On The CW drama series Nikita, actor Xander Berkeley plays Percy, the former head of Division who was usurped by one of his protégés and confined to prison. Never one to rest or waste time, Percy has been using his imprisonment to plot and plan for what’s ahead, which is sure to be explosive.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, Xander Berkeley talked about how much fun he has playing the fearless thrill-seeker who’s looking to reclaim his power with Division, the challenge of finding the balance in a role that is intimidating and menacing while still maintaining a good sense of humor, and working more closely this season with co-stars Melinda Clarke and Lyndsy Fonseca. He also talked about his other series, The Booth at the End (which can currently be seen on Hulu), that he’ll do a second season of, once he’s done shooting the current season of Nikita. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
Collider: How much fun is it to play a character who’s always several moves ahead of everyone else?
XANDER BERKELEY: Oh, gosh, it’s a lot of fun. I have a great deal of respect for the writers who do that thinking for me.
Without revealing anything, what can you say about what’s coming up on the show, especially when it comes to your character?
BERKELEY: Well, emancipation is imminent, and going rogue is step one. He may seem like “the bad guy” in some people’s minds, but I see him as a very positive thinker. When he wound up in prison, he didn’t waste too much time feeling sorry for himself or getting bitter. He went, “This is good for me. I’ll re-evaluate my life and enjoy the fact that I don’t have pressure, for the first time in a long time, and I’ll enjoy fooling everyone into thinking that, though I’m in prison, I still can call the shots and get them scurrying about.” And, he did. He enjoyed reading and watching TV, and it was a good phase for him. He’s been underground for a long time, so he’ll have a good time, being back out in the world. It’s a bit dangerous, but then so is everything in his life. He’s a thrill-seeker, on that level, and a bit fearless, so he jumps back into being a rogue and finds that mode very refreshing. His next aim is to reclaim power with Division, and then use Division as a means to yet another end, which I’m not quite at liberty to say.
Have there been challenges to working in the same confined space and the same outfit?
BERKELEY: I found the outfit a bit challenging because I didn’t feel like it was him. But, he got to bristle within it, and that was him. In a lot of ways, an actor is trained to embrace a challenge ‘cause there’s always gonna be choices and sometimes, if those choices are made for you, it just becomes clearer what the path is that you need to take. And, there’s all the creativity that comes out of trying to use the space in a new way and use the minimalist body behavior to command respect and authority, even though you don’t have any props to rely on. It was a very theatrical setting there and, as an actor, I really enjoyed the spareness of it and the focus that it brought.
Have you found any of his action particularly difficult for you to justify, in playing him, or have you found it easy to find reasons for his behavior?
BERKELEY: Well, I only question and challenge the writers when it’s something that seems purely gratuitous, which it very, very rarely does. If I can’t see it right away, they can help me see what’s motivating him beyond menace. Sometimes he has to be threatening, in order to get people to do what he needs them to do, which he thinks is the right thing. In his mind, he sees things subjectively from his own perspective, as we all do, and believes his self-interest is for the greater good.
With as horrible as he can be at times, have you been surprised by how much viewers have really come to enjoy him?
BERKELEY: Yeah. I don’t know about that because I don’t follow any of that, so I just have to hope that what I’m doing is connecting. But, for me, he does seem like someone who uses his sense of humor and his cleverness as a way to beguile and charm people, so that they don’t notice what he’s up to. He has a way of being very casual. He can be intimidating and menacing when he needs to be, but he can also have a good sense of humor, and be a bit wry and detached about it all. He uses all of those different qualities to his benefit, to get what he wants.
How much fun has it been to work more closely this season with both Melinda Clarke and Lyndsy Fonseca?
BERKELEY: I’ve had a ball working with both of them. I think the fact that we really enjoy each other’s company comes across in what we get to do, even though we’re pitted against each other, and I think that happens in life sometimes. Certainly, when it comes to acting, you can really have fun playing at odds with somebody, if you really enjoy their company. Obviously, there’s a clear history between Amanda and Percy, not that it’s clear what it was. With Alex, as he has with all of his recruits, there’s a paternal pride and a feeling of affection. He has this Svengali complex, but he remakes people in his own image. He gives them a new life and he sees himself as a father figure to them. He’s a stern task master, but he feels an affection, and I think he definitely does towards Alex. He knows that she needs a father because hers was taken away.
Has playing a character who’s so serious and controlled given you a stronger desire to do comedy?
BERKELEY: Yeah. It’s funny because I find myself chomping at the bit. I had a scene last night with Maggie [Q] and Shane [West] and Aaron [Stanford], and this other character that’s being brought into it, and I enjoy all of their company so much. I think I can safely say, without giving away too much, that I was a bit strapped down in the situation, but I still have the power, in my own mind. I think Percy uses his sense of humor to unsettle people and to get them off balance. It’s a balancing act for me because it’s fun to play the humor, but you don’t want to play it so much that you dissipate the dramatic tension. It’s always a balancing act between menacing and being amusing ‘cause by playing against it, you increase the dramatic tension. It’s like a scientist or a cook that has to watch the balance of the ingredients. But, I feel like I get to bring comedic elements, ever so subtley, into what I do without playing comedy. I feel like I do provide a laugh, here and there, and it satisfies that need, on my part. Although, I would love to do a comedy, yes.
At this point in your career, what do you look for when you’re reading projects?
BERKELEY: For years, my criteria was to try to work with the best directors I could, to learn from them, and the best actors I could. I just wanted to put myself in good company, and also put myself in good hands with good cinematographers and good editors. I enjoyed the idea of becoming a master of disguise and flying under the radar, and maintaining a bit of anonymity while still working all the time, which was a joy for me. And, I chose jobs on the basis of travel and life experience and expanding as a person, as much as I could. Now that I have children, my criteria is changing a little bit because I don’t want to be traveling around. I want to be a solid provider. So, becoming a little bit more prominent in the business is okay with me now.
In addition to this, there’s a show that I’m involved with, that’s got a home on the internet, on Hulu, but has been viewed around the world as a mini-series, called The Booth at the End. They’re doing a second season of that, which I’ll do at the end of this season of Nikita. That’s a phenomenal role for me. It’s the main character, and it gives me all the things that I like to do, as an actor. It’s a Faustian, dark, not quite human guy that sits at the back booth of a diner, and people come to him because he can make things happen. He gives them a task. It’s a little moral fable about what people are willing to do to get what they want, and there’s all kinds of different colors and levels and dimensions to the character that I find really challenging and fun. Good writing is what it really comes down to.
Nikita airs on Friday nights on The CW.