Mark Sheppard on sci-fi, acting, and more

Last updated 10:46 14/11/2011

Mark Sheppard is well known to sci-fi fans for his many guest spots on science-fiction and fantasy shows, so when his name was included in the lineup for the recent Armageddon Expo in Auckland, I was legitimately excited: the guy played one of my favourite minor characters in Battlestar Galactica (Gaius Baltar's quirky lawyer, Romo Lampkin), guest-starred in the latest season opener of Doctor Who as Canton Delaware III, and is enjoying success as demon Crowley in the latest series of Supernatural.

20111114My fondest memory of Sheppard is as Cecil L'ively, the pyromaniac murderer from first season The X Files episode Fire - also known as the episode that got me hooked on the show, as it's the first I can recall seeing.

Yet, besides being one of the busiest actors in sci-fi television, Sheppard admits to being a sci-fi fan as well.

"I think everybody is a fan of sci-fi," Sheppard says confidently, talking to me by phone from his Auckland hotel room. "I think people do sci-fi a huge disservice by lumping it as some sort of bizarre subculture genre when I think everybody's lives are impacted by sci-fi at some point. The idea of future or past either way, is a core part of entertainment. It's something we've always loved as humans. Its part of our psyche, I think."

Sheppard has enjoyed roles on nearly every major sci-fi show in the last 15 to 20 years, and is now a veteran of the genre - but though he is invited to particular shows, there is still an upside to auditioning for parts.

"I tend now to be sought out for certain roles, which is wonderful," he says. "Amazing things have fallen into my lap, from Battlestar to Doctor Who and everything else. Let me put it this way: when you audition you're coming to the producers or the writers or the director with a strong point of view and it gives you the opportunity to create a starting point, and in some ways that can be very useful with regards to finding out what somebody wants or how things should go. When something is written for you or handed to you sometimes there's a very interesting dance as you discover what it is that's required."

Sheppard isn't afraid to chase a role, either.

"I pursued Supernatural," he chuckles. "I knew [deceased Supernatural producer] Kim Manners for years and he'd always told me that I'd enjoy being on Supernatural, and when he passed away it was the first time a Supernatural piece came up - Crowley magically appeared at that point, and I got the giggles and said 'well I guess that may be something I just have to go and pursue'."

Curious about what it's like to join the cast and crew of an established show, I ask if there's some kind of hazing period.

"It's usually quite the opposite - they're very nice to you at the beginning, and then once they get used to you, if you tend to recur, the less respectful they get over time, as you can tell by the gag reels of Supernatural and other shows," he laughs. "It's an incredible thing to be able to get a series on the air nowadays, let alone get more than six episodes, and I applaud anyone who takes that path. It's a brave and a tough path to take, and I think the unifying aspect behind all of that is that it's a labour of love - to even get that far it has to have been a labour of love - and you'll find that the participants usually are extraordinarily kind and very, very generous."

Given that sci-fi tends to struggle on mainstream television, I wonder if TV crews on sci-fi shows are welcoming to anyone who is willing to come in and help them out - an idea the humble Sheppard dismisses.

"It's a strange phrase, to help them out, as though my presence in a show makes much difference," he chuckles. "I don't know that it actually does. I think it's closer along the lines of some of the characters I've played have made a difference to the shows. I don't think it's me per se. It's a fascinating job, to come in and be the most interesting person in an episode. Whoever the guest star is, that's the job - to maintain the interest and the focus for that 42 minutes or whatever, and it should be a huge relief to those people that are the leads in the shows."

Sheppard has also starred in plenty of dramatic roles away from the generic conventions of sci-fi and fantasy - one of his earliest roles was a small part on In The Name of the Father, which starred Daniel Day Lewis and earned seven Academy Award nominations - but says that, whatever the role, the process is always the same.

"Sanford Meisner [a legendary acting teacher who developed a form of method acting] always said something fascinating, which was that acting is living truthfully under imaginary circumstances," Sheppard says. "So if you think of it in that line, if you're willing to accept the parameters created by the writers or the world created by the writers, be it Joss or Ron Moore - you know, is there a difference between Supernatural for me and, say, Prime Suspect, which I just started work on with Maria Bello and Aidan Quinn ... and In The Name of the Father, those things are all contrasting, and X Files. What's the difference? I don't think there's any difference at all."

I ask if the work of the actor is simply to try and find the honesty or humanity in the role, whether the character is human or not.

"Absolutely," Sheppard agrees. "My dad [Morgan Sheppard] has a famous story - that's why the Soul Hunter in Babylon 5 for him was such an interesting role, and why [creator J. Michael] Straczynski gave it to him, because it's the humanity in that that's more important than the prosthetics or the ability for him to be an alien."

I'm going to leave it there for now - this is about half of the interview, and I'll post the remainder tomorrow. In the meantime, tell me:

What is your favourite Mark Sheppard role to date? What would you like to see him star in next?

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JD   #1   10:52 am Nov 14 2011

Good actor, Crowley is a great character.

Bug   #2   11:07 am Nov 14 2011

I absolutely adore Mark Sheppard. I was fortunate enough to meet him at a Supernatural convention earlier this year, and I happened to mention to him about how the final scene of his X Files role still goes down in tv history for me as being the creepiest. He then chewed my ear off for the next 10 minutes about the makeup they had to put on him for that role, and how his ears were bruised for weeks after. He mentioned that he had received hate mail for "kicking" the little dog as well. Finally he finished up our conversation by reciting the "I'd love a cigarette" line in Cecil's creepy voice. It still gives me chills just thinking about it!

Mark is an amazing actor and I love that he is a fanboy too - his wealth of knowledge from his time in television is incredible. And he is a genuinely nice bloke.

As for my favourite role? Has to be Crowley. Everytime he is on the screen, he lifts everything that is going on around him. And besides, what isn't there to like about a sexually ambiguous snarky demon?

ljlj   #3   11:08 am Nov 14 2011

Yay, I'm a huge fan of his and have loved him in every role he's cropped up in, but have a soft spot in particular for his parts in Firefly and Supernatural. If you want someone to give a sarcastic line reading I think he's about the best in the business. Nothing specific I'd want to see him in, but I think an HBO production or the like would be a good fit.

Scott   #4   12:33 pm Nov 14 2011

Can't say I've ever noticed him in anything until Dr Who. And I have watched the other shows he's been in. That's sort of normal for me with guest artists though.

X   #5   12:35 pm Nov 14 2011

the best. "surprisingly" I saw him first on SPN, and soon became my all-time favourite. since then, I watched almost every role of him, and he never disappointed me. always a freshener for the soul and the eye :) my fave role, well, I cannot really decide...Crowley of course,Romo, and Sterling, Nitro in 'The Chronicle', Canton, Hartman, Yuri (both of them), Dr Charles Walker... that was something really touching, for me. But I honestly love all of the roles. He always brings the same great talent, but never the same nuance. I don't know what would I like to see him in, but I do know that an ambivalent, I mean AMBIVALENT character would be great. but I'm glad about any appearance. He'll never be boring.

Well Done   #6   07:19 pm Nov 14 2011

I thought he was very good in "Medium". Over several episodes spread over seasons 2 and 3, he played dual roles - that of a serial murderer of old, and also of a man who's living in fear of his own imagination. Both parts were done equally well, and were quite convincing.

Tori   #7   09:24 am Nov 15 2011

Mark Sheppard's one of the best working actors around, no doubt about it. It's wonderful how much he cares about everything he works on- it definitely shows in his performances. Also, he may have my very favorite voice, of ALL the voices. I could literally and happily listen to him read a phonebook.

My favorite of his roles is either Canton Everett Delaware III on Doctor Who or Manservant Neville on The Middleman.

mybelle   #8   04:17 pm Nov 15 2011

He'll always be Badger to me! (Firefly) That first role you see an actor in always tends to be the one most remembered, in my mind anyway.

Sue   #9   04:48 pm Nov 15 2011

I love Mark - not only is he an awesome actor, but he has quite the most beautiful voice. I'm with you in that Cecil L'Ively absolutely gave me the creeps, but I think his role of Sterling on Leverage is also pretty good. The man is an expert at acting bad guys who are totally convinced that they are the good guys.

Shar   #10   06:46 am Dec 09 2011

Crowley is an AWESOME role for this amazing actor, and Badger was one my very favourite guest characters on Firefly! He was also terrific in X-Files and Doctor Who.

No matter what he does, Mark Sheppard always brings brilliance to his roles.

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