Sam Witwer on 'Being Human,' a vampire - and 'Walking Dead' zombie?

Sam Witwer as Aidan, courtesy Syfy

As the vampire character Aidan in Syfy's 20-something horror drama Being Human, actor Sam Witwer breathes new life into the undead. Sure, Aidan can walk in the sunlight, but aside from that, he's an old school vamp- a sexy, dangerous, super cool American cousin to that famous Transylvanian Count.

Being Human - which begins its second season on Jan. 16 at 9 p.m. - is based on the BBC drama of the same name about a vamp, werewolf and ghost who live together as paranormal roommates trying to regain a sense of their normal lives. Rather than a direct facsimile of the popular British show, the stateside Human has become its own beast. Not only have plotlines diverged greatly from the source material, but Witwer and castmates Sam Huntington and Meaghan Rath have made the show theirs.

However, with all the vampires sucking up audience attention in pop culture lately, the 34-year-old Witwer may have the largest hurdle to jump as an actor on the show. Not only has he been required to break from the character of Mitchell (the vampire played by Aidan Turner on the BBC show), but the actor from Glenview, Ill., had to develop a vamp that withstands comparisons to Bill and Eric, Stefan and Damon, Lestat and Louie and more. But after crafting unique characters on popular shows such as Battlestar Galactica, Dexter, Smallville, Star Wars: The Clone Wars (and the Star Wars: The Forced Unleashed video game), Witwer has proven he has a talent for creating identities.

Instead of making Aidan a self-loathing romantic ala Robert Pattinson's Edward, or an unrepentant bloodsucker like Colin Farrell's Jerry in Fright Night, Witwer has done this by utilizing shades of both to create a nuanced character. He plays Aidan as a man with an addiction, and as a monster who is trying to rediscover his humanity.

Witwer spoke with Paranormal Pop Culture at Atlanta's Dragon*Con about the direction of Aidan in the second season of Being Human, as well as opening up about his role in those other well-known geek culture franchises. He even breaks big news about his involvement - and non-involvement - in AMC's The Walking Dead, reveals his thoughts on the firing of Frank Darabont and talks about the zombie plotline that never was!

(after the jump)

Q: We’ve spoken before about the addictive nature of your character. Some addicts end up being train wrecks. They are on the rails, then go off the rails. What’s the end game for him? Will it just keep going downhill until he takes everyone with him?

A: It very might. I can’t tell you what the end game is because that would be huge spoiler material but I will say that the addiction theme is absolutely more present than it was in the first season. Things get really ugly pretty quick in the second season. So we’ve been shooting some very uncomfortable stuff – while at the same time, we’re still maintaining the humor and all of that.

But yeah, it’s absolutely there. As we’ve talked about, that’s what I was most interested in, in terms of playing this character. I was so happy to expand on it in the second season. We get to see different sides of it, too, and where it takes him – what he’s willing to do. There’s also very defined – god, I’m trying to think what I can say without spoiling it – there’s very defined personality changes that come out because of him indulging in certain things. It’s pretty cool.

Q: Does junkie apply?

A: I think, definitely in the second season, he’s a junkie. I think so, I would say that.

Q: Has there been a decision-making process with the roles you’ve chosen (such as in Dexter, Battlestar Galactica, etc) that are so diverse?

Witwer as Neil Perry on 'Dexter,'
Courtesy Showtime
A: Some roles you choose, others you get chosen for. I can’t say I chose Dexter. That is something I just went in and auditioned for something called Dexter, and they wanted – as they described it – a squirrelly computer nerd. I really wanted to play the character even though I didn’t know he was going to turn into Kevin Spacey from Seven. But it wasn’t until I got the part that I was shown the pilot and was like, ‘Oh, oh, OK. Yeah, let’s do this show.’ Things like Battlestar, actually, were kind of my choice in that I asked my agent to seek out a role on that show. The later you get in your career, the more people actually ask you to do things, and you choose what you want to go into.

In terms of Being Human, I was stupid. I cracked open the script, got to page three, and I was like, ‘I don’t want to play a vampire; there’s too many vampires out there, why do we need another vampire show?’ I only read like three page. It wasn’t until a friend of mine said, ‘You should really think about doing your job and reading the script! You are an actor, right? You can read, you are literate.’ So I read the script and realized it was absolutely irresistible character, and that it was very fresh and original, and had some really provocative things to say.

As far as roles go, I think you look for – for me – if it’s a role where I’m afraid I’m not good enough to do it, that’s the role that I want. The role that’s going to keep me up at night, losing sleep – which this role definitely has. Ask my producers about 4 a.m. emails. Suddenly I’m lying in bed, wake up and go, ‘Going to write an email about this and have you thought about that?’ It’s all because I really like this to be good. Yeah, you want to be challenged as an actor and hopefully rise to the occasion. Between choosing to take it and actually completing it and hoping you made your mark, there’s a lot of stress in between. But that’s not worth it if you don’t have some level of that stress – if you’re not worried that you’re not quite up to the task, then you’re probably not trying hard enough.

Q: Is Battlestar your favorite role, and is that why your band is named the Crashtones?

A: Battlestar is significant because it taught me all my bad habits, and when I say ‘bad habits,’ I also mean good habits. Battlestar taught me to be ridiculously outspoken, and to take the initiative a lot. On Battlestar, those guys ran that show like no other. You’ve got a lot of green screen stuff, right? A lot of special effects. For shows like that, it takes a tremendous amount of planning. So what do I get told my first day on set? David Eick says to me, ‘Hey, ok, here’s how it’s going to go: Give us one as written, then say whatever you want.’ What? ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah – adlib, do whatever you want.’ What are you talking about? That’s a suicidal way to run a show, is what I’m thinking. He goes, ‘No, we hired you because we trust you. If you go too far, the director will pull you back but we want the performances on this show to be really unpredictable.’

That sort of created in me the sense that actors should really be a little bit more aggressive and really should bring as many good ideas to the table as possible and then let someone else sort out which of the ones we’re going to keep. Some shows they don’t like it. I remember on Smallville, I was at some event for the show and one producer comes up to me and goes, ‘Um hey, you know what, you’re doing a great job just do exactly what you’re doing.’ Then another producer came up right after that and goes, ‘Hey, if you could keep it just more to the script, that would be great.’ No matter who I talked to, it was a different story. I was like, well, I’ll change a few things here or there if I think it makes something better.

Even on my first day [on Smallville], I changed a few lines. These people had been on the show for, I don’t know, seven years. We were on the eighth season. They were writing things that were familiar to them, but my character was an outsider. So I’m like, ‘He doesn’t know about meeting your people, he doesn’t know about Krypton, he doesn’t know about any of this stuff.’ So I thought he would say it like ‘this.’ Let’s remind the audience that this stuff is weird. This is strange phenomena and not everyone is familiar with it. They let me get away with it. They were gracious about it.

But the rule is, as an actor, if you’re ever going to deviate from what someone tells you to do, it has to work. If it doesn’t work, you’ve wasted people’s time and money. So you have to be really picky and choosy when you decide to stick your neck out.

But Battlestar taught me all that because we were all going nuts on that set. We were all going crazy and coming up with crazy things to say. I mean, I didn’t show up that much in the first season until the end and most of the things I said were some modification of an adlib and they encouraged me to do that. The discovery of Kobol in the first season was very much like, ‘Oh we found a planet. It’s go Oxygen and water. Cool. Awesome.’ As it was written, it was like we found a planet. Cool. And Crashdown was cracking jokes and being snarky and I was like, ‘No, he needs to be mindblown.’ Ron Moore wrote in the series bible that space is a cold, desolate place with just asteroids and nothing. It’s just Big Empty. You don’t find habitable planets. Because of that, I ended up just not saying a bunch of lines but having this moment of ‘I can’t believe this’ and then going in and being snarky, but having a moment of [angelic] ‘Ahhh.’ When you see the episode, they actually put in the music of ‘Ahhh.’

Q: What character of yours do fans most approach you about, and do you gauge the popularity of Being Human based on how many fans come up to you to talk about it?

A: You know what’s so strange? You go to conventions and stuff and people are happy to see you, but when Being Human happened, that’s when you couldn’t walk through a convention anymore. It used to be you would walk and you take a picture. Then with Being Human, we tried to walk the Comic-Con floor and we couldn’t go anywhere.

Witwer as Starkiller, courtesy Lucasarts
The interesting thing is, when they come up it’s sort of like a critical mass and they want to talk about Smallville, they want to talk about Star Wars, they want to talk about any number of things. I get more The Mist attention now then I did when the movie came out. Same with Battlestar, oddly. I keep going, I can’t believe anyone remembers that character. But I get people on the street coming up to me going, ‘Hey Battlestar Galactica.’ I don’t even look like that guy, it’s weird. Obviously I’m extremely happy when people offer their support for Being Human because it’s what I’m doing right now, and it’s where my focus is, but I’m really happy the Star Wars character [of Starkiller] caught on. I love that kids are coming up and going ‘Starkiller.’ I love people expressing what that meant to them because for a lot of people, that was a Star Wars movie experience. I just think that’s great that I hit that. The movie win-win where my character shows up in that basically as a rallying cry for the leads, which is great. I also love that it’s led to more Lucasfilm work. They’ve been extraordinarily kind to me and continue to be.

Look, I’m a geek myself. If anyone had told me when I was a kid I was going to be working on some Star Wars projects, and furthermore, if you want to stay at Skywalker Ranch – not just know where it is but actually stay there – you just need to make a phone call and this will happen by the time you’re 31, I wouldn’t have believed it. But they’ve been so generous and open with everything they’re doing and I occasionally get to go in and do some really fun stuff. I wish I could tell you some stuff because there’s an announcement coming soon about another character I’ll be doing for the Clone Wars, and I’m just very excited about it and can’t talk about it. It sucks.
Witwer as 'Walking Dead' zombie

Video Bonus Question: Because of your collaboration with Frank Darabont on The Mist, was there any talk of you getting on The Walking Dead before he was fired?

"I was already in The Walking Dead. You guys have heard what's happened, recently. I'm furious at them for this, because Frank is my friend, he's my buddy. Not only is he my buddy, but he's a guy I'm extremely loyal to, because he gave me a shot with The Mist, when I didn't have a hell of a lot going on. Here's a guy who gets his cast and crew together and gives AMC a show, packages it all together, which is way cheaper than anywhere else because everyone is working way under their pay grade. Why? Because they want to and love working with Frank Darabont.

He has shared with me what kind of pay cuts people were taking, and I am also friends with other people on that set in other departments. He said to me, 'Look, I think it would be really cool to tell a prequel story about how Atlanta fell, do Black Hawk Down, but with zombies, have a few main characters pass through, but the lead will be you. You're a soldier and all these horrible things happen, and the chain of command breaks down, and, eventually, you have to take out your superior officer. Then, eventually, in the end, you get bit.' He's pitching me this. 'You're crawling and you crawl into this tank and you have a grenade and you're going to blow yourself up, but you set the grenade next to you and you die. Then, we reprise the scene from the pilot, where Rick gets in the tank and there's a zombie there.'

If you look closely, I played that zombie, because we were setting up this prequel we were going to do. If you watch the pilot of The Walking Dead, that's me in the tank as the zombie, and then Rick blasts him and he gets deafened, and he gets that grenade which saves him at the end of the season...

It's not happening now. Why? Because AMC wanted to save a few bucks. That is just one example of the kind of cool, awesome forethought, this guy has put into this show, that is now absolutely written off. For me, it doesn't matter much because I'm busy doing Being Human. We were going to schedule things around. I'm not lamenting the loss of a job, I'm lamenting the loss of an amazing idea. And there are dozens and dozens of amazing ideas just like that, which are now gone."

UPDATE: Frank Darabont responded to Ain't It Cool after they asked him about Witwer's comments:

This was never meant as a web gimmick, this was intended for use in the actual TV series. I wanted to kick off the 2nd season with the flashback episode Sam describes, which would have followed a squad of Army Rangers getting trapped in the city and trying to survive as Atlanta falls. 

The idea was to do this with a very focused “you are there” documentary feel. Not going all shaky-cam, but still making it a bit rawer and grainier than the rest of the show. We’d start with a squad of maybe seven or eight soldiers being dropped into the city by chopper. They have map coordinates they need to get to; they’ve been told to report to a certain place to provide reinforcement. It’s not a special mission, it’s basically a housekeeping measure putting more boots on the ground to reinforce key intersections and installations throughout the city. And we follow this group from the moment the copter sets them down. All they have to do is travel maybe a dozen blocks, a simple journey, but what starts as a no-brainer scenario goes from “the city is being secured” to “holy shit, we’ve lost control, the world is ending.” Our squad gets blocked at every turn and are soon just trying to survive. I wanted to do a really tense, character-driven ensemble story as communications break down, supply lines are lost, escape routes are cut off, morale falls apart, leadership unravels, mutinies heat up, etc. (Yes, this approach owes a spiritual debt to a number of great films, including Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort.)

Along the way, I thought we could briefly dovetail this story with a few established characters from the show. Not to overdo that, mind you, because it could get silly and too coincidental if you load too much into that idea. But I thought it would be great to veer off on a quick narrative detour that brushes our soldiers briefly up against some people we know. Picture our squad arriving at a manned barricade where some civilians are being held back from leaving the city on shoot-to-kill orders to stop the spread of contagion, it’s a panicked high-intensity scene, and in this crowd of desperate people we find Andrea and Amy. The barricade gunners panic, the civilians start to get mowed down by machine gun fire, and in this melee the girls get pulled to safety by some old guy they don’t even know. It’s Dale. He’s nobody to them, just some guy who saw the opportunity to do the right thing and reacted in the moment. This would have been perhaps a minute or two of the episode, just a cool detour like the various outposts the soldiers encounter in Saving Private Ryan, but we would have witnessed the moment that Dale meets Andrea and Amy, seen where that relationship began. I also felt it would be a great way to get Emma Bell back into the series for a moment, because she was so wonderful and we were all so sorry that her character died and she had to leave the show. (Of course if this “brush with established characters” idea didn’t work in the script stage, I’d have tossed it out. You try a lot of ideas like that as you go, see how they play. But I thought this one stood a pretty good chance of being engineered to work well.) 

So the story follows these soldiers through hell as the city falls apart and the squad implodes, with Sam’s soldier being the main character and the moral center of the group. He becomes the last survivor of the squad, and he finally gets to the map coordinates they’ve been trying to get to from the start: it’s the barricade at the Atlanta courthouse intersection from the pilot where Rick later finds the tank. The soldier is still alive when he gets there, but he’s been bitten. He’s accomplished his “simple” mission, but he’s gone through seven kinds of hell to do it (including being forced to frag his squad leader), and now he’s dying. And he crawls off into the tank just to get off the street and under cover. As his fever builds and the poor guy starts to hallucinate, he pulls his last grenade and considers ending his life. He sets the grenade down on that shelf for a moment to reflect on all the shit and misery that brought him to this sad end-point of his life, and to dredge up the courage to pull the pin...but before he can act, the fever burns him out and he dies. 

The kicker comes in the last moments of this episode:

After the soldier dies this squalid, lonely death...and after a quiet lapse of time...we do a shot-for-shot reprise from the first episode of the first season: Rick comes scrambling into the tank to escape the horde...blows that zombie soldier’s brains Rick’s trapped...fade out...the end.

The notion was to take the “throwaway” tank zombie Rick encountered in the pilot, and tell that soldier’s story. Make him the star of his own movie, follow his journey, but don’t reveal who he is until the end. The idea being that every zombie has a story, every undead extra was once a human being with a life of his/her own...was, in a sense, the star of his own life’s movie. And we’ve followed this one particular guy and seen how his life ended; we witness his struggles, see his good intentions and his failures, and we experience his godawful death in this tank. That’s why I cast Sam as that tank zombie in the first place instead of just casting some extra. I had this story in mind while filming the pilot, and I knew I’d need a superb actor to play that soldier when the time came. 

And then starting with Episode 202, we’d be back with Rick’s group and back in step with the flow of the established story from last season.

I always had in mind to throw in a “wild-card” episode every season, maybe as a season opener or closer. Just a separate story more in the feel of an anthology series, one that appears completely off the track of the regular series but actually does wind up tying in somehow by the fade-out. They did that sort of thing on LOST on occasion, and I really respected it. It always seemed like a bold choice that trusted the audience and rewarded their loyalty with a totally unexpected surprise episode every so often.