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James Frain on Intruders, Conflicted Assassins, and Being Clueless About The X-Files

Intruders’ James Frain. Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

The interesting thing, so far, about Intruders — the BBC America drama about body-hopping immortals and the people caught in their path airs its sixth episode tonight at 10 p.m. — is that it invites more questions than it answers. James Frain, the actor who plays the mysterious enforcer Shepherd, knows that the tantalizing plotlines are unfurling slowly, but that doesn’t mean he was up for revealing anything to Vulture in a recent interview. (He did, however, invite us to come up with our own answers and make it seem as if he’d said them himself. “Just give me a couple of your juiciest quotes,” he joked.) The True Blood alum chatted with us about his character’s crisis of conscience, not understanding the show’s The X-Files references, and how he knew his co-star Mira Sorvino in a past life.

Do you think there’s any connection between Franklin Mott from True Blood and Shepherd? Both characters’ lives are complicated by immortality.
[Laughs.] Where do you want to start? Maybe with what’s different about them? The character that I play in Intruders is, ah, sane. That’s the big one! Because Franklin was batshit crazy. And he was really fun to play for all of that, because he also had a sense of humor. He was like playing three guys in one. There was a crazy man, there was a romantic hero, and there was a kind of jokester. Usually, those would be three different characters. What they did by combining them all together was really unique, and I think that’s what people really responded to. But this guy [Shepherd] isn’t crazy. He’s kind of in a situation that he’s created for himself, and that he can’t get out of. He’s a hired assassin, so he’s a particular kind of guy. Not everybody can do that job. Now, somewhere in Franklin’s past, he could have done what Shepherd does. To be an assassin, I think he’d be fine with that. It all goes wrong for Shepherd when his feelings get involved. And that’s the biggest parallel. If he could just be totally ruthless, his life would be very simple. But he isn’t. He’s not that guy. He seems to be having troubles with his conscience, which is problematic for an assassin. When he was going to kill a little girl on the beach, and then he couldn’t do it. But that’s going against the rules of the game, the game he’s trapped in. He feels like he made this commitment that he can’t get out of, and now he’s getting in all kinds of trouble. That action, of not killing the little girl, sets off a chain of events that is pretty cataclysmic for all the main characters. So he spends most of the first season trying to undo that mess.

Part of the appeal of the show is that we don’t fully know what’s going on.
Yeah, but what’s good about it is that it sets up a promise in the first episode, and the promise is, “Stick around, you’ll find out.” And it doesn’t go back on that promise. By the end of episode eight, you’ll have a pretty clear idea of what’s going on, and then it’s just whether we’ve been successful in hooking you into these characters, in this environment, to see what they do with it next. You know, Glen totally wrote and rewrote scenes based on things that we were doing, and he’s just amazing to work for. Amazing. He wrote a scene based on what I was doing that I can’t talk about. It would be a total spoiler. But he wrote a whole scene based on a conversation that we had. I honestly can’t you. It’s that secret. [Laughs.] We’ve given away a lot of other information because there is a novel this is based on, so people have access to the concept.

Although even in the novel, the role of Shepherd is kind of murky.
Yeah! But the way I play it, he comes into three-dimensional focus in the series, for sure. He’s sort of evolved as we went along. That’s what happens when you give a novel to a [television] writer — they start writing for the actor they have.

Do you think Shepherd is also an immortal?
Oh, I don’t think we know that [chuckles], but I can’t tell you. I promise you, it would just drain the energy right out of the show. I’m sorry. But I had questions, too. Genuine questions, “Why this?” “Why that?” “What about this?” But I think the answers will be really interesting, and bigger than we originally realized, in terms of the scope of the character. He’s not just derived from the plot. He’s not just this ruthless killer. He’s this really interesting mass of contradictions. And that evolved as the show went on.

Glen Morgan wrote for The X-Files. Did you watch that?
You know, it somehow passed me by. I don’t know how. Here’s how much I know about The X-Files: When I delivered that line “No ‘I Want to Believe’ poster?” I didn’t know what it meant. I thought it was a reference to wacky conspiracy theorists. But now I know. That’s how much X-Files passed me by. I’m curious about this now. I owe it to myself to watch. But X-Files wasn’t a big show in England. Here, it was like a phenomenon, right? Kind of like Lost was? It was all about the water-cooler moment, right? And now it’s all about the word of mouth, and watching a series on Netflix. That’s the way people actually consume this stuff now, instead of waiting for a DVD release you’re not really sure you want to buy. And I think it’s fantastic, because then I can watch the shows that I missed, over a weekend. I love doing that. I just watched House of Cards that way. And I get people coming up to me and saying, “I just watched The Tudors this week. Great job!” And I’m like, “Thank you very much. That was six years ago!” I also get that for this series called The Buccaneers I did on the BBC — I think it came out on PBS here? — and it’s like, “That was 20 years ago!” Actually, Mira Sorvino was in that show, as well.

Oh! So you knew her from back then.
Yeah. The Buccaneers was an Edith Wharton novel, and she never finished it, and a screenwriter adapted it for television. The whole thing was about the 19th-century deals, basically, made between aristocratic families who knew they were broke, and the new millionaires of America, who wanted status, and so they married their daughters off into aristocratic families. It was a total nightmare. [Laughs.] It was funny and tragic, about class, and the statuses of women, but yeah, it was one of Mira’s first jobs, and it was one of my first jobs. But I didn’t actually work with her. I worked mostly with Carla Gugino. But over the years, I sort of followed her career, and it’s great to be working with her again. In the interim, we’ve had kids — because it was 20 years ago! I’m now at the age where you say stuff like that. [Laughs.] It just rolls off the tongue. Twenty years ago! It happens. So we were like, “Hi!” “How are you?” “I’ve got two kids.” “I’ve got four.” You know? “What are you up to?” “I’m doing this show …” “Yeah, I’m in it!” Just like that.

Do you set up your kids on play dates?
[Laughs.] Yeah, we’ve done that a couple times.

James Frain on Intruders and Assassin Problems