would make me feel successful is if, in a broad sense, I was able to make a living doing what I love. That’s always been my starting point, so whenever I feel like, ‘Oh, my career isn’t quite where I want it to be, boo hoo,’ I sort of take a step back and think, ‘You know what, how many people on this planet can say they make a living, and a good living, doing what they love.’ It’s a finite number, certainly, so I take a great deal of comfort in that.”

Steve Eramo

As noted above, all photos by James Dittiger and copyright of the Syfy Channel, so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any kind. Thanks!

Riverworld Comes To Syfy In April

March 17, 2010

THE Syfy Channel sets sail this spring with the 4-hour Sunday night television movie Riverworld, premiering Sunday, April 18th from 7-11:oo p.m. EST. Starring Tahmoh Penikett (Battlestar Galactica/Dollhouse), Laura Vandervoort (V/Smallville) and Alan Cumming (Tin Man), Riverworld is an epic adventure featuring familiar characters in an unfamiliar world and is based on the popular award-winning series of novels by Philip Jose Farmer. The TV miniseries is produced by Reunion Pictures and will be distributed internationally by RHI Entertainment, who teamed up to also bring TV audiences two other Syfy Channel TV events, Tin Man and Earthsea.

Matt Ellman (Penikett) is an American war zone reporter who has witnessed the worst of humanity first-hand, yet still grasps on to an optimistic spirit. When a suicide bomber kills both Matt and his fiance Jessie (Vandervoort), they awaken separated in a mysterious world where everyone who has ever lived on Earth seems to have been “reborn” along the banks of a seemingly endless river. Determined to locate Jessie, Matt joins forces with a 13th century female samurai warrior named Tomoe (Jeanne Goossen) and American novelist Sam “Mark Twain” Clemens (Mark Deklin). Together they sail upriver in search of its source, and to discover where they are and who put them there. Alan Cumming guest-stars as the mysterious “Caretaker.”


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