Carole Segal/Sanctuary 3 Productions
Jonathon Young as Nikola Tesla in Sanctuary
He is brilliant, egotistical, a connoisseur of fine wine as well as a snazzy dresser and rather long in the tooth, literally - Sanctuary’s Nikola Tesla is all that and much more. Based on the real-life Serbian-American inventor, mechanical and electrical engineer, the character is a member of a secret Victorian-era group called The Five. Tesla and his colleagues - Dr. Helen Magnus, John Druitt, James Watson and Nigel Griffin - injected themselves with pure vampire blood, giving each of them unique abilities.
In Tesla’s case, the blood activated his dormant vampire genes, transforming him into a half-vampire. He eventually left The Five and went underground for 60 years in an attempt to resurrect his vampire ancestors. Introduced in the first season Sanctuary episode “The Five,” Tesla turns up in Rome to warn Helen that her life is in danger. Of course, in typical Tesla fashion, he has an ulterior motive. Over the past four years, actor Jonathon Young has made the Tesla role his own, slipping perfectly into the character’s tasteful wardrobe and lofty manner. Funnily enough, this version of the character was not what he initially expected to be playing.
“I’d been involved in the writing of a script and production of a play called Brilliant! It’s sort of a biography of Nikola Tesla, and I toured with that around Canada as well as Scotland and California,” says Young. “So I was intrigued that I would potentially be playing this inventor on Sanctuary that had already occupied so much of my artistic life for quite a few years.
“When I originally auditioned for the role on Sanctuary, I did so with the Serbian accent that I use in the theatre when playing Tesla. However, the casting people explained to me, ‘Oh, no, no, no. This Tesla is different from the real guy. He’s more modern and has less of an accent.’ So I did it again with less of an accent, and I have to say that I felt fairly at ease with the character, having already portrayed his life onstage. The people at Sanctuary said, ‘That was great,’ and, I think, a few days later I received a call to come back into the studio to read with Amanda Tapping [Dr. Helen Magnus]. We worked for a half-hour or so in [executive producer/director] Martin Wood’s office, and before I knew it I was sitting at the cast read-through of my first episode.
“What sticks out most in my mind about my debut playing Tesla in Sanctuary is how much fun the character was because I got to incorporate some of what I already knew about Tesla, including some of his mannerisms, eccentricities and arrogance into my performance. Then there was also this new element of him being a deadly vampire with super-strength. To top it off, most of my entire first episode was set in the catacombs underneath Rome, so the combination of all that was pretty neat.
“Something else that is also especially memorable for me about ‘The Five’ is how relaxed Amanda seemed to be. All my scenes were with her and because I hadn’t spent as much time as she has on a set - especially having never been the lead in a TV series like Amanda is - I was somewhat in awe of how much work she does and how you have to be ‘on’ for so many hours every day. I just thought it was amazing how relaxed as well as calm Amanda seemed to be under such pressure, including all the lines she had to memorize and the myriad of other things she also does as one of the show’s executive producers.”
Tesla returned at the end of Sanctuary’s first season and at the beginning of its second to help stop an organization called The Cabal from destroying Helen’s worldwide Sanctuary network. In the season two story “Sleepers,” the character is back up to his old tricks again when he uses a serum to turn young adults into vampires. Unfortunately for Tesla his new protégés end up revolting and he is forced to reverse the transformation process. As a result, he loses his vampire powers, but gains a new one, magnetism. The character has since continued to evolve, much to Young’s delight.
“The show’s writing team and I have discovered the range of the character as far as what he can say and do as we’ve gone along,” explains the actor. “I think Tesla has loosened up a fair bit, because at the start I was coming at it with more of my own sense of the historical Tesla. I adhered more to the mannerisms and some of the phobic behavior that was true to the real Nikola Tesla. For example, he had a phobia of germs and touching other people, and that stuff was much more present in the character during the first few episodes that I did.
“I feel that my character has become more modern as well, even though Tesla still retains an air of the past and before he became immortal, which was around the late 1880s or 90s. I get a sense that the writers have a lot of fun writing for him because his arrogance allows him to say just about anything to anyone, and that’s definitely grown as well over the past four seasons of Sanctuary.
“I have to say, too, that what’s really fun for me are the scenes where Helen, Will [Robin Dunne], Henry [Ryan Robbins] and Tesla are working together to solve some unsolvable crisis. As an actor I enjoy the group scenes a great deal, not only because I get to hang out with all these cool people, but also because there’s just something about a scene with a bunch of great actors in it and the energy that happens between them,” he enthuses. “It’s exciting, rewarding and, again, a hell of a good time.”
“This is without a doubt one of the friendliest, most positive, fun-loving sets I’ve ever worked on, and that extends to the crew as well. It’s just been a joy, really, because everyone works very hard and is totally committed to making the best possible TV show they can. The producers and the cast make sure that the atmosphere on-set is really cool and that there are no egos or status games. Everyone knows that we’re lucky to be here and doing what we’re doing. That’s the vibe on-set.”
In Sanctuary’s third season, Tesla managed to regain his vampire abilities and was instrumental in helping Helen find a way to Hollow Earth and the underground city of Praxis. While dreams of him and his fellow vampires one day attaining world domination remain in the back of his mind, Tesla’s longstanding friendship with Helen Magnus always seems to come first.
“When my character first showed up on the program, he had a plan to essentially recruit Helen,” notes Young. “When, however, she declined his offer to join him in his plans for world domination, Tesla was all set to kill her. I often think back to that first episode because there’s quite a bit of evidence of a really warm friendship with a long history between these two characters, and certainly in comparison to ‘The Five,’ Tesla has become softer in his relationship to Magnus. Yes, he’s always looking out for himself above anyone else, but it’s clear that he cares a great deal for Helen and would do anything to help her. She’s the one person who, I think, knows how to get the human side to come to the surface where Nikola Tesla is concerned.
Raised in British Columbia, Young became enamored of acting at a young age thanks to his father. “My dad is an amateur actor and he started a small theatre company when I was six or seven years old,” says the actor. “My sister, who’s also an actor, along with my brother and I sort of got dragged to these rehearsals. Within a couple of years I was hooked on the whole atmosphere of the rehearsal room as well as the sense of magic and the people who were drawn to that.
“I went to theatre school in Vancouver, and the great thing about theatre school is that you make contact with the city that you’re studying in. By the time you graduate you’ve done however many shows in that city during your final term. So you build connections and have something on your resume that not only shows you’ve committed yourself to a period of training but that you also possess some solid skills.”
Young’s first substantial job in front of the camera was a small role in the Canadian TV drama series Jake and the Kid. “I played a troubled kid who had been working as part of a traveling circus crew,” he recalls. “My character had come looking for his father, who had abandoned him, and his plan was to take him out into the woods and shoot him.
“The story was well-written and something to really sink my teeth into, but what I remember most is that unlike the stage, where everything is there because of a suspension of disbelief, I was standing in the middle of this beautiful landscape of Northern Alberta with a crew of people who were working like crazy setting up equipment and all types of other gear. That focus of what happens in the real world was my first true sort of recognition about the difference between stage and screen. Of course, it’s not the same when you’re working on a green screen set, like on Sanctuary. If anything that’s more like theatre because very often the things you’re looking at and touching aren’t even there.”
Jeremiah, Terminal City, Eureka and Stargate Atlantis are among the actor’s other TV credits, while his feature film work includes roles in The Fog, A Guy Thing and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Having moved to Toronto not too long ago, he recently shot a guest spot in an upcoming episode of the Canadian drama series The Murdoch Mysteries. Young also has a variety of stage projects in the works for the upcoming months.
“I’m doing a play by the company I co-founded in Vancouver, the Electric Company Theatre, directed by my partner and collaborator, Kim Collier,” he says. “That will be followed by a play called Intimate Apparel at the Arts Club Theatre in Vancouver, and then a show called Stockholm, a physical theatre piece, at the Tarragon Theatre here in Toronto.”
When it comes to Sanctuary, fans of Nikola Tesla can look forward to seeing more of their favorite vampire in the show’s fourth season, which began airing earlier this month on Syfy.
“Tesla shows up at the center of some nefarious force that at first glance is the enemy of the Sanctuary but turns out to be something he is messed up in and requires the brains and brawn of Magnus, Will and the rest of the gang to sort out,” reveals Young.
“I can also tell you that I’m pleased that the relationship between my character and Henry develops further because I love those scenes. It’s wonderful working with Ryan Robbins and I like that the writers have continued to put the two of us together. Our onscreen relationship grows quite a bit in season four along with, I think, mutual respect as well, which is pretty cool. It’s hard to say more without going into specifics, but by the climactic end of the season, Tesla is very clearly part of the Sanctuary team.”
Please note, all photos above by Carole Segal and copyright of Sanctuary 3 Productions.