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He is the first and most powerful enemy that Buffy the Vampire Slayer ever faced. Mark Metcalf played the Master for the entire first season of Buffy and helped cement the show’s success. Today, TW catches up with him about those days, his time on Star Trek and being killed off in Hill Street Blues as well as his chosen charity, the Alzheimer’s Association.
When did you decide to pursue acting as a career?
I didn’t decide to do it as a career until about 1976 or 1977. Up until then it was just fun and amazing that people would pay me to do it. The concept of ‘Career’ really didn’t enter into it. I started acting during my sophomore year at the University of Michigan. They told me that the girls were friendlier in the theatre department than they were in the Engineering College so I auditioned for a play. They were right.
What was your first breakthrough role?
Professionally it was probably Billy in the play Streamers at Lincoln Center. Although years before that I had played Crow in Sam Shepherd’s play Tooth of Crime and had my picture in Time Magazine and for several weeks in the NY Times. That was pretty cool.
How does a young actor in those days go about promoting themselves?
Do you mean ‘these days’ or ‘those days’? In ‘those days’, when I was starting out, we didn’t think about ‘promoting’ ourselves. We just did the work. It was all about the work, the play, whatever. No one was thinking about ‘career’ or self promotion. The idea of celebrity hadn’t really gotten to the disturbing level that it is today.
Hill Street Blues was one of the classic shows in television history, were you aware your character was to be killed off?
They asked me if I wanted to do a contract and stay with the show and I said no because I didn’t want to be tied down for five years if it was a hit. After a couple of episodes I rethought that and went back and said I wouldn’t mind doing more that the two or three they had told me about. They told me that the network thought my character was too hard, too mean, too evil and that I needed to be killed. So they had a hooker slit my throat.
How do you handle public recognition?
I lived in NYC most of my life and people in NYC just didn’t get excited about actors. They kind of understood that it was just a job, like plumbing. When I am in the rest of the country and people get excited about Animal House or Seinfeld or Buffy I try to be gracious and generous with my time. It depends on the person. Some people get a little over excited about it. Of course if no one recognizes me for a couple of days I start to miss it. Life is full of little paradoxes.
The Alzheimer’s Association is very much part of your life. How does your fame help raise awareness of the condition?
I hope it does. I try to talk about the organization and the disease as much as I can, whenever I get a chance. If I get paid for something I try to see that some money goes to them.
Where can people donate to the charity?
Contact the Alzheimer’s Association on line.
How did you get the role of the Master in Buffy the Vampire Slayer?
Auditioned just like five hundred other people. The casting director told me later that she had brought me in because she thought I was completely wrong for the part as she was understanding it from Joss. She thought my coming in would give Joss a clearer idea of what he didn’t want so he could narrow down what he did want. It worked out the other way around obviously.
How much input did you have in the character?
I wanted The Master to recall some of the classic vampires rather than make him a lounge lizard the way he was in the movie. Joss had not liked the movie characterization either and he let me work with the make-up people to get him to look more like Nosferatu from the Murnau film. Beyond that the scripts were so well written that all I had to do was show up and say the lines and try not to walk into the furniture.
Was this your first time experiencing prosthetics?
No . I had played a ‘monster’ in special episode of Dream On for John Landis. In that I wore a full body foam monster suit that weighed about fifty pounds.
How long did the make up take and does it help enhance your performance?
For Buffy, at first, it took about five hours. We were still trying to figure out what he looked like in terms of color. The Nosferatu character is in black and white and anyway we wanted him to find his own individuality. By the end we had it down to about an hour and one half. Taking it off also took an hour and one half. It made for long days. The five hours of gettingi it on was a good time to meditate on the character and explore how he thought and why he wanted what he wanted. The make-up people were tremendously supportive and creative. The atmosphere they created in the truck really had a lot to do with how the day went.
He is now a cult figure. Were you surprized at how popular he became?
I was. I’m always surprised when people notice my work. But then I began to think, of course, why don’t they notice me even more. And send money.
No, not at all. They put me in a suit of foam that had been worn by a 7 foot tall actor and they hadn’t cleaned it very well. The face part had also been worn before and was gathered at the back to take up the slack that was there because the other guy had a much larger head. So it smelled and weighed about sixty pounds. I couldn’t take it off because it took so long to put on. And the make-up people had been doing Star Trek for too long so they thought they knew all the answers, were not even interested in being creative. They were just ‘doing a job; and didn’t seem to like the job very much.
What do you think is the universal appeal of Buffy?
The empowerment of women is a big part of it. I think the vampire metaphor is clearly about adolescents feeling helpless and like there is a sexual monster trapped in this body. A monster that can do so much damage but really only wants to be loved and to love. The idea of eternal life is also key. We all think at some point that we’d like to live forever, until we think about it a little. In reality we are just terrified of dying because we don’t know what the f*&% come after that little dance.
Your roles in National Lampoon and the likes of Buffy are vastly different. What is the biggest challenge for you as an actor with each new role?
Finding why the character wants what he wants and figuring out what lengths he is willing to go to get it.
What has been your greatest lesson in the acting world?
The stage and film director Mike Nichols once said to me, “You’re an actor … act like you’re a good one.” At first I was crushed but then I realized that that was excellent advice. I use it everyday.
What for you defines the art?
I think the artists job is to observe and report. That simple. Know what you see, know how you feel about that, and then know how that feeling makes you feel. If a person is honestly evaluating the situation they are in and making something out of it, then it qualifies as art.
What are you currently working on?
A film project that I am vaguely producing, writing about movies for a website I am starting up called Alone In the Dark, and taking photographs of small things and landscapes.
What advice would you give to any budding actor thinking of entering the profession?
Focus on the work, on working, do the work if you have to do it in a basement with a wooden dummy. Just tell stories all the time.
Mark, thank you very much!