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The Xena Information Page



January 1998 #258

By Maureen McTigue

Bringing a new art to sibling rivalry,

Kevin Smith shows that even the bad guy is good.

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No one would ever accuse Ares, god of war, of being a fun guy. His alter-ego, however, is a different story. Kevin Smith is personable and pleasant, with a quick wit and sparkling disposition that rings loud and clear even across 9,000 miles of phone line. With a strong "Good as gold," the New Zealand actor becomes the oracle of the gods and tells tales.

The first story Smith recounts concerns the 20 pounds of rubber he had to wear on his head to portray Bacchus in an episode of Young Hercules. "I've never done the prosthetic thing before, so that was partly why I took the job. I thought I should give it a go. My curiosity is well and truly sated," he laughs. "A good team of people, the special effects artists, made what could have been a trying time actually enjoyable.

"Bacchus had appeared in an early Xena, but the actor who played him then was in Australia and wasn't available. So they said, 'What about old Smitty?' And they asked me. As it happens, it ties in very well because Bacchus is another of Hercules' half-brothers. So that's three of his brothers I've played now [including Iphicles]. Gotta love that. Cause Kevin Sorbo and I look so alike, we're always mistaken for each other. I'm the brother guy."

Brother's Keeper

A spin-off of the Hercules/Xena franchise, Young Hercules airs on Fox Saturday mornings and Tuesday-Friday afternoons. Replacing Ian Bohen, who played the young demi-god in the direct-to-video TV movie and a few Hercules episodes, is Ryan Gosling.

"Rayan's great," Smith notes. "The episode block we've just done is nice stuff for him. He's a fine actor and a top bloke.

"I have to say I have a little bit of trepidation about the show itself, simply because it was aimed at a younger audience. One of the things I enjoy about Hercules and Xena is a certain self-knowingness, and therefore you can take a few more liberties, in terms of more innuendoes. I was worried, because of the target audience, that it would come out a little pallid in comparison. But the scripts for Young Herc have been very, very good, and I don't think we've lost anything. It's different from the other two shows, texturally and visually. The design is a little funkier. It's not like a poor cousin, but a completely separate entity, which is good.

"Acting on Young Herc is different. I have a different place and different relationships on this show. But I do have a lot of fun. The guys--Ryan, Dean O'Gorman [Young Iolaus] and Chris Conrad [Young Jason]-- are a real blast, too. I actually socialize with them--well, they need me to get into bars and stuff," Smith snitches, saying, " 'Yeah, I'm over 21, I'll vouch for them.' Then, they cut me loose and run off with their young friends, but that's all right."

There is essentially a 20-year gap in time between Young and the original Hercules, and the brothers are only first getting know each other in the spin-off. But everything is easily explained by Smith.

"It's really funny to have to bring yourself backwards--the feelings of hatred Ares has toward Hercules are still very raw," he says. "They haven't had the chance to become as sophisticated as they are in Hercules.

"One thing we wanted to do on Young Hercules was to make Ares a little bit scary again," Smith confides. "On Herc and Xena, while he's the bad buy, there's a certain comedic sway with him. He comes across kind of roguish. He makes the point that, 'Hey, I'm the god of war, it's my job to do this stuff. What am I, the bad guy? I'm a working stiff. I'm doing war stuff.'

"But on Young Hercules, we've tried to make him more of a bogeyman. Strife was killed off in Hercules, but because this is 'previous,' he's on the show regularly--and, I swear to God, Joel Tobeck is just an amazingly funny guy. He gets to take the comedic weight and I concentrate on being the bad guy."

As far as how many Young Hercs he has shot, Smith is caught off guard. "You know, I've lost track. They're filmed in blocks, and over a week you jump back and forth between four episodes. The set is very busy; they're shooting basically a feature film every two and a half weeks, so they're really working hard. They send me my stuff, 'Come in today, Kev.' They wind you up and aim you," he laughs. "You totter off and do some evil."

Favorite Son

The difference between the syndicated "Mother Ship" series - Hercules: The legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess - is that they're in living color, according to Smith, in "flavors and performances. For me, the difference is with the relationship between the protagonists. With Xena, it's very much about seduction, trying to win her back to the dark side. So Ares' mode of operation is courting; he's more subtle more charming, more serpentine. On Hercules, Ares' mission statement is to destroy him; it's naked hatred, so he's more belligerent on that show.

"Of course, there's an added hassle. There's some god law, which probably came from people asking 'You know, why don't they just kill him?" So Zeus says, 'Well, we need a law. No one's allowed to kill Hercules.' So now, none of the gods can kill Herc. They have to be quite surreptitious about it. Then of course, you get the sub-clauses in the law. And when they need to explain that, who gets it? Ares! And you drop that information casually in the conversation." With that, the deep resounding voice of Ares explains, " ' I would kill him but a god cannot kill a half-god.' But I'm happy with it. I get a blackboard and do diagrams."

Naturally then, Ares has to do a little more work to engineer his half-brother's destruction, a task which appeals to Smith. "In New Zealand, on TV over 10 years, I've pretty much run the gamut of every evil guy. I've just got bad written all over," Smith announces. "I don't know what it is, Ares is particularly so much fun to play. Because you have magic, that's always quite fun. But I like the little boy part. It's a license to be naughty, like someone has given an eight-year-old a handful of rocks, saying, 'God ahead, break the windows. Go on! It's OK.'

"The fighting is another of the fun aspects of these shows. There aren't many other gigs where you have sword fights. They're always coming up with a new take on the fights. I remember when we were doing 'Two Men and a Baby' and they had this huge fight scene planned, but it was the season's end and Kevin [Sorbo] was flying out that night, and we were losing light and we couldn't go into overtime. Pete Bell, the stunt coordinator, got hammers and handed them to us: 'We're running out of time, here are two hammers, just slug at each other.'

"You do all this stuff when you're a kid all this pretend fighting. You're there again," Smith enthuses. "When I first started doling the show, I would have to stop myself from making the noises--you know, when you throw a punch, you go 'bbsshhwww.' And people would tell me, 'You don't have to do that. They'll put it in later on.' "

Ares is more than mere warfare, however. At times, Smith gets to show the god's other sides. "Every now and then there have been episodes where Ares has lost his powers, where he has faced mortality. The writers have allowed him moments of actual reflection and regret, and the flickerings of human emotions.

"Here's a guy who's this way partly because his job has conditioned him to be that way--there but by the grace of God--had he not been the god of war, what could he have been? You got glimpses of that in 'Strange World' and other episodes, which for an actor makes it more interesting. It's not like punching the clock, putting on your black hat and doing bad stuff."

Family Affair

Balancing the fight and love scene--"Sometimes at the same time, you gotta love that!"--that are so vital to the shows is made easier by the connections the actors share. "Lucy [Lawless] I've known for years. So, it's nice when I go to Xena, it's a supportive environment, and that's very much the case in working with both Lucy and Kevin.

"Kevin is just the most easygoing guy. We're both a couple of frustrated jocks. If we had our way, we would be paid to play sports, but the only thing standing in my way is mediocrity, so I do this instead. But we talk about it and watch it a lot, and he kicks my bum playing golf.

"Talking about the comfort thing, Kevin has been doing this longer than any of us, but he still wants to keep it fresh and make it alive. He encourages you to take chances and go places with it, so I really like working with him. The safer you feel, the more risks you want to take.

"Michael Hurst," Smith pauses. "Obviously for legal reasons I can't say how I really feel, but it's my intention to destroy that man, to bring him down, destroy him and his seed." The actor then jovially breaks his serious tone, "No. He's a top bloke! Michael and I have done films and theater together, so this is just a logical extension. It's like playtime. That boy knows everything in the world, like everything he has ever read--I think he's an idiot savant. You don't need downtime 'cause he'll just tell you stuff, sometimes more stuff than you need to know. He's directing a few shows now, and he's a very gifted director as well as a great Shakespearean actor. He's the Renaissance Man of New Zealand."

Playing the bad guy to people he calls friends is a good thing, according to Smith. "It makes it that much better. Your relationship outside the job is totally secure so it's like, 'Oh good, I can be even worse to you.' Whatever I do to Hurst doesn't matter 'cause eventually we're going to go have a beer. You can actually be more wicked. Ironically, it's better to be evil to people you're friendly with.

"The worst thing in the world is handling love scenes with people you've known for years," he groans. "It's like kissing your sister. And as attractive and all that as it may be, you know what I mean. You still regard them as friends and it feels weird. It's easier to do it with someone you just met that day."

Smith's three young sons have another view of all this. "What's frightening is that they don't see Ares as the bad guy," Smith explains. "They see him as the victim. 'Oh, why do they have to pick on Ares all the time?' They like the shows and dig Ares. I try not to let them see me get beat up. Two things upset them: when I get beat up or when I kiss someone who's not their mother. 'That's not Mum!' 'It's cool, man, they're paying me to do it.' 'Does it make it right?' One particular show I did here, they wouldn't speak to me, they were so angry I had kissed another woman. 'I'm not talking to you!' " Smith laughs at the memory.

Father's Day

One of the series' major appeals has been their style, the almost camp approach to the storytelling. To this thought, Smith takes great offense. "Almost campy!? All my efforts have been construed as almost campy!?!" he exclaims. "Call me a pup tent, that's how campy I am! I should have Boy Scouts coming out of me!

"I did a feature a few years ago, Desperate Remedies, and there was a lot of big emotional stuff in it. To prevent yourself from appearing ridiculous, ironically, you must make more of an emotional commitment the higher the level of performance. And that's how it segues into comedic episodes. You'll have your fun ones like 'Porkules' and 'One Fowl Day' and darker ones, like the Hind Trilogy.

"The texture of the shows is obviously different because of the two lead characters. One is good, has always been good; one has an ongoing struggle with a dark past--straight away that's going to give you the tone. At one time, Xena has the favor of Ares and vice versa, so she's often visited by things from her past. Hercules' journey has the touch of a Johnny Appleseed, but the struggle we see in him is the burden, the selflessness, he has lost two wives, a complete family by now, but he still soldiers on."

Sibling rivalry lies at the root of Ares' brotherly hate. "Ares was the older brother, the heir apparent, and it's the favors which Zeus lays upon Hercules that just kills Ares," the actor says. "Hercules goes around and undoes all the things that Ares has carefully put in place--wars, attrition and all sorts of slaughter. Hercules just stuffs it up. They are diametrically opposed on all levels.

"In the Young Herc telemovies, you see a bit of that. Hercules asks him, 'Why are you doing all this?' And Ares tells him 'Because you come under father's special protection. You're the favorite son.' It's very biblical too. In many of these shows, there is more than a passing not to medieval morality plays. You find a lot of biblical parallels in the stories and relationships."

This is also played out on Xena, as is the question of just who her father is. "If Ares is her dad," asks Smith of the seduction of Xena, "why is he doing this to her? The writers tossed out that possibility in an episode and took a mischievous delight in the curiosity it caused. It suits everyone's purpose at this point to remain ambiguous about it. The first time they met, in 'The Reckoning,' it seemed like an overt sexual advance, and that was interesting. They may resolved it or they may decide to leave it up in the air."

In the acclaimed Xena third season all musical episode "The Bitter Suite," Smith did his own singing. "In New Zealand," he explains, "to make your living as an actor, those who do television have to juggle theater as well. So, most of my earlier work was musicals. When they asked me about the episode, I said, 'Hey, one thing: Kev don't dance. Is there dancing in the episode?' And they said, 'No! Well, there's music and, uh, you're just moving to music.' If I were to look up in the dictionary, 'dance,' it would say 'moving to music.' I used to play in rock bands. When I was younger, so I was happy to sing. But, they made me dance, and for that I can never forgive them. Someday, they will pay a terrible price for that."

Smith took on another offbeat role in "Yes, Virginia, There Is a Hercules." The cast portrays the series' writers and producers in this fan favorite episode (which has spawned a sequel, "For Those of You Just Joining Us," airing next month). "The New Zealand actors didn't really know the writers and producers--we had me them--we couldn’t' do a convincing parody. So, we took one element, and like a cartoonist on acid, blew that one element out of proportion. The guy I played, Jerry Patrick Brown, I believe he dug it! I met his daughter at a convention and she told me so. I played him as a ball-breaking redneck. We were worried that they were going to leave the bathroom scene out. We begged them 'This could be the defining moment in television history.' Not a single line of spoken dialogue, just four guys standing at a urinal. Genius! And to their everlasting credit, they had the guts to stick with it."

The worldwide popularity of Xena and Hercules is a strange experience for Smith. "It's extraordinary," he admits. "But it's not something that sits easy with me. It's like if I was a butcher and I made a particularly good sausage and people dug my sausages; it's just my job is all. I would be lying if I didn't say there was a small part of me that goes, 'Hey, this is cool.'

"I'm with the shows full-time now, but I like not knowing stuff," Smith notes of his new commitment. "Sure, there's the nervousness, the mortgage thing, that comes into play, so it was always really nice when they rung me up and said, 'Ares is coming back for an episode.' I've never taken it for granted that he's always going to be there. There's a drop of Hind's blood floating around out there somewhere, isn't there? Just in case Kev gets a little fickle to work with."

In the meantime, he's embracing immortality and immorality simultaneously. "We're filming Herc and Young Herc right now," Kevin Smith states, "and I'm keeping them straight." The art of war has never had a better keeper.

The End

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