“It’s very much like team sports. I did all my preparation and practice, I know all the plays, I know how the game works and I don’t have time to think. I only have time to react.” – Neil Napier
Spending most of his life as a self-described “jock,” Neil Napier, at the age of 29, found himself having to undergo spinal surgery from the pounding his body took from sports. “It laid me out for a couple of weeks and I got a chance to reassess my life,” he said. He’d acted in school and then, after talking with an actor friend, he finally decided to “give it a shot,” he told me. “I don’t want to question if I should have or if I could have.”
Looks like that shot definitely worked out because he’s been working regularily as an actor for years. With stage work and parts in Riddick and X-Men: Days of Future Past, he’s now one of the stars of SyFy’s Helix.
The show, which also stars Billy Campbell and Steven Weber, is about a team of scientists who were deployed to the Arctic to secretly investigate what could be a disease outbreak. Neil plays Dr. Peter Farragut, who in Season One, became Patient Zero. Now in Season Two, he’s leading the CDC team onto help fight the disease while he’s fighting his personal demons, struggling between his allegiances to his brother Alan, his ex-lover Julia and the mysterious corporation that may hold the key to the virus.
I talked to Neil about Helix, how he filled in his character’s back-story, his audition for the show and what sports taught him about acting.
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For people who are not up on the show, can you tell me a little bit about it and your role?
Neil Napier: Well, the first season, we saw the CDC team, which is the Centers for Disease Control, go to the Arctic to a research lab to follow up on an outbreak of some never before seen virus. When they get there, we find one guy still alive, which was my character, Dr. Peter Farragut. He’s the brother of Dr. Alan Farragut who is played by Billy Campbell.
So, they get up there to discover this horrific disease that nobody’s seen and it is infecting the entire base bit by bit, much in the way rabies spreads. And people get really sick and start killing each other. But we also find out there is the more insidious force at play in the name of Ilaria, which is this Corporation run by immortals. And they are trying to engineer this virus and a cure in order to cull humanity, to try and lower the numbers of humanity so that they don’t use all resources on earth that the immortals will need. And by the end of that, everything is going to hell and the Arctic base has blown up. And we see Alan Farragut and Peter Farragut in Paris trying to find Julia (Kyra Zagorsky), who is the ex-wife of Alan and ex-lover of Peter. We found out that she has become immortal and is now running a Ilaria, or at least on the board of executives of Ilaria. And that’s how we end the season one.
So season two, which is eight months later after Paris and there’s a new pathogen, my character Peter, who was very sick and now cured. He’s leading the CDC team now on a new mission in their investigating a different pathogen on this island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and when they get to the island they find that it’s run by this isolationist cult, run by but brother Michael, who is played by Steven Weber. And things start spiraling out of control. So that’s where we are in season two.
You guys have a great cast; Steven Weber, Billy Campbell.
Neil Napier: Yeah, yeah. We’re really lucky to have these two. Billy and Stephen are the same in that their very blue-collar in their attitude, do you know what I mean? They like working hard, like having fun and they’re very generous outgoing people that are just a joy to be around onset and offset, so we are very lucky.
You had that time-shift where you guys go eight months later in the story. Acting wise, is that difficult? Do you have to fill in your own back story between those months?
Neil Napier: A little bit, yeah. It’s a really cool challenge, actually, because my character, in season one in particular, was sick a lot of the time. People talked about him a lot, but he was sick and he was a sort of monster for a while and he was cured.
So when we came into season two, I had to bring in all that horrible stuff that he went through and that happened to him. He’s killed some people. I do bring that in underneath into the second season and start to develop a different incarnation of the same character because we see him in a very different way in season two then we did in season one.
And then, in season two Peter has an extraordinary arc. He’s sort of not the same guy at the end of episode 12 and 13 as he was in episode one. I mean essentially he is the same guy but everything he’s become by the end of season two is informed by everything that’s happened in season one and throughout season two but he has quite a transformation over the course of season two.
Do you know this arc going into season two? Or are you as surprised by what’s happening, like the audience is?
Neil Napier: I’m almost as surprised as the audience.
You know, a serialized television show is a sort of living organism and its changing and moving as it pushes along into a season and the writers are reacting to what the actors are doing, what the actors are bringing to it. And so they, while they have a general idea and an overview of the whole season, how they’re going to get there kind of morphs and changes as conditions change throughout the shooting season.
But I was pretty surprised when some things happened, yeah. And it was really exciting to read each script, especially around episode 9, 10, 11 of this season where my character took a pretty drastic turn. Somewhat unexpected but not out of left field. I found a way that I could inform this turn based on the evidence I had from season one and the earlier part of season two.
I would imagine that you had to spend a lot of time in the makeup chair, especially the first season.
Neil Napier: I spent a lot of time in the makeup chair in season one.
The first half of the season, I guess it was about an hour and a half, two hours at the beginning of every day. And then things got worse for my character and he changed again and then it was about three hours in the chair every day. And then about an hour and a half at the end of the day to get out of it.
Obviously you’re probably like learning lines and conversing, but beyond that what are you doing the whole time? You can only talk so much. At least I can.
Neil Napier: I can talk a lot. [laughs] Three hours is no problem for me.
No, the makeup artists that we have, I mean their brilliant, right? It was really beautiful makeup that I got to where last year. It was very elegant and it was like wearing a work of art on your face.
And these artists are fascinating people so we had a lot of great conversations, you know? They’re really good people hang out with. It was not a hardship.
What was your audition like?
Neil Napier: My first audition, I had actually auditioned for the role of Balleseros, who is a Brazilian character. I think Brazilian background. I’m as white as they come, man. I’m Scottish, Irish, Polish, you know?
So I auditioned for this character, he’s a military guy, so that’s kind of in my wheelhouse in terms of energy. I’m not that character but had a good audition.
Then they wanted to see me for the role of the brother and I was actually out in Portland Oregon with my wife at the time. She wasn’t my wife, I proposed to her and I wanted to ask her parents.
Neil Napier: Yeah. So we flew out to Portland to do that and to take them to dinner. And we took a night out on the Oregon coast with a nice hotel room on the ocean, it was beautiful.
And as we’re driving out to the coast, I get a call from my agent saying, “Well, they’d like to see you for this other role of the brother.” I’m like, “Ah, man. I don’t have a camera or anything.” So my wife and I shot the audition in the hotel room on my iPhone and sent it in. I got a callback from that and I went in the next time I was back in Montréal with the director and booked the role.
There’s something about, I think being willing to… not go the extra mile, but to do what’s necessary to book. To put ourselves in positions where we have the best possible opportunity to get the job, you know what I mean?
For example today, I’m driving from Toronto to Montréal because I’ve got a callback for a different show and I had the option of doing a Skype callback with the director. But I have the time and I prefer to be in the room with the director. And so I’m driving to Montréal to do that.
I love doing taped auditions but there’s nothing that can take away from you being in the room.
Neil Napier: Yeah, absolutely. If I can be in the room with the director or producer, I’d much rather be there if I can.
You mention you were in Oregon. I will say that if I am planning a vacation or if I’m on vacation, I’ll get a great opportunity for something.
Neil Napier: Oh yeah, that’s the adage right? If you need work book a flight.
A non-refundable flight.
Neil Napier: Exactly.
You did a lot of theater too.
Neil Napier: Oh yeah, that’s kind of my first love.
Reading your background, you were are all sports, all the time. And then you got hurt. Is that what led you into your early theater career?
Neil Napier: Yeah, part of it. I had a spinal surgery back when I was, I guess right before I turned 30. I guess I was 29.
Neil Napier: Yeah. It went very well and I’m feeling much better now but it laid me out for a couple of weeks and I got a chance to reassess my life. I was doing all right, you know? But I was working sort of in construction and renovation, as a personal trainer, I was doing some of that. But I had a little time to reassess what I wanted to do and I had done some theater way back in my school years. And a friend of mine came into town who’s an actor and he had to do some auditions. We just had a nice discussion and out of that came the idea that, “I’ve got to give it a shot. I don’t want to question if I should have or if I could have. I’d rather give it a shot and fail and then know and I can put it aside.”
Then I started working really hard. Man, I was doing theater in church basements, student films. Anything I could to kind of develop a process and to meet people and to start learning a craft because I did not go to theater school, I’m a jock.
But I did learn an awful lot from athletics that is immediately transferable to being in the craft of acting, specifically to theater. My best training was on the football field or the rugby pitch, for sure.
You’re an actor right? Well, you know the idea being in the moment, being present. Right here, right now in the moment. So when I’m playing football or rugby, I can’t think about anything except what is happening right now and react to changing conditions. And that’s something I found right away when I got on-stage that I had a facility for; that if I was prepared and I did all my preparation, all I had to think about was my first line and then I just had to listen and react to what’s happening. It’s very much like team sports. I did all my preparation and practice, I know all the plays, I know how the game works and I don’t have time to think. I only have time to react. And so that taught me that everything is in preparation and being available in the moment at all times.
So it was a really good education on the rugby pitch for my theater and film career.
I find when I’m doing a play, if I think in my head I’ve nailed my very first line in the show, I’m good to go. If I think I kind of screwed it up, then I’m in my head the whole time.
Neil Napier: Yeah, that idea of kind of being in the moment. That’s an important thing too, being able to let go of any judgment of what just happened. And in sports man, I can’t dwell on a dropped pass or missed tackle, I just have to move on. It’s very much that way theater.