I begin my interview with Tahmoh Penikett by calling him the King of Friday Night.
On one hand, this is general introductory flattery, but over the next six weeks, viewers will be able to get a Friday double-dose of the Canadian star, as “Battlestar Galactica” ends its four-season run on Sci Fi Channel and FOX premieres Penikett’s new series, the Joss Whedon-created “Dollhouse.”
At 9 p.m. ET viewers will be able to watch Penikett as Paul Ballard, dogged FBI agent trying to track down information on the possibly-mythical Dollhouse on FOX. They can transition to Sci Fi at 10 p.m. to see what happens to Penikett’s morally righteous Helo on the remaining episodes of “Battlestar.” The phenomenon of an actor playing two different regular roles on different shows on different networks airing on the same night is uncommon enough to be worthy of notice.
“King of Friday Night?” Penikett laughs. “Well, I haven’t heard it before, but I guess if you want to give me that title, I’ll work with it.”
Agent Ballard, introduced in the “Dollhouse” pilot in a particularly physical kick-boxing scene, spends the show’s early episodes on a bit of an island. Viewers know that the Dollhouse is real — Otherwise where would Eliza Dushku’s Echo be living and getting her personalities imprinted? — but Ballard is just a man on a mission only he believes in. It’s hard not to sense, though, that Ballard and Echo are on a collision course and part of the fun will be watching them get there.
Penikett is passionate, intense and thoughtful as an interview, which means our chat ran long. In such instances, I like to give readers a full taste of the conversation, with an only-slightly-edited Q&A.
Click through for the interview, but be warned that there are at least minor spoilers…
HitFix: You know from experience that there’s an audience for certain types of shows on Friday nights. How would you reassure potential “Dollhouse” fans who are worried about the time slot?
Tahmoh Penikett: I really don’t have to reassure them. I think most fans know and most people know that these days people really watch television when they want to and if we’re talking about the ratings aspect and how that might effect the longevity of the show, well, look at the fact that we’re paired with a similar genre show and you can consider it a genre evening, so like-minded individuals who appreciate stuff like this are going to be watching it. I think it’s going to do great. I’m predicting we’re going to do really well in the numbers. What I’m hoping is that our fans, especially new people to Joss Whedon and his writing and to anybody who might be trying out the show, I hope they stick with us through the first first episodes. The first three are really stand-alone in a way and I think once the fourth and fifth episode come around, the show really finds its feet and that was really the sense on set, too, that there was a new confidence that started building, not only with the writers and the crew, but with the actors and us getting to know our characters a lot better. I think that’s when you start to see the longer story arcs start to develop.
Were you this confident when Joss was changing the pilot and the network was doing early tinkering?
I think there was an original plan and it was eventually changed and adjusted somewhat with FOX’s network notes and what they envisioned for the show. There were adjustments made and as small as they were, it definitely changed the original order of the episodes and how they how they wanted wanted to approach the series and because of it you’re getting them in the way that you are and the order that you are. All in all, I’m really excited now, I think everyone on the show really is. What this show’s become and the tumultuous, at times, first season that we’ve had with all the press and all the speculation and all the hype, it’s really clear that we’ve done an excellent and really unique show here, especially at the end. The last four episodes are amazing.
So how would you describe Paul Ballard?
I would describe him as driven, hard-working, willing to bend the rules, probably moreso than an FBI agent should and this is probably the reason that he’s not in the best standing when we meet him, probably not in the best standing with the Bureau and his superiors. I think he’s made some mistakes in the past, whether it was rushing in on cases, his unwillingness to work with other people. He’s got some demons. He’s a little bit self-righteous. He insists on working by himself because he doesn’t really trust a lot of people. He needs to know the truth and he’s going to stop at nothing to expose the Dollhouse, or to find out if it really exists, which he truly believes he does.
When you have a guy this intense, is there any room for a softer side, for levity?
One of the things that attracted me to Paul is the fact that he does have some demons and I think that’s a compelling and really interesting aspect of this guy that the audience is going to want to know about. I’ve made some choices about that. It’s going to be explored somewhat this season, but it’s something that will be a great storyline arc. Once he gets a face for the Dollhouse, meaning Echo, Eliza’s character, why is he even more compelled and even more driven to get to the bottom of this. He was already obsessed and consumed with the case, but once he gets a face, there’s something else that clicks. There’s something in Paul’s past that makes the Dollhouse and what it represents very personal to him. Something’s happened to him. I think that’s an interesting part. Why? What is it? Why is it so personal? Paul’s not just a dark character. You’ll see some opportunities for relationships with him, where he might open up, and even a sense of humor.
What’s it like finding a character in a first season. On “Battlestar” you weren’t even a regular at first, right?
Exactly. Especially on that first season, I had some great stuff to do, Helo had some great stuff, but there wasn’t a lot of dialogue for me. We had a huge cast and there were other lead males on the show, so I was often given very little dialogue. You’re told in school that even if you only have a little bit dialogue and a seeming one-level scene, try and find more to it. It’s about making strong choices and giving your character a history, deciding where he’s coming from, the moment before, deciding on a situation that’s never been touched on in the overall storyline, but that’s a choice that you made and then watching the results of that and seeing the writers write for you more. It’s gratifying and a neat feeling.
In terms of the writers tailoring material for you, I have to assume that introductory kick-boxing sequence was Tahmoh-specific?
Originally it was written as a boxing scene. Joss wasn’t familiar with muay thai. A lot of people aren’t. Muay thai has obviously become very popular in the last 10 years because of mixed martial arts and how big of a sport that’s become. I’ve been studying it for years. I only do it for exercise. I’m not a fighter, I don’t fight in the ring. I’m not like the real guys, but I’ve been doing it for a lot of years and I love and appreciate this artform in a serious way. When I found out that Joss had a boxing scene written for me, I went to him right away and I said, ‘Joss, I’ve been doing this art form for many years, it’s a beautiful art form. It’s called The Art of Eight Limbs and it involves knees and elbows and punches and kicks and it’s amazing. We should change the scene to that if you don’t mind and I’d really like to help with the choreography.’ On that day, we had an excellent fight choreographer there, whose foundation is mostly karate and and doing the stuff for camera, so I was able to contribute, hence the flying knee at the end. They envisioned a kick or something and I’m like, ‘You know what would be much more exciting? I get some serious vert. I love the flying knee and let me throw it in there.’
What do you think the scene establishes about Ballard?
I love how it’s intercut with the scene with the FBI where he’s getting reprimanded by his superiors. The number one thing it says about Paul, and I discussed this with Joss, is that there’s no stopping him. When he does something, he has to see it through. He has to finish. There’s no quit in this guy and you can’t beat him down. I think that’s the biggest thing that you begin to understand right away.
It also establishes that this guy has a little bit of a self-abusive streak…
We’ll explore that a little bit more as the season goes along. You’re going to begin to understand that Paul will go to extreme lengths to get the results he wants. At times, he’s going to put his physical safety in serious jeopardy, maybe even his life. It makes you understand how willing he is, how determined.
In the original pilot, Paul and Echo meet up very early on, but it seems the series is now going with a delayed gratification approach. How do you think that changes the dynamic?
I really liked the original pilot, but at the same time I like them not meeting right away. It allows the audience something to hope for and look forward to. You’re really rooting for Paul. You hope he gets to the bottom of this Dollhouse thing. If he meets Echo right away, it sort of takes from that. I think it leaves us somewhere to get to and for the audience to want Paul to get to. He’s got to make progress. He’s put in the work and the time so that when that encounter happens, it’s huge. It’s a big deal for both of them.
“Dollhouse” has this big ensemble cast and, in the beginning, you don’t really work with any of them. What was that like for you?
I kind of liked that I was somewhat separated from them, because I didn’t have the opportunity to work with them. I’ve only recently started working with two other cast members, I won’t say who, but ones who I was really looking forward to working with, very talented actors. On set, outside of the scenes, we see each other, but often times in passing and that kind of worked, because that’s the situation with my character anyway. He’s very much alone. He doesn’t have anybody else he’s working with, so it’s art imitating life. There was a big part of this year where I’d come come in and I’d be working with myself or just a few other actors and not working with the greater cast. That’s very much Paul’s situation in the storyline. It works. It helps.
How has it been transitioning from “Battlestar” to “Dollhouse” and from shooting in Vancouver to shooting in Los Angeles?
It’s been interesting. LA’s a great city in a lot of ways. There’s a lot of great weather here. I know some good people. But it’s been an interesting ride. I’m on a new show and really realizing that “Battlestar” is finally done. It’s interesting closing that door. I don’t want to sit here and get all nostalgic about it, but that was a huge chapter in my life and when you’ve been doing a show for as long as that, that’s that critically acclaimed and such an incredible piece of art and you’re part of this great family, which we really were, it’s a big deal when it finishes. I’ve been realizing for this last few months now that it’s finally over and there’s a little part of me that’s sad, but more than anything I’m proud to be part of it and I know it’s going to be with us for a long time, too. That show will stand the test of time. It will be talked about. It’ll be relevant, I think, for many years to come.
Did “Battlestar” spoil you for other projects when you were looking for follow-ups?
I think all of us, coming off of “Battlestar,” which gave us such a sense of pride, we took that pride with us and wanted to be working on something comparable and of excellent quality. And to be honest, I’m really happy and proud of most of our cast, because the majority of us have moved on to really group projects. Honestly, “Battlestar” is a truly unique thing and it’s hard for anything to step up to that. There aren’t often shows that are as good as that.
So what were you looking for?
We were looking at a number of different projects and I was very picky. We were looking at other pilots and series and I was like, ‘You know what? I’m not interested in this. I don’t want to do this.’ And that’s good. I’m happy to be able to be choosy like that at this point in my career. I’m even more impressed and happy that Joss Whedon approached me. He’s a fan of “Battlestar Galactica.” He said, ‘Listen, I have you in mind for this new role.’ That was a huge experience for me and I was grateful and honored at that.
At least on the surface, it’s another sci-fi project. Do you gravitate toward sci-fi? Does it gravitate toward you?
I love science fiction. I always have, ever since I was a kid. I love a lot of science fiction writers. William Gibson is one of my favorite writers. When I was a kid, “Blade Runner” was my favorite movie. I remember seeing that when I was a little boy with my dad. I remember Edward James Olmos jumping off of the screen at me and just being like ‘Who is that guy?’ and just being so compelled by the performance and thinking I wanted to do that. And then I came full-circle and working with a guy like Eddie was just such a trip, it was so surreal for me at times. I love science fiction when it’s well-done. I don’t like campy stuff. I don’t like stuff that’s too fantastical. I can’t appreciate some of that… “Dollhouse” fits into the genre, because of the technology and the idea, but I also don’t think that the psychology is that far off.
Has the devotion of the “Battlestar” fans prepared you for what will happen when Joss’ fans get ahold of you?
It’s funny, I keep getting asked that all the time. I’ve been in the sci-fi world for a little bit and with the popularity of “Battlestar,” especially in the last couple years, the show has really come full force. I can’t tell you how many people approach me, awesome fans and passionate fans. I’m so proud to be part of it. I love our fans. They’re great people and they’re really involved in the show and a lot of them were never sci fi fans. They just appreciate the fact that it’s an excellent drama. They love talking about it. They watch it in groups… I love it promotes discourse on politics and the world we live in today and it’s able to do that because it’s set in the context of space, so it’s not that controversial.
I’m always being warned, reporters are always saying ‘Are you prepared?’ or ‘Are you ready for what’s going to happen with Joss?’ I don’t know. I guess so. Is it really going to be that difficult? I know Joss’ fans are fanatical and they’re incredibly loyal, but if this show blows up, which it could possibly do, I’ll be as prepared as I can be. I’ll deal with it as it comes and with humility.
And I have to ask one quick “Battlestar” question from my boss. The first couple episodes of this chunk of the season have been big on surprises. Are there anymore surprises still left, or is the main goal from here giving resolution to fans?
There are definitely surprises. There are going to be a few surprises, but there is a lot of resolution to a lot of storylines and there will be some questions, just enough. I think it’s good for a show to end with some questions. I don’t think everything should be resolved and concluded. I think the fans are going to be impressed and happy. It’s going to be well-received, man. I’m so proud of the show. I think it’s such an incredible piece of art.
“Dollhouse” premieres on Friday, Feb. 13 at 9 p.m. ET on FOX.
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