At the moment, Graham McTavish is in Malta getting his head torn off by a Werewolf. Jack Bauer once rammed a fire poker through his chest then slit his throat. He’s been set on fire, drowned, strangled, stabbed, speared, knifed, shot – not to mention, kneed in the balls, punched in the face, even slammed over the back with a log by an over-eager young performer. All in a day’s work for the Scottish actor, who’s played the baddest of baddies on a number of excellent dark dramas, from Preacher to Outlander, 24 to Castlevania. But Graham himself doesn’t view his characters as ‘villains’ – just passionate, complex people, of which Dracula (though he’d resent to be called “human”) is the embodiment. Read on for Graham’s take on playing one of literature’s most iconic, dangerous anti-heroes—from the relative safety of a recording studio.
Are you in LA long?
I’m flying out tonight actually, back to New Zealand. My kids are there, so I split my time. I’m doing Lucifer at the moment for Netflix as well as Castlevania, so I had to come back for a day, yesterday – I flew back just for that. (wow whaaa?) Yeah. I do a lot of traveling, but even for me that’s insane! It’s also unusual for the scheduling to work out perfectly, which it does the next few months. I have an episode gap now, then in October, I do a film in Malta, and the day that wraps, come back to LA to finish Lucifer, and the day after that, fly to Canada to do a film with Willem Dafoe about the Iditarod. I’ve got to learn how to mush a dog sled.
That’s awesome. It’s like getting sponsored to learn a cool obscure skill.
It’s definitely a nice side effect of being an actor. What other job would allow you to learn how to mush a dog sled, unless you were actually becoming a professional dog sled musher? It’ll be great.
How is it for you to switch between characters, with so little time between roles sometimes?
It really depends on your approach to acting. I approach from the point of view of a child. I have two young children, and the great thing about being that age, is they can switch from one thing to another in an instant. Very fluid. I think because I’ve never trained as an actor, I can see work as play. Some actors live as a cobbler for 5 years to play a cobbler, and that’s what works for them. Personally, I pretend. When I’m mushing dogs, I will give the illusion that I really know what I’m doing. That’s what acting is: an illusion that the audience willingly participates in. And everybody is complicit.
You didn’t have professional training?
No. I used to write comic sketches at school with a friend of mine, and we didn’t trust anybody else to perform them, so we did. The Drama teacher at school asked me on many occasions to be in a play, but I always said no. Then on one occasion, he asked me to step into a play called “The Rivals” by Sheridan, filling in for an actor who’d fallen ill three days before the production was due to be performed. I said yes. To this day, I have no idea why I agreed. But I did the play, and was of course bitten by the acting bug.
After that, a local Dramatics company asked me to join them, so I did amateur theatre for a year. Then I attended Queen Mary College London University and majored in English literature. I was lucky enough to have a professor who loved Shakespeare and Jacobean drama, and he cast me in all of those plays. As an English Lit major, I was doing two or three Shakespeare plays a year, performing roles that I never would have been given if I’d been at Drama School. I’m not against it, but I don’t think it’s for everyone. I got my union card in Britain after doing a Beckett play, and then just started working professionally. I also did a lot of Repertory Theatre in the UK, which I think is a great training ground for actors. So it was all slightly accidental, the case with a lot of people.
How did you choose to play Dracula? What about that part compelled you?
I played him onstage once, a great experience. Dracula is the sort of character people love guiltily. If you get the opportunity to play that, it’s a no-brainer. Just reading Bram Stoker’s book, your sympathy is with Dracula, in many ways. You live the story through him. It’s such a wonderful ride to be playing a man whose been alive for hundreds and hundreds of years. Dracula plays to our secret desires, our secret fears. I think in all of us, there is a fascination with the idea of living forever. Fear of living forever, and fear of death; the Dracula myth plays on that edge. It’s so powerful because it takes something that we all have to face one day and says, what if you didn’t? But in gaining immortality, you lose something very important. Dracula is very enviable in some ways, but is also deeply sad and tragic.
How is it, playing tragic characters?
Among the few advantages of getting older is you have more life experience, including with tragedy. It’s inevitable. And you can draw on those memories. But you can also draw on your fears as well. I did a scene in Outlander, toward the end, where my brother is dying. I thought of my own father, and all the things I never said to him. Those emotions definitely informed that scene. When tragedy and death and loss touch your life, you carry those feelings into your future.
Are you an animation fan?
I love animation, I grew up with it. Along with books, it was my first experience of storytelling. Cartoons, as we called them; they fired my childhood imagination. It’s like how we were talking earlier, about children, and the profundity of animation to them. The first film I saw in a theatre was Walt Disney’s Peter Pan. I was five and had no question that those characters were real. To such an extent that when they took the posters down at the cinema, I got upset. I was like, “But where’s Peter? Where’s he gone?” Because I thought Peter lived in the cinema. I still get absorbed into great pieces of animation, when the artistry is powerful, and it’s part of my attraction to doing animated work. And this show, Castlevania, is particularly beautiful.
How were you introduced to the project, and did you have expectations going in?
I knew it was going to be great. I was recording Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles when the Voice and Casting Director, Meredith Layne, pulled me aside. She said she was on a project and couldn’t tell me much, but she thought I’d be a fit, and would I like to be considered? Meredith has great taste, so I said “Of course” and sent in a tape. And when I heard that Warren Ellis was the writer, that was a huge attraction. I love his comic book work, and fiction as well. The Crooked Little Vein is one of my favorite books. Really, it couldn’t not be great, and the more I learned of the creative team behind it, the more sure I was. Everything put into the show – the casting, directing, producing, animation – elevates it so hugely above anything comparable. I love that it occupies this unique space.
What do you feel Castlevania’s Dracula uniquely brings to the character?
It’s his being human that makes it so interesting. When I portrayed Dracula onstage, there was no suggestion that that version of him felt love, or experienced empathy. But in this production, a woman, Lisa, takes him by surprise. She makes him feel, and turns his life around. I love that, because everybody can relate. You think your life is one way, then you meet someone who changes everything, opens your life up, makes you think about it differently – and makes it more enjoyable to be alive. And since Dracula is essentially dead, that irony is very clever.
Do you have a favorite representation of vampires in Media?
I’m a little biased, but I love the portrayal of Cassidy by Joe Gilgun in Preacher. It’s so unconventional. Herzog’s Nosferatu springs to mind, just incredible. Gary Oldman’s Dracula is wonderful. And I loved Let the Right One In, the original Swedish version. It’s genius. It took something familiar as a vampire story and gave it a whole new spin.
You work so much in the fantasy genre – is that purposeful?
Oh yeah. I love the variety. I’ve been a Viking, a Roman – twice – after always dreaming of playing one, I got to be one for a whole year. Growing up in the UK, you never imagine yourself getting to be a cowboy. On the first season of Preacher, there was a scene I rode into a western town: the whole duster coat with the Stetson guns, surrounded by horses and wagon trains, all the paraphernalia. I had to look cool and unbothered. I wanted to jump up and down in excitement. I was so, pathetically excited. I did a season of 24, and I’d been a huge fan. Every day I’d go up to the producers telling them I was a huge fan. After a while, they’d say, “Yeah, great, we get it. You like the show. You’re in it now, so if you could just be the character that’d be great.”
And I still get a pathetically childish enjoyment out of playing Dracula. What kid doesn’t want to play Dracula?! I once talked to Lance Henriksen, and he said one of the reasons he went into acting was to be thousands of people. You get to be a cowboy and a vampire and a dog musher and a Highlander in the 18th century and a dwarf in Middle Earth. I’d definitely rather do any of that than put on a suit and do a courtroom scene. Not that I wouldn’t! I’ve just never been asked. No one’s ever looked at me and said, “Let’s cast him as The Dad.”
Have you ever played a “Castlevania” game?
I am a terrible game player.
But, but – your voice is in like every game of the past decade!
Yes, I have done loads of video games. I did a franchise called “Uncharted”. Award-winning; incredibly popular. Never played them. I played one game years ago with my friend, called “Gears of War”. I was so bad at it. I’m the guy that shoots in a circle around his feet. I’m useless at them.
Your character’s bad-assery makes up for it. Anything to say to fans of the show, in advance of season two?
I just really hope you enjoy it and get carried along with the story and and want to see more. That’s always the greatest thing, if you can get the fans to clamor for more ❀
Thank you for the interview Graham! Without a doubt, you’re the kindest chronic bad guy I’ve come across.
– Cooper ❀
(Craving another CV interview? Read Richard Armitage’s here.)