There’s a short list of actors who can believably play calm, sophisticated and sadistic, with silky smoothness on top – and James Frain is certainly on it. Because of this, Frain usually is cast in less sympathetic roles – the latest being Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick in “The White Queen,” the main who went down in history as The Kingmaker.
Lord Warwick was King Edward IV’s closest adviser until Edward botched Warwick’s plans for a political marriage by secretly wedding Elizabeth Woodville, a commoner. The Kingmaker’s disapproval bloomed into a full blown rebellion, culminating in a battle that ended his ascension and his life. The real Warwick died in battle in 1471, but U.S. viewers of “The White Queen” saw Frain’s Warwick slain last Saturday night. The day before that episode aired, we chatted with him on the phone about what it was like to go out swinging a sword; how different this onscreen death was from his messy demise on “True Blood”; what dream role is next on his inner-child’s wish list; and whether viewers will see him again on NBC’s “Grimm” when it returns at the end of October.*
(*Please note that the “Grimm” portion of this Q&A was previous posted on Friday due to previously unreported details about the future of Frain’s character Eric Renard.)
This is the second time in recent memory that cable viewers have seen you die spectacularly onscreen. Before that, I think, we watched you explode into a pool of goo on “True Blood”.
Mmm-hmm. Yeah. And in Tron:Legacy, someone cuts my head off and then my head explodes on floor into a million pieces of glass. Dying is a bit of theme, isn’t it?
Well, I think you have a little bit to go before you catch up with Sean Bean. But in terms of talking about onscreen death, I must imagine this (“The White Queen”) was a little bit different. Usually, when one reads interviews with actors after their character has died, they talk about the experience of saying goodbye to the character, and maybe admit that it was a bit of a surprise. But here, you knew going in that your character was going to die because it had already been written in the history books. Can you talk about the difference between that, and say, “True Blood”? Did you know that you were going to have a limited run there?
No. I didn’t know I was going to die on “True Blood”. But, you know, they go through a lot of people. People have got to get eaten and stuff, don’t they? I mean, I came in as a new character, and when you come in as a new character on those shows, you’re brought in as a recurring guest star and they either decide to either develop your character or not. And I got the feeling that they felt that Franklin was so crazy and so obsessed with Rutina Wesley’s character that he was never going to leave her alone. He’s gotta go! But it was a fun flash-in-the-night kind of part. Great part. I loved it.
In this one, originally you weren’t going to see my death. But one of the director said, ‘I think with Warwick, we need to see him on the battlefield and we need to give him his death moment.’ And I was like, ‘Now that’s my kind of director. I’m feeling that!’
So what we did was, we shot a battle scene that they didn’t actually have scripted. And I basically fight to the death in a full suit of armor with a massive great sword, and a cape and the whole thing, and I give a speech, and it’s just awesome! It absolutely ticks the box on your eight-year-old fancy of being a knight in shining armor. I’m like, “Tick! Next: alien! Alien next!”
Ha! You want to play an alien next?
Yes, because I did a cowboy in The Lone Ranger but I can probably get another shot at that because, um, The Lone Ranger didn’t take off. But it was fun to be a cowboy. We trained how to ride a horse, cowboy-style. It was an amazing experience. But for me, slugging it out with these dudes with the broad sword and the shining armor, it was like, yeah, that is totally my speed. I loved it.
Did the armor get kind of heavy after a point?
No, because you’re so sort of adrenalized. The armor is made of some form of fiber…I’m not sure what exactly it was made of. It looks metallic but isn’t the weight of metal. It was interesting, one of the things we learned about this period was that, you know, the knights would ride into battle with full suits of armor, and their horses would be armored as well. But the stuff was so heavy to fight in that they were like a tank division. They would charge through, hacking people to pieces. But if you fell off your horse, you were done. The weight of the armor would leave you flailing on the ground like a beetle. And basically, the other side would just walk around the battlefield and just sort of stab the knights that had fallen off their horses… but we also discovered that they didn’t always wear full suits of armor because of that. Sometimes they just had a breast plate, and arm plates, and a helmet. Just more like almost Greek levels of, like, a shield and a sword-hand, basically. That was kind of fun to play around with that.
All the things we found out about the period were new information to me, and really interesting and exciting to peel back. In England we know this history really well from Shakespeare, but Shakespeare was writing Tudor propaganda, effectively, because otherwise they would have cut his head off. And so, Philippa Gregory comes along, and says, ‘Well, here’s this untold story of these three extraordinary women,’ and she wanted to tell the history from their point of view and correct our understanding of the history. Putting these three women front and center, it’s feminist drama, really. Which I found incredibly cool.
Before we wrap up this interview, I did want to ask you a couple of questions about “Grimm” because you’re going to be coming back this season, yes?
I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going to happen with that.
Are you being coy, or are you being serious?
No! Have they spoken to you about it?
No, I just know that your character (Eric Renard) is still alive on the show. The last we saw on the show was that Nick was being locked in some sort of a coffin, and there you have it. I thought you’d perhaps have some clues.
Well, no. I’ll tell you what happened, and this is just the logistics of the industry. They had me as a reoccurring guest star (in season two), and they had the hiatus. And during that hiatus, I got another job that was shot in England. I did the British and French version of ‘The Bridge’, that Danish show ‘The Bridge’?…We remade it in England, and set it in the middle of the channel tunnel. The body is found, and the French and English cops have to work together. But I got that gig, and when “Grimm” came back and they said, “What’s your availability?” we couldn’t figure it out somehow. And so, they had to kind of jiggle their plans. I don’t know if they’re going to want me to come back. Maybe they’ll decide to kill me off. I’ll know probably about the same time that you do.
I hope we do see you this season, because you had a great arc last year. What is your next project, the one that you’re working on right now?
There’s a project that I’m really excited about called The Architect (going into production in November), which is an indie movie set, I think, in Silicon Valley. It’s about a couple redoing a house. It’s basically a really quite well-observed comedy of manners, an almost Woody Allen-style of movie: A couple hire an architect to build their dream house, and he comes in and builds his dream house. It’s an absolute nightmare of narcissism and ego – and it won’t surprise you, I think, to learn, to discover I will be that architect.
You’re used to playing those kinds of characters by now, I take it?
I probably have a Ph.D. in narcissistic personality disorder by now. I should get an honorary degree, don’t you think? I’m going to press for that.
You absolutely should. You have to make sure you choose the university very carefully though.
Very carefully! But I think it should be in psychiatry, because I’ve played so many nutters.
Do ever think to yourself, “…Even if that kind of part is offered to me I’m going to turn that down and wait for a romantic lead”?
No, because I don’t think the industry works that way, and I just sort of think you have to do the most interesting project that’s in front of you, whatever that is. If the story’s good, and the people are good, and it looks doable, I’m not going to turn it down because I’m trying to shape my career in any way. Not in this climate! (laughs) There are no guarantees. You have to sort of go where the energy is, and if that’s what they’re interested in hiring me for right now, I’m not going to turn opportunities down just because I want to be the lead. The industry has its cycles, and when a romantic (part) is offered, I would be delighted. But right now, they like me as a nutter. So I’m going to roll with that. Get me a degree. Maybe the keys to a city!