In our current multimedia renaissance, Michael Cerveris is the perfect renaissance man – having starred in Broadway plays, Hollywood films and network TV shows. He's also recorded music, taught at schools, and, as I type this, is probably writing a cookbook while training for a side career as a professional luger. Like a lot of horror fans, I first noticed Cerveris when he starred opposite Patti LuPone in the recent Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd (which, for my money, will remain the definitive Sweeney Todd). And it's been fun to watch him further explore his admitted love of the weird and macabre in Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant, this month's Stake Land (in which he plays a vampire cult leader), and of course, Fox's fan-favorite series Fringe -- on which he's known as September, one of the enigmatic, often eerie Observers. I spoke with Cerveris this week about Stake Land, and I'll post that interview soon here on FEARnet. But in the meantime, as Fringe nears its third season's finale, I thought I'd share with you the part of our conversation in which Cerveris spoke of how he came to play September, where he'd like to see his character go, and what lies ahead for the show. Check out what the Tony Award-winning actor had to say after the jump.
Your Fringe character is in many ways emblematic of the show. Because it's a series about mysteries, and he's the most mysterious.
A lot of it's a mystery even to me. [Laughs.]
Can you talk a bit about that? Do the producers give you a little more info than the show gives us? Is there a plan for your character that they've shared with you, or do they prefer that you come to each episode as spontaneously as possible?
It began with a very minimal plan. In fact when I first auditioned, they wrote an imaginary scene just to have something for people to audition with. Because they really hadn't written the episode he was going to appear in. And then, almost as soon as I was hired, within a week or so they called and said, "We want to do something different. We want to introduce the character really slowly, just in the background. So that he might not even be noticed for a long time until the fans catch on, and then we'll reveal him maybe in the thirteenth or fourteenth episode of the first season." So we sort of started it that way. Even when I went in for my costume fitting for the first time, the wardrobe people said, "So what do you wear?" I said, "Well, I kind of thought you would know that." [Laughs.] So we went through these racks of suits and I picked out one that I liked especially, which is good since it's the one I've been wearing for a few years now. I picked a hat that I liked, and just invented the character with some input from the producers and the early directors, but I was really given a lot of free reign to decide how he sounded, how he moved, how he acted, and how I spoke. I guess the network and J.J. decided that they were so excited about the character that they wanted to move up the revelation to the fourth episode. That's the one with the tobacco sauce, where you really got introduced to him.
I've had conversations over the years with [executive producer] Jeff Pinkner about where they see the character fitting in to the cosmology of the whole thing. I think the last conversation ended with Jeff saying, "Um, so you know about eighty percent of what we know about the character right now." That was kind of at the beginning of the second or third season. But we just finished the season finale of season 3, in which all kinds of surprising things happen. A lot of strands get tied up that have been sort of dangling for a while. Of course most of them not in a way that you imagine, and a lot of new things get opened up that I guess will be pointing towards where we're heading next season. Although it's not clear at all where we're going with that. I do know that September, and the Observers in general, are kind of pivotal to the overall story. But I don't know how exactly that's all going to play out. So it's as exciting for me as it is for anybody else to follow it.
I'm a fan of the show too, which makes it kind of fun. Because I don't get the scripts every week, when I'm not in it, so I look forward to Friday nights to just to find out what's going on. And it's true for everybody. Even John Noble, Anna and Josh – everybody devours the new scripts when they come out just to find out what's going to happen to them.
Can you say whether we'll learn a little bit more about September and the Observers in the season finale?
Not too much about us. You get a couple of extra details, or maybe information about things that we suspected. But it doesn't focus too much or doesn't reveal a lot of new information about us. We're more in our kind of observing mode at this point. But it kind of has an implication that we're gonna have a lot to do next year, hopefully.
As a fan, what would you like to see? Would you like to see everything about them explained well before the show ends its run? Or would you like to let the mystery remain as long as Fringe lasts?
I'd like to know. Obviously in a selfish way I'd like to have the Observers, or September at least, be a more active element. I feel like you can reveal a lot and still have a great deal of mystery remain. I've always sort of thought of September as like the angels in Wings of Desire, the Wim Wenders movie. I've sort of always kind of patterned September a bit on that character, the sort otherworldly character who has some unusual sympathies for, and fascination with, human beings. I would love to see more revealed about them, but I think there's always gonna be plenty of mystery, and I think that's important. I think they've been really smart about the way they've used September. When he appears it has a big impact and it makes a big impression. I think they've been really smart. Even things like… They've never invited me to be a part of Comic-Con or anything else, because I think they just want to keep him separate and apart, and keep that aura of mystery. I appreciate that. As an actor and a person, I wish I was in every episode. I wish I was around all the time, but maybe the danger is that they would start to dilute the whole thing. So they're a lot smarter than I am about that.
Of course September has appeared at certain live events, like American Idol.
Which always really pisses Josh Jackson off, because he's like, "How come I'm here working my butt off all the time and you get to go to NASCAR and NFC playoff games? How does that work?" [Laughs.]
Could we see September at any other live events in the near future?
I don't know of any. I think maybe they feel they sort of played that out at one point. Maybe it'll happen again. I would love it. Every time I'd think, "Hey, it's Vancouver and the Olympics are there! I think the Observer should pick the Olympics!" I couldn't talk anybody into that. I've got my bags packed and I'm ready to shave my eyebrows at any second. I'm just waiting for the call. [Laughs.]
It's a great idea. Because it draw upon both the showmanship that J.J. is famous for and your own background as a live theater actor.
Yeah, I think that's true as well. That was part of their interest in having me be there.
What's next for you? What do you have going on besides Fringe and Stake Land?
There's not a lot actually that I am sure about at the moment. I'm going to be showing up in this season of Treme, HBO's series that takes place in New Orleans. I spend a lot of time in New Orleans these days. I play music as well, and I'm on this album called Nine Lives with a bunch of New Orleans musicians that's based on a book of the same name that some people are trying to turn into a stage musical, and so I'm trying to help with that. And I'm gonna be playing a lot of shows at Jazz Fest in a few weeks down there. And I spend a lot of time just volunteering and teaching down there, because I just love it so much. It's become my second home, ever since going to shoot Cirque du Freak there actually. But I don't have any stage projects planned at the moment, and other than Fringe season 4 I don't know what else is coming down the pike. Maybe after Stake Land comes out I'll have lots of jobs beating up on nuns. We'll just have to see. [Laughs.] I'd like to play an actual human being at some point, but that may be too much of a stretch.
[Laughs.] Thank you for your time today, Michael.