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Tom McBeath – Characters, bad guys and… chewing gum?
Harry Maybourne, lovable rogue turned Good Samaritan? For the first three years there was little doubt what side of the fence Tom McBeath’s NID colonel sat on, now, as Stargate moves into its sixth season, the last two years have seen a change of direction. In the concluding part of our interview with Tom, we discover how he nailed down the role so many have enjoyed for so long. His recent appearance at Wolf’s SG4 underlined the popularity of this gifted actor.
The obvious question, when talking Stargate, has to be the oldest and most predictable. How did you get the
“The traditional way here in Vancouver,” he explains. “Your agent phones with an audition. I believe there had been an official pain in the ass for the Stargate group, and he may have done a couple of episodes and felt it was tying him down. Anyway he left, but they still wanted that type of character. They said it was possibly recurring and I never get those. So I auditioned and then promptly forgot the audition because you never want to get too excited about that kind of stuff. Then I got the job and didn’t think about it progressing. When the second episode came along I’d done such a thorough job of forgetting that I couldn’t remember what I’d done in the first episode (Enigma).”
Bad guy typecasting?
“I mostly play asses, guys with an edge, jerks, perverts. Things that are a little bit on the edge; those are the ones I guess I audition for best. I don’t know what it is in my past that’s made me an expert at being an asshole, but I do them well!” he laughs.
“I really like Maybourne now,” he enthuses. “I can be a prick and be dumb and yet still come out one step ahead. Most of my stuff is with Richard and the
one-upmanship between the two of us is a lot of fun. It would be nice though to do episodes closer together. When you work with six months in between scripts so much feels just beyond your reach and I’m always nervous when I go back wondering if I’ll be able to get it back?”
The most memorable Stargate episode?
“I think it was the second one (Touchstone). There was something human about him,” Tom explains genuinely, recalling the episode it seems with ease. “He was with Amanda’s (Tapping) character and he developed this soft spot for her. There was a scene that was cut out because of the length of the episode. He became all googly about her and when I see that episode now, I can see it coming and then we jump to the last scene. O’Neill has thanked him for his unwitting help and Maybourne doesn’t like that, but Carter also says thanks and his little heart is just going thump- thump- thump and it’s like he’s in high school again. That was the first time I could show some depth in the character. But the scene that was missing was the set-up for it.”
And that scene was?
“It was just this little scene where they had to do something together, go somewhere and get something to happen and that’s as much as I can remember. But it was the first time he stepped out of the Maybourne box, the first time he became vulnerable.”
Working with RDA and the onscreen chemistry?
“I admire Richard Dean Anderson. He’s been doing this stuff for most of his life. He’s really bright. He’s one of the producers and he’s the star, so he has a ton of power. But he wears it well and I feel like I’m getting free classes. It begins with the writers but Richard changes the stuff on the run and I just go along for the ride. My first love is stage and I love to dig around in the characters I play. I like to make choices about the characters that aren’t the obvious ones. And I don’t mind looking stupid as long as I can look brilliant somewhere else. So I engage on that level. From the first episode I did, Richard brought the sense of history between the two characters and that history gets added to as the episodes have progressed. So we’re never just doing a one-off. Each episode has to be backed up with what’s gone before. That makes for a long running relationship, even though we explore that only a couple of times each season. And most of all we approach it with a sense of fun.”
“I’ve not seen that one yet. One thing I liked was the ending. Maybourne escapes; I think it was supposed to be Jamaica. Well, they hired all the black extras in town and we filmed down at English Bay, here in Vancouver, and they stuck up all these fake palm trees, and there’s a steel drum band playing in the background,” he recalls, a distinctly warm glow in his eyes as he explains. “So I’m on the phone to Jack, rubbing his nose in it, and when I’m finished with him I’m supposed to turn around and saunter down to the water. I’m wearing a straw hat, a loud shirt, shorts, high white socks with sandals, (very chic). As I turned to go, this beautiful extra walked across my path so I grabbed her and we danced our way down to the beach. When they finally yelled cut, the whole place erupted in laughter. I felt like Maybourne had arrived.”
Fleshing out the character.
“The stuff’s on the page and have a sense of what the writer is getting at, how does he sees the character, but you’re never going to be exactly what he thinks the character is. I think writers know that, they’re quite happy with something that lives, breathes. Well, at least looks like it’s alive.
Each script I’ve done, I’ve felt, ‘oh this is so different from the last’ and I think what happens is you get a colour on this episode and a colour on that episode and even if you don’t end up with a full palette, it works because you leave space for the audience member to fill in the colours as they see the guy.”
Many of us were thrilled to see Maybourne with that new look, was it by design?
“I was doing a play called ART, and the character had a beard and longish hair and I got a movie of the week with that look and then the Stargate episode started before the movie was finished shooting. I was probably more concerned than they were, but they graciously accepted me as I was.”
“I don’t bother with the stage ones ‘til we’ve closed – with film stuff I’m usually so far down the ladder that it’s not an issue.”
Tom becomes very philosophical on this point, and one senses he has a very tangible point as he explains the characters we might not necessarily identify with immediately.
“One of the challenges of playing jerks and perverts is to find the human qualities. I don’t think there’s a person on the planet that is intrinsically evil. Even Iago in Othello is a human being. I feel part of my job is to make any character (unsavoury or not) relevant to an audience. That means the character must have qualities they can identify with. If you can do that, if you can hook them, you’re in essence showing the view their own potential. They can’t then easily dismiss the character as simply ‘a bad guy’. As an extreme example let’s take the paedophile in the 6 o’clock news. We know he’s evil and we don’t want to know anymore. We dismiss it as sickness or madness. But there is a logic there, however misguided it might be. I want to explore that logic; explore why he does what he does and more importantly how he justifies his actions. I’m not defending paedophiles here, but if I’m playing one or let’s just say a murderer, I do want to get inside that part of his brain that says ‘I’m okay, I’m still a human being, I still have a spine, I still have character, I’m still worthwhile.’ And at some level they must do that otherwise they’d kill themselves. So typecast? No, I don’t think so. I’m just willing to go to places a lot of actors aren’t.”
Could he play that role?
“It’s difficult to find that mind-set, but I don’t shy away from exploring that stuff – I don’t have to climb an ethical wall to do it,” he explains honestly.
Playing Maybourne reprise:
“They keep having to find ways to bring me back because I’ve been sentenced to death for treason. Hey! Maybe I’ll turn out to be a double-double-double agent.
I don’t see him as a Darth Vader at all. I see him as a little guy who never felt he was well enough appreciated in the NID; he was never treated well enough for his vision. Those are the tiny little things that turn people bad, they’re beautiful little things that make for a small person, for a whingey little guy and I think there is something innately comic about whingey little guys. I think he’s much looser since he got out of the NID, and I think he enjoys the power of his insider knowledge. He does have information that could destroy Simmons for example. I think Maybourne was the original Simmons character – the official ‘stick-it-to-Stargate-guy’ then one script brought me out of that but still they needed that kind of character and the guy’s probably had more days work than I have,” he jokes.
Watching Tom McBeath as Maybourne?
“Hate it!” he says succinctly, adding, “I’m usually screaming at the screen to ‘stop doing that!’ It’s hard to sit back and pretend you don’t know who you are. I don’t watch a lot of TV. West Wing - just fabulous actors and writers - that’s killer stuff - it’s just so good. And then there’s Sopranos. ‘Christ!!!’ These guys on Sopranos, apart from a couple of the leads, seem to be guys they’ve got down on the street somewhere because they’re so scary, so good. ACTORS! I love ‘em.”
Frozen in Watergate!
“They use melted wax to give you the frozen look. It’s sprayed on warm and then solidifies. It’s quite toxic (Don’t breathe it in!!) It took about half an hour to freeze me. The interesting part was the thawing process. They put me on this industrial kitchen counter, under these red heat lamps, infrared. I’m lying there with my eyes open and about two hours later my eyes start to get foggy and they hurt, so the first-aid person washes them out, because we think maybe it’s the wax. I realised later that I’d actually been cooking my corneas (under the lights) and it took about two months to go away!”
Lastly, have there been any collectibles?
“Here’s one,” he says with a twinkle in his eyes. “We’re about to shoot and I’m just about to put my water bottle out of sight, and Richard Dean Anderson pulls his gum out and sticks it on the top of the bottle. Later I take the gum, put it in a little package and send it to my brother-in-law’s niece in England, who is a great Stargate fan. She was grossed out, but I think she kept it,” he laughs.
Tom, my friend - can't thank you enough for your friendship. Both you and Karin are wonderful, warm and generous people. I just wish we didn't live so far apart.
Original Posting and Interview ©Jaclyn & Tom McBeath 2002