Finding the Way
This article originally appeared on SlipstreamWeb.
Brent Stait portrays scientist-sociologist-spiritualist Rev Bem on Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda. A Gemini Award nominee, Stait has starred in dozens of film and television roles, including Mystery, Alaska, The Virginian, CBS's Titanic, plus guest appearances on The X-Files, Stargate, and many other shows. On Andromeda he plays a Magog -- an alien descended from a race that reproduces by brutally feeding upon and inseminating other species. The prosthetic makeup requires that he arrive very early and remain immersed in the character throughout a day of shooting. I caught up with him the day before the show went on break at the end of the first season, on January 9, 2001.
Thanks for taking the time for this interview. Are you on hiatus yet?
I have one more day of shooting but everybody else is done. I'm going to go on vacation. I have a couple of things, maybe, but I don't think I want to do a film. I'm really tired. I need a break.
How early have you had to get up for the makeup?
It takes three hours in the morning to get it on. I usually get called in quite a bit earlier than everybody else. They've changed it as it's gone on; it used to be a little hairier. They took some of the facial hair off and had a neckpiece made of fur changed into latex rubber. It's better looking for the character, and it's less itchy! That's the worst part of it, the neckpiece. It's all pretty itchy after awhile, though. When you audition and they say 'Full prosthetics,' you say 'Oh, sure.' Then you see it and you go, 'Oh.' And then you put it on and you go, 'OH!'
Had you done it before?
I did a show called Welcome to Paradox, and in that I morph. I take this serum that I invented and it takes me back instead of forward genetically. I devolve. I had to wear a lot of latex for that, but it wasn't foam rubber I wore in that, it was that gelatin rubber stuff, and that's hideous. This is a little better. You don't really feel the weight of it. But at the end of the day, we usually shoot 12 hours, sometimes 16 hours. There's a lot of application and a lot of glue, and then a lot of remover -- you have to take it off at the end of the day. I've had 18-hour days in that neck thing, which is horrific. If I have to do it four days in a row, then I'm in pain. I like to get two days in a row and then have a day off if I can, but it doesn't always work that way.
I see you have a lot of Shakespeare on your bio sheet. Everyone who plays Klingons on Star Trek says that to wear those prosthetics and pull off the character, you have to come out of a classical theater background, to be able to use the gestures. Do you find that that's true?
It's funny to have done any Shakespeare and be doing science fiction in the heels of Jean-Luc Picard. Everybody says, 'Oh, you're a Shakespearean actor like Patrick Stewart.' I am not a Shakespearean actor like Patrick Stewart! I went to the Banff School of Fine Arts, then I went to Ryerson theater school, and after graduating I did some theater in Toronto. I ended up going to Stratford, Ontario, where I did three seasons in repertory. I started out as an apprentice, and my last year I did some supporting roles. So it wasn't like I was playing Hamlet, but I had some decent parts.
And I loved it; it was a lot of fun. I got a chance to do twelve different plays, including some Shakespeare and some Russian writers. Then I won a Tyrone Guthrie Award, and I went to England for an intensive four weeks training with a voice teacher at the RSC. I'm working on a Harold Pinter piece right now so I might be slipping into the English accent. People sometimes think I'm Irish because I have a lilt in my voice. I drop it down for Rev Bem. Do you know Gwyneth Walsh?
Of the Duras sisters on Star Trek.
She's a friend of mine, and we have a same agent. I saw her picture as a Klingon long before I did Rev. There's a little bit of her face showing. The only thing showing on me are the whites of my eyes. They wanted me to wear contacts at the beginning, we talked about that, but I said, it's hard enough to act through this stuff. Now you have to take the windows of my soul? I find that half the stuff I do with the character comes through the expressions of his eyes. Things that people take for granted acting to show expression -- you don't have to do anything, if you have a thought, people can read it -- but when you have latex on, they can't. So you have to come up with a way of acting that shows the same things in a different way. It might be the tilt of a head. If you look at puppies, they tilt their head and everybody goes, 'Oh isn't that cute.' You find different ways of expressing stuff, maybe a soft growl from my character, that's the way I've tried to find expression.
There are things that are hard to do, and you don't want to get stage-y about it. Picking anything up is a nightmare. When I first had to do it, I kept saying, 'Come on, guys, let's think practical. I can't hold anything.' Then they changed the structure of the hands, they made them very soft. The feet were hard, I couldn't move, and they fixed that too, they put a Nike sneaker inside the boot. We had to do a couple of trial and errors. The guy who puts my makeup and myself came up with this idea and it worked; the boot is now a very soft slipper that goes over the shoe, so I can run and jump and do all kinds of things, which is great.
People don't realize that when you cover your whole skin with makeup, your skin can't breathe. It's really tiring being encapsulated like that all the time, and you sweat an incredible amount. You have to constantly replenish your body with fluids. Towards the end of the day, I find that I can't concentrate, and it's not the easiest type of dialogue in the world to do. My technobabble doesn't always have a lot to do with the plot -- I just come in and start spouting. With Gord [Woolvett]'s stuff at least it's always pertinent to the story, and he's good at it. He's a sci-fi buff.
Are you a science fiction fan? Particularly a Gene Roddenberry fan?
No. I haven't even seen any of the Star Trek movies. I was more a Star Wars fan, and I think our show is more like that. I like that Andromeda doesn't have military protocol. When you have a good story, that's what makes a good show -- if the relationships are not solid, then what's it about? I like Farscape because of the dialogue. There's not a bunch of protocol among those people, nor among ours. Our ship doesn't just shoot phasers. We have tourists on the ship who shoot bullets.
I like the fantasy genre when it has action, like Jason and the Argonauts. I liked The Abyss and The Matrix. But I was more interested in De Niro and Pacino and The Deer Hunter. Sword and sorcery I like a bit -- though I was never a Hercules fan! I had been, growing up, a big Conan fan. I liked the comic books. X-Men, too, that has a sense of fantasy about it as well as sci-fi.
Because I was never peeking in that door, I had no idea about the conventions and web sites and all that. Gord is a genius online -- he's just like Harper -- so he called me and said, 'There's a web site on you.' He took me on the computer and he showed me how to find it, and I'm thinking, 'How did they get this stuff? Where did she dig this stuff up?' The girl who's doing it is very respectful, which I like. But there are pictures on there of Mystery, Alaska where I was skating along on my bare butt! I did that movie with Russell Crowe. Now Russell is this huge star. I was in the video store the other day and they were trying to find a scene with Russell where he's riding a horse naked or something. I'm thinking, 'Oh no! They'll find it, Russell.'
Did you like doing that movie? One of my favorite Star Trek alums, Colm Meaney, was in that.
It was a great movie to work on. I got to work with some great people -- Russell, Colm, Maury Chaykin, Burt Reynolds, Lolita Davidovich. Colm Meaney is a nice guy, and he's a great actor.
How about Andromeda? Is Rev Bem a fun part to play -- a guy whose racial history is rape and mayhem, but he has a religious background that resists it.
He's fun to play because he's always in conflict with himself. They're talking next year about having more action for me, which would be more fun. Now I stand there and talk a lot. I don't mind the universal, spiritual wisdom or philosophy, but I don't like it when the dialogue's not about anything -- talk for the sake of it. If there's an intention in the scene that is going somewhere or has something to do with the plot or the character development, it's great. I've gone to the writers and said, 'Don't use me just because I'm the alien.' I think some of the writers sometimes have a tendency to say, 'Oh, let's put the alien in this shot.' Don't use the character gratuitously; try to make him have a function.
It's interesting that on the one hand he refuses to fire any weapons, and on the other hand he encouraged Hunt to blow up the Nietzschean fleet in "Angel Dark, Demon Bright."
At one point that was even more so, and I had to ask, 'Wait a minute, what are you doing here?' If the Nietzscheans are eradicated at this particular moment, that's their destiny. Fate has taken them there through choice. But if you do it senselessly, for nothing, because it's selfish, then you create your own karma. The way the writers are going with the show's spiritual aspect is to make it kind of universal. It even says at one point that the Wayism Rev follows is an amalgamation of all Earth religions. It has a bit of the teachings of Christ in that it's love and peace; it has the teaching of the Old Testament in its eye for an eye. It just depends.
It's very interesting, people's take on Rev Bem, because he's not and I don't want them to make him religious. Religions are the ones that say, 'Everybody's good, aren't we all nice, let's try to be nice and good together.' Goodness is something that everyone aspires to, but the Way leans more towards the Tao. It's the Nietzscheans who believe we are here to control destiny. Things are of nature. You create your fate, but you cannot preordain your destiny. God has a plan, or the divine has a plan -- that's a dirty word on television, 'God.' But it's not God; the universe is God. The divine is nature.
I really like the idea in physics of the connection between the Big Bang theory and the Old Testament idea of the Creation. Even in the Tao, it's out of nothingness we came. First you have nothingness, and then you have duality, just like in physics. Religions really don't have anything to do with that, I think, they're more a way of doing things.
When you first sat down with the character notes, how much of this had been set out, or has it been developing as the show has gone along?
They have a Bible, and they give me an idea of it. When I auditioned, I took what I gleaned out of the script, and I had done my own research into Taoism and Buddhism, some Catholicism, some Sufism. I mixed it all up and brought in a kind of philosophy that I thought they were looking for -- the ideas of Socrates, philosophers as well as priests. Rev Bem is more of a monk. He's searching for truth, to have an understanding of the universe, and society as well.
His culture's way of doing things doesn't fit in very nicely with the Commonwealth principles.
[Laughing] Yes, it doesn't really fit in, and my people are going to boycott! Now that's prejudice! He has found a different way, but he struggles. Just like anybody who has come from a deviant background and finds a new way of life -- they always struggle with it. Did you ever see The Mission? Robert De Niro plays a slave trader and a murderer. He kills his brother over a woman, and then he becomes a Jesuit priest. He has to deal with the way they do things. He falls in love with these people, and then he has to watch them be annihilated by his people, who took them out of the jungle. He says, 'I can't do this. I will fight.' That's kind of like Rev. He always has to struggle with his own inner demons, and he doesn't always win.
Some writers write better for the Magog and some write better for Beka or Harper. They're not all familiar with everybody, though they will be in another season. But now sometimes I'll say, 'You have me saying this? It totally goes against what I said to Dylan in that other episode! The fans will remember and I'll look like a liar.'
The one with the Wayist and Beka's brother [The Ties That Blind], it looks like I deceived Dylan to get them on board. You can forgive a monk for getting too excited and wanting to help the Wayists so much that he makes a mistake by not going to Dylan by asking if they can help these people, but you can't forgive him for deceitfully going behind Dylan's back, and Tyr catching him out. That's no good. In the end I said, 'You have to have me apologize to him for screwing up the protocol thing.' Robert Hewitt Wolfe is great, because he says any notes that we find, call him. I try to keep that to a minimum, but when it's the storyline, I want to make sure the character stays on the same track.
Are we going to get to see him really lose control?
Oh yeah. I guess I shouldn't tell you he loses it, but things get a little hairy. The cliffhanger of this season is crazy -- I can't talk about it really, but it's going to be a lot of action. We don't even know everything. We only know some of the stuff about Trance and how she can do the things she does -- I think Laura [Bertram] knows the most, but she won't tell! She's a little bit of a devious thing, isn't she. We already killed Trance once, right, and she popped right back, right? But the cliffhanger is a real down-and-outer. You'll be shocked. It gets scary.
Well, if Rev Bem gets hungry, everyone on the ship could be in big trouble.
Some of the girls who work on the show have told me they have had nightmares about Magog.
Lexa Doig said that she asked Robert Hewitt Wolfe who would win a fight between Rommie and Tyr, and he said Tyr. Who do you think would win a fight between Tyr and Rev Bem on a really bad day?
He and Tyr, well, it's an interesting question of who would win if he and Tyr fought. It might be kind of a stalemate. Tyr doesn't associate me with anything intelligent. And we all look the same to him. I told the writers that, too -- as we go along, we have to start having the Magog look different. They can't all look like me! As of the last episode, you'll find out that I am actually quite an attractive Magog. But they're always making changes. If you look at Worf from Star Trek in the earlier ones, and then you see him two seasons later, he's totally different too.
I wonder whether Worf could take Rev Bem in a fight. Rommie's pretty indestructible, isn't she, as long as her batteries are charged? Hey, there's your potential romantic interest.
But he's sworn a vow of celibacy! He's asexual, that's not how they breed. He injects his seed through his teeth, so he's not equipped to deal with the romantic love aspect. They'll eat anyone, they'll infest anyone, male or female. He's a pretty interesting character, isn't he. Tyr gets all the cool stuff, he gets to be the cool fighter and he gets the babes. But poor Lexa with her costumes! She's, how shall I put it, really well put-together, our Lexa. She's all real; she needs no enhancements.
They had an interesting idea for one of the shows, but I don't know if it's going to happen. The idea was to make Rev human for a week, where he goes to this planet and gets to embody something else, so he chooses to be human so he can feel what it's like. Then he might be able to fall in love. But it's just an idea they're tossing around.
What would you like to see happen with your character next season?
I'd like to see him more involved with the rest of the crew. There's no storyline yet between Beka and myself, and I'm supposed to have been with her eight years and be the next best thing to a father -- a person who was always on her right hand backing her play. If any woman trusts me, it would be Beka, but they haven't developed our storylines. They've developed her and Tyr, they've developed her and Dylan, her and Trance a little bit and her and Harper a lot, but nothing with my character. My relationship with Tyr is developing slowly, as it should, because we really don't care for each other much -- a Nietzschean and a Magog. As opposed to using Rev to spout some philosophical wisdom to Dylan and then leave, I want them to make him more involved in the story.
Will we learn how he ended up on the Eureka Maru?
They'll probably have an episode about that eventually. None of us know what they're going to do. I'm sure that Robert Hewitt Wolfe has an idea, but he's not telling. There are some bad guys toward the end of the season. Everybody is coming back. There are some things I've got a little bit of an idea of what they're going to do next year, but I don't really know where they're going to go.
Do you have a favorite episode so far, something you'd like to do more of?
My character, the first year...I think they didn't know what to do with him. I think some of the higher-ups were a little scared of him! 'What are we going to do with this ugly creature with his spiritual babble?' I get all the fine lines, right -- I'm really ugly, I'm spiritual, I kill and rape to reproduce. 'Let's give him all the things we can't do on TV!'
This is television and my character is always walking a spiritual line, which TV is very frightened of. I find that amazing. We can have violence on TV, we can have TV shows about rape, movies of the week about children getting abused, but we can't talk about spirituality. It's an interesting comment on our society, isn't it. If people find it offensive, so what? Everybody is entitled to have an opinion about religion. What we're trying to say, I think, is that any way you decide to pray is all right. I find it fascinating.
But I'm sorry -- I deviated from your question. My favorite, because I'm in the whole thing, is called 'Devil Take the Hindmost.' Dylan and I end up on a planet together. I like it because I get to do a lot in it, and it's very interesting on my people and race. I like Gord's episode ["Harper 2.0"] because I like the relationship between Harper and Rev -- I have some nice stuff about the Magog and his fear of them. I am his worst nightmare, but I try to show him not to judge a whole race based on what somebody has done to him. It's not realistic if people don't have conflict about that kind of thing. If Harper doesn't have fear and loathing and disdain because of what they've done to him, it wouldn't be very real. There wouldn't be anything to win him over to. A conflict or challenge within himself to overcome. I like the relationship aspects of the show, that there can always be change.
Is it a fun set to work on?
Yes, our show is quite fun. For the genre it's quite well written. It's hard work for me with the latex and the hours -- it's quite tough as a job -- but it's fun and we have a great crew and good cast. I like the action. The most fun thing, like the episode we're doing right now, is there's lots of action. Though some days it's really hot, and I'm in a fur suit, running and jumping, that's hard. Sweating and trying to spit out the lines, that's hard. I think the hardest part is remembering the titles! I call "Harper 2.0" Harper H2O. I remember them as Sam's episode ["Banks of the Lethe," which guest-starred Sam Sorbo], or Monika's episode ["The Mathematics of Tears," which guest-starred Monika Schnarre].
You said before that you like that Andromeda doesn't have military protocol the way Star Trek does, and that you think the relationships should be more like Farscape. It seems like some of the characters have become more willing to call Dylan "Captain."
They're always working stuff out. I think it's showing the way the relationships are changing, because that's what audiences care about, what it says about the relationships. If I haven't eaten in five months, and I'm locked in a room with Harper, am I gonna eat him? That's what audiences care about!
Are you going to eat him?
[Laughing] I don't think so! But I don't know!