XENA MAGAZINE #13: Matthew Chamberlain interview.

Source: Titan`s Xena Magazine #13

New Zealand-born actor Matthew Chamberlain has played a variety of characters on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess. His first appearance was as Xena`s evil lieutenant Darphus who, by his actions in subjecting her to The Gauntlet in the episode of the same name, started Xena on the road to atonement. Killed by the Warrior Princess at the end of that episode, Darphus was to be brought back to life to seek his revenge, but finally ended up as a doggie snack for Ares` evil pet at the end of Unchained Heart.

Chamberlain also appeared in the season three Hercules episode Lost City as Kamaros, while in Xena, he has played the disembodied head of Orpheus in the season two episode Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, and, most significantly, the ill fated Crassus in the third season episode When In Rome.

But Chamberlain`s association with Renaissance Pictures goes back even further than the first season of Xena. "I did a general audition for the first Hercules TV movies Renaissance Pictures did," he recalls. "When talking to other actors, no one really knew what to make of it all because it was so unique and we weren`t quite sure how to pitch for it. It was like this ancient Greek thing but with American accents!

"I did the audition and about six to seven months later, was offered the part [of Darphus]. I had been away, tramping up in the mountains, and I got a message from my agent just after New Year telling me that they`d offered me the part straight off. It was fantastic!

"It was great fun playing Darphus and it was a good working environment because Renaissance Pictures treats everyone so well," Chamberlain enthuses. "It was a joy to be looked after and I had great fun. I got to ride around on horses and kill people!" he grins, "and you can`t argue with that!"

Despite being a lot of fun, Chamberlain admits that guest-starring on Xena and Hercules could also be hard work at times. "The days are long, particularly if you`ve got to do a lot of make-up for your character. If you`re in the first scene of the day and you`ve got make-up such as scars and lots of other bits and pieces to do, it can be a two hour job. I think it was generally a 12-hour shooting day, so you might be there for 14 hours or something like that.

"I enjoyed the dramatic aspect of Darphus," Chamberlain remarks. "In fact, it was so dramatic it felt almost comic! I got the chance to play someone who was really vile, and the more I could give the director and production people, the more they lapped it up. And then Orpheus was fun as well, and Ted Raimi was just hilarious in [Girls Just Wanna Have Fun]. I did quite a lot of stuff with him and he just had me in stitches the whole time we were shooting. He was great on and off screen."

Chamberlain says that the actors have a readthrough before shooting, and if there are any questions about the script or about pronunciations or ideas that they want to raise, that is when they have the chance to talk with the director, producer or both. "The scripts are pretty bold and brassy" he notes "The producer gives you a pointer as to the right direction to go in, and you think, `Ah yes` and just go for it. And then you`re pretty much straight into shooting. When you arrive on the day you`ve got to know your lines. You come with what you think you are going to do and, hopefully, the director likes it and away you go. Otherwise, the director points you in another direction."

Despite all the preparations, Chamberlain recalls that things didn`t always go according to plan, and he remembers a particularly hairy encounter with an equine character on the set of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. "For part of the episode I was wearing a scarecrow outfit," he explains, "and I remember that we were rushing to get a shot done before the sun went down. There came the call, `OK, actor on the horse`. I just gave the horse a quick pat before hopping on, but as I went to climb up, I found myself getting tugged the other way as the horse was munching away on the straw poking out of the end of my sleeve!"

Appearing as a disembodied head in Girls also required a double of Chamberlain`s featured body part to be created, and the actor laughs as he recalls the fake head modelled by Renaissance`s talented propmakers. "That was hilarious. They made a copy, a model, of my head, and operated it by radio control. The other actors had to work with this in some scenes and the guy who had to operate it would try and make the mouth and eyes move in sequence Lucy was shooting quite an earnest scene with it and was talking away, and she just lost it halfway through the take!

"The scene was down an alleyway, I think," notes Chamberlain,"although I don`t know if it made it into the episode. When everyone said to Lucy, `What`s happening`, she said, `Have you looked at this thing?` The eyes just went up and down and the mouth opened up like a fish and didn`t look anything remotely like a human being talking! It looked like one of those sideshow clowns.

"So in the end, the other actors just had to pretend they were looking at it during a take because they would crack up when it started `talking` back at them. It`s hard to describe, but when I saw it I lost it too; was hilarious. It worked from side-on angles, so it was hard for the actors to take seriously."

It`s impressive that the producers managed make the fake head look convincing on screen. "There were probably not that many blue screen special effects shots," Chamberlain admits. "A lot it was done on set by putting me inside fake rocks and poking my neck out of the top. They`d line it up and I would sit there. They would then sweep gravel around to make the rock look more authentic, but it would run down your neck, down your back and settle. Every time they went, `OK, ready for a shot`, I would think, `Here we go again!` And there was nothing I could do about it! I`d feel going down my back and think, `Oh yuk!`" But despite the discomfort, Chamberlain looks back fondly on his time on the sets of Hercules and Xena. "I probably preferred playing the Darphus-type characters, because this is a bit further away from who I am," he muses. "So those kinds of characters are often more fun and you can really gross out and get away with it! I`ve probably played more characters like Orpheus in my career, particularly in the theatre, and you`ve got to play those characters more realistically.

"But on shows like Xena and Herc, its great fun to play the big characters as well, the slightly larger than life ones, or even the much larger than life ones!"

Like so many other Xena guest stars, Chamberlain was very impressed by the professionalism and abilities of the regular cast members. "Lucy is amazing," he remarks. "She really sets a kind of a general feel for the whole set. She is very relaxed and just keen to do as good a job as she can. It`s obviously her show, but she`s really helpful and its kind of a collaborative thing. She knows it so well. When you are working out a scene and something isn`t right, she`s really good at just offering a suggestion occasionally. That`s great, and it`s always in a positive way. So it`s always great fun.

"Both Kevin [Sorbo] and Lucy are friendly towards the new actors," Chamberlain acknowledges. "They want to get on and make the show, and they were just so approachable and easy to talk to. You felt like you could approach the production teams as well. So in that way it was good."

Chamberlain was also impressed by the way in which the show presented stories from Greek mythology. "I read a lot of the ancient myths and histories when I was a kid. Even with a character like Crassus, you might think that he`s just a made up name, but then you realise that he really did exist along with Pompey and Caesar. So its really interesting to see the historical myths come through into Xena, and even Orpheus, although I don`t think there was ever a Darphus."

Chamberlain`s interest in acting can be traced back to his childhood, although he didn`t take up a career in acting straight away. "I did a degree at Lincoln University in New Zealand," he reveals, "but I`m from a farming background. I`ve done a wide variety of jobs from working in a bank to working on farms and putting up fences. It wasn`t until I got into acting that I made it full time and it became my main career move.

"I suppose I first got interested in acting in High School doing plays, and while I was still at school I got a job in a professional theatre just for one play it was there that I thought, `I`d really like to do this`, but everybody else said that I should do something sensible! So I did a few sensible things, but kept at it, and after I`d been travelling around overseas for a couple of years, I thought, `Now`s the time to have a crack at acting.` So I applied to the New Zealand Drama School in Wellington in 1990 and I got in.

"I got my first professional job the day I left drama school," Chamberlain recalls. "It was in a movie called Bread and Roses, and my part was `Heckler Number Two`, as distinct from `Heckler Number One!` I didn`t think that was too bad. I was only one day out of drama school, I had a job and I was getting paid for it!

"I enjoy working in both television and film," Chamberlain admits. "I`ve done a lot of New Zealand plays, but there are probably no New Zealand playwrights who are established enough to be able to say they`ve written 27 plays and love them all. As far as watching plays goes, [Tom] Stoppard is pretty good and those are generally the sorts of plays I enjoy as they have pretty `meaty` parts."

Chamberlain`s most recent project was a film called Stickmen. "It was filmed at the start of the year," he explains. "It`s set in Wellington and is about three young guys who are layabouts. They are Kiwis, are good at playing pool and are good mates. They get roped into an underground Greek mafia-type type pool competition which there is quite a lot of money riding on. I play the part of a banker who gets into the finals. Its a light hearted kind of comedy and it was great fun to work on. It reminded me a lot of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

"I`ve also devised a theatre show that I might try and get to the UK," he reveals. "It`s about a New Zealand tennis player, Anthony Wilding, who won Wimbledon four times from 1910. He played most of his tennis over in Europe and in the UK. I`ll be touring it around New Zealand later in the year.

"This is my first crack at this sort of thing," says Chamberlain. "I worked with a good writer, Dave Armstrong, who wrung it around and put it back together again, and we`ve now got a show out of it. It was my first go at writing and it was terrifying! But it was also very rewarding, and we`ve had a very good response from it so far.

"I`ve never given directing a try, although I`d love to have a crack at it," Chamberlain says of working behind the camera. "But I haven`t really focused on it at all and it might be one of those things that isn`t a conscious, `I want to do directing now` type of thing. It might be that the opportunity arises [one day] and I might go, `This is good fun and I`d like to do it`."

But for now, Chamberlain is happy with the direction his career is going in, although he recalls the days he spent working on the sets of Xena and Hercules with nostalgia. "Having gone up [to Auckland] the first time, not really being too sure what to expect, I was just surprised at how much I enjoyed it really," he says looking back. "And each time its been enjoyable. I always think, `How am I going to play this character? But you just get up there and do it. "And they look after you, they pay you well and it`s good fun. Xena and Hercules have been hugely successful and they`ve been great for New Zealand. Plus it keeps us actors employed and out of mischief!"

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