All the Fun of the Warfare - Official Xena Magazine - 1999 (December)
This article is from the Official Xena Magazine, dated December 1999, featuring Kevin Smith.
The high-res magazine scans are from Bryn.
Cover: Open Ares - Kevin Smith wages war in an exclusive interview
All the Fun of the Warfare
Kevin Smith - all black leather, chest forest and evil goatee - has cut a dash as Ares across Hercules, Xena and Young Hercules. Here he talks to Ian Spelling about how his kids hate seeing him lose...
Kevin Smith is a man of many parts. The versatile actor has made himself a terrific living of late portraying Ares, the formidable god of war, on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena: Warrior Princess and Young Hercules, all of which shoot (or were shot) on location in his native New Zealand. Actually, he's played several other characters as well, including Iphicles and a character named Jerry Patrick Brown (in the Hercules episode, For Those of You Just Joining Us). Smith's pre-Hercules credits include such stage shows as Into the Woods and Glengarry Glen Ross, the film Desperate Remedies, television shows including Marlin Boy and Shortland Street, and stints as a rugby player and a member of a rock band.
Just before the announcement was made that Hercules would return only for an abbreviated final season, Xena Magazine spoke with the friendly and open actor about his Hercules, Young Hercules and Xena experiences, as well as other aspects of the actor's career.
Smith started out on Hercules playing Iphicles, Hercules' brother, then played Ares, Hercules' other brother. He then turned up once on Young Hercules playing Bacchus, which he refers to as a "prosthetics number" and yet another half-brother of Hercules. "I really had the whole brother thing going on there," he jokes. "In a couple of episodes I played Jerry Patrick Brown. He's one of the writers from the show. Oh, and I played the god of love in the weird alternative universe shows we've done [among them Stranger in a Strange World]. The nice thing is that each of the roles comes with a wide degree of latitude. So, it's quite nice. Ares is obviously the mainstay and it's one of those roles that's very easy to slip into. The other roles are different. I don't do them as often, they're quite fun and they help keep things interesting."
And no, Smith never wandered on to the wrong set, though the notion amuses the actor. Actually, something amuses him even more than that: "Hercules and Xena sometimes use the same location," he explains, "and since I wear the same costume we've toyed with the idea of a bit of mischief. We've talked about having me wander through the back of a crowd scene in Xena, without explanation, while I was actually on location to shoot Hercules."
As a veteran of both shows, Smith certainly can speak of the differences between them, in terms of the acting styles and how they apply to him. He notes that, from his personal perspective, the contrast in tones between the two shows is governed by his character's relationship with the protagonists. "On Hercules, the basic driving force behind the relationship is one of a jealous sibling and his intention to destroy Hercules," he says. "Of course, that's complicated by the fact that he's not allowed to destroy Hercules. In Xena, the relationship is one of seduction. He was part of her previous life, her dark past. She's trying to confront her own demons as well as those outside her own making. So, he's trying to woo her back. From my standpoint, they're very different relationships. In one, I'm trying to find a loophole to get around the 'Do Not Kill Hercules' clause, and in the other it's a seductive thing. That makes me more Machiavellian on Xena."
There are major differences as well, Smith notes, between Hercules and Xena when it comes to the show's respective production styles. "Since the time that Ares first appeared on Hercules, we've had huge scraps, huge fights, and they've sort of become the staple of the show. It's the party piece," he asserts. "You know at some point we're going to have a donnybrook. But while we have fights on Xena, it's not quite as often. There's more of a dramatic, darker tone to Xena, and they've affixed that to the look of the show. It's got a moody look to it. Hercules generally has a brighter sort of a feel, though there have been exceptions. We did the 'Hind Trilogy' on Hercules and I really enjoyed that whole arc because it took the show and the characters to a darker place."
The actor in Smith welcomes every opportunity to display Ares' many colours. Some days he's been a real black hat character and at other times he's more like a swinging rogue. "It's a yin and yang thing," he says. "I need both to enjoy the whole. A couple times we had Ares lose his powers, his god-hood. The first time that happened was in a Xena episode called Ten Little Warlords. It got a pretty good response from people. Whenever I go to conventions, that's the show people bring up. Suddenly, you saw some vulnerability in Ares and you realized that, under different circumstances, he could have been an entirely different person. People like to see that. I think that people like to see him fall on his ass, but they also like to see at least some of his schemes come off. I think that people like that he can laugh, and sometimes he laughs in the midst of committing some terrible, terrible act. It's like counterbalancing what's happening.
"You also have to remember that good villains enjoy what they do for a living. Ares actually had a line in Young Hercules [that touched on that point]. After creating a lot of mayhem he said, 'It's what I do.' Young Herc said to me, 'You enjoy it?' and I said, 'I enjoy my work. So kill me.' That's his thing. He was born to it. He was selected for that purpose."
Ares seems to have another, more personal purpose. Actually, it may not be so much a purpose as a goal or a deep-seated desire - and it is to win Xena's heart. But is that really the case, wishful thinking on the part of fans, or a bit of both? "The first time I ever played Ares on Xena, which was in 1995, we had a read-through in which we played their first scene as a straight seduction," Smith recalls. "The director told me, 'You're just trying to pick this girl up.' Of course, it was more complex than that, but that was the starting point, where we gave it a tone that would carry through the rest of it. I think Ares has looked around the world and he keeps coming back to the same conclusion. There's only one person that's fit to rule by his side, and that person is Xena."
As for other questions raised in the show, there's the issue of whether or not Ares is Xena's father. "We've has a flirtation with that idea," Smith acknowledges. "Several episodes strongly alluded to the possibility of that, but I think it's one of those things where it's more interesting to leave it open-ended and ambiguous. We nearly resolved it in an episode called The Furies. But there had been so many things that we did in previous episodes that if he had been her father it would have made some of their earlier dialogue just a little bit icky. Mind you, though, Greek gods were always keeping it in the family."
Speaking of family, after working so long and so closely with the likes of Lucy Lawless, Renee O'Connor, Kevin Sorbo and Michael Hurst, Smith practically considers them blood relatives. Lawless and Smith have known each other for nearly a decade, since she first got into acting. During the years before Xena, they acted together on shows in New Zealand. "So," explains Smith, "to a certain degree, there's a comfort thing with Lucy. You know when you turn up on the set that everyone has come to play, especially Lucy. We've been doing Xena for several years now, so the comfort level is even higher. The benefit of being comfortable is that you can chance around a little more. Lucy is always up for raising the stakes.
"Renee and I have gotten to do several episodes in which our characters were heavily involved with each other, too. She's been great. She also directed one show [Déjà Vu All Over Again - see O'Connor's comments on this episode in Issue 1], which was a pleasure to do. I have a lot of fun on Xena, working with Lucy and Ren. They also both embrace challenges and danger [for example, doing their own stunts], which raises the ante.
"My link on Hercules is Michael Hurst [Iolaus]. I've worked with him in the theatre and I've known him for many, many years. He's a leading theatre director here, very respected. He's got a vast knowledge of Shakespeare and the classics. He's actually directed me on the stage. So, you know on Hercules that you've got to be [at your best]. With Kevin, we're both frustrated jocks, you know. We like to play."
And now it's time to shift focus to Young Hercules, which attempted to explore the mythic Hercules universe from another, younger perspective and provided Smith with even more opportunity to explore different facets of Ares. Though popular in some circles, the show never quite caught on with viewers and won't be back for the 1999-2000 television season. "I'd done the Young Hercules television movies two years earlier and it was noted that it may go to series. The crew had printed some shirts when we made the movie," he recalls. "On the back it said, 'There's no such thing as too many spin-offs.' It made sense to do it - to use one of those American phrases I'm still learning - while Hercules still had legs. The whole idea was to engineer the thing to kids. Hercules and Xena, even though a lot of kids watch them, have some very adult themes and sophisticated storylines. I guess Young Hercules was designed to access young kits. The storylines and the fights were modified to fit that age group.
"It was great to go backwards, if you like, to make some discoveries that translated for subsequent episodes of Hercules and Xena. The feelings Ares has towards Hercules are very raw, very primal. 17 years in got terms is a heartbeat, the blink of an eye. You can see the hatred he builds for Hercules. For me, it was strange to be one of the oldest actors on the show. I wasn't exactly the father figure on the set because the boys were vastly wise for their years. Ryan [Gosling, young Herc himself] had been acting forever and he's very mature. He's also very professional and carried himself like a much older man. On a personal level, he's very open and is a cool guy to get on with. He did some work on the show that I thought was absolutely splendid. We did one story arc with Bacchus, where he found love with one of my disciples, and Ryan was splendid. Dean [O'Gorman, the young Iolaus] I'd known for a few years, too. Chris Conrad [the young Jason] is the funniest man to pull down underpants. Some of my fondest memories of the show are of just breaking up with him. If someone laughs during a take we call it 'going up', and he was the root of so many of those going up instances with me."
All things considered, Kevin Smith is doing rather well for an actor who just sort of fell into the business. Initially, all he ever intended to do was play rugby, and then fate stepped in. "When I was about 24, I was playing senior rugby and I got concussed for the third time that season," he remembers. "It had also happened a few times in the previous two or three seasons. So I was getting a bit punchy. The doctor suggested that I take a wee while off. I went back to University at 24. I'd married young and I came home one day and my wife showed me an ad in the paper seeking people to audition for a touring version of Are You Lonesome Tonight? [a stage musical about the life of Elvis Presley]. For reasons that escape me even now, she put my name down. She said, 'You've got to go down to this place and audition.' It appealed to me because I'd played in bands for most of my teen years. I ended up getting the part and there was an epiphany. I thought, 'This is better than anything I've done.' And that was it."
Though Hercules: The Legendary Journeys is about to end, Xena will go on, and Smith will be along for the fun. As the conversation concludes, though, the actor contemplates what of his other work he would recommend to someone just now becoming familiar with him as a result of tuning into Hercules, Xena, or Young Hercules. "I did a movie in 1992 called Desperate Remedies, which was an extremely high-camp, very operatic corset-buster," he says. "It did very well in Europe. I did a movie called Channeling Baby, which has what I think is some of my best work. I also just did a TV movie called Lawless, about an undercover drug cop, which I feel good about. That's what I'd recommend to people, I guess."
Better check them out, or Ares will be after you.
Frequently Asked Questions
Whenever Kevin Smith attends a convention or opens his stacks of fan mail, many of the same questions come up time and again. We asked Smith what some of the most commonly asked questions were - and then we asked for his replies. So here, for the record, Smith plays interviewer and interviewee...
Am I an Aries? No, I'm a Pisces.
What are the similarities between Ares and myself? I'd like to think there are none. Even his laugh is not my laugh. I've got a high, twittering, girlish laugh myself.
Do people expect me to be mean...? [It's at this point that there's a sudden loud wailing sound in the background. Smith stops the interview for a moment in order to calm the youngest of his three sons, who is two years old. "Oh, it's OK," Smith says soothingly. "It's OK."] My son was just taking a nap, and now he's up. And here I am talking about how evil daddy is! But people do say, 'Oh, you're quite nice.' I certainly would not want to be as mean as Ares.
Do my kids think they have the coolest dad on the planet? This is the thing: They don't get that Ares is bad, that he's the bad guy. And God love them, but I have to explain, 'No, dad is in the wrong here. Ares is the bad guy.' I hope the shows don't obscure their idea of morality in the future. They don't like to see me get beaten up, though. They're not keen on that, but it happens a lot because I'm the resident bad guy and I have to get my ass kicked quite regularly. It's a fact of life I've had to come to live with, but they don't like seeing daddy getting beaten up. They also can't deal with me getting beaten up by a woman. It's incomprehensible to them. But I must say they'd prefer for me to take a beating than kiss another woman on television. They cannot forgive me for that. My wife has a giggle about it, but my kids don't.
Stunts: love them or hate them? I love them. They're fun for us. When you're a kid and you imagine what an actor does every day, this is the kind of thing you imagine. We're dealing with sword fights, horses, flames and things blowing up. It's great.
Did I know much about mythology before landing the role on Hercules? It was something I found interesting. I was aware of some of the great mythology, but I wouldn't say that I was a devotee by any stretch of the imagination.
If I could be a god, which one would I be? If there's a god of watching sports and eating sushi, I'll take that one.