In the Syfy Channel’s Alice, the title character goes through the looking glass and ends up in a world filled with quirky and colorful characters. Just like the Lewis Carroll books on which this miniseries is based, Wonderland is ruled over with an iron fist by The Queen of Hearts, an ill-tempered monarch who, for some reason, has it in for Alice. Eager to meet our heroine in-person, The Queen dispatches two of her most trusted minions to bring Alice to her. Enter the 10 of Clubs, played by Zak Santiago.
“My character is kind of a righthand man for The Queen of Hearts [Kathy Bates], and in this story he’s rolling with Mad March [Geoff Redknap],” explains Santiago during a break in production. “They are sent to find and capture Alice [Caterina Scorsone] and bring her to The Queen, who wants this very special ring [The Stone of Wonderland] that Alice was given. Mad March and 10 of Clubs are bounty hunters, so they possess a sort of severe coldness, but because there is such a humor in [director] Nick Willing’s writing, they’re almost like Laurel and Hardy. Here are these two deadly villains who aren’t so much bumbling, but who don’t really understand one another.
“The Mad March can be described as this reconstructed, almost half-robotic assassin, and my character, the 10 of Clubs, is usually the one in charge of this type of operation. However, when Mad March is brought back to life, I have to bow to him a little bit, and this guy is really cold. So 10 of Clubs is trying to be ruthless, while at the same time trying to develop a relationship with this machine-like assassin. And the thing is, 10 of Clubs is usually a tough guy, but there are other times where he’ll show his cowardice.
“As an actor, the trick is to find these comedic levels with your character without being too campy, and to be part of this fantasy world without descending into caricature. You don’t want to be false; you have to be 100% committed, even if the situation gets ridiculous at times. That’s one of the hurdles, though, with this type of storytelling. It may be a children’s story, but adults are going to watch it, too, and there’s dark humor in it. So it’s much more difficult to play as opposed to a broad farce, sitcom or straightforward children’s show. So that’s a challenge, but a good one, and my character has definitely been fun for me to play.”
Santiago had just returned to Vancouver from Los Angeles when he was sent the [audition] sides for Alice. As soon as he read them, he could not wait to try out for the 10 of Clubs role. “I was excited for a number of reasons,” says the actor. “When I was a kid, I read The Lord of the Rings series of books long before I thought they would be made into films. I also read C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and played Dungeons and Dragons and Middle Earth. I loved the idea of fantasy as well as legends and mythology and all that kind of stuff. And Alice is one of those stories you read as a kid and that just opened up your imagination.
“I think I’m from one of the last generations of kids who didn’t learn on computers in school. There wasn’t an Internet, either, and we didn’t have cable TV, video games or a VCR. So everything existed in these books and what you could draw, paint, write, create or otherwise imagine for yourself after having read them. So Alice ties into that part of my childhood. I’ve always been drawn to otherworldly sorts of things, so I was thrilled to find out that I had a shot at helping tell this type of story.
“Once I booked the job and before filming actually started, I found out a little more about [the production company] Reunion Pictures as well as Nick Willing and the legacy that he brings with him, which includes his work on [the 2007 Syfy Channel miniseries] Tin Man. Then there were the sets as well as the costumes – we have an Academy Award-winning costume designer [Angus Strathie] working on Alice - and, of course, the rest of the actors who had been cast. I began to get even more excited because I realized with Nick’s vision, and once I’d read the script, that this was going to be incredible.”
The actor’s first day of work on Alice was on-location in Kamloops, British Columbia. “I had never been there before and the set they built was very surreal,” he says. “We also shot in downtown Vancouver and all over the lower mainland, but most of the filming has been at our main studio here in Aldergrove, which is about an hour-and-a-half outside of Vancouver and in the suburbs. This is where the throne room set is along with the casino set as well as where all the green screen work is done.
“Kamloops was my first time being on-set and putting on my character’s costume and the make-up. The 10 of Clubs wears this long, pointy goatee-type beard, so that’s been a bit of work for the make-up women, all of whom do a fantastic job of fashioning the beard and gluing it on me every day. It’s meant a bit more time for me in the make-up chair, but otherwise the rest of my make-up is fairly standard. As for my costume, I wear an Italian suit with amazing woolen cloaks as well as bowler hats and 10 of Clubs headpieces, so I feel pretty regal. It’s almost like playing a cardinal or a cross between one of Emperor Palpatine’s men in Star Wars and some sort of evil lawyer,” jokes the actor.
While the 10 of Clubs starts out working for the bad guys, his allegiances begin to shift as his eyes are slowly opened to who his so-called rulers truly are. “First off, I have to say that it has been incredible working with Kathy Bates and Colm Meaney who plays The King of Hearts, both of whom I’m a fan of,” says Santiago. “My character’s relationship with The Queen and King is one of fear and super-reverence. However, as things spiral out of control for them, The 10 of Clubs gets to see a weaker or less regal side of both of them, and it reaches the point where he turns his back on these two monarchs.
“So that relationship basically disintegrates over the four hours of our story, but with Alice, it’s very much the opposite. She’s one of the good guys, and the 10 of Clubs eventually comes over to her side and ends up watching her back along with that of the Hatter[Andrew-Lee Potts] and The White Knight [Matt Frewer]. He’s not a turncoat, but rather the ultimate revolutionary. My character helps the campaign to overturn the despot, tyrannical ruler.
“Again, my main challenge with the 10 of Clubs has been making sure I really believe in what he’s saying and doing, otherwise it’s going to be hard for people to take him seriously because he’s a pretty eccentric guy. What’s great, though, is that acting-wise everything has just been so clear to me because the scenes and dialogue all make sense and everyone in this cast is so talented and committed to the script. I’ve worked on a lot of projects and, honestly, this one has been almost a no-brainer.
“Another huge plus has been Nick Willing, who is an actor’s director. He’s so specific about his vision and I can tell that he’s a real fan of the fantasy genre, too. We’ve been working some really long days, and it’s been hot and you’ve got something like 150 people in crazy outfits and all this other stuff going on, and yet Nick still finds a way to be true to this vision, you know? He doesn’t sacrifice anything because of time. Nick makes certain that he gets all the shots and is always funny and cracking jokes. There are some directors you work with who are craftsmen and are good because they make the day and keep to the schedule. When you’re doing episodic TV there’s so much you’ve got to get done and they know how to bang things out. But Nick is a true artist and this has been one of the best ever experiences I’ve had with a director. There are only two more days of work for me and I’m going to be sad when this [shoot] is over.”
Having boxed for several years, Santiago reached a point in his life a while back where he felt a career change was necessary and decided to give acting a try. “When I was still boxing, I ran into a fighter friend of mine one day and asked him what he was doing in this part of town,” he recalls. “My friend told me, ‘I’m going on an audition.’ I asked him, ‘For what?’ and he said acting.
“Years later I went back to that exact same part of town and looked at every doorway on that side of the street until I saw one marked ‘acting studio.’ I took a class and liked it. I eventually got an agent and slowly began chipping away at it [an acting career]. I’ve always been an artist, though. I danced when I was younger and still do, and I’ve also been a musician my entire life. But I never thought I would ever be an actor. It’s either my curse or my luck,” jokes the actor, “but I’m still doing it, so I guess it’s a good thing.”
Santiago made his TV debut in an episode of Poltergeist: The Legacy and has since appeared in several made-for-TV movies as well as guest-starred on dozens of shows such as Da Vinci’s Inquest, The L Word, The 4400, Smallville and Eureka. He was also a series regular on Young Blades and the Canadian comedy series Robson Arms.
“Young Blades was great fun,” enthuses the actor. “It was a sword and sorcery/period-type piece with wizard characters and other fantastical elements. I played a musketeer and got to ride horses and fight with swords. Having boxed, I like anything physical and with lots of movement, so that was terrific. I also got to write for the show. My character [Ramon Montalvo Francisco de la Cruz] was a Spaniard and a poet as well as a lover of food and wine, a lover of women and a lover of words. And as it turned out, I wrote a sort of soliloquy for my character for each episode. It was like a monologue in poetry that he read at the end of the episode that encapsulated the events of that particular story.
“That show was a challenge because, again, it was a period piece and an action piece, but it was fairly low-budget as well. Those types of programs are hard to do unless you have the money because of the lavish costumes along with the castles and other things of that nature. It takes a lot to string everything together, so we all worked really hard and I’m still good friends with the cast. It was a wonderful time in my life.
“Robson Arms was even more of a low-budget program, and a neat one, too. Everyone did it out of love, and some of my best friends were my castmates on that show. As a young filmmaker I enjoyed it because it was such an amazing training ground for new directors. There was an incentive to hire first-time directors as well as young writers on that show, so it was exciting to be a part of. The producers had a great deal of heart, and, man, oh, man, was the show funny.”
Santiago can be seen in upcoming episodes of the Syfy Channel series Caprica, and only a few weeks ago the actor guest-starred in the Stargate Universe episode Time. “Years ago I did a Stargate SG-1 [Evolution]; my friend Peter DeLuise directed that and he then ended up being one of my castmates for a season on Robson Arms,” notes Santiago.
“Another good friend of mine, James Bamford, who was the stunt coordinator on Stargate Atlantis and now Universe, had been trying to get me on Atlantis as a Wraith or to do some stunt work, so it was cool when I got to play a Marine [Corporal Rivers] on Universe. I got to kiss a really pretty girl as well, and that’s always fun when you’re acting. I was told that my character could be recurring; we’re all on this ship and I haven’t been killed off yet, so I’m hoping to come back and develop my character a little more because I really had a ball in the short time I was there.”
From listening to Santiago speak it is obvious that he is a people person, and for him, that is a big part of what makes his job so enjoyable. “I’m so grateful for all the friends and relationships I’ve made, and the collaboration,” he says. “In this business you’ve really got to look at it as a whole bunch of people working really hard to come up with something that’s worthwhile. However, when any one of us forgets that we’re just a piece of the puzzle, that’s when you start to look at this as being something different. So as long as you keep in mind that you’re part of a team, then you’ll come away with these relationships and friends along with work that you’re proud of.”
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. EST. For more information on Zak please check out www.zaksantiago.com
As noted above, some photos by Mitchell Parsons and courtesy of Zak Santiago and The Promotion People as well as copyright of The Syfy Channel or CTV, so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any kind. Thanks!