Nathan Fillion is a hard man to find.
Not in pop culture: If you throw a ruggedly handsome rock you’re bound to encounter him. On Castle, which kicks off its seventh season tonight, as Rick Castle, best-selling mystery author and amateur consulting detective for the NYPD. Lending his voice to videogames like Destiny and Halo or to animated series like Robot Chicken, The Venture Bros. or Gravity Falls. Popping up in webseries like Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, The Guild and The Daly Show. Rocking Shakespeare for Joss Whedon in Much Ado About Nothing. If you squint your eyes and listen close, you can spot him as an inmate in James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy.
No, Nathan Fillion is everywhere — unless you’re trying to find him on a Friday afternoon when Castle is on location at Agoura Hills’ Paramount Ranch, deep in the San Fernando Valley and hot as balls.
“I need a 20 on Nathan,” broadcasts a production assistant into a walkie talkie, after I navigate this Old West town clogged with production vehicles and find someone who can help me. Before a response can be beamed back, Fillion comes cruising over a ridge, riding an electric scooter. He’s no stranger to Paramount Ranch: the Old West town that stands in this public park was a shooting location for Firefly, the short-lived sci-fi western that turned Fillion into a geek hero. (Walking through the Ranch, Fillion says “That’s the whorehouse from ‘Heart of Gold,’ and we shot the opening party of ‘Our Mrs. Reynolds’ right over there.”)
I don’t know why Castle is shooting on an Old West main street or why Fillion’s Castle and Stana Katic’s NYPD detective Kate Beckett are dressed like pistoleros. I’m going to go ahead and assume it’s time travel. (Note: It’s not time travel.)
As I’m beckoned inside his trailer, which he keeps at a temperature best described as “witch’s teat” and has a steady stream of superhero movies on the flat screen, we begin a conversation that will be interrupted more than once, lead us throughout his career and, finally, answer the question, “What’s it like being typecast as awesome?”
Most shows fail.
Yes. I know this too well.
What was the unique thing that made Castle succeed? What did it do that other shows, most other shows, don’t?
I’ve heard it referred to as the engine of the show is such that it keeps it going. The engine of this show was this cat and mouse of this guy that really liked this girl and this girl that couldn’t access her emotions, but we all know that together they did great. I really enjoyed that aspect. I also wholeheartedly believe that, unlike other procedurals, we don’t take ourselves terribly seriously. We are light fare. As far as murder mystery goes. At the same time, it’s kind of the double edge of that sword is it doesn’t allow us to be put in any category. I am told they’re talking about putting a new category out there for these called “dramedies.” Because our show is neither a comedy nor a drama.
Castle reminds me of the shows I watched as a kid with my dad, and they don’t make lots of shows like that anymore. Where everybody could sit there and get something out of it.
The Hart to Harts. The Rockford Files!
I could watch it and totally dig it, my dad could watch it and get something else out of it, my mom could watch it and gets James Garner. That, to me, is the niche Castle feels fills.
I think you’re absolutely right. One of the most important things to your point is the fact that we have Susan Sullivan and Molly Quinn. As bothersome and annoying and insidious as Castle can be — I would hate hanging out with Castle. Come on, man. Turn it off. But he goes home and he’s not the king of that castle. Those women are running his life and he’s an open book for them. He’s constantly learning and he’s not in control over there unless it’s really important. Life and death. He’s not a guy that puts his foot down. I think a lot of people find that endearing, that whole family life.
What do you feel that the natural end point of the show is? This year? Next year?
The natural end point? Excellent question. You are asking the wrong guy. I’m the guy who said, “Don’t put Castle and Beckett together, because that will be the end of it. That’s the end.” People watch because they don’t want them to be together, but at the same time how long can you wait for two people to finally… Yeah, remember how wrong I was about that? I’m going to reserve my opinion for the future. I’m going to just kick back and wait and watch and see what happens. My hope is that there’s no natural end point. That we can continue as long as we want to. That would be nice.
When that point does come, do you have an eye on anything you want to keep from the set?
There’s a couple of wonderful family photos on the Castle loft set. There’s one of Molly and Susan and I playing a board game and there’s one of Susan and I that is portrait quality; it’s really nice, they snapped it while we were doing the pilot. In Castle’s office there is a number of souvenirs from different cases we’ve done. An iPhone with a throwing star in it. The “writer” patch from Castle’s bullet-proof vest with the bullet hole in it, and the bullet is still there. And the big staircase painting, the poster, the big staircase painting behind the desk. I’d like to keep that.
Given the demands on you as the star of a network television show that will shoot for 30 weeks out of the year 12 hours a day, where do you find the time to do all the other stuff you do? Be it the Thrilling Adventure Hour or video games, or animation voices, or Black List readings, or whatever. You are more visible than any other star of a television show I can think of.
Yeah. Like Ted Danson was not everywhere when he was the star of Cheers.
Ted Danson didn’t have Twitter. That’s an excellent question. I mean, The Thrilling Adventure Hour is a four-to-eight hour investment of time on a Saturday, maybe a couple of hours on another day the week prior. The voiceover stuff, I’ve flown to Seattle to do voice stuff, sometimes they’re kind enough, often they’re kind enough, to come down to LA and I can just slip in there on a Saturday afternoon and record for four hours. If a project is a four-hour investment and then come back and do an hour or two another time, that’s something I can squeeze in. Unfortunately things like films or guest spots on other shows are not nearly as easy. But I’ve been very fortunate, haven’t I? When you talk about it like that I feel kind of lucky.
It’s like, I’m playing Destiny, there you are. I’m watching Robot Chicken, there you are. Much Ado About Nothing, there you are.
All of those things I did on weekends. All of them.
You’re like the Navy: “We do more on weekends than you do all week.”
Also, one of the blessings is, having friends who make amazing things and my circle of friends makes that very easy, because you don’t have to go hunt down something. “Hey Nathan, do you wanna do this thing? Do you wanna be a part of it?” Absolutely.
What do you have the most fun doing?
I have the most fun doing things that challenge me. Much Ado About Nothing. I was terrified. I tried to quit. I tried to pull out. Joss talked me off the roof. I was so glad because I had such a wonderful time doing it. I remember my first day of work watching Clark Gregg, furious in Joss’ front yard, yelling at these knaves who came and ruined everything and his daughter’s dead because of it. I thought, “Wow, I cannot blow this. This is really good. I’ve got to really up my game here.” Things that challenge me. Things that are different. That’s what’s fantastic. Right now the new and the different is fun for me.
Speaking of that, what kind of thing do you want to do next? I also have to think that whenever the end point of the show comes, you’ll be in a position to be choosy. In a perfect world what do you want? Movies, more TV, theater?
Variety. Right now, I don’t feel like I could be seduced by another seven years, another decade on a TV show. I don’t think that would seduce me at the moment. Compressed jobs, a month, a week, three months and then you’re done. That stuff is feeling really exciting for me.
Tell me about the most elaborate practical joke you’ve ever played.
[Fillion’s Firefly costar] Alan Tudyk used to smoke. And he came to my house and pulled out his cigarettes on the porch and I handed him a lighter. It was one of those shocking lighters and it shocked the crap out of him. So we all had a good laugh. And I handed him another lighter. He said, “Boy, that was terrible.” I handed him another lighter and it was a shocking lighter too that just looked completely different from the first lighter. So that shocked him too. He refused to light a cigarette at my house after that. Just after we started Firefly, he was moving from New York and looking for a place to live. I said “Come to my house, I’m out of town. You can feed my cat while you look for a place to live, it will be perfect for everybody.” He goes, “Great.” I had left a pad of paper on the coffee table. The very last day of the two weeks, he said, “Ah, I’ll just write Nathan a little note. Just let him know everything went great.” The pen was a shocking pen. Two weeks it’s sitting there and he almost got away with not getting shocked. It was close!
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten?
Bob Woods sat me down during the second year of my three-year contract at One Life to Live and said, “You have to leave the soap. They’re gonna ask you to stay and they’re going to make it very difficult for you to leave. They’re going to offer you a lot of money — and you’re gonna leave anyway. And you’re gonna move to Los Angeles and you’re gonna try it out.” He said, “Don’t worry, if it doesn’t work out, you can always come back.” He gave me the confidence to leave. And I did. I came out to Los Angeles and I did a couple of jobs right away that were amazing and I thought, “I’m on a rocket.” And then I had an entire year of unemployment. Not for lack of trying, I was really trying to work, but no one would hire me. It was really tough not to take it personally. I was ready to pick up the phone and call One Life to Live and say, “I’m coming back.” Then I got a phone call for a job and that job led to another job that lasted two-and-a-half years and that job led to Firefly and things were back on track after that.
If you could go back in time, what’s the one thing you would tell young Nathan Fillion coming to New York for the first time? How would you advise him?
I don’t know that I would change a lot. Because I learned from everything I did. There was one girl I dated who turned out to be really mean and a little bit crazy. I would say maybe avoid her. But otherwise, all my falls were pratfalls. You’ve gotta learn from those. I don’t know that I would change very much. I might have told myself to save a little more money. It’s an expensive city, New York City. I know time has a way of filtering out all the crap, but I had a very wildly positive experience on One Life to Live.
Your parents were teachers. You were almost a teacher.
Three months away from my degree.
If you were to open the Nathan Fillion acting school, what would be on the curriculum?
How to act through distraction. How to act rather than to a person, to an X on a curtain. Stage acting is, you have a proscenium, you act toward the audience, you just kind of cheat toward the audience a little bit. Acting on TV is different kinds of cheats. And there’s all these distractions and all these people in your eyeline waiting for you to do your job, or doing their own jobs, and it can be very distracting. Hitting your mark. I would love to teach acting to people who already know how to act and teach them the technical aspects of it. I think Harrison Ford said, “Making a choice is easy. Making the right choice is hard.” Choices would be on the curriculum.
We are living in the golden age of the geek. And some of your very good friends — Joss Whedon and James Gunn — are in the driver’s seat. How tempted are you to be a big part of what they’re working on? Or have you had to turn down the something big?
We are talking about a couple of guys who have been over the years incredibly generous to me. Incredibly. And in the case of Joss Whedon, I was schlepping around Hollywood just taking whatever I could get my hands on and being the number five guy at best. No one would give me an opportunity until he said, “You’re my guy.” It changed everything for me. It changed my professional life. It changed my personal life. What I learned from him, what I learned from doing that show, changed the way I do my job. It changed — I hate talking about “the craft” and I rarely use that word — but it changed the craft for me. I looked at everything in a different light after that. James Gunn as well. I look at things differently after having worked with James Gunn. People who love telling stories, people who are excellent at it. Passionate about it. I’ve had the good fortune to work with them. I would have to fundamentally change the kind of person I am in my core to say give me more. “You haven’t done enough for me. What have you done for me lately?” I will never ask for more. I like to try to repay kindnesses in my life. I will never be able to repay the kindnesses those men have given me.
Is there a superhero you want to do?
Stephen Cannell used to come around [the Castle set], he was intimately connected with Castle because of the people involved, and I would constantly pitch to him a redo of The Greatest American Hero. I thought as a movie it would be fantastic, I thought as a franchise it could continue, and with the technology we have now that simple red suit could actually be a pretty incredible thing. Somewhere between the simple red suit and an Iron Man suit. It’s what you need it to be at the moment you need it to be it.
Is there, and this is a weird thing to say, but is there a trap to being typecast as awesome?
[Laughs] I don’t know. “Typecast as awesome.” Am I? You look at Malcolm Reynolds, that guy was pretty awesome. Not because he was super and unstoppable; he lost all the time. His victories were tiny. And he’ll take ’em. It took very little to make that guy happy. As long as he was sticking it to the right guy, and walking away with being able to walk, he was cool.
Exactly. So there’s that kind of awesome. And then there’s the, “Look how awesome I am, everybody!” And everybody knows that you’re really not awesome, that you’re actually a dick. So those are two opposite ends of the spectrum of awesome. Given those two characters I think I’m pretty safe. There’s a lot of wiggle room between those two guys, right?
What was your first experience with Playboy magazine?
On the way to school, the bus would take us on a big long loop to get to school, but if you rode your bike you’d go past this giant empty field with these giant tall pine trees. The pine trees are still there. Three of these pine trees were close together and someone had nailed boards to the side, planks that you could climb up. I honestly don’t remember how high it was. I certainly remember that if I were to fall I would die. You were supposed to climb these boards nailed to the side of a tree, and when you got to the top there were planks nailed between three of them and boards across the top. So it was a flat platform. No railing, no walls, no roof, just a platform. And I was scared of heights. But someone said, “There are Playboys up there.”
”What’s a Playboy?”
”It’s a magazine with naked ladies.”
So I’m climbing the thing and let me tell you the wind was strong and they’re swaying and that thing was twisting and twisting and here’s me thumbing through these faded copies of Playboy magazine.
You’ll do anything to get there. “What do you need me to do? I’ll do it. Do I need to steal a cop’s gun? I’ll steal a cop’s gun.”
I risked death to look at my first Playboy.
Marc Bernardin is the Deputy Editor of Playboy.com. It’s possible that he has a Serenity keychain. Possible.