It’s Moonlight time when Alex O’Loughlin patrols the shadows as LA’s latest vampire detective.
The Inner Monster
by Bill Florence
Starlog ~ America’s SciFi Magazine ~ March 2008
Alex O’Loughlin has been a fan of the vampire mythos for as long as he can remember, which makes his role as bloodsucker private eye Mick St. John on the CBS series Moonlight a perfect fit.
“I’ve always loved the idea of vampires and immortality,” the Australian O’Loughlin says during a rare break on the set. “I love The Lost Boys and Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the work of Anne Rice. I don’t know if I would want to be immortal, but the thought of the infinite excites me. It also haunts me, in a way. My father, who teaches physics and astronomy, has given me ideas about the expanse of the universe that have haunted me for years and made me get in touch with my own mortality.”
In Moonlight, Mick relies on his special skills as a vampire to tackle crimes involving both the living and the undead. O’Loughlin, 32, was drawn to the series by not only its vampire motif, but also because of the strength of the show’s pilot script, which the actor says was particularly well-developed. “I read a bunch of pilots,” he relates, “Good writing stands out easily from bad writing every time. The more material you read, the more quickly good stuff jumps off the page at you. The Moonlight pilot had a great script that was well-constructed and balanced. The concept was really cool, and the characters were already fully developed. I understood Mick St. John, his motivations and where he comes from morally and spiritually. When you have an understanding of a character as quickly as I did, you know you can get down to the important work sooner rather than later.”
The actor was gratified to find that subsequent episodes maintained the same integrity. “I feel the show is getting better and better,” he declares. “The difficult thing about the pilot was establishing our mythology and our rules. There was a good deal of exposition for the audience to digest before we could move into the storyline. I think we did that pretty successfully in 44 minutes, but the nice thing about moving away from the pilot was that we could start to focus on specifics.”
O’Loughlin says he and his alter-ego share a common understanding of irony, which is “a big foothold for me into the character. Mick has a dark sense of humor, too, which I really like. But beyond that, he and I are quite different. Mick is tougher than I am, and probably a little smarter, too. I’m just a guy who’s lucky enough to do what he enjoys for a living.”
“I think I’m more gregarious than he is. Mick is much more alienated from the world than I am. I have lots of friends and loved ones that I spend time with. Even though he’s a humanist, Mick doesn’t necessarily like people. I know that sounds like a contradiction, but the fact is, Mick is a loner, and I, myself, am not.” Chuckling, O’Loughlin adds, “It helps that I can go out much more in the daylight than he can. I can go to the beach – and it won’t kill me!”
Imbuing characters with inner conflict is key to making them interesting, O’Loughlin maintains, and the outwardly cool, internally tortured Mick is a perfect example. “He’s enormously conflicted. He’s a monster who is terrified of the monster within himself,” O’Loughlin reflects. “Mick is a relentless vampire who is, at the same time, a humanist. He hates what he is. Mick is in a perpetual state of highly controlled denial about his vampire nature. He became a private investigator to rid society of predators like himself. Mick feels that each predator he gets rid of gets him closer to his former humanity, but unfortunately, that’s not necessarily the case. Even though he appears controlled and graceful most of the time, he’s in utter turmoil.”
A big part of the problem for Mick is that he’s in love with a mortal woman, reporter Beth Turner (Sophia Myles) – a love that, while not unrequited, is fraught with complications. Mick has been watching over Beth ever since he saved her from a dire mishap when she was a little girl. Now, she’s an adult – and his peer – which changes the nature of his feelings for her. Unfortunately, the last woman Mick loved, Coraline (Shannyn Sossamon), turned him into a vampire on their wedding night. So Mick is a little leery of getting too close to Beth. He’s afraid she’ll get hurt – maybe even at his hands. And if he does manage to resist turning her into a vampire like himself, the passage of time will ultimately tear them apart. What’s more, Beth already has a boy friend, Josh (Jordan Belfi).
Moonlight surprised many viewers, and O’Loughlin himself, by having Beth learn that Mick is a vampire in just the second episode, Out of the Past. “That was a shock to me, initially,” O’Loughlin admits. “No one told me that was coming. I read the script, and I was like, ‘Wow, you guys have made some pretty big decisions in the writing department!’ I would say that episode is probably my favorite to date, along with the fourth one, Fever. The climax of Out of the Past where Beth learns Mick’s secret, was enormous for me. It was really exciting how she finds him, and he has no choice but to show her what he really is.”
“We’re on episode nine right now, and I’ve realized that Mick’s revelation in number two has shortened the process for us to get to important plot issues, which are coming your way soon. Beth’s discovery of Mick’s true nature also raises the stakes in a way. Yeah, the cat’s out of the bag, but now there’s new drama and new conflict for Mick. Beth knows this much; now, she wants to know more. Where does it stop? Soon, she’ll want to participate in his adventures. The revelation definitely complicates things.”
Many feel that Moonlight’s strength, at least in the early episodes, lies in the sizzling on-screen chemistry between Mick and Beth. O’Loughlin acknowledges the point, and says working with Myles is as effortless as it is enjoyable. “Sophia and I have a fantastic chemistry on screen, and we’re great friends outside of work, too,” he proclaims. “She’s amazingly talented, smart and, of course, beautiful. Sophia is an avid professional who brings so much to the character of Beth. It’s truly a pleasure to work with her. She doesn’t mess around. Sophia is always prepared.”
“The chemistry between the two of us is an absolutely key element to the show’s success. Sometimes you put two people on screen together, and there’s nothing much going on. But sometimes people pair really well together, and I think that’s the case with us. Again, it’s complicated, because Mick has gone from a paternal role with Beth to a sexual, romantic role. And there’s another layer of conflict for him – and for Beth eventually – if she ever finds out the true nature of his presence in her life.”
Interestingly, O’Loughlin says the vampire Josef (Jason Dohring) is “my favorite character on the show. I really enjoy Jason as an actor, and as a person, too. He brings to Moonlight a touch of comic relief and a different feel. There’s a little shift of gears every time he’s on that helps me push through from one episode to the next. I love how Josef is so unashamedly hedonistic. He has been around for so long and done so much. Josef has been to so many different countries, he has fed on countless people and slept with countless women, and he just doesn’t have anything left to prove. I think he’s hilarious.”
“Josef has a strange set of morals – well, he doesn’t really have any morals at all. Call it a strange set of beliefs for getting through life. And he’s getting through life just fine. Even though he conflicts with Mick almost all the time, they’re still best buddies. In fact, they’re important allies for one another. Neither one could ever dream of not having the other in his life, because they’re essentially each other’s only true friend.”
Despite the great time O’Loughlin is having making Moonlight, working as the lead in a TV series isn’t without its hardships. Asked what has been especially challenging so far, he pauses a moment and when the answer comes, it’s hardly surprising. “The hours,” he replies. “The workload and the pressure are quite challenging. I’ve come to the conclusion that I will never work harder than this as an actor – unless I’m doing a war film for Oliver Stone somewhere in the Vietnamese jungle, it’s boot camp and he’s making me sleep in the trees and not allowing me to eat at all.”
“I think this is about as hard as it gets. You know, we do have trailers and great food and all the rest of it, but the hours are pretty enormous. This past weekend, for example, I got home at about 8:45 AM on Saturday, then had to be back on the set at 5:45 AM Monday. I spent most of that free time catching up on sleep. It’s crazy. I find myself sleeping in a corner of the studio from time to time, just to catch 20 minutes here and there.”
By comparison, working with Moonlight’s special FX is no big deal. “The vampire eyes are contact lenses, and the vampire teeth are molds made to impressions of my own mouth,” O’Loughlin explains. “The teeth snap in and out pretty easily, and they’re extremely realistic. I do go through them, though. Occasionally, I get pretty heavily into character, and I’ll bite down on them, or I’ll get punched in the mouth or fall on my face and break them.”
“It takes me about an hour to get into full vamp mode,” O’Loughlin continues. “When we do the morphing on-screen, that’s a process which involves greenscreen and slates both with and without me, and I have to keep the same position. It’s pretty standard procedure for the show to morph me from normal to vamp, but it’s time-consuming. As the actor, I have to remain patient and let everyone fuss about and do their job frantically around me, while I stay in character and in the moment. But I’ll tell you, mate, once I put those teeth and eyes in, it’s like I’m wearing a mask. It completely shifts me away from who I am. Mick St. John as a normal guy, before he vamps, is one character, but Mick St. John in full vamp is another beast altogether!”
O’Loughlin has only been acting in film and TV since 2004, but Moonlight isn’t his first turn in a genre project. In 2005, he co-starred in Man-Thing, a poorly received movie adaptation of the Marvel comic. “[Director] Brett Leonard is a friend of mine,” O’Loughlin states. “He’s a very passionate filmmaker who makes a certain kind of movie for a certain kind of audience. He takes a film that you really need x amount of money to make, and he makes it for half or a quarter of that.”
“The bottom line is : There are certain things you need to have money for, like good music and good production values. Man-Thing was one of those films that needed to be bigger. It probably needed a [big-name] star as well. Having said that, we also didn’t have the greatest script. It was about a swamp creature, and we didn’t have enough money to do it right. But I don’t worry about it. That was my first sort of ‘big’ feature.”
That same year, O’Loughlin landed a role in the critically acclaimed Australian mini-series The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant, a biopic about one of the first successful escapees from the Australian penal colony in the late 1700s. While not SF, the project – which also starred Romola Garai, Sam Neill and Jack Davenport – left an indelible mark on O’Loughlin, who earned a Best Lead Actor nomination from the Australian Film Institute.
“That was a wonderful learning experience,” he remarks. “It was a tough shoot, mate: four months on the water, with children, in the Australian sun, in convict boats, and wearing convict clothes. We pulled out all the stops. It was wonderful being part of something that actually happened. I tried to do a huge amount of research on my character, Will Bryant, but I hardly got anywhere with it, because there’s very little information about him out there. My main concern was that I was representing someone who was a real person, and I wanted to bring a voice and a heart and a brain to him. Not too many people in America have seen that show.”
As O’Loughlin prepares to return to the Moonlight set, the subject of his flawless American accent on the show comes up. “I’ve always been fascinated with accents, ever since I was a kid,” he attests. “I grew up with American television, and I’ve lived in LA for a number of years now, so it isn’t that hard. But I constantly work on it.”
So what’s going to keep viewers turning in to Moonlight each week? “The show has lots of integrity,” Alex O’Loughlin sums up. “The approach we’re taking is that it’s a human show that just happens to be full of vampires. I care about these characters, and the more people tune in and stick around, the more they’ll care too.”