About.com Interviews David Hewlett

Mark Wilson has published a lengthy interview with Stargate Atlantis star David Hewlett in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section of About.com. Hewlett discusses several aspects about his role as the “absolute arrogant jerk” Dr. Rodney McKay.

Did you ever wonder whether fans would “get” Rodney — that they would get past Rodney’s difficulty to see his complexity and potential?

You’re talking about what an absolute ass he was, basically. When I first discovered that I was actually going to be doing it again — when I went in for SG-1 and I did those episodes there [starting with Rodney’s introduction in the season 5 SG-1 episode “48 Hours”], I was first very surprised that I came back at all, because he was such an incredibly caustic character.

So I was kind of with the fans. I was like, “My god, why would they — ? Of all the people to bring back, why are they bringing this guy back?”

And all the other Atlantis characters are so nice.

They’re all nice people, and there’s this just absolute arrogant jerk. And my biggest concern was that they were going to soften him up, turn him into a nice guy all of a sudden. They’ve done a very good job of walking that fine line between making him — not more likable, but he’s sort of more understandable.

It helps that the other characters have started to understand him and like him.

Well that’s it. I think it’s one of those things where my character has been able to fill in the gaps. Like my hairline. I try to fill it in as much as possible.

Is Rodney going to get a rug in season 5?

I think so, I think some kind of all-natural hair weave kind of thing.

The other thing that helps is that everything happens to Rodney. He’s the universal victim. He nearly drowns [2×14, “Grace Under Pressure”], he gets superpowers, he almost ascends [3×14, “Tao of Rodney”] … he’s got a hip alternate universe alter ego [3×08,”McKay and Mrs. Miller] …

I love “Rod,” yeah, yeah.

He has women throwing themselves at him … he proposes to one and has a baby — no wait, that’s you.

[laughs] Let’s not confuse things too much, because it’s really bad for my social life.

Joe [Flanigan, who plays John Sheppard] must get jealous every time the cool stuff happens to you.

I don’t know how jealous Joe is. Joe is the first one to mock me when I’m drowning in the freezing cold water. But he’s had his bug episodes, where they turn Joe into a bug.

And you can make fun of him for the “Kirk” thing.

Yes indeed. His Kirk thing is shameless. Both on and off camera.

But that’s happening to Rodney now — he’s got Katie [Brown (Brenda James)], Sam [Carter (Amanda Tapping)], Dr. Keller [(Jewel Staite)]. And he has no idea what to do with them. Is Rodney really that clueless with women, or is it a defense mechanism?

[laughs] I’m really hoping it’s a defense mechanism. I think he’s in that interesting situation where as a scientist and a nerd he’s basically only ever objectified women. So to actually have to communicate with them — that’s the wonder of his relationship with Sam Carter, is that not only is she in his terms “hot,” but also just as smart as he is. He finds that both absolutely alluring and alarming at the same time.

On SG-1 she had all the technical dialog, and Jack kept cutting her off. And now you have the technical dialog and she’s cutting you off.

And believe me, I can see in her eyes the sympathy as I’m plowing through pages of this stuff. I referred to it as technobabble once and I was corrected by [co-creator] Brad Wright — he said, “You mean, ‘gold’.”

And you have to say it really fast — Rodney talks so quickly that you just have to toss this stuff off.

I think that’s the key to this stuff. I’m a fast talker, and I’m getting help for that. But nerds — they don’t ponder their technical prowess, they rattle it off. Knowing a lot of nerds, and being one myself — I got into computers early, and I had a lot of friends who got much more into it than I ever did. And that’s what these guys are like, they just assume that everybody knows all this stuff. And if you don’t, then you’re an idiot.

[Doctor Who star] Peter Davison said the same thing — to make the bafflegab believable you had to say it as rapidly as possible.

Yeah, I mean otherwise they’re hanging a lantern on it. The thing about sci-fi is it’s almost never about the sci-fi, it’s always about the characters and the situations and exploring — the technology is basically a backdrop for the character stuff.

It’s very easy to forget that. As a sci-fi fan, you read this stuff and you hand someone else a sci-fi book that you love and they don’t read sci-fi, they often don’t get it because they can’t get past that stuff. It’s an acquired taste and you start to get a sense of how these things work. I consider myself very lucky, because I’m not just a nerd on television — I’m a nerd at home as well.

You’re not only the president, you’re also a client.

[laughs] Going back to my damn hairline, thank you very much. I got a boat from Rachel [Luttrell, who plays Teyla] last season as a present, which was called The Bald Truth. It seems to be an ongoing theme on this show.

And with your luck it was Radek [Zalenka] that got trapped in that elevator with Sam [in 4×13, “Quarantine”], and not Rodney.

Believe me, I remember. Still I couldn’t really lose in that one — I mean, Katie Brown or Amanda Tapping, you really can’t complain.

And you’ve got Jewel now, and she’s going to be a regular next season.

She is indeed, yes, the lovely Jewel Staite. She’s just amazing to work with, and she’s got a wicked sense of humor. It’s another one of those relationships where McKay doesn’t really — it’s a sort of respect/disrespect thing.

I know people who can’t get past how beautiful she is to see her as a medical professional and so on.

[laughs] She is a ridiculously good-looking woman, but I try not to hold it against her.

Are you satisfied with Rodney’s journey so far?

I’m still pleasantly surprised by this. Because originally when I took this job, my vision of where it was going — and think their vision to some extent — was that it was going to be basically me standing beside a computer yelling out things at people every so often. Rodney was a surprise to them, because he suddenly became part of the team. Originally the idea of Rodney going on missions, everybody would have laughed at it. The idea would have shocked him. Rodney was incredibly unhappy about having to go on these missions in general — where some people see adventure, he sees a potential health hazard.

So for me, it’s all a pleasant surprise, because I really honestly thought I was going to be sitting behind a computer terminal, bored out of my cranium, and it’s just turned into so much more than that.

I think what’s neat about what they’ve done with him is that they’ve really managed to flesh out what is a very nasty, difficult character. So I’m far more than satisfied with what they’ve done. And it’s always a pleasant surprise to see what new, fresh hell they’ve come up with for us. I’m hearing about freezing-cold lakes coming up, so that sounds promising.

Excellent, more drowning. Maybe you can have another hallucination of Sam.

With less clothing this time!

Actually “Grace Under Pressure” [where McKay is trapped in a sinking jumper and imagines Sam Carter helping him] is a pivotal episode for Rodney. There’s several of these major Rodney episodes that move the character forward.

What’s so funny about that is that while it moved him forward, it didn’t actually move the relationship forward in any way, because it was completely imaginary from his perspective. So it was so funny because McKay comes into this season with Sam with this kind of backstory that she doesn’t have any access to. So there’s this wonderful way in which he has resolved some things, but they haven’t. He feels like he’s given her a nod and said, “Yes, you’re a smart one,” but he’s still not done it in real life.

And then in “Trio” [4×16] he fumbles trying to describe her body, and Sam tells him he’ll never have a chance to worry about it.

Exactly. Well, he’s never going to give up hope. That’s the one thing about us nerds, is, we’re rather persistent. It’s a war of attrition, basically. That’s how I ended up with my lovely girlfriend Jane — it’s all trickery and deceit.

She even thinks she’s eganged to Santa, not you.

[laughs] Exactly.

At the end of season 4 you got to work with Paul [McGillion, who plays Carson] again, which made everybody happy.

Everyone except the cast. If anything, it was all about, let’s get this over with as quickly as possible.

It seems like Carson and Rodney have this great friendship, but it almost feels like it’s coming from you and Paul and gets transferred to the characters.

It’s the same kind of thing that’s happened with the Jeannie character, with my sister [Kate Hewlett]. The writers see a dynamic that’s somewhat there, and I think what ends up happening is it becomes a kind of mixed statement, the characters with your personal life, and you fold aspects of each — I’ve always been the kind of actor who uses different aspects of my personality as different characters, because I always feel like I’m not good enough, it’s gotta come from somewhere. And I think that Paul and I do certainly have a rather beautiful banter that we partake in at all times, and I think they’ve done a wonderful job of incorporating that into a lot of the scripts.

Again, the same thing with Kate and I, where Katie and I just have this — I remember Martin [Gero] actually said to us once, “Now remember you guys are supposed to be brother and sister.” And we were laughing because we were treating each other so horribly, we could only be brother and sister.

Did he remember you actually are brother and sister?

We pointed it out to him again. He was like, “Remember you’re brother and sister,” and we were like, “Yeah–? Thank you for reminding us?”

You guys have done two episodes together.

Two, and then there’s a far-too-brief bit coming up in “The Last Man.”

And now you’ve got Clone Carson in the freezer, ready to come back in season 5.

He’s keeping the drinks cold.

Who else is back there, anyway?

I think there’s a few. There’s a good season’s worth of episodes in the freezer over there. I always warn any guest stars to stay away from the freezer.

So can you imagine Atlantis station without Rodney?

[laughs] I try not to think of it. — Honestly? I think it would just be a very different show. One of the things I’ve always loved about SG-1 and now Atlantis is, it’s science fiction for the non-sci-fi fans, in a way. It’s always about these great, dysfunctional characters and how they pull together, and that makes it more accessible. Atlantis would function just fine without McKay, but he just adds that extra edge to things. He just can’t say anything without sounding like, “You’re an idiot.”

But at the same time, defensively. Defensively obnoxious.

Yeah, it all stems from insecurity in so many different ways. He just has absolutely no social filter. And it’s one of the things that, I think David Hewlett has learned so much from McKay. Sometimes the self-censoring stuff, it’s just so nice to lose that and just say the obvious.

Just be careful, because you don’t have someone writing a resolution 45 minutes later for you.

[laughs] That’s right. I lead a lowly life.

But getting back to the accessibility — you have all this science stuff, but in the end you and Joe and Rachel and Jason [Momoa, who plays Ronon] go in and shoot things.

[laughs] Right. Well, we all resort to smacking the computer sometimes if it’s not doing what we want.

So what’s it like being a hero?

It’s bizarre. Because I think I’m as uncomfortable with the heroics of it as McKay is. They give you a gun and say “This is how you hold it,” and I’m like, “It’s McKay! It’s amazing he’s pointing it in the right direction.” I’ve actually made a career out of playing reluctant heroes, and I get more reluctant than McKay on that stuff.

You’re standing out in the cast not just because you’re a nerd and a reluctant hero, but a Canadian — if I were Canadian I’d get a jolt out of seeing that flag on your shoulder every week.

It’s so funny, because first of all you don’t often see the Canadian thing addressed —

Except for Zed-P-M, Zed-P-M, Zed-P-M, yeah.

Exactly. Because one of the things we talked about when I first started the show was, I don’t want to sound like — I don’t want to be doing a quote-unquote Canadian accent. Because first of all, there’s no such thing. But there definitely are pronunciation things that are different. That’s how we Canadians can infiltrate the entire entertainment industry, because you don’t really know, unless you make us say “zeds” and “zees” and “outs” and “abouts” and that kind of stuff, you really don’t know that we’re not from next door.

And that’s the funny thing, because everything is being made in Canada.Whenever I see you guys in those trees on location in Vancouver, I expect to see someone in the background shooting Smallville or something.

I literally just got off the phone with Sci Fi because we’re developing this little series for them   which is about, sort of Larry Sanders meets sci-fi, basically, a show that’s behind the scenes making a sci-fi show, and one of our big notes is the whole idea that you’re out shooting a scene and suddenly there’s a big explosion in the background, and you’re like “What the hell? Who’s doing that?” and it’s the next show, over the hill. Apparently if you go in space, no matter where you go in space, you always end up in Stanley Park.

Doctor Who had quarries in every episode, and you guys have that same forest.

Exactly! Only now it’s Cardiff, isn’t it? Don’t they shoot in Cardiff now or something?

Right, Doctor Who and Torchwood are both shot in Wales.

Exactly, so there you go. Space has a different look now, it has a more Welsh look to it than before.

Have you seen the new series?

I have. And — this is going to make me sound so old — it’s so hard for me. I’m such a purist on Doctor Who stuff. I’m an old fogy when it comes to Doctor Who. I love some of the stuff they’re doing with it, I’m just such a traditionalist with the Doctor Who stuff, I still dig those Tom Baker days. It’s much smarter now in many ways, but there was a sort of a naïveté to it then — at least for me, watching it way back when. I mean, I’ve been watching it for — apparently I was three or four years old, watching it from behind the sofa when Jon Pertwee was on.

I knew you were a Doctor Who fan when you mentioned watching sci-fi from behind the sofa as a kid in another interview, because “behind the sofa” is like code for Doctor Who.

I was a fanatic about Doctor Who. And that’s one of the things that I love about this job I have now, is that I was a fan. I had every single Doctor Who book in print. I wrote out timelines of all the things that happened to try to work out what the connections were. My dream was to be in the TARDIS. I refer to my little Echo, the car that I drive, as “the TARDIS” because I think these Echos are larger on the inside than they are on the outside. So I’m afraid it’s very hard for me — and it’s also just pure jealousy. Because I wanted to be Doctor Who.

Well, in a way, Rodney is the Doctor. His title when he was with UNIT was “chief scientific advisor,” and that’s Rodney’s title at Atlantis. You are the Doctor!

It’s my own version of Doctor Who.

So let’s talk about the season finale.

“The Last Man,” yes.

It’s one of those episodes where a lot happens in the course of 45 minutes.

Everything. Basically, in the last 45 minutes of this season, everything happens.

And here’s another example of things happening to Rodney, now he’s a 40,000-year-old hologram.

That is fun, let me tell you.

How did you approach being Old Rodney?

It was great, I just got to be more grumpy. I just projected a thousand years of bitterness and disappointment. It’s kind of a lot like being an actor over 40. I didn’t have to reach much for that. Let’s face it, being unlikable and ornery, evidently the cast was noticing that I was having just a little too much fun with it.

And very competitive, because in the first season we had a 10,000-year-old Elizabeth Weir [1×15, “Before I Sleep”], and you had to beat that and be 40,000.

And eventually they’re going to do an episode where we have to fight. I tell you though, they did a fantastic job with me with the make-up effects on that. But I’m afraid it’s just not that pleasant. Because you have to be in very early in the morning, which I’m not very good at anyways — though I’m getting better, thanks to Sebastian, my son. And then basically you’re in rubber-face for the whole day.

And, not to mention the fact that, good lord, not only does everything happen in the last 45 minutes, but I have to say it.

Right. You have all the dialog, and then Joe gets to go around and actually fix everything.

Exactly. I’m basically the chorus in this. It’s definitely an amazing episode, and what was amazing was, we were waiting — my son was born the day after we finished shooting that. And so we were in the last week of the pregnancy and I was terrified that I was going to be racing across the border to the hospital as a 10,000-year-old man. I wasn’t sure the passport was going to work, you know, you show the passport — “Ten Thousand Year Old Man Arrested at Canadian Border!”

The border guards — I live in this weird little area, where — I live in the States but go to work in Canada. And I keep forgetting to remove the make-up that I have on, when I hop in the car, so the other day I got to the border and the guy was like, “Are you okay?” and I was like, “Uh, I’m fine, how are you?” And I got home and I realized I still had all these scars and cuts all over my face from the shoot we were doing.

wonder if that happens to Connor Trinneer [who plays Michael the Wraith] or someone like that.

[laughs] Yes, Connor, with his extra nostrils. You know, I watched “The Last Man” the other day and one of the standout things is — Connor is, like, the nicest guy on the planet — possibly the universe, I can’t say — but I’ll tell you, he is just an evil bastard in the show! I don’t know how he does it, he just goes from this sweet, jovial kind of guy to this complete monster in seconds.

He has an amazing presence. Whatever part he’s playing, he takes over the screen immediately.

I’m glad I don’t have to work with him much, because I don’t want him to worry about me upstaging him all the time.

There’s a more of Michael at the top of season 5, right?

Michael is going to be a thorn in our side for quite some time, I think.And that’s a very good thing.

Atlantis has all these sci-fi connections, you have Connor from Enterprise, Robert Picardo [who plays Richard Woolsey] from Voyager

Jewel from Firefly

Right, very true. Now we were talking about your blog, and you mentioned there the “season 4 grump.” Did season 4 make you grumpy, or did it make Rodney grumpy?

I think it’s generally both. I’ve embraced my inner grumpiness. I’m practicing to be an old man, and I think by the time I get there I’m going to be very good at it.

But you realize, being grumpy makes the hair fall out faster.

Then I am going to be the most pleasant man you’ve ever seen.

You’re shooting season 5 now.

We’re at episode 2 of season 5 [“The Seed”]. We’re making Jewel’s life misery right now, which is a nice change for me. I’m noticing a theme to season 5, which is a lot of people strapped to beds. So there’s a little teaser of season 5. Season 5: A Season in Bed.

I’m not sure that will bring people in in droves, people being strapped to beds.

[laughs] I think it will. But I should not be spoiling anything just now. No spoilers from Hewlett.

Well, I’ve heard bits and pieces. There’s a new station commander [Woolsey], there’s a new stargate team —


And in addition to Michael the Wraith, we’ve also got Michael Shanks making an appearance [in a two-parter, 5×10 and 5×11].

Yes! We can both talk unintelligibly fast at one another. I never get to actually work with these guys. Chris Judge shows up — I had to put Chris Judge in my movie [A Dog’s Breakfast (2007), a well-reviewed comedy which Hewlett wrote, directed, and starred in along with other Stargate castmates (compare prices)], that was the only way to actually work with him. When he does an episode of Atlantis or I did an episode of SG-1, he was always in a wormhole or stuck in a jumper, we never got an actual scene together. Of course, now that I think about it, I’m not sure what McKay would have to say to Teal’c anyway — how well that would go down.

But I always figured Michael Shanks would be so sick of Stargate by now, because he’s been doing it forever, that he’d be the one to just walk away.

Well, Stargate is this strange kind of family-like environment here. I think that once you’re in the Stargate fold, it’s all good — and you’ll never get out. It’s kind of like some kind of sci-fi mafia, and just when you think you’re getting out they drag you back into the galaxy somewhere.

If I ask you, “What else can you say about season 5?”, will you say, “Nothing, I’m sorry, they’ll kill me”?

[laughs] Well, what can I say about season 5. We get off to a pretty rocky start. All I can say is, we’re going to be having a lot of fun with Woolsey. There’s definitely going to be some interesting little fights for power there.

At least he’s had the experience of fighting the enemy on Atlantis first-hand already, so he knows what it’s really like [3×10-3×11, “The Return”].

It’s definitely very complicated. No character integrates very well — we’re a team made up of very different characters, so we’re going to see him dealing with that.

Brad Wright is writing a script coming up [5×06], which I’m looking forward to, it sounds really fun. There’s a whole bunch of stuff going on. And there’s that damn McGillion around a lot more than I’d like.

Yeah, I heard he’s in five episodes in season 5?

I’m not sure how many episodes, because he doesn’t like to tell me. I keep asking him how much he’s earning, but he won’t tell me.

Is this going to be a Wraith season, a replicator season, new threats, or what?

From the sounds of it, it sounds like there’s going to be some interesting spins on some old enemies, and some new ones. So it’s going to be fun mix-up. I think I’m about as much in the dark as the fans are, because I don’t think I’m trusted with that kind of information, because I do have a blog.

And sometimes you update it.

About once a year, I think, is the average now.

You’ve done a million interviews like this, which is amazing to me, because I can only imagine what it’s like to rehearse the same kinds of things over and over again. So: What is the one question that you never get asked, and I’ll be the one to ask it.

How am I so beautiful.

I can’t do that one. I’m sorry, my journalistic integrity — [he laughs]. All right: David Hewlett, how are you so beautiful?

Make-up and hair. Actually, I’m remarkably well preserved for a 21-year-old. You know it’s funny, I love these things because basically I end up talking to people who like the stuff I do. It sounds to me like you’ve got the same kind of sci-fi background that I do, it’s kind of like — I find them more like conversations now than I do interviews, because you basically end up talking to people about stuff that you’re fans of. It’s like going to the comic book store and talking to people about the stuff that’s out. It’s always fun to talk to other people about their experiences with Doctor Who, or any of the various different shows they’ve grown up on.

Though you’re a Fourth Doctor fan and I’m a Fifth Doctor fan, so we should really even be talking.

[laughs] That’s it. You’re dead to me!

Actually one of the reasons fans connect with Atlantis is that the cast and creators are so engaged with the fans — and particularly you, I think.

I feel like I’m kind of a fan that snuck in, into the industry. Every so often I feel like I’m a spy in the house of cool. And I’m a big fan of the internet. I feel really bad, because I get a lot of correspondence in the traditional snail mail stuff, and there’s no time to get to it. But on the internet, you can — well, not when you’re having a baby, but now I’m back to work, and there’s some time to do things like update the blog and that kind of stuff. Basically it’s kindred spirits. I’m glad there’s a connection there, I hope there’s a connection there. I sort of feel like, if I weren’t doing this for a living, I’d be a code monkey somewhere and I’d be asking the questions instead of answering them.

That’s the nerd dream that we all share.

And you can be jealous of me because I got the effing job, so there.

Well that’s cool, I’ll just have to stalk you then.

[laughs] That’s right. My Doctor can take your Doctor any day!

Speaking of which, you say in the blog you’ve been having high-level meetings with Baz [his son Sebastian] about the very cleverly titled sequel to your movie [A Dog’s Breakfast 2: Heir of the Dog].

[laughs] He’s got to earn his living. He’s got to earn his wage somehow.

So where is that at?

Literally I am just bouncing ideas off of Jane, and the ones that she doesn’t say are stupid, I jot down. I miss it — I really enjoy doing that stuff. Writing is something that I love, but there’s something about being on a set, and getting to play with all the neat little camera toys and so on. I miss it terribly. And also just getting that group of people back together again. It was such a great experience, and I’m basically just trying to recreate the past.

So for the sequel you’ll have Paul and Rachel and Chris and so forth.

Everyone will have to come back. In some way, shape, or form, everyone will have to come back. I’m very interested in something along the Peter Sellars line, we sort of played with the Pink Panther, and so maybe looking at The Party and maybe having some fun with the character in a different milieu, possibly looking at something that takes place on a movie set or something like that. I don’t have any ideas about that, but I’ll be letting everyone know about them as soon as I get them.

There’s a couple of other features that I would like to get at least rough drafts sorted out in the near future. I would very much like to be shooting something. And again, we’re talking to Sci Fi about Starcrossed as well. I try to keep as many irons in the fire as possible, so there’s always something to jump to.

For Starcrossed, are you on the performing side and the creative side?

Right now, creative. I’m afraid – actually I’m not afraid at all, I’m very happy — but Stargate keeps you pretty busy. The hope would be to at some point slide myself in there somehow, at great expense to the network