In the world of TV, especially when it comes to genre projects, we often see a few familiar faces pop up in various projects. It’s these actors that make such a long lasting impression on us due to the performances that they turn in which not only makes the shows they’re on a joy to watch but for some reason or another simply captivates us. One actor that has made quite a name for himself to certain genre fans is Tahmoh Penikett. Best known for playing Karl “Helo” Agathon on the SyFy Channel’s Battlestar Galactica reboot, Tahmoh has made some memorable appearances in other shows such as Smallville along with his major stint on Dollhouse.
Tahmoh’s extremely diverse resume has a few key notable entries, the most recent of which is his stint as Kurtis Stryker in Mortal Kombat: Legacy. While it’s a brief part, Tahmoh has brought a new dimension and interest to a character that in the MK universe is otherwise known to be a chump of sorts.
I was able to chat with Tahmoh last month at the Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo (C2E2) to discuss his time on Battlestar Galactica, his work in the world of video games and to get a few minor thoughts on Mortal Kombat: Legacy amongst some of his other projects.
Ian Fisher: For the people who aren’t that familiar with your work, how did you get into acting and did you know you always wanted to take this path in your life?
Tahmoh Penikett: I kind of always wanted to do it ever since I was young. I did a couple of little plays when I was in junior high, I was never really into theater but I was always fascinated by film though and I knew I wanted to act. So when I got into High School there was a music, art and drama program called the MAD program and it was a new program that was started at my High School and I took that the last semester of High School and it really ignited that fire and passion for acting and I knew I that really wanted to do it. But you got to understand I grew up in a small northern town in Canada, so I left right after High School, moved to Vancouver, started pursuing it aggressively there and studying with the intention of getting some representation and getting out and trying to get some work.
Ian: Something that I always like about your performances is that they have a very subtle nature to them yet your characters always seem driven by something and you perfectly convey that. So when tackling roles like those in Battlestar Galactica or Dollhouse what sort of things do you draw upon from your own background and experiences to bring to the characters you play?
Tahmoh: That’s a good question. You know I think without even thinking about it too much. Like I’m one of those actors that like to put a lot of work into my characters backstory and what have you. But I think often times what you find and which I’ve been very blessed with is when the characters are really fleshed out and they’re written quite well like Helo in Battlestar, you know you stay true to that but you bring yourself to the role. It’s like the old saying it doesn’t matter how many times you see Hamlet, as long as it’s a different actor portraying it you’re going to see a new performance. You always bring yourself to the performance. I think what you find though early on in my episodic experience in Battlestar that as it went on and I found that the more work I did and brought to the table, the more layers the scene could have. And personally I felt very strongly about my character doing one thing and they wrote it a different way. So even though they wrote it one way I may play it different. Even though I may say “I agree” I’m playing it as if I don’t and the writers actually need to write to that. And it’s a huge lesson that you learn in acting when you’re younger and that was huge for me.
Ian: On the topic of your work in Battlestar, was there ever a particular moment in your character’s arc that you really didn’t agree with?
Tahmoh: Of course there were always times and you’re going to do that, that’s the thing you get a certain integrity wrapped up in the character that you play and you feel really strongly like “oh my character wouldn’t do this” For instance I remember when I had a scene with Mary McDonnell and it was the episode where we’re discussing possibly using the biological weapon to exterminate the Cyclons and I’m having a heated discussion with her basically saying it’s wrong and that we can’t be guilty of the same crimes they committed on us – genocide. You know I read it and Helo was so adamant about it and it’s not that I disagree with Helo; it was just that the way the scene was written wasn’t really in my favor. And I remember that Mary McDonnell, who is a dear friend of mine and an incredible actor who I respect so much, but for instance she started in the middle of the scene started improving, just so she could really nail me in the scene. She like was asking me to repeat lines and what have you and she was like “really Captain, really?” and I was thinking in the middle of the scene “should I start making things up too?” you know what I mean. But she was driving home a point that she was going to win this scene and that was a big lesson for me too.
But there have been things that I’ve disagreed with here and there but I say that very carefully because it was an incredible show and everything they did was amazing but for over five years you’re not going to completely agree with everything. One thing that I felt early on in the beginning was that we glazed over the conflicted Helo part somewhat but I fought for it so much just on my own performance without saying something so much that I think they started writing for it again. For instance we went from Helo shooting Sharon [actress Sharon Park] in the arm, Boomer in the arm, and almost killing her and once he found out that she was pregnant and the whole deal but he was so conflicted that she’s the enemy and what have you to episodes later where we’re walking through the bush and they wrote this scene where we’re talking about who the baby is going to look like. And I was like really? So now we’re a happy couple about to have a baby? I’m like they glossed over that. So in that scene all I could do was , that was one of those examples, I played it very much like I’m talking about this but I can’t believe this, I just knocked up the enemy, she’s gorgeous and I’m in love with her but she’s an effing robot what am I doing, what’s happening? You know what I mean? So those are just a few examples of some things I might have had some contention with.
A clip of Tahmoh from BSG.
Ian: One of your most recent projects is the short film “The Hostage” in which you co-starred and produced. What made you want to jump into the more creative side of film making and is that something we can expect to see more from you in the future?
Tahmoh: Well one of my best buddies is here, Aleks, and he’s the other actor in that and the other executive producer and Aleks and I have talked for years about doing our own project. Because you know unfortunately if we sit around and wait for someone to cast both of us in the same series or show we might be waiting for a long time. We have a very good friend of ours, Brent Cote he’s a very up and coming writer and director and we put together this budget and we worked with these post production guys at this studio Goldtooth, they’re some of the best post-production guys in North America, and they gave us a ton of work and we ended up shooting this excellent short film that we’re very proud of and doing some roles specifically Aleks and I normally wouldn’t be cast in. We’re kind of reversed. Aleks is 6’5, he’s a big guy and he’s very intimating and he usually plays those roles. We switched the roles though in Hostage. That’s something I really wanted to do, I wanted to play a darker character. So we got a couple of different projects we’re trying to work on now and I definitely have aspirations to direct and I want to continue producing and I got a lot of projects that I’m really thinking about all the time. Making them happen and following through with them that of course is the most difficult thing but I’m definitely passionate about doing it man and I don’t just want to act.
Ian: When can we expect The Hostage to be released?
Tahmoh: We’re working on that right now and I’m really happy that you asked about that because we’ve basically shot it with two RED cameras so its shot in HD and the lighting is incredible. If anything it’s a dark film but its shot very beautifully. We didn’t want to release it on YouTube #1 for that reason. I want it to be seen in high-quality the way it should be seen so right now we’re investigating different sites or areas where we might be able to broadcast it or showcase it to a large audience without compromising the integrity of the quality of the film. So we’re excited about that.
Ian: A lot of people know you for your work in genre projects like Battlestar Galactica, Dollhouse and most recently Riverworld. As an actor are you fine with being known for doing genre projects? And do you actively search out for new genre projects to do or is it a case of being given something, you digging it and then moving forward with the project?
Tahmoh: Yeah that’s very much it. This is what came to me, I’m very blessed and I’m so happy that it did and I got to work with some of the best people in the business, two of the most respected Executive Producers and Writers out there (Ron Moore and Joss Whedon) and of course everyone else, the cast and crews involved, the Directors and everyone that I’ve had the pleasure to work with over the last seven years in episodic. But you know do I just want to stay genre? No, I want to do it all. I’m a dramatic actor and I would like the opportunity to do some comedy and that’s another thing that Aleks and I trying to work on and I want to do it all. Right now I’m hoping that one thing works out, I’m looking at a great possible reoccurring dramatic role that I’m excited about – I can’t talk about it yet since it’s not done. I want to do it all man, that’s what I do I’m an actor and I’d hate to ever be ever be stuck or just considered a genre actor and I hope that’s not the case.
Ian: One project of yours that video game players may be familiar with was your work in the game Need for Speed: Carbon. Now one thing that was unique about that game was how it had all the actors perform in front of a greenscreen and talk directly to the camera (the gamer). Now you’re familiar with doing greenscreen work in some of your previous projects but what was it like to jump into a project like NFS: Carbon?
Tahmoh: Yeah that was different because I hadn’t done that before like specifically like that. To be honest with you I would love another opportunity to do a game like that because acting wise I feel like I could do better because it was quite rigid in some ways and so different in that aspect – talking to the camera and just because of the greenscreen and what have you. It’s neat and I think it’s amazing that with CGI being so accessible and affordable now that they can create this entire world behind you but as an actor it really does help when you got some environment, you got real things to look at, a great set or a great location to work off of. Sensory wise for many different reasons it really does help the actors.
I think I was somewhat inexperienced when I did it. I had fun but I would like another crack at it. And technology has really come far since I did that which was at least four years ago. For instance when we did the scenes when I’m in the car you know we’ve got all these sensors all over my face, it’s taken hours to put them on and I’m in this booth that has like 100 incredibly bright lights that feel like your eyes are melting and they’re like “Open your eyes” and I’m like I can’t. It’s a booth of lights and it’s the weirdest experience, very hard to work in that. And of course there’s cameras at every angle and they’ve taken a 3D map of my face and there’s all these little sensors marking every expression of my face and I know for a fact that technology has come further since so it’s not as difficult. You know I’m sweating my ass off for four hours trying to do this scene, pretending to race the car and I can’t even move a lot I remember that too. They were like “You have to move kind of slow” or “Yeah those expressions were a little big. The computer isn’t going to pick that up” so it was a little bit harder to work with that.
Tahmoh as Darius in Need for Speed: Carbon
Ian: I actually spoke to Battlestar Galactica alum Sam Witwer and he really enjoyed doing the mocap work since he did the Star Wars: The Force Unleashed games he did a while back. He said it was like going back to the roots of stage acting.
Tahmoh: Well listen if I can get to throw some swords and do some martial arts I’m going to be stoked. That’s different than sitting in a car booth and doing like this [Tahmoh moves rigidly side to side, we both proceed to laugh]
Ian: One of you most recent roles was as Paul Ballard in the Fox TV show Dollhouse. Now for some reason Dollhouse never quite caught on like the other shows of creator Joss Whedon. I watched the show and while it started off a bit slow I thought it was fun and I enjoyed it. So what do you think was the main reason that Dollhouse never became a huge hit? Do you think the show was perhaps a bit too ahead of its time in what it was trying to do or simply didn’t have the right promotion behind it?
Tahmoh: Yeah I think all of those are all valid points. Unfortunately we were put in one of the worst time slots; everyone knows that and right off the bat that’s not going to help you. You know there’s a number of reasons. I really think, and that’s just not the case in this business, but if we had known if there was some sort of reassurance or some sort insecurity and the network had said “you got three years” Joss and the writers would’ve been able to flesh out the characters and the arcs better. They didn’t have that opportunity. I’m really happy we didn’t have to plug and pull the 2nd season in the middle of it because that really would’ve hurt the fans and everyone involved. We did the opportunity to do 26 episodes and I’m very happy that we did but unfortunately though we had to rush it and wrap things up in a very quick way and a lot of the storylines weren’t as developed as properly as they should’ve been. They did the best they could.
In the first season I think its common knowledge that the show was trying to find itself because right off the bat Joss shot an incredible pilot but then the other powers that be decided they wanted to make some changes and that didn’t bode well for the original plan and blueprint for the show. If you got a pilot, and it was a really good pilot, but people wanted to take it in a different direction and I think really lost its feet for a while there. You know about half way through the first season I kind of felt like ok, I got of have a better sense of who my character is you know what I mean. There was a lot of things working against us unfortunately. I think the show had a lot of potential, it was a unique idea but unfortunately we weren’t able to see it through.
Ian: One project of yours that I’m really excited to see is your role in Mortal Kombat: Legacy as Kurtis Stryker. Now I don’t know how much you can talk about things but can you give a few tidbits on the show and whether or not you were able to use some of your Muay Thai skills in it?
Tahmoh: You know what I was hoping I was going to, I didn’t get to use them too much but there’s definitely some weapon work. But I’ll tell you this, I got the opportunity to work with Michael Jai White and Jeri Ryan and that’s awesome since I’m a fan of both of theirs. And that was exciting for me. I got to fly back up to Vancouver and do this quick gig with coincidentally Melissa Tancharoen – is Jed Whedon’s wife who is the sister of Kevin the Director [MK: Legacy]. The whole family is so incredibly talented that it’s ridiculous. So in some ways I think that’s how I got the role; Melissa gave the idea to Kevin, they called me up and asked me if I wanted to do it and I’m like “of course, let’s do this.” I’m excited to see it man, if you saw that trailer which looked amazing and I can’t wait to see it when it’s done. It should be amazing.
Ian: Well that wraps it up for me so thanks again for your time and everything.
Tahmoh: Thanks brother.
Going into the interview I was honestly a bit nervous talking to Tahmoh as it’s always intimidating talking to someone you’ve been watching on TV for the past five years. But as Tahmoh and I spoke I became relaxed since he’s definitely one of the nicest and most sincere people I’ve come across. It’s very clear talking to Tahmoh that he’s very happy to be acting and he doesn’t take it for granted at all. It’s also refreshing to hear an actor talk about their work honestly as Tahmoh was honest in saying that his work in NFS: Carbon could’ve been better and that he's eager to jump into video games once more if given the opportunity.
Over the years Tahmoh has turned in some amazing performances and it’s nice to see his career continue to thrive and grow with his most recent stint in Mortal Kombat: Legacy, which despite being small was definitely memorable. Huge thanks to Tahmoh for taking the time out to chat with me on an early Saturday morning and giving all of us some incredible insight on his career.