Xander Berkeley currently stars in the global phenomena that is The Walking Dead. In the show he plays Gregory, the leader of the Hilltop community who has been butting heads with fan favourite Maggie (Lauren Cohan). It’s not the first time that we’ve seen Berkeley on our screens, he also featured on 24 as George Mason.
But he’s not just made his home on television, he also has a vast and varied film career. Over the years he’s appeared in Candyman, Kick-Ass, Heat, Apollo 13 and Terminator 2, working with the likes of James Cameron, Ron Howard and Michael Mann.
Berkeley was one of several key cast members of The Walking Dead to attend London’s Walker Stalker Con, and we were lucky enough to grab a few minutes with him. We seized the opportunity to find out all about his time on 24, Terminator 2, as well as how he’s finding playing Gregory, and just how long he’ll be around.
I’m a massive Terminator 2 fan so it’s pretty damn cool to be talking to the real Todd Voight…
Thanks…The wave of nostalgia seems to correspond with the 25th anniversary. I went years and years without hearing much about it and then in the past year it’s been really strong. Not just going to these things [the conventions], but in general. I did an independent movie a couple of years ago, and after the movie came out it was brought to my attention that the guy, who was sort of a comedian, had played a part in the movie, John Lajoie, had a band. Jenette Goldstein sent me, I think it was on Facebook or Twitter, sent me this message saying ‘Xander you’ve gotta check this out, someone’s made a song about us from Terminator 2.’ The bands name is ‘Wolfie’s Just fine’, and the song is Todd & Janelle.
He grew up watching that movie so many times and he just loved the feeling of those two characters. He just always wanted to see more. He believed them. They seemed so real to him at the time when he was growing up. He invented a whole back story and he wrote this song about it. It’s such a catchy song. It’s so haunting and it’s funny all at the same time.
It’s funny because I ad-libbed lines in that film on the day, that Jim liked. He said, ‘yeah do that, say that, perfect’, and this guy John Lajoie wrote those into this song. All these lines that I made up on the spot twenty five years ago are in this song. It’s so cool. It’s the ultimate form of fan art to me, to have a song that takes something you invented, these lines, and then turn it into a song. I keep trying to send it to Jim Cameron, I don’t know if he’ll catch it, but I want him to see it, and Gale Ann Hurd, one of our producers. I’m waiting until we’re in the same room so I can play it for her so I can get her reaction to it and tell him.
This is your first time at Walker Stalker London, how’s it been?
It’s been fantastic. It’s wonderful. It’s a long way from Los Angeles so I’m admittedly extremely jet-lagged, but the people of Great Britain have been fantastic.
Is it a shock how popular it is over here?
It is incredible. Having been on 24, the only other time I did any conventioning was with my wife Sarah Clarke when we both did one in London years ago, about ten years ago, maybe a little more, it was incredible to us then. I’d never done anything like it before that. It’s wonderful to be able to connect with the audience, not just where you’re from, but around the world. You realise that you’re not acting in a bubble. What you do when you go out there and do your thing, and the amount of work you put into something, pays off by the jobs that you get offered and the quality of the shows that are drawn to hire you. It’s such an affirmation because you see that this isn’t something that happens all the time. I was really lucky with 24 that I did a TV show that had that degree of impact on people, and again with The Walking Dead. They’re both shows that people will binge and will go into a dark place and not come out for a long time until they’re caught up.
George Mason had such a good story arch, he saved the world AND Jack Bauer, how many people can say that?
Exactly. And the least likely of characters. It affirmed for me what I’ve always believed that whenever you can play against the obvious, whenever you can surprise an audience and take them in a direction they hadn’t expected to go, the more it engages them. I fought pretty hard the first year with 24 to not let them make him a gratuitous jerk. I would ask them, ‘why is he saying this now? Is it just to be an asshole?’ The director on one occasion agreed with me and said, ‘yeah you don’t have to say that, say whatever you’d say,’ we did a lot of changing of stuff. That one time I remember Joel, who I’ve done a lot of work with over the years, he’s a dear friend now, his big thing is, ‘I have one motto on this show – never bore! Never bore!’, and so he would do things that weren’t necessarily true, but if they held the audiences attention he was willing to go there.
I said ‘I don’t think I’ll make a boring choice, I just want to make a real one. I think we can always find a choice that’s real and convincing and that’s unexpected, unpredictable, but conceivable.’ Then what he delivered for me in the second season with that was just gold for me. I’d been a movie guy for years, at the expense of a bigger career, a more fame and fortune oriented career, I was just always fascinated with taking on different characters and transforming into different characters that the audience would believe from one movie to the next. Believing that an actor’s efficacy is fragile and can wear out relatively easily if you play the same characters in everything you do, they aren’t going to believe you because no two people are alike. If they see something once and they know what they’re going to see the next time. So I wanted to keep them always guessing about me. It was my little mantra. By being a movie person instead of being the same character every week after week, you’re just in that one movie. Maybe they see it again, maybe they don’t. I’ve taken smaller roles sometimes in bigger movies just because I wanted to work with better directors or cinematographers. I just aimed for that quality.
A lot of times I would leave town to not be available during pilot season because it’s very tempting during pilot season to go for the big money and go for the fame. It took years of sacrificing that, to take this high road, and when 24 season 2 came and they offered, they knew I didn’t do TV series. I wasn’t making myself available for pilots, I was just doing movies still. Now there’s much better writing in television than there is films. It’s a completely different animal to what it used to be. At the time I was known to be somewhat of a film snob, and Joel called me up and said, ‘Look I know you don’t want to be a series regular, but how about this? How about we make you a series regular for this second season, but we have you inhale air-born plutonium in the first / second episode so we know that you’re going to be dead within 24 hours, how about that?’ I said, ‘that sounds interesting’. He says, ‘You know what’s really good about it? Everything you talked about last year sunk in. I’m thinking instead of playing the obvious, instead of playing what we did last year – which worked great for last year – you now have twenty four hours to redeem yourself. All the bridges you’ve burned and all the bad behaviour, you’re now gong to examine and question and realise you have very little time left to make amends, and make it up to those people. We’re going to see how many of those we can connect with in the course of the season’ Then they did the ultimate by having me, I was going to die anyway, take the bomb. It was just brilliant TV writing. I will always be so grateful for that character because I got to say things to people, basically the lines he has about doing something that’s meaningful in your life. You know the message of live your life, don’t let it live it for you. It came across in a few scenes that he was learning lessons as things were happening. You don’t always get that, something so genuinely profound. I’ve had kids write to me and sustain relationships over the years, and I’ve kind of ended up as somewhat of a mentor too because they look to George Mason for that. That’s cool.
Plus you met your wife whom is incredible in 24…
And in everything that she does.
I hated Nina Myers, but I also love her to, she did such an incredible job, how do you trust her? She’s so good.
I know, I know. She was incredible in that. She could have played [a lot more villains], they wanted her to play a lot of baddies right after that and she was smart. For me, I’ve played too many baddies, I kinda got stuck in everyone’s mind as a baddie and that’s a hard one to break. Once people see you one way they just can’t picture you as anything else. I remember friends of mine who were making movies saying, ‘look we have to really like this guy…’ and I was there just, ‘but you like ME. You’ve liked me for thirty years, what’s the matter?’ ‘I know, but the audience right off of the bat, they’re gonna have these associations’ You know, come on that’s because they weren’t supposed to like those characters. If you give me a character you’re meant to like, I promise you’ll like him. But Sarah avoided playing into any of the easy cliches. The villaninesses that were being thrown her way. She’s staked out her own path and is still doing great work all the time. And we’ve got two beautiful children out of the deal.
That’s not bad for a couple of seasons on a show.
We did a film recently were we played a married couple. I play an exiled Italian Jew who, during Mussolini, was thrown out of Italy. She played my wife and she speaks only Italian in the movie. I play a composer who ends up teaching Andre Previn and John Williams, and the list goes on. Henry Mancini, he just was this great teacher to different composers. He taught them how to keep their own voice rather than taking on someone else’s. She just did such a great job in that. She spent her junior year in Italy and always wanted to play a part where she got to speak Italian. We do these small independent films because in the theatre you’re away from home at night, and our kids are still too young for us to do that, so doing little independent films is a way of keeping your axe sharp and your artistic side going. A lot of the time people don’t get to see these movies unless by chance, but it’s been a great way of working and we’ve gotten to work on a lot of different projects together. It’s been fun.
What was it about Gregory that appealed to you?
Well they approached me. I didn’t know the show, I knew of it. I paint and sculpt so I spend a lot of my free time in the studio, or with my children. If I’m not reading scripts or performing I just don’t watch that much television, I’m a news junkie. So Scott Gimple described the character to me over the phone and I said, ‘well he doesn’t so very appealing (laughs). I have two young girls and I want them to think Daddy was something other than just a shit heel at the end of the day when they see me on the TV. What’s going to make this fun for me?’ You know, what does the show need? What can I bring to the show? Let’s put our heads together and think how we can make this particularly fun on some level for the audience, and for ourselves. So it’s not just playing somebody that you love to hate, but is vile. He seemed pretty vile. If you’re not going to do the part, they don’t want to show you the lines, everything is so top secret. So we were just talking about the general terms, and I thought – could he be in his vain gloriousness, somebody who can’t remember other peoples names because he’s so caught up in himself? Can he find himself amusing? Can he be somebody who finds himself entertaining? Scott thought that could work, he liked that idea. Then we were deciding where does he come from? He said ‘well the show’s kinda gotten a little bit… I don’t want him to be Southern particularly, because this show has become a bit of a Southern drama. I don’t want it to just be that’. I said ‘so let’s see if I can’t crack the window and bring in a nice Northernly breeze into the room every time you’re with Gregory.’ He ended up not only liking that idea and being open to it, but in a way, kinda writing – one of the writers admitted at one point that he had said this to them, they said… he said this in such a complimentary way that I feel that I’m free to tell you…erm, that he actually wanted to feel like you’re watching a different show when Gregory’s on, ‘You’re that much in somebody else’s world’. It’s a risky thing to do that for an audience that are as devoted as they are to the show, and to these characters, to take them so aggressively into another direction. But I think it was really smart, and I really love the scenes of him being just 100% shamelessly himself. Whether that’s being a coward, which TV audiences have come to expect their men to be brave. To such an extent that you realise what a bullshit cliche it is, that nobody can ever have a moment of fear or cowardice and not be thought a complete creep. Not everybody in real life is 100% brave. Sometimes the survival instinct overpowers the chivalrous or the courageous. We want all of our characters to be likeable and so I kind of love playing against that. Trying to find the dimensionality of someone that just wants to save his own skin. Even if the world’s gone to Hell in a hand basket, if he can have some good liquor, and if he can have some entertaining exchanges with some lovely ladies along the way [adopts Gregory’s voice], sue me if that’s wrong. That’s his attitude. The fact that he has a bemused detachment about it all, to me I find that very entertaining that he can play that up. I think it gives the show another colour that it can use.
Can we expect to see more of Gregory in the remaining episodes of season seven?
Oh yes. And into eight. I’ll be going back to work in May down there in ‘Hotlanta’. It’s a rough environment, but the show is so damn good, and the people involved are so damn good. The whole vibe of the show, starting with number one on the call sheet, Andy Lincoln all the way down. There are no egos, there’s a lot of bullshit in our industry, it’s sort of famous for that. People can believe their own press and they can think that they are super special and take all the credit for something doing well, and walk away and treat other people poorly as a result, and it hasn’t happened on this show at all. It makes me eager to go back, I’m having a ball.
Maybe work a role in for Sarah as well?
Yeah I gotta talk to them about that.
Catch Xander Berkeley in The Walking Dead which airs in the UK on Fox every Monday at 9pm.