David Hewlett Stargate Atlantis’ Cranky Canuck, Rodney Mckay Speaks!

EclipseMagazine.com Interview - David Hewlett

Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with David Hewlett about the fourth season of Stargate: Atlantis, and the how the changes affect everyone’s favorite curmudgeon, Rodney McKay. While we talked mostly about season four of Atlantis, we got into horror movie geek mode; talked a bit about Doctor Who’s impact on his life, and also chatted about the making of his latest film, A Dog’s Breakfast.

It must be getting hectic for you. Well, it’s getting to that time of year. It’s my least favorite time of year, when all the episodes seem to converge towards the end. For some reason, they all seem to be McKay heavy episodes at the end of the season. I think it’s a ratings ploy. I hope so!

What episode are you on right now?

Well, I’m so confused, because this week we will shoot four episodes. I tend to spout technobabble and then claim that the wrong alien race is attacking us because I’ve got the wrong episode. Let’s see… seventeen and eighteen are done, so this would be sixteen… and nineteen… y’know what? I don’t know. [laughs]

Believe it or not, we started shooting Miller’s Crossing about four months ago and we’ve just finished it on Monday. When you get Joe Flanigan and me in a scene, it’s impossible to schedule second unit shooting because we’re just all over the place.

I’m thinking that continuity must have been a bitch.

You bet. One of my favorite things is to tell people to watch my haircut in that room and then come into this room. Suddenly it’s ‘Hey! Look at that! It’s over the ears! Y’know, it’s receded.

It’s magic!

It’s the magic of film.

So… fourth season. It must feel good to be a regular for the fourth straight year.

It’s great! I mean, it doesn’t feel like four years. It sounds cliche´, but it’s so quick. I vividly remember this all being brand new. And now… it still feels brand new, which is always a bit of surprise. I think that’s a good sign. I mean, if I was incredibly bored, we’d probably really be in trouble.

It sounds like the legendary family feeling from SG-1 has infiltrated the Atlantis set, too.

In what way?

Everyone gets along; the work goes quickly; everyone has fun. I mean generally speaking – because there will always be “those days…”

And, y’know, those days are sometimes twice as fun as the days that aren’t. It really is a good bunch. I thought you were going to… the other thing about SG-1 is that they all got pregnant at the same time, which is exactly what we’ve done. [laughs]

Didn’t want to go there, but, yeah…

Family really is a very good term for it, because I arrived in Vancouver – I don’t live in Vancouver; I’ve never lived in Vancouver – I came up from L.A. and never had any shock of a new city because with Stargate comes friends and a social scene right away. I just fell straight into it. It was fantastic.

The Stargate Safety Net…

It’s like joining a… it’s almost like a retirement home – it’s got everything there for you!

Including ice cream parties.

Exactly. Y’know, tupperware parties… it’s the dullest set because we’re all so damned domestic. But when you’ve got Jason there – as I guess they had Chris Judge [on SG-1] – to keep things [lively].

EclipseMagazine.com Interview - David Hewlett

Last season ended with another unique thing. James Blish eat your heart out, this city didn’t just fly, it went into hyperspace.

Exactly. No messing around!

That’s one for McKay. All Sam ever did was kill a star. McKay took an entire city into hyperspace.

Oh, yeah! It’s a great start to the season, because it’s quite literally a new beginning. We’re lost; we’re powerless; we’re a million lightyears from help. It makes for a lot of excitement.

In the first two episodes they throw absolutely everything at us. We get asteroids, Replicators – death, destruction… and then flying cities. It’s a great way for Joe [Mallozzi] and Paul [Mullie] to start the season – with all guns blazing.

I read on GateWorld that there was a radical injury that threatens Dr. Weir’s life…

At the end of last season, there was the big explosion as that beam grazed the side of the tower, and that knocked her for a… it was quite a spectacular stunt, actually. Everyone was there – we were all hiding in Weir’s office, away from the glass – as this woman got hurled down the stairs. It’s a miracle recovery, shall we say.

With Torri leaving the series for however many episodes, she’s moving to a recurring role is she not?

It’s kind of like Paul [McGillion]… you never know when she’s going to be back. That’s the thing with science fiction – nobody actually dies. There’s always a way to bring people… there’s always a way to bring favourite characters back.

If nothing else, they can Ascend.

Exactly. And you can come back again, too, apparently. I used to worry about being blown up but now I’m not so worried anymore. [laughs]

I could come back as an evil robot or something…

As she leaves, Amanda Tapping joins the cast as a regular and I have to ask, how does Rodney handle this?

Not well. [laughs]

When it comes to Rodney and Sam, first there’s the crush that refuses to die [Hewlett laughs], and then there’s the fact that on SG-1, he was either completely wrong, or not quite right. Now he’s had three seasons of being the go-to guy. So, how does that dynamic change?

It definitely has a bit of a bumpy start, because there’s two levels to the discomfort that Rodney has with Sam Carter showing up. There’s the obvious question of intelligence – because everything is a contest to Rodney McKay – you have to be the best at everything you’re doing. So there’s that aspect of it, and that is somewhat solved in a way, because, much to his chagrin, she’s in charge. So, basically, he has to do what he’s told… which is difficult for him, and he does whatever he can to squirm around that.

I think one of the funniest things for him to start the season is trying to explain his new life to Sam Carter, given that he almost has more history with Sam than Sam does, if that makes sense. Because he’s been trapped in puddlejumpers and hallucinated her existence and had whole episodes of repartee back and forth that she’s completely unaware of. So, strangely, he has an even richer social interaction with her than even she’s aware of. So there was definitely some fun stuff to play with at the beginning of the season to get that ball rolling type of thing.

Amanda’s at least partly responsible for me being on Atlantis. She allowed me to play and have so much fun on SG-1 when I was guest-starring that I was able to imbue the character with some stuff that they wanted to see back. So, as always, it’s a pleasure to have her there to act with.

The great thing is that we tend to have the same kind of sense of humor, so we scurry off to the corner of the set to come up with little things we’d like to have going as sub-text while we’re chatting with each other in our techno-jargon stuff.

I’m like the luckiest sci-fi nerd alive because I have two of the most iconically cool female characters to work with in Amanda Tapping and Jewel Staite.

For a Firefly fan it’s like, y’know.. it’s like SG-1 and Firefly and Rodney in the middle. I’m loving it. We start shooting an episode next week, I think, if I’ve read the schedule right, which is just Dr. Keller and Rodney. That’s going to be some fun to play with.

I’m the envy of every nerd alive.

Including me! [laughs]

Including me! I envy Rodney McKay! [more laughter]

I guess the big question is this: will Rodney get something right that Sam didn’t during this season?

It’s one of those weird things that… they’re managing to walk that line, which is, basically, that we’re working together. Not to be too diplomatic about it. The fact is that Sam, as good as she is, is not as Atlantis-savvy as McKay. She defers to him on a lot of the stuff that’s going on.

Her position here – the tightrope she has to walk – is between being a military commander and being a scientist. So she has enough to cope with without having to deal with all the nitty gritty scientific stuff, and then also keeping McKay in line. If he’s mouthing off too much, she’s going to have a problem with that.

EclipseMagazine.com Interview - David Hewlett

That sounds like the comicbook superhero solution: Incredible Hulk versus Thor. Who wins? It’s a draw!

Exactly. Well, it’s a draw for now. We’ll have to see what happens. Come the end of the season, we may end up battling it out. [laughs]

Which brings us to Stephen Culp – also something of a sci-fi guy.

He’s a guest star with us on Miller’s Crossing and was fantastic. He makes the best sort of non-villain. He’s a villain whose raison d’etre is just… wrong. He has all the right intentions… it’s the road to hell is paved with good intentions? He just makes all the wrong calls.

Any chance of his coming back?

Who knows?

That would be interesting. After all, he has a bit of a sci-fi background… a little show called Enterprise…

Yes, indeed. We’ve had a couple Enterprise guys, now, what with Connor Trinneer as Michael.

Does Michael appear in season four?

He does indeed. And it’s so crazy. You know, Connor, who’s the sweetest guy alive, playing the biggest villain. It’s so funny, because all these guys who play jerks generally aren’t. That’s a thing I’m finding.

That’s what I hear about you – David is a pussycat and Rodney’s a big jerk.

I don’t know about that! [laughs] I don’t think anyone could be as bad as McKay and survive.

You give him something that makes him lovable. That’s all I’m going to say.

Those are the characters I like. They’re the ones that are the most interesting. You see it in shows like House and Boston Legal, where you have these great characters.

I think today’s audiences are savvy enough to like the unlikable characters. There’s always been a draw to the… um… suspect characters. They’re always more fun to play, too.

It seems that curmudgeons are in.

That’s it!

It’s their turn! The nerds have had their go. Now it’s time for the curmudgeons.

Moving along, how much play do the Replicators get this season?

The Replicators are pretty huge this year. And if not the Replicators, then the nanites that make them up. There’s a lot of use of them throughout the season. We’re trying to crack open, and explore, and figure out how these things work.

We get into some pretty suspect territory because we’re going where the Ancients have gone before – and we’ve seen what a disaster they made of it.

How does the advent of the Replicators affect that whole Wraith thing?

The interesting thing about that is… a race to see who’s most useful to us, basically. There’s a lot of piracy of technology from both races, now, and there’s also some neat little alliances that start happening in a bid to try to set one off against the other. Lots of politics in season four… lots of not-so-diplomatic approaches to survival.

Frankly, we’re forced to do whatever we can to get out from between these two huge warring factions. We’re just the little humans in between.

Politics. Stargate. Who’da thought? [laughs]

It’s funny, though. It’s one of the things about Stargate that I’ve always liked. No matter how science fictiony it gets, it’s still rooted in characters in the here and now. They’re still characters who don’t take it for granted that they’re being attacked by alien races – and still find it peculiar.

And they still find the “Gosh! Wow!” moment, too.

Oh, yeah. Lots of those.

Every time they turn around, they’re in a place they’ve never been to before.

Exactly… even if it’s all in B.C. [laughs]

With filters…

They do give up on the filters after awhile.

It’s a wooded planet!

[Laughs] There’s lots of those. If we shot in L.A. there’d be lots of deserts.

EclipseMagazine.com Interview - David Helwett

Back in season three, I read an interview where you said you’d like to have an episode where Rodney was mute for some reason – something about having to resort to body language and facial expressions…

I think it’s more laziness than anything else. [laughs] The amount of dialogue I have to learn and spit out is a little overwhelming, so there are definitely days where I wish I was Ronan.

As an actor, I seem to have found myself a rather interesting niche – the fast-talking technical expert. There are definitely easier niches, but God bless that niche. It’s certainly a fun and wonderful way to earn a living.

Have you ever pitched any ideas for an episode?

Not really. You’ll be chatting with the producers and “hey, what about this; what about that? I’ve never gone as far as Joe [Flanigan] and sit down and work out a storyline with them. They’ve got a whole team of writers and it’s very hard to come up with something that they haven’t either been working on, or are working on.

It’s one of things I’d love to do at some point, but right now, I’m having enough trouble learning them all – let alone coming up with them. Though, coming up with them would be cool because then I’d know what I was going to say.

The reason I ask is because you’ve got these two little films that have made a certain amount of impact – Nothing, and A Dog’s Breakfast, and a lot of people like them. I haven’t seen Breakfast yet, but Nothing was just incredibly funny.

It strikes me that, if you liked Nothing, you should like A Dog’s Breakfast. It’s not nearly as out there, but it’s certainly that same sort of fall-down-hurt-yourself humor.

Almost Theatre of the Absurd.

We weren’t quite as absurd with Dog’s Breakfast, but it’s still pretty zany. That’s for sure.

They strike me as being the… sort of perfect response to the pressures and demands of doing a weekly TV series. Does that make them kind of cathartic in some way?

Dog’s Breakfast, definitely, but Nothing was long before Stargate. Frankly, I was dying for regular employment at that point. Dog’s Breakfast allowed me to do something completely different – to steal Monty Python’s line.

It’s not one of those things that I get to do on Stargate – or anywhere else. It’s one of those things where… I don’t think people know that I’m that much of an idiot. I just thought it was important to get that out there. And to flex some different muscles.

Directing is something that I’ve always been fascinated by and never really had the opportunity to pursue. As a kid, we used to do it – not direct – but make these little films with Vincenzo [Natali] who went on to make Cube and Nothing and Cypher and stuff – but he always looked after the directing side of it, and I had friends who were directors and that’s what they did. I was the actor, and the more I got involved in the acting, the more I became involved with the script stuff – that’s where the story credit comes from for Nothing.

Because of Stargate, I now have this big chunk of time every year where I’m not working – and I don’t have to worry about not working. It just felt silly not to try to do something. The first year, I went around and auditioned for other people’s films – and then I started wondering, why don’t I… Once you’re known for the Stargate stuff, those are the kind of roles you go in for.

You play that kind of character in the majority of your work so, why then would you want to do that in your free time? So I just thought it would be better to come up with something, and it went really well with the directing. And the writing was something that I had been doing for years but had never really pursued properly.

It just seemed like a smart way to try my hand at something else. It was a really amazing experience. I literally had one of those life-changing moments when we’d finished the shoot and begun the post-production, where I suddenly went, “I love this! This is what I want to be when I grow up.” It’s a whole different set of skills – and yet, the acting really helps all of them.

That makes sense from a storytelling point of view. Yeah, it really does. As an actor, that’s what you’re doing. You’re taking someone else’s writing and embellishing with personality and depth that may not be on the page. Exactly. Some writers are better than others at fleshing that stuff out for you, but that’s your job for the most part – to make those lines sound like they’re yours. It’s kinda fun to go the other way and take your own lines and try to make them sound a little different. It was an amazing experience.

The original idea was that I was going to go out and buy a couple of little handi-cams and get a couple of friends together and just shoot the thing as a little experiment in writing, directing and editing and that kind of stuff. The more we thought about it, the more we… I brought my girlfriend – now my fiancée – in on it. She was our producer on the film. And when she started looking at it, she said, “Look, we’re not native to Vancouver. We’re going to need some help getting this crew together.”

She went and talked to John Lenic, who really liked the script and said, “Let’s give this thing some legs and do it properly.” The next thing you know, we’re making a real film!

It was a shock when we did the first reading and I realised that I’m in charge of this giant machine.

It’s real!

Yeah, it’s like the biggest little movie, ever. We made it for nothing. It was entirely self-funded; it was just friends and family. I put up the lion’s share because I thought, “I don’t want to risk someone else’s money on this thing.” I wanted to be without the pressure of someone else’s money while I looked to see if this was something I could do.

EclipseMagazine.com Interview - David Hewlett

I now feel confident enough to approach it as more of a business. I can say, “Look, I can do this. Let’s go make movies.”

There’s another one I’m working on now. We’ll see how things go. There’s a couple things up this hiatus. I’m hoping that one of those things will be the birth of our first child. That might eat up a bit of time.


Thank you. But I am hoping to get behind a camera again, because it’s already been too long.

What’s the new film about?

The new one is definitely more of a horror comedy. I’m a big fan of the classic zombie horror films…

You’d love Slither, then…

I haven’t seen Slither, yet. I met one of the big rubber characters. I had to go get a head cast and he was sitting beside me, but I haven’t actually seen the film, yet.

If you love zombie movies, you must see Slither.

It’s also comic as well, isn’t it?

It’s creepy and it’s funny.

Great! That’s the kind of stuff I used to love. I loved Evil Dead; I loved Fright Night. It’s just that I loved that kind of stuff. And then, strangely, I’m a fan of these Home & Garden kind of home renovation shows.

In this bid to become kind of the Martha Stewart of horror, I’ve combined the two. It’s about a design show that goes into this house to give it a new life, and it ends up waking the dead.

Love the premise.

It’s a lot of fun to write. I’m halfway through it now, so we’ll see how much time I get to sit down and write the rest of it.

Have you settled on a title, yet?

Right now it’s called Design of the Dead.

That’s perfect! Don’t change it!

It just seems in keeping with the Romero films, and the obvious likeness would be Shaun of the Dead, as well. That was sort of an honest appreciation of zombie films – and I just want to make a funny one.

Watch out Fido!

Exactly. I’m very curious to see that one ‘cause I’ve heard a lot about it.

It’s almost as good as Slither. That’s two brilliant films there.

Well, I’ll add it to the Netflix list.

Last question – as a Doctor Who fan, I was just wondering – if Russell T. Davies offered you a guest villain role, would you jump at the chance? [laughs] And if so, what kind of a villain would you like to play?

I don’t know if I’d want to play a villain. I always kinda wanted to play The Doctor. [laughs]

Actually that wouldn’t be a bad choice.

Doctor Who was one of the reasons that I’m an actor. As a kid – at that stage of my life – when I suddenly realised that… when I went from wanting to be a Timelord to wanting to play a Timelord, was I discovered that you could actually do this for a living.

It was Jon Pertwee and then Tom Baker, as I got a bit older. I love to work, so Doctor Who would be sort of a fun, circular, cyclical kind of thing. But would that mean it’s over then? If I go from wanting to play Doctor Who as a kid to Doctor Who now, I might as well just retire.

It didn’t stop Christopher Eccleston.

That’s true.

He went from being The Doctor to being a Hero.

That’s right. He’s doing Heroes now, isn’t he?

He was recurring last season, but I don’t think he’s doing this season. He’s in demand.

He’s also in one of the best zombie movies ever made, 28 Days Later.

Absolutely right. See how this all ties together?

Yeah, it’s the six degrees of separation… in zombie films.

Precisely. Well, sir, thank you very much for your time.

A pleasure, indeed. And hey, if you wouldn’t mind mentioning it – if people want to know more about the movie – the website is www.adogsbreakfast.com.

Alrighty. I can do that.

If you can put it in, that would be great because one of the things that I discovered in doing this, that I enjoyed is just…I’ve been doing some blogging and doing some online marketing stuff – and discovering that Stargate fans have been a big… they’re practically their own marketing division, now… designing their own t-shirts and posters and stuff. It’s been a lot of fun to interact with them.

Thanks, again. It’s been a great deal of fun.

A pleasure, indeed. I’ll look forward to talking to you again.

Interview Posted by Sheldon Wiebe

Originally Posted on 09/25/07

Updated: September 26, 2007 — 5:36 am