Growing Pains: Interview With Alphas' Ryan Cartwright

By , Contributor

Justin Stephens/Syfy

Ryan Cartwright as Alphas' Gary Bell

From the time he gets up in the morning to when he goes to bed at night, Gary Bell likes things done a certain way, whether it is the precise amount of milk in his morning cereal or the time he takes to brush his teeth at night. Diagnosed with high-functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder, he can occasionally be moody -- at one point Gary even admits that he sometimes has a bad attitude -- as well as alternately shy and outspoken in front of strangers.

Gary is also a human antenna or Transducer, giving him the ability to read a wide range of electromagnetic frequencies including television, radio and cell phone signals. He and those like him are called Alphas - human beings with enhanced physical and/or mental powers. Gary and a small group of fellow Alphas have been working with Dr. Lee Rosen to learn how to better live with and master their unique skills.  They had no idea, though, where their association with the noted neurologist, psychiatrist and Alpha expert would eventually take them. For actor Ryan Cartwright, who plays Gary on the hit Syfy series Alphas, the chance to take part in this brand new adventure was appealing right from the start.

“I enjoy doing comedy and was trying to book a comedy during pilot season, but I just seemed to be bouncing from one audition to the next and they were all somewhat the same,” says Cartwright. “Then, however, Alphas came along, and while it’s hardly a comedy, it has quite a bit of clever and well-written humor in it. Most of the comedy pilots were three camera set-ups with pretty big, brash humor, whereas this show was much more subtle and I saw a lot more potential for the comedy to come from a real place.

“So I thought, ‘Oh, this looks really interesting.’ At the same time I was a bit worried because with a role like this you sign a contract for seven years, and you wonder whether or not a character with autism will be well-catered for. However, everyone involved with the project seemed terrific, so I did a few auditions, using both an American and British accent [Cartwright was born in and raised in Erdington, Birmingham, England], and when I got the job they [the show’s producers] decided to go with an American accent.

 

“One of the main things I wanted to make sure of with Gary was that I wasn’t just doing an imitation of an autistic person. It was important for me to actually read a number of neuroscience books as well as those by autistic people like Thinking in Pictures by Dr. Temple Grandin and Born on a Blue Day by Daniel Tammet as well as a few of the books written by [British neurologist and psychologist] Oliver Sacks.

"Doing that really helped me figure out the neurological reasons behind certain autistic mannerisms and why my character would be doing something specific with his hands [when using his Alpha power]. I just felt that it would be better to know why someone like Gary does what he does as opposed to meeting with autistic people and/or watching footage of them and copying them.”

In the Alphas pilot episode, Dr. Rosen (David Strathairn) and his team are recruited by the U.S. Department of Defense to investigate the mysterious assassination of a federal witness. Our heroes discover that, in fact, The Ghost (Jeff Seymour), an Alpha with the ability to impose his will on others, is responsible for the murder.

With Gary’s help, they track their suspect down, only to have him commit suicide, or does he? Onscreen it looks as if Cartwright is totally under the skin of his character, especially in the scenes where Gary is using his Transducer abilities. In reality, though, it took him a bit of time to settle into the role.

“My biggest initial challenge with Gary was trying to marry all the different elements of the character, because he’s not just autistic,” says the actor. “He has this kind of light show going on inside his head, so, again, I had to bring together all these different elements of who Gary is in order that there would be some sort of cohesion with the character and I could see a throughline when playing him.

“One of the things I did was try to figure out a system of hand movements, almost like a sign language, for how he would open [visual] windows and manipulate all the information screens that he sees and taps into. Everyone was super happy about this, especially the visual effects people on the show, who were like, ‘Wow, great. There’s an actual system that we can work with. It’s not just some actor waving his hands around and we have to conjure up something from that.’

 

“I guess the main thing with Gary was that I had to make sure I was comfortable playing him and felt like what I was doing looked real and believable. If not, I’d feel like I was abusing the character, do you know what I mean? Once I did enough research and felt that I had earned the right to play Gary, it became fun.

"I was then able to start infusing my own personality through that kind of framework. It was a challenge to begin with and a lot more work than I had done before with a character, but once he was up and running if you will, I really, really began to enjoy myself, and I’m still enjoying myself.

“Something else that helped me and made me super comfortable in the role was the fact that we as a cast were allowed to improvise quite a bit, and it was literal improvisation. Sometimes when actors say, ‘Oh, we’re allowed to improvise,’ what they really mean is that they’re allowed to rehearse it, come up with a couple of lines, maybe even the night before filming, implement the changes into the script and then perform them. On Alphas, however, one of us can just suddenly say something in a scene and everyone else then reacts to that.

“Initially with this I had to think, ‘Wait a minute, I’m not just coming back with a line as myself. I’ve got to filter it through, number one, an American accent, number two, the autism, and, number three, Gary’s Alpha ability.’

"So it took a while for me to become as ease with how an autistic person would interpret and respond to something like this. After a while I figured out a little system for Gary, and once that was in place, I could then just turn up to work, be this character and bounce off my fellow actors. That was very liberating.”

At first glance, Gary does not look or behave like your typical government agent. In fact, he loves nothing more than flashing his official Department of Defense card and trying to take charge of the situation.

As Alphas first season unfolds, Gary becomes more assertive and independent, much to the dismay and worry of his mother Sandra (Jane Moffat). While she might not want to admit it, deep down she knows that her son has become an adult, and much of that is the result of his work with Dr. Rosen and his Alpha teammates.

 

“This is the first peer group where Gary is actually appreciated,” explains Cartwright. “You can see at the start of the first season that he’s very bolshy and acting like the cock of the walk for the first time in his life. He wouldn’t have done that before and enjoyed it as much because he knows that he’s in a safe place.

“Prior to meeting Dr. Rosen, my character would have been much more in his own world and wouldn’t have really understood the stuff that he was seeing in his head. I think his mom was seriously worried that Gary wouldn’t be able to integrate into any type of social setting. Dr. Rosen was like an Oliver Sacks towards Gary, and when he began caring for Gary, he noticed that something else was going on. My character was actually seeing things that were real and it wasn’t just stuff that was being created by his mind. It was an outside influence.

“From there, Dr. Rosen would have helped Gary create hand gestures that my character could use to unscramble everything that was going on in his head and control it. Initially Dr. Rosen is very much a father figure to Gary, but as season one of Alphas unfolds, Gary starts to see that this father figure is not perfect and is asking him to do things that are dangerous and above and beyond the call of duty. That’s when Gary realizes that you have to find your own place in the world.”

Of all the actor’s onscreen relationships, the one between Gary and Malik Yoba’s character of Bill Harken - whose Alpha ability is super strength and high tolerance to pain - is among the most entertaining.

 

“When Bill arrived on the scene, Gary saw him as kind of a bully, and I guess my character was projecting onto that, because he probably had had his fair share of run-ins with bullies," he says. “Despite all the bickering, though, Gary realizes that Bill is a nice guy and they become really good friends and learn to appreciate one another. By the end of the season they’re like an old married couple. It’s all good fun and I know Malik loves the back and forth banter between our two characters.”

Cartwright had the opportunity to share a number of scenes with Yoba when their two Alphas alter egos teamed up to find a kidnapped heiress in “Bill and Gary’s Excellent Adventure.” This episode and “Rosetta” are two of the actor’s favorites from season one of Alphas. In the latter, Gary meets and forms an immediate friendship with Anna (Liana Balaban), an Alpha who can understand and translate any language.

“Rosetta” was challenging for a number of reasons, Gary has his first proper encounter with a girl who is similar to him,” explains the actor, "It’s also one of the first episodes where he really starts standing up for himself, and that has to do with Anna. She showed him that he could be a lot more than what he was being taken for by his group.

“Technically this episode was tricky to film because, first off, Gary never makes eye contact with people, and with Anna he’s trying to communicate with someone who doesn’t talk at the beginning, and yet he wants to stare at her. It was like he was staring at a dangerous animal that he shouldn’t be around but is intrigued by. Secondly, whenever Anna was speaking through the computer, it was someone off-camera reading her lines. So it was a bit like doing a play. We shot all of Gary’s scenes with Anna back-to-back and I had to be right there in the moment because of having to imagine all these different shooting elements.

 

“As for ‘Bill and Gary’s Excellent Adventure,’ that was just a blast. It was time for me and Malik to go off the rails and take our bickering buddy comedy act on the road. As I mentioned earlier we enjoy improvising, and we always give ourselves a couple of minutes running into a scene and running out of it, which is really nice because we’ll just make up a lot of stuff. Obviously, some of what we do will have to be cut out and edited, but in this case the work was somewhat more theater-esque if you will and Malik and I enjoyed rambling with each other.”

Prior to Alphas, Cartwright became a familiar face to audiences with his recurring roles of laboratory intern Vincent Nigel-Murray in Bones and upper-crust Brit John Hooker in season three of Mad Men as well as the Hallmark made-for-TV movie Dear Prudence starring Jane Seymour. Across the pond, the actor’s credits include guest-spots in the UK TV series Dangerfield, Doctors and Donovan. The past 14 years have been busy ones acting-wise for Cartwright, but truth be told he could have taken a much different career path.

“When I was around 14 or 15 I was ready to enter the job market,” he recalls. “A friend of mine was working at McDonalds, so one day I went down there and picked up a job application from him. I remember filling it out and thinking, ‘Oh, God, I’m going to go work at McDonalds,’ because my friend looked so unhappy standing there behind the counter.

“The very next day I got a huge role on this kid’s TV series [The Grimleys] shooting in London, so that was that. However, I kept the McDonalds application because that’s how close I came. A few years later I bumped into my friend at a club and he said to me, ‘Remember when you came into McDonalds for that job application and then got that big role? Well, the day after that I won the lottery.’ So I guess the two of us ended up with a Happy Meal,” says the actor with a chuckle.

 

“When I was growing up in Birmingham I always wanted to go to California and play in the sunshine. It’s just like a kid’s dream kind of thing. A lot of people in England kept telling me, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t go out there. You should just stay here with your roots,’ but I wanted to go play in the sunshine, so I uprooted myself and coming here to the States has been a huge reward in itself.

“I’ve been extremely lucky, too, in that 90% of the [acting] jobs I’ve had have been on really quality projects. That’s pure coincidence, though, because I’m still an actor for hire. I’m slightly more discerning now, but when I was starting out I’d have taken any job. It just so happens that most of those I’ve gotten have, again, been very good ones. On top of all that, I enjoy the people I work with, and I’m having fun. All I want to do is wake up, start the day laughing and go to bed with my ribs aching.”

In Alphas season one finale “Original Sin,” which aired earlier this week on Syfy, Dr. Rosen and his team are forced to choose sides when the Department of Defense goes on the offensive against the rogue Alphas organization Red Flag. The episode’s final few minutes are sure to point the show in a new and even more exciting direction next year. Cartwright was thrilled when he heard the news that Alphas had been picked up for a second season, but with filming on season one having wrapped not that long ago, he is looking forward to a bit of R&R before production begins again in 2012.

“At the moment I’m just enjoying relaxing at home, playing my Xbox, reading my books and stretching out for a little bit,” says the actor, “It [the show’s renewal] is still at the back of my mind, though, and I’ll be getting more and more excited about going back to work as the time gets closer and closer,” enthuses Cartwright.

All photos above copyright of Syfy.

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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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