Exclusive Interview With William Morgan Sheppard
It's always a delight, an honour and a privilege for this writer to interview some of the industry's veteran actors- masterful performers with a wealth of experience and anecdotes to give. William Morgan Sheppard is one of those great character actors, whom you'd likely recognise from his work on various Star Trek films and series, his appearance on Doctor Who with his son Mark in 2011's The Impossible Astronaut, and a whole back catalogue of other TV series and films. Sheppard is a man skilled on screen, on stage and in his prolific voiceover work, such as Biker Mice from Mars. It was a pleasure to conduct the following interview with the classically trained actor and former member of the Merchant Navy. So whether you're an actor established or aspiring, or just interested in great reminiscences and anecdotes from a humble and modest old pro who shows no sign of slowing down, read on for Morgan's insights into landing the role of Babylon 5's Soul Hunter, the advantage the merchant Navy gave him over his other RADA counterparts, and the state of the industry today. Why did you decide to get into acting? Was it a desire from a young age? Or perhaps it was a certain performer or performance that inspired you? Sheer happenstance. I wanted to be a stand-up comedian, I did some gigs... I had a good job selling building equipment, but was itching for something - I was not so funny, but I had good timing. I then found community theatre and joined The Islington Players, and eventually The Query Players in Bethnal Green- two groups of really gifted amateurs. I did my first play, Trilby, and was awful. I had some eye problems, and spent 4 months in hospital. I came out somewhat damaged and wandered one night back to Islington, where they were casting Deep are the Roots- One of the Players, Michael Farmer, said "Morgan's outside, much the worse for wear - give him my role". The committee unanimously said "No way, he's not very good". Burke said "Give it to him, he needs it". So 6 weeks later I appeared as a 70 year-old racist Southern Senator- imagine the accent! After my first 3 scenes, I came on again, and the audience of about 200-odd booed. I got off stage and froze. The Director said "They are not booing you, they are booing the role, they hate him so much". 18 months later I ended up playing leads- 5 nights a week rehearsing, play after play. Then one night the Director said "Bet you five pounds you can't get into RADA". I said I didn't want to be an actor; I was 25, and afraid of failure. I took the bet and John Fernald grabbed me as I left the stage after my audition and offered me a scholarship. I went to RADA and loved every bloody day . 18 months later John Fernald sent for me, and said O"ff you go. Learn to be a professional actor now". "I haven't finished the course", I said. Fernald said "You have been offered a role at the Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh. Take it, along with your Diploma and prize for 'Student who has made the most progress this year'" Years later Fernald met me in University College Hospital. He was in a wheelchair, I was looking after my mother, he looked up and said to the actor pushing his chair, pointing to me, "He's one of mine" and then to me, "I am so proud of you". I have been so lucky. Have you found, in any stage of your career, that your time in the Merchant Navy has brought anything to your skills as a performer? Or have you always considered the two parts of your life very separate? Both feed each other, they're not separate. My experience in the Merchant Navy gave me an edge at RADA and in business. I was 25 and those at RADA were younger, kids really- nice kids, but immature. I had been damaged and was always able to get up off the floor, often due to the kindness of others. I have been lucky. Your career really started on the Stage, most notably in the 1966 Broadway performance of Marat/Sade. Would you say you're a Stage actor first and a Screen actor second, or is there not much of a difference between the two types of performances one has to give? Do you have more of an affinity for playing to a live audience on a stage, rather than a handful of cameras and crew on a set? I was a theatre actor for some 30 years- 12 of those with Peter Brook and the RSC. It was a constant search for truth in performance with the RSC. Led by Peter Brook, Trevor Nunn, Peter Hall... a bunch of directors who never let you get away with any bull. I loved my 12 years - Peter Brook and Trevor Nunn my main mentors. The difference in my work is compression. Stage needs high energy, and is the most demanding. Film is easier, you have to have the same energy but compressed, and above all in close ups . My last play was 1995, and now I love the intimacy and nuance of film acting. TV is plot driven and does not allow for the more subtle characterization which film demands. But I do miss the live audience reactions to comedy. You've worked on your fair share of Cult TV series- Doctor Who, Babylon 5, Quantum Leap, Max Headroom... Do you enjoy the fact that Series like those can require a slightly more stylised form of acting in order to fit into the fantastical Worlds? Also, as an actor it must be bizarre to think that these shows and their legacies have such repercussions on your career later on, with conventions and so forth... Yes, I love having to stretch, like Soul Hunter in Babylon 5, (a special vocal tone), Quatai in Star Trek Voyager... Klingon fans like my Commander on Star Trek VI because Nick Meyer, a marvellous director, let me play the character . Max Headroom got me to the US and Blank Reg is one of my favourite roles. I love conventions- the audiences are often funny and above all knowledgeable. They give me a chance to respond and thank them. Even those who say "Mr. Sheppard, I have been wanting to meet you for 15 years", and then once we shake hands, "Why is it you only play small parts?" You have quite the connection to the Star Trek universe- Not have you appeared in two of the Series, but also two of the films 18 years apart. Is it just another job for you, or do you have a real fondness for Star Trek? It's never 'just another job'. I really enjoy the Star Trek challenges, as you have to play characters a little larger than life, and find an empathy for their alien selves. The Soul Hunter character from Babylon 5 came from a question that Shatner's Capt. Kirk had to deal with in The Undiscovered Country (when Kirk wins a fight against an alien by kicking its knee, only to be told that it wasn;t his knee, and that "not everyone keeps their genital sin the same place"), so I said when auditioning with J. Michael Straczynski, "Where do aliens keep their emotions?" That got me the job. In addition to countless television, you've had the privilege to work with some phenomenal directors like Christopher Nolan and David Lynch. Do you find there's a significant difference in being directed by and collaborating with auteurs of their calibre, compared to other directors who may not have made quite the same impact on the cinematic landscape? Of course! They tend to talk less and give very short notes. Both Chris Nolan and David Lynch gave me minimum notes... David Wild at Heart, "Remember to play him as if under water". And , Chris Nolan pointed to my feet, as I had my feet pointing North while my body was moving East. , Michael (Caine) and I talked acting- older actors seldom talk about the way we work. Michael confessed his major concern was 'disappearing' into a role. He said he had only done it 3 or 4 times. I disagreed and said "No, 8 or 9" and ran off a list. He grinned and said "And you?" I said "about 8 or 9". He shot back immediately with "Cheeky". I just said "I am not Michael Caine, I am not carrying the picture. I walk in, steal the scene and walk out again". Lovely man, and so skilled. In recent years, you've appeared in some of the best shows on Television, such as Dexter, Alias, Mad Men and It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia. What are your thoughts on the shift in our preferences towards Television for convenience and quality? Whereas movies seem to be getting more generic and the moviegoing experience less captivating, we can watch the likes of Breaking Bad in the comfort of our own home! Breaking Bad was brilliant, as was Spiral and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The Wire, The Sopranos and Mad Men all contain the best writing and characterisations. One can still find the best film work within the Independent market, you have to hunt for it. My agents know that I love smaller budget films, and all my recent last films have been, with residuals from Transformers and Star Trek filling the gaps. And I believe that is the latest trend- smaller budgets with the stories that will attract the best actors, who are working on TV, where the best scripts are. You're a prolific voiceover artist, lending your voice to everything from Video Games to Biker Mice From Mars. Is there a certain knack to lending a voice role real gravitas and subtlety, or do you find that it's something that comes naturally to a performer? Radio has become my favourite medium. I love radio plays, and have done many with Los Angeles Theatre Works. The actors perform live in front of audiences, the show is taped, and sells later on CD. Alfred Molina, Martin Jarvis, Michael York and Ed Asner all work for a very low fee, but are working in the classics. I love to find a voice and a tone. As a seasoned actor who's been part of the industry for years as it's evolved, what are your thoughts on the evolution of the Leading Man in film? As our culture has become more obsessed with youth, we've gone from the quirky anomalies of Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman, for example, to the case where it seems handsome young actors are plucked straight from Drama School to head up major franchises. Is the day of The Movie Star coming to an end, or does it feel just the same to you? Tarantino is purported to have said that the leading men of the previous generation were stronger, with more gravitas, as they had done military service. I've heard about Brit actors out of RADA getting lead roles- they're cheaper, and if they are handsome, what the hell? It is youth-oriented today, but that trend will have a short career span, as the youth market is so volatile. I have observed the changes with some disquiet as the younger generation have very little self-discipline, but eventually they tend to self-destruct. But there are enough talented ones with character who have passion for the craft, and who want to be movie actors rather than Movie Stars, who will always rise to the top, like Ryan Gosling, Viggo Mortensen, Sam Rockwell, and Edward Norton. And there are those still creating fine work like Jeff Bridges, Brad Pitt, Robert Duvall, Dustin Hoffman... It's just a long phase of apathy and desperation for new ideas. It would appear that 'the youth boom' is on the slide regarding youthful star power- the latest figures are tending to the previous generation of stars, like George Clooney, Sandra Bullock and Tom Hanks. The Hollywood Reporter says "Older audiences require a more substantive reason to see a movie than just a 'wow' factor or an effective trailer. Star power, while seemingly unimportant to younger movie goers who appear to only care about concept, acts as sort of movie insurance policy" I put it down to the 76 million people born between 1946 and 1964 who have money and are taken seriously. The new young stars carry little weight with the older generation, but there are abundant talents who will push and nudge and force their way through. And so many of them are Women. Brilliant Women. As an actor working today, how do you feel towards technology such as Performance Capture? The claims it is replacing actors are ludicrous, but can it really complement a performance or accurately portray whatever complexity an actor puts into a role on any level? I enjoy Performance capture, but it will never replace the actor. Nothing will the storytellers have been with us for 2000 years - Shamans, Bards, Kabuki, The Muppets... as well as us character actors, who keep the star honest- sorry if that comes off as a bit arrogant! What advice, if any, would you give to struggling or aspiring actors who want to break into Stage, Film or Television? First, look in the mirror and ask "why do want to be an actor?" Then years later, look again. Is it still the same response? persevere- Talent is a stipulation, the question you must ask is, "what else have got?" Getting up from the floor, rejection... all to be absorbed, and move on. The industry is more fragmented , but there is more work out there too. Remember you are creating a human being under imaginary circumstances, and your job (in my humble opinion) is to present 'The human condition' with as many laughs as possible. Pursue the craft with curiosity, passion, and a sense of humour.