Alexander Siddig is best known to SF fans for his role as Dr. Julian Bashir on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. In the revived Primeval, about to begin its North American run on BBC America and Space, he plays mysterious millionaire Philip Burton, who has ensnared Connor Temple into his New Dawn scheme…
I would – I saw two episodes the other day, and they were so entertaining. Twenty seconds didn’t seem to go by without some massive new dinosaur appearing. I don’t watch a lot of TV as a rule, because I never get it together to see what’s on, but if I knew it was on, I’d have a look at it for sure.
How did you get involved?
I’ve known [series co-creator] Adrian Hodges for years; we’ve had a yearly Sunday lunch for the last 15 years at a friend’s house who’s a producer. She gets together a gaggle of people – a couple of directors, couple of producers, couple of actors. He’s always been there but we’ve never worked together. He wrote me a letter and said, “Do you want to get involved with the show I’m doing?” I said, “you betcha.” And I’m really glad I did. I had a great experience; really lovely bunch of people. It’s pretty hectic out there in Dublin, and the budget is fairly low, but they make the most of everything, and at the same time get on with each other. It was a wholesome experience.
What did Adrian tell you about the character?
He didn’t know the very end of what was going to happen to him at that point, but he did know that he wanted him to be a problem child. Someone who, through his own zeal, ended up causing trouble, not necessarily out of maliciousness, but certainly out of ambition. Basically someone who was greedy and relatively nice at the same time – a complicated trick to pull off. Particularly complicated because he didn’t want him to tip his hand at any point. I’d look at lines and think, “it’s only episode two, people will suspect I’m a bad guy.” We were always reining him back, trying to keep him in check, as this ambiguous character – but by the time you get to the end of the fifth season, all hell breaks loose!
I kept an eagle eye on stuff, and tried to swallow and underplay anything that seemed overt. He became more and more complex as a result of the process between all the writers and me on set; I autocratically get to deliver the lines, so I can change them to whatever I like at the end of the day! They can only hope that I stay on message. I think it worked out okay.
Effects work has moved on considerably since your Deep Space 9 days; does it feel as if you’re doing something completely different?
No, not at all. The scene with Rex in episode three of last season [where Philip and the lizard are suffocating] could have been right out of DS9. That’s an old school Star Trek trick, to have someone caught in an airlock and get the clock ticking. In many ways, that’s what happened in that scene.
There are enormous mirrors with Star Trek; lots of easy comparisons can be made, partly because at the end of the day it’s a genre piece, as Star Trek obviously was. Although Star Trek led the way in creating a market for these pieces, which I’m still very proud of it for – I think they did an amazing job, whatever anybody says about DS9 – the torch has been carried faithfully by this show in this respect. I have a soft spot for the genre pieces, because of Star Trek, because I was brought up on stage in sci-fi.
The characterisation is a bit more sophisticated than it was on Star Trek, and the effects have come on in leaps and bounds, but the main difference is, a couple of us old codgers, like Ben Miller and I, have a few miles under our belt, and do things a little bit differently from the way we might have done a few years ago. It’s back to that autocracy I was blithering about: you try to be a benign dictator on set with your lines and try and do them as interestingly as possible, knowing everything that has gone before with 200 episodes of Star Trek – what’s been done, what might be new.
I found an interesting role model to base my character on and went for it – Tony Blair. You’ll hear it – vocally I borrowed so much from him, that whole tonality of how he delivers his message; that apparent confidence when he talks to people about his ideas. I thought, “who sells ideas brilliantly? Tony Blair.” Even when he’s not sure of the idea he’s selling, he’s a wonderful salesman. I enjoyed doing that. It’s very different from other characters I’ve played on TV and film. It’s great fun to do a very subtle pastiche. I think it’ll be above everybody’s head but it was fun to base it on that.
What’s Philip’s relationship like with Lester now?
We have an interesting relationship: Lester is a minister manqué. He wants to be a cabinet minister but he’s stuck doing this job. I’m already more powerful than ministers because I’m a puppet master. I’ve got loads of money, like an oligarch. We’re pitted against each other and have a great sparring match. I’m bullying Ben [Miller] for more and more screen time!
What’s the biggest challenge about Primeval?
In terms of my character alone, trying to keep the evolution of him and the general direction as he unfolds into this more and more maniacal character, which kicks off at the end of series four. Keeping him ambiguous and making sure people don’t guess exactly what his agenda is, keeping him attractive on a certain level yet filling people with a sense of dread and suspicion – that was the most delicate ball to juggle.
We were filming well out of order. Ben was doing his comedy routine all around the country so we had to accommodate his schedule. We knew he was going to be there for the end of the shoot, so we shot the very end right in the middle. I had to go from the climax right back to the guarded brilliant political manipulator. That was bizarre!