In MTV’s new Tuesday night drama FINDING CARTER, the Wilson family has undergone two huge jolts. One was twelve years ago, when then-three-year-old daughter Lyndon was kidnapped. The other is in the present, when Lyndon, who has reached the age of fifteen in the identity of Carter Stevens (Kathryn Prescott), is returned to her actual parents, sister and brother. Since Carter has grown up believing the woman who raised her was her real mother, it’s quite a shock to her – and having her back is a jolt to her biological kin as well.
Alexis Denisof, who plays Carter/Lyndon’s father David Wilson, is a Maryland native whose first major television role was as recurring character Wesley Wyndam-Price on BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. Wesley started out as something of a twit, but he became much richer and darker when Denisof became a series regular on BUFFY’s spinoff ANGEL. Since then, Denisof’s credits include recurring roles on DOLLHOUSE, HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER and GRIMM, a small but important part in the blockbuster THE AVENGERS and starring as Benedick in BUFFY/ANGEL creator (and AVENGERS writer/director) Joss Whedon’s feature film version of William Shakespeare’s MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING.
Denisof is at MTV’s portion of the Television Critics Association press tour to discuss FINDING CARTER. He sits down at a table in a quiet room to talk about playing a man traumatized by losing and then recovering a child. Denisof also recalls fellow ANGEL actor Andy Hallett, who passed away in 2009 at the age of thirty-three.
ASSIGNMENT X: You’re a father in real life, but is this your first time playing a dad?
ALEXIS DENISOF: It feels like it, but I must have played a dad before. But this is the first substantial fathering role that I’ve had. And that’s part of why I was interested in it, because I am now several years into fatherhood in my own life, and it’s been the most extraordinary, wonderful, at times difficult but satisfying job I’ve ever had, being a father. And so to get the chance to examine that onscreen is very appealing. Now, I’m not saying that the father I am in life as the same as this onscreen father, because they’re very different. I just mean to say that part of my interest in this project was to look at fatherhood through the eyes of a drama.
AX: Are the kids on the show older than your actual children?
DENISOF: My youngest child on this show is twelve in the script, so yes. But the story will occasionally go back – not yet, but we will explore other times in the lives of these [people], and it’s very present, the early years of parenting is very present in the story, because Carter was abducted when she was three.
AX: Are you bringing anything that you know about parenting to playing the role, or is this giving you nightmares as an actual parent of, “What if this happened?”
DENISOF: When this story was described to me before the script arrived, I wondered if I’d be able to read it, because it is among the top worst nightmares for a parent, having your child abducted. I mean, how many of us as parents have turned around in a grocery store and your kid is not in sight and you have that momentary gut-wrenching sensation and then you notice that they’re just six feet away from where they were and everything’s fine. But just that tiny moment is all you need to realize what a really horrendous situation this is, and for the families that have actually been through this in their real lives, we can’t begin to truly commiserate with what that pain is. So I asked myself, will I be able to even get through this story, because it’s my worst fear?
But I started reading the script and I couldn’t put it down. I cared so deeply for everybody, not just Carter, but I cared for her two siblings and I cared for these two biological parents, and I even cared about the abductress, the kidnapping mother, and I was interested in her story and her reasons for how and why this happened. It’s been very rewarding on a story level, because the writers are exploring all of the characters, their personalities, their perspectives on the abduction of Carter, how that affected each of them in the interim, what the return of Carter to the family means, not just to Carter, but to her brother and sister, to her mother and father. So it’s handled in a very real, but also a very fascinating way.
AX: Cynthia Watrous plays David’s wife, who is Carter/Lyndon’s mother. A lot of couples, where there’s the loss of a child, either through kidnapping or through death, the relationship doesn’t withstand that loss. Have you and Cynthia Watrous discussed, or just gone through your own processes, of what’s kept this couple together?
DENISOF: We have definitely discussed it, and the series is going to explore what happened to this relationship as a result. Things are not easy between the biological mother and father. They’ve been through hardships in their relationship and they are still going through them. The return of Carter does not make everything instantly go back to Point A and reset and everything’s fine. We’ve had years of difficulties. But there is also a powerful bond that happens to people who go through adversity together, and you never know how you’re going to handle the worst situation of your life until it comes along. What I love about the show is that it allows for the unexpected. Our view of this relationship is that there is something there between them that is very strong and that both of them want and need. But it is also a relationship that is barely holding itself together. They are in a severe dysfunction internally, and a lot is being held together superficially just for the survival of the family.
AX: What is David’s job?
DENISOF: He is a writer. He has an office in the house and that’s where the real success that has ever happened for him in the career occurred, and that was the writing of the story of the loss of Carter, whose real name is Lyndon, and how that affected the family became a bestseller called LOSING LYNDON. Ever since then, he has not been able to find the same success with any other of his writing endeavors. There’s a lot of angst for him about trying to follow that book up with more success, and how that’s affected his confidence and his career and his relationships and all sorts of things.
AX: Speaking of success, were you prepared for what an indie film hit MUCH ADO turned out to be, or was that a nice surprise?
DENISOF: That was an amazing surprise. I was not prepared for it. I mean, Joss always brings a huge bag of fairy dust to almost any project he touches, and the chance to work with him and Amy [Acker, who costarred in ANGEL] and the entire cast was a dream come true. I would have done it had he taken the movie and flushed it down the toilet as soon as it was wrapped, because it was such a joy to work with him on that play and in that role and with those people. But then to have a project that is truly a passion project, to have it come out and reach the audience that it reached and to gain a theatrical release and now for it to be finding all these viewers on DVR and DVD, it’s just fantastic and I’m honored to be associated with it.
AX: He’s been gone five years now, but do you have anything you’d like to say in memoriam about your ANGEL costar Andy Hallett?
DENISOF: Oh, gosh. Yeah. I mean, I get a little choked up about Andy. I was looking at photos of Andy last night, because I dug into a box called “loose photos” in my office. I needed to get some stuff from my personal life for FINDING CARTER – they asked for a couple of pictures, so I was digging through that box, and I must have come across two dozen pictures of Andy, some of them of him on stage at the [BUFFY Posting Board Party] events we used to have in Hollywood, some of them with he and I at a signing, some of them at work – it just seems to be the Andy Hallett box that I struck, and it really hit me hard, how much I miss him and what a just spectacular person he was, what a rare and unique find. So I love you, Andy, and I miss you.
AX: Can you talk about the Web series H+?
DENISOF: Yeah, that was a really interesting project. It was a new idea – nonlinear storytelling. These guys, John Cabrera and Cosi [Cosimo De Tommaso], the writing partnership, in conjunction with John Taylor from Bryan Singer’s production house, constructed this idea and used what is possible on the Web, which is short-form storytelling, but not in a linear fashion. Each episode stands alone on its own, but it can also be arranged according to character, so you just follow the storyline in the order of one character, or you can follow it chronologically from a plot perspective, because the story really picks up from a computer virus in the future that affects all of the people that have had a chip embedded into their neo-cortex. This is actual science that’s in the investigatory process right now, so this is more science than fiction, truthfully. But strictly speaking, this is a science fiction genre piece.
So you can pick up from the moment of this epidemic where a third of the population dies as a result of the virus, all in one moment, and then just follow it through, or you can watch it the way the creators intended, which is that it moves through different timelines, into the future and into the past, before and after this event. As far as what it was intended for, a Web series, it was a big success. I just heard the other day that it was edited into a format that it could be screened at a cinema, I think it was in France, somebody told me, and they watched the entire thing put together. And the production values warranted it. If you watch this thing, you’ll be stunned at how beautifully it’s shot. It definitely defies what are the perceived standards of Web series.
AX: And does FINDING CARTER affect your participation with GRIMM?
DENISOF: At the moment, no.
AX: It looked like your GRIMM character Prince Viktor was going to continue his manipulations of the distraught and very dangerous Hexenbiest witch who is searching for her abducted baby …
DENISOF: The Hexenbitch, as I believe she’s referred to now. I’ve loved being part of that show – I was a fan of it before I ever got to be on it, and of course it’s a reunion of sorts, because the show runner is David Greenwalt [who co-created ANGEL with Whedon], and we shared many wonderful years in the trenches on ANGEL and BUFFY. So I’m thrilled to be part of that, and I’m even more delighted that the schedules are working out. They’re just gearing up for the next season and so we’re talking about that right now. I don’t know that I can say very much more than that, except that it’s my sincere hope to be available to them.
AX: Is Viktor your first time playing a sort of proto-Nazi?
DENISOF: [laughs] I don’t know that I would have described him as that, but I consider him to be a unique character, yes. Anything that I’m lucky enough to sink my teeth into, I hope that I can make it unique and find the new challenge for me as an actor in the role, and GRIMM is no different. He’s an archetypal villain, and yet you don’t want to just write him off as predictable, because when you hear a phrase like, “the classic villain,” of course you switch off, and I hope that we’ve created somebody who is fascinatingly evil and interestingly sinister, rather than boringly so.
AX: Would you say David on FINDING CARTER is the most down to Earth contemporary person you’ve played?
DENISOF: Yeah. This show requires a deep level of naturalism in order for it to hit you in the gut. You want to feel that these people are alive and breathing and real in a sense that – I don’t mean to say that BUFFY and ANGEL and GRIMM aren’t real, but it’s an artificial universe. It’s heightened, and so the elements of storyline are also heightened for those genre shows. The task there is to take a heightened reality and make it accessible and real. But here we’re in the everyday lives of an average family with two-point-four kids and the car and the difficulties of groceries and commuting and work and school. It’s very approachable in that sense.
What is out of the ordinary with this show is the premise that one of the children was taken at an early age and is now returned. So that is what heightens the show, the emotional dramatic content within the storyline. But that isn’t to say that over the course of the season extraordinary things don’t happen to all of these characters. But I think as a basic storytelling technique, as an actor, I do want to try to bring as much naturalism and realism into the scenes as possible, so that these events that take place are being processed through a natural world, not a heightened, magical, mysterious world.
AX: Is there anything else you’d like to say about FINDING CARTER right now?
DENISOF: [laughs] Well, we’ve worked hard on it, we’re very proud of it, this season has a lot of twists and surprises. There will be a lot of things that people are not expecting from all of us, but particularly in my case, the character of David has quite a few mysteries that are yet to be revealed.
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Article: Exclusive Interview: FINDING CARTER star Alexis Denisof