Mark Sheppard on sci-fi, acting, and more

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.

My 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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