Anthony Lemke is one of those guys you probably know by face and try to remember what it was you saw him in. Canada is full of those guys, and Lemke has been around for his fair share of time and has had one heck of a wide ranging career when you look back on it.
The Ottawa raised Montreal based performer probably got his biggest break in the miniseries RoboCop: Prime Directive (playing the son of the original half man, half cop) back in 2000 and it blossomed into quite a career doing tons of television on both sides of the border. He had prominent roles on Queen of Swords, The Listner, Blue Mountain State, and most recently on the beloved cult hit Lost Girl.
Chances are you’ve seen the naturally charming, gracious, and laid back man who was just chilling out on a couch with me in the TIFF Bell Lightbox Lounge once or twice before, and in the next coming weeks, you’ll get to see him twice more.
Lemke takes the lead of the two part sci-fi miniseries Exploding Sun (part two of which airs on SPACE this coming Monday at 9pm, with part one replaying Sunday morning at 9am and Sunday night at 8pm). He plays Dr. Craig Bakus, an astrophysicist behind the creation of the first ever craft to take passengers to the Moon and back to Earth in a matter of hours. However, a spike in solar radiation throws not only the ship’s crew into peril, but the world as well as a series of events have triggered a massive, unstoppable storm system that could wipe out all of humanity. Lemke’s character is the only man who can really stop this and get everyone back safely, but he has to first make peace with his ex-best friend, Don (David James Elliott), a hotshot NASA pilot currently married to Craig’s ex-wife.
Later this month, you’ll also get to see Lemke in smaller role in the summer blockbuster (and Montreal shot) White House Down, as one of the special agents caught amid an attack on the White House that only Channing Tatum’s secret service agent and Jamie Foxx’s president can stop.
Between chatting about sports and our respective days, we talked to the affable and very funny Lemke about the challenges of learning scientific dialogue, why the role of Craig Bakus was a dream for him, a little bit about RoboCop, and what it’s like being on the set of a Roland Emmerich directed extravaganza.
Dork Shelf: Let’s talk about Exploding Sun first, since we’re right in the middle of it now. It’s an interesting role for you to play because it’s one of those that actors love to play, but with an interesting twist on it. You get to play the guy who is always right about everything, but at the same time, he’s a guy whose confidence has hit an all time low. What’s it like trying to play that kind of role where the smartest guy in the room doesn’t seem to realize he’s the smartest person there?
Anthony Lemke: It in a lot of ways was kind of a dream role, to be honest. It’s that kind of baggage that character brings that’s a lot of fun to play as an actor. If you’re talking about typical sort of disaster movie things, there’s usually this redemption story. Pick really any of these kinds of films and the key to it is always this sort of personal redemption of the lead character. That’s what this is, but what’s neat about this is that it’s kind of a buddy flick, too. Me and David James Elliott have that really deep relationship and past here that sort of turned irrational back in the past and spun us off to this place where his character has to run in on the white horse to try and save things. Not me! (laughs) It’s a really unique dynamic between the two guys. It was just a hell of a lot of fun to play.
DS: That dynamic is pretty universally relatable in any kind of story and in real life, as well, where you often have to come back and solve a problem alongside someone you have a deep history with. What’s it like crafting that very, sort of, lived in dynamic?
AL: Well, as an actor that relationship is often crafted by the screenwriter. In this case I think our writer, Jeffrey Schechter, did a really great job. He created this relationship that we could sort of step in and play. We didn’t really have to do that much work. We just had to really follow the text and trust what he had written on the page.
Then, of course, you have your own personal toolbox, and so does Dave. Him coming in was almost the perfect thing to do, because our personal lives are almost the same kind of analogous situation. He was this big star from LA who lives down there and works on JAG and things like that, so he’s already got those qualities that he brings with him. He’s got that for free. He’s a big, strong, confident guy who wears his success very easily. And then I’m just a working actor from Montreal, which I can kind of laugh off, but that’s a serious kind of difference already. Right away there’s this sort of dynamic that exists between the two of us. I think it influenced in a lot of ways the on screen relationship for the best. It ended up being a really cool one when you look at it on camera, and part of that was coming out of our own situations, which is great because I’m not actually an astrophysicist. (laughs) He also never married my ex-fiancée.
DS: One of the things that’s always fun and challenging about these kinds of sci-fi epics is that you have to cram a lot of scientific dialogue into these rapid fire moments where you have to make it look like you absolutely know what you’re talking about. How do you keep all of that straight and be able to say that all in a single breath and sound like an authority on the subject? Because like you said, you aren’t actually an astrophysicist.
AL: (laughs) Well, I’ll tell you that the old trick about that for an actor is to learn just as much as you can about what you’re saying so it becomes more than just words on a page that look Greek to an outsider. Go to the internet. Just do the research and find out from that what of this stuff is real and how much of it is invented, because this is a sci-fi element to the movie.
You know, surprisingly little of the show is actually fictional. (laughs) Sure it takes place in space against this backdrop, but a lot of this stuff exists, man! The technology to go to Mars in 30 days is right around the corner. Okay, fine, so they’ve stretched it a bit to say you can go to the sun in a day or two, and we’re definitely not there yet, but Mars in 30 days is a spectacular achievement when you do the calculations. And the technology that they talk about when talking about that kind of stuff is what you can tell the writer here kind of used as a springboard. So when you have that as an anchor, then it becomes kind of easier because then you can kind of play like you do know what you’re talking about. You know the physics behind it and how the general dynamics of these sorts of things work. You just have to figure out what was invented thing is and how it works into the stuff that really does exist, and it makes it all that much easier to say that.
DS: But when you figure out that an element of what you’re saying was made up, do you ever stop as an actor who has done his research to just turn around and say, “No, I wouldn’t say that.”
AL: (laughs) Right! “Get someone else to dub it! I’m not saying that!” (laughs) No, and what’s fun about that stuff is that if you’re within your own world with a character, as long as it’s internally consistent, it doesn’t matter what you’re saying. There’s an architecture to any science fiction piece that the writer puts a lot of time, thought, and effort into, and sometimes what will happen during revisions when a producer or a director will change either this, that, or the other, is when you’re reading through it you’ll be able to find those new inconsistencies and point it out as being against the actual architecture. You can explain what’s consistent at any given moment and what needs to be changed. And yeah, it’s all fictional and made up and whatever, but that’s the reality of that particular story that really needs to get out to the audience.
DS: Is it strange for you right now to be in two disaster type movies back to back that both include the White House as part of their story?
AL: (laughs) That’s a great point! I actually never really thought of it that way. It was probably the only reason I was cast in White House Down! (laughs) The White House was a part of what I was already working on. It’s like they looked at me and said “Oh, good, you’re the White House, guy.” (laughs)
But if we’re being serious, White House Down is a huge Hollywood production coming through, so they brought most of their guys in from LA to do that in terms of actors. While people will call it a big, Hollywood feature and they do it so much better than anyone else, but what’s strange about talking about it and how well it’s done, it’s because everything on it has this international feel to it. Roland Emmerich is German and a lot of the key members of this production are all international. One of the things that these big productions do best is that they kind of bring in the best people from around the world to work on them. Plus, they shot it in Montreal so the team is largely from there. It’s really this culmination of artistry from all over the world. I mean, the story is definitely American and the top ten or fifteen characters are all American, but there’s so much international flavour to that movie.
I think, once again, though, that what makes these same kind of good disaster movies good is that they give you personal stories, and it’s one that they’re never afraid of retelling. That same kind of redemption story, and it’s just genius. Sure, things are always exploding and there’s all this spectacle, but they’re usually redemptive stories that tie back into family, and that’s exactly what White House Down and Exploding Sun are. They’re similar arcs overall, even though I’m a lead in Exploding Sun, and I’m a liiiiiitttllle further down the call sheet on White House Down.
DS: What does your character do in White House Down?
AL: I play a really cool character that ends up being pretty pivotal to the story. He’s a Pentagon official, so a lot of my scenes are with Maggie Gyllenhall. He ends up having to make a really tough personal decision that could very well have implications on the plot. I can’t wait to see it. I think it’s going to be a whole hell of a lot of fun. That was a nice little gift to have at the end of the year to play that last year.
As a Canadian actor, this kind of thing isn’t your bread and butter. These things roll into Montreal every now and then and I’ve gotten to do a few of them, but I’ve made my career in television mostly, and not so much in American features, so it was really cool to be able to do that.
DS: Here’s a big question: Do people still recognize you from RoboCop on TV?
AL: (laughs) You know, every once in a while I get it. That was right in the beginning of my career, and it was really freakin’ cool. I was huge fan of RoboCop as a kid, and to walk on set and see the suit was awesome. And it was that same suit! Not from the current kind of Dark Knight look of it, but, like, the actual first RoboCop suit. It was the real thing that all the stuntmen put on and used it for the show.
The best thing about the wonder of film is that you look at it up close and you see that it’s made of plastic and you ask where the real metal RoboCop suit is. Then you wonder how they would ever make it work, and then you see how it’s filmed and how much actually comes from the sound being used for it. When you see it in real life, it looks like a plastic mock-up made for a sci-fi convention, but that was the real thing! It was really amazing. Thankfully, I didn’t have to actually wear it, though. (laughs) It was tough on a lot of the guys who had to put it on.
DS: Were you at all bummed out that you got passed over for the reboot?
AL: (laughs) Nooooooooo. But that’s one of the decisions you have to be comfortable with when you make the decision not to go to LA and stay in Montreal is that you have to be comfortable with the notion of where you are in the industry and what you can bring and what you have to offer. That’s a multibillion dollar LA based project, and sure, with them shooting it up here it would have been great to be a part of it, but you have realistic expectations with what you come to expect as a Canadian actor. There are a couple of doors to go through, and then you choose one, and there are different opportunities behind them, but then you close another.