Cosmic CastawayBen Browder Ventures to Farscape and Beyond
By Dan Yakir
"It just fell in my lap." That's how Ben Browder describes the chain of events that led him to star in Farscape, the ambitious, imaginative SF series that has become a hit on the Sci-Fi Channel. "I was sitting at home one day, and they called me up and said, 'Do you want to go to Australia for an audition?' Being an SF show -- I'm a big SF buff -- and since the pilot script was excellent, I just went in and auditioned with hundreds of other guys."
The actor isn't sure why he got the part of John Crichton, a 20th-century American astronaut caught in a space accident that catapults him to bizarre adventures across light years of space. But he does recall the show's creator, Rockne O'Bannon's reaction to him. "Rockne actually said that when I auditioned, David [Kemper] and Robert [Halmi Jr., both exec producers] felt that I had the quality they were looking for in John. They said 'You are John Crichton!' and I went 'OK!'"
Browder, who looks wiry and muscular but not as physically imposing as his small-screen self, is affable and self-effacing. But his blue yes betray his intensity when he discusses his role in the project, the biggest and most visible of his career.
"John's and average guy and a fish out of water, a normal person who's going into extraordinary circumstances and is trying to cope," says Browder. "In some ways, he's the audience's eyes and ears in this very bizarre and twisted universe, so his responses mirror the audience's responses. He's not the capable can-do astronaut. To me, Crichton is Indiana Jones with his head in the snake pit. Remember Harrison Ford getting very unpleasantly surprised? That, to me, is John Crichton.
"To put it in a condensed way," Browder continues, "his role in the show is reactive. He acts upon situations as well -- sometimes in ways that we would imagine to be our own idealized behavior. In the first three Farscape episodes, he gets beaten up by everyone he meets. And he keeps coming back for more. Somebody asked me what I would like John to do, and I said, 'Win a wrestling match with a girl!'"
Perhaps the character's ego shouldn't be bruised, since his encounters are all otherworldly? "It's a funny thing about SF," the actor points out. "You go to some other end of the universe, and everyone else has superhuman powers. Why can't we go to the other end of the universe and find that everyone's weak and short and, you know, ugly? But, no! We go where they're all tall, strong and beautiful."
He's referring to fellow Farscape inmates General Ka D'Argo (Anthony Simcoe), a Luxan warrior unjustly imprisoned by the Peacekeepers and Pa'u Zotoh Zhaan (Virginia Hey), a blue-skinned Delvian priestess with mystical powers. However, to Farscape's credit, not all the races are strong or beautiful. First, there's multi-limbed Pilot, an alien helmsman/living auxiliary for the biomechanoid Leviathan ship Moya, and there's also the pernicious Hynerian Royal Dominar. "I just happen to think that Rygel the XVI [John Eccleston] is fantastic," Browder says of his 26-inch tall puppeteered co-star. And, of course, there's Claudia black, who plays Aeryn Sun, a humanoid Peacekeeper [i.e. the enemy] who reluctantly joins the crew of the fleeing prisoner spaceship.
"John's journey through the first season is about survival," Browder elaborates. "It's about learning to cope with this strange universe. By episode 16, he knows how to open a door. In the beginning, he doesn't even know how to do that. Crichton has a technological-cultural-racial universe gap, and it's very wide. When he first gets there, he's scrambling around scared all the time. It's interesting that in reacting to the first show, someone said that I looked uncomfortable in an SF universe. But that's exactlywhat the character feels.
"I think that's fairly unique in series television for an SF show to have a character who's just totally blown away by the world he's in. For the lead character to be in such a state of disarray is very interesting. He does get more control, but then it gets stripped away again because it's such an alien place. It taps into the way many people feel about their world. It's a struggle for control. His struggle is just more obvious.
"So," he continues, "he's not a typical locked-up character; he's not a typical TV hero that comes with his bag of tools and says, 'This is how I deal with the world.' Because the universe around him is so fluid, John's reactions have to be fluid -- or he won't survive. That makes him more fun to play. I don't know if it's more challenging, but it stops me from being bored."
And how does Crichton feel about his rag-tag team of political escapees, each of whom would as soon sell off as save the other. "John does care about his shipmates individually, and probably he cares about them even more as a group, as a sort of family," Browder reflects. "He wants to hold them together as such, and i don't think any of the other characters bring that to the show. You have a lot of empathy and feeling coming out of Zhaan, though. The alien characters are stereotypes or archetypes; they have amplified aspects of what we consider human [personality traits], whether it's aggression, empathy, greed, lust, gluttony -- the good and the bad aspects of humanity. And John is the balance in the middle; he has all of those thing sin him, in a balanced fashion.
"This doesn't mean that the aliens are cardboard characters," he qualifies. "What I mean is that they have more of a particular of what we would call part of our humanity, and they embody it as a sort of racial tension. Whereas for us, if we had all of those traits, we would consider ourselves to be balanced. For example, Rygel's appetites and flatulence are extreme for a human but quite normal for a Hynerian. They make for an interesting mix when you throw the characters together, put them together either trying to work together or at odds with one another."
Browder confesses he enjoys the many comedic instances that his co-stars bring to the show, character-derived or otherwise. "Just when we're the most serious on the show, we're likely to get a joke. It's very Shakespearean. Audiences always laugh at the height of tension."
But it's the physical part for Browder that is central to his performance. "I do a lot of stunts. I do a lot of fighting, a lot of falling. I trained in stage combat when I went to English drama school. I believe in doing my own stunts because a stuntman would never do it the way the character or actor would do it. No matter how great the stunt, when you have the actor's face in the frame -- that's the kind of production value you don't often see on TV or in film.
"The fun part is in doing things that you haven't done before, and in pushing the envelope," he goes on. "It doesn't mean you want to transform every time you play a character -- although that's one way of doing it. There are actors like Dustin Hoffman who did just that early in his career. Doing something different is the spice of life for me. Wouldn't everyone want to be Dirty Harry for a day? That's one of the great things about the Farscape universe -- it's so different that in some respects -- getting to do John Crichton is a bit like getting to run through a lexicon of action films, or space pictures -- and then we have pieces which are emotional, mostly talking -- and there are episodes which are more heavily slanted towards comedy, where it's about finding the punchline and getting the joke across."
The episode ("A Human Reaction") when Crichton attempts to return to Earth and gets treated like a bizarre specimen instead of a long-lost hero is, according to Browder, "a poignant piece about not being able to go back home; about illusions being shattered, and finding out that the world that you want to go to is not the world that you thought it was. From the standpoint of the character, what that does is change what he wants in a very large way, and that changes how he interacts with the crew from that point forward. He realizes he has nowhere else to go, so he must learn to cope, deal with and love the world he's in.
Although Browder can imagine a romantic life for his character, he's not sure the audience wants to go there. "It's interesting that in the fifth episode we shot, 'Back and Back and Back to the Future,' they had a scene that was essentially a love scene between john and this alien, and no one had any idea what the alien was going to look like. I go the set, and I see this woman with tentacles, tattoos, behind this dominatrix-style outfit, and I go, 'It doesn't look like a love scene to me!' It looks more like some dark fantasy that John doesn't want to have, which is exactly how we ended up playing it.
"The interesting thing is that they'll write the script and we'll arrive, and the creature shop, the art department or makeup has come up with this bizarre thing that will turn an idea on its head, and you have to adjust to it. It's fascinating from an acting stand-point. What's good for us about the CGI is that you're never really quite sure what it's going to be -- we do a fair amount of green-screens and flip-screens. I mean, if it's in the lexicon of FX, we hit on it at some point. We have actors in prosthetics, body makeup, animatronic creatures, puppet creatures, CGI effects. It's a huge canvas on which the show is written."
Some actors contend that acting in front of a blue or green screen is hardest, because no feedback from other performers can be expected. Browder has another view. "It's certainly different from standard drama, where you tend to be reacting to another actor. The green screen is a bit more like a stage play where you're delivering a monologue: you have an image that you generate in your head and make it just as real. It's a different skills from standard screen acting, but stage actors have been doing it brilliantly for generation, so I don't think it's any harder. It's just a different skill."
Browder isn't merely speculating. He actually started out as a theatre actor and expected to do Shakespeare, especially after training at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London. Having cultivated both his acting and his athletic talents at Furman University in Greenville, NC, on a sports scholarship, this native of Memphis, TN, found fulfillment in both.
"There's a performance element in sports which translates to acting," he explains. "I'm sure that's a part of why i liked it. There's a moment when you're playing a sport like football, when you walk out on the field and the only life that exists for you in on that field, and everything is focused on the moment. You may have spent the last six months getting ready for this moment; you walk out there and there are 50,000 people in the stands, and you're 19 years old and it's the gift of a moment. There's an element of acting in that. I remember the first night I took a bow on Broadway [in The Merchant of Venice] -- you just ingrain that moment in your head the way you do out on the ball field."
Following drama school came theatre productions and appearances in TV's Party of Five, where he played Neve Campbell's boyfriend; and guest parts in Melrose Place, Grace Under Fire and Murder She Wrote and several TV movies. He made his film debut in Memphis Belle, and followed up with parts in A Kiss Before Dying, Nevada and the independently made Boogie Boy.
"I just have a really good time acting," Browder explains, "and if I get to the day's end and I've done a scene that I think was interesting, I come home feeling good. If it also works when I see it on the screen, i feel even better, and if the audience likes it, I feel really good about my work."
Browder's interest in SF ignited when he saw 2001: A Space Odyssey as a child. "From that point on, I wanted to be an astronaut. Most of what I read as a kid was SF, which I still read to this day. What I liked about the genre was the sense of adventure -- you go to strange places and do unusual things. As you grow up and read and watch more, you realize that SF and fantasy, as literature, are metaphors for experiences we have as humans.
According to Browder, "Farscape is an odyssey, but I don't want to know the moral of the story even if the writers have it in mind. I want john Crichton to go through the journey and to evolve as we tell an interesting, hopefully moving story."
The LA resident recently got to reunite with his wife, actress Francesca Bullard, who guest stared as a carnivorous alien of Farscape (slated to air this month). "It's been nine years since we acted together," he recalls. "It was difficult for her because everyone knew her as my wife, not as the superb actress that she is. I was the only one who knew what she could do," he adds, smiling. "And she was really hungry in that part." Actually, it was Bullard who got Browder his first job in New York, so, he says, "this is payback."
Although he has the situation under control, Browder admits that he isn't prepared for the recognition -- and fame -- that Farscape may bring him. "How would you prepare for that?" he asks rhetorically. "I try to prepare for a script for the next day. I try to get up in the morning and go surfing to clear my head and get some exercise, and I'm out there on the waves. I just try to do my job and live life. What happens to the side of that is not in my control. Not that you want to control everything in life, but it's such speculation, you know? I'm fascinated by people who say , 'I always knew I was going to make it.' It's fantastic! I'm glad they did, but how?"