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Falling Skies

Wingman Wednesday

Colin Cunningham

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*Feature originally ran 9/07/17

In this the Golden Age of Television, we challenge anybody to find a more interesting and dynamic performance than the one being delivered week after week by Colin Cunningham in SyFy’s grindhouse series “Blood Drive.” As the eccentric ringleader of the high stakes race, Julian Slink feeds on the spotlight just as the gore-guzzling cars feed on the innocent. In a show that is unlike anything you have ever seen before, the former “Falling Skies” standout is pressing his foot to the floor of the performance pedal, stealing scenes and setting the bar high for all actors-to-be in future roles.

We recently sat down with Cunningham to discuss how Julian Slink couldn’t exist in any other show, hitting impossible performance beats, and why he prefers to go unrecognized in real life.

TrunkSpace: Did you ever question if the material you were working on in “Blood Drive” would ever make it to air? It certainly has surprised viewers so we’re curious if it surprised you at any point?
Cunningham: Ha! Yes, we questioned it. We questioned, “How the hell did this scene even make it into the script?” Then, we waited for revisions that never came. Then after the, “There’s no way we’re actually going to shoot this?” it became, “There’s no way they’re going to leave that in.” to “There’s no way they are going to put that on the air!” I don’t know whether SYFY deserves the credit, or the curse. (Laughter)

We all knew we were doing something special. And that the circumstances we found ourselves in would probably never happen again. It was a once in a lifetime thing. “Blood Drive” wasn’t a gig, it was a whispered invitation to meet at the top of Devils Tower, Wyoming.

TrunkSpace: How much of who Julian Slink is existed on the page and how much of him became performance choices?
Cunningham: The character of Julian Slink would simply not be possible with a larger, more insane show to hold it. The show is so incredibly bat shit crazy that Slink has the kind of latitude simply not possible on any other show.

Without a doubt, he is the single most insane and complex character I’ve ever read. James Roland created an absolute giant and the credit is entirely his. If he tells you anything different, he’s nuts. Strike that… James is nuts. But it really was all right there on the page. All of it.

My job on “Blood Drive” really wasn’t to create anything “off” of the page. Instead, it was the weight of the world to see if I could bring life to even half of what these wonderful writers had given me.

TrunkSpace: Your performance as Slink is downright masterful and the beats you take as the character are just as powerful as your delivery. Did the outrageous nature of the content itself allow you to go to places that you wouldn’t normally attempt under different circumstance?
Cunningham: The challenge for me was to see if I could actually hit some of these almost impossible beats. To get into the most intense, emotional spaces, then pull full-throttle 180s. A world within a world within a world within a world. And all a hair’s breadth from each other. To attempt Slink in any format would have been a massive challenge, but to do it in a “crank ’em out,” “one/two take” TV schedule? I didn’t know if it was possible.

So, for inspiration, I went back. Not to grindhouse, but to kinescope, absorbing every live teleplay from the early 50s I could get my eyes on. All the Playhouse 90s. All the Studio One stuff. Back when the actors had to do it all live, in one take. “Requiem For a Heavyweight,” “The Comedian,” “A Town Has Turned To Dust.” Everything Rod Serling, pre “Twilight Zone.” Mind blowing performances. And all done live, in one take. Slink was going to shoot for the heavens, but he was to be grounded firmly in the discipline of the theater.

The work completely absorbed me. Here we were in one of the most exquisite locations on the face of the earth, Cape Town, South Africa, and I spent most of the time in my apartment or in cafes. Breaking the scenes down. Breaking them down again. No discos, no safaris.

And all for a show about cars that eat people. (Laughter)

TrunkSpace: It sounds like the entire cast was given complete creative freedom on the performance side?
Cunningham: The creativity in “Blood Drive” wasn’t suppressed, it was celebrated. Never in my career have I seen so many given such complete and total freedom to do what they do. (Greg Beeman on “Falling Skies” would be a close second.)

TrunkSpace: In the early going of the series, Slink is presented as this really interesting carnival barker meets haunted house cast member, but by episode 2 we really start to see some previously unseen aspects of his personality, including insecurity, which we found very interesting. In a lot of ways it feels like Colin Cunningham is playing a man playing Julian Slink.
Cunningham: There is a different side of Slink for every context. It’s what makes him so complex. On stage, backstage, with Grace, with Rasher, as an “employee” of Heart. There are so many layers, and a specific history with each. That’s what made it so damned hard. Also, in that first episode we were still working it all out. The relationship with Rasher wasn’t discovered until I met the exceptional Carel Nel (who’d practically come in as a day player, but stayed for 13 episodes). Basically, nothing like “Blood Drive” had ever been made before. Also, in that first episode, I had both food poisoning and the Cape Town flu and was sick as a dog!

TrunkSpace: Is Julian Slink the kind of character you seek out and because he’s so interesting, does it also mean that every actor is seeking the same thing?
Cunningham: I’m not really a character actor, I am an actor that plays characters. I’m honestly not very good at doing the boilerplate TV Cop/Dad/Lawyer stuff. Well, its not that I’m not any good at it, its just that so many other actors can play those roles. And so, when I go out for those auditions, there are a thousand guys to compete against. But when it comes to a character like Julian Slink, that room gets much, much smaller. My odds then become 1 in 5. And I swear it’s not a “talent” thing. There are some tremendously talented actors out there. It’s an “understanding” thing. And I don’t think there are anymore than maybe 5 actors on the planet that would have known what to do with James Roland’s little monster. (Also, note: I was the network’s “3rd” choice. The first two actors they offered it to “passed.”)

But again, none of it would be possible without having David Straiton and James Roland right there. Not to keep me “on track,” but to remind me that there were no rails. I was absolutely free to work, explore, create. But it really was a team effort and I could call or knock on their doors anytime, day or night.

TrunkSpace: There is a LOT of blood in “Blood Drive.” Is it the stickiest job you’ve ever had?
Cunningham: The amount of blood on the show? With the exception of Slink murdering Skuttle in the lobby of Heart Enterprises, I was pretty lucky. Whereas, Alan and Christina were covered in quite a variety of fluids.

TrunkSpace: You’re never afraid to alter your appearance when taking on a new role. How important is that physical transformation of a character for you personally?
Cunningham: It may sound nuts, but I’m not a big fan of being recognized. It’s certainly nice to be acknowledged for the work you do, but I really don’t want the special table at the restaurant. So, I tend to gravitate to roles where I can disappear. All that said, there would be no Slink without the unbelievably gifted Danielle Knox (Wardrobe) and Kerry Skelton (Makeup). These two women and their teams were the best I’ve ever worked with. The entire wardrobe and makeup departments were beyond belief. The garments Danielle created were absolutely astonishing. And Kerry is one of the best because she works with the actor to help create the character. So many TV makeup artists are often little more than overpaid sponge jockeys. Not Kerry Skelton. She and her team were exceptional.

TrunkSpace: When you look at your career moving forward, what would you like to accomplish? Do you have bucket list items that you want to check off in your career?
Cunningham: Bucket list? Hell, that’s easy. What any big star wants… to buy his mother a shiny, pink Cadillac.

“Blood Drive” airs Wednesdays on SyFy.

Featured Images By: Arthur Albert

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Wingman Wednesday

Mpho Koaho

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Photo By: Fitzroy Facey

With so many television shows airing and streaming, it seems like it’s getting increasingly more difficult to generate genuine fandom buzz for any new series set outside of a Marvel or DC universe. That’s why the continuing aura of excitement surrounding BBC America’s “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” is so, well, exciting.

With season 2 now underway, the series based on the Douglas Adams novel is growing more and more popular as fans of quirky storytelling embrace the uniqueness of the supernatural detective narrative. As Ken, series star Mpho Koaho brings his own singular on-screen presence that not only helps build out the world, but solidifies the Toronto native’s reputation as one of the industry’s best character actors.

We recently sat down with Koaho to discuss the diversity of Dirk Gently, why television was a scared cat for a very long time, and how the fans are just as unique and diverse as the show itself.

TrunkSpace: “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” is unlike most other shows on television, both in premise and tone. What does that uniqueness offer you as an actor, from a performance standpoint? Does it open doors in what you can do in your performance?
Koaho: 100 percent. I think the uniqueness of it starts from the diversity of everything. It’s uniquely diverse, and not just from a racial or a gender standpoint. Obviously now we’re introducing fantasy, and the Rowdy Three, and just all the diverse characters on the show like Bart Curlish. We’ve got a mix of players.

And then in terms of performance, it gives you great freedom because you’re not following any kind of conventional template. Max Landis’ writing style – I think why he’s so good writing this Douglas Adams fandom is because he’s similar. He understands the craziness of what Douglas Adam’s writing is, so then Max gives an actor just immense freedom from a performance standpoint. Because your character’s already unique – he’s written you in a very uniquely diverse way – and then the dialogue is just left of everything. I think it’s very à la Douglas Adams, in terms of the uniqueness and the craziness of it all.

I think that’s what’s appeased fans, as well. Outside of the Dirk character, in this adaptation, Max has created every other character, yet he still has appeased diehard Douglas Adams’ fans.

TrunkSpace: It feels like the kind of show that, in a season or two, other shows will try to emulate, but right now, it’s very much it’s own thing.
Koaho: That’s very well-articulated. These are things I think about every day as an actor, and have thought about for 20 years in Hollywood. And the thing is, specifically the person writing this, Max, grew up in Hollywood.

It’s interesting that I can articulate what I did from being around, and then exactly the same thing permeates within Max’s world, because he was raised by John Landis and very much grew up understanding the exact same thing you mentioned. I think that’s very prevalent in Max’s mind, in his world, and I think he attacks it that way, so I think those are things he’s aware of. I really, really do. I really think he’s aware of that and, while maybe not tries to get away from it, he just goes, “I’m not gonna do that.”

I think he’s just so unique that he doesn’t even have to try to not be something. It’s just so easy for him, and I think it’s because of growing up in Hollywood, and understanding the repetitive nature of things.

TrunkSpace: With that unique feel of the show, do you think the show has a cap in terms of the people it can reach? Like for example, while we love the show, we’re not sure our moms would be able to get invested. (Laughter)
Koaho: I totally agree with you, and obviously in a perfect world you want to think your show can reach anybody, but not any show is necessarily either appropriate for everyone, or someone’s cup of tea. I would speak to Dirk not being everyone’s cup of tea, specifically because there are many refined people in the world, a little more reserved, conservative, sheltered who would say, “We don’t really do much.” To put Dirk Gently in front of them, to put what we do on that show, will be a lot for some people, no doubt. No doubt.

You’re absolutely right. My mother can’t watch this show. No. No. No. I know my mother. She’s a very refined… I wouldn’t say she’s conservative, but this is a little too far for her, on the borderline of loco.

TrunkSpace: But at the same time, that’s the beauty of television in today’s world. It can be geared towards certain likes and dislikes because there’s so much content available now.
Koaho: Well, in terms of television, television was a scared cat for as long as it’s existed. Literally, television was a scared cat, network television, and then HBO and Showtime, they grew a pair and gave us adult television. I’ve never been against network TV, but I understand their reasoning. You’re in people’s homes. A six-year-old or a seven-year-old could turn on the TV and see “The Sopranos” if that was network TV.

I get the shackles of network TV, but it wasn’t until I came to an HBO, a Showtime, where I really started to enjoy television again, and I’m talking about the kid that grew up on sitcoms. It took getting to this point. I think it was “Dexter” before I really could say I loved television again. “Dexter” got me back.

TrunkSpace: So purely from an acting standpoint, is TV more interesting now just because everything is so character-drive and performance heavy?
Koaho: Well, I would say the actor that I am cares about the character-driven stuff, because I’m very ‘character actor’ and obviously if you know anything about my career you can see that, but there’s an 11-year-old in me who’s just not this uptight actor, and that’s a fan of stuff that just doesn’t look at it that way, that looks at it from a less serious place – the kid that was watching “Beauty and the Beast” on the plane going to San Diego Comic-Con.

Photo by Bettina Strauss/BBCA – © 2016 AMC & BBC America

Someone comes up to me like, “What are you watching?” I’m like, “I’m watching ‘Beauty and the Beast’, god dammit!” I had a fucking blast, man. That’s what I love about me. I’ve learned the business working 20 years, so the character-driven stuff matters – holy crap, it matters to me, especially as an actor, but then the kid that started acting appreciates the diversity of a Dirk Gently. Not even the actor, the black kid, the African that I am, appreciates the diversity in my show, and the direction, from a diversity standpoint, television is going in.

It’s two sided, it’s twofold, really three or four sides, even.

TrunkSpace: And there’s diversity in the characters from an emotional standpoint. There’s more broken characters now than ever before.
Koaho: See, there you go. That’s realistic. People are not perfectly emotionally in check, man. Holy crap. Look at Marvel with the flawed superheros. That’s realistic. Most of those heroes are probably gonna be loaners anyway, right? The idea for them to be affected emotionally that way, that’s very realistic, so it’s amazing how TV was almost selling you what movies were forever. And to be very honest, television, network TV… I don’t even want to just say network TV, but mostly network TV… is still a beauty contest. I don’t care what you say, it’s a beauty contest. It’s just, “Put a lot of really pretty people in roles, put a lot of really pretty people on TV and see what happens.”

I sift through so much… so many scripts, so many auditions, television… I’ve sifted through so much stuff to get to this point doing a Dirk. I’m not here reading for CW stuff every day. No disrespect to the CW, no disrespect to anybody working on the CW, but that’s not my shit. That’s not who I am. I don’t want to do a CW show, and real talk, honest to God honesty, outside of maybe like “Black Lightning,” I don’t know if you’d ever catch me on the CW because I don’t know if… especially coming off of having read for a lot of things, pretty much everything, you grow to a place where you realize, “This is not how I want to be represented. This is not how I want to be portrayed.” So you realize, “I wouldn’t audition for that show again,” or, “I would audition for this show every day of the week.” I can’t do certain things. They wouldn’t put me in certain things because I don’t fit that look… I don’t fit that mold, you dig? I’m the most unique character actor, so we have to always take our time and find the most unique thing for me.

TrunkSpace: You spent numerous years on “Falling Skies,” so you know about passionate fandoms. How does the Dirk Gently fandom compare in terms of the passion and commitment to the material?
Koaho: I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this, to be honest. “Falling Skies” was very supportive, very loyal, but Dirk Gently fans are locos, man. I have such respect for them. You know what I really love about the Dirk Gently fandom? Just how different everybody looks! Just the quirkiness of everybody, and just how unique and different everybody is! I look at so many of these beautiful faces, and I go, “You know, that is not who I expected to see.” That’s so pleasant, because I’m sure people say that about me sometimes, with certain projects they see me in. They would have seen me in something and say, “Wow, I never expected Mpho to do something like this. Wow, he was really good.” That’s a pleasant surprise.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” airs Saturdays on BBC America.

Featured image by: Fitzroy Facey

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