James Marsters first gained genre-geek icon status with his turn as Spike on Buffy The Vampire Slayer, but since then, he’s been in a host of famous hero and hero-adjacent properties, including Smallville, Caprica, Dragonball, and voice acting in animated roles for both the Marvel and DC Universe franchises. But with Hulu’s Runaways, Marsters made his first foray into the live-action Marvel Cinematic Universe, playing Victor Stein, the genius inventor and billionaire whose ego and anger threatens not only his own family, but the lives of many others. We caught up with him at the opening gala for the Seattle Museum Of Pop Culture’s “Marvel: Universe Of Superheroes” exhibit earlier this year, where we ended up getting pretty deep into not just the heady ideas behind his latest character, but heroism, pain, and the importance of lying to your children.
The A.V. Club: You must have always thought in the back of your mind, “Okay, at some point I’m going to be in a live-action Marvel property,” right? With your history in the genre, you had to know this was coming.
James Marsters: [Laughs.] I’ve conspired to be a part of every property. I can do it because villains age well. You know, if I was a hero I’d have a certain shelf life, but thank goodness I got known for villains. So I’m going to be around. When they do the remake of the Star Wars prequels, I want to be the new Count Dooku—he was like 75 years old doing lightsaber stuff. Villains last. So I may yet get on all of them, but yes, I’m very happy to be part of Marvel.
AVC: You’ve been part of the Marvel animated universes before, but Runaways is your first Marvel live-action. Were there specific things that proved unexpectedly gratifying, or things that you hadn’t anticipated?
JM: I didn’t know the source material, so that wasn’t a drop. And I went in to audition—I think it was described as “Elon Musk if he was a murderer.” And I was like, that’s really fascinating. I would like to try that. And so I auditioned and I did a little improv about Victor addressing his troops one morning. I said, “Okay guys, NASA called me. They got a problem they need some help with. It’s called feces. If we can’t figure out how to get the water out of feces, we’re not going to Mars because we have to recirculate everything, all the oxygen, all the borders. So free coffee today. I need an interesting idea on my desk by the morning if I don’t, someone’s fired, go.” And they gave me the role.
What was unexpected was, I was talking with Quinton [Peeples, one of the writer-producers on Runaways] and he was talking about this gulf that opens up between the generations. For all the best reasons, we lie to our children. And we do it consistently. And I started thinking about this, and it started with Santa Claus. I wanted them to have a magical Christmas but I was lying to them. And they invariably catch you doing that. Then you start lying about why you’re upset. You know, “Why are you upset, Dad?” You don’t say, “I just got back from the doctor. I have melanoma, but I think it’s gonna be okay.” You just can’t say that. Or you can’t say, “I’m having trouble making rent or the mortgage this month.” There are things that you, a good parent, will not say. And the kids know that they’re being lied to. They don’t know what the truth is, but they know that the parents aren’t really being on the up and up. And so the separation happens.
Oftentimes I think parents sacrifice a bit of our own morality so that we can make money to feed our children. And I’ve been very lucky—I have been able to continue acting and still be able to pay doctors’ bills and stuff. But I was actually here in Seattle. I was a subversive theater producer, and we would do plays that other people wouldn’t touch. And I really prided myself on being that rebel, a person that was trying to subvert lies that we get taught in childhood, like “violence works,” or “old people are boring,” or “you can buy yourself an identity”—stuff like that.
And then I had a son, and this voice went off in my head, which was: “Go to Los Angeles and prostitute yourself. Join the most consumerist evil of all, because this child needs medical care. He needs diapers, so get down there and make money.” And that was the right thing to do. But I also know when my beautiful son—who’s 21 years old [now]—my beautiful daughter, who’s also 21—when they look at me, I don’t think they see the rebel theater guy. They see a television actor, which makes me wonder what they see, how they react to that.
AVC: Thinking about 50 years from now, when people are looking for the first time at the work you’re doing right now, do you think about your contribution to these comic-book legacies? Or do you think about looking back on it from some future perspective?
JM: I try not to think about that—that can be debilitating! [Laughs.] I’m starting rehearsal on Monday, don’t talk about that! No, the thing that I really hook into is the importance of the hero journey, the importance of superheroes. Because really, the thing about superheroes is that the superpower is not the important thing. The important thing is heroism. And I would tell my kids all the time, “There are heroes all around us. They’re called parents.” And they don’t get it, and they won’t until they have children, but anyone, anyone that is helping people when it’s inconvenient or makes some kind of sacrifice, that’s a hero. And for most people that doesn’t get celebrated, they just keep giving because it’s the right thing to do.
And when Marvel puts out a movie, it’s almost like the storytellers are reaching through the screen, saying, “Hey, we see you. What you’re doing is important. And by the way, here’s an iron suit, you can fly for an hour and a half and just have fun because you’re a hero and you deserve to have a little lift in your life.” And I just think that’s vitally important, and I think it’s vitally important that kids get taught that lesson to help people when it’s not convenient, when it’s uncomfortable or when it’s actually painful. That’s the right thing to do, and to give it superpowers keeps it from being—it makes it so the kids will actually listen to you when you’re talking about that [Laughs.] because if you don’t have the superpowers it’s hard to get a kid to buy into that, you know?
And the thing about Marvel that I’ve always loved is that the heroes are relatable. I moved to New York to go to college, and I was a little lost there. I came from a small town, I kind of felt like Peter Parker, you know, because the thing about Peter Parker is not really about the spider powers. He’s really trying to grow up in New York, trying to find himself and to deal with a childhood that was pretty painful. All of the characters of Marvel, the main thing about them is really not the superpower. It’s really their story and what kind of person they are. Captain America, the idea of what real strength is, which is strength of character, not of muscle. Very, very important. Wolverine is trying to get over a hellaciously painful past and to not become a villain, actually. That’s the thing about Wolverine—you’re always worried that his pain is going to overtake him and he’s going to become a villain. Having had a pretty dicey childhood, I know that pretty well. There’s so much that’s relatable about all the characters.
But going back to Runaways, it was so easy for me to sort of take Victor’s situation, my character’s situation, and start thinking about myself. Like, how am I like the character? Which is my job to think about these things. And there were so many ties. There’s so many ways that I may be less than I portrayed myself to be. Or less than they [my kids] need me to be, you know? I may have cut some moral corners trying to get rent together. I’m not killing teenagers once a year, but you know [Laughs.], there are parallels.
AVC: The last time we spoke to you, around the Buffy 20th anniversary, you said the theme of Buffy could be summed up in the words, “Don’t give up.” You’re only two seasons in to Runaways, but are you already starting to see certain themes that are similarly powerful?
JM: It’s really that one that Quinton identified for me, which is this tragic unavoidable gulf between parents and children. There’s no way to have a healthy relationship with your child and not create this gulf. And the kids only understand what a gift that is, what a gift that dishonesty is, when they themselves have children. And until then, there is going to be this gulf—and it’s heartbreaking. And also, the danger of moral certainty. You know, my character Victor is trying to save the world, he’s trying to revolutionize transportation and energy production. He knows that unless we do that, we’re gonna burn.
AVC: He’s a very ends-justify-means kind of guy.
JM: Well, the human race is on the line and he doesn’t see anyone else really doing this at all. And he thinks he can, he thinks that his ideas can get us there—and I think that he’s right—and he’s willing to make a deal with the devil to get it done. You can kind of argue it, like, “As soon as I save the human race, you guys can go back and give each other back rubs and Christmas presents and all that. But until then, why don’t you get out of my way, because I’m gonna kill you.” Like, let me ask you a question: If you could solve global warming and it was all gonna be okay like that [Snaps fingers.], but you had to kill one person every year, what would you do?
AVC: It’s like an ongoing version of that classic “do you kill one to save a million” question. I honestly don’t know what I would do.
JM: I would hope that I would kill them. I would hope that I would sacrifice my own moral cleanliness and die with regret and all of the pain that that would entail, becoming a murderer, psychological wounding and all that, because I wouldn’t want to die knowing that I could have saved the human race, but I had to go out squeaky clean.
It is a slippery slope. And you know, coming back to Runaways, look, I am playing a villain. I know this. It’s my job to argue for him and not give up on him and take his side. And I think it’s delicious to do that and make people pause and say, “Oh, actually, that’s a good point.” But the truth is, as I look around here and I’m looking at all of the different heroes around me, they are always put in this position of, you can take the easy way out, or you can take the hard way out. And the hard way out, sometimes you think you’ve probably going to die, or the hard way out is that you lose a big chunk of something, but what you don’t do is solve your problems by hurting people. And it’s a lot harder to accomplish stuff by not doing that. But that’s what makes a hero.