Last week, I had the opportunity to take part in a teleconference Q&A session with Ryan Cartwright, who plays Gary Bell, Alphas’ (Syfy, Mondays, 10/9C) autistic with a unique connection to electronic communications.
As we discovered last year, Cartwright is a charming, good humored guy who really loves his character and has a lot of fun talking about him and the show.
Hi Ryan thanks for taking time to talk to us.
Ryan Cartwright: You’re welcome.
Your portrayal of Gary is my favorite part of the show. Could you talk about how you decided on his mannerisms, his cadence and his accent and how you prepare to get into character?
Cartwright: Yes sure. Well I had luckily I was in a good position whereby I had a like a good month and a half from getting the role to actual production so I had plenty of time to do as much research as would make me feel comfortable stepping into Gary’s shoes. And it was great, it was really good fun just looking at a part of the world that you’d never seen before and also with autism if you research it enough you end up appreciating looking at the world through their eyes as well.
Basically I started with lots of documentaries, lots of movies and lots of like online blogs and stuff from autistic people talking about how they experience things and just reading the books like from Daniel Pampett, Temple Grandin and Oliver Sachs and stuff. And the firsthand account stuff from autistic people in its true form really helped because it helped me understand the neurology behind it which gave me the grace to come up with the mannerisms and stuff myself knowing the reason I’d be doing them as opposed to just meeting someone and copying mannerisms.
Like towards the end they invited me to – I was invited to like go to meet a group of autistic people in the day like a camp or whatever, but by that point I kind of didn’t need to do it because I had already figured out Gary on his own and knew the reasons I would do certain things so it was really nice.
And I would just like pad around Toronto when I got up here, kind of walking around as Gary and doing the voice and stuff and reading poems and repeating things that people would say like with the (unintelligible) and stuff. So yes it was just a really nice time to – it was a luxury to have all that time to get comfortable in his skin so that I’m super comfortable doing it now.
Can you talk about some of the changes that we’ll see with Gary this season?
Cartwright: Yes. He’s still petulant which I’m sure everyone will enjoy. He’s still outspoken, I don’t think that will ever change. But he’s kind of making some different life decisions that affect that other alphas quite substantially like I think everyone knows now he flies the (Brewster) gang not just working at the office but he decides to move his mother’s nest and descend on the office 24/7 and tries to make it his new home.
And also his continuance of trying to keep Anna’s voice alive because when she died at the end of the last season it affected his deeply and made him question his place within the alphas, and also kind of people’s motivations which he’s not very good at figuring out. But it definitely, once she died, it made him question Dr. Rosen and the whole alpha phenomenon and his place within it. And he wants to keep her voice alive and her message because it seemed to inspire him and seemed a bit more holistic to him.
So when the season starts Gary’s in a unique place, he’s in prison and all this stuff is happening. It’s really kind of a Gary story. What do you want to tell us about where Gary starts this season?
Cartwright: Yes. He’s in a worse place than prison. He’s like in Building 7 and he’s pretty much comatose because to control alphas who are bad there’s a lot more moral flexibility that people believe they can take with them so they put like these chips in their heads which make them completely comatose and devoid of any personality and sense so they’re pretty much like these neutered brain-dead zombies who just sit around and drool, which is my natural state normally.
So yes, he’s in Building 7 for he was a little bit too disruptive because they wanted him to go and work with the other people over there, the government agents, but they didn’t appreciate Gary’s idiosyncrasies and he ended up lashing out and got in trouble. None of the other alphas knew for awhile until they have a little visit and they can just see him sitting there kind of gawping at the floor so Gary needs rescuing.
So what would you say your biggest challenge was this season so far?
Cartwright: I just think keeping the consistency of the character and kind of not coming out of the character to get laughs because, you know, Gary he does change as time goes on but in a different way to everyone else and it’s a lot more subtle.
So kind of Gary’s arc has to be a little bit more concentrated and mainly just keeping his voice the same, the dialog and just how he would react to these different situations, just keeping a close eye on that like once again not wanting to abuse Gary’s personality and where he is on the autism spectrum.
And then, once he’s like taken care of that, and you know that he’s character consistent then it’s just all about coming up with funny lines on the day. I have to try to make the other actors and alphas laugh and just having – once you know he’s like grounded then you can like inflate him with all this hot air and just watch him ascend and annoy everyone. So yes just that.
It’s interesting what’s going to happen this year. Does the arc of this season pretty much deal with the alphas being known and how they deal with that being out in the public sort of thing?
Cartwright: Yes it deals with it but there’s a lot more of a storyline with regards to the kind of reemergence of Red Flag and Stanton Parish is very heavily influential on the arc. And you kind of the two, you know, a lot of it is obviously the alphas kind of falling apart as a group and just trying to stick together and weather the storm of just wearing each other down with their abilities and their own passions.
And every alpha has their own motives and they all have their own kind of modus operandi of what they want and they’re at loggerheads with each other a lot more this season. It’s not so much just bickering about who stole who’s pudding although pretty much that is for Gary.
But the second tier to that is Stanton Parish is mixed in the pot again and he’s really coming on full force again. He comes back with a vengeance and it gets really heavy, you know, without giving too much away I guess. But Parish is up to his old tricks and he proves a lot more menacing and dastardly this time around.
Earlier questions have alluded to — and something that you’ve said also — alludes to Gary’s situation this season being more than a little different than what we might expect what with the trauma of Anna at the end of last season and then on top of that the trauma of Building 7. And although you’ve spoken about his arc overall, I’m just wondering – Gary as an autistic probably isn’t the best equipped person in the world to handle the kind of traumas that he’s being dealt. Can you speak a little bit more specifically as to how that will be handled?
Cartwright: Yes, sure. Well I mean there are certain things that as an autistic person that he’s better equipped at handling, like he won’t get caught up in the day-to-day kind of bric-a-brac of people’s emotional tangles like the minor stuff kind of passes him by just because it’s not on his radar, he doesn’t notice it.
And a lot of that, you know, there’s a lot of kind of love triangle stuff this year and obviously Gary’s not getting involved in love trysts quite yet. I guess you know the closest he came was Anna but that more of a – it wasn’t sexual, it was a kindred spirit kind of thing.
So I think his main struggle is it’s kind of that gut, he just knows there’s something wrong in hit gut this year and he’s one of those people who will if he feels that something’s wrong in his gut he’ll turn and go the other way and then he’ll have to try and assess it and figure out what’s going on after the fact. He’s very much, you know, he’s very impulsive and it’s difficult for him to understand the literalness of what’s going on and also his own feelings.
It’s not that he only has to contend with understanding everyone else’s motives and emotions, it’s also just his own because certain feelings will flare up that don’t fit the situation or everyone else will be quite neutral yet he’s feeling terrible. And I think this year he’s speaking up a lot more and going with his gut a lot more.
There was a bit of trepidation before and he would often defer to Bill and the other alphas and especially Dr. Rosen and to a lesser extent his mother whereas this year he’s kind of accepting his instincts a lot more and following those obviously for the drama dangerous places yes.
That sounds pretty cool. And just to follow up. You mentioned Bill, it seems like this season his relationship with Bill might be a little different and between Bill and Nina those are the two people really he’s closest to even more so than Dr. Rosen. So what can you tell us about his relationships with those people?
Cartwright: He’s kind of – he still respects Bill and he likes him as his partner. I think the main wedge for him is Erin who joined as the character Kat. That kind of drives a bit of a wedge between himself and Bill. And he doesn’t like it. He starts throwing all the toys out of his cot because Erin — Kat — is the new baby and Gary’s like put in the backseat. And as we all know Gary likes to be in the front driver’s seat.
So he kind of loses a lot of the attention which makes him a little bit more insular as well on top of how he’s already kind of mediating on his position within the alphas. So it’s mainly like Kat coming in pushes him away and a lot of people don’t have as much time for Gary this year. Like there was a lot more people would mother Gary a little more in the first season than this season. They just don’t have enough time so he’s kind of spinning around out there.
But I think it’s good for him in the long run to kind of not have people look out for him. He’ll get his hand burned but, you know, he’ll learn.
You talked about Gary making people laugh and all that, is any of that improv or do you guys really stick close to the script with this? Because I think he would be a character you could have a lot of fun with.
Cartwright: Yes, a lot of it is improv. I mean normally the beat will be there, there will be like a joke beat. Sometimes there’s a surprise moment when you’re like oh you know what a joke can happen here or something funny but a lot of the times the beat is already there and it’s just about working it in a way that Gary would say it that’s a lot more Gary-ish and funnier and sometimes just pushing it that little bit further and just like kind of rewording it as Gary, through Gary’s lens and stuff.
And a lot of it is just me trying to make the rest of the cast laugh and stuff which is good fun. It makes the days go. And everyone jumps in, everyone will mess with some of their jokey lines and stuff and often that’s all it takes, just a slight rewording to make a decent joke hilarious. And as you’ll see it’s not joke jokes. Sometimes when Gary will make a joke it’s quite clear because it’s normally a mess but it’s that thing of just having a joke that’s with the character not against him kind of thing.
If you could write your own scene for Gary what would you like to see happen to him on the show?
Cartwright: My own scene? Oh it would be a day off. Gary, covers over his head, Gary in bed and I’d just be at home. (Unintelligible) Or just Gary playing X-Box and then I’d come in Gary in his pajamas with a nice coffee and the X-Box on.
First off I want to express to you how much I appreciate the work that you’re doing as Gary. My background is in special education and I’ve had many, many students with autism come through my classroom over the years and I feel like your portrayal with him is probably the truest, most honest and most respectful portrayal of autism that I’ve see on American television so thank you for that.
Cartwright: Oh. Thank you, very much.
Your efforts are appreciated. I tell everyone I know to watch this show. But that being said I do wonder if Gary’s autism overshadows any other work that you want to do with the character or are trying to do with the character.
Cartwright: No because like I say it’s like that kind of – his stuff is just a little bit more micro, he’s just a little bit slower moving with his dealings with people and his arc. But the wonderful thing about this medium is that you can quite literally zoom in on those moments and see the changes.
It’s like people — because I’ve being living in L.A. for like 10 years now — and people are like oh don’t you miss the seasons and to an extent I do but when you’re there long enough, if you look closely enough, there are seasons and there are certain plants that come out at certain times of the year and there is still a season for everything and there are the changes. It’s just like Gary, it’s how you look at things and the angle that you view them from.
So I’m having a ton of fun still with the character. I don’t think there’s anything lacking. It’s just he has the same emotions as everyone else, it’s just that he will – it will be for different reasons that don’t seem dramatic to everyone else but when presented to Gary and he sees them, you know, people I think watching it realize how important certain things are to him and if he doesn’t get them it really upsets him.
And obviously when you see autistic people get upset with certain things to an unknowing outsider it’s like oh why is he overreacting but once you get to the know them and the day in and day out thing and how they relate to it, you appreciate that it’s – it is actually (unintelligible). So, it’s nice to show that, but it’s not all – it doesn’t have to be woman slapping you in the face or breaking your heart or, you know, someone you know blowing up. It’s, you know, there can be a lot of emotion attached to the small things in life and the devil-in-the-day (unintelligible) kind of thing.
Right, it could just be the water being to cold and it’s just the difference is the filter and the way they experience the world is different.
I was curious… you know, you’re – seems like your (unintelligible) show and the cast is really interesting. Can you talk about, you know, talking – working with these actors? Is it a joy to go to work and work with them?
Cartwright: Oh yes, now everyone’s lovely, you know, and we spend a lot of down time with each other as well. It’s just everyone’s like really relaxed and there’s no – there’s no like ego on the set. It’s all about the product and the characters and it’s just so much fun to work with a cast who cares so deeply about the end product and, you know, we’ll have like script meetings and tone meetings and we’re always — a lot of our down time apart from Warren and I, like playing X-box in his room and, you know, massaging each other.
A lot of it is just talking about or how can we play this scene, what’s an interesting angle to come at it from, what’s a way it’s never been done before? So, it’s just wonderful knowing that everyone cares. And if you go to work one day and you’re not quite bothered, you know, oh, let’s just get the day done — normally one of the actors will be, you know, it’s like they’ve come in to have a big acting day and you’re like – alright, alright, alright let’s get on with it, let’s make sure it’s really, really good.
So, yes, everyone, you know, all the actors get each others back and we like to play with the dialogue and make it fresh and stuff. So, yes, it’s just an absolute joy, you know, it’s quite a privilege, the kind of system that we’ve ended up sitting up here, it’s lovely.
Have you ever thought, you know, it’s kind of a corny question, but did you yourself run after what kind of power you would want?
Cartwright: I guess as a kid it would have been flying, but I think I’d be petrified now. I think I’d fly, but I don’t think — I think I’d just hover. If I was a brave man – flight – I’ve have to get used to it, but trying to think what else, I don’t know, just cheering people up, that would be nice. If you could just like nod towards someone and they just cheer up instantly, that would be nice — cheering people up, making them laugh, that would be nice.
My question is with the new show on Bruce Miller, what is his emphasis on – what does he like to focus in on in the show as opposed to Ira – and the differences that you see as well as where the story wants to go this season as opposed to the first season?
Cartwright: I mean, like I still haven’t seen any of the episodes, but I know there’s a lot more like fireworks and stuff and there’s a lot more action and there’s a — I believe there’s a lot more effects. I wouldn’t be able to completely confirm that, because I’m never invited to set on those days (unintelligible) all right.
But, I think it’s pretty much the same, you know, it’s like red flag and there seems to be, I mean, this season like I was saying, it seems to be a lot more — just a lot more (unintelligible) thing. There’s a lot of – these guys just aren’t good for each other, why don’t they just kind of disband.
And there’s a lot of new blood and like some new Alpha’s and stuff that mix the part. But I don’t think it’s changed that much. I mean, I know there was some lovely like, political analogies and stuff when (Iro) was on it, that were nice. And I think those carry over, I can’t see how they can’t. But, I guess won’t know until I see, like the full, you know, until I’ve seen the whole season, how it blends. But it seems pretty much the same, you know, on a day-to-day basis. It’s been nice, but, you know, I won’t know if it’s different until I’ve seen them all.
What about – will there be any evolution of Gary’s powers, perhaps something with more and more cloud technology being implemented in the real world? Is that something that we’ll see (unintelligible) or Gary’s evolution take place?
Cartwright: It’s almost like a backward step for him, well, I guess it’s – I guess it’s a forward step, but it’s kind of – there is one episode where, how can I put it — basically Gary is taken away from – he’s taken to a bit of a blind spot with regards to electromagnetic wave lengths and stuff. And he starts noticing other streams and that’s quite a new opening to him, because having like being brought up in the city, I don’t think he knew he had access to certain wave lengths that he experiences in the countryside.
Gary’s always trying to be like the rest of the team, but he seems to be hindered by his autism. Do you think we’ll get to see him in a bit of a leadership role this season? And how does his autism play into that?
Cartwright: I think it’s – he becomes later kind of just unto himself, like he doesn’t need the people as much this year like – the whole idea of people being above him and their being kind of paternal father figure, he kind of disappears from that and he goes off on his own. He’s very much his own boss this year and will do stuff behind the backs of the Alphas.
And I think the autism plays into it and he doesn’t feel as guilty about doing the stuff. Like he kind of knows that you shouldn’t, it’s the rules though – once you see everyone else breaking the rules they’ve set, why can’t you kind of thing, you know. The do as I say not as I do and he’s seen everyone doing and saying bad stuff they shouldn’t, you know, everyone – he was following examples I guess. There was no specific leader, it was just everyone else’s example and now that they’re all breaking these rules and following their own passions against the grain of what the Alphas are supposedly standing for.
I think the (unintelligible) just makes him – he just switches, his moral switch just flips because he realizes – all done after if everyone else commits a crime, I can commit a crime. So, he, yes it’s just about coming into his own, becoming the boss of himself kind of thing this year.
No peer pressure kind of kicks in for him?
Cartwright: No, no, like I think it would have and he knows that there are responsibilities, but it all just – as soon as, because he’s very literal and takes people at their word if they say, ‘Oh, you must do this and this is what I do, you know, this is illegal’ then he still sticks to that. But the second he sees you do it and it’s noted then he’s realizing this year that — not to take people at their word as much, which is a huge change for someone with autism, because that’s the world that they often live in, is the literalness of the spoken word and the images it creates. But, when he starts paying attention to the actions that follow these sayings, then he quickly changes his own suit and pursues his own passions.
So this season Erin Way has joined the series. Can you tell how Gary might react or act with Erin Way’s character?
Cartwright: Yes, well he hates it to begin with, because it’s, you know, like I said it was like the new baby in the push chair kind of thing. The new baby in the bathtub and he wants to drown her. He’s intrigued by her, but completely intimidated and just wants her gone, because she doesn’t follow the supposed Alpha code. She’s more rebel than anyone, she’s on the outskirts, she comes from a bit of a darker background. He – and he thinks she’s unprofessional, he just doesn’t want this cute little blond girl grabbing everyone’s attention, because he’s the one that needs care and the one that wants all the attention. So, he just wants – he wants her gone. But, maybe he’ll end up liking her, we’ll have to see.
Okay and I think, someone else touched on your role with autism and how it affects the autistic community. Has any fans come up to you saying how they appreciate what you’re doing with your character?
Cartwright: Yes, yes, – it’s – I’ve had nothing but really nice comments and people in the autistic community and, you know, friends of friends and stuff. And once again, you know, he’s never going to be exactly like everyone who’s autistic because it’s such a wide spectrum. Like, you know, it’s like, you know everyone else that (unintelligible), your average folk on the street, we’re all in this huge spectrum and we’re all seem different, but it seems, it seems everyone likes it and I don’t think anyone’s taken offense or anything like that.
And, you know, as I said before that he is his own individual person. He’s not just – he should never represent autism. It’s not that Gary is – you can never portray a whole disorder with one character. He’s just an individual within autism, but I think on the whole part everyone’s enjoyed it and liked it.
I was wondering, there’s been a big push by this Bully Rights Activist, to have disabled people actually play disabled roles because there’s so few opportunities within the media. So I was wondering did any of that come in to play or did you consider this at all when you were thinking about taking on the role of Gary?
Cartwright: Well, I believe, I believe it was – there was an autistic person who auditioned for it. I think, I mean I think it depends on the role, you know, I mean, this is, you know, just being cast in a role and the business of getting a role and everything it’s never fair to, you know, to anyone. I think that, you know, that does need to be, I think it did start, you know, like I say with this group since – I believe everyone deserves the opportunity to audition and to go in, but you know, I think the producers and stuff felt that I was right for the role.
Yes, I guess, I don’t know it’s a tricky one I think. I think you can have a little bit of both and, you know, if someone’s a really good actor and they can do it then why not? But, at a certain point it’s the business and the industry that would have to change and I guess why I feel good about it in a way, portraying Gary is that, hopefully it will open the flood gates for more, you know, neurodiverse people and disabled people to be considered. Because before it was – a lot of the autistic roles I’ve seen portrayed before were pretty much one note. And were, there were, you know, there was a lot of clichés out there.
So, I think that showing Gary that it’s not – you don’t have to write it like (unintelligible) every single damn time, hopefully people will just think about writing for more autistic people and, you know, disabled people as well. If there are other roles like that – that are being taken good care of.
So, I think the first step, that I guess Alphas is helping… is just showing a different side to autism and just more of a truer face to it. So, hopefully it will just – it will just create more – in roles I think that’s where it would have to start. And then a lot of it’s just, you know, if you’re a good actor, if you can do it, then yes, everyone should have a chance, but then you got to get the role man. I’m always auditioning against skinny white kids, that’s my battle.
In the first season, Gary faced a lot of ableism and (unintelligible), particularly from Bill, but one of the things I like about it is that he always had a comeback and he was sure and assertive. Did you have anything to do with the fact that Gary always stood up in the face of the so-called benign impression that he played?
Cartwright: No, there was a lot of it already there in the script. There was one specific moment last year that I was quite adamant about. When he was being bullied at school and the kid pushed him and called him a retard. And I think the original comeback that was scripted was just to say, "Oh, I’m not a retard…I’m autistic." And I was quite adamant that Gary should call him a retard back, because you live with those curses that you get off other people. And an autistic person should be able to fight fire with fire. The bully uses the R word. He’s the dickhead in that situation and he should have the same curse flying straight back at him.
I always wanted him to be just as confrontational and just as robust and throw it right back in their face. You know, because f*** them if they’re going to lower themselves to that disgusting level. Then an autistic person should be able to fight back blow for blow.
I don’t want him restricted, I guess because there’s that danger people think, oh, he – if he’s offensive himself then, you know, or that’s what he’s like. Well no, he’s a good guy. Good guys can swear too. So, I just felt a lot more comfortable making sure that he did stand up for himself and not just stand up for himself in an apologetic way. Let him be rude.
I know that you talked on red flag earlier. What can we expect from them this season?
Cartwright: Oh man, they just want to blow everything up. Then you got – they kind of, they infiltrate the Alphas group a lot more and tear us apart from the inside and yes, they completely kind of start destroying the Alphas as a group. And Stanton Parish is, you know, he makes a comeback and he’s quite adamant about pursuing his vendettas to the end. And he just exhausts all the Alphas trying it, you know, he finds everyone’s weaknesses and abuses them. You know, he’s the perfect bad buy, especially for Dr. Rosen.
So that is, you know, that’s the big fight this year – is just trying to keep the Alphas group together, because they can’t take down Parish individually.
Thanks, well thank you. I’m sure we’re looking forward to it.
Cartwright: Thanks, guys.
Photos by Frank Ockenfels and Russ Martin/Courtesy of Syfy