April 17, 2015

Exclusive: John Emmet Tracy Talks Olympus

Jamie Ruby / SciFi Vision

Recently Syfy premiered its new mythological series, Olympus. Actor John Emmet Tracy, who plays the character of Pallas, recently talked to Jamie Ruby in a private interview about his work on the series.

The actor was surprised when he found out he got the role of Pallas. “I was working on two different projects, and they fell together quite closely, and I only had time in between the two for one audition, and it was for this project called Olympus. It was really the only audition I’d done in about three or four months.

“So I did the audition, and then went on to the other project, and, you know, time went by, a couple of months. I never heard back about it, and it sort of faded from my memory.

“And then my agent called, and she said, “You’ve landed the role of Pallas.” I paused, because I was trying to recall it; it had been so long. And when she told me Olympus, I was really surprised, because at this point, I had not even had the chance to meet the show’s creator, Nick Willing. The whole thing was off the tape I did with the casting directors.

“So, you know, in the days leading up to an audition, one of the best things about being an actor, is you have so much fun sort of doing all the research, reading up on the mythology, and sort of getting yourself prepared for the story. So I ran back and found all my notes and started sinking back into it again. So that’s how I got involved, and then I met [Willing] at the first table read with the cast; it was the first time I met anyone involved.”

Tracy researched a lot of mythology for the role. “Obviously I went directly to some of the more prominent sources, and I started reading up on Pallas himself, because there were four or five different versions of Pallas’s story, and I quickly discovered that they didn’t really line up with what Nick wanted to do with it, but there were hints and traces throughout. So I didn’t base him upon any mythological character in particular, other than Pallas himself. And like I said, there were just an awful lot of choices to select from, because everybody who’s told his story has sort of changed it. And I guess that’s the nature of mythology, they’re constantly changing the way they approach these characters.”

The actor took a lot for Pallas from what Willing himself told him as well. “The thing about Nick, is that he’s not only this fountain of knowledge and insight into mythology, storytelling, and character development, but he’s thought about these characters of his for so long, and he’s got so many ideas about them. Anything we’d go to him with, he would give us a fifteen minute answer filled with references and psychological insights. Every question you’d end up with three different things he’d ask you to read to follow up on his answers. So I had an awful lot of material to work with, and I have a full notebook full of scratched notes that were just from my conversations with Nick. Just our first table read I filled up three or four or five pages of this thing, and the second table read was the same way.”

Of course Tracy, however, also added his own parts to the character. “In terms of things I added to him, I always look at acting as an interpretive art form and then a creative art form. So I try to begin with the writer and the director and then I see what’s left, and then I add whatever needs to be added.

“So I think the thing I would say I added the most would be the timing and some aspects of Pallas’s world view: the way he relishes tearing apart what people say to him and turning it over in his head to decide what he can do with it. I think his world view comes from a place of, you know, ‘if you can’t join them, beat them.’ So I hope what I added was a bit of mischievous glee about the machinations, you know, the kind of intrigue of the core politics. I wanted to make sure his joy for that side of his life was apparent.”

When the actor talks about who Pallas is, he starts with his relationship with his brother, King Aegeus (Graham Shiels). “Pallas is aware of how much King Aegeus represents to everyone and he’s aware of what the lexicon means to people. It’s such a strong influence, and it means so much to so many people, and Pallas is very aware of that. In fact, Pallas grew up in the shadow of this brother, who was destined to be king.”

This is what connects his character to Kimon, played by Levi Meaden. They are similar in that way, and Pallas identifies with him. “Levi’s character, Kimon, is someone who also, in his way, grew up in the shadows and was not allowed to sort of fully realize who he believed he could be, and I know that Pallas deeply identifies with that right from the get-go.

“And at a very young age for Kimon, Pallas takes him under his wing and begins to develop and groom him. And I think there’s a camaraderie there, and there’s and understanding between the two of them. Both who are living in the glow of the sphere around this King Aegeus, this lexicon holder. So I know that Pallas sees himself in Kimon.

“Another thing, one of Nick’s ideas, is that Pallas was groomed very well by his father to be part of the court and to understand the political intrigues and dealing with the politicians and the different people at court. So consequently Pallas had a great relationship with his father, and is quite good at being a father. Though interestedly enough, he doesn’t have children of his own, unlike some of the mythology: in some of the books, Pallas has fifty sons, but in our story, he doesn’t, but he’s got this ability to be a good father, and he spends his energy on Kimon. A lot of that is not necessarily seen in each and every episode, but it was definitely emphasized through the writing for us.”

Tracy also spent a lot of time working with Wayne Burns, who plays Prince Lycos. “As his uncle, I also use some of my paternal abilities with him and offer him the ability to kind of have somebody to bounce his ideas off of. I think Pallas also knows that he can use Prince Lycos if he has to.

“And Wayne was fantastic. He’s just out of drama school. I mean, it was his first thing out of school, and here he was thrust onto a set and working everyday on camera with a huge crew, and this cast, and sometimes hundreds of background actors, and he just was inspiring to watch. He never sunk under those waves; he always rose to it, and he just approached it with so much gusto, and I really admired his work ethic.”

Another actor Tracy worked on scenes with was Cas Anvar. “I spent a lot of time with Cas Anvar, who plays Priest Xerxes. Both Pallas and Priest Xerxes have an extremely strong bond with one another, but although it’s strong, it’s is always under the microscope. There’s a certain cagey intrigue between the two of them: they plot together; they’ve got ideas together. They confide in each other, and I really believe that Pallas trusts Xerxes.

“I had a lot of fun working with Cas Anvar. He is a very mercurial and fun actor who is filled with surprises, and doing a take with him was always fresh and exciting and interesting. So he was one of my big scene partners throughout the shooting of this show.”

Another was Sonita Henry, who plays Medea. “Pallas and Medea are sort of at opposite ends of the spectrum as we revolve around King Aegeus. He means a lot to both of us. For either Pallas or Medea they are both each other’s obstacles and each other’s best competitors. I think Pallas sees in Medea a very worthy opponent for the king’s favor, the favor of the court, and the favor of power. Sometimes that means they try to manipulate each other, and other times you see them come together to find their way through something.”

The actor and actress got along well together and often couldn’t stop laughing. “Sonita and I had a lot of laughs creating our roles. You know, you find when you make movies and television shows, the more intense, the more scary, or the more serious the moment is that you’re playing, sort of the funnier it is to work on together, because you tend to make each other laugh. Sometimes you try to make each other laugh. So I would say Sonita and I from time to time were known for having a difficult time getting through our scenes with each other without laughing.”

Tracy really enjoyed working with all the cast, though some of his favorite scenes were with Shiels. “There were so many scenes I enjoyed doing of course, but the actors I mentioned before, Sonita and Cas and Wayne and Levi, they were all so much fun to work with, so I really treasure those experiences.

“I do have a couple of scenes though with King Aegeus, with Graham Shiels, who plays my brother, and, you know, in spite of everything that’s happening between these two men, and happening around them, it really was wonderful to play a scene between brothers.

“And so I suppose if I had to choose [a favorite], I would think back on the days that we worked on those scenes between the two of us where they were attempting to relate to one another as brothers who were raised together, running around the throne room and having fun with the palace staff, things like that. We would think back on some of those back stories that we were given.

“So it’s interesting to play two men who are in the middle of this incredibly powerful whirlwind of intrigue, plotting, war, and all the other things that are happening, but yet to try to find a moment together to play brothers who have a life history together. I Ioved that, and I really enjoyed working with Graham.”

The actor had to work some with green screen for the series, for which the exterior was completely created digitally, but he really didn’t find it particularly difficult. “In some ways I was very lucky, because we also had practical sets, and Pallas spends as much time as he possibly can in the court; he’s mostly interested in what’s happens within those walls, and consequently I’ve spent a lot of time filming in the set palace.

“But having said that, there were quite a few scenes that I did in the green screen studio as well. And you know, it’s funny. When I think about working on a green screen, it tends to not seem as odd to me as it might to someone at first glance. I think the reason for that, is actors spend a lot of time, for example, on stage pretending that there’s another wall in front of them. Or another great example is, we spend a lot of time in an audition room. There’re four walls around us, and you’re being chased by a big lizard or gorilla or something (laughs). You’re sort of used to making those realities come alive by telling yourself they’re there.

“I’ve also done some work with motion capture; I was in Assassin’s Creed 3, and that’s sort of the same thing, you know, you’re sort of standing there with a piece of wood in your hand, and they tell you it’s a sword, and they say, “You’re being chased by three hundred people,” but there’s nobody there; it’s just you.

“So I think the power of imagination is an actor’s best friend. To just say “once upon a time” and believe that it’s happening is one of our greatest tools.

“So I didn’t actually find it as challenging as people might think.

“On top of that, it’s quite fun to have your own picture in your mind of what’s around you. That also adds a level of comfort.”

Working with green screen was also made easier by the special effects department on the show. “Our effects team was tremendous, because they would show us computer renderings right there, like right on the set. They’d say, “Oh come on over here guys,” and we’d all crowd around a computer screen, and they’d say, “Okay, so this is where you are,” and they’d show us sort of a rough mockup, and we’d sort of look from that out to the stage and go, “Okay, there’s a pillar right there. I see a big statue of a god there, and I’m going to sit there. Okay, great.” And you sort of plant that image in your mind.”

The actor does get some action and fight scenes, though he would love to have done more. “I do I have a [some], though not as many as thought I would have, to be honest with you, going into this. The first thing they did was hand me this really cool sort of sword dagger thing, and I put that on proudly, and I was really ready to go to battle. But I’ll say this, I have some fights and action sequences, but I would have gladly done more.

“I didn’t have my own stunt man. For the limited action sequences that I’m involved in – and I should say, Pallas doesn’t like to get his hands dirty – they let me do my own minor stunts.”

You can catch John Emmet Tracy on Olympus on Thursday nights on Syfy.