Interview: ‘Constantine’ guest star Michael James Shaw on bringing Papa Midnite to TV

Some of the biggest, baddest figures in DC Comics lore have been making their way to the small screen lately.

We just got Ra's al Ghul on “Arrow,” Captain Cold on “The Flash” and Victor Zsasz joining the already bursting rogues gallery on “Gotham.”

On Friday (November 7), NBC's “Constantine” gets in on the action, introducing immortal mob boss and voodoo aficionado Papa Midnite in an episode titled “The Devil”s Vinyl.”

Debuting in the first “Hellblazer” comic, Papa Midnite has had a varied relationship with John Constantine over the years, sometimes providing begrudging assistance and sometimes getting in Constantine's way.

Playing Papa Midnite in this recurring incarnation is Michael James Shaw, such a relative newcomer that NBC and WBTV eschew prior credits to call him merely “a recent graduate of Julliard.” 

I got on the phone with Shaw this week and learned about his unexpected personal connection to the source of Papa Midnite's powers, as well the genius costume designer who helped him tap into the character. 

We also discussed Shaw's highest profile prior credit, namely a stint as an extra on a little show called “The Wire.”

Check out the full Q&A below.

HitFix: This is a pretty major career splash for you. When you were in the audition process, did you feel like your being relatively fresh to this particular game was going to be an advantage or did you worry it might be a disadvantage?

Michael James Shaw: I think for this role I had no clue. I went in for a casting director that I'd been in for a lot of times throughout the years and we had a good relationship. It's weird, because you never know when you walk in a room if it's gonna be the right part, but for some reason that day, the cards were in my favor and I don't think it mattered much about my experience. It was just, “Are you right for the role?”

HitFix: When you first read Papa Midnite on the page, what made you feel like you were, indeed, right for the role?

Michael James Shaw: I really enjoy playing villains, I've played a lot of them in my life. Also, when I audition, it's not really about, “Oh, I'm gonna book this part.” It's moreso a chance to get to step into another person's shoes, another character's life and when I started reading up about him — Because I had never read any Constantine books, I'd seen the movie with Djimon Honsou and I enjoyed it, but I had no details about the world — so as I started researching about Papa Midnite and his background and his history, I was like, “Oh, this is really deep and juicy.” I don't know. I just kinda latched onto it and now the rest is history, I guess.

HitFix: The character's powers have roots in actual religious and mystical traditions. How much research have you done into those traditions?

Michael James Shaw: I have a couple aunts who practice the Yoruba religion and there's a lot of resource material you can find. I was very careful about finding information that was honest and true and then making sure that we were not actually casting any real spells in the process of creating some of the incantations that we speak in the show. That was kinda a fun research project, but also a little scary, because you never know what you can unlock if you say the wrong words. That was really a fun process, digging into that culture, or multiple cultures actually — Santeria, Vodun and, of course, Yoruba.

HitFix: Tell me about more about your aunts and what their response was when you talked to them about this?

Michael James Shaw: Well, their response mainly was one of caution, just to be careful. Those things are very real for practitioners and if you're not familiar with what you're doing it could wreak havoc in your life if you don't know what you're tapping into. And it's very real and some people may not believe in it, but I believe it's very real.

HitFix: Does that put extra pressure on you? Not just the “avoiding doing an actual incantation” part, but playing a role like this when it's got that personal and familial side to it?

Michael James Shaw: You have to believe it! As an actor, you have to believe what you're playing, but then again you have to set up a certain amount of “What is false and what is reality?” so that it doesn't slip into something where you can't come back, but I think in all fairness, it's based on a comic book that was fictional material, so we can easily make sure that the world does not tip into this place where, “Oh. We're crossing the boundaries of reality.”

HitFix: I just personally like very much that you're playing a superhero/comic book character, but that you have this grounding to it. Was that something you were able to mention to the casting directors when you came in?

Michael James Shaw: Well no! This is something that I got from reading mainly the Papa Midnite “Hellblazer” [comics]. That's what really gave me the information that, “Oh, this is a real person who is seeped in a culture and a reality that I can find reference to here in the world. It's not completely fictional.” There's some references in his life and in his journey throughout the world, because he's immortal, that I can latch onto that actually do exist. Whereas if you're woking with Superman, he's an alien, so it's stuff that's completely fictional. But Papa Midnite is a fictional character based off real, tangible elements. 

HitFix: You mentioned that you enjoy playing villains, but in the comics, Constantine and Papa Midnite have a relationship where they go back and forth between being adversaries and tenuous allies. What can you tell me about the dynamic as we start the relationship here on the show?

Michael James Shaw: [He first checks on what he can say to avoid spoilers.] In this first encounter, Constantine and I are after an object of great value and we both need it for different reasons and it's a pretty hard fight to get it. I don't know if I can say anymore than that, but it's a fun fight to watch between the two of us.

HitFix: Are you more drawn to the adversarial side of the Midnite-Constantine relationship than the uneasy allies side, then?

Michael James Shaw: I enjoy them both. Even in Papa Midnite being an [ally], there's still a great amount of tension between the two of them. Nothing is ever completely resolved. I think that's the fun of it. How do you put whatever differences in your past aside to work for the greater good or maybe a greater evil — Who knows? — but that's the fun of it, the compromise and why one has to compromise.

HitFix: One thing that's pretty consistent about this character in all of his iterations is that he's a very snappy dresser. Talk a bit about what this guy wears and how that puts you in a Papa Midnite frame of mind.

Michael James Shaw: Well, our costume designer Mari-An [Ceo], she's a genius. I guess her approach to Papa Midnite was to combine a lot of the essence from the book, from the two incarnations in the books, and kinda create this very dapper, but still grounded-in-the-earth, kind of image. The textures and the actual cuts of the clothing, they contradict each other sometimes, but it creates this very… It's not like a pimp or it's not like a gangster, but it's kinda posh and a little Hugh Hefner-esque, but still with that grit. It's hard to describe, but you'll see what I mean and I think all of those adjectives and images will click together when you see it, because she's genius.

HitFix: Have they had the time yet on the show to fill in Papa Midnite's backstory? Have there been any flashback opportunities for you so far?

Michael James Shaw: No flashback opportunities yet, but there have been some moments of allusion to his past and I think it will all add up in the end. The fans of “Hellblazer” will definitely get their fill of Papa Midnite.

HitFix: Is this the kind of thing where it becomes harder to make this character mysterious, inscrutable, what-have-you the more you learn about him? Does it become harder to keep the mysterious edge to this guy the more you play him?

Michael James Shaw: No, I think you get to show a bit more of the humanity, which is even more shocking, to see that “Oh wow, they may have had evil intentions at one point, but this is why… This is who they really are.” You may not agree with what's going on, but you get to see the human underneath whatever actions the person is making and I think that is… Whew. It's huge in terms of wanting to see more of a character. Humanity is essential.

HitFix: Just as a last question. Your IMDB page has your first credit listed as “Homeless Man” on “The Wire.” Is that a real credit or one of the many mysteries of the IMDB?

Michael James Shaw: That's actually a real credit. When I was an undergrad, I ended up doing some background work on “The Wire” and there's a scene with me and Bubbles where we're waiting in line at a soup kitchen. It was almost like six years ago, maybe more than that, but it was something that I did in my second year of undergrad and there was a picture in the Washington… I forget which paper it was, but it was a posting about “The Wire” and the new Season 5 and it was me and Bubbles on the front page of this small paper in DC. It was a small credit that I had as an undergrad.

“Constantine” airs Fridays at 10 p.m. on NBC.