Endgame is an original drama series, currently seen on Hulu at www.hulu.com/endgame and centering on brilliant chess master, Arkady Balagan (Shawn Doyle), who has become a prisoner in his luxury Vancouver hotel, terrified to step outside after being traumatized by the murder of his fiancée. To pay his bill, the arrogant, brilliant and charismatic Russian starts solving baffling mysteries, imagining events and scenarios in his head while using an unlikely band of hotel employees and chess fanatics to do his legwork.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor Shawn Doyle (from the hit HBO drama series Big Love) talked about his initial reluctance to sign on for the Canadian series, what finally spiked his interest in the show and character, finding the Russian dialect that best suited him, deciding to change his look for the role, having his own panic attack the first week of shooting, and how the fan support and loyalty has helped ease the pain of the show not being picked up for a second season. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
SHAWN DOYLE: No. In fact, I was just finishing up four season on Big Love and we were choosing to move back to Canada from L.A. I had some other opportunities for various series there, and then I got the script for Endgame, with this crazy Russian character who basically never leaves the same location. I read the synopsis and read the pilot, and there was no doubt that it was a good show, but I was moving to Toronto and didn’t foresee myself leaving my family and moving to Vancouver to shoot the show. Secondly, I thought I would be bored to tears, playing a character that was on the same sets for seven months, so I basically said no to the show. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me, at the time, for those reasons.
Was there a point that you realized the show didn’t have the limitations that you thought it did?
DOYLE: Adriana Maggs, the writer/director of a movie that I produced and starred in, called Grown Up Movie Star, which went to Sundance in 2010, is a friend of Avrum [Jacobson], the creator of the show, and Avrum coaxed her into getting in touch with me about the show. That correspondence that I had with him on email, based on Adriana hooking me up with him, really spiked my interest in the show. He made me understand that, even though the character is physically in one location in the narrative, he can go anywhere in his mind. There was the opportunity for him to get out of the studio, literally, in his mind, but also the potential that those imagination moments had made me interested and curious about the role.
What was it like to play a character with such a strong Russian heritage when you’re clearly not Russian?
DOYLE: I don’t necessarily have any natural affinity for the Russian culture. The idea of playing a Russian character wasn’t something that I thought I was even right for, to begin with. I met with a group of the producers and Avrum and director David Frazee, down in L.A., for a lunch. I basically spent the time mentioning other actors who I thought would be really good for the role, and they said, “No, we think it should be you.” So, we got together in a room in Vancouver, a few weeks later, and hammered it out for an hour just to see if it was a good fit between us all. I had to convince myself that I had something to offer, and then we all decided to give it a shot.
DOYLE: It was a long, terrifying process. There’s a particular dialect coach that I’ve worked with a few times in L.A. and he’s very good, but the problem is that, if you don’t know who the hell the character really is and you haven’t really discovered that, all you’re doing is going from a blueprint of rules on a page. A Russian accent is in the back of the throat and it doesn’t necessarily have a lot of inflection. Like any accent, there are rules, but you can find yourself, all of a sudden, talking like Dolph Lundgren in Rocky IV. What I’m starting to understand about accents, in general, but certainly with this character, as I went through this process of trying to really make it alive, is that you have to have a pattern of speech that’s going to suit the character.
For [Arkady] Balagan, his emotions run the gamut, he has a wide spectrum of expression, and he’s very energetic, charismatic and dynamic, so I needed something that was going to be able to cover that entire range. So, for me, my model was Garry Kasparov, the ex-world champion chess player, now politician in Russian, who started traveling away from Russia when he was a very young man. His accent is much more cosmopolitan and European. Sometimes he sounds Russian, and other times he just sounds vaguely European.
I think the consistency of a dialect is its inconsistency. When I start to embrace that, it becomes a lot more real because it’s actually just coming from the character and not a bunch of rules. You have to be able to not think about it at all, and that’s a real challenge. If you’re thinking about how to form the words in your mouth, you’re not thinking about what you’re trying to do in a scene. Balagan’s accent is not just Russian, it’s also something else. It’s just Balagan’s accent, and it came about as it came about. It was a lot of fun.
Was this a character that you found yourself easily identifying with, or did it take finding his look and demeanor to figure out who he was?
DOYLE: I really did not see myself as him, at all. For a lot of actors, including myself, as soon as you hear the word charming or charismatic or dynamic, you are automatically drawn to all of your inadequacies in those descriptions. I was like, “I can’t be any of these things. What are you talking about?” And so, when I went and played around in the room with the director and producers and tried to figure it out, I started to understand that the way I could find those qualities was by either toying and playing with the person I’m acting with, or just trying to surprise myself by not having any idea how I was going to play a particular scene, how it was going to come out and the tactics I was going to use.
I realized that the only way that this character could be successful was if the actor constantly jumps off a cliff, not knowing how he’s going to land and trying to surprise himself. With him, there’s also the element of him being the smartest guy in the room and a jerk. He’s very eccentric, and he can mess with people’s minds with impunity. From an imaginative standpoint, I think that’s the fantasy that a lot of us have in life because we don’t really have the license to do that. That was fun. That fueled the sense of play that the character needed.
And then, on a physical level, the hair was my idea. I normally have brown hair, but for some reason, when I was reading and prepping and working on the accent, I just couldn’t get away from a lighter colored hair. So, I contacted Avrum, the creator, and he had been seeing the same thing in his mind, so we decided to go for it. The final piece of the puzzle was Avrum’s suggestion that he never wear shoes. First of all, it’s a metaphor because he’s decided that he’s stuck in this hotel and that’s where he’s going to stay. He refuses to leave. Also, there was the idea that the whole hotel is his living room, and he’s just walking around his living room barefoot. Once those two external things came into play, it felt really right.
When you’re playing a character who has so many different aspects to him – being this master chess player, agoraphobic and a crime solver – was it a challenge to play all of that realistically? Did you feel that you had to research any one aspect more than the others?
DOYLE: Well, I didn’t do a lot of research about the chess. I play a little bit of chess in life. We had chess experts on set when we needed to play, so I would rehearse the moves of any particular game, as if it were a dance. The chess really served as a metaphor for the fact that we all require strategy to get us out of the corners that we get backed into. That was the important element of what the chess was. In terms of him being a chess expert, that’s not something that I really focused a lot of time on.
The agoraphobia and being traumatized because of this incident that he witnessed was a different thing. I know people who suffer from claustrophobia and agoraphobia and who have a fear of heights, so I’ve seen that, up close and personal in my life. I did a little bit of research on it, but it was just about the what if scenario. You just try to put yourself in those situations.
Ironically enough, the first week of shooting, we were in the middle of blocking a scene and I had a full-out panic attack. I actually thought I was having a heart attack. I had never had that before, in my life. I was in the middle of a scene and when of the characters said, “Well, how did you know that I was lying?,” and my response was, “Because you’re not breathing.” And as soon as I said “breathing,” I couldn’t breath myself, and then everything started to get dark and I fell to my knees. I thought, “Oh, my god, I finally got this great show, and now I’m going to go. Great!” On an unconscious level, I think that’s the character working its way through you, just like new gas in a gasline. It finally seeps in to a certain level and plants itself.
Obviously, it’s difficult when any series gets cancelled, especially when you’ve invested so much time into it, as an actor. When you enjoy playing a role so much, is it difficult to let it go, or do you see that as just being part of the job?
DOYLE: It’s never easy to let go of a character because it’s made its way into your skin, on some level, if it’s a character that you love to play, like I did with this particular character. There have been a lot of characters that I’ve been quite happy to let go of, believe me. But, as actors, we’re freelancers and we need to make money and we need to have work. The idea of having had this job, which was not only artistically filling, but it also filled the bank with coppers, makes it hard to let go.
Does it ease the pain, knowing that the fans have been so supportive and amazing?
DOYLE: In terms of the fan support, I came up from the theater. To have such a strong and vocal reaction to the show being canceled is the most fulfilling part of the airing of the show. You have the actual work, which is fun. In this particular situation, it was really fun and exciting to do the show. Normally, when it’s on the air, people watch it and people don’t. You have a vested interest in it, but ultimately it’s gone out into the world and you just have to let it go. But, to actually have correspondence with people that the show meant something to, as an actor and a storyteller, knowing that you’ve at least made an impact on people, to some level, is really fulfilling. Not that we want the show to go away, but it actually makes the process of letting go easier because you know that it’s brightened up at least a few people’s day. It’s not just been for nothing.
New episodes of Endgame will be available on Hulu, each Monday through March 26th.