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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.'”
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.”
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!