A Chat with Michael Vartan, Michael Vartan interview, Rogue, Alias

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After surviving the it-seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time series that was ABC’s “Big Shots,” we would’ve forgiven Michael Vartan if he was currently camping outside J.J. Abrams’ door, clutching a pitch for “Alias: The Next Generation,” but we’re even happier to announce that he’s still out there, fighting the good fight as a film actor. As of this writing, he’s only a few weeks away from shooting a comedy with David Cross (“Demoted”), but Bullz-Eye had a chance to speak with Vartan about a film of his which recently – and, it must be said, unjustly – went straight to video: “Rogue,” an Australian-set horror flick about a giant crocodile, written and directed by “Wolf Creek” auteur Greg McLean. (Trust us, it’s better than it sounds; the film contains gorgeous shots of the Australian wildlife and landscape which could fit easily into a Discovery Channel program.) Vartan spoke of his work on “Rogue,” his excitement about “Demoted,” regaled us with a few theories about why “Big Shots” didn’t work, and let us in on the one plot twist he could never convince Abrams to do with Vaughn on “Alias.”

Bullz-Eye: Hello?

Michael Vartan: Hey, is this Will?

BE: It is.

MV: Hey, man, it’s Michael Vartan? How’re you doing?

BE: I’m good…and I totally still need to get my digital recorder hooked up, so if you can give me just a second…?

MV: Oh, sure, man, sure. Modern technology, huh? Wonderful thing. So much for the days of the shorthand writer!

BE: And good for that, since I don’t know the first thing about shorthand. If it wasn’t for this recorder, you’d be listening to me typing frantically in the background while not really paying attention to anything that you’re saying. Into the ear, onto the page, and on to the next question.

MV: (Laughs) I hear ya.

BE: Okay, we’re good…and let me just start by saying that, man, “Rogue” was great! I was really pleasantly surprised! And I mean that in the best possible way. I just deal with so many straight-to-video horror movies that are so awful, but this was fantastic.

“On “Rogue”: “The way my agent originally presented the project was not all that flattering. They said, ‘How do you feel about going to the Outback for four months and doing a giant crocodile movie?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’d rather have needles in my eyes, frankly.’”

MV: Well, thank you! I appreciate that! We certainly like it. We certainly enjoyed doing it, and we were very disappointed at the way it was released in commercial life. But, hey, those are things that, as an actor, you really have no control over. So, y’know, moving on, moving forward. But, yeah, it’s a movie that has a special place in my heart because of the shooting experience I had making it. But it’s a really good movie! Y’know, I just like the way it’s made, and I’m so happy that the guy doesn’t get the girl in that awkward scene where they’re about to be eaten by the croc! You know what I mean?

BE: (Laughs) Absolutely!

MV: In every movie, there’s that scene. “Are you kidding? You’re about to be devoured by a 24-foot animal, and you’ve got time to kiss and make out…? What is wrong with you people?” But, anyway.  That was my favorite part in the script, by the way.

BE: Oh, really?

MV: Yeah, I called Greg, and I said, “They don’t make out! This is awesome! You’re the best!” Finally, a movie that’s kind of real!

BE: Lord knows you don’t see enough of those in the horror genre.

MV: And they’re always falling down at the wrong moment, y’know? It’s, like, the guy’s been running for fifteen years, he’s never slipped and tripped, but if a T. Rex is chasing him, you know he’s going down!

BE: It was just gorgeous to look at, too. I presume it was equally gorgeous just to be there.

MV: It was absolutely jaw-dropping. We very, very early on got a sense that the landscape was one of the big stars of the movie. It’s really hard to explain how beautiful the Northern territory is. It’s the only place I’ve ever been to in my life where you actually get a sense of pre-history. It’s remained unchanged for millions of years, and we were shooting in sacred Aboriginal ground – we were lucky enough to get a permit from the local tribe leaders – and these are places that arguably very, very few white people have ever seen, and it’s absolutely breathtaking! And it’s majestic, and it’s just…it’s wild, and it’s scary, and it’s beautiful, all at the same time. And to be there and to be shooting, surrounded by these real saltwater crocs…a little scary element was that if something happened to one of us, whether crew or cast or whatever, we were literally three hours from any hospital! (Laughs) But it was just a completely wild experience, and, yeah, the landscape was just breathtaking. It was just…well-captured, I think, in the film, especially in the opening sequence. It’s just mesmerizing.

BE: What was your knowledge of Greg McLean prior to the film? Had you seen “Wolf Creek”? Were you aware of it?

MV: I saw it before…yeah, before I decided to do “Rogue,” I went to see “Wolf Creek,” just to see what this lunatic was all about. (Laughs) And that was one of the most disturbing and scariest movies I’ve seen in a very long time, and I was thrilled by that, of course. And he promised to give me a lot of those behind-the-back recorder shots that are so spooky, because you can totally tell what’s going on with the character, and you don’t need to have close-ups in every Hollywood movie, you know what I mean? (Laughs) But I’d just seen “Wolf Creek,” and we had an hour or two long conversation on the phone, and he’s the most easygoing, nicest, most ego-free guy. It was like talking to an old friend, and I thought, “Wow, it could be such a fun experience.” I’d never been to Australia, so it was kind of a no-brainer for me.

BE: Yeah, actually, I was going to ask if you’d been there before.

MV: No, I hadn’t. It’s actually funny. The way my agent originally presented the project was not all that flattering. They said, “How do you feel about going to the Outback for four months and doing a giant crocodile movie?” And I said, “Well, I’d rather have needles in my eyes, frankly.” (Laughs) But then, of course, I learned more about it. I read the script, which I loved, and I saw “Wolf Creek” and I got to speak to Greg, so that all changed very quickly, obviously.

BE: My wife’s biggest suspension of disbelief that was required was that you had packed your laptop in your luggage. “Nobody does that,” she said.

MV: (Laughs) Well, I am a travel writer, and I was writing an article on the Australian Outback, and of course they lost my bags at the airport.

BE: Right, true, but I think her thought was that, as a travel writer, you would’ve had your laptop on the plane with you.

MV: Oh, I see. Yeah, that’s true. He probably wouldn’t put it in his bag. Well, you’ll need to talk to Greg on that one!

BE: I’ll be sure to ring him up after we wrap up here. So I wanted to ask you about “Big Shots.”

MV: Yeah?

BE: Actually, I was at the panel for the show at last summer’s TCA tour.

MV: Oh, at the Beverly Hilton?

BE: Exactly. In fact, I was the one who caused one of your co-stars to jump up frantically and start yelling at me. (Writer’s note: For the story, click here and scroll down to where I speak of the Panelist Who Found Me the Least Helpful.)

MV: (Deadpan) I cannot imagine which one of them that would be.

“On “Big Shots”: “It was a great group of people to work with, but it just wasn’t coming together, and you’ve got to know when to cut your losses. And we did. But… (lowering his voice) …you could kind of blame it on the writer’s strike, which is what we did!”

BE: I’m sure you cannot. (Laughs) And, yet, it was ironic, because all I was doing was following up on a comment he’d made in an interview I’d done with him, where he mentioned that he hadn’t really liked “Big Shots” for the title of the show, and that there had been other suggestions out there.

MV: Oh, yeah. None of us liked it.

BE: But when I brought that up, he thought I was ragging on him when I really wasn’t.

MV: Oh, I see. Well, y’know, I’m not going to say anything bad about it, because now it’s in the past, but that certainly wasn’t a highlight of my career. So we’ll leave it at that. It was a great group of people to work with, but it just wasn’t coming together, and you’ve got to know when to cut your losses. And we did. But… (lowering his voice) …you could kind of blame it on the writer’s strike, which is what we did!

BE: (Laughs) Which is actually what I figured you’d do!

MV: No, no. Listen, we’re in…this business is crazy. It’s such a weird business. We’re not curing cancer, we’re not feeding kids, and everyone takes it so seriously. I think sometimes the truth needs to be told. It’s what it is. It just wasn’t a good show, end of story. It’s no one’s fault, particularly. I think sometimes things just don’t come together, and you’ve got to move on. It’s not an accusation or a blame. It’s just the way it is. And I’m shocked at the amount of people who come up to me and say, “I loved the show!” And I say, “What were you smoking when you watched it?”

BE: (Laughs) Well, I liked the pilot, and I thought there was a lot of potential for chemistry there.

MV: There was a lot…a lot…of potential, and we fought for it for a very, very long time, and then finally realized that it wasn’t going to happen, and we gave up. But one of the key things for me, for instance, is that…this is a show about four guys, and not once did we talk about sports. Not once. Guys talk about sports! Not once did we talk about other things… (Sighs) Whatever. I’m not going to get into it. But you’re right, I think there was an opportunity there to have a lot of great chemistry, and for one reason or another, it just slipped through our fingers. And now I’m out of work. So isn’t that great? (Laughs)

BE: On a possibly related note, what were your thoughts about the later seasons of “Alias” and the way the show came to a conclusion?

MV: You know, I think they did an amazing job, because talk about a tough show to wrap up! Where do you even start? There were so many loose ends, there were so many ways and different paths they could’ve gone down, and I think the writers and obviously J.J. did a great job at just finding and sort of picking a couple and just sticking to it and saying, “This is the way it’s going to end.” I mean, it’s one of those shows where, y’know, talk about suspending your disbelief! That was 90% of the appeal of it, that you were going on this fairytale ride every week. I mean, c’mon, Jennifer, I know she’s a tough girl, and she does kung fu and tai chi, but she beat up a guy who’s 6’7” and 280, for Christ’s sake! That would never happen! And he’s supposed to be a terrorist martial artist, on top of it! But that was what was so great about “Alias” when it first came out. There was no character like that on television. I think she was one of the first intelligent, kick-ass, just really hot girl who was the lead of a show. There really wasn’t anything like that. But, yeah, I think they did a good job. I’m glad I was back for the final season…or for half of it, I think.

BE: Well, what did you think about all of the developments that happened to your character over the course of time? I mean, was there any point when you were, like, “Oh, come on! Really?”

MV: No! Y’know, the only thing I fought for…I think it was during the fourth year, and J.J., rightly so, told me, “That’s never gonna happen, dude”…was that I wanted my character to go bad. Just for a couple of episodes! C’mon, let me be a bad guy! Let me be cloned or something! And he very astutely pointed out that, since the beginning, I’m arguably the one character on that entire show that could not be bad. I mean, even Sydney could have an evil twin, but Vaughn…? No. He was apple pie and baseball all the way. So I let go of that fight, because you have to know which ones to pick and choose. (Laughs)

BE: Have you started work on “Demoted” yet?

MV: I think we start on September 2nd, so I’m gonna head up to Michigan in probably mid to late August. I’m looking forward to that. That should be fun. I’ve never done such a broad comedy before, and I’m just excited play such a… (Laughs) …such a weird character!

BE: Can you tell me a little bit about it? Because I’ve really only heard bits and pieces.

MV: Yeah, it’s basically these two hotshot tire salesman in the Midwest that are…they’re not assholes, but they just don’t treat their co-workers very well. And their boss dies, and we were our boss’s golden child…or children, or whatever…and the next guy in seniority hates our guts, and we hate him, and he becomes the boss of the company. And instead of firing us, he demotes us to secretaries. And, so, now we have to go around carrying everyone’s coffee, and not only that, but we have to hang out with all of the secretaries whose lives we made a living nightmare for the last ten years, so they’re just giving it back. It’s so funny. When I read the script and heard I had an offer, I immediately called my agent and said, “Is this a joke?” Because I never get offered funny stuff. People always see me as the Ken doll who stands in the corner with a smile! And I was just, like, “Omigod, is this a joke? It’s not April 1st!” So I’m really excited. We’ll see what happens, but the director (James B. Rogers) is great, and, to me, it’s got the potential to be sort of a “Napoleon Dynamite” or a “Dumb and Dumber.” It’s in that vein. The dialogue is very, very smart and very rude and crude but very funny, and all of the comedy comes out of natural and organic… (Pauses) Oh, God. I just used the word “organic.”

BE: Oh, dear.

“On his upcoming film, “Demoted”: “When I read the script and heard I had an offer, I immediately called my agent and said, ‘Is this a joke?’ Because I never get offered funny stuff. People always see me as the Ken doll who stands in the corner with a smile!”

MV: Oh, God, what’s happened to me? I need to go back to the farm. “Organic”? Omigod, what a loser! (Takes a deep breath) Okay, so, uh, how about those Mets?

BE: (Laughs) So I’ve heard David Cross has also been cast in the film. Are you a fan of his work?

MV: Yeah, absolutely. He’s incredibly talented…and he’s playing the bad guy, which is great, because I can just see him being such an evil little bastard! (Laughs) It’s gonna be so cool! He’s such a funny guy. At first, I thought he was cast as the other guy, because there are the three main characters, but then I found out that he was cast as the villain, and I thought, “Oh, that’s so interesting!” It’s gonna be so cool.

BE: So who is the other guy?

MV: I don’t think we know yet.

BE: Oh, okay, so it’s still wait-and-see.

MV: Yeah, this is the other weird part about our business: here I am doing this movie, and I have no idea who else is gonna be in it! It could be anyone from…I mean, who knows who it could be? It could be the nicest guy in the world or the biggest asshole that I’m gonna have to work with for six weeks, and I have no say in the matter! (Laughs) It’s a very strange business.

BE: Now I’m really excited to see who it’s going to be!

MV: Well, me, too! Because, in the real world, if you work with a bunch of jerks, you can quit. But if I quit here, it’s, uh, not too good for the career. (Laughs)

BE: Last question: what’s your favorite project that you’ve worked on that didn’t get the love it deserved, and why does it deserve that love?

MV: Well, I think, actually, that it’s kind of a tie for Season 1 of “Alias” and “Rogue.” I mean, I know “Alias” was considered a hit, but our ratings were really, really not that good. I just wish more people had seen that first year. I thought that first season of “Alias” was as good as TV gets for that genre, for that action-spy stuff. And “Rogue,” I just…I’m incredibly disappointed with the way the Weinstein Company completely dropped the movie and decided not to release it in theaters here. Those are things, again, that we have no control over, but that was very disappointing, because I think that, as an action-monster-thriller movie, it’s a good one, and it has a lot of elements to it that most Hollywood movies of that nature don’t have. And that’s what makes it different and fresh and kind of “oh, that’s nice that it unfolded that way,” as opposed to, ten minutes into the movie, you know exactly what’s going to happen. So, yeah, obviously, I wish more people had seen it, but, hey, what can you do?

BE: There’s a perfect closing line right there.

MV: (Laughs) Kind of applies for everything in life, doesn’t it?

BE: Heavy. Very heavy.

MV: Yep.

BE: Well, it’s been a pleasure talking to you, man.

MV: Well, thank you, Will. Hopefully, I’ll see you at some TCA event down the road! (Laughs) Talk to you later!

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