Taking the Lead

Stargate Magazine July/August 2006

by Sharon Gosling

As he settles into his second year of adventures with Stargate SG-1, actor Ben Browder takes a look at how the character of Cameron Mitchell has evolved in his position as head of the team.

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If the truth be told, Colonel Cameron Mitchell took his place at the head of SG-1 rather reluctantly last year. Having earned his right to choose any position he wanted after his bravery over Antarctica, he was eager to join the team, but not so eager to lead it. After a season of high-octane adventures in the show's radically re-vamped ninth year, Mitchell begins Stargate SG-1's historic 10th year by leading the galaxy's defence against the Ori. But though he's proven himself more than capable of lining up with the heroes of SG-1 in a fight, how is the character gelling with the team otherwise? Actor Ben Browder took time out from filming Stargate SG-1's 200th episode to discuss the character's evolution and finding his own comfort level within the series.

How has season 10 contrasted to season nine so far?

Well, it's much easier for me in season 10 than it was in season nine -because I don't get lost when I walk around the SGC any more [laughs]. I don't end up in the broom cupboard! It's literally a maze, and it takes a while to learn your way around the sets, and of course, learning people's names and getting the feel for how the show is done. That's not something that I'm struggling with this year, so that's good. It's much more comfortable.

Has being comfortable in that sense informed how you are playing the character this year?

Basically, I'm still taking my cues from the writers. It depends on what they need from Mitchell, and in what way I am going to service the story. Story is paramount, it's the beginning and the end, and so from that standpoint, I'm not trying to impose stuff upon Mitchell that is not inherent in the scripts. I imagine there are things that I will do that the writers will go, "Oh, I didn't picture him doing it that way," but that's a learning process.

In terms of what you have seen in the scripts so far, how has he evolved this year?

I think he's obviously more comfortable in his skin in regards to being part of the SGC. I think he has a clearer picture of what his leadership role is within SG-1 and how to deal with that. Because the character, as introduced, wasn't expecting to be put into that position, and it's a delicate balance.

How do you a lead a team like SG-1?

At the [200th episode] press conference, someone made the comment, "So what's it like working with these legendary sci fi actors?" [Laughs] But you know, within the Stargate SG-1 world, the characters that Mitchell interacts with are legendary -at least the three members of the team, and O'Neill when he shows up. So how do you become the leader of a team filled with legendary characters? It's a difficult balance as to how you do that, as the new guy, because you can't trample allover them. You can't use classic military techniques to lead a team like that -you're in a situation where you're dealing with an elite unit, and there is a more egalitarian approach about it. Which I think is the correct way to go. I've always felt that, but I think you're seeing it more clearly in season 10 than in season nine.

Have the character relationships evolved as a result?

I think the character relationships are more comfortable and settled, and that in itself is a kind of change. When Mitchell arrived, the team members that were there had to be wondering what the hell he was going to do. Whether that's the actors wondering what I'm going to do or not is an entirely separate issue [laughs]! We've had an opportunity in season 10 to do more Landry-Mitchell stuff, which I think is really interesting. I think Beau [Bridges] gives a really fine performance in one of the episodes this year. He's a wonderful actor anyway, but I think his best performance to date is in season 10.

I'll have to look at it in retrospect in a couple of years, because when I watch something, it's very often influenced by my experience of shooting it on the day. So it's very hard to have an objective view of Mitchell as a character. Plus, anything I say about him is an internal dialogue that I'm having with myself that is not necessarily what is reflected on screen.

As an actor, do you know when thats going to happen -when your internal dialogue about your character isn't going to match what appears on screen?

Well, at a certain point, at least from my standpoint, I like to be surprised. Often, the surprise will come in the editing or in the camera angle. You have an idea of what it's going to be, but as an actor in this particular medium, you hear all the time about stuff that hits the cutting room floor. It could be the stuff that you thought was critical to your character development, and it's gone and you've hinged on that. But the truth is, it's like knowing someone in life. People are kind of a black box. Even if you know someone for a long time, they'll still surprise you. You'll go, "Wow -where did that come from? I've known you for 10 years and I didn't know this about you." So in as much as people are a black box, characters are a ]black box, in a way, as well. I don't particularly like seeing the internal working of an actor, and on good film and television, an actor's work is invisible. It flows in and out with the story and with the character. All characters, at least in television and film, are products of a collaboration. The words, the directing, the editing, the lighting, the music -all of that goes into informing what the character is. You could make a choice as an actor and think you're playing a dramatic beat, and they put in comedic music behind you. And you suddenly go, "Wow, I didn't know that was funny!" We often do know, [but] there are times that we don't. So the process can be surprising, and that's kind of fun.

The team has changed again this year, with the permanent addition of Vala. What has that done for the stories you are telling?

I think the benefit of Vala is that she has a connection with the broader universe that none of the other characters do. So it gives you avenues and entry points to other stories. Vala as a character herself is just a hell of a lot of fun, for the writers and for all of us on set as well. She can say what no one else is either willing or capable of saying at any given time [laughs]. In some ways she serves the McKay function in Stargate: Atlantis, in that he becomes the outrageous voice of the writers, because he has no social register. Whereas Vala has one, [but] she's quite happy to push those buttons. I think Claudia does a magnificent job with that character. As far as the team itself goes, it just adds opportunities.

Speaking of Stargate: Atlantis, The Pegasus Project gave the Stargate SG-l cast a chance to cross over to that galaxy for an episode. What was that like?

David [Hewlett] is a joy to work with. He always brings game, and he's an actor that always has something ready but at the same time reacts and listens to what's going on around him. So if you throw him a curve ball, he's ready to take a swing at it. And that's a great thing. I had a great time working with him, it was a lot of fun. It's all boring -I have no trash to say about him!

You often say you don't like to pre-empt the scripts, but is there anything in particular you want to explore about Mitchell this season?

I'm afraid to even mention what I might want to explore about Mitchell because I might find it in a script somewhere -they might read it and take me seriously [laughs]! Mitchell will be going to some self-help groups, he's got to deal with some control issues... I don't know. You just take it as it comes. I like the continuing development of the interaction between the existing characters, and when they add characters, like when I had the opportunity to play with David. I think it's interesting to see how the chemistry mixes when you throw McKay and Mitchell together. So it's really a question of what the writers throw up there.

Are you happy with the way the character of Cameron Mitchell is going this year?

I'll have to look at it down the line and go, "Oh, I like that, I don't like that..." It's really impossible to separate out so early on. When I was playing Crichton [Farscape], I was notorious for years for not commenting on anything. I could say, "This is the thing the show is doing," but the commentary on characters- I'm a notoriously bad interview from that standpoint. I was working with a director on Farscape, Andrew Prowse, lovely guy. We were in discussion about a scene and he was asking me what my motivation was. And I said, "I'm not going to tell you." He said, "Just tell me." I said, "No, I'm not going to tell you." And he said, "You have to tell me." And I said, "No, I don 'I." And he said, "I'm the director! You have to tell me what your motivation is!" And I said, "No, I do not have to tell you." And he said, "You don't know what your motivation is!" And I said, "I know what my motivation is -acting 101, I have a motivation!"  He said, "Well then, why won't you tell me?" And I said, "Because you'll be judging whether I'm achieving my motivation, not whether you think it's interesting or not, or not whether you think it works. I don't want you to be judging my internal mechanism." And from that standpoint, I tend to not talk about characters, because it leads an audience to expect something, or be looking for something that might not be there. And they'll be going, "He didn't really achieve it." [Laughs.] Because quite frankly, when actors talk about their internal dialogue, it so often bears no resemblance to how it comes across or what the story is.

It's very difficult, because I don't have ownership of this show, in a way. I haven't been here but for a year. I always feel that I'm talking out of school when I'm talking about the show, because people have been watching it and loving it for eight years before I showed up, and people have been loving and nurturing it for eight years working on it again, before I showed up. So having come late to the party I always feel slightly ill at ease in discussing [it]. You arrive and do your thing, but it isn't as though I in any way invented Stargate SG-l!  

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