Peter Macon on the man behind the mask in The Orville
Peter Macon, Emmy-winning voice actor and star of Seth MacFarlane's space-hopping series The Orville, talks to us about how he's been keeping busy in lockdown, the differences between stage and screen acting, adapting his performance while wearing heavy prosthetics, and the advice he would offer himself when he was starting out.
There haven't been too many joys for me to speak of during lockdown, but one of them is certainly discovering and completing (thus far) The Orville, Seth MacFarlane's star-trekking adventure series that is as much an homage to the final frontier explored by the Enterprise, as it is a modernised and whip smart expansion of its voyages. It's funny too.
So it was a great joy to sit down with Peter Macon who plays Lieutenant Commander Bortus on the hit show. There's some irony to be found in interviewing an actor currently playing an intrepid intergalactic explorer, but who hasn't been able to leave the house in some weeks. How has lockdown life been?
"Like for everyone else, there are good days and there are bad days. We have a two-year-old and a four-year-old so our days are pretty filled with just keeping them entertained, homeschooling, being outside in our backyard and making food. There's like a micro and a macro occupation of my senses and what I'm doing, the things I can control and the things I can't control. I get a little blue sometimes and a little stir crazy, but I have tons of projects around the house. I'm also painter. I'm trying to pump out a body of work that's actually somewhat reflective of the pandemic, but not specifically.
"I try to keep busy but even then sometimes find myself doing absolutely nothing. It's so strange. The days just bleed together and as the news cycle becomes more and more... All of the Black Lives Matters protests and things going on. It's just insane. I get really, really angry at my countrymen, but I can't do anything to control that. It's a lot of outside stimuli and because of the COVID situation, we just live in this bubble. I've almost forgotten how to socialise. It's pretty crazy. I don't think I've worn pants for three months [laughter].
One thing he has been doing to keep himself busy (and sociable) is coaching young actors via Zoom, working on sonnets, monologues, scene studies and teaching Shakespeare. It's something he became involved with through a longtime friend who began a series of weekly classes before asking Macon to join as a mentor/coach. Theatre is a huge part of his acting education and experience, so has he enjoyed passing on some of that knowledge?
"Yes, I really have because I think that the best thing you can do when you are feeling down is try to help other people. The work that I'm doing on The Orville is very mask heavy. Obviously, with the prosthetics, I have a very limited range of motion and so I have to convey a lot of things just with my eyes and small looks.
"Talking to young folks about that as they're just starting out is actually helpful for me, to review my toolboxes, if you will. While I was at the Yale School of Drama on a three-year program, I had two years of intense clown and mask work. I graduated in 2003, but I didn't really have the opportunity to do anything funny or anything mask-orientated until 2017 when I started The Orville, so it's been nice to pass that information along."
Macon talks about how useful the two-dimensional video setting can be for teaching actors how to project less for the screen than they would for the stage. It's something that was a significant adjustment for the actor when he was starting out in his own career.
"It was a huge adjustment. I started acting out of high school, doing theatre from when I was 17. Acting is acting, but there's a whole different technique and a different approach with film and TV. Someone told me that when you're on stage, your audience is big and broad. You're using broad strokes, speaking out to a mass of people. With film and television, it's like you're whispering in the audience's ear, translating your thought processes so you don't have to actually be doing anything, you have to be thinking it. These are all things I've learned over a number of years, but when I first started doing film and TV jobs, I was really out of my element. I really didn't know, but I loved the learning curve. Now I think I have a better grasp on it.
"That being said, another interesting note is that between season one and season two, I got hired to do another show without the Bortus prosthetics. I was terrible, because I was so used to working in one particular way, and then you're playing a human being. I came home to my wife and said, 'I'm going to get fired, I was just awful'. I had to sit down with myself and go through the script again, do text analysis, all the homework that needed to be done that I was not necessarily having to do for Bortus because I've been living in that skin for so long. It comes down to just preparation and really being focused to not suck."
As well as his on-screen career, Macon is also a successful voice-performer, his talents recognised with an Primetime Emmy-award win for Animated Tales of the World in 2001. Differing from his live-action work, he likens the isolation of working in the VO booth to being a one-man band, where the other instruments you would have to play off have been taken away. He's also previously stated that wearing the Bortus prosthetics reduces his hearing by roughly 30% and isolates him somewhat from his cast mates. Did his solo work in the VO booth prepare him for that?
"I think it's completely relatable. I think that's really smart of you to ask that, because it is that. Yes, because of the prosthetics I lose about 30% of my hearing, it's a lot like walking around with your hands over your ears and talking, and I can hear my voice in an almost unnatural way. It took me a while to get used to that and to figure out how to play with that. It made me extremely self-conscious because I didn't feel natural just talking and listening to my fellow actors. I've got really good at lip-reading [laughter]. Which is fun, but people make all these jokes around me on set, I can't hear it and they know it, so I'm the butt of the joke.
"I haven't been in the makeup for months and we're used to being in it for six, seven months at a time, for 12 to 16 hours a day, four days a week. It's really hard because there's a rhythm and there's a flow and a lack of self-consciousness during the process, but technically, I'm going to have to get back on the bicycle and figure all this stuff out all over again, which is fine because I love it."
Speaking of love, Seth MacFarlane's series is far more an homage to Star Trek rather than a parody of it. It would be easy to assume the creator of Family Guy, American Dad and Ted planned on mocking the exploratory sci-fi series of yesteryear, but there's an obvious affection for the previous missions of the Enterprise, as well as fresh and intelligent storylines that hold a mirror up to sociopolitical issues of today. Was this direction for The Orville something that was obvious to the cast from the start?
"I knew right out of the gate at the audition. We all knew that it wasn't a spoof and it wasn't just jokes for 48 minutes, you can't really do that. A half-hour show you can, but this isn't that, and a lot of people did think that it was just going to be a spoof. I think we took a lot of people by surprise because our perspective audiences had no idea that it was a dramedy. Frankly, I think that it would be rather boring if it was just a spoof since spoofs are, I think very limited in terms of their lifespan.
"My character particularly brings a lot of drama to the ensemble. With a mate and a child on a spaceship, there is the micro and the macro, the domesticity of partnership and child-rearing, but then there are war situations or space battles."
We discuss one episode in particular, where Bortus goes through something akin to porn addiction, a very human issue that contributes to a potential disaster faced by the ship and its crew.
"While the ship is being sucked into a star, I'm thinking in the back of my mind, 'I'm not only causing the cause of death of all my shipmates but my own family because of my inability to communicate effectively with my partner'. The fact is, these are all real things that are going on and no one will probably notice or think about it, but that's my job to be that informed, to have all these things firing."
It's not often that actors speak in the first person about their characters, but such is the investment Macon has in Bortus that he does so readily. Having played the character over a long period of time, despite who may be directing or who has written any particular episode, does he now feel some ownership over Bortus?
"I have enough to bring to the table, to be flexible. No Matter what, I have a base. I'm living in his skin and I know who he is. I don't have to think about it so that I can take whatever new stimuli is being thrown, new writing, new directors, new sets, new whatever. I already have a base and a starting point. That's a good question because it does take a while, especially with all the prosthetics and the random shoot schedules. Sometimes my call is 4:00 in the morning and sometimes my call is not until noon. That's a random element that you need to be prepared for. Sometimes they'll change the schedule around and I'll have a page of dialogue that I have to do. You've just got to be ready.
"Someone told me that a professional will rehearse or practice something so they can't go wrong and an artist will rehearse, practice, and perfect something until it can only go right, no matter what happens, no matter what you do. Happy accidents are discovered this way, but no matter what is thrown at me, I can handle it because of the depth of how much you bury yourself in the imagination of this character. There's a consistency and a depth with a fully realised character that is going to unlock lots of different scenarios, some extreme and some mundane. That's where you find the little gems with subtle looks. That's all rooted in a lot of other things that are going on.
"This gets back to your question about learning when I was just starting out with film and TV. I didn't know how or take the time to really front-load the stimuli box. A lot of times I think that's why we enjoy older actors more than younger actors, because of experience. Young people don't really have much to say. I'm generalising, because there are some amazing young actors, but generally speaking they're just young and pretty. Now I'm kind of grizzled and grey and I have more experience because of life experience. It's a hard thing to be a young actor and be taken seriously because you don't know anything. There's a lot more to learn. I have a lot to learn now, but there's no way I could have known all that I know now then. I'm grateful for that."
Which brings us perfectly to my final question. If he was able to go back to an early time in his career and give himself some advice, what would it be?
"Man, that's a good question. I would tell myself to push myself harder than you think you need to. How can I make myself better? That's all I've ever wanted to do, even when I was a little kid. I just wanted to be better so I could be the best artist that I could be. I used to want to be the best artist in the world, and I don't even know what that is, I just want to be the best or be pushed.
"There's also the jack of all trades, master of nothing. I have my hand in so many artistic pies that often times I'm frustrated by not being able to fully focus. I'm sitting here, I'm looking at all this music equipment that I've been tinkering with, and I distracted myself wanting to be a DJ. Then also I play West African drums, but I haven't really been playing. I've been working on these paintings, and during shooting I'd be mad at myself about not having time to work on the paintings. I'm raising my children. I'm spread out really thin. Sometimes it all works together and a lot of times I feel like I'm being quartered, spiritually. I would just tell myself to be honest about why it is I'm doing this and to keep my foot on the gas [laughter].
You can follow Peter Macon on Instagram: PeterJerrodMacon