Adding an extra layer of authenticity and intensity, the indie drama Allegiance is based on writer/director Mike Connors’ own personal experiences serving in the military while also paying tribute to the 21 million veterans living in the United States today. The story follows Lieutenant Danny Sefton (Seth Gabel), who has received a questionable transfer that will keep him safely stationed back home while his National Guard unit deploys to one of the most dangerous cities in Iraq. When the unit’s best medic, Specialist Reyes (Bow Wow), is denied a compassionate reassignment to stay home with his terminally ill son, he asks Sefton to help him go AWOL.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor Seth Gabel (who played Lincoln Lee on the Fox TV series Fringe) talked about what made him want to be a part of this film, the type of leader his character is, how he was able to identify with the man he was portraying, what it was like to work with Bow Wow, how excited he was to have the boot camp experience, and how this gave him a new appreciation for people who dedicate their lives to defending our country. He also talked about what it was like to have been a part of Fringe, how the interest in his Arrow guest role as The Count (based on Count Vertigo from the comic book series) has been both surprising and incredible, taking on a “super-villain,” that he hopes to return for future episodes, and how inspiring show star Stephen Amell’s physical dedication to the role has been for him. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
SETH GABEL: What really drew me to this film was that there’s just something so simple and honest about it, that I don’t think we ever see in war films. They’re usually so dark or dirty or intense, and sometimes they guide you to feeling a certain way against war, in general. But, to have a film that just speaks honestly to the soldier’s experience and isn’t jaded and is just authentic and easygoing in its message, I think is really nice to see.
Did you audition for this role, or did they specifically ask to see you?
GABEL: Mike Connors, the director, and Sean Mullin, one of the producers, asked to have a meeting with me, and we sat down and talked about it. When I found out that this was based on their experience in the National Guard and at Ground Zero, during 9/11, I realized that this was a very unique opportunity to depict a story that I don’t think has ever been told before. We’ve seen stories about soldiers in the Iraq War, but to see this unique story of a National Guard unit who had no expectation of being called up to go to Iraq, all of a sudden needing to go, and the challenges that they face in that process and how it completely changes their lives, I really wanted to be a part of it.
What type of a leader is your character, Lt. Danny Sefton?
GABEL: Danny Sefton is a National Guard Lieutenant who gets questionably transferred out of the unit before shipping off to Iraq. Sefton is smart, strategic and very resourceful, which is why Reyes, played by Bow Wow, asks me to help him go AWOL, just before we ship off, so he can see his dying son one last time. The thing about Sefton is that he is incredibly resourceful, which is a skill that he’s able to use, both to get out of going to Iraq and to also be an effective officer to these men. It makes it really difficult for him, ethically and morally, in deciding whether or not to finally go because he has these special skills and they can be used for benevolent purposes or for his own self-interest. It’s difficult because the selfish decisions he has to make aren’t just selfish in his own interests, but also in the interests of the family and the life that he can create back home.
GABEL: I completely related to the experience of the character. I don’t know if I would have the courage to go to Iraq, if I was called up to do so, while having a family at home that’s counting on me and that I needed to take care of. I could totally relate to the character’s experience because, on the one hand, you’re building a family at home, but then, on the other hand, you have another family that’s going off to Iraq and you could help them, if you go, and you could make the difference of saving one life, if you go. It’s a real dilemma because it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other, and the stakes are so much higher than that. It was easy for me to jump into that understanding of the character. I could totally see myself going through it, and I would be very conflicted.
So much of the emotional side of this film comes from the relationship between Sefton and Reyes. What was it like to work with Bow Wow and develop the dynamic between your characters?
GABEL: It was great! We were fortunate that we had two weeks of rehearsal and we got to go through boot camp together. That really bonded the cast. Bow Wow and I spent a lot of time together, working on scenes and rehearsing. Because we shot in New York City, there was a lot of traffic, so we had a lot of time together, driving from location to location. We would work on the characters and talk about our lives and get to know each other. I found him to be a remarkable person with a remarkable story, as a performer and an artist. He told me this one story about how he was discovered when he was five or six years old, when he was just pulled out of the audience at a Snoop Dogg concert and was brought on the stage where he started free-styling. He just completely blew everyone away. And then, Snoop asked him to come backstage and his mom came with him, and he said he wanted to take him on the road and have him be a part of the concert tour, to which his mom was like, “No, no way!” They convinced her it was okay, and the rest is what you see now. But, I think he’s a very impressive person and a real talent.
GABEL: I’ve always had the fantasy of doing a boot camp for a military film, at some point. I’ve always wanted to know what the experience is like, to feel that mounting pressure of going off to war and needing to be so present and physically aware of your body because you ultimately need to fight for your life and for your country. I really wanted to know what that was like, so I was so excited to be a part of the boot camp. I didn’t find it to be very challenging. I think they also went a little easy on us because they didn’t want us getting injured. I think it was the Ritz Carlton version of a boot camp. But, I think we were all just excited to be a part of it and to absorb as much as we could of what a real military experience is like, so that we could portray it in the film.
Did this experience really give you a new appreciation for and understanding of people who dedicate their lives to defending our country?
GABEL: Oh, definitely! We had ex-Navy Seals and ex-Green Berets on set who were understandably intimidating, but at the same time, were some of the kindest people I’ve ever met and they had some of the biggest hearts. I think by experiencing what they have, they have a real sense of what it means to be present in life. And because they’ve had the experience of fighting for what they believe in, they live, standing up for what they believe in. We had people donating their time on set. They would use their vacation time and come and stay for free on set, so we could consult with them and talk to them. They helped make the film as authentic as possible. They were incredibly inspiring. They make you realize that war is difficult. But, whatever your opinions may be politically, there’s no denying that there are incredibly brave people out there, representing our country well, and who are willing to sacrifice everything for the people they love. It really showed me what true loyalty is.
GABEL: The Fringe experience was one that really helped me grow, in so many ways. To have the opportunity to join the show just as a guest star, and then to have been asked back, over and over again, was so validating. I got to have the experience of being a fan of a show, getting to join it, and then getting to continue to be a part of it. And then, add to that that I was able to play two different versions of the character, one of whom was very confident in his body and perhaps overly cocky, at times, and then be able to jump to the polar opposite of that and be insecure and too much in my mind and not in my body while at the same time being brilliant in coming up with solutions to unconventional problems. To be able to jump between those two characters and clock in hours of experiencing those different sides of my psyche, it forced me to grow in so many ways that I had never anticipated.
Do you feel like your Fringe experience, especially with genre fans, helped prepare you for the attention you’re getting now for your role on Arrow?
GABEL: Yeah. The interest in the Arrow guest spot has been really surprising and incredible. I suppose it is from having such a wonderful audience from Fringe, and I’m so appreciative of that. The fans of Fringe are so loyal and incredible and powerful. They single-handedly kept that show on the air when the numbers showed that it should have canceled. To see the power that an audience like that has is really inspiring to me. I’m so glad that that audience has found Arrow. I was so excited to be a part of it because I’m a fan of the show and a fan of the genre, as well as the sci-fi genre. I love anything that has a big metaphor. It was a really exciting thing to be a part of, and I had so much fun doing it.
GABEL: I play The Count, who’s based on Count Vertigo of the comic book series. Instead of having superpowers, the powers are manifested in a drug called Vertigo, that I sell on the street. I’m essentially this street thug/drug kingpin, taking over the streets of Starling City. The way I justified being a super-villain, if you will, is that the character cares so much about money and power that he’s willing to do whatever it takes to acquire those things. In being totally consumed by money and power, I can completely ignore any questionable ethics, along that process, and just completely throw myself into doing whatever acts will achieve the acquisition of those things, whether it’s evil, wrong or whatever.
With as much fun as you had shooting your guest appearance, are you hoping that the character will return?
GABEL: Oh, definitely! It’s very possible that I’ll make future appearances, and it’s something that I would absolutely love doing.
When you see how Stephen Amell is so physically dedicated to the series, does it inspire you to work that much harder?
GABEL: Totally! I’m on a diet now and I’m working out more. People are like, “What prompted this in you?,” and I’m like, “Working with Stephen Amell!” You see the stuff that he’s capable of doing and the discipline that he has on set. Normally, when you see someone that looks like Stephen, you assume, “Okay, that’s their genetics. He’s a lucky bastard. I’ll never be like that.” But then, I got to talk to him and I was like, “What do you eat for lunch?,” and he said, “I just eat chicken and kale, every day.” I was like, “This guy is the real deal! He’s working hard to look like this and to be as physically capable as he is. This isn’t just someone who’s lucky.” It made me realize that you need to work for it. You can’t do these incredible things, unless you work for it. So, I’m taking that attitude into this holiday season and I’ve had the power to say not to about one-third of the cookies that have been thrown at me, which is a good step forward.
As an actor, do you enjoy the opportunity to both explore a character in the long-term on a TV show and telling the full story of a character in a movie?
GABEL: Yeah. The difference between film and TV is so interesting. I just did a film called Forever, that will be coming out on the festival circuit next year, and I was so pleased with the luxury of knowing where the story is going and knowing the beginning, middle and end, and not waiting for pages to come out that haven’t been written yet. You need to read the next episode, so that you can start preparing that. But, to actually be able to stay focused on telling this one story was just so relaxing. It was such a luxury, after having done TV for so long, where you’re never letting your guard down and you’re always needing to prepare for the next day, until you get to that last episode. The difference between film and TV, for me, is just that huge thing of knowing that there’s a script that is not going to change and you can go really deep into that. With TV, you’re just constantly on a high-wire, making sure you don’t fall.
Allegiance opens in theaters in New York on December 28th, and in Los Angeles on January 4, 2013.