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.
“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.”
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?’
“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.
“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.
“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.’
“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
“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.”
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.
“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.”
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.”
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!