Interview: Cas Anvar Talks Acting, ‘The Expanse’December 23, 2019
Recently we had the chance to talk with Cas Anvar about his career, including his character Alex Kamal on the hit sci-fi TV show The Expanse.
So where did your interest in acting come from?
Cas: Oh my goodness, I was a scientist before I was going into acting, I was studying to go into biology and chemistry and psychiatry. I got asked when I was sixteen, high school basically in Montreal, and my English teacher basically threatened me, that If I didn’t audition for the play he’d fail me in English. Needless to say, I auditioned for Hamlet, ended up getting the lead role and the rest is history.
You’ve done a lot of work in television, which is enjoying a golden age at the moment. Was that always your medium of choice, or did you simply go where the work took you?
Cas: No, I didn’t have a preference. Obviously, when your young and starting your career off you want to be doing things to get noticed, make money and all of that. I ended up starting my own Shakespeare company in Montreal for a while, that was a huge passion of mine. I was trained at the National Theater School in Canada and that created a real love for classical theater for me. However, after a decade of that, I had kind of had enough, paid my dues, sweat my sweat and wanted to actually have a career, make some money and earn a living, not always be working from paycheck to paycheck.
Do you think theater is something that every actor should experience during their career?
Cas: Oh absolutely, yes. The best actors in the world are all classically or theatrically trained and have done a lot of theater. It does nothing but augment and improve your skills and gives you a good reality check as far as being a performing artist. It’s a very difficult medium, it’s challenging, it’s demanding, there’s nothing glamorous about the theater so it really kind of puts your feet on the ground, gets people’s perspectives and head on their shoulders straight.
Ok, so let’s talk about The Expanse. As an actor, when did you know this show was going to be something special?
Cas: Honestly, from the day I auditioned I thought this was a special show. I got a breakdown for a character that read: Alex Kamal was a Mars born fighter pilot of East Indian/Pakistani descent with a Texas accent, and I was like ok, sign me up, I’m in. It’s a very unusual thing for an actor of color to read a description like that, so that right off the bat really impressed me. Once I got a hold of the script, the first pilot episode, I read it in thirty minutes and I hadn’t read a script of that quality in a decade or more. Once they hired me, I was very excited, I had no idea what I was getting into, until I showed up on set in Toronto and walked into the studio and they had started building close to eighty thousand square feet of practical sets. Most of the time you’re in one studio, lots of green screens, they build little pieces of sets and then they CGI the rest of it…we had eighty thousand square feet, three completely different studios, plus this massive jumbo studio which they built the entire Belter asteroid city, it was almost all practical, it was insane. It felt like being on a massive Star Wars shoot or something for this little TV show, and that’s when I knew this was a big deal. I was like ok, better get ready for the long haul because these guys are serious, they’re putting a lot of money into this, they’re not going to cancel this if they can help it.
Tell me a little bit about your character Alex, where he started in season one and how his character has changed as we enter season four.
Cas: Alex had gone through a lot, he’s probably the most normal of the entire cast. His backstory doesn’t have this wild, crazy, dark, dramatic kind of superhero origin story that some of the other characters have. He’s a family guy, born on Mars, raised as a Martian with the Martian mentality of service to the planet, in the military or in terraforming. He got married, had a kid and tried to pay the bills but he always had this love to fly, he always wanted to be a pilot of one of these high octane gunships. However, for whatever reason, back when he was in the Academy, they always kind of discouraged him, said he didn’t have what it takes.
He ended up being a transport pilot, what he called a glorified bus driver, did his twenty years of service, got an honorable discharge and then went to work hauling ice, basically. There’s a lot of money to be made in the solar system getting ice and bringing it back to planets, meltdown for water, and he basically became the solar system’s version of an oil worker. It was far from what his dream was, his dream was never in that world, and he was having trouble at home, trouble with the family and constantly running away. Every time he was on a ship, he wanted to go back home and every time he was back home he was always looking to the stars. This caused a lot of problems with his family and he ended up on this oil rig job, everybody on that ship was running from something.
Finally, the universe conspired to throw him and his friends into the fire and he finally had to rise to the occasion and become what he was meant to be, which was the best fighter pilot in the system. He spends the next two or three years getting to know his colleagues, honing his skills and being put through incredibly brutal situations for him and you have to remember, the other characters have been put through pretty brutal things. Alex had no experience with these things and he really hit the ground running and basically had to earn his stripes, trial by fire.
The Expanse is very high-end sci-fi, the special effects are fantastic but it’s the characters that really drive this show. What has it been like working these actors and did you bond right away, or did that take some time?
Cas: It’s a real pleasure to work with these guys, you don’t always love the people that you’re working with, and it’s one of those rare opportunities to work with a team, both on camera and behind the scenes where everyone is on board, everyone is in love with the show and we all happen to get along. The Roci crew and I, we all go out to dinner, we often hang out together, we rehearse on the weekends together so there’s a lot of love there. That was a gradual process because we didn’t know each other at all and it’s very much like what happens on camera. The story of the Roci crew getting to know each other was very much like the actors who play them because we were all from different parts of the world, different cultures, backgrounds, different experience levels, all coming together to focus on this one common goal.
You’ve been a very high profile voice for The Expanse, especially when it got canceled and then picked up by Amazon. Did you believe the show was done and not coming back when it was canceled or did you always have hope?
Cas: You know, there’s a good argument to be made that it was finished for good, we all went through the emotional release and acceptance that it was done. I just happen to be the personality type that, I don’t really fall in love with things very often. I think in my life there have been two or three little projects that I fell in love with and committed my heart and soul to and when I do it’s really hard for me to let go. Some people are much better at letting go and were moving on, everyone was sad, everyone cried, they had to release it but while some of us were moving on to the next project, I couldn’t do it. If there was even the hint of life for the show I had to follow that, dig it up and that’s what I did, that’s how I dealt with it, by fighting for it.
The fans of The Expanse are pretty amazing. What is it like to have that kind of support, both for you as an actor and the show itself?
Cas: It’s really amazing and I am blessed because the fans were there with me throughout the whole bring back The Expanse campaign. I got to know the key leaders, we call them the super fans, and within these fans, there was a small cluster I call the generals because they were basically coordinating and orchestrating this massive army of fans that totaled hundreds of thousands of people. They had all these departments, like social media, PR, and they were all volunteers and Expanse fans and they were all talking to each other on the internet and it was so epic and amazing, it really was. They now live in a group called The Expanse Lives, TEL, they have a website and Facebook page, Twitter, that houses all these different fans that were part of that movement and I got to know the key leaders and now we’re friends, we chat all the time, so it was a very rewarding experience to be part of. I’ve never experienced anything like it, I’ve never seen anything like it in the entertainment industry before so it was quite an honor.
Ok, so with obviously no spoilers, what can fans expect with season four of The Expanse?
Cas: Season four, oh man, you guys are in for a treat. It’s a whole new world and you guys who are used to the first three seasons are going to get a whole new flavor of the show. Same people, same great storytelling, great special effects, all the great characters but I like to call it the second movement of our space opera. Seasons one, two, and three are movement number one, they tell their own little story, they come to a nice semi-conclusion when the gates all open in the end of season three and now season four picks up a little bit later, and we’ve started to go through these gates and now our show goes from what was mainly a mystery, political intrigue, conspiracy type of story to now also include exploration, in a much more tradition science fiction format, where we are now exploring a new planet.
Besides The Expanse, what other projects do you have coming up?
Cas: Well I just did a movie with Diana Kruger and Martin Freeman that is making its premiere around the world, called The Operative. It’s a movie that approaches the spy thriller from a new perspective, it broaches the subject of what kind of person does it take to be a spy, and what is the human cost as the life of a spy. It’s not just about car chases and gunfights, it’s a real espionage type thriller. Currently, I’m shooting the TV series How to Get Away with Murder, starring Viola Davis, I’ve already done three episodes and I’m likely going to do some more as her current love interest.
I want to thank Cas for taking the time to talk with us.
Season four of The Expanse is now available to watch on Amazon Prime.