As he prepared to play the live-action version of Cowboy Bebop’s Vicious — the sinister villain who bedevils protagonist Spike Spiegel throughout the beloved anime series — Alex Hassell soon realized the unique task in front of him. “The thing about the original anime is that Vicious isn’t in it a great deal,” he says.
He’s right: There are 26 episodes of the original anime, and Vicious appears in five of them, though he makes such an impression that his menace looms over the series anyway. By contrast, Hassell’s Vicious is in all ten episodes of the Netflix series with a new, beefy subplot chronicling the bloody scheme by which he eventually takes control of the Syndicate.
To accommodate this new arc, a number of harrowing scenes were added between Vicious and his wife, Julia, boosting the flavor of Cowboy Bebop’s already-overflowing stew of influences and tones. “The great thing about Cowboy Bebop is that it straddles so many genres,” says Hassell. “To me, the new material had a new space it could live in: a sort of gothic, almost Greek tragedy.”
As this new take on Vicious came together, Hassell went through extensive fight training and concocted his own exhaustive biography to explore how the character might’ve turned out so, well, vicious. No detail was too small; he even imagined the type of liquor Vicious might be drinking. (For the record, it’s a Venusian absinthe.)
Here, Hassell takes us inside Cowboy Bebop’s most violent villain and tries to find a little sympathy for the devil.
I’m hoping you can clear something up for me: Is Vicious’s name really “Vicious”? Or is that just a very fitting nickname?
I don’t want to give anything away in case they use it at a later point, but in my imagination, he had a name. He was a normal boy and then through the initiation of getting into the Syndicate, he got that name as part of, like, a gang rite.
One of the major things that separates the live-action Cowboy Bebop from the original anime is that we spend much, much more time with Vicious. How do you compare your version of the character to the original?
I think he wants to be the Vicious from the anime. He desperately wants to be seen by the world as that Vicious and to see himself as that Vicious. But he’s actually this fucked-up thug who’s very unhinged and much more unstable. I think he probably thinks he needs to look a certain way, act a certain way. There’s a logic to him: Someone this rich and successful should look like this and dress like this. This is what my father would have wanted.
How did his live-action look come together? So much of his impact in the anime is aesthetic: The katana, the black coat, the long white hair …
There was a very brief discussion about whether we should have the wig, but it was decided very quickly: We have to have the wig.
People would have complained.
I mean, definitely. And also: Why wouldn’t you do it? It’s such a cool, iconic kind of look. So we kept it. They always start with long wigs, and you slowly chop them up. You’re like, “Should we go a little lower?”
What about the costume? Again, you’re talking about a character design fans know and love and have pored over in incredible detail. But it’s also a look that was not designed for a real human being to wear.
That was always it: Let’s start with the anime, look at what that’s like, and whether it suits us as human beings. The first costume I tried on was a replica of the anime costume, and it just didn’t look like a human being would wear it. It didn’t look intimidating because it was not made for a real body in the real world with real materials. It was drawn.
In the anime, I think he’s almost like this ’90s Patrick Bateman style: big, long overcoats. A kind of business murderer. My version had these tight trousers and boots. The bottom half of me was almost like a skinhead — someone who could kick your head in. And the other part was this gunslinger, all in black, like someone who rides into town.
I noticed your costume did not include a big bird on your shoulder.
I didn’t see a script where I had the cormorant. I think they decided that was too expensive or something, so I had a knuckle duster with wings on my belt buckle and on my holster.
How did you get into the character’s head? It doesn’t seem like a great place to be.
I think part of the actor’s job is often to just make up a lot of stuff if it’s helpful. So I attempted to approach him from a psychological point of view. I read a lot about violence, and mental health, and abusive relationships, and narcissism, and the Triads. I think often I can overwork and then you realize you only end up using this tiny amount of your research. After a while, you go, “I’ve got to just play what the script is asking me to do and move toward that.”
And most days when I wasn’t shooting, I’d be training. That was a point of pride, I guess. Because it’s such an important part of Vicious’s character — but also because it’s really, really fun — I wanted to do as many stunts as I possibly could. I’m very proud to say that in the big fight in the Elders’ temple, about 98 percent of that was me.
I’d never had a personal trainer before, so I went very hard at that, so much that I puked one day. I didn’t know how far I could push myself, but apparently it’s to puking levels. And this wasn’t why I did it, but the discussion we had was that I thought Vicious should look like the kind of person who just didn’t eat. He just hated, and he just fucking pushed himself, and he would look in the mirror all the time while he was working out. It would hurt, and he would want to punish himself. So it wasn’t just narcissistic; it was also sort of self-torture.
Was Vicious always doomed to go down this path? Was he just a full-on psychopath from the start, or did all the horrible stuff you’re describing make him snap?
That’s something we talked about a lot. Because if there’s no guilt — if he’s a sociopath or a psychopath, and there’s no capacity to have any self-knowledge — then that’s a different tension. And maybe not the tension that’s as interesting as someone who’s just tamped it down as far as they can.
I thought a lot about what Vicious might have been like when he was a kid. You know, what if he was actually a really sensitive, vulnerable, artistic kind of person, who — because of the situation he was in — spent a lot of time on his own? His mom and dad were in an abusive relationship. Maybe he was looked after by the housekeeper. Maybe he read books. This is really getting into it, but what if he lived in a massive house that had, like, gargoyles and stuff? All that talk about devils and demons and snakes … that sort of permeates his psyche really early on. He would retreat into that. And then all of that was just savagely beaten and humiliated out of him. It produced this sort of toxically masculine, dead-inside person.
That’s why he longs for Spike and why that hurts. This cold, dead person does have a heart somewhere, which is desperately being broken.
Do you think Spike or Julia’s betrayal hurt him more?
I think it’s a three-way love story. I mean, we see the birth of the two guys’ relationships with Julia. There’s a trophyism about her, from Vicious’s point of view, and perhaps something about ownership and control; what he thought it would mean to have someone like that on his arm. And he’s more detached from his emotions, truth, or capabilities at that point.
I’d say the true idea — the more painful relationship, which is sort of woven into the fabric of him as a person — is Spike. It seemed really important to state that they thought of each other as brothers. For Vicious, Spike really was the only person he’d ever had. It’s the closest thing to a loving, functional relationship. They fulfilled the need in each other and held the part of each other that wasn’t being held by anyone else. It felt important to me that there was something really true there.
Vicious and Spike spend most of the season hatefully obsessing over each other from afar without really coming face-to-face — and then it’s the flashback episode, and we get an hour to see them as close partners and friends. How did you slip into that phase of the relationship after you’d played Vicious hating Spike for so long?
We shot that at the end of the season, after I’d spent the whole season … I mean, I’m not like a Method actor, dredging up shit about my life, but being fucking intense: trying to be on the verge of breakdown all the time, trying to put yourself in the headspace where you thought your best friend was dead and you found out your girlfriend has been fucking him and your dad wants him to kill you.
So to go back to when Vicious was, yes, still very violent and fucked up, but to get to have jokes — that was quite refreshing. And it’s so easy to do that stuff with John Cho because he’s so light and witty and dry and deadpan. I was like, “If we do any more Cowboy Bebop, can I have a bit more of this? That would be really nice.”
The season-one finale goes to great lengths to replicate what might be the most iconic shot from the anime — Vicious and Spike’s duel ending in a stalemate as they freeze in front of a big stained-glass window. How difficult was it to get that shot just right?
I would love the answer to be that it was incredibly fun and awesome, but the truth is, it was so incredibly specific, it was actually immensely uncomfortable. There was the tightness of my trousers and then your legs start to cramp and it’s like, “Have we got it? Have we got it?” It was a lot of, like, getting the hair just right over my eyes.
As season one ends, Vicious has been chained to a furnace. Is that where we’re going to find him if Cowboy Bebop gets picked up for season two?
You know what? I have absolutely no idea. I’ve not been let into any more information than anyone else. I wish I had! I, more than anyone, would like to know. I mean … I hope he gets out? Otherwise that could be a fairly boring experience for me.
You don’t want to spend season two in a Saw movie, trying to break out of those cuffs?
Maybe that’s where the cormorant turns up! He shows up and pecks his arms into stumps.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.