“Angels are the new vampires — I’ve been saying that for quite a while,” Anthony Stewart Head tells us. He would know. After playing beloved mentor Giles on Buffy the Vampire Slayer for many years, he’s become an expert on all sorts of demonology and supernatural forces, making him a natural fit for the new Syfy series Dominion, which made its debut last Thursday. The show continues the angels-taking-back-the-world-from-humans story that was set forth in the 2010 movie Legion; the action picks up 25 years later, after most of humanity has been destroyed, save for city-states of survivors "cobbled together" by a group of leaders. It is in Vega, a city-state formerly known as Las Vegas, that we meet Head's character, the charming but Machiavellian Senator David Whele. Whether Whele is a villain or not, he's a fascinating character, made more fascinating by the involvement of Head. Vulture used the opportunity to speak with the actor about angelic lore, whatever became of Giles, and how Clark Gregg stole his part.
This is your second movie-to-TV adaptation, in a way, given that both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dominion are continuations of stories first told in theaters.
Yeah! I think, in both instances, they’re slightly different [than the films] inasmuch as the movie that Joss originally wrote was not made, and he had the opportunity, as it were, to remake it for TV, and the television show was the tale that he wanted to tell, and the way he wanted to tell it, with the humor that he wanted to tell it with. The film had a completely different feel to it. Whereas with Dominion, I think they've taken an idea and run with it. The film was more like a bottle episode in a TV series, where a bunch of people are holed up in one place, and they're attacked by some entity — in this case, angels. What they've done is extended it and said, "Okay, let's actually make something that has a story to it, and let it grow. What would happen in 25 years?"
It's hard to tell what Senator David Whele ultimately wants just yet ...
It turns out, as we go on, that he used to be a TV evangelist. [Laughs.] Yeah. So he knows how to sell a very basic idea to people. And he just has a habit of putting himself in the right place at the right time, and he's very good at self-promotion. Not to say that all TV evangelists are that way, but this particular one is. I hope he's the kind of character you can't help but want to find out what he's doing next. [Laughs.] And as an actor, I like that I get to keep reinventing myself so that people don't really know who or what I am. I've been fortunate to play a number of people who are a little villainous, but in my book, the main point about anybody is that nobody starts out to be a villain. They've all got an agenda, and it just goes against what other people want, and it just depends on the lengths that they'll go to, to get what they want. There are repercussions, and it ends up shaping us. Somewhere down the line, I think David Whele was quite idealistic. But throughout the series, we find these different aspects of him. The writers, bless them, when they found out how I was playing it, they gave me all sorts of shades of colors to play, which made it great fun. So the moment you think you've worked out what he's doing, the ground shifts.
I mean, I thought when I started off with the pilot, I thought I knew where the series was going to go. I thought it was going to be a futuristic drama, with feuding families, with the leader of each of the houses and their children — sort of a post-apocalyptic Romeo and Juliet thing going on. And I thought we'd go into the fabric of that society. But actually [laughs], it leaves the world I thought it was going to be quite quickly, and we get all sorts of other influences, and it actually goes into the mythology of angels quite deeply. So it's never predictable. It's a really nice sign when the crew that are working on the show [are] stealing the scripts off each other to find out what happens next.
One of the aspects of the mythology — a recurring theme, if you will, that unites your work on Buffy, the BBC series Merlin, and now, Dominion — is the idea of the "chosen one."
Sort of! It's a very basic piece of mythology, and it pops up in storytelling quite often. And the idea of angels spans a number of religions. Not just Christianity. Judaism and Islam both embrace angels. And it actually goes back to — good luck with spelling this! [laughs] — Zoroastrianism, which predates a number of religions. It predates most religions with deities, this idea of winged messengers. So it's something that's deeply, deeply in the fabric of religious mythology. And they aren't at all like pudgy Cupid cherubs. They're usually avenging, and they're quite brutal. So it puts us as human beings, if you imagine a world where there are angels, definitely on the back foot. So in this, the humans that are left, they've gotten a little complacent, and all of a sudden, the tables get turned again.
I know this might be just wishful thinking, but there was talk of doing a Giles-based spinoff called Ripper ...
And I realize it's not moving forward at the moment because you are both occupied with your new projects, but Joss says that it could still work, because you get sexier every year.
[Laughs heartily.] Oh, bless him. You know what? I would do it. I would do anything to work with Joss again. He's a wonderful storyteller, a great director, and a lovely man. I would love to, you know? Whether it's Ripper or something else ...
What was the story going to be?
The actual story that he originally presented me with was going to be sort of a TV-movie. It's a beautiful story, it's a standalone story, it doesn't have to be anything to do with Giles or Buffy or any of the rest of them, and I would love to help him tell that story. It's more about what happens to Giles when he's cut adrift from Buffy and the rest of them. What he becomes. It's a beautiful, beautiful ghost story, and it's extremely haunting, as you would expect of Joss. It's unlike anything that I've ever read before. And if Joss is still game, then I am! [Laughs.]
I hope I'm not spoiling this for you or anyone else, but Giles dies in the Buffy comics ...
I know! And that was the saddest thing. But mind you, they brought him back, but in a younger form. I think he comes back as a 6- or 8-year-old, but with the mind of Giles. But it was really sad! We hooked up at Comic-Con a few years back, and I met him on a roof party, and Joss was with one of the people from Dark Horse, and she said, "Oh! Has Joss told you?" "What?" "He's killed you off!" "Oh." [Laughs.] She was excited, because it was good for the comic book. But he can do what he likes with Giles — bring him back and make him whatever. [Laughs.] The whole Buffyverse is a great thing.
Apparently, since the whole musical episode of Buffy and then the Much Ado About Nothing movie were borne out of the Shakespeare brunches you used to do at his house, Joss originally wanted to cast you for Leonato.
Well, yes! I was there at the first read-through. And it was a tragedy that I was doing a show for NBC at the time called Free Agents, and the dates that he had given me, I was waiting on the schedule of the next episode. And there were two days that I couldn't account for. And he had a really, really tight schedule — and it basically came down to Joss saying, "I'm sorry, I have to know," and my saying, "I'm sorry, I'm going to have to let it go." And then, of course — because life always hands you these little ironies — the show got canceled! So that next episode? It was never made. But you know what? I think it was such a beautiful film, and yes, I was desperately sad that I didn't get to be in it. I would have loved to play that part, but I thought Clark Gregg did a great, great job.
Okay, then — since you missed out on Much Ado, if he comes to you and says, "I have a bit part in Avengers 2," you got to make it happen.
You know what? If he says, "Could you be a day player on something?" I would say yes. When he said, "Do you want to do Much Ado About Nothing?" it didn't matter what he was offering me. I said, "Yes!" [Laughs.] And he said, "You don't even know what part it is yet!" [Laughs.] "Oh, okay ... Yes!" Of course, I would. The logistics might be interesting, but anytime!