Southern Boy's Farscape Takes Him Far Away
Ben Browder's a Southern boy living in a different world - not just outer space, where he plays John Crichton on Farscape, but Sydney, Australia, where the series films. "This interview is like one of those dates that just keeps getting put off until you get nervous about it," he laughs into a cell phone halfway across the planet, nearly a full day ahead of local time in South Carolina where he grew up. Browder is on his way to work before 7 AM. It could be a lot worse, though. Several of his cast mates report even earlier to begin the lengthy make-up process that transforms them into the alien crew.
"We're about to start shooting episode 15," explains Browder, meaning that Farscape is more than halfway through filming the season that only just started airing in the U.S. He cackles, "So I know all kinds of things I can't tell you!"
Well, does Crichton - who has already been thrown across the universe and hunted by deadly aliens - get killed? "Several times," he jokes. "A couple of other people die too." Ooh, bummer. Does Crichton at least get to have sex first...and with whom? "The question is with what, rather than with whom. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to implement my special Captain Kirk power over the women of the universe."
They've Got a Secret
Browder walks into make-up as he talks. "There's Claudia Black," he announces into the phone. Black, who plays Aeryn Sun on the series, groans into the receiver that she wants to go back to bed. "She's got a cold," explains Browder. "We've got a cold running through the cast right now. I don't know why Claud and I would be sharing a cold other than proximity alerts. There's a couple of episodes that spring to mind where I might have gotten that cold! And you're going to give it back to me again today, aren't you, Claud?"
Woo-hoo! Are John and Aeryn finally getting some onscreen action of the non-space-battle kind? When are they going to do it? "Claud, when are we going to do it?" echoes Browder. Black chuckles that it's too early in the morning. "I have to ask permission before I say anything," warns Browder. "I can't say anything other than, I've got it good!"
The developing romantic relationship between Crichton and Sun has been one of Browder's favorite developments in the series. "I love John and Aeryn. It's a great relationship - a strange one but a great one," he observes. Then, joking, "We fight well. It's just a natural extension of what Claud and I do all day long. Ours is a classic Hollywood rivalry - the trailer war we're having is humongous. Hers is six inches longer than mine. I'm out there with the tape measure! She's got a bigger trailer!"
Black and Gigi Edgley, who plays Chiana, laugh in the background as Browder continues alternating jokes with serious statements. "I love working on this show," he declares. "Crichton has evolved and continues to evolve. I'm convinced that [executive producers] Rockne O'Bannon and David Kemper are insane. They're experiencing that with John Crichton by proxy. He's in the uncharted territories and he's gone native!"
"But it's a fantastic journey to play," adds the actor. "I got to start out as the guy who couldn't open a door, then get to a certain level of competence, then they sort of stripped it all away. I trust that Rock and David Kemper have an idea where they want to take the show and where they want to take the character. It's in some ways more fun to be surprised by that. My influence tends to be that I'll take a scene and twist it on the floor, and they'll see it in performance and follow up and expand on it."
Browder is particularly pleased with the final episodes of last season, when Crichton was tortured and seemed to realize that he might have to show a little brutality in dealing with his enemies. "I'm very proud of what we did from episode 16 on to the end of last year," he notes. "I also think that from episode 7 to 15 this year, the show is in a very interesting place. The number of things that the writers have given me to do, that are interesting for an actor to do, is fantastic. You can't do these things on a standard drama or even on stock science fiction fare. With the episode we just finished, we kept looking at the rushes going, 'Oh god, this is good!' It's scary, because on a daily basis, you're overwhelmed by the stuff you're looking at."
Browder's familiarity with science fiction - and science - comes honestly. "I'm a huge fan, I read a lot of science fiction and grew up watching it," he admits. "I saw 2001 on the big screen when I was a kid, and thought I was going to be an astronaut. From the time I was six years old, I used to write to NASA. You'd write to JPL, you'd write to Houston, you'd write to Canaveral, and they'd send you a great packet of stuff. At seven or eight years old I was tracing all of the satellites and all of the rockets, a Mercury, a Gemini. So I'm living my childhood dream playing this role, though it's sort of twisted a little bit!"
Browder says no one in his family was particularly surprised at his childhood dream. "Insanity runs in my family," he confesses. "I have a brother who flies planes and an uncle who was a Naval pilot. I have two brothers who are running late-model stock and I have a brother who's built and crewed for a bush team that my family's run for the last few years. This year I have two brothers running a full schedule of NASCAR late-model stock. It's what my dad refers to as, 'Hey, y'all, watch this!' syndrome, which of course are the last words a redneck says before he dies. We're proud of that!"
Memphis-born Browder fled the South after college and says it was only years later that he realized how much he loved it. "I was going to be an astronaut, I was going to be a doctor, I was going to be all sorts of things. I had done plays from the time I was young and had been on TV doing small things since I was really very young, but it wasn't a career option. I didn't know anybody who did it. I just decided one day, this is what I'm going to do, and everybody kind of raised an eyebrow and laughed, but actually, my family was incredibly supportive. Who knew?"
Filming on the other side of the world is one of the hardest aspects for Browder about working on Farscape. "It does not make my mom happy, nor my dad, and in regards to missing my family and the people back home, it does not make me happy either." Yet there are compensations. His wife and children accompanied him to Australia. "Sydney is gorgeous, I love the Australians, and we've got great surf breaks now just around the corner from where I live. I've got my favorite form of exercise available to me. It's a good standard of living."
Still, there are drawbacks. "Let's be honest, they do not have Peanut Butter Captain Crunch in Australia," Browder sighs. "If I'd known, that would be in my contract. That and the Mountain Dew! Where's the Mountain Dew? And I can't find Crisco. You can't make biscuits without Crisco. That's one of the things about being far away from home, you miss the little things, but it's made up for by the fact that I get to wear these cool Australian work boots that I would have never gotten in America."
How much is Southern boy Browder like rocket man Crichton? "The 'Hey y'all, watch this!' syndrome is probably the most apparent thing," he says. "Crichton dives in without thinking, and I tend to do that as well. I don't know...people say I look like John Crichton, though I don't see it myself. They're trying to make up for that; I'm going into prosthetics for the second time this year, though I can't say what kind of prosthetics!"
A Human Reaction
On a short-term basis, Browder calls the make-up "tremendous fun. Every now and then we'll approach film actors in Australia, and usually the first thing they say is, 'I want to be an alien, I want to be painted.' In the short term, it's fantastic, I can vouch for that, because you get so much for free because of the great job that the Creature Shop and the make-up department do. You walk in and you are an alien; you don't have to act it."
In the long run, however, it's a tremendous hardship. The makeup can damage the actors' skin and give them claustrophobia. "For Anthony [Simcoe] and Gigi and Virginia [Hey], who come in every day and do it, that's a hard road. It's a lot of hours in the chair, covered up with stuff. They're fantastic about it, particularly Anth who is the Iron Man of latex."
How difficult is it for Browder working with Rygel and Pilot, puppets whose voices aren't added until post-production? "I ceased a long time ago to think of the puppets as puppets," says Browder seriously. "You react to them in the same way that you react to characters. You look Rygel in the eye, and the major difference is that on 'Cut,' you go for a cup of tea and take the script with you. Poor Rygel's stuck there, nobody to talk to, he has a heart attack and dies. But he does have a lot of attendants. He's got the biggest team of any of us. You sort of thread your way through five people laying on the floor around them, but it's like a disability to have all these people hanging off them. As long as you don't hurt the people on the floor, you're fine."
Browder is also comfortable with the recent darker tone of the series. "The show was sort of Farscape Lite the first few episodes, which I think was a safer tack to take, but the network wanted something edgier and that gave us the freedom to develop," he explains. "As it went along last year, the show evolved dramatically from episode one to the end, tone-wise and humor-wise. That happened as a creative move between the actors, the directors, the production designer, and the writing staff. We have basically the same staff of directors this season and they know the show, which is exciting because we're not reinventing the wheel as far as how we work on the set every time we start an episode."
Though Sci-Fi has made no official announcements, it seems likely that there will be another season of the acclaimed Farscape, and Browder hopes for more. "I'd like to see at least another two seasons. They won't tell me how many years they want, because I'm pay or play. There's already discussions about what are we going to do for next year, which would indicate hopefully that we're going to be on. I suppose that if the show continues to do well and we're still capable of making the show, then we'll go on for awhile."
What would he like to see happen over time? "We spend most days just saving our own butts," laughs Browder. "They keep hinting that maybe one day we'll save someone else."
How about John's relationship with Aeryn - they're not having a baby or anything? "Claud, are we having a baby?" he asks co-star Black, who makes a nauseated noise. "There's sort of a baby thing going on that I can't talk about," Browder says cryptically.
Then, he starts cracking up. "It would be really interesting. Can you get disposable diapers in the uncharted territories? And the whole discussion about breastfeeding versus formula - 'Aeryn, you've got to breastfeed, it's better for the baby!' 'I can't carry a pulse rifle and breastfeed at the same time, John, so just warm up the bottle!' That would be fantastic! I've got to pitch a story."
Browder has experience with domestic drama, having played Sam Brody on Party of Five, as well as Adam, "the last geeky guy on Melrose Place." In his episode, Allison went back to her hometown, "and once she left L.A., everybody was geeky because that's the way L.A. thinks. I was her old boyfriend. Billy came along and got jealous, so they had to make me geeky. I had clothes that were ten years out of date. And I was dumb - I made Billy look smart in comparison. It was very interesting to be a geeky guy on Melrose Place because everybody's cool!"
Browder is looking for film work during the hiatus between Farscape's seasons, and jokes with his publicist about his top-secret movie in development. "I'm so stuck in the middle of the uncharted territories that I barely know the pin code to my bank anymore, and what's my phone number? I'm totally stuck doing the show, and it's wonderful."
He's also proud of his latest accomplishment for Farscape. "I just got nominated for a Jupiter Award!" Uh - a Saturn Award? "Oh. A Saturn Award," he groans, embarrassed. "One of those big gas giants with the rings. Hey - I saw that yesterday and it's good for the show. So I've got to brag!"