Nathan Fillion first broke out as “Captain Tightpants” on the short-lived (but long-tailed) cult sci-fi series Firefly. Back then, Fillion was a former soap daytime star, just coming off an ABC sitcom called Two Guys, A Girl, and A Pizza Place (he played a third guy). He wasn’t a big star, but even then he had a larger-than-life charisma. Firefly was infamously axed by the end of its first season, but by then Fillion’s performance as the dark-humored Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds had endeared him to a million geeks—as did his starring role in the Firefly movie Serenity and as Captain Hammer in Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog. He’s also played a philandering gynecologist in the indie film Waitress; yet another doctor on Desperate Housewives; and a very Mal Reynolds-ish space captain in the blockbuster videogame Halo. These days, he’s the star of Castle, a playful Remington-Steele-like romantic procedural, in which he plays a swaggering crime novelist who flirts, solves crimes, and exudes so much charisma it should be illegal. Emily Nussbaum met him in midtown and insulted him by implying that Edmonton, Canada might be boring.
Hi Nathan. We actually met a long time ago—I was on the set of Firefly to profile Joss Whedon.
Well, let me tell you, that’s the best job I ever had. Bar none. The people I was working with, working for, the stories, the scripts, every word! It just —
I was just lingering around with a tape recorder.
It was an incredible time. I pull one friend from of every show I’ve done. From Firefly I got like 26. Alan Tudyk is one of my best friends in the world. Joss Whedon, we still hang out. Adam Baldwin, he still comes to my house. I can’t say it enough. Nobody in this industry has done more for me singlehandedly than Joss Whedon. I learned so much, I walked away from that such a winner. And there was the heartbreak, but we got a movie out of it. How could you ask for more?
I didn’t even mind that the movie didn’t succeed. It would be nice if there were sequels.
I still encounter people who saw the movie and say “There was a TV show about this?” and they watch the series and they don’t watch the last episode—so for them there’s always more Firefly.
How did you get involved in the show in the first place?
Basically, after an ABC sitcom I did, I ended up with a holding deal with 20th Century Fox. Absolutely cool. It pays you to be unemployed. And the bigger the entity that gives you the deal, the better. So Joss Whedon was going to do Firefly with Fox and I was on their list of schmoes. At the time the show was only a treatment. I walked into the room and there was this casting agent and there was this scraggly, bearded fella wearing a purple sweater with a hole in it, sitting in the corner. I thought this is nice, I wonder when Joss Whedon is going to get here. He was not what I expected.
Like you, my husband’s Canadian -
Oh yeah? Where’s he from?
You know what, the rest of Canada calls Toronto the center of the universe because everyone in Toronto is kind of uppity. A friend of mine moved to Toronto to do a series and she said this about Toronto - it’s so hard to make a friend in Toronto you have to wait for somebody to die to take their place.
What is Edmonton like?
It’s a small city, spread out. There’s a beautiful winding river running to the West of the center of the city. And it’s a winter town.
A nice place to grow up or nice place to visit?
I did a lot of camping. I was always on my bike. Is it boring? Well, it’s not New York. We have festivals like crazy in the summertime: jazz fest, food fest, comedy fest, a street performer fest. There’s the second largest Fringe festival in the world.
What’s Die Nasty? I saw that you got your start in that—it was a comedy troupe?
It was our play on Dynasty. A weekly, live-action improvised soap-opera.
That sounds amazing!
It was great! It had its own fans.
So you were in a cult thing from the beginning.
At the Fringe Festival, Die Nasty runs every night—every year, it’s a different theme. So one season will be smalltown Canada, one year it’s a cruise ship, one year it’s a space ship, one year it’s a hockey team, one year it’s the 1930s.
Who did you play?
I played one season as Howie McChuckski, this small-town guy who’s kind of naive, who wanted to be a poet and it turns out that his father was the mayor of this town.
It’s interesting you played a sensitive nerdy role.
I stole directly from Bob Newhart, so it was kind of a stuttering, nervous..
I just assumed that you were a big, swaggering -
Well, I grew into that. That was like a three-year process. God, it was a lot of fun. The stuttering got to the point where they started writing stuttering into the script. You know, my father and my brother were very much performers. They play guitar, sing, they’re very, very confident guys. I was shy. I was painfully shy, until fifth grade when I transferred to another school and befriended the class clown. And one day he was sick and I kinda stepped in for the class clown and I said wow, this is exciting, I’m a little bit nervous.
How did you end up coming to New York?
I was attending the University of Alberta. I was going to be a high school teacher, like my parents. I failed—no, I didn’t fail a class, I just barely passed. I really didn’t try. It was Canadian history, through the plays of the time. My god, those were boring plays. I’m thinking, I’m gonna have to retake that class. Then I get a phone call from New York saying they had found an audition tape of mine.
And you ended up playing Joey Buchanan on One Life To Live. Did you meet the other Joey Buchanans?
I did, later on in LA. There’s a lot of us. There were four guys playing my same brother in the three years I was there. It’s a revolving door. And it just makes you grateful for every time you don’t get fired. Other people would tell me negative things sometimes, but my experience was so positive: these people who really know how to do what they’re doing, who have been doing it forever, and who are so eager to share.
Did you ever have anything go wrong on set?
One time I didn’t know we were actually taping. I was just kind of horsing around. I was like, whoa whoa whoa whoa, but they were on a schedule. I didn’t make that mistake again.
It’s so funny that all of your career experiences were very sort of pure, community-like, because I imagine a soap opera being so -
Soap opera dramatic?
There’s a pride of craftsmanship in daytime television. You have a true fanbase but socially, sometimes people look down upon it.
I agree. I’ll never look down on and I love running into actors who say “Oh yeah, I did a soap.” I say “Tell me which one!” It’s like being a member of a secret society.
What were the bad experiences other actors told you about?
I had a guy tell me they’re always looking over your shoulder. I was like, Really? But I was lucky. I’ve told this story a million times, but Bob Woods, who played my uncle, he said, “Have you got a minute?” He took me into his dressing room. He cracked a beer and said, here’s what’s going to happen. He said producers were going to come to me and ask me to renegotiate my contract. Here’s what you’re going to tell them: You’re gonna say no.
You keep saying no. They’re going to make it difficult for you to say no, but say no. Pack your bags and move to Los Angeles. And try. And if it doesn’t work out? They’ll fire whoever’s in your place and take you back. I would not have had the courage to do that unless he had that talk with me. It wasn’t a month later when the producers approached me exactly that way. And I left.
And how did it go?
You know, the last day on the soap, I got a pilot. 708 with Callie Thorne. Then a couple small parts: Blast From The Past, Saving Private Ryan! And then nine or ten months of auditioning, sometimes five times a week, not getting a job. I got into a dangerous area of “I’m not gonna get this job anyway.”
What was your worst audition?
It was about 13 pages of script, so many scenes. In Burbank, 90 something degrees and we had to wait outside in the sun. They were running an hour and forty-five minutes late. And this casting director was very abrupt and said, You’re doing just scene 4. Half a phone call. I thought, you know, I’ve been here over two hours, working these 13 pages of script. I said, I understand, you’re running behind. But would it be all right if I did Scene 2? I worked really hard on it. She looked like I slapped her in the face. She said, No! We’re doing 4!
I said, “You know what?” And I stormed out of the room and said “This isn’t for me!” I threw my script in the trash can and whipped open the door and slammed it shut. And I remember seeing the looks on the faces of those people—and I’m thinking “That was great, I stood up for myself!” And then, “That’s a roomful of people that will never, ever hire me.”
Did you run into them again?
No. You know, I certainly wasn’t in a spot where they were like, that was that guy. I was shocked when I went to L.A. I did three years of the hardest work any actor could do, I was nominated for an Emmy, and no one cares. Daytime prepares you so well: you can change the lines, I’m off the book five mintues later. Isn’t there value in that? You try not to take it personal —
But how can you not? It’s about you.
My feeling about it was, it’s not about me. These people want what’s best for the show. If I had an image in my mind, and this is not that guy—
You’re a handsome guy.
Say it again.
A very handsome maaaaan—and you said that when you started, you played bookish, nervous people. And then you moved to swaggering handsome guys. Did you have a sense of your own physicality?
No, I really thought of myself as a character actor.
Is there an actor you thought of as your model?
Harrison Ford. I steal all the best stuff from him.
I can see that.
I love watch Harrison Ford get beat up. He was the guy who gets beaten and smacked around and still keeps going. I’ve channelled that more than once.
Did you do pranks on One Life To Live? When did prank thing start?
Once in a while, you just see an opening.
Did you ever play one on Joss?
Nothing really prankish. I had to do a naked scene in the desert and they put a little mitten on you. And I asked for a headshot of Joss and cut it out and put that on my mitten. Nothing too—you don’t want to bite the hand that feeds you! But when we did the Firefly pilot, Alan Tudyk was looking for a place to live. He stayed at my house while I was doing an indie film. He used to be a smoker and I’d leave a lighter out, and when he pressed it it would shock him. And then, in my house, I left this bowl with some stuff in it. A pad of paper and a pen. And on the last day, after living there for four weeks, he thinks he’ll write me a note. So he picks it up—and it’s a shocking pen.
Is there any comment you find fans make over and over, from Firefly?
I find the Firefly fans very clever people. First of all, they have excellent taste. Second, very respectful. I’ve never really had a problem—although when you mix fans and booze, there might be the occasional ass-grab, which I’m not okay with. “Take off your pants.” Really? Of all my work, that’s what you— But when people get excited and don’t know what to say, they might say something a little negative.
I’ve had a couple of experiences where people might assume that you might think rather highly of yourself. So the first thing out of their mouth is something to bring you down.
So they’re negging you, like you’re a pretty girl.
I mean more overtly negative. “I don’t give a damn who you are.” People say strange things when they get excited.
Famous people have this odd pressure to be polite at all times.
I had a drink with a buddy back in Edmonton—I was really surprised this would happen in Edmondton of all places. Somebody threw a wet, wadded-up napkin at my face!
Wow. I understand a rude come-on, but I’m surprised someone would throw something.
Again, booze. You mix it in and things go awry. But again, overwhelmingly, people are positive. They’re so grateful and respectful and say wonderful things! People treat me kindly, overwhelmingly. Less than one percent of the time do people say something off. It’s a perfect level of fame.
How did you get on Twitter?
Through Felicia Day, the Twitter queen. She said, now I’m going to Twitter to my fans that you’re on—and blip-blip-blip-blip-blip! I go home and my email was full. I thought my computer was broken. But the value of Twitter? Eva Longoria tweeted about this benefit for Haiti, for orphan homes. And in the space of an hour, I contacted all these people. I met some guys over Twitter who are building an electric car. Wanna see this thing? They say “why don’t you come down and drive one?” And all of a sudden I’m in Eugene, OR, driving this thing. [He displays a video.] It’s like a Mad Max type vehicle. It’s called The Pulse. And it’s all through Twitter: they wanted awareness, I said, let me help.
Have people tried to place products with you?
There was an episode of Castle with these S&M mistresses and this company donated makeup. They’re on a budget, it’s a shoestring budget, but this company was kind enough to donate. So I went on Twitter and said “Thank you for this.” and put a picture up. But I haven’t had anyone try to get me to do a commercial. I’ve only done it in gratitude.
Do you Google yourself?
I have a Google alert. Although before that, I had my mom, who basically is a Google alert. I was like, Mom, you have to consider the source. I’m not engaged.
Your personal life is not really part of your persona. Do you have a girlfriend?
I have a lovely girlfriend. I just—well, my public life is about my job. I’m not terrible outspoken politically. I try not to discuss religion, politics, and money. People say, Oh, you’re in the public eye—but, you know, it’s my job.
How’s your girlfriend about all that?
Wonderful. She’s not in it for the whole thing.
Did you get involved when you were famous?
We’ve known each other for a while, but we only got involved a while back. I guess I was doing all right — but we’d been friends for ages.
Okay, now I feel like asking questions. Is she an actress?
Yes, she’s an actress.
Is she well-known?
Not very, not very.
It’s the classic question, about two actors.
I’ve seen that happen, where two actors are dating and it becomes competitive. I’ve never experienced that. But I don’t think you would know her.
It might be different if the guy were the less famous, or maybe that’s just the cliché.
It falls into the category of jealousy, and I don’t think there’s room for that in a proper, loving relationship. If you’re jealous of your wife or husband, you ought not to be.
I guess we should talk about Castle.
I guess we should.
I noticed that there’s this background he has with One Life To Live — how did that come up?
There was a line in the show about him watching a soap opera, and I said, could we make it OLTL? That whole Halloween episode where I dressed as Mal Reynolds—the audience loves that. They know it’s a TV show. So to see those little nudges and winks, it’s great. The first time Castle put on gloves at a crime scene, they were blue: like “two two, hands of blue” [a reference to Firefly.] I didn’t ask, I just did it, and people live for that stuff. In the Halloween episode, I hid a prop from Firefly on the set. I put it on Twitter: can you spot it?
You’re skilled at Twitter. It’s such a strange form, direct but it’s also a persona. My father once said long distance relationships only work if you have a basis to work with. Over the telephone, everybody’s in charge of their presentation. You never get to see them in an adverse situation. Or talking to a waiter, which is very important to me. I think Twitter is like that. You only get someone’s presentation. I try to be—I’m often wry on my Twitter, but I try to be positive. Some people are just outright mean. And I just go: block. Block!
Anything up with the Dr. Horrible sequel?
What I know is that Joss has a title for a sequel. I’m told he even has a couple of songs. That’s all I know.
Did you watch the end of Lost? Since you were on it.
I was so into it in the beginning and I got so busy. Now I have to wait until the next haitus and start fresh with the DVDs.
I wasn’t wild about the ending.
Best thing about being on Lost was, I’m a fan. Worst thing was that I knew what was going to happen. A girlfriend of mine came over to watch Lost one day and she had a journal where she wrote down details. She was like, Oh, that’s the same actor—it’s all connected! And I go do my part on Lost and that guy’s playing the priest who marries us. Turns out, it’s not that they’re connected. It’s that they’re in Hawaii. There’s a small talent pool. And this guy was a psychiatrist who does local theater. I didn’t have the heart to tell her.
Do you have a desire to have movie-star fame?
I’ll tell you, what really appeals to me about movies is the schedule. The one-hour drama schedule is intense. You feel it when you start coming down with a cold. Everyone is counting on you. If you miss a day, even half a day, you’ve got to catch up. It gets a little stressful.
Was Castle created for you?
No, it was already out there. I had another holding deal. When I started reading the script, I turned to my girlfirend and I said, “I’m gonna read this to you and you tell me if you don’t think this is perfect.” I know exactly how to play this. I had a meeting with the producers and I did something I’ve never done, I said, stop looking—I’m this guy. Don’t take another meeting.
And you walked out and slammed the door!
I knew this was my niche. He’s certainly not the coolest, a little bit of an everyman…
Wait, he’s not an everyman. He’s an uber-mensch!
Well, he’s kind of a— Oh, I guess he is. He thinks he’s super-cool, but so many things happen that kick Castle right in the nuts. But he never gets it. Life boots him around a lot but it doesn’t get him down. He doesn’t feel like the victim. He keeps on going.