Disappearing on a Screen Near You
Vincent Ventresca has attracted a lot of attention since he started to disappear. As the titular The Invisible Man, Ventresca spent much of last year fading out and going insane—a side effect of the Quicksilver secretion that enables his character, Darien Fawkes, to vanish. Because Fawkes is the focus of the show, Ventresca appears in nearly every scene, meaning he spends almost as much time being invisible as being Vince. The process of rendering the actor invisible requires shooting and re-shooting most scenes. Yet, despite the long hours and demanding schedule, the Indiana-bred actor loves his job.
"This is the best part I`ve ever had," says Ventresca of his role on the hit Sci-Fi Channel series, which earned unprecedented ratings for the cable network when it premiered last June. "It`s so much fun. I can go to work for four days in a row, 14 hours a day, as long as you give me seven hours of sleep. I can`t wait to go back!"
Things aren’t quite so cheery for his fictional counterpart, though. Fawkes is living a metaphysical joke. He can sneak unseen into women`s locker rooms and rob banks, but at the cost of living in fear of his own dark side. Because he needs help fighting Quicksilver’s mentally degrading effects, Fawkes toils for an underfunded intelligence service fronted by the Department of Fish and Game. The Agency uses the invisible man for situations wackier than most X-Files.
Ventresca describes The Invisible Man as a tribute to spy-action shows like The Fugitive and I Spy, "but our show is sort of a subversive deconstruction of those shows," says Ventresca. "It`s got the quintessential Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Bill Bixby and The Incredible Hulk [dichotomy], adding irony and humor. It does ultimately have to be sort of a road picture where the invisible man and the Agency are on the road chasing the bad guys around the world. [But] for me, it works best to play the reality of the situation, because the humor comes out of committing to the truth of the scenes."
The pilot was the brainchild of writer-producer Matt Greenberg, now a consultant for the series. "They sent me the script, I read the title, and I was like, `Oh, please,`" admits Ventresca. "But it was so well-written. It paid homage to all those shows that I was sort of familiar with growing up. I liked the idea that it wasn`t just about the invisible man—it was about these partners and The Agency. There was a certain retro quality. Obviously, the humor was key."
From the beginning, the show sought what Ventresca describes as "a Coen Brothers vibe," placing people in surreal, film-like situations. The pilot made clear that each installment would offer a bit of a morality tale. "If you were invisible, you would have the potential to do great good or great evil," points out Ventresca. "We`ve seen me do a lot of good, but the lid has been blown off my ID. My conscience is out the window. I think that lends itself to interesting stories."
Ventresca was the very first person to audition to play Fawkes, reading for producer Greenberg and director Breck Eisner. Greenberg later told Ventresca he looked at Eisner and said, "`It can`t be this easy; we`ve got to keep seeing people.`" They auditioned others for two weeks, then called Ventresca in for a work session. "That`s where you sniff each other out, like a blind date," says Ventresca. "You have to make sure you`re on the same page about the taste and the tone of the show. I really liked their ideas, and I felt like it was something I could do without it becoming goofy or cheesy, in lesser hands than Matt Greenberg and Breck Eisner."
The Invisible Man takes risks with its bizarre premise and unique effects. Sci-Fi`s vice president Bonnie Hammer credits its tone with drawing in viewers from outside genre fandom. "Instead of being dark, negative and gothic, we were irreverent, intriguing and funny," she told The Hollywood Reporter soon after the show`s premiere. Yet Ventresca admits that they sometimes failed in early episodes, so they have stepped up the special effects in an effort to make invisibility interesting on a weekly basis, using screens and new camera devices for more sophisticated effects.
"In the first nine episodes, whenever you see me turn invisible, the camera`s not moving," says Ventresca. "They put me in the frame, we shoot the scene, the camera doesn`t move, so we can shoot it again without me, to create the invisibility effect. Now we have a motion detector. The camera can pan with me as I turn invisible. The operator works the camera from a computer, so the computer can do the second take—after I shoot the scene, we can do it again without me, and the camera will move in exactly the same way."
On the show, Quicksilver supposedly works by reducing the surface temperature of objects to bend light rays around them. When we watch Fawkes "freeze" onscreen, it`s entirely a computer effect. But now other characters can "see" Fawkes if they wear special glasses. Those scenes require a combination of makeup, body suits and CGI effects.
"I go to a whole new level of madness, and my eyes actually turn silver," groans Ventresca. "The contact lenses are the size of golf balls. The invisibility is a pain in the ass, but when I watch it, I really like it, and that makes it worth it. The genre supports experimenting that way. And it is so fun to play the madness."
Ventresca and Paul Ben-Victor, who plays Darien’s partner, Agent Bob Hobbes, have been given an unusual amount of freedom to experiment with their characters. "I think Paul and I would have been fired if we were on a network show," laughs the actor. "As long as we tell the story and keep the dialogue that`s on the page, they let us throw in our own little quips. It`s an unusually creative situation. We try a lot of stuff that stinks, but that`s the beauty of television. They can edit all that out and put in the two great lines we came up with."
The actors do a lot of character building in the upcoming episodes "Flowers For Hobbes" (loosely based on Flowers For Algernon) and "Diseased." Both were written by Craig Silverstein, a young writer Ventresca calls "our resident savant." The partnership between Fawkes and partner Hobbes has developed with nods to Wild Wild West, and to Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte`s relationship in 48 Hours. "The thing that`s going to keep it interesting for us is if we risk failing," offers Ventresca. "You learn a hell of a lot more from your mistakes than from your successes. Craig`s scripts really inspire us."
A double-major in theater and psychology who co-founded the experimental All U Can Eat Players at Indiana University, Ventresca was previously a regular on the short-lived network science fiction series Prey. He also appeared in the movie Romy and Michele`s High School Reunion and played Fun Bobby on Friends, though he doesn`t much like sitcoms. Ventresca admits to being a fan of Star Trek and Star Wars.
With that background and interest in science fiction, does he use method training to convince himself he`s an invisible man? "No," laughs Ventresca. "That would lend me to being the victim of tabloids, and probably on medication. During the pilot, Breck Eisner would ask me how I felt about certain scenes. If I didn`t feel good, he`d say `Let`s do them the way you would do them, Vince.` What he was saying was, `You may be playing this character for a long time, so you should really stick with what you can do.`
"Because being the lead in the series is such a marathon, I don`t have a lot of time to work on character development—basically I am the guy, you know?" continues Ventresca. "It`s really one day at a time for me. I don`t even read next week`s script while I`m working on this week`s. I just can`t think about too many things at the same time."
As a result of his busy schedule, the actor has no idea what next season might hold. "It seems obvious that I would have thought about it, but I have no idea." The Invisible Man is scheduled to return from hiatus Jan. 15, around the same time that the second half of the first season begins airing on Sci-Fi. The series is unique because episodes are syndicated simultaneously with its cable run. In cities that don`t get Sci-Fi, the show can be found on ABC and CBS affiliates.
"By February we`ll be in 90 percent of the markets," claims Ventresca, explaining that usually cable stations pick up broadcast rights to network shows, rather than the other way around. The Invisible Man is also moving from Fridays at 8 p.m. EST to Mondays at 9 p.m. EST, partly because it isn`t space oriented like Farscape and Lexx. Is he worried about competing with the similarly Earthbound Roswell, which also airs on Mondays? "All I know is that it`s on the WB, with beautiful fifteen-year-olds," sighs Ventresca. "I think our show`s a little bit `older` because it`s retro. Sci-Fi`s theory is that whoever watches us on Friday hopefully will watch us on Monday."
Ventresca would like the show to stick around a good long time, because he loves his co-stars and enjoys living and working in the San Diego area. "The crew is great," says Ventresca. "The directors we`ve been getting are fantastic. They really take pride in their work. And the cast are the best actors I`ve ever worked with in my life. Paul Ben-Victor is really a genius. I feel like he single-handedly has made me a better actor simply because of his own work ethic. It`s like two athletes training for the same event, pushing each other.
"We`re having a lot of fun," continues Ventresca. "I remember watching Cheers as a kid too and thinking, those people look like they`re having a blast. I think audiences like watching that. I think our show could hold up against network television, because there`s a lot of network television that bores the hell out of people. One thing I think our show really succeeds at: it`s not boring. I`d do this show forever."
Forever’s a long time, though, and the actor worries that his own family may consider him an invisible man. The youngest of eleven children, Ventresca has a wife and seven-month-old baby of his own. Between work and parenting, he has not had time to keep in touch with all his siblings. "I have six weeks off, and I have to return phone calls for five weeks," he sighs. "feel so bad, I have to call and say, `Sorry I haven`t called, but I`ve been at work.`"
Although he always acted in front of his family, and "wanted to be was a basketball player, but I just wasn`t good enough," Ventresca admits to terrible stage fright. He says he can`t imagine doing a play now, "which of course makes me think, `Oh god, I should do a play.`" His priorities in choosing projects depend more on the quality of the stories than the medium or genre. "I`m really interested in pursuing an environment to tell good stories. I know that`s sort of a copout, like an `I`m trying to be an artist` response, but I just dig acting."
"I think the part of Darien Fawkes lends itself to limitless possibilities," he adds. "So many actors aren`t employed, and think, `If only someone gave me a chance to show what I can do.` I feel like I got a job that really lets me put my money where my mouth is. That`s what I`m pursuing as an actor. It`s about doing as much as you can and trying to get better. I guess in ten years I`d like to be a big fat movie star, but if I`m not, I`ll be happy starting my eleventh season of The Invisible Man."
Eleven years is a lifetime by television standards, but Ventresca believes the show is developing legs. "The feeling on the set and amongst the cast is like the train`s leaving the station," says Ventresca. "We just need to get some steam, get some momentum going. I`m feeling really good about the work we`re doing; we just have to keep it up!"