Note: This interview appeared in slightly different form in the Hugo-winning fanzine Journey Planet.
When the streaming service DC Universe was announced, one of the most exciting offerings was an ongoing TV series based on Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson’s creation Swamp Thing. Produced by James Wan and Mark Verheiden, it promised to be a dark, faithful interpretation of the most famous runs of the comics.
When casting was announced, they could not have chosen a better actor to play the monster who thought he was a man but became a hero – Derek Mears. Long known for portraying creatures on screen – perhaps most famously Jason Voorhees in the remake of Friday the 13th, Mears is an actor specializing in monsters with humanity at their core. As you will read, that was a deciding factor here.
But for reasons still unclear to fandom, Swamp Thing the series was not renewed, and its initial 13-episode run was cut down to 10. And yet… what we have is often exactly what was promised: the best of the comics brought to life, with Mears at its core.
He was kind enough to answer my call and talk about the comics, the character, and the series as a whole.
Derek McCaw: Do you remember the first time you ever saw Swamp Thing as a character?
Derek Mears: Strangely enough, though I’ve been a comic book reader for many years, the two comics that people would recommend to me that I’d never officially read were Swamp Thing and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. When I got cast for Swamp Thing, of course I was doing all my research for the character, getting the back issues and anything I could get my hands on.
But as I was going through some of the back issues, there was an issue of Swamp Thing with Batman in it – I think it’s #7 – and I thought, wait a second, I’ve seen this! Back when I was 4 or 5, I remember I was learning how to read. My mom would go to get her hair done, and right next door was a 7-11. While she was getting her hair done, I was allowed to go over and get a couple of comic books and a Slurpee. I’d go back and try to figure out, looking at pictures, things that I liked, and “read,” but I couldn’t read yet.
I got it because of Batman. And seeing Swamp Thing, he had a trench coat on and a fedora, thinking “is this Ben Grimm the Thing? What’s going on? He’s SCARY.” I remember trying to figure out what was going on with the story, through the pictures and not being able to read. I was intrigued; 4-year-old me thinking, oh, okay, he’s a monster but he’s good. Oh, he’s friends with Batman!
It’s such a weird full circle. As an adult, getting to play that character, because that was Swamp Thing. It was just mind-boggling. So yes, I didn’t realize it, but my first time seeing Swamp Thing was before I could even read.
Derek McCaw: Once you’d done the research – reading all the comics – were there any stories that really stood out for you?
Derek Mears: Yes, the stories from the Swamp Thing fans.
In my creative process, when I’m doing a character that’s an iconic character or a redo, I use any source materials that are out there, whether it’s comics, novels, TV, or film. But I really discovered with Swamp Thing something else that I would add in. Because when I was cast, through social media I got so many wonderful, beautiful messages from Swamp Thing fans, saying “you’re the right guy for this, we’re really happy you’re doing this,” which was completely heartwarming to me.
A lot of them would send me some of their personal stories, of what Swamp Thing meant to them. You have to realize that when we love these iconic characters, we have our own personal relationship to them. And my responsibility is – I’m a guest to your memories. My job is to do the best job possible and take the spices that I’m getting from Len Wein and Berni Wrightson, Alan Moore and John Totleben and Steve Bissette, and Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing – all the different artists that have EVER put their creative fingers on a Swamp Thing story.
But it’s not just that. It’s fans as well. They’re responding to certain themes over and over. I realized I’m just a guest. My job is to do the best job possible so that whoever takes it next can continue that positive mythos of the character.
I love hearing people’s personal stories and remembering I don’t own the character. We all own the character.
I’m going to put my own spin on it, but it’s like if you and I were both to play Pinocchio. No matter what happens, because of our different life experiences, there’s going to be something different to it.
Derek McCaw: I think you’ve just suggested our two-man show, Two Dereks Playing Pinocchio.
Derek Mears: I can see us both wearing the nose.
Derek McCaw: You mentioned Wes Craven. So, you had seen the movie?
Derek Mears: Behind his desk in his office, Wes used to have one of those giant posters of Swamp Thing. It was so beautiful, because during the time of the Boston tragedy, with the marathon bombing, my friend Adam Green helped put together a big auction to raise money for the victims, and a bunch of friends from the horror community pitched in different items. Wes donated that poster, before he passed, to raise money to help people. I thought that was beautiful.
I did Cursed for Wes, and The Hills Have Eyes II, that Wes produced. He was such a kind, gentle, sweet human being. So low-key, but also so funny, which a lot of people don’t know. His sense of humor was just so dry and biting. I loved it.
Derek McCaw: What was the audition process like?
Derek Mears: I was on the short list for the character; I guess there were six people they thought of that they were “if we’re doing this, we think they’d be good.” Originally, I went in to meet the first time, and I have a bad habit of focusing on the work and not the who’s who in the room. I did my audition, hung out and talked with everybody afterwards.
And my reps after that meeting said, “hey, you did good. They really liked you. They want you to come back in. This time they’re going to have you read again, but they’re going to have an actress for you to play off.
And I said, “okay, cool.” I didn’t realize the gravity of the show. I thought they were doing a quick kiddy version of Swamp Thing. How are you going to do that properly? They’re not going to pull that off! I wasn’t really jazzed at the time.
So, I was all “we’ll see,” and my reps were like, “what are you talking about? You were in the room. It’s a James Wan project.” And they started listing off the credentials of everyone in the room, the projects they had been a part of, and told me no, they’re doing a hard R gothic horror romance, with a large budget for the original 13 episodes.
I then realized they were going to take the character seriously, and basically use Alan Moore’s run as the bible to the show. And then I said, “oh my gosh, THAT sounds phenomenal!”
Then of course the next time going back in, I got a little nervous knowing all that. First time, eh, whatever. Second time… uhhhhh uhhhhhh… “I didn’t realize how grand this is!”
Luckily it worked out, and I am fortunate that I got to do a little run of Swamp Thing.
Derek McCaw: What did you bring to it that made you the right guy?
Derek Mears: Being able to survive in the green suit? Who’s the sucker who won’t complain, that we can torture, and wear this mossy iron maiden? THAT guy.
I’m honestly not sure. Maybe they needed someone who could survive wearing the suit and emote through the make-up? Whatever it was, I’m extremely lucky to have played the character.
Derek McCaw: You joked and called it the mossy iron maiden. Was there a moment, a difference, between when they showed you the suit and you put it on when you said, “oh my god, I am Swamp Thing”?
Derek Mears: We had a camera test the first time we put everything on, it wasn’t completely done. I was incredibly sick. I didn’t tell anybody. I was trying not to pass out. With the suit off, of course, just trying to breathe. Oh, we’re going to do what? Okay, let’s put it onnnn…
I’ve got to tell you, out of all the different crazy outfits I’ve worn over my career, it is the best thing I’ve ever worn. It moves so well. The way you can emote through the make-up is just phenomenal. The first time putting it on, just staring in the mirror, it’s kind of the beginning of a hero’s journey, where you’re in the normal world and the call to adventure is there.
But you don’t know what’s ahead of you, so you’re basically wearing this muckman outfit, looking in the mirror and thinking, “what’s going to happen?” Because you also have a lot of questions that there are no answers to yet. It’s similar to improv where you have to come up with them or figure them out on the go.
I was staring at the mirror and visualizing this eight-month journey that’s ahead of me. Where’s it going to go? I was just surrendering to the unknown, which is exhilarating but also terrifying. Again, going back to what we were saying about fans and expectations, the thing you don’t ever want to do is, you don’t want to tarnish someone else’s memory or a dream of a character. You want to respect that and elevate it to the next level.
Thinking, okay, I’m going to do this. I hope people like it. I hope I like it. Annnnnd here we go!
Luckily, it’s the best thing thus far in the 20 years or so of my career that I’ve gotten to be a part of.
Derek McCaw: It took me a couple of episodes, but I could really see the human under the make-up, look and see your eyes, and say “yeah, that’s Derek.” We saw the man – or the plant that thinks it’s a man – under the monster, and that was exciting. The same thing with your voice…
Derek Mears: Yeah, I was really particular about the voice. We went through some different incarnations. By the time we finished the 10 episodes and went into the ADR room to finalize all the voice work, it was funny. The head of the ADR said, “hey, do you remember all those different voices we went through, you tried to experiment with? Remember your very first choice? That’s the one we’re going to go with.”
I was ecstatic.
Derek McCaw: I think about the voice. It stuck with me as a kid. When you’re a kid you read one comic book like fifty times because you don’t have a lot, and I had an issue of Swamp Thing, and it stuck with me that he didn’t talk a lot because it hurt. That was back before they established that he was a plant who thought he was Alec Holland, he was a human who became a muck-encrusted monster, and that affected his vocal cords. Did that affect the voice you chose?
Derek Mears: Not the pain side of things, but being that we had the Alan Moore twist – the existential crisis of is Alec Holland Swamp Thing or is Swamp Thing Alec Holland, who’s who, how do they fit together? I did take into consideration, I was having a conversation with a fellow actor, during the shoot when I said by episode 4 or 5, I was going to start smoothing out on the voice.
We were just comparing notes, and it made me jump for joy, because at one point I got a note from the showrunner through the director at the time, “hey, Mark (Verheiden) was just saying that around episode 4 or 5, maybe the voice should start smoothing out…”
I was like “oh my god! We’re on the same page! I had already planned that!”
Basically, when we’re learning new things, learning a new task, we are carving those neural pathways. We’re growing that branch of that vine out, and literally he is trying to learn how to talk in the very beginning. He is figuring out those neural pathways to speech, so it is getting easier and easier, but it’s still broken up and chopped.
I wouldn’t say it’s on the painful side, but… imagine communicating in a way that you haven’t been used to communicating as a plant. There’s discovery and there’s trials, and it’s that existential birthing, in a sense. If I haven’t experienced that, how would I feel like? How would I move?
Derek McCaw: It seemed to me that at the beginning of the series, they were playing with more of the original Len Wein take on the character, and then it became “The Anatomy Lesson.” Did you know that’s where it was going from the beginning? Because sometimes producers pull those kinds of surprises on actors a few episodes in.
Derek Mears: I didn’t know where it was going (in the season), but I did know that we were going to do “The Anatomy Lesson.” That was one of the things that was difficult doing the interviews before the show came out. Interviewers would make statements like, “oh, you and Andy Bean (Alec Holland) are sharing a role!” Well, yes and no, but not really. But I can’t say that, because it would blow the twist if they didn’t know it.
And a lot of people in the cast and crew didn’t know what the twist was in “The Anatomy Lesson.” That Swamp Thing had the memories of a man but wasn’t. They thought it was body horror where a guy was trapped inside, the original Swamp Thing where he was trapped inside this monster. It blew a lot of people’s minds.
Because of cutting the season short, “The Anatomy Lesson” wasn’t originally going to be the big reveal of the show. When the episode order got shorter, that became our mainstay. I felt like I would sound incredibly unintelligent, because I would sit there being interviewed before it came out and I just had to eat it and not say anything.
I couldn’t explain to journalists about the existential crisis he was dealing with, because that became our big secret for the season. And I can’t blow it out of the bag, so I just sounded like a big dumb-dumb face, “It was fun. It was great.” There were times I had to stop the interview and say, “I don’t know how to answer what you’re asking without blowing anything, and I don’t want to ruin it for fans.” Uck. It was a nightmare.
Derek McCaw: It brings up an interesting parallel, because Jason Woodrue (aka The Floronic Man) does become what people think Swamp Thing is. He is a man who has transformed, but he is still Jason Woodrue. But we could spend hours opining that we didn’t get to see that. What were your favorite moments in the series?
Derek Mears: Honestly, there’s a ton on camera, but my favorite thing about the show was the cast and crew. We all felt it was a special show, and that it wasn’t your average run-of-the-mill TV show. Because it didn’t matter if you were the PA up to the main producer, everybody realized that everyone brought something unique to the show, and everybody treated each other with such kindness and respect.
Going to work every day was an absolute treat. Even when people had days off, they would come in and just hang out, which is unheard of. We would do things all together. There was really no separation. It was just a beautiful, creative environment. In my opinion, for all TV and film, that’s how it should be.
I explain in interviews, when people give me compliments, they’re very flattering, but I interject and say, “I appreciate what you’re trying to say, but you have to realize that we’re a team. We’re telling these stories together.”
When you’re doing a TV or film job, the analogy is like you’re trying to make a rainbow. Each different department is a single color. I’m just blue, and you can’t make a rainbow with just blue. Everyone has to come together. It was just a safe, creative environment that Atomic Monster, our producers, created for us. I can’t thank them enough for that experience.
Derek McCaw: The CW’s Crisis on Infinite Earths did include a shot of you. You are canon. If the CW found a way, or if J.J. Abrams’ Justice League Dark project came to fruition, would you return to the role?
Derek Mears: It all depends. I have no idea. There are so many moving parts with my own career, and other shows, that I really have no idea. But I’ve gotten to the point career-wise in general that I’m just surrendering and see where things take me and moving on from there.
Derek McCaw: I think you touched on this earlier, but why do you think that the character of Swamp Thing resonates and has such staying power?
Derek Mears: There’s an uncertainty to all of us where we question life, who we are, and where we come from. It’s that ongoing question of “What am I? Who am I? What makes me ME?”
We’re constantly exploring and finding new ways to define or pacify ourselves with answers, but really, we don’t know. I think a lot of people relate to Swamp Thing because there are times when we feel like the outcast. He allows us to explore our own humanity and vulnerability.
Swamp Thing is the mirror that we look at every morning when we question ourselves.
Swamp Thing: The Complete Series is now available on blu-ray and on demand.
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