When he talks about his addiction to rugby, the time he spent as a young man working jobs like the hay harvest, or the hard drinking parties where he and other youths dared each other to run through a bonfire or jump from a roof, being Cantabrian seems like it might be a bit of a macho thing, very suitable for the man who plays the God of War.
Listen a little longer, and you soon realize that being Cantabrian is much more about hard work, friendship and pretensions than it is about proving that you`re tougher, stronger, or have a bigger ego than the next guy. For one thing, no macho Clint Eastwood wannabe could tell so many great stories in which he is the butt of the joke. And though Smith is a star in his own country, he doesn`t have a star`s ego.
Last year he was nominated for Best Actor in the TV Guide Television Awards in New Zealand for his role in the mini series Lawless. He lost the award to Cliff Curtis, who is known to US audiences for his appearance in films like Three Kings. When I ask about it, Smith`s response is a deprecating chuckle. "I`m not really Awards Boy," he says. "I`ve kind of always done popular sort of stuff. I`m ubiquitous. Whenever I get a nomination for something, it`s like, `Oh, cool!` I was pretty happy to lose that to him."
Being Cantabrian also seems to be about being a thoroughly nice guy, someone you`d just like to hang with at a pub or football match and chat to. Smith admits he`s quite a talker. "I`m terrible that way. Once you get me going I talk the leg off an iron pot!" His ordinary speaking voice couldn`t be more different from the voice of Ares. It`s lighter, higher, and, of course, has a strong New Zealand accent, which he describes as "scrunching up" the words.
Then there`s the hard work factor. In a 90 minute conversation that`s mostly about Xena, he never utters a single word of complaint about working, even under the worst conditions. During the filming of `Looking Death in the Eye`, Smith was suffering a severe case of the flu. He had contracted it on his way home from the Creation convention in Pasadena, California, and was already feeling the first aches by the time he reached Auckland very early in the morning. His wife met him at the airport and broke the news that he would have to go straight to the set.
"I was so sick when I did that," he recalls, laughing. "There`s a scene where I`m carrying Xena up the cliff... I was as weak as a kitten! There was a little bit of a drop there to one side, And the poor girl who was doubling Lucy [Lawless] said,`Will you be alright carrying me?` I said, `Look, my health is irrespective. I have a reputation. The day that Kev Smith can`t pick someone up...` But oh my God! I was shaking and trembling and sweating. It was the funniest thing. The whole time she thought we were going to go over the cliff."
Smith`s attitude is just as positive towards the people he works with. To him they`re all terrific fun, both as co-workers and pals. The mention of Tim Omundson`s name, for example, evokes a warm chuckle unlike any sound ever uttered by Ares on screen. "He and I get on famously," he enthuses. "Ever since Eli emerged, whenever I go to LA now I always hang out with Tim and his wife. But he`s also really good friends with Ted Raimi. It`s all so incestuous, isn`t it?" And he produces that lovely chuckle again.
When I ask about acting opposite Omundson, Smith says in a dead serious voice, "Can I say in print that I`m tired of carrying his candy ass through every scene we have together? One day he`s going to have to stand up and do some..." Just as I`m wondering whether I can print any of this, he starts laughing and I realise I`ve been had. "He`s just one of my favourite people," Smith continues in earnest. "We only had a couple of scenes... I saw [Seeds of Faith] afterwards and I said to him, `Man, I really dug the work you did on that.` He brings a nobility to it, you know? I guess if you`re playing the Lord our saviour you`ve got to have a bit of that."
Hudson Leick`s name ellicits yet another story that`s a joke on Smith. "I first met her during Ten Little Warlords," he recalls. "So the weird thing with her was that she and Lucy kind of swapped characters. It was like, `Hey, I know this person, but you`re not her.` That was kind of twisted up.
"Hudson was always right in there, totally submerged in the character. So whenever you had to fight with Hudson, she was going for you! I don`t mean that in an unprofessional way. She`s just a little gal but when she went for you, she was going full on... There`s so much action in the show that the fights have to be realistic. Nothing looks worse than wussy actor fighting.
"I remember telling Hudson once, `You have to kick me in the guts,` and she says, `Are you sure?` So I say, `Look at the size of me. You cannot hurt me. Just put it right in there: When they call `Action!`, I`m on all fours and she`s going to kick me in the ribs and put me over. Well, I swear to God, she lifted me about a foot off the ground! When they shouted `Cut!`, she asked, `Was that all right?`, and I said in a strangled voice, `Yep, that was good. Nice shot!`"
Smith`s work ethic extends even more to his performance as Ares, especially this year. He can and does talk at length and in depth about the challenges of playing the God of War in Xena`s fifth season.
"Whenever you`re playing a part, especially a long-running part, it`s very dangerous to make up rules in advance, as is saying in real life, `If I were ever in that situation I`d do this.` You obviously don`t know your reactions until you`re put in that situation. And so with Ares, they`ve thrown him into situations which haven`t really existed before, and it`s only when we get to playing it that I`m really finding stuff out about him.
"When Ares first started, it was kind of cool to have a bad guy who was roguish and charming and kills people with a chuckle. Quite often when I go to conventions, people say, `Do the Ares laugh.`" Smith does a parody of a sinister, sexy laugh. "It used to be fun to do that, and it was like, `Oh, you rogue, oh, you charming evil villain...` But this year I`ve been given the opportunity to dig a little deeper. Here`s somebody who`s lived for thousands of years, and to suddenly be confronted with the very real prospect of his mortality, and to go through that journey, has been kind of cool. Actors generally like stuff which is harder for them to do, because working a little harder doing a job that you love to do means you get to do more of it, and it`s just a good time."
The most intriguing aspect of Ares is his unpredictability. At any given moment, it`s impossible for either the characters or the audience to be certain what he`ll do next, or even what his real motivations are. Along with the writers and producers, Smith has given a lot of care and attention to maintaining that uncertainty.
"When you`re performing something you`ve always got to be in the moment, and there has to be truth behind it," he explains. "But I always think, too, of the broader picture. And one of the things which I think makes it fun for the audience is any kind of ambiguity. If you lay it out there like a turkey sandwich, it`s `Fine, okay, my work`s done for the night.` I don`t believe television should necessarily be a passive experience, and one of the best ways to guarantee continued involvement is if you just keep a little question in the back of their mind the whole time. When Ares is telling a lie, especially to someone like Xena, because she`s as intuitive and as sharp as she is, if he tells it to her with anything less than total conviction she tumbles right away. Amphipolis Under Siege was an example, where he goes to Athena and says, `Oh, the child must die`, and then in the next scene he`s saying, `I`ll protect your child."` Smith has suddenly shifted from broad New Zealand to the throaty, intense tones of Ares, giving me the feeling, for one extraordinary moment, that the God of War himself has picked up the phone.
He switches back to his own voice again as he elaborates. "The audience is supposed to go, `What`s he going to do?` My own preference is that he means to do the right thing by Xena and the child. If it came down to his life or the childs` he`s Ares; its no contest - the child`s going to die. But I like to think he is seeing the inevitability of change. When it looked like Dahak was going to destroy the gods, he joined forces with him straight away. And that`s his jag, you know, he will survive. I try and keep it as ambiguous as possible, but I always have this wish list in my own head... It`s not so much that I`d like him to be more of a good guy, but the more layers we can see of him the better as far as I`m concerned. That`s just selfish actor boy talking, though," he adds with a chuckle.
The most remarkable facet of Smith`s performance is that no matter what villainy Ares commits, it`s impossible to hate him. It`s a character issue that Smith is constantly aware of, especially this season. "The thing with bad guys is, never be afraid of evil," he confides. "If you`re concerned about people liking you then ultimately you`re going to fail with the bad guy thing. It was like when I had to kill Eli. It was like a test. If I can have any kind of sympathy after I`ve effectively killed Jesus, it`s a biggie. That`s along way to come back from. That happens quite early on in [Seeds of Faith], and then he goes to Gabrielle and I thought, `My God! He`s getting away with it! He`s just run through the saviour, and now he`s actually turning Gabrielle around.` I just dug that, the fact that he`s so on his game that he could do something like that. He presents her with his own kind of logic, and the way he presents it makes it kind of irrefutable. It`s interesting, the number of times the show operates on different levels regarding the whole nature of faith and what it really is.
"The weird thing is there`s sympathy for the character," Smith continues, "because he`s done terrible, terrible things, and yet at the bottom of it all, the only way this works is if you believe he truly loves Xena. Rather than simply wanting to get an acquisition back that slipped through his fingers, he does actually deeply love her. I think that was the challenge, to say, `How can someone who is capable of such love be capable of such appalling acts as well?` And that was the nice thing for me, trying to find a way to balance it."
An Ares-intensive storyline was not Smith`s original plan for the fifth season of Xena. "In New Zealand, because it`s such a small industry, there was stuff happening that I really wanted to be part of," he explains, "and they`ve always been really cool about letting me out of my contract to go and do stuff. But when I finished about this time last year, after doing the last episode of Hercules, I made a decision not to do any more. But then the producers said, `What about some good storylines?`
"So I decided I`d just come back as a guest every now and then. And the stuff I`ve been asked to do this year has been some of the most detailed and layered stuff I`ve ever been asked to do on the show. So ironically, in a year where I thought I might turn up once or twice as a guest villain, I`ve actually got to do some of the meatiest work I`ve ever had."
Having wrapped the fifth season of Xena, Smith is now looking forward to working on some other projects. In July he shot two more instalments of Lawless, the mini-series for which he received his Best Actor nomination. In it he stars as an undercover police officer, with co-star Angela Dotchin of Jack of All Trades fame. The character he plays is typical of the kind of role Smith is looking forward to now, which he describes as, "guys who`ve been round the block.
"I pretty much spent the bulk of my thirties playing Ares," he says. "When you`re an actor in your early to mid-thirties they still give you the brooding young man kind of thing to play. I`m 37 now, so there`s this whole world of possibilities that I can play which I wasn`t offered before simply because I was too young, and now I can start to explore some of that.
"I didn`t start acting until quite late and one of the best things about that is that I bummed around for years. It wasn`t my intention to soak up life, but you do along the way, whether you want to or not. It`s kind of nice now to be able to release a lot of that. I`m a different man than I was 10 years ago, after having kids and the responsibilities that brings, and becoming a lot less selfish. I`m still incredibly selfish, but less so - or hopefully I have better motives for doing things. There`s a lot of that I`d like to bring to my work. Getting to wear that experience on your face, seeing the road map of someone`s life on their face, is one of the best things.
"They always used to dye Ares` hair, because I`m like most Polynesians - I`m naturally grey. The guy is like two and a half thousand years old. Look at Zeus - he`s got some grey. But they said, `Oh no, we can`t have that!` I love playing characters that are not concerned with their appearance, because having a job where everyone else is concerned about your appearance means you absorb that, and then you get the worst kind of neuroses. `Oh my God, I`ve put on five pounds! I`m getting fat! Oh Christ, I`m losing my hair! Oh God, is that a wrinkle?` When you get to a point in your life where you can just dispense with that, it`s so freeing."
So what`s next? Smith laughs as he admits that, after all his talk of moving on, he`ll follow `Lawless` with two more episodes of Xena. "Because I was there from the early days, it`d kind of be nice just as a closure to do something in the last series," he concedes. "I got a little choked when Hercules finished. Five or six years is a big chunk of your life, and we`ve structured it in such a way that I do pop back in as a guest. The thing with villains, too, a you can`t have them every week. Ultimately someone will notice that, `You know what? This guy just falls on his ass all the time. He fails.` If there`s a gap between the failures, you don`t notice it so much."
Easy as he is to talk to, it`s time for this conversation, too, to move on. Smith signs off in his characteristically friendly style: "Cheers, mate."
On Peeling Back the Layers:
"Ten Little Warlords was cool because I think that was the first time we got to see the embryonic stages of the Ares see now. With him losing his powers, we get a glimpse of the humanity -that`s nonsense, isn`t it? - of the gods. But he`s without his powers.
"That was the first time we`d ever seen anything different about Ares, and I think that was where the present-day Ares was born. Every now and then you`ll see that he`s increasingly aware of the consequences of his own actions, and that there is a cost. This is something which wasn`t there before, simply because he was more of a straightforward villain."
"For a while I think Ares kind of lost his teeth, because he was always the one-liner, quip guy, just because in the early days I`d kind of lightened up a few lines, and it came off, so they started writing for that. I was playing a lot of it I laughs. I`m such a - excuse my terminology - slut that way I can`t help it. If there`s a laugh to be had, I really have fight against not doing it, and sometimes I lose the battle.
"If you look at the funny kids at school, it`s often to hide a vulnerability. Laughter can diffuse situations, and he is having second thoughts the laughter will hide that. I think you`re kind of seeing the stuff that he was trying suppress, because as a functioning, high profile God of War, man-about-town, second thoughts, doubts, moral qualms - you just couldn`t function with those things. So a lot of the laughter, the charm, the throw-away quips and that came about to hide the fact that he was having doubts about what he was doing."
"Ares has always been a total pragmatist, and he sees the inevitability of change. The other gods have rallied again it. He`ll move and shift to do whatever it takes to survive. Even if Olympus falls, he wants to survive as a mortal. Quite apart from his love for Xena and wanting to have a child with her, it`s all about surviving the fall of Olympus."
On Xena and Livia:
"The weirdest thing about this is that when Xena comes back into the world after coming to, she discovers that Ares is having a thing with her daughter. And I suddenly thought, `Oh my God, that`s three generations of the Xena family!` Of course, as soon as Xena turns up on the scene again, he`s straight back to being fixated on her. Why have Xena-lite when you can have the full strength?"
"The questions [fans at conventions] keep asking are, `Will Ares die when the time of the gods comes? How will he die?` And my answer has always been, `I hope he does it classily, like at the end of A Tale of Two Cities, where he`s walking up to the guillotine. I hope he would go that way, because he is, after all, a soldier. When all is said and done Ares is a soldier, albeit taken to the nth degree."
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