If you follow me at all on social media, you might have picked up that I am somewhat fond of SyFy’s The Expanse.
That @ExpanseSyfy panel was almost perfect happiness for me. S2 can't come soon enough!
— Laura Harcourt (@blueofthebay) October 8, 2016
(Just a li’l.)
So when an opportunity to chat with Cas Anvar, the man behind my favorite Martian-Texan Space Navy pilot, Alex Kamal, came across my radar, I jumped on it. WWAC’s own Ardo Omer spoke with Anvar last summer during San Diego Comic Con, and he generously offered to meet me during NYCC to chat about the upcoming season. As we sat down to talk, I learned several things right away about Anvar: Even after a long two days of con, he’s unerringly generous and polite. He enjoys New York Comic Con because he finds the people to be friendly, fun, and enthusiastic, and he likes truffle fries. Oh, and he really digs his show and fellow cast mates. Let’s dive in.
Spoiler warnings for season one of The Expanse below! Proceed at your own risk!
So, earlier this summer, you spoke with Ardo about what it was like to shoot the first season of The Expanse. How did it feel to get back in the saddle for season two?
Long overdue. We had to wait over a year to get back at it. I’ve never done anything like that, where I do something and then we wait thirteen months, and then tackle the second season. It’s an unusual disconnect. But as soon as we got back into it, it felt like we had never left, so that was fun.
It seems like you guys have a lot of fun together.
Yeah, we have very good chemistry, I mean, I’m very lucky, because I get to work with a great group – myself, Steven Strait, Wes Chatham, Dominique Tipper, Shoreh Aghdashloo, and Thomas Jane.
I guess it’s too much to hope for any scenes with you and Shoreh this season huh?
Nope, we don’t meet yet.
That’s alright, we get Bobbie.
It’s all connected, everything is connected and inter-related.
Yeah, that’s what I really love about The Expanse, too. The scope goes from the tiny to the galactic. Have you read the books?
You’re gonna find story arcs shuffled in different orders, you’re gonna find things from book three pulled into season two, you’re gonna find entire characters that have appeared that didn’t exist in the books…
A perfect example being, Alex doesn’t have any sort of family relationships in the books. He was not a heavily developed character in the first few books, so the TV writing room took it upon themselves to give him a much richer backstory, they gave me some really amazing stuff to do this year. That being said, everyone asks me at my autograph booth if I’ve read Nemesis Games (book five) yet, and I’m like, “No, why?” and they’re like “Oh, man! You get some cool shit!” and I’m like, “What the hell do I do in book five??”
So are we going to see some of that backstory this season?
Season two is all about the characters.
That leads me right into my next question: I wanted to ask what it’s like to come into a story with so much canon, and obviously the writers – and the TV writers – have put so much thought into this – but have you come up with any little quirks for Alex, yourself?
Yeah. Yeah, that’s a great question. I don’t think there’s any greater gift you can give to an actor than to give him an incredibly three-dimensional world that lives and breathes, where all the complex and potentially disarming elements have been fleshed out and questions answered. No matter how much they give us, an actor will always be able to add his own refinements and his own personal touch and soul and flavor, and the more they give us, the more clarity we have, and that much more inspiration to come up with even more nuanced contributions. For example, one of the things I loved about Alex that they gave me in the first season is his love of ships, his love of flying.
Alex doesn’t have a lot of relationships in this world. He’s not friends with anyone, he doesn’t have a best friend or a relationship with anyone. He doesn’t know anyone on the Roci crew really well. The only relationship that’s even alluded to is his marriage, and you’re not even really sure if he’s still married or not. And so, that gave me the freedom to say, “Okay, what does a man with no relationships, no human connections, how does he fill that void?” And so, one of the things I started to do, right from the beginning, was to emotionally connect to the ships that I fly. You’ll notice, even in the first couple of episodes, he talks to the ship, he shows affection and love to the ship. It started off very subtle and small, it was kind of an afterthought –
Well, he hadn’t met his true love, yet.
Right, right? But it was an indication of, you know, this is a lonely man. Everyone on this show has their damage, everyone has their demons and their skeletons that they’re struggling with. And Alex’s have left him alone, in the world. By choice, in many respects. And so, what does someone like that do? What does a person that isolates himself and alienates himself from other human beings, how does he deal with things? My experience has been that they try to find something on which to endow their emotional connection. I can’t tell you how many people I know that name their cars, and once they name them, endow them with an emotional personality, to the point where if they ever get into a fender bender, Lord help us. They’re concerned for their baby’s well-being. And I really find that very interesting. It takes something kind of banal and cold and sterile and adds life to it. Having a relationship with something you interact with on a daily basis, giving it emotional life, makes life more interesting.
I think Alex does that because he is an eternal optimist. I think he’s constantly trying to ward off the dark clouds. He’s much better than some of his crewmates at letting the sun shine through, I think his Martian culture and his Martian personality, which includes a Texas influence, allows him see the bright side, the silver lining to any situation. I took it upon myself to really embrace the whole Southern/Texan perspectives, and so I would always be going hunting for ways of dealing with every one of our stressful situations, and try to find some sort of Southern/Texas perspective that would shed some light and some humor onto what we were going through. Which would be completely different than what our poor obsessed captain –
He just wants some good coffee, man!
He just wants some coffee! – or our dark and brooding engineer, or our socially disconnected, um…Amos.
Sidenote: I laughed.
I really was looking for, and really enjoy, the four completely different perspectives that the Roci crew has. We’ve got Earthers, Martians, and Belters, each of which have their immensely different backstories, so you’ve got planets and personal life experiences that just separate these people as far apart as they could possibly be, and I loved exploring that for Alex.
Yeah, definitely. Well, Ty and Daniel have said The Expanse is about what a pain in the ass it is to have a paladin in your group –
– I think we all know that the paladin for Team Roci is Holden, so what role do you see Alex playing, in that dynamic?
Huh. I think – I think Alex is Lawful Neutral, or maybe Chaotic Good. And…I don’t know, is he a thief, or a ranger?
That’s a good question!
He’s got skills, and his skills are…he’s not a magic user, he’s not a cleric, his skills are not intellectual, his skills are “getting our ass out of trouble.” He’s a doer. He’s incredibly innovative in how he does things, and he thinks on his feet, and he’s inventive and creative, which is why I’m thinking about him being a thief, but a ranger kind of has those skills as well, is stealthy and creative and innovative.
Maybe he started out as a thief and now he’s becoming a ranger.
Maybe – you know what? That’s it. I like that. He started out as a thief, in the shadows, and now he’s evolving and growing into a ranger with a purpose.
I like that.
He’s the glue. He’s the big brother, or, he’s the Uncle Alex. While everyone else is worried about saving the universe, everyone else is worrying about the political impact of finding some sort of weapon of mass destruction, Alex is worried about making sure his family is not fighting, and staying together, and that everyone is hunky-dory.
He has a little more life experience than the rest of them: he’s a little older, he’s been married and none of them have. Every other person on the Roci crew had their fat put in the fire and reached their starting point in the series because of some relatively dramatic circumstances. Alex, it’s the exact opposite. Alex found himself where he is when we start the show, because he was lost. By his own decision, or lack of. He basically just drifted into this position that he was in when the series starts. Whereas the other characters have, in many ways, very clearly defined senses of self, Alex doesn’t. He doesn’t have his identity locked down, until, as you said, he finds the love of his life.
Team Roci, all the way.
So, to answer your question, one of the things I added in, to go full circle all the way back to your question –
Alex likes to talk to his ship.
I had a really fun conversation with our Executive Producer and showrunner, where I was talking about season two, and he asked me: “What’re you doing, when you’re saying these things? It sounds like you’re talking to somebody.” And I said, “Yeah, I am.” He said, “Well, who’re you talking to?” I said, “Well, I talked to the Knight, and I was pretty chummy with the Canterbury,” and in season two, there’s a couple other mechanical ladies that I become chummy with. The showrunner said, “Yeah, but you don’t really believe you’re talking to someone,” and I’m like, “Mmmm, nah, yeah, I do. I do.” And then I explained to him my whole belief about endowing inanimate objects with personality and soul, and he very silently just kind of nodded, heard me, and then, lo and behold, season two came, and I had my socks knocked off with what they delivered based on my kind of gentle suggestion.
So they really listen to you guys.
The creative process on this show is unlike anything I’ve ever had the privilege of working on in the past. It’s incredibly collaborative, and I think you’re gonna, the fans are gonna benefit from that.
And then there’s things that the creators give us, that we never would’ve thought of on our own, because they’re so incredibly creative and in tune with the characters and the direction they want to take them. They give us these little jewels, these little gifts, and then that gives us inspiration. It opens up a whole new dimension for us to explore. Like, “oh, yeah, I never thought of that, I never thought how Alex would react to that.” So now I have this entire season to deal with that catalyst. Never would have occurred to me, but it’s brilliant. It’s a really beautiful, creative, collaborative environment.
It sounds amazing. And obviously you guys all have a really good handle on the characters, you all seem to love them a lot.
There’s a great example in season one, where, I think it was in the finale (Ed.: It was.). We were rehearsing the show, and – the way we rehearse it is not like other TV shows. The actors have just taken it upon ourselves, we just go on our Sundays, and we rehearse the heck out of these scripts. We write copious notes, and we do all sorts of tests, we try crazy things – it’s a very safe environment for us to just play. We leave an open door policy for the creators and to the writers, and the director, to join us, with an understanding that it’s our space. They can watch us work, and once we get on set, it’s their space. We’ve been taken up on that offer a few times, and the creators and the producers and the writers come and watch, which is beautiful, because then they’re there when we have big questions to ask. In some cases, they’ll look at what we’re doing, if we’re having trouble making a scene work, and their brains are thinking as writers, and they’ll offer solutions that we wouldn’t have the authority to make, or wouldn’t have the perspective to make. It’s a beautiful kind of synergy. One example being this scene at the end of the first season, Holden is desperately trying to make his way back to the Roci, and in the script, he stumbles upon a guard blocking his way, some random mercenary. And he has to shoot the guard, kill him to get through. And…it bothered all of us, because –
It didn’t seem like Holden?
So this somewhat problematic scene turned into a very dramatic, character driven, character evolving scene that tied up a whole bunch of loose ends, and ended up being a very dramatic part of the finale. And that came out in a dynamic, collaborative environment in our rehearsals.
So now there’s a certain amount of justice, in the sense that Kenzo volunteered all of our lives for a quick buck, so it’s kind of, Karma’s a bitch, and it was served cold. So this somewhat problematic scene turned into a very dramatic, character driven, character evolving scene that tied up a whole bunch of loose ends, and ended up being a very dramatic part of the finale. And that came out in a dynamic, collaborative environment in our rehearsals.
That was a really excellent scene! I was wondering what they were going to do with Kenzo. So, you’ve been interacting a lot with fans online about the show. How’s that been for you? Do you enjoy it?
I’ve played so many bad guys in my life, you know, and you don’t get a lot of love from the fans, even if you do a good job.
It’s because he’s got such a good poker face.
Exactly. Yeah, Wes is the quintessential straight man. But Alex, his approach to life is, you know, unless you’re dyin’, it’s okay to crack a joke. Even in the most dire circumstances, human beings tend to crack wise, just to survive. That’s his crutch. He makes fun of things so he doesn’t cry or get terrified. Alex hates anything even remotely supernatural or unexplainable. When something behaves in a way that defies the laws of physics, or has any kind of horrific element to it, he just can’t process it.
He can’t accept it, so obviously he has to make fun of it. He has to call it something, or name it something, so that he can handle it, so it doesn’t overwhelm him. That’s how he deals with things. And I enjoyed exploring that.
I think we all found that to be pretty relatable.
I think people really got him. Normally, your leading man is your everyman. Normally, your leading man is the one that the audience experiences the story through, because they identify with and relate to him the most. Our leading man – in season one, our leading men, Holden and Miller – are coming from such dark and tormented places, it’s hard for the audience to see their perspectives as that neutral place. Alex is really the everyman, he’s constantly witnessing things and commenting on them. He’s like: “What the hell’s going on here? This doesn’t make any sense to me! Why are we doing this? This is ridiculous, can’t we just chill?”
Holden wants to save the galaxy!
Yeah, Holden’s on a mission, man, he’s on a mission from God, he’s carrying the guilt of the entire crew of the Canterbury on his shoulders, and then, eventually the Donnager, and the potential of an interstellar war riding on one decision that he made.
So, he’s got some shit to do! He’s got a lot to process. And Naomi has a long dark backstory, too, that slowly gets revealed, and Amos, obviously his perspective is completely unique, and only Amos understands that. But Alex is like: family man, didn’t work out, doesn’t have his identity figured out, is basically trying to find himself. I think that’s why the audience really identifies with him, because he’s the most everyman out of all our wild and wacky bunch.
Yeah, that makes sense. We can all see ourselves in Alex, trying to salvage some sanity out of chaos.
Yeah, exactly. He’s always just trying to keep it together. You know? He has no mission. His mission is just to keep the family together.
Team Earth, Mars, Belt, or Roci?
I think that’s a given. See, in our universe, Earth is a bit of a fat cat. We’ve got 36 billion people, with a waiting list, of generations, to get a job. Seventy percent of the planet doesn’t have a job. Those people live off government stipends, so basically everyone’s on welfare. They suffer from the “colonizing parent” syndrome, wanting to keep control over their satellite colonies that are slowly developing personalities of their own, and wanting their independence.
The Belters are, sadly, the oppressed working class of the solar system, as human beings always are wont to create that caste system, that hierarchy of social entitlement. They’re working to benefit Mars and Earth. And as such, are extremely bitter, extremely focused on getting out of that situation. It’s a very dark, bleak, environment.
That being said, that kind of oppression: it’s like pressure and heat compressing coal into a diamond. That kind of pressure on these Belters has created an rich, deep, complex culture, bonding them to each other in language, in song, in the tattoos on their skin which tell a story of emancipation and oppression, and in a philosophy that every single Belter shares from the moment they’re born, until they die, where they share a common vision, a common dream. Earthers don’t have that level of unity.
Then you have Mars. Which is about 15, 20 million people. They’re focused, they’re driven, they’re on a mission, they have a dream. They’ve evolved, escalated their technology. They’re thriving, and every single person on that planet has been mandated with the mission to terraform that planet. And they all believe in it. So you have people populating the planet, sanctioned to have big families, going into engineering to terraform, or into the military. There’s a unified, common vision for the entire population. A sense of pride, a sense of, almost, arrogant pride, because they see themselves as having gone beyond the limitations of what their parent, Planet Earth, left for them. They look back at Earth and see something that has lost its glory, and they’re now the new shining star. Mars attracted the best scientists, the best engineers, the best soldiers…the best of the best went to Mars to start fresh, and so that culture thrived. So I think, my personal affinity is towards Mars. Surprise, surprise.
Same. Do you think Alex still feels some of that arrogance about being Martian?
Yeah, he does. I don’t think he would admit to it, but there’re several moments in the show when we’re all arguing about what to do about this or that, and we’re all talking from our relative cultural perspectives, and Alex is definitely a Martian. He and Holden get into it, several times, about Earth and Mars. Holden has very strong opinions about Mars, and Alex is constantly going “You don’t know what the hell you’re talkin’ about, you’re just talkin’ through your caboose.” He genuinely feels that his culture always has the best of intentions, and justifiably so. But in many ways, like many people, he’s ignorant about what the higher-ups are doing and just how far they’re willing to take things in order to advance their agenda. Alex, he’s passive, he doesn’t take a front and center seat, but he’s definitely a Martian. We get to see a little more of that in season two, and that’s something I’m going to enjoy exploring if we continue on to future seasons. Let’s see a little bit more of the Martian of him.
Well, I don’t want to take up too much more of your time, so I have just two final questions: do you have a message for fans about what to look forward to in season two? And, what are you looking forward to seeing onscreen?
Hold onto your hats. You need to be ready to start episode one strapped in. It’s gonna be a rollercoaster, but with a rocket engine attached.
I heard the first scene has Bobbie and her Marines.
Yeah, it’s hard to give any spoilers about Bobbie, because she’s in the first two seconds of the show. You’re gonna get introduced to our badass Martian Marine instantly. And impressively.
And is that what you’re most looking forward to?
Like I always say, the more badass Martians onscreen, the better.
I can’t wait to see what people think about where we take the show. Like I said, season one was all about building the world, and Season 2 is all about taking these incredibly textured and colorful characters and running them through the wringer, and trying to just wreck them. Their incredible resilience, and how they come out on the other side, is what’s going to make this season, I think, really exciting.
Well, I, for one, can’t wait!
WWAC would like to thank Cas Anvar again for being so generous with his time! You can catch season one of The Expanse on iTunes or Amazon Prime. Season two launches in January of 2017. Until then, check out Cas’ work as Alex in this SyFy Character Spotlight: