Interview: James Frain

Born-of-War-20aJames Frain is perhaps best known to readers of Sci-Fi Bulletin for his work on the recent BBC America adaptation of Michael Marshall Smith’s Intruders (“Intruders had a hardcore following but it somehow didn’t find its audience,” Frain says regretfully), and on Marvel’s Agent Carter. He’s about to appear in the third season of Orphan Black, as well as the second year of True Detective. In his new movie Born of War, released to cinemas earlier this month and now out on DVD, Frain plays hardened mercenary Simon, tasked to ensure the safety of a young woman (Sofia Black D’Elia), about to embark on a dangerous expedition to the war-torn Middle East. At the start of May, he chatted about his recent work from his home in LA with Paul Simpson…


What attracts you a role – the character, the script, the people you’re working with?

It’s all of those things really. The most important thing is the script because everything comes from that. What’s on the page when you start shooting is what really determines what the final result is going to be like. That was one of the things I liked about Born of War: it was a very well-constructed script, it was interesting, and challenging, not just for the actors but for the audience.

And a lot of the time you go with your gut on stuff so yes, the people involved are important to me.

Born of War 7What’s challenged you most of your recent roles?

I just wrapped on True Detective season 2; we stopped shooting a few days ago. That was really challenging because it’s really good writing.

It’s hard to describe good writing in that sense, except that you read a scene and it makes sense, and it seems very real and natural – and then you start to get into it and you realise, “Wow, there are a hundred different ways of playing this!” This is very complicated and challenging, and it’s almost like theatre writing in that sense.

A lot of the time movie-making is about constructing images and telling the story through images but when you have a really complex plot and really deep characters with lots of internal conflicts and secrets, that’s the best stuff. That’s what you want to be moving towards; it’s not easy to do, so when it happens it’s kind of magical.

Frain IntrudersAnd when you get something like Intruders, which was beautifully complex, it requires the audience to pay attention the entire time. Do you need to know where those sorts of characters are going when you’re playing them?

Sometimes you don’t have a choice! They’re writing as they go along, and they’re developing ideas as they go along. Sometimes you can say what you want to explore in a character and that was definitely the case with Intruders. They were very collaborative in their approach. In True Detective, I literally did not know what was going to happen one episode to the next, which is a completely different challenge.

This is happening more and more because of the secrecy issues with the internet; it’s very difficult for people to control how product is leaked. What’s happening more and more is that actors and all the other people working on a movie have less and less information to go on – which makes it more like life. It means you have to really focus on being in the moment and accepting which direction you’re going in, because that’s what living is in. It’s interesting in that way.

Frain True BloodEqually, living is linear whereas filming tends not to be – if you’re shooting out of order, it must be harder to be in the moment…

Yes – but I haven’t done stuff like that for a long time. Most of what I’ve done has been cable miniseries effectively, and in that arena you shoot episode by episode.

In a movie, you shoot location to location and you cover the whole span, and it’s impossible to do that if you don’t know what’s going on. You have to know the arc of the character and where you are each time because you’re jumping in and out of the story.

With Born of War, how much did it change from what you signed up for to what was finally shot?

Oh it was all there. I think there were almost no changes. It was very solid from the get-go. The challenges of filming that particular script were very high, but we always knew we had a very solid foundation. I don’t think it changed at all.

Frain Orphan BlackYou’ve played a lot of “bad” guys, and there’s the old cliché of the bad guys getting better writing: have you found that to be true, or is it more who’s doing the writing?

It’s also a question of what sort of personality is being created in that kind of range. Someone told me that he was working with Denzel Washington on something where he was playing the villain in the piece; Denzel said to him, “I really wish I could do that stuff, because I’m always the good guy”. And then he did Training Day, which got him his Oscar because he just ate it up.

Honestly, I don’t think of it in terms of good guys and bad guys. I try to find out who’s the person behind the character, what’s going on, how did someone end up making these kinds of choices, and getting in this situation. How can I empathize with that – what do I need to do to make that person feel like a human being, and not a caricature? That’s always the priority.

We also have a lot more going on in terms of anti-heroes, with Mad Men and Breaking Bad. It sort of flowed from The Sopranos: this whole explosion of writing on cable is a lot to do with anti-heroes, with very flawed and complicated characters where they could easily be the bad guy if you just flipped them two degrees. There’s a lot of that happening, and it’s always interesting when characters are complicated, like we are in life.

Especially in the UK, it’s come out of a tradition of theatre and out of Shakespeare, where sometimes the bad guy is the lead and you’re somehow on his side. Richard III is as bad as they come, but you’re kind of rooting for him. Hamlet does some pretty bad things. These characters we’re raised on, they’re in our blood: we examine them to find the human beings there rather than label them and distance yourself from them.

Born of War coverAre there any roles like that you would dearly love to play?

Honestly, it’s about what’s in front of me. Given time, I’m open. I’d like to do more classical stage: it’s very difficult to bring off when you live out here but that’s definitely my ambition.


Thanks to Camilla Sewell at DDA for her help in setting up this interview.

Born of War is in cinemas now, and can be purchased from Lionsgate Home Entertainment



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