Actor Cas Anvar had a very intense year, toggling between filming as two characters who were virtually polar opposites. In Season 3 of THE EXPANSE, which began its third season on Syfy Wednesday April 11, he plays heroic space pilot Alex Kamal. In the fourth and final season of FX’s THE STRAIN, now available on Amazon Prime, Anvar portrays the monstrously self-serving Sanjay Desai, a human who collaborates with the vampires who had taken over the world.
Originally from Saskatchewan, Canada, Anvar’s other credits include Syfy’s series OLYMPUS, the Oscar-winning ROOM, and STAR TREK CONTINUES (not to be confused with STAR TREK: DISCOVERY), an eleven-episode follow-up to the original STAR TREK.
Sitting in the lounge at the hotel where the Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour is being held, Anvar catches us up on all that he’s doing.
Anvar starts be setting the stage for THE EXPANSE Season 3 by reminding us of how Season 2 ended. “It was pretty devastating. We had been introduced to the ravages of the proto-molecule, which is some sort of alien technology that got weaponized by Mars and the Earth, and turned into what we called a proto-molecule creature, which is a human that’s been infected with the proto-molecule and turned into an unstoppable killing machine. We went to eradicate the entire proto-molecule existence, realized we couldn’t because it had spread everywhere, and the end of the season saw one of these proto-molecule creatures stowing away onto our ship, revealing itself in our hold when we were in deep space, and we had to find a way to destroy it. After an amazing, almost life-ending battle, we managed to knock it out into space, and then Alex rotates the ship and fries it with the engine. We’re finally safe and sound, and as we’re recovering in the medical bay, one of our teammates, Naomi [Dominique Tipper], reveals that, because she thought they were all going to die, she gave the sample of the proto-molecule that we had all decided we were going to destroy to a very controversial character, who is one of the leaders of one of the factions, because she wanted her people, the Belters [so-called because they inhabit the asteroid belt] to have it as well as Mars and Earth, to equalize the balance of power. And it just ended the season with absolute betrayal and devastation. Our trust had been broken. This family unit that had been so strong was crushed.”
So as Season 3 opens, “We’re recovering from this immediate threat of the monster and the proto-molecule, trying to deal with the devastation of this revelation of betrayal. And how is that going to affect our family and our crew, and how does that affect us going forward, and then, basically, Earth and Mars go to war. So we’re in the middle of a war, dealing with betrayal.”
Besides the emotional stress, playing pilot Alex is also physically strenuous, Anvar relates. “It’s strenuous working on this show in general. The first four episodes, we’d never been trained, but we have a lot of wire work to do [for] the zero gravity stuff. Every time we’re in spacesuits, those spacesuits are made out of neoprene, so you’re basically wearing a scuba wetsuit with a thirty-pound helmet and a vacuum cleaner fan. So you’re wearing about thirty, forty pounds of gear, plus you’re in a helmet, plus you’re sweating, you’re in hot/cold sweats the whole day, fourteen-hour days, on wires, and these wires are not designed to really be comfortable. They suspend you from parts of your body that you’re not meant to be suspended from. So you’ve got to work out, you’ve got to be in shape, you’ve got to be able to have discipline and focus. It all looks amazing in the end result. So it’s all suffering for a good cause, but you’ve got to stay in shape.”
It has gotten more comfortable, Anvar adds. “Every year, we get to submit our little suggestion list of, ‘You know, it would be much easier if these neoprene suits were made out of cheesecloth’ kind of things, and every year, they actually do listen. My suit got better, my helmet got better, the ventilation got better. They put audio systems, so we could actually hear – because [at the outset] we couldn’t hear anything. So they put headsets in there, and we communicate with microphones in the helmets. And I got an air-conditioning undershirt. It’s got cold water flowing through it, and it’s basically what the astronauts use. It’s a t-shirt that has piping running through it, front and back, and it floods into ice water that gets circulated through it. So when I’m overheating, they pop me in, turn on the pump, and it’s like the scenes where I get juiced, where I get injected with this juice, and it’s like, ‘Ooh!’ That’s what it feels like. It’s like a shot of ice water all over my entire upper body, and it just sucks all the heat out of my core, and it’s extremely helpful. It wakes me up, it shocks my system in a good way, and I literally just come back from wanting to pass out.”
Producers on both THE EXPANSE and THE STRAIN accommodated Anvar’s schedule so that he could do both shows. It helped that both series shot in Toronto. “It was a match made in heaven. First of all, the two production companies were extremely cooperative, the show runners and the producers knew each other and were friends, so they were very, very supportive. I have to say THE EXPANSE was the best, because THE EXPANSE really owns me, because I’m a lead on their show, I’m contracted to them, so they don’t have to let me go and do anything if they don’t want to. But they saw it was a great opportunity for me, so they wanted to make it work. Literally, my last day of shooting of THE STRAIN, the next day was my first day of rehearsals for THE EXPANSE Season 2. So it just coincided perfectly. And then my last day of shooting on THE EXPANSE was two weeks before the first day of Season 4 of THE STRAIN. So it just happened to just perfectly mirror. So they didn’t have a problem with it, I was just really fortunate, and I was just lucky that they liked my performance in THE STRAIN Season 3, they didn’t kill me off at the end of that. Because I think Sanjay wasn’t supposed to make it to Season 4.”
Sanjay begins Season 4 of THE STRAIN in a precarious position. “He’s caught between a vampire, a jealous human and the Master. He’s just dancing with the Devil all the time. He’s got to be so fast and so smart, and he can never let anybody see him sweat. That’s why he dresses [in his suits]. He’s the only person on the show, really, that has any color, that has any kind of style. Everyone else is dirty and grungy and worn-out, and if they’re wearing suits, they’re like three-hundred-year-old suits. And Sanjay comes in there shiny and clean and he’s this opportunist that basically plays every side so that he comes out on top as much as possible.”
A lot of actors defend the villains they play, but Anvar concedes that Sanjay is pretty horrible. “Sanjay is not just a run-of-the-mill, everyday guy. I don’t know what it was that did the damage to Sanjay, but Sanjay is one of these guys who will do anything and everything. He’ll do whatever it takes to protect his interests. Whether his interests are his family or himself, he has somehow built up a system of rationalizations in his consciousness that allows him to do pretty much anything, and justify it. The things he has to do – the things he did in Season 3 were bad enough, like the meat factory scene, where he’s setting up the blood processing plant, and the other guy gets used as a demonstration by Eichhorst [the vampire played by Richard Sammel]. That was the first time Sanjay ever saw Eichhorst do what he’s capable of doing. He’s never been exposed to the power of a vampire before. And he could not let Eichhorst see any fear or any hesitation, because that would happen to him. Sanjay was shown by Eichhorst that Eichhorst has no value for anyone if they don’t serve him, have any use to him. They’re just basically a meal. And so if Sanjay does not prove himself indispensable, he’ll be up on that hook within no time. He’s had to, his whole life, build up a system of rationalizations, so he can rationalize his way out of anything.”
As a person, Anvar continues, “It was not easy to go home, especially what happens in Season 4, Sanjay takes his things to the next level. That was difficult. It took a while to shake it off, and I really had to try and invest myself in it, because Sanjay believes in what he’s doing. He doesn’t think he’s a villain, he thinks he’s a hero. The writers told me in Season 4 that Sanjay was actually based on real people who were collaborators in World War II. These are real people who worked with the Nazis to set up the concentration camps against their own people. And fifty years later, some of them are still alive. They got them to do these interviews in documentaries, and on camera, they wouldn’t face what they had done. They would not admit to having done wrong. They still were ‘agreeing to disagree’ with the reporters, and at some point going, ‘Let’s just turn the camera off, because we’re just going in circles.’ In their minds, they saw themselves as heroes who had saved people. They didn’t recognize that they had set up a system with these Nazis and helped slaughter millions [of people], just like Sanjay is collaborating with the vampires to human beings into cattle.”
It was a relief to go back to playing the decent Alex after working as Sanjay, Anvar observes. “Oh, my God. I am so in love with Alex. He’s a breath of fresh air. He is such a joy to play. Even though he has to struggle with certain things, Alex is the one that everyone trusts and everyone identifies with and everyone loves. He’s like the generous, compassionate – he’s the guy that cooks lasagna for everybody to get the whole family together to talk out their problems, and so we can all be happy and just live together and not fight. ‘Can we just all love each other and stop fighting?’ That’s Alex’s motto. So to go literally from one day being Sanjay Desai to another day being Alex Kamal, that antithetical dynamic was almost emotional whiplash, but it was wonderful. And it helped me shake off the Sanjay Desai after-effects.”
Alex has his own rationalizations, Anvar points out. “You’re going to see a lot in Season 3. Alex has to come face to face with some major, major denial and evasions that he’s had to do, at least for his whole adult life. And the difference between Alex and Sanjay is, Sanjay never did have his epiphany, whereas Alex [does], because he’s a more enlightened human being, and he really does care about other people, not just himself, does the work and struggles to be a better person.”
The first two seasons of THE EXPANSE have helped prepare Anvar for the third. “One of the major things about THE EXPANSE is, we put a huge emphasis on the science. The science of THE EXPANSE is incredibly accurate. It’s as real as a science-fiction show has ever been on TV. So we are dealing with real zero gravity, real consequences from traveling in space, real consequences of violence and hostility, the real-life kind of stress and pressure of multiple cultures, different planets and how human beings would really be in space, because we’re always creating Us and Them. Yeah, we’ve gotten rid of racism in space, because three hundred years from now, there aren’t going to be any pure races any more, we’re all going to be mixed, so we can’t be racist any more, but we can be planetist, we can hate each other based on what planet you grew up on and what kind of gravity you grew up on, whether you had a full gravity, or a half gravity, or no gravity. And you can resent people for that. And being exposed to the realism of what it would be like, that dirty grunginess, the painful, dangerous hostility of that environment, that was a huge learning experience. It was really good to absorb that and do a lot of research, watching stuff [about] the Space Station, watching some of the awful things that have happened because of the hostility in space, and realizing how fragile we are. We’re little bags of water, floating in a tiny tin shell, in an atmosphere-less, waterless environment on a rock, or in a space can that can just pop at any moment, and we’d just freeze and die. That reality sinking in is incredibly valuable as an actor.”
As for what Anvar learned about his character, “Alex came into the show a bit of a broken, damaged guy, running from a lot. All the people on [the spaceships] the Canterbury and the Rocinante are running from something. We’ve all had our damage. And what was really thrilling was seeing Alex being in a life and death situation that forced him to step up to the plate and either realize his potential, what his true potential was, or they will all die. And the reason they’re writing a story, the reason there’s a series of novels [by James S.A. Corey, the pseudonym for authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, which are the basis for THE EXPANSE] and now a TV series, about these characters is, these are all exceptional characters. All of these people, regardless of how they started, regardless of how they tried to hide in the shadows and they tried to disappear and how broken they were, every single one of them had huge potential. And the circumstances of the show force them into the fire to realize that potential. And that was really exciting, finding Alex’s potential as a pilot, his potential as a leader, his potential as the emotional and moral glue that bonds everyone to keep them from breaking up, keeps them from being selfish. That was an exciting revelation through Season 1 and Season 2 to explore.”
It’s enjoyable getting to play a character over three seasons, Anvar notes. “It’s actually incredibly challenging and different, because I’ve done a lot more film, and in film, you have a beginning, middle and end. And [on TV], with guest stars and supporting characters, you have one, two, three episodes, beginning, middle and end. You have an arc, and it’s done. And so you’re always thinking, ‘Okay, how am I going to start this character, how am I going to end this character?’ You want to make the most interesting dramatic and provocative journey for that character to entertain your audience. When you’re doing a lead on a series where there is no end in sight, now you’re saying, ‘Okay, I’m just going to go on this journey, and I don’t want to blow my wad all at the beginning. I want to really take my time and explore this character.’ [THE EXPANSE] show runner, Naren Shankar, had to constantly rein me in, because I’d be like, ‘Oh, what if Alex did this and this and this?’ And [Shankar] goes, ‘Cas, slow down. We’ve got thirteen episodes to explore that. Once we’ve got other seasons, we explore that. We don’t put it all into two episodes.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, okay, you’re right.’ So I had to learn a new language of the series regular on television, where you take your time and much more realistically, much more like in real life, you explore your character, and you allow things to unfold in a more gradual way, where we get a little bit of Alex’s past, a little bit of his personal struggle, and then a lot of action for the main story and the main plot, where we’re trying to figure out how to save the world. And then a little bit more of his back story, and a little bit more, and then leave yourself somewhere to go, and I really have loved that journey, that education. I’ve really loved learning that new vocabulary.”
Anvar is also working as a voice actor on a new project that “I’m very proud of. It’s the new Batman/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle team-up animated movie, which is Batman and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles versus Shredder and Ra’s al Ghul. And I am privileged to be able to play the voice of Ra’s al Ghul, because it’s a character I’ve always wanted to do. I did an audition for it once for ARROW, and I shaved, and I had the gray hair, and I really looked like Ra’s al Ghul, and ever since then, I’ve been wanting to play that character. Ever since Liam Neeson killed it [in BATMAN BEGINS], I’ve loved that character. And he’s a Middle Eastern character, who’s like seven hundred years old. So yeah, why not?”
What would Anvar most like people to know about Season 3 of THE EXPANSE? “Season 1 was a world-building season. It was basically setting up Earth, Mars and the Belt, introducing our audience to these three worlds, these three factions, and letting you see what the conflicts were. Season 2 was introducing you deeply to the characters and showing you who these people were and what sides they fall on. Now that you know where you are, now that you know who you are, Season 3 takes it to the next level, and everything that you thought was important is no longer important, because there is a new element that is tossed in. You are going to get to see what the hell this proto-molecule actually was intended for, what was the purpose, and it adds an element to the show where you’re going to be looking at Earth, Mars and the Belt, and go, ‘Kids, why are you squabbling? There are bigger fish to fry.’ So hold onto your seats, cowboys and cowgirls, and buckle up for an incredible rodeo.”
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Article: THE EXPANSE: Cas Anvar on Season 3 of the Syfy series and the last season of THE STRAIN