Actor Rob Stewart never expected any of this to happen. Well, he did and he didn’t. When the then little known Toronto area resident took an acting gig on a trashy late night early 90s CBS beach set crime/drama/comedy Tropical Heat, he thought it would be a great way to make a name for himself (despite not being that big of a fan of the show itself right out of the gate). Over a decade later at age 47, Stewart had what he describes as “a bad year” and was forced to move back to Brampton to live with his parents. His fledgling career seemed stagnant at best.
Then came the news that he didn’t expect. In at least one country, Stewart and his TV alter-ego Nick Slaughter had become a bit of a folk hero in Serbia of all places. Confounded and more than a little curious to take a look at fame he never knew he had, Stewart teamed up with the filmmaking team of Liza and Marc Vespi to create the almost surreal, but nonetheless funny and surprisingly relatable documentary Slaughter Nick for President (out in Toronto this weekend). The film chronicles Stewart’s learning that his wise cracking, ladies man character became a rallying point for people desperately in need of a hero that felt real. He was the only good guy on television during a time of tumultuous in-fighting and massive student protests under the rule of Slobodan Milošević.
Stewart called in to Dork Shelf last week to talk about his experiences, why he could never be a journalist, the difference between being self-aware and self-conscious, and what it’s like trying to hawk knock off hard drives in Serbian TV commercials.
Dork Shelf: There’s something about this film that’s really relatable to everyone, and that it illustrates how sometimes the strangest things in popular culture can give people hope when they need it the most. Before you were even an actor or a filmmaker or anything like that, was there ever anything that you remember seeing or hearing when you were younger that gave you hope during a dark time?
Rob Stewart: Oh, wow. That’s an interesting question. You know, I wasn’t really a media kind of guy growing up. I didn’t really watch TV that much. My thing was really Lord of the Rings. I’m a geek. If it was anything, it was definitely that.
DS: And that’s not exactly the answer I would have expected from you, so that really kind of underlines just how a character like Nick Slaughter could resonate in a place like Serbia as being one of the only good people on television. They wouldn’t have even really had even the animated Lord of the Rings films that we would have had growing up while your show was beginning to air.
RS: Right, right, right. I mean, it’s certainly bizarre, and I’ve never fully wrapped my head around why it was this one guy, but I obviously I never had the problems that they faced as teenagers: war, death, despair, no trust in anything because “America the Good” was dropping bombs on them. I don’t know if anyone could relate to that unless they actually go through it. But that’s probably the explanation of why such a character as inconsequential and light hearted as Nick Slaughter was needed, rather than something heavy, you know what I mean? It kind of explains why there wasn’t need for much more depth and why they needed something cartoony and simple. The easier it is to be silly with something, the easier it is for a viewer to disconnect.
DS: Which is even stranger because Nick Slaughter is kind of the prototypical, cocksure American hero in a lot of respects.
RS: Well, they didn’t really see it like that, which I always thought was very interesting. You can really view it through two lenses. When I talked to them – and you don’t get a lot of this from the movie, I don’t think – but just from talking to people on the street as I was going, their thing was that he really wasn’t a typical American hero. He lost every fight. Almost every episode opened with him either getting smacked by a girl or beaten up by a guy, and it was this thing where he was just this great underdog within this kind of caricature. And yet, he would always solve the crime at the end because he just stuck with it. That was always their explanation of it.
It was also a Canadian co-production, which you kind of have to remember. It was Canadian writers working on it and you have a Canadian in the lead. When I first took that part it was extremely misogynist, and there’s definitely still some of that in there. It was really darkly misogynist and I just couldn’t do it. So when I had something that was a really off-centre line, I couldn’t do it without faking a smile or just making everything a little more gentle and Canadian.
I think there was definitely a lot of mix that led to the appeal of the show there. As you saw in the movie, they had a choice of Baywatch or Sweating Bullets [the overseas title of the show, ed.]. I think it’s a thing that it was like the Hasselhoff bravado versus me getting the crap getting beat out of me every episode. (laughs)
DS: And that’s an interesting parallel to what was going on in TV at the time in North America, too. I can see how that’s sort of different. You know every episode is going to end with Hasselhoff saving the day in some grand fashion.
RS: Oh, completely. Well, I mean, we did that, too, but along the way it was always so much more self-deprecating on our end. And I actually asked for that, too, after a few episodes once I felt comfortable. I didn’t in the first few because I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just like “Come on. I just want to make fun of myself. If we take the piss out of me it will make me more sympathetic.” They ended up going pretty gung-ho with that in the end, and that was probably really the difference. And I mean, I’ve never seen these shows, so whether it was a subtle difference or a drastic one, I gotta believe that it was what made him more of an underdog guy that would go over well in Serbia. He took the blows.
DS: You’re an actor and you’re making this film, but you’re not really a journalist, and at points you have to sit down with journalists that had lived through these student riots and had seen some really terrible things. Was there any discomfort on your part to really come in and start almost picking at some old wounds to get answers?
RS: I didn’t have that beat, really. I had a couple of other beats, like how do I deal with the fact that I think the show was just terrible (laughs) and if I say that they might kill me, or I might embarrass them, or that I might make them feel worse. I had to rethink the show and rethink the entire documentary. Marc and I had to go to a place and be there. Our whole point was that I loved taking the piss out of myself so much, and Marc had even more fun taking the piss out of me. (laughs) That was another way that we wanted to delineate that Canadian versus American thing. I mean, if Kevin Costner went over there and did this it would probably just be about how great Kevin Costner is. So let’s put the self-deprecating Canadian thing in there, and that was initially our plan. But we couldn’t do that too much or to the extent that we thought we could because we didn’t realize and we underestimated just what these people thought of these characters. That was the finest line we had to walk.
The other problem in terms of the journalistic perspective was that I kept crying in the interviews. (breathes deeply) Dead serious. There’s one interview in there where you see me and you can see me about to completely lose it. That was when I realized that we needed to go on the subjects and not me in those scenes because I sucked at it. Every time we talked about the war I would tear up. Then you got that problem where I end up becoming kind of like William Hurt in Broadcast News. Just get it off me and let them tell the story. I thought I sucked in that sense. There was no way I could ever be objective.
DS: You say in the film that you can’t understand how celebrities could ever get sick of that kind of level of adoration where people are waiting to greet you at the airport and everyone coming up to you and shaking your hand, but it’s interesting that this is all over a show that you didn’t particularly like. I’m not saying that doing this really changed your opinion about the kind of show Tropical Heat was and it’s quality, but do you think that this is a certain level of appreciation that some celebrities take for granted? That something they don’t even like means something special to someone else?
RS: Yeah! Of course it is! I mean, just ask Bill Shatner about Star Trek in 1974 and then ask him now. He later came back and parodied himself and embraced the whole craziness of it. It’s that same sort of thing. Or look at Harrison Ford who hates, HATES Blade Runner, right? But even though he hates it, he realizes that it’s become this great film and it’s a fucking fantastic one at that. You know, I don’t know, but I think that last interview that I do here that’s kind of an address to the audience is kind of for anyone who was in the media to realize that it’s kind of our redemption. You just never fucking know. You could go out tomorrow and do a car commercial and save someone’s life. You never fucking know. And to be embarrassed by doing anything and it’s how you make your money? That’s wrong. You need to take that burden off your shoulders.
DS: That’s the fine line you have to walk between being self-aware and self-conscious, I think.
RS: That’s beautifully put. One’s positive and one’s negative.
DS: I think a lot of people probably bring this up with you after seeing the film, but there’s a scene where you’re shooting a commercial for a possibly bootleg hard drive. Does that get any easier to watch because you just look so frustrated just being there.
RS: That is by far my favourite scene in the film. By far. That was all Marc, too. He was the one who always had it in his mind to do something like that. About a month or two before we went over there he was talking about Bill Murray in Lost in Translation and he just said “Man, I wish we could just get a commercial over there and have you as a fish out of water.” We were even looking at this beer over there called Nik, and we thought that would be a good thing. We asked before we left for someone to get us a client while we were over there that I could shill for and turn around and give that money back to the crew, because none of us were getting paid. I thought that way we could at least pay the crew with the commercial. I had forgotten all about that, and Marc I guess with the producers had sort of set that up, and they just found something kind of embarrassing that I could use to shill for the production. So that’s how that came about, but they really just threw that in there. I really like that scene because it’s so alive.
DS: I think I liked this scene, and don’t take this the wrong way, but it seems like the kind of gig you would probably be able to land in Canada now as an actor of your stature.
RS: (laughs) Yeah, it’s brilliant! And I mean, look at what that commercial also showed about Serbia. That happened because of the wars. It became a heavily black market economy. We don’t touch on it too much in the film. We had a few interview about it but we backed off of it, but basically one of the worst things that happened after the war was that it criminalized Serbia. It made it so the only way you could get things was through shady means. It showed off their thing without making it a history lesson.