Loading site-loader
April 3, 2015

Matt Frewer on Olympus, Max Headroom, Orphan Black, and working with giant ants


Tara Bennett / Blastr

If you’re a self-professed geek, then you probably know actor Matt Frewer. As a matter of fact, it’s almost assured that he’s appeared in at least a handful of some of your very favorite genre jams, since his resume is packed with more than 100 roles in everything fromHoney, I Shrunk the Kids to Syfy’s new Greek epic series, Olympus (Syfy is Blastr’s corporate parent – Ed.).  A Canadian American trained at Olivier’s Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, Frewer made the stage his first stomping ground. However, it was playing the digitally created talking head Max Headroom in the British Channel 4 TV movie Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into the Future that ushered him over to America to reprise the role in the 1987 ABC series Max Headroom.  From there, Frewer’s been a busy man, constantly working in film, television and animation voiceover. Whether he’s the unctuous villain or the comedic relief, Frewer is known for crafting memorable characters that often steal the show.  We asked him to talk to us about some of his most memorable roles and projects, and he kindly agreed …

Olympus (2015) – Daedalus  

What about Olympus piqued your interested?

Well, it’s Nick Willing’s particularly imaginative take on the Greeks. It’s kind of an epic tale and journey for the small screen telling how humans wrestle their own gods to the ground and storm Olympus. They wrest their free will back from the gods and cast them into the underworld. In one way, it’s a sweeping adventure, and on another level it’s quite a personal, psychological journey, so it’s a really interesting blend of things.

You play Daedalus, the man who made the wings that ultimately killed his son, Icarus. Where in that story are we in the Olympus narrative?

When we first meet him, the unthinkable has happened as Icarus has flown too close to the sun. By the way,  I call him “Die-dalus” and everybody else in the show calls him “Dead-alus,” as I’ve decided this is one of his great frustrations in life, that he’s an incredibly famous guy and everyone mispronounces his name. [Laughs] So he crash-lands rather like Harrison Ford on a golf course, so he’s this guilt-ridden, brilliant man who is tortured. He’s given up everything for his god, which is the work, and sacrificed the love of his wife and son in the process. He’s a very tormented character and carries around this figurative imprisonment even though he’s been able to escape from King Minas’ tower with the help of the flying machine he invented. But he’s built this ivory tower around himself, via his intellect, because he’s the smartest guy in the room. He’s the ancient Greek version of Sherlock Holmes.

He sounds like another meaty character?

Yeah, but in the early stages of rehearsal [Nick] steered me down a much darker path, which was great. Quite frankly, I could have done it one way with my eyes closed, but he said nope, we are going into darker territory here, and it was really good.

There’s a lot of sadness swirling around Daedalus. Is that something you can easily access to play him?

Yeah, absolutely. There’s a level of sadness there that I have definitely known in my own life and you inevitably bring to the character. I don’t have the level of self-loathing this character has, but it’s a fascinating thing to play. They want to be proven right, that they aren’t worthy. His journey is to overcome his grief and guilt.

The Librarians (2015) – Dulaque

The Librarians was a surprise hit and truly unafraid of going broad with the comedy and adventure. Was that the attraction?

It was threefold for me. I knew [executive producer] Dean Devlin from our time on the celebrity hockey team back in Los Angeles years ago. He’s a blast to work with and a brilliant fellow. Noah Wylie I love dearly and worked with on Falling Skies. And the apex of that triangle was to play a delicious panto [pantomime] villain. It was great fun. At one point I was kidnapping Santa Claus. [Laughs]

What about that broadness is fun to play?

Rather like Eureka, it didn’t take itself too seriously. There wasn’t that kind of sturm and drang. There was always time for a joke and a wink to the audience. Noah was brilliant about the way he describes his character as “Indiana Jones as played by Don Knotts.” It was great fun and a great group. Plus the character I was playing was an immortal so they can’t kill me off … whaa, whaa. [Laughs]

The Knick (2014) – Dr. J.M. Christiansen

You went very dark for Steven Soderbergh’s drama about early surgeons at New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital. How was that experience?

In a lot of ways, it’s very macabre, Victorian and dark. I’ll start by saying Soderbergh is brilliant, but that’s not news to anyone. I’ve never met anyone who can keep so much information in his head at once. He was shooting, to a large extent writing, producing, directing and editing. He would have footage every Thursday. It was a hairy way to work because he has nothing to cut to, so he would be following us around when we’re rehearsing and there’s no fat. Everything is going to be used, and it really is quite a dance when you rehearse. It’s great, great fun, but you have to come prepared.

What were the highlights of that role?

I think the scenes that were real interesting to me were the ones that were backstage of the surgical theater, and you see us shooting up [cocaine], and to a certain extent, cranking up our confidence to go up in front of our colleagues to present some new medical technique. To see the cocaine has given us this element of somewhat false confidence was a lot of fun to play.

Orphan Black (2013 – 2014) –  Dr. Aldous Leekie

Orphan Black has really become a cult hit. What about it appealed to you, and did you feel it would hit a sci-fi nerve from the start?

I was fascinated by the subject material. I knew a little bit of Tatiana’s work, but to see her embody all of these characters was very exciting to see unfold. God bless her, all the times I was around she never lost her good humor and focus. It’s done remarkably well, and deservedly so.

Leekie is a villain, but not from his point of view. There’s some logic about what he thinks cloning will do for humanity.

Put it this way: I think it would be very easy for that character to be a stock villain where you write him off as the one-dimensional Nazi who wants to grow things in a Petrie dish and is completely cold. The interesting thing about the character, as with anyone, is the gray area and that kind of ambiguity. I always thought the key was his love for the original clone. The paternal father/daughter thing was weird and intriguing, and I always kept it in the back of my head. No matter how much external loathing you express, to always maintain the love for the creation.

Alice (2009) – White Knight

Do you have a favorite role?

I really loved doing the White Knight in Alice. It was my first experience with Nick Willing, and we just really hit it off. He’s a dear, dear friend who is a brilliant guy. He thinks outside the box and has no fear. He doesn’t bunt to get on base, but swings for the fences every time. I am always willing to hitch my wagon to his.

Disney’s Hercules (1998 – 1999) – Panic (voice)

You did a tremendous amount of voice work in the ’90s. Do you have a favorite?

Probably Panic [from Disney’s Hercules] and The Pink Panther, because I’m the only actor ever to give voice to a character who was cat-atonic. Ow, my ribs! Oy, a feline gag! [Laughs] Doing Panic in Hercules was a blast mainly because Bobcat Goldthwait (as Pain) and I were the only ones who recorded together because they understood so much of it was going to bounce back and forth, so that was a lot of fun.

Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989) – Big Russ Thompson 

It’s one of the great high-concept sci-fi movies of Generation X.  Kids grew up knowing it and even participating in the attraction at Disney theme parks. How do you remember it?

Yes! People would ride on the giant bee! It was great fun to do. [Director] Joe Johnston became a great friend after that. He’s a lovely guy and a hugely talented guy visually and script-wise, too. You look back on that and all those props we were using were actualoversized props. Everything we did analog back then, taking 18-hour days to do. Now, any kid on a laptop can do that in five minutes now. I really remember that giant ant puppet. We shot it down in Mexico and there was a Mexican puppetry team that was in charge of the giant ant. There was six guys; a puppeteer foreman and then one guy on each leg and each of the calipers. You’d be doing your lines and hear this guy going “Uno, dos, tres, uno, dos, tres!”  and there’d be one leg, second leg, third leg. It was so weird. [Laughs]

Max Headroom (1985 – 1987) – Edison Carter/Max Headroom

Max Headroom is really one of those rare shows that was ahead of its time in terms of guessing how technology would be woven into society and media.

It’s very Orwellian how prophetic it was in terms of the Internet and the subsidiary tendrils from that. If you look closely in one episode, our Theora character [Amanda Pays] is getting the first email, before it was invented. There’s a visual ping and it says something along the lines of “You’ve got mail,” which is so weird.

Max really opened doors for you in Hollywood?

I was really lucky. There I was, coming over from 11 years as an actor in London, and arrived in L.A. playing the lead in a high-profile series. I didn’t have to pound any pavement at all. I arrived with this wonderful advertisement. I was very lucky.

What do you think of the show’s lasting legacy? He’s still a character that is instantly recognizable.

It was only on for 12 episodes, but people remember it and are hopefully fond of it. Whenever they review the best shows of the ’80s, I’m always slightly disappointed that they don’t mention the show, because it really did spawn a lot of lookalike shows and change the face of television, and was very prophetic about the way the world has gone. It had resonance.

It seems like a show that is ripe for revisiting today?

It’s interesting, because there’s lots of talk about it coming back. Here we are in the digital world, and the whole conceit of the show was 20 minutes into the future. Well, we’ve arrived. It could be wonderful. It’s still somewhat tied up in a log jam of rights issues and so forth, so it’s difficult to explore it fully. But it would be great fun, as I played Max again in a series of commercials for Channel 4 when they went digital. We made him grumpy because he was older and crotchety; a liver-spotted version of Max. [Laughs] I remember thinking just before the cameras rolled, I distinctly remember thinking, “Holy s***, it’s been 20 years since I’ve played this character!” Then I immediately went into it and time was out of joint and fused together two decades suddenly.