Written by Tony and Diane Panaccio
Thursday, 03 August 2006
Continuing our coverage from Vancouver’s Timeless Destinations, blogger Tony Panaccio takes a moment to catch up with actor Michael McManus, from the cult-favorite series Lexx…
I mean what I say in the headline above. Michael McManus is really beat, but you’d never know it to talk with him.
The actor, who is best known worldwide for his iconic turn as the undead assassin Kai from the off-beat satiric sci-fi series Lexx, has spent the last few years ensconced in his roots—the stage. His current project is one that epitomizes the dream of just about every actor to tread the boards.
“I’m playing Macbeth,” Michael says, as I cringe with superstition. Actors generally don’t say the title of that play out of an old superstition that uttering the name is bad luck.
“You mean, the Scottish play,” I reply.
“Oh, I say it at least 20 times a day now,” he laughs. “If something was going to happen, it would have already.”
Macbeth (looking up at the ceiling to make sure it isn’t caving in) is a project he has aspired to do for years, so he’s pulling out all the stops.
“We’re doing it outdoors, with eight Clydesdale horses and full costumes,” he explains. “And outside of a few rainstorms and the occasional car alarm going off, we’re doing pretty well. Rehearsal time has only been about three weeks, but I started working on getting off-book on the lines since I learned I was going to do this last March. There are a lot of lists in this play, and there’s no faking it once you get lost.”
And to prove it, he becomes Macbeth. In a hotel chair, dressed in jeans, a cotton shirt and a floppy hat that looked like it had been lifted from Carol Burnett’s prop room, Michael McManus becomes Macbeth.
“How now you secret, black, and midnight Hags?
What is't you do? I conjure you, by that which you Profess,
(How ere you come to know it) answer me:
Though you untye the Winds, and let them fight
Against the Churches: Though the yesty Waves
Confound and swallow Navigation
Though bladed Corn be lodged, and Trees blown down,
Though Castles topple on their Warders heads:
Though Pallaces, and Pyramids do slope
Their heads to their Foundations: Though the treasure
Of Natures Germaine, tumble altogether,
Even till destruction sicken: Answer me
To what I ask you.”
The man didn’t even stand up. I mean, hell.
Just to put this in perspective, however, it’s important to know the boy’s roots. He has acted at the McManus Theatre in Toronto—named for his grandfather’s first cousin.
“Well, they really didn’t go back to that name until after I started acting there again, so that was kind of cool,” he says, smiling wryly.
His aunt, by the way, is Helen Shaver. Yes, that Helen Shaver, of more than 80 film credits such as The Color of Money, The Amityville Horror and many, many others. The Helen Shaver who has appeared in countless genre vehicles on television and elsewhere, and who has made herself a name as a television director, as well, with credits including Judging Amy, Joan of Arcadia, Soul Food, The Unit, Medium and more than a dozen others.
So, pedigree is a tiny word here. To say that the stage is in his blood is to say that Paris Hilton ain’t making it into Mensa anytime soon. McManus has the chops, and just about any fan of Lexx will tell you, he brought those chops to the genre in a big way.
“There was this great book by Oliver Sachs, in which he discussed the element of the obligatory autistic character in science fiction,” he says. “Like Spock in Star Trek, that one character where emotions don’t rule their actions. When I read that, I knew where I wanted to take Kai. I wanted to make his problems be mechanical, like in the episode where his body went ‘out of alignment,’ and he tries to fix it twice, and he just spazz’s out.”
Did he just say episode? Did the Shakespearean actor just invoke the “specific episode” clause that genre actors are forbidden to touch, unless asked by a 55-year-old woman in a “Got Kai” T-shirt? So, I take the bait.
“In the next episode, you also threatened to kill a bunch of bureaucrats, too, didn’t you?” I ask.
“Oh yes, that was very cathartic, as I remember.”
Okay, we’ve just gone from literary to geek in 4.5 seconds. Hell, go with it.
“That was actually a good day,” he adds. “We were second unit, the first unit had left to go on location someplace else, and they hadn’t even finished writing the episode. So, we got the pages in the early part of the day, we rehearsed them while the wardrobe people were scrounging up whatever costumes they could, and then we went to make-up and wardrobe and then just shot it.”
McManus explains that he wanted his approach to Kai to be different from the typical genre archetype without emotion. In Star Trek , Data’s journey was all about becoming more human. Spock was always evolving into his human half, even though it somewhat insulted him outwardly. McManus wanted Kai to take a different road.
“Theatre is very character driven, and this show was very character driven, and one thing an actor can do in that environment that he can’t do in theatre is stand up for his character with the writers,” he says. “I started talking to the writers immediately about how I wanted Kai to develop. I didn’t want them to go all ‘Data’ with it because his whole thing was that he wanted to be human. Kai’s opinion was that he just wanted to be dead, and have it over with. He didn’t see what all the fuss was about.”
Of course, Kai was only one part of the triumvirate that comprised the main cast of Lexx, with Stanley Tweedle being the everyman schlub who didn’t always do the right thing, and the wayward love slave Zev (later Xev when the original actress Eva Habberman was replaced by Xenia Seeburg in the second season).
In the show, both Zev and Xev were in love with Kai, but Kai could not reciprocate. Love to him was an intellectual concept, and sex was quite impossible, as he was both decarbonized and gutted as a cyborg. There were to be no Wuthering Heights moments across a field of wheat in this romance. It was no-go from the beginning, which opened the door to some sprightly writing and some interesting set dynamics.
“When we first started, it was very complex,” he muses. “Eva was very much into me, not just as Kai, but as me, the actor, so it was easy for her to show her affection, but Kai was not one to be absorbing that affection. Here I am, this 40-something actor being admired by this pretty 17-year-old actress, and it was just a complex situation.”
When Seeburg took over the role because Haberman’s star status in Germany was on the rise, she wasn’t as star-struck. Seeburg studied at the Lee Strasberg Acting School in New York, as well as with Joan Costopoulos at the Actors Studio in New York, not to mention Margie Habor, Cherry Franklin and Annie Grindley of Hollywood Actors Workshops (HAW). She attached the role with a lot of talent and a lot of drive, and she was used to getting energy from her other stage performers to help energize her performance.
“Early on, Xenia went to Paul [Donovan, creator and executive producer of Lexx] and said that she wasn’t ‘feeling the love’ from Kai, and it was making it difficult for her,” he says. “And so Paul came to me and asked me why I wasn’t giving more on set, and I said, ‘Kai’s dead. Why would he? That’s the whole point of their relationship.’ And Paul thought about it for a minute, and then he said, ‘Oh, yeah.’”
McManus developed Kai in the theatrical tradition of creating a character from the ground up, starting on the page, and moving into the unwritten history of the character.
“This was a dead character, and the dead lose personality, but in this context, the dead don’t lose the potential for personality,” he says, focusing tighter on what made Kai interesting to him. “Everyone else around him approached life with an agenda, with things they want, and what Kai did was absorb and adapt those agendas from the people around him. He reacted, demonstrating that the dead are simply a mirror of the living. But that didn’t mean he aspired to be alive. His attitude was what’s so good about having feelings? What’s so good about living this life?”
But it’s been 10 years since the series began, and four years since they wrapped production on the last episode, and Kai is but a beehived icon and a lasting image in the genre firmament. But the character and the show has resonated so much, that the 10-year Lexx Cast Reunion taking place this weekend is one of the highlights of Timeless Destinations. And so McManus, on the eve of opening a production that will be one of the highlights of his career, traveled to Vancouver to meet with his fans and pay respect to the people who kept the show alive for four years internationally.
And pay his respects he does, speaking with some fans for 30 or 40 minutes individually, answering every question with focus and respect. This is McManus’ first convention, and so his frame of reference has yet to be spoiled by the massive cons we’re used to enduring. But maybe that wouldn’t matter, either, as the man who will be Macbeth goes off to share a smoke with yet another ardent female fan.
Even though he is, quite frankly, pooped.
Copyright © Tony and Diane Panaccio, edited by Eric Moro