Peter Macon stars in the new FOX drama THE ORVILLE, playing the role of Bortus. Macon talks with us about his character, the tone of the show, and his alien prosthetics!
THE KNOCKTURNAL: First of all, congratulations! THE ORVILLE got FOX its biggest drama premiere ratings since EMPIRE.
PETER MACON: Oh, I didn’t know that. Wow. Thank you.
The show is an hourlong “drama,” but when many hear that Seth Macfarlane is at the helm, they automatically assume it’s a comedy. Can you talk about how you think the show balances out these tones?
Well, my clown professor at the Yale School of Drama had this mantra: “without the possibility of tragedy, comedy can’t exist.” Now, if [THE ORVILLE] were a half-hour show, it would just be jokes, jokes, jokes. But since it’s an hour long, it can’t be that. It is a comedy, but there are dramatic moments. The stakes are high, and real, more so than what a half-hour would call for. Yes, they’re in space, and there are funny things happening around the characters, but there are also perilous, life-threatening situations that happen. It’s kind of hard to always be about the jokes when you have life and death stakes that are taking place. For instance, I [Bortus] have a family that’s on the ship. Every time the ship is threatened, not only are the 300 crew members threatened, but personally, my character’s family is threatened. I mean, I have a child on the ship. It balances – it’s like life. Sometimes, you have to laugh to keep from crying. So that’s one of the things that makes the show a unique offering. It is science-fiction, and it is comedy, but it’s also got dramatic stakes that happen to the people on this ship. They’re just going to the office, but their office is a space ship.
We get introduced to your character & his family in the second episode. Can you talk about the duality of your character, playing the Spock-like, straight-faced brilliant mind, while also trying to keep your family safe?
That makes him very vulnerable. I’ve been compared to Worf from STAR TREK as well. Bortus a very formidable, no-nonsense kind of guy, but then not only does he come from a species that’s all male, but in episode two, when his egg hatches, it’s a female. So personally, in a microcosmic way, his world gets turned upside-down, and it takes him out of his element. Like I said, he’s a stern guy, but the fact that his child is an anamoly – and I can’t wait to see what people have to say about the next episode. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen on television, certainly in a sci-fi dramedy… I think the humor lies with him, the straight guy. He’s got this… not like Lurch, but he’s got this very dry, monotone stasis to his being. You have all this zaniness going around, and that, juxtaposed with Bortus, makes for good comedy. Not to give anything away, but there’s this whole thing where he says that he can sing, and we don’t know if that’s true or not (laughs)
But balancing that with all of the antics that happen on the ship, I think that he’s kind of this anchor for the comedy that everything plays off of. Like the scene where Ed Mercer (Macfarlane) is asking him about laying an egg, trying to make a joke, and it just doesn’t land. I think that’s kind of how it’s playing out – at least, that’s kind of how it worked while we were filming it.
Would you say you also play a father figure for the rest of the Orville’s crew?
Fatherly figure? I don’t know. Everybody sort of has their thing that they bring – in [Episode 3], you’ll see that I depend on the crew for guidance as well. We all lean on each other. I wouldn’t necessarily steer towards the father thing. I think that’s more about the chain of command. I do have to make a lot of decisions while the captain’s off the ship, as you will see. That compromises the mission sometimes, but decisions have to be made, and I have to make decisions. That’s a lot of responsibility, and it’s not always easy. That’s the drama that I was talking about – there are jokes going around, but these are serious issues, and people’s lives are at stake. The great thing is that the show balances out the comedy and drama together, and it works great. I’d watch it.
How is it acting through the however many hundreds of prosthetics and make-up you have to wear?
It’s surprisingly very liberating. I’m very limited by what I can do, in terms of my eyes of mouth. It’s like mask work, which I also studied quite a bit, so I let the prosthetics do their work. I work through it, and I don’t have to do a whole lot. The expressions are there. The make-up team that we have designed these prosthetics so that it’s not just a monster mask. All my facial movements get used, but it’s very minimal. It’s like working with a scalpel instead of an axe.
You are an Emmy-winning voice actor as well. How does this limited acting compare to that?
Yeah! My voice is just another element I have to rely on that I don’t get to take for granted. Seth is a wordsmith, and it’s a lot like speaking a score, because it’s written very precisely and carefully. Sometimes it takes ten or twelve takes to get the right run of sentences together. I’m using my voice in such a way that, because I have the mask on, there’s a lot of me that’s covered up. I have to use very base elements, and really get them to work in concert. It’s very conscious work, especially since I lose about 30% of my hearing in that mask. So it’s work, man. It’s work. From the two hours it takes to put it on, to living in it for fifteen to sixteen hours a day, it is work. But I love it. I’m having a lot of fun, because I love stuff like that.
THE ORVILLE airs Thursday nights on FOX, at 9/8c!
Photo Credit: Lisa Francesca Photography