On the Hunt: Interview with The Following's Shawn Ashmore

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Fox Televsion

Shawn Ashmore as FBI Special Agent Mike Weston in The Following

As the good guy mutant Bobby Drake/Iceman in the hit X-Men feature film franchise, Shawn Ashmore battled a bevy of superhuman baddies. In his current role of FBI Special Agent Mike Weston in the new Fox TV crime thriller The Following (premiering Monday, January 21 at 9:00 p.m. EST/PST), the handsome and talented actor is pitted against an equally dangerous set of adversaries. Weston and a team of fellow agents must work with ex-FBI agent Ryan Hardy to hunt down and stop a group of cult-like serial killers who are being led by the notorious Dr. Joseph Carroll.

Despite the obvious dangers, Mike is thrilled to be assigned to the case and is a perfect fit for the job, as Ashmore explains.

“My character is a young FBI agent who is pulled into this case because he wrote his thesis at Quantico on Joe Carroll [James Purefoy], so Mike has knowledge of this individual as well as the poetry that the original murders were based on,” says the actor.

“He also subsequently has an understanding of Ryan Hardy [Kevin Bacon], which I think is kind of interesting. I sort of liken it to Mike meeting his idol. I mean, Ryan Hardy was the only man who could put Joe Carroll away. Ryan is retired, Carroll is in jail and the murders were ten years ago — it’s all in the past. Now all of a sudden, not only is Mike working on a case that he’s been studying in academia, but he’s also doing it next to his idol. It’s like he’s onstage with a rock star and he’s got to learn to ‘play’ pretty quickly.

“I thought that was a fun dynamic, and it leads into some of the acting challenges associated with this role. I think there’s an interesting bond that these guys could develop,” continues Ashmore. “Initially, Ryan sort of dismisses Mike. He is dealing with some personal issues and doesn’t want to put up with some eager young kid who’s trying to pick his brain.

“Ultimately, though, Mike gains Ryan’s trust, because he doesn’t judge Ryan. He doesn’t care about the drinking or the book he wrote, and certainly not about the affair that Ryan may or may not have had with Claire Matthews [Natalie Zea]. Mike just knows that Ryan was the only person who could put Joe away the first time, so he’s probably the only guy who could do it again.”

When The Following starts out, serial killer Joe Carroll has escaped from death row, aided by a group of devoted and like-minded followers determined to carry on his “work” with a new set of murders. Former FBI agent Ryan Hardy is called out of retirement to consult on the case, despite the fact that his first encounter with Carroll adversely affected his career as well as personal life. Ashmore hopes that the show immediately grabs viewers in the same way its pilot script impressed him.

“I read a lot of scripts during the last pilot season, and this one stuck right out,” he says. “I pride myself on being able to see the twists and turns coming, and I was shocked two or three times reading this pilot. On top of the script, was the opportunity to work with Kevin Williamson [series creator/executive producer], Kevin Bacon and James Purefoy, who were already all part of the show at that point. Talk about terrific pedigree, so it was an exciting prospect.

“As far as filming the pilot itself, I really enjoyed working with Marcos Siega, who’s our director and is also an executive producer on the show. I had worked with him before, so it was nice to come back and do it again. I love the visual style that he created for the series as well as the pace and fluid camera movements when it comes to the hand-held shots.”

Having never played an FBI agent before, Ashmore made sure to do some homework before stepping in front of the camera to play Mike Weston. “I visited the Federal building in Los Angeles and spent an afternoon with the FBI there, which was fantastic,” says the actor. “You can only gather so much information in a few hours, but I picked their brains about, for example, going on a bust for the first time and kicking in a door and not knowing what’s waiting for you on the other side. I was also able to pick up general knowledge about what an agent's life is like when they’re on a case. That was all fascinating stuff and helped me make a bit more sense of Mike’s work schedule.

“One of the things that I especially love about The Following and the reason I really wanted to get back into TV is the idea of spending a lot more time with a character. That allows you to further explore a character and make your performance even richer. You also have these huge expanded storylines as opposed to a feature film where you only have an hour and a half or two hours to tell your story. It’s nice to have someone writing specifically for your character on an ongoing basis as well. I feel like Kevin [Williamson] sees what’s working with the characters as well as what works for you as an actor and he can then write with that in mind.

“I wish I could be more specific, but what I can tell you is that Mike really progresses as an agent on the case. He and Hardy eventually bond and there’s a unique trust that develops between them. Mike is willing to break the rules a little bit with Ryan in order to try to solve the case as quickly as possible. That sort of goes back to what I said before about him trusting Ryan and knowing that although he might not be this straight and narrow FBI agent, he does have what it takes to catch Joe Carroll. So I think he and Mike are on the same page.”

Having worked for over 20 years in the industry, Ashmore brings a great deal of professional experience to his character of Mike Weston in The Following. One of his more significant earlier roles was that of Waylon Tibbins in the 1994 made-for-TV movie Guitarman. “I think I was 12, turning 13 when I shot that movie,” recalls Ashmore. “I ended up being nominated for a Gemini, which is a Canadian television award for best performance, and I was just blown away.

“At that point I was just doing it [acting] as a hobby. It wasn’t a career or anything like that, so that role helped me realize that I could potentially look at this as a job and something I could do if I wanted to. I didn’t feel like I was particularly good at it, I just felt like somebody up there thinks that I’m okay at what I do. So that was a wonderful experience and a real confidence booster.”

In addition to appearing in several other TV movies and the miniseries Earthsea and Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures, the actor was a series regular in Animorphs and In a Heartbeat as well as guest starred on such shows as The Ray Bradbury Theatre, Flash Forward, Earth: Final Conflict and Fringe. His big screen credits include The Quiet, Solstice, The Ruins, The Barrens and the aforementioned X-Men trilogy, which Ashmore remembers fondly.

“What an amazing opportunity to work with all those actors as well as filmmakers and play an iconic character,” enthuses the actor. “I grew up reading comic books, so it was just exciting for me in the first place, and the other unique thing—and again, unless you’re part of a successful franchise you rarely get to do this—was to grow with a character. I played Bobby Drake in three films and I grew not only as a person but an actor as well, and I got to come back every couple of years and play that character. I made some great friends, and it truly was a once in a lifetime experience to be part of a franchise like that.”

Looking back at his career so far, what does Ashmore feel is the most rewarding part of working as an actor? “This might sound a little selfish and I don’t mean it to be, but it’s getting to play characters and explore subjects that interest me,” he muses. “Obviously I’d never get to learn what I have about the FBI without having a job that allows me to do that. I love the research aspect along with bouncing around and playing different characters and being in extreme situations.

“I’ve learned to play musical instruments, I’ve had vocal training, I’ve been to gun ranges and been shown how to shoot; it’s these and other types of interesting and in some cases unusual skills that I wouldn’t necessarily have been exposed to unless I was in a career like this. There’s a freedom to that and a constant sense of learning, which I really enjoy.

“I also just like performing. I feel like I sometimes get to exercise my emotions through characters. In the real world we don’t get to yell, scream and cry whenever we want to, or sometimes whenever we feel like we want to. So for me it’s almost like therapy to go out there in front of a camera, express those feelings and be rewarded for it. That’s enjoyable for me and definitely rewarding.”

Please note, all The Following photos copyright of Fox Television.

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A native of Massachusetts, Steve Eramo has been a Sci-Fi fan since childhood, having been brought up on such TV shows as Star Trek and Space: 1999. He is also an Anglophile and lover of British TV. A writer for 35 years – 17 of those as a fulltime freelancer – Steve has had over 2,500 feature-length…

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