Interview: DJ Qualls Talks ‘The Man in the High Castle’ and Why He Thought He’d Get Fired His First Day On-Set
“All characters are basically the same, you just have to be honest.” – DJ Qualls
Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle is an alternative reality look at what would life would be like if the Allied Powers had lost WWII, and Japan and Germany ruled the United States.
The show stars Rufus Sewell (John Adams), Luke Kleintank (Pretty Little Liars), Alexa Davalos (Mob City) and DJ Qualls (Z Nation), who said in a roundtable interview at this summers Comic-Con that he originally turned down the part of Ed McCarthy. “I was working and I was just tired,” he said. But after a quick meeting with producers, three days later he was on his way to shoot the pilot.
Qualls talks about how he got the part, learning tons of dialogue and why he thought he would get fired his first day on-set.
How difficult was this character to get into?
DJ Qualls: I didn’t have a lot of prep. Most of the actors auditioned for their parts or screen tested. This part was offered to me and I turned it down. I was working and I was just tired. I wasn’t accepting work. And I was called by somebody in production and they like, “What’s wrong with you? This is a really great part. Be in Ridley Scott’s office at 3 PM today, we’re gonna talk to you about this.” And so I went over and they pitched it to me and I was like, ‘wow, this is a really great world that you’ve described to me.’ And then I read the pilot that night and then the next day I got an offer. And then three days later I went to shoot it.
But then when I got on the set, I felt the whole first day I was gonna get fired because everyone seemed grounded in their characters and I didn’t even realize the scope of the world. I mean, they showed me storyboards but I hadn’t read the book and I didn’t realize the gravity of what we were doing. And then I got there and I was like, ‘Oh shit, I’m get fired.’ Like, I really thought it.
And then Isa, Philip K Dick’s daughter, she’s the executive producer on the show, I saw her on my second day and she came over and was so sweet and said how thrilled they were and how they celebrated when I was cast and that not only gave me the confidence to do the part but a sense of responsibility to the family and to the book to really just, you know, put all my actor-y bullshit aside and get into what needs to be done.
All characters are basically the same, you just have to be honest. Actors are two kinds of kind of people either super smart or super dumb. Super smart meaning you know yourself so well and you know how to manipulate emotion and be truthful. Super dumb is that you’re too stupid to know that you can fail and you just do stuff. Like I meet idiot actors all the time who are fantastic. I’m pretty cerebral and I can get in my own way a lot and I didn’t allow myself to do that with this and I’m really proud of the work that I did, especially towards the end of the first season and what I’m doing now.
We’re shooting episode seven of the second season right now and it occurred to me that were only 21 days into our story. It’s been almost 2 years of a shooting it but we’re only 21 days in the actual story. And to look at how the character Ed’s life has changed in 21 days from being in a life that sucked, being a factory employee but it was safe…. To have everything that he’s known taken away from him. He’s been arrested, beaten by the Japanese police and winds up getting in and out of that situation to get into a worse situation.
It’s so fun to play and it’s so complicated and the writers on our show try so hard but they listen to us. And like our head writer Erik [Oleson] keeps saying, we’re the guardians of our own characters, it’s our arc, our character. We spend, and I’m not exaggerating, as much time off-set doing script analysis and writer conversations then we do on-set shooting the show.
How does that help you? Have they steered you in a different direction that you have taken as an actor?
DJ Qualls: Some of the stuff that’s happening right now Rupert and I suggested. It helps me feel that we’re making the right choice because I have a feeling, like a visceral feeling, of who this guy is and see them sort of match up in this chaotic world that we’ve created. It feels good, it feels really good.
And it’s a really great counterpart. I’m on another show on sci-fi called Z Nation, so I get to do that which is like shooting guns and it’s playful. It’s like being in a videogame and I love it. What a lucky thing to be an actor, two TV shows at the same time. It would be the impulse to crap on one because the other one is a high profile show, like we got nominated for some Emmys. Z Nation is not going to be nominated for any Emmys but I love doing it. Their budget is like $600,000 an episode, I mean, that’s like one of our days. And so to be able to do both of those shows, I feel so lucky. So it makes me take both of them really seriously.
On Z Nation, you are stuck in this room. Is it nice to interacting…
DJ Qualls: To work with other actors? It’s amazing. When I’m on Z Nation, I have to memorize like 20 pages of dialogue a day by myself and so having to say 20 pages of dialogue with nobody to cue you it’s not conversational like this is conversational.
That said though, a couple days ago on this show, I had the biggest speech of my entire career, 15 years. And I was shitting myself, it’s so much dialogue and the show is so expensive you don’t want to waste anybody’s time. In five hours, I said the speech 40 times and it’s a super pivotal moment for this character and it also felt like a test, that they were leading my character in a new direction. I mean, they probably weren’t but I’m still paranoid. And I was like if I mess up? What’s gonna happen? There’s this actor who’s the lead on a show and he’s so terrible at it that they put them him in a coma, they sent him on vacation, and they kept on doing that. I don’t want to be the guy who is so terrible that they have to shoot around me.