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The Featured Presentation

Derek Mears

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Photo By: Brezinski Photography

The coolest thing about Derek Mears isn’t that he’s getting to play Swamp Thing in the new original series set to premiere on the DC Universe digital subscription service May 31, but that he is so grateful to be doing so. As a fan of the iconic character himself, the California-born actor first picked up a “Swamp Thing” comic book as kid – before he could even read – only to find himself bringing the misunderstood creature to life on the small screen decades later. Full circle at its finest!

We recently sat down with Mears to discuss what his younger self would think of his latest role, the wearable art that is the Swamp Thing suit, and why he prepared by reading about everything from existentialism to botany.


TrunkSpace
: What would 12-year-old Derek think about getting to play Swamp Thing?
Mears: 12-year-old Derek just stares at a wall for his entire career going, “Are you kidding me?” I don’t understand how this happened, but I am in no way sad about it. If I had six guns right now, I’d be shooting them in the air. So, pretty excited.

TrunkSpace: Because it’s such an established character, did you feel pressure to make Swamp Thing your own?
Mears: For sure. Any role that I do, I approach it that way. It’s like handwriting. If you and I were to play Pinocchio, we’re going to approach it different. It’s our own kind of style and it’s naturally going to happen. But yeah, of course, I did put my own little spin on things, but also tying back the fan pressure… I wouldn’t really say it’s fan pressure, it’s… on my end, more of a responsibility. I‘ve been getting so many lovely messages on social media from people who have grown up with Swamp Thing being their guy, and they already have this personal relationship that has given them crossroads in their life, and given them answers, and given them joy. It means so much to these people that I knew I had that responsibility of making it right for them, because it’s almost like you’re babysitting their child and going, “Oh, I want you to be happy in what we’re doing, and be on board,” because you don’t want to ruin those memories. You want to make those memories that they have – and the love for the character that they have – flourish.

TrunkSpace: In many ways Swamp Thing has always represented what The X-Men have for people, which is, characters who are outcasts. For many readers who feel that in their own lives, that helps form a connection.
Mears: Oh, 1,000 percent. That’s a huge theme that we’re doing in this version of “Swamp Thing” where a lot of it is about acceptance that we can all kind of relate to. I’ll call it trying to accept, or struggling to accept, who he is as Swamp Thing. It’s something that we all feel, because at certain points, we feel we’re too tall, or too short, or too thin, or too wide, or our teeth just aren’t right, so there are elements of humanity that we all gravitate to with this character. So in a sense, he represents us.

TrunkSpace: In many ways, he was a more relatable character than the super-powered heroes. He was more human than some of the human characters.
Mears: Oh, absolutely. That’s what’s kind of beautiful about it. He’s such a balance. Where there’s good, there’s bad, but there has to be a balance and he strives to do the right thing. But as humans, we’re all fallible and we’re going to mess up somewhere. It wasn’t just the stereotypical black and white of things. There’s so much gray to this character, but the intention is to do good.

TrunkSpace: Were you nervous leading up to the first trailer being released and fans having their first look at what the series and the character would represent?
Mears: Honestly, through my own vision or through my own rose-colored glasses, when I first saw the concept for the character of how they were executing it, my mouth dropped. I was like, “Are you kidding me? That’s what you’re going with because that is pretty right-on!” And I kind of knew ahead of time because the buzz on the set has been sort of there the entire series. It’s one of those special jobs where the cast and crew get along so well, and there’s no hierarchy between the different departments. It’s like, “Oh, we all want to row the boat in the same direction to accomplish the best possible story that we can.” And once I saw how the suit looked, I went, “Okay.” Some people tear up over it. It’s like, “I can’t believe it.” Also, seeing that teaser shot, I go, “Wait until you see it in the different proper lighting, it looks even better than that.” And I’m not bragging because I’m in the suit, but I’m just trying to relate that as a fan myself, I get to wear art. And that art is pretty darn accurate. I don’t know how you could get much closer to the bullseye with that.

TrunkSpace: What’s so great about that is, with this kind of wearable art, you’re leaving a mark on pop culture and the suit could end up in a museum some day.
Mears: I’m thrilled about that. The work that the Fractured FX guys did, with Justin Raleigh at the helm, they put so much time and effort into this. There are some times where people kind of rush through and go, “Oh, what’s the minimum that I have to do to do my job?” I know for a fact that they went above and beyond, and went outside their own budget and used some of their own budget to make it right, because they knew how much this meant to fans and to themselves as artists. I’ve been so blessed to wear different prosthetic characters throughout my career, but I tell you, man, this suit is the Cadillac of suits. The way that you can emote so well through the face, the way that the prosthetics move and work… but it’s all within the design. It was done on purpose. So even like spending so much time in the water, they designed it to be a quicker drying suit than it normally would be. I’m looking at it in a mirror after wearing it I don’t know how many times… because after a while, you kind of get like, “Okay, that’s what I’m wearing,” but every time I’m suiting up, I’m staring at a mirror going, “Are you kidding me? I can’t see the lines on this, the way that it moves.” If I want to, I can kick over my head. It moves so well. So it’s really a pleasure. I’m not trying to pump it up more than it is, but just from my eyes, I’m really lucky to wear this. I can’t wait to see the fans’ reaction when they see it onscreen.

TrunkSpace: And you touched on it, but the suit’s ability to emote is incredible, which is so important for this character. From a performance standpoint, did this character require a different approach than other characters where you had to wear prosthetic suits?
Mears: Well, yes and no. I’ve been on producer sessions or what not for features or shows, and they’re like, “Oh, we need a big guy to wear a mask,” and I’m like, “Alright, have a good day, guys.” “Are you leaving?” I’m like, “Yeah, if that’s your mentality, I’m not right for this job.” Because there’s so much more that we do for this when you’re behind a suit. You approach it like it’s any other character. You have to add that emotional depth, and that’s why I think it’s so important to do a lot of characters like this practically and not just CGI. There’s the point where the two could marry with, say, they benefit each other, which is amazing, but you have to be able to emote the humanity of the character through that makeup. And especially with this character, there’s such a pathos to Swamp Thing, and the extremes of extreme sadness to extreme violence and anger, and the middle ground of that humanity, and trying to keep that balance that he struggles for. It’s such a challenge. But I prepared. I read so many different books on existentialism, and psychology, and philosophy. I even dug into different books on botany. But just kind of making up my own and… using the Alan Moore run from “Swamp Thing” as a flow chart to draw from. So just doing hours upon hours of extensive research, and to be able to hit some of the emotional depths of this character as he strongly deserves, and tie it into my own past and my own personal experiences, but molded him in a sense that they can be used through the limbs of the character to express. So, just the little, subtle things of something affecting you with the makeup, it really shines through and I don’t have to do much because of the prosthetic, because you can read what’s going on.

Photo By: Brezinski Photography

TrunkSpace: You had mentioned reading Alan Moore’s arc. In going back and looking at the books, was there any iconic imagery that you drew from, and how you physically presented Swamp Thing on camera?
Mears: Oh, for sure. They call it aspect. It’s kind of like Frankenstein. I mean, there’s so many aspects of making a character in general as an actor. There are the physical aspects, and the mental aspects, the emotional. There’s the subtextual, the parables, the metaphors that you try to add in. But on the visual side, absolutely. We’ve taken from the original series with Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson – Bernie Wrightson’s drawings, and we rely heavily, story-wise, through the Alan Moore saga, but there are elements of “52” in some of the design. It’s an amalgamation of all of them. And from time to time, being that I’m a nerd and I learned to read by collecting comic books as a kid, I would do little homages to John Totleben or Stephen Bissette, as well as Bernie Wrightson, so fans could be tied into the characters.

TrunkSpace: And those fans will appreciate that because they will be able to see that you’re just as in love with the character as they are.
Mears: Yeah. It’s weird, because growing up, I grew up on some of those comics. I remember when I was a kid, a little weird story was I remember not being old enough to read yet, and my mom would go get her hair done at a beauty salon or whatever, and every time she went, I got to go across the way to a 7-11 where they sold comic books. Our town didn’t have a comic book store at the time, and I got to choose different comic books to read while she got her hair done. And I remember being a big Batman fan, and I got this one comic, and I went, “Oh, this comic is issue #7 called ‘Swamp Thing’ with Batman in it? Well, Batman’s in it.” And I remember reading it, and being totally into this character, going like, “But he’s a good guy, but he looks so terrifying! Okay!” But I didn’t know what the words were, so later on, having developed to be able to read and understand what it was… and now as an adult, I completely forgot about all that, but when I was doing all my research and going through all the comics, seeing that cover, going, “Wait a second,” and having this rush of nostalgia hit me. “I remember staring at these pictures and trying to understand what was going on in the story, but not being able to read.”

What a crazy full circle to be able to play the character now as an adult.

Swamp Thing” premieres May 31 on the DC Universe digital subscription service.

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The Featured Presentation

Sam Medina

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Medina as Axel on the set of “Mile 22”

As sinister as he can be on film, which is on display in his latest project “Mile 22” opposite Mark Wahlberg, Sam Medina is nothing like his on-screen persona in the reality that we all call home. Affable and eager to discuss the filmmaking process, the Vietnam-born actor is reveling in his current run of projects, which also includes the upcoming “Venom,” “Alita: Battle Angel,” and his directorial debut, “Code Name The Dragon.”

We recently sat down with Medina to discuss the pinch of strangers, why his journey to Hollywood was part of a matrix-like design, and the reason his character’s hands only get dirty when they need to in “Mile 22,” which opens in theaters on August 17.

TrunkSpace: You have a whole lot cooking between now and the end of the year. It must be a crazy, exiting time for you?
Medina: It is an amazingly exciting, crazy, chaotic time, and I love every single minute of it because you can’t just have the good. You also have to have the bad, whatever that might come with it. You have to accept it all. The schedule is crazy. Work is crazy. The road is crazy. But I mean, you live for this. I live for this. I dreamed of this before, so believe me, brother, I’m probably going to talk to strangers today and ask them to pinch me. (Laughter)

TrunkSpace: You spent the first 12 years of your life in Vietnam before coming to the States. When did the dream start? What was it that sparked performing and everything else you’re currently working on?
Medina: Well, I was a musician. I was a producer for a lot of rap artists and R&B singers down south. I was always conducting, producing, and kind of directing rappers on how and what kind of songs we should do with the beats that we were making. But the passion for filmmaking and becoming an actor happened after Katrina. It was by design. I can’t really tell you it was a choice at first. It was by design – like if we were living in the matrix, because after Katrina there were no jobs in New Orleans, Louisiana. I was just one of those guys outside of Home Depot and Lowe’s, doing construction work. I was getting sick, and I was just speaking into the universe that I needed to do something else before I died from smelling all of the mold. That was 12 years ago.

The number 12 kind of is lucky for me, I guess, because I moved here when I was 12 and it’s been 12 years ago since I started this film career. And now we’re having a conversation about it. So I think the number 12 might be a lucky number for me.

TrunkSpace: Someone might see your work in “Mile 22” and say, “Sam Medina is an overnight success,” but like you said, you’ve been at this 12 years now.
Medina: Yes, and I also studied many, many great ones that came before me. Most of the “overnight” to people, it’s usually a 20-year career span, so I still have another eight years to really make a mark. (Laughter)

TrunkSpace: “Mile 22” is an action film, which are always a fun ride for viewers, but in terms of production, they’re the most technical to shoot, correct?
Medina: Yes, it’s the hardest. The action has to be shot with a preface, which is a set of videos by the team – the stunt coordinator, fight choreographer – they put this stuff together. They hire stunt performers. They do the action. They shoot clips of it. They send it to the director. The directors and studios approve it before we even get to set to shoot. If they don’t, we change it. So technically action, for the audience to continually be engaged, is the hardest thing to do. You can see a scene that lasts 30 seconds on screen, but it probably took over two weeks to film and maybe two weeks to prep.

TrunkSpace: In the trailer your character Axel, the big bad of the film, comes and goes in a very ominous way. We don’t get to see him get into any of that nitty gritty action fighting in the trailer, but is it safe to assume that we will see some of that?
Medina: You will see some of it, but with Peter Berg, the director, the way that he wanted to design the film, it was slightly different. I’m the head honcho, so my hands only get dirty when they need to get dirty. (Laughter)

TrunkSpace: The film has a thriller element too, which in this day and age, audiences really seem to expect that multi-layered entertainment. There aren’t a lot of films that are just one thing anymore.
Medina: Right. There’s so many underlying tones, and so many layers to the film. That way you keep the audience engaged. Once you watch it, you will go back through it you and will say to yourself, “Oh, okay now I understand why they did it with that, why they did this, why this was this and why that was that in the story.” Yes, audiences are smarter now and in order for you to keep the audience engaged, you have to service the audience. They deserve more.

TrunkSpace: With so much really great television nowadays as well, audiences seem to be looking for more character-driven material that plays out in a longer way. And we know you have your directorial debut coming up later this year, so we’re curious if that is something that you think about from both sides of the camera now?
Medina: Of course. I’ve been blessed in my life. I’ve been lucky and blessed. I work extremely hard, but once again, I have to say that it’s the way how it was designed. It was destined. My resume includes so many legendary directors and I watch every single one because that helps me with my first feature that I’m debuting this year. I’ve taken everything I’ve learned from them to make it my own style.

You do have to serve the audience in a story. A punch is a punch. A kick is a kick. A shoot is a shoot. A gun is a gun. But if the story doesn’t deserve the action, the audience will fast forward everything and just look at the action, whether it’s a shoot-em up or a fight movie. So for me as an actor, if I’m looking at a part – or as a director – I want to look at the story first. You have to have a story to earn the right to the action, to earn the right to a shootout. Then the audience will understand. “Now I understand why this is happening!” So yes, storytelling is really key.

TrunkSpace: Well, and there’s an element too of being invested in the character so when there is that shootout, there are real stakes for the viewer as well. You don’t want to see your favorite character hit by a bullet.
Medina: Of course. You are 1,000 percent correct, my friend. Everything is about the story, because just like you say, if the audience is not vested into your characters that you lay out at the beginning of the movie, then they don’t care. They won’t go on that journey that you’re trying to take them on as an actor, as a filmmaker, or whatever it is you’re trying to do. They won’t go on that ride with you, so you have to create characters where they want to take that ride with you, and they sit in the theater for two hours to watch.

TrunkSpace: In terms of your performance as Axel in “Mile 22,” so often we hear actors say that in order to play a big bad or just a bad guy in general, you don’t view them as bad. It’s that you have to try to find their particular motivation for the actions that they’re taking. Is that how you approached Axel?
Medina: Of course, because I believe, and I’m sure you do and many other people also do as well, the villain wasn’t always the villain at one point. At some point, something or someone happened, and then he had a change of heart. But he has a purpose to it. He has a point of view to it. Just like the hero has his or her point of view, the villain also has his or her point of view as well. And because they have different point of views, when you put them in the room together, you want to see who is going to win. There it goes back to your statement, the stakes are high as hell, because now they’re trying to impose their point of view on each other, and so you have a great story.

You have to have a great villain, but I also wanted to play the villain to where you actually believe why I do what I do, just like you believe the hero has the right to do what he does too, in this case it’s Mark Wahlberg and his whole team.

Medina in “Venom”

TrunkSpace: You recently appeared in a great segment of the latest “Venom” trailer. As an actor, you can probably never anticipate what will happen day to day, even down to the point of whether your performance will wind up in a particular scene or trailer. Do you find yourself getting emotionally invested in everything that you do, or do you have to keep each job at arm’s length to, in a way, sort of protect yourself?
Medina: Well it’s hard, because I think that it’s in individual cases, but for me my heart is always in it. I was in the first “Ant Man” and when me and the Colonel in the Hispanic army got edited out of the film, I was devastated. That was my first Marvel movie. For me, I’m invested in every project that I do. I can’t step away from it, because I love every aspect of the filmmaking process, from the beginning to the end and during. I do invest a lot. I do go up and down with myself, because sometimes you don’t make edits in a movie. Sometimes you make the trailer, sometimes you don’t. But for me, if I don’t care, then why would I do it?

Yes, it can be a letdown, but it can also be a letup. As actors, as filmmakers, we live on the creed of hope. We hope for the next job. We hope that the film we make is well received by the audience, so I have to live by the creed of hope. For me, I definitely get invested, and I definitely get my heart broken many times. But if you think about it, we audition for a thousand roles before we book one.

Mile 22” opens today.

Venom” opens October 5.

Alita: Battle Angel” opens December 21.

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