James Marsters hit the nerdom jackpot when he was cast as the bad-boy vampire Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. His rugged good looks and natural charisma worked perfectly in transforming what should have been a short role into one of the central parts of the show: so much so that when Buffy finally ended, Spike went on, joining the cast of Joss Whedon’s other vampire show, Angel until it too met its end.
He added to his geek credentials by playing Brainiac in Smallville for five seasons, and Lord Piccolo in the live-action Dragonball: Evolution (something he will apologize for, if that’s something that still traumatizes you). Turns out, though, Dragonball is a much more important part of Marsters’ life than you might imagine, and if things had worked out, that movie could have been a whole lot better.
We caught up with Marsters at Wizard World Portland, and talked to him about where he’s been and where he’s going. The answers are certain to enlighten you.
Nerd News Nightly: Going to start with a question I’m sure you get asked all the time. You’re from Modesto (California)?
James Marsters: Yeah.
NNN: You ever go to Manteca Waterslides?
JM: YEAH! That was one of the first water slides, I think.
NNN: We used to drive hours to go to those things.
JM: Hell yeah. That was even before they cared about safety.
NNN: Waterslides with straight drops.
JM: (Laughs) That was the best thing about growing up in Modesto. I had a great childhood. Swam in canals, played in orchards.
NNN: You could just go and pick oranges anytime you wanted.
JM: Or, if you wanted sex, just drive out into one of them where no one could see.
NNN: Damn! When I hit high school in the 80s, so did AIDS. No sex for us.
JM: Oh I was the 70s. I wasn’t popular, but I got just enough. (laughs)
NNN: The wife’s a huge Spike fan, of course, but my son is a big Piccolo fan.
JM: Tell him I’m sorry. (huge laugh). You try. Some things are not in your hands to save. Dragonball… Actually Dragonball helped me raise my son. Dragonball is a great rumination on manhood. Which is to say that a real man is humble and goofy and peaceful, above all. But if you attack his family, he will hurt you.
It’s like Goku. He’s all “Hey. Wanna have some lunch? Let’s just sit in a hammock and collect butterflies, guys.” And he loves his kids, and that’s it. He’s not egotistical, he’s not blustering. That’s Vegeta, who’s actually just an overgrown boy who’s creating chaos so he can prove his manhood, because he hasn’t proven it to himself.
On that level, it’s a really good theme to talk to young men about growing up. So I was DOWN for that movie (Dragonball: Evolution). I was passionate about that movie. In fact, Justin Chatwin, the guy who played Goku… We had a whole training program. Where we were both training “thin” for the first movie, with the idea that we would transform for the second movie into a big hulking look. We had a whole diet down, the regime down. We were going to hit it.. we WERE hitting it when we found out it wasn’t going to get picked up, and we found out so quickly after it opened, we were, “Oohhhhhh.”
NNN: It was a good premise that just didn’t execute well.
JM: You know they told me that Stephen Chow was producing it. He did Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, and that’s just everything that Dragonball would need. Dangerous, goofy, funny, everything. But he was just on paper. He was just there to lure us to our doom.
NNN: Didn’t read the contract, did you?!
JM: (Laughs) Yeah.
But I tried! I remember thinking, I’m going to do it like the anime. Where every character — especially Piccolo — either stands stock still, or is screaming at the top of his lungs. It’s 1 or 10. There’s really not a lot in between. And I thought, “It works in the anime. I’m going to try and see if I can do that in the film.”
It was hard (accepting that Dragonball was going to fail). I remember my son was so excited about the premiere and we went to take him to the cineplex, and all I was thinking was “please give us a full house.” We went in there and the place was packed. Packed! Older brothers, younger brothers, all these people. It smelled like BO. It was beautiful.
It seemed too good to be true, so I asked this kid to my left, “Dude, is this Dragonball?” and he says, “What?” And I go, “Is this Dragonball?” “Heck no, Man! This is Fast and Furious!”
So we had to get up in humiliation and take the kids out of the packed theater, and we cross over, to the other theater, and I’m thinking, “Just give us half the house. Just half.” We walk in, and including us three there were five people in the entire theater. On opening night. (Laughs)
The universe just wants to keep you humble some days.
James Marsters is appearing at Wizard World Portland this weekend (February 19-21) in Portland, Oregon. His band, Ghost of the Robot is going back into the studio in April to record their next album.