Jack Coleman has the enviable position of breathing life into television's best and worst father each week on NBC's Heroes. During the day he'll be bringing home teddy bears to his indestructible daughter Claire, while that night he'll gun someone down and work with genetically mutated viruses. He's gone through more character twists than a corkscrew and returned from the dead. We caught up with him at a Beverly Hills lunch spot to find out exactly what's going on with the show and his parenting skills.
I was going through some of the NBC press materials from just before the show launched, and you're not even listed in the cast bios.
Oh, it's crazy. There are still photos of the entire cast all over the place, and I'm not in them.
So your role was obviously meant to be minor, but has now grown to be one of the major characters on the show. At what stage during season one did you know that was happening?
Well, the funny thing is it was such a gradual progression. First of all, it was a guest spot on the pilot, that's it. There was never a promise of any episodes beyond that. It was a small part, but reading the script I thought, "This is a cool part, I don't care how small it is, people are going to notice this guy." I knew there was something creepy and dynamic about him, and when he turns out to be Claire's father in the end I remember thinking, "I don't know how they ignore that. I don't know how they don't deal with that."
As the episodes went on I think [show runner] Tim [Kring] and the writing staff just discovered this HRG guy was a good bridge between the characters and stories. They're all just discovering and coming into their abilities, and you need to have somebody who's further ahead in terms of knowing what they can do, and my character just fit the bill perfectly. Plus the creepy dynamic of having a guy who hunts "specials" who is actually stepfather to one of them is great. Is he really looking out for her or is he just harvesting? I think the moment when Tim decided HRG was going to be Claire's father, I thought it was too juicy an opportunity not to take advantage of it.
Was he always just HRG in the scripts, or did he have a name at one point before we found out what it was?
He was Man In The Horn-Rimmed Glasses in the pilot, and then just HRG from episode two on. It was just easier I guess. There was a scene in the middle of last season where they were going to reveal his name, actually I think it was in "Company Man" [episode 17 from season one]. But they just decided that it stopped everything cold and it took you out of the scene and they just decided it wasn't the time to do it.
So what do the scripts say now that we know your name is Noah?
HRG. And you know, people will refer to me by name on the show, but the scripts still say HRG.
Those glasses have become so iconic with your character, and it's kind of ironic that it's your "disguise" in a way, given the comic book roots with Clark Kent and Superman. They even had an episode where Claire was helping you pick out the glasses that become your basic costume.
That was actually my idea. There was a scene there where he was selecting glasses. But I just loved how you've seen how this guy has been "creating" her all season to a certain extent, and I liked the idea that she somehow created him as well. That's what is so great about our writing staff. Bryan Fuller wrote that episode, and I just emailed him about the idea and said "What if... " He said "God, I love it!" and the next day it was in the script, and of course he wrote it so much better than I would have. The good thing was that there were no egos in the room about it, like "What, the actor suggested that?!" It was just a case where the best idea wins, and I love the thought that she was complicit in the creation of this guy.
How influential have you been in his character as he's been evolving?
I haven't been. Truly, that was really the only idea I've pitched. I mean, there have been lines here and there where I've said, "How about this, how about that." Sometimes the answer is yes, and sometimes no. I mean, I'm not out there pitching story. I just happened to see that scene and thought that it was a cool opportunity. Plus it turned out to be a really touching scene, but that's all because of the way Bryan wrote it.
So, you're not out there whispering in the director's ear?
*chucking* Well, the problem is, that's not the right ear! This is television, you gotta be whispering in the show runner's ear, or sometimes maybe the writer of that episode. They do listen to the actors if there's a good idea, but... if you're a squeaky wheel you don't necessarily get greased. You get squashed. And for good reason, I mean you don't want the inmates taking over the asylum.
Well, your character has changed a lot as the show has gone on. When it first started we thought, "Okay, he's the bad guy."
I was the face of evil!
But by the end of the season one, we're thinking "Oh, he's just a nice guy looking out for his daughter." However, when season two starts, you go to Russia and murder someone in cold blood, you almost murder Bob, the new face of the "Company," you have no qualms about torturing Kristen Bell's character and so forth. I know you've been ambiguous as to whether he's good or bad, but which one is it?
You know... I don't think it's ambiguous. I'm not being coy when people say is he good or is he bad and I say "yes." I say that because he is both at once. One of the reasons my character shot Ivan in Russia was to bring home the fact that this guy is not a good gut a lot of times. I don't think it's ambiguous, I think it's clear that he is both things, and that he has the capacity to be really good, and the capacity to be really bad. That's one of the reasons the character is so successful, and I think they realized that from the beginning.
I was concerned when I read the script where I shot Ivan, and you know we're setting him up to be a loving grandfather and the whole thing with his daughter and we're taking his memories... that was heartless. But, they wanted something like that, they wanted something shocking, they wanted to remind the audience that this guy can be nasty and heartless. But, there's always "Claire-Bear" if he needs to be rehabilitated.
Although, he was even ready to duct-tape her recently when she wouldn't listen to you.
Well, you know there's only so much lip you can take from your teenaged daughter.
You're a father yourself, and has being a dad had any bearing on how you approach the character?
Yeah it has, I mean it can't help but inform your choices, your reactions, to things. How you would feel in certain circumstances and situations.
So when your own daughter reaches the age where she's dating, do you think you'll be a little more calmer with her than HRG would?
Not a chance. No, the whole dating thing... I mean she's a pretty girl and already boys are interested in her, but I'm all no, no, no, no, no. I promise you, I will put the fear of god into the boy's that come around the house.
Maybe they'll already have seen the show and you won't have to!
I'll put together a little "greatest hits" video compilation of me and say, "Put this on your iPod, Skippy."
Were you worried initially that your character was too evil?
You mean early on? No, not really. I mean, I knew early on that I wasn't Sylar. That would have worried me a bit. Generally the sort of arch-villain, the guy who is clearly a villain, usually has a limited shelf life. Zach has been so spectacular that they've kept him on. I knew early on that HRG's affection for his daughter was real. I normally don't ask a lot of questions, but I wanted to know if I had killed Suresh's father, was I Sylar, and did I genuinely love my daughter. Once I got those answers, I knew how to play it. I mean, playing the bad guy is fine. You get most of the best lines, and it's usually very interesting to play.
So, how much of a pain is Mr. Muggles to work with?
He's a diva. There's only one Mr. Muggles, and his name is Lestat. They had a substitute Mr. Muggles at one point because Lestat left us for a movie, but he came back with his tail between his legs, as we knew he would. But he's brilliant, he's so well-trained. There was a dog they used when Lestat was off doing his movie, and he was just not a close match. I don't know, they put a sweater on him, they tried everything. Early on I remember people were saying that Mr. Muggles was Sylar, before his identity was revealed. It was great.
So the scene where we see you on the exam table after you've been shot through the eye... did you hit the gym a lot in order to get ready for that?
Well, it's probably been about ten years since I had to take my shirt off for a scene. Let's just say that when I saw the script I had about two weeks, and there were more pushups and curls done in those two weeks than in the previous two years combined. I keep myself in pretty decent shape but Milo [Ventimiglia, who plays Peter Petrelli] is 30 and ripped, and I'm almost 50 and not quite so ripped, so the bar has been set pretty high on our show. Talk about the fear of god when I saw that scene. I've had that happen twice on the show, once where I was given a two and a half page scene all in Japanese, and then where I found out I was going to be naked on the slab. I was like, couldn't they maybe combine those two scenes? Have me speaking Japanese while I'm naked? Then I'd have a complete nervous breakdown.
Did you have to wear prosthetics for that scene?
You mean for the eye? That was all CGI. I thought you were asking if I was wearing prosthetic muscles, like the Batman suit. The eye, that was all done in CGI, including the scene where I originally got shot, with the blood spray. Joe Potasky did such a good job writing that script, and Greg Yaitanes did such a good job directing it.
I can tell you, I loved the scene with Kristen Bell with her feet in Mr. Muggles' doggie bath. I saw something online somewhere where people were wondering how many takes it took to say that with a straight face. I can tell you it took a lot of takes to get through that. The great thing about that seen was that [HRG's wife] Sandra got to see him as HRG for the first time. She gets to see him in action and have some idea not just how he operates, but also what he's had to do to keep Claire from becoming that. That was a really well-conceived idea to have her be privy to that. It wasn't like that in the first draft, but I think they thought about it and went, "You know, she should be there."
It does seem like she's had much more of a presence on the show this season.
Mmm hmm. I mean, Ashley [Crow]'s so good and it's nice to see her get to have her moments where she gets to hold the gun on Bob and things like that. She's an amazing actress.
Have they given any thought to increasing [Claire's brother] Lyle's role? It seems like he'll have like one line every six episodes.
I have no idea! To be honest, I think it's almost a running joke where Lyle gets his one line, and Claire says, "Shut up, Lyle." *laughs* He's doing a great job, but he hasn't had a whole lot to work with.
So, we've heard that there is going to be a high body count on Monday's episode. Can you tell us who dies?
Well, I can't... but I'll give you good reason why I can't. I think it's left somewhat ambiguous as to whether or not those persons are dead. I'll say it looks really bad for certain people, but it might not end up that way. And it won't be a "brought back from the dead" kind of thing, but maybe what we're seeing didn't come to pass as we think it did.
Speaking of brought back from the dead, do you worry that they've painted themselves into a sort of "no death" corner? With Takezo Kensei/Adam's blood healing Nathan's disfigurement, and Claire's blood bringing you back to life, how can anyone actually "die" on the show now?
Well, that can go away as quickly as it came. I'm sure that's one of the things they'll be addressing, is the idea of rules. What's doable, what's not doable. With mutation and different viruses and different evolutionary processes, it could be that an infusion of Claire's blood won't do you anymore. People have been wondering if I might have the ability to regenerate now, and I don't. It was a one-time fix. But it's entirely possible that her antibodies might not work on anyone else.
On this show there's a tremendous amount of people lying in wait. You know what I mean? People who say "Wait a minute, that's not going to work out!" It's a completely different age now in terms of people willing to go along for the ride. The bad news with that is, that means you get hypercritical audiences, but the good news is that it tends to be in direct proportion to their devotion to the show. Certain people will complain and complain and complain, but they're still tuning in and watch, so it works both ways.
The initial reaction at Comic-Con in San Diego was very supportive. They showed a 73-minute version of the pilot there, and support just went out from there on the internet, and I think that was really important to the early success of the show. The good thing about coming into people's homes every week is that it gives you a chance to build your base. The funny thing is, we're getting numbers right now that are on par with our premiere, and all the trades then proclaimed us a hit. But, because our numbers have come down from our high point, the same trades are saying we're not doing so well. But these are the same trades that proclaimed us a hit at with those same numbers! It's a different time these days, you're just not going to get 45 million viewers in one night.
Earlier you mentioned evolution, and we were wondering if they employed an evolutionary scientist or a geneticist on the show.
Yes, Sendhil. He has to research everything and get back to us. *laughs* I'm not sure if anyone in particular is employed. I'm sure there are plenty of publications they consult but at the end of the day... they're kind of making it up.
What, you mean people don't really have superpowers?
Yeah, that is one of the things that you sort of want to say every now and then when people say "Oh my god, that's so unrealistic!" It's like, yeah, but not any more so than someone who can read minds or someone who can fly. I mean, it's one thing to be frustrated, but to expect a level of reality... this ain't no documentary, I don't know if you've noticed.
Recently during the writer's strike, creator Tim Kring came forward and basically apologized for the slow start season two has had. To that end, he said they would be fixing things, and the show did seem to improve. But we know it takes a long time to write and shoot these things. Did they actually change anything around to make episode 11 the "finale" of this first story arc?
No. People forget how far in advance these things are shot. By the time Tim did that interview, we were already shooting episodes 12 and 13, even though we didn't get them finished, so those aren't in the can. I don't know what people expect because it ain't shot live. It's months in advance. I thought it was a courageous thing of him to do. If you're a disgruntled fan of the show, I think it was nice to hear from the show's leader and creator that, "We hear you. We get what the problems are and we're going to address them."
Having said that, I also think it's not like this has been a disastrous season. Everybody seemed to be gearing up for either a) a letdown from season one in terms of how fans experience the show, or b) backlash. You know, they build you up so they can tear you down. I mean, that's a fact. I understand some of the frustrations, but it's not like all of the sudden it became a terrible show. There was just such high expectations. I also remember people having problems from the first season, and fans saying things like "Why aren't things moving faster?" and "Why are these storylines not connected?" You know, it wasn't like the first season was all perfection. It's a big show with a lot of moving parts, and nobody is going to like everything all the time. That's true of any show that is a big ensemble... there's a lot going on. But I think it's ending strongly, and assuming this writer's strike ever ends, when we go back to work it will be with a clearer mission in mind of what the fans want.
In talking about "fixing" the show, Tim said that he wasn't sure about the romance between Claire and West. Does that mean West isn't long for this world?
I don't know. I'm don't know if he was being specific about that, I think he just meant that maybe romance may not be a good fit for us. I do know that the character of West has been growing on the audience recently. At first, people found him annoying and stalker-like, but now they know he's not a stalker and doesn't mean her arm, they're starting to like him a lot more. I'm not sure what there plans are for him, I really don't know.
The studios are meeting with the writers right now. If the strike ended tomorrow, when do you think you all would be told to report back to work?
Probably late January. I mean, I don't think there's any way we'll be back on the air in January. I think the studios will start to feel the effects of this strike the most when people really get tired of all of the reality television.
How far have the scripts gone past Monday's mid-season finale?
Well, we were shooting episodes 12 and 13 when the strike shut us down, because rewrites were no longer possible. Once we go back and start shooting again, it's hard to tell if those will be rewritten, or reshot. It's all up in the air right now.
Do you think the show will sustain through the writer's strike?
Yes, I do. I mean, I don't know how long we're going to be off, but I think that when we come back on there will be people who have never seen it who want to tune in, and I think that the people who were disaffected will watch to see what we've changed. I was talking to someone who said there's no question that Heroes will come back very strong. I mean, Desperate Housewives, Lost... second years are difficult for a reason, and part of that is the exhaustion with getting a show up and running and going, and our show is just massive. Most shows shoot in eight days, but we're 12 to 14. We're shooting on a Sopranos-style schedule but doing twice the episodes. It's a really big undertaking.
Last season and this season have featured a future disaster that may or may not happen. Is Heroes saying that the future is a scary place, or is it simply a way to provide a ticking clock plot device?
I think mostly it's a ticking clock. Every show represents its place and time in some way, and one thing this show really represents is a very nervous world where people are fearful. People don't trust government, we don't trust corporations. What we all can get behind are ordinary individuals who rise up and become people who can save us from ourselves. I think it's really tapped into that. I don't think it's a political statement about the future.
You have had some veteran actors on the show, like Malcom McDowell, George Takei, and now Nichelle Nichols. Have you had scenes with any of them?
George. I had that scene with George where I did two and a half pages in Japanese with him, but I haven't worked with Malcolm or Nichelle, or Joanna Cassidy who was on recently and who I adore. I wish she would have been around longer. I haven't worked with Cristine (Rose, who plays Angela Petrelli) and I've barely worked with Adrian. I only had one scene with him where I'm chasing him through a parking lot, but that's been it. There's still a lot of people I haven't really worked with yet.
Plus with all the time travel on the show, it's hard to remember that certain characters haven't even met each in the present day storyline.
Right, I haven't worked with Masi in the "present," and so on. The worlds have been fairly circumscribed.
It's funny you mention Joanna Cassidy because she's obviously in the new Blade Runner DVD set that's coming out, but Warners went back and did some fixed to the set, and filmed her in the present day and then dropped her into some scenes digitally and it looks amazing. So when she turned up on Heroes, we had just seen that and she still looks great today.
Oh, she looks fantastic. I don't know how old she is, but she's still a sexy woman. Plus she was so great on Six Feet Under, just crazy and wonderful. I was really hoping to get to work with her.
A website recently featured a bunch of photos with Heroes actors posing with a cup of Slusho, which we know is some sort of Slurpee-like drink from J.J. Abrams' universe and from the upcoming Cloverfield film, but what does it all mean?
That's about all I know! I was basically handed the cup of Slusho, given that much information, and that was it. We were just goofing around, but some of those pictures are hysterical.
Whatever happened to the character who was introduced who could talk to computers? She seems to have vanished.
I think that literally what happened was that she got another series and we lost her. I think she lives on in all of the online things they've created for the show, they call her Wireless. I thought that was a brilliant idea and she was really good in the part, I don't know if they'll bring her back or now. I know there's been talk about bringing Christoper Eccleston back too.
So, tell us about your background. Most viewers are probably too young to recognize you from Dynasty.
I run into the occasional Heroes fan who is also a Dynasty fan, but they're not actually natural constituents. I mean, it'll be... almost 20 years since I was on Dynasty. 1988 was my last year on the show.
You did something like 150 episodes, right?
At least. That's a long run. Plus that's back in the day when it was 6 and 7 days per episode, and we'd do 30 episodes. It wasn't that brutal because it was an ensemble show. It didn't have a lot of special effects or stunts, it was basically a lot of yakkin'.