The Salvation is director Kristian Levring’s epic Western tale of revenge and justice. It tells the story of Jon (played by Mads Mikkelsen), a peaceful American settler of Danish decent who kills his family’s murderers which unleashes the fury of a notorious gang leader (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) whose plans of revenge and mayhem is almost foiled by his mute sister-in-law Madeleine (Eva Green). Jon’s cowardly fellow townspeople then betray him, forcing him to hunt down the outlaws alone. Here we talk to veteran South African actor Sean Cameron Michael on his thoughts on his career, filming in South Africa, The Salvation, his current hit tv show Black Sails and his favorite Eva Green project.
You’ve played a variety of characters on various mediums (theatre, film, television, shorts and commercials) and genres. Do you have a preferred medium or genre to work on? Do you have a particular favorite project or character of yours?
Yes, I’ve been very fortunate to work on many interesting and exciting projects over the past 30 years or so. Each medium, whether it be theatre (and the instantaneous energy of a live audience) or on-camera work (TV series, films, docudramas, music videos, etc), they all have their own unique requirement, challenges and style. I’ve been acting and performing all my life. It’s what I love and I’m truly grateful for every opportunity that I am given. It inspires and fulfills me immensely to work with new and aspiring directors and writers, to help bring their creations to life. At the same time, I’m continually learning and experiencing, working with highly regarded filmmakers and artistes who have reached the pinnacle of success. It’s hard to choose a favorite. Each experience is special and exhilarating actually.
Despite your extensive and impressive body of work, you are mostly known internationally for your work on 24 (as Charles Solenz) and Black Sails (as Richard Guthrie). Could you tell us more about yourself and for new fans who are not yet familiar with your work, which of your projects do you think they should watch to get to know you more as an actor?
I think all the projects you’ve mentioned will give new fans an idea of the sort of work I do. There’s also a couple of indie and foreign productions that they might want to keep a look out for: Faith Like Potatoes is a touching faith-based film about the extraordinary life of preacher Angus Buchan – I play his brother Fergus. The movie really has an inspiring, positive message and seems to have connected with audiences around the globe. I’ve also played cameos in a number of cult classics, like Death Race: Inferno and Lost Boys: The Thirst. Then there’s also Safe House with Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds – I play Ryan’s landlord.
Sean Cameron Michael in Faith Like Potatoes
We noticed a huge difference between the production quality of Black Sails and most other series from conventional television channels. How is it like to be involved in such a grandiose project? Is there a difference with character preparation based on the scale of the project?
As professional actors, I believe we should approach each and every project with the same amount of passion and dedication, whether it is a student short film on a budget of $200 or a major multi-million dollar feature. Michael Bay is one of the most successful director/producers on the planet today, so getting the amazing opportunity to work on his Black Sails for STARZ and Platinum Dunes, was easily a career and life-changing experience for me. Just the scale of the production and all it entails, was something quite unique and certainly a first for the African continent. (The show is filmed in Cape Town, South Africa)
Sean as Richard Guthrie in Black Sails
Black Sails has a huge international following. Why do you think so? Can you talk about playing Richard Guthrie and without spoiling anything, what can fans expect this season?
Who doesn’t love a cool pirate show? Treasure Island (on which Black Sails is loosely based) is a classic story that has been read and enjoyed by generations the world over. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has also had young audiences flocking to the cinemas over recent years, but finally, there’s now a contemporary retelling of pirate adventures for an adult audience. So, with riveting storylines, wonderful character arcs, and excellent filmmaking and high production value, it’s understandable to me why fans are enjoying Black Sails. In Season 1 we meet Richard Guthrie who is the most successful and powerful businessman in the Bahamas and essentially running Nassau with his daughter, Eleanor. Throughout the season he finds himself on the run from the law (the British) and eventually takes refuge with Mr. Underhill on his estate. In Season 2, Nassau is in chaos and his daughter is having difficulty keeping things under control. Richard returns to help Eleanor and Captain Flint find a way to build a future for them all. What I loved about playing the character this season, is that we find out more about his back-story (his wife’s death) and finally Richard and his daughter confront their demons and attempt to make amends. This is probably the most honest and vulnerable that you will ever see Richard Guthrie.
You play Lester on The Salvation. Could you tell us how it came about for you? Was there an audition process or were you offered the role?
Director Kristian Levring arrived in Cape Town South Africa to meet with a handful of actors that had already been short-listed as potential cast for his feature film. His producers and casting directors had viewed numerous tapes of actor’s work and were trying to find the right mix of local and international talent. I was shooting Black Sails at the time and due to my working schedule, was only available for 2 weeks to possibly work on the western. I met with Kristian who said he was a fan of my work and that he’d love me to play Lester in The Salvation. There was no audition process and they were prepared to shoot around my availability. I was elated and honored, to say the least. I had been a fan of Kristian for many years. His work with Lars von Trier in the “Dogme 95 Collective” and his amazing work on The King is Alive and Fear Me Not are favorites of mine.
Lester is such a cunning and cold-blooded character, what was your first impression of him and how did you approach and prepare yourself in playing him?
The scenes in the carriage with Paul and Lester, and of course Jon and his wife and son, are just terrifying and shocking. The script was brilliant and the cast and crew already attached were just fantastic. I’ve played quite a number of baddies and evil characters in my career, but Lester was undoubtedly one of the most despicable ones to try and bring to life on screen. I knew that there had to be a psychotic evilness to this character, which would somehow explain why he was able to participate in such disgusting and inhumane acts. I was naturally up to the challenge. It’s always difficult shooting such blatantly terrifying scenes, especially when there are women and young children involved, but knowing that this would push the story along and help Mads’ character reach the breaking point of justifying his actions throughout the rest of the story, I did what was necessary to support that journey. There was also originally another scene between Paul and Lester at the beginning of the film, which told us a little more about their particular back-story, but unfortunately it never made the final cut of the movie. Very often certain scenes are cut to move the pace along and get to the action and more important plot lines more quickly.
Sean as Lester, with Michael Raymond-James as Paul and Nanna Øland Fabricius as Marie in The Salvation
What was it like to shoot a Western (and a Danish one at that!)? Was it always your dream to be in a Western?
Absolutely. It’s certainly every actor’s dream to get to work on an a Western and with Kristian Levring and his team at the helm, we all knew that we were in very capable and masterful hands.
The Salvation was shot in South Africa with South African film crews, what was it like to shoot in your home country? Can you share your thoughts on the impact of productions like The Salvation and the television show Homeland shooting in your home country?
Over the past years, international directors and producers have seen the high production and financial value of shooting in South Africa, so as an actor I’ve been truly fortunate to work on numerous American and European productions filmed in my country. Today we have some of the best high tech studio facilities, crews with extensive experience and numerous varied locations available that can easily compare and compete with anything else available in the world. With the favorable exchange rate and tax incentives currently offered to foreign filmmakers, the country has become a natural choice with top producers wanting to get “more bang for their buck” and being able to achieve higher production value with all that the country has on offer.
How was it like to work with Kristian Levring and Mads Mikkelsen who are well regarded not just in Scandinavian cinema but in the whole film industry as well? Are you in any way a fan of both of them? Do you have any favorite Levring or Mikkelsen work and why? Majority of your scenes were in a carriage. Was it hard to film in such an enclosed setting where the littlest character quirks would be noticed or magnified to the viewer?
I have a huge amount of respect for Kristian’s artistry and it genuinely was a joy to work under his very subtle, specific and often gentle direction. We were fortunate to have a rehearsal the night before shooting those intense carriage scenes. This enabled us to get a feel for each other as actors and an indication of what we might “bring to the table” on the day of shooting. Working in a confined space for many long hours (which essentially ended up being in a studio with minimal ventilation and lots of green screen work) actually added to the intensity and intimacy of it all. I was also very much a fan of Mads’ work, starting with Casino Royale and of course Valhalla Rising and The Hunt. Getting the rare opportunity to work opposite him was definitely a career highlight. Spoiler: When things started getting really intense and crazy in the movie’s carriage scene (where Jon’s wife is being abused by Paul and I have a knife against his son’s throat), Mads turned to me questioningly, with tears in his eyes – it truly broke my heart. He is such a wonderful, giving actor and I was truly humbled by the experience. Of course, Øland was great too, as was the consistently brilliant Michael Raymond-James, but the scene-stealer was actually the young Toke Lars Bjarke. I was totally blown away by his professionalism and rare talent at such a young age. He certainly gave all of us a run for our money and I have absolutely no doubt, whatsoever, that he is going to be one of the biggest stars of his generation. Of course he’s already a big rap star in Europe. Amazing!
Sean as Lester behind the scenes of The Salvation
Could you share any funny and memorable anecdote on the set of The Salvation?
We genuinely had so much fun shooting the feature. The cast was some of the most talented, yet down-to-earth and easy-going people I’ve ever worked with. I can’t offhand think of a funny anecdote, but what was rather uncanny, was when we were all chatting at lunchtime and comparing birth dates, it turned out that Michael Raymond-James and I are were both born on December 24th and Toke is on December 27th. Interesting.
You didn’t share any scenes with Eva Green (as Madeleine) but are you in any way a fan of Ms. Green? Do you have any favorite Eva Green film or character?
I would have loved to share the screen with Eva. She has such a great body of work to her credit and an on-screen presence unlike any other. She did some difficult and impressive work on our film. Presently, I am a major fan of the Penny Dreadful series and she’s just astounding in that, baring her soul and giving her everything to the part. I would love to be on the show and get the opportunity to work with her and the rest of her talented cast and crew.
Can you give us a background on how you became an actor? Who are your acting influences?
I was born into a theatrical family, where my mother was a dancer and my dad was an opera singer, so it was only natural that I would follow in their footsteps. I started acting professionally when I was 12 years old and played the lead in a theatre musical called The Magical Mystery Man. I then spent the next 10 years mainly doing musical theatre work and progressed to being a TV presenter and acting in local soap operas and TV dramas. After my schooling and compulsory national service in the defense force, I then ventured into film work. Over the past three decades I’ve been fortunate to work in most mediums and really lucky to be pursuing and following my childhood dream.
Sean with Morgan Freeman on the set of Invictus
Do you have a director or fellow actor in mind that you look up to and would like to work with in the future? What’s your dream role and project?
I’ve been blessed to have already worked with some of the greats, such as Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman on Invictus, William Hurt on The Challenger Disaster, Charles Dance (Game of Thrones) on Strike Back and director Alik Sakharov (Marco Polo, The Americans, Boardwalk Empire, The Sopranos) on Black Sails. There’s an endless list of directors and actors that I’d still love to work with, such as Steven Spielberg, John Malkovich, Lars von Trier, Woody Allen, Liev Schreiber, Michael Sheen, Michael Shannon, Julianne Moore, Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates, Jessica Lange, Meryl Streep, Woody Harrelson etc. etc. As for a dream role, I’d love to play David Bowie or Dave Gahan (Depeche Mode) in a musical biopic. How’s that for unexpected! It really excites me to read great screenplays and to take on interesting, challenging and demanding roles – Parts that really stretch me as an artist. I’m always eager to learn and experience and grow as a performer. I never want to stop doing that.
Sean with Kiefer Sutherland in 24: Redemption
When not working, what’s a normal day like for you?
I really am happiest when I’m working or preparing for a role and a project. I guess I love disappearing into that fantasy world of make-believe and finding ways to bring characters to life in the most honest and believable way. A normal day would be the average day for most people I guess. I do the laundry, make dinner, go to the shops, surf the internet, chat with friends… Perhaps quite boring to some, but I like to keep my personal life as normal and as grounded as possible. I tend to play very intense and demanding characters on screen, often having to go to very dark and scary places in my imagination. So it’s nice to come home to a life that is simple, basic, comfortable and easy.
Tells us about your favorites: film, book, television show and music.
I very seldom get time to sit down and read a good book. I tend to enjoy reading screenplays more than often. I love watching interviews with directors, producers and actors. Naturally, I’m obsessed with TV series and movies – and it’s once again impossible to list favorites, but if I had to mention a few, what randomly springs to mind would be Dangerous Liaisons (with John Malkovich and Glenn Close), Magnolia (with Tom Cruise), Serial Mom (with Kathleen Turner), Schindler’s List, The Good Wife, Masters of Sex, Girls, Penny Dreadful, Vikings, etc. etc. As for music, I love everything from opera (Giuseppe Verdi) to Eminem, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus and all eighties music (O.M.D., Depeche Mode).
Any current or future projects that you have in store (future film, television, theatre, short, commercial projects) that fans can look forward to?
Well obviously there’s Black Sails and The Salvation currently screening in various territories around the world, but I’ve also just been offered the lead role in a space-shuttle feature film we’re planning to shoot next year, as well as voicing a character in a live-action puppet movie we’re hoping to do a little later this year. They’ve got some exciting A-listers in talks to work on the projects which I’m very much looking forward to, but obviously can’t say anything more about it for now. Next up though, is the lead in a post-apocalyptic science fiction indie film called Last Broken Darkness. We’re shooting it in Johannesburg, South Africa next month and it’s being directed by the multi-talented Christopher-Lee Dos Santos. It also stars the fantastic Brandon Auret who can currently be seen in director Neill Blomkamp’s new Chappie movie currently on circuit.
Sean as Judson Lovingood in The Challenger Disaster The Challenger Disaster was directed by Penny Dreadful director James Hawes
As an acting veteran, do you have any advice for any aspiring actor or actress?
If acting is truly something that you’re passionate about, get involved in the entertainment industry and follow your dreams. Whether it is at school, in the choir or drama club or joining an amateur society and doing it in your spare time. Try and get as much training and experience as possible and be open to learning every facet of this wonderful industry, from working behind the scenes on sets and props, to make-up and costume, to doing extra work or even scriptwriting. There are so many varied avenues to pursue in the industry that can ultimately bring you enjoyment and fulfillment; and as you get older you will find the right path for yourself – a place in show business that you can savor and enjoy and grow. It is a very difficult, demanding industry and sometimes very frustrating, but ultimately if you’re doing what you love and you’re up to the daily challenges of it, it can be truly rewarding.
Tell us one trivia that not a lot of people know about you.
I had Prince’s symbol tattooed on my body about 15 years ago, but of course I’m not going to tell you exactly where.
Thank you for your time and insights, Sean. We wish you the very best!
You can follow Sean and his adventures through his twitter account. Black Sails is currently airing on Starz every Saturday at 9PM.