A Conversation With Actor Titus Welliver: From Smoke Monster to Steinadler

Having acted in some of television's most acclaimed series, the actor is busier than ever and has no plans of slowing down.

By , Columnist

Titus Welliver is one of those actors whose face everybody knows, even if they don’t know him by name. “I feel like I’m one of those retro ’60s character actors,” he told me during a recent phone conversation. “I think of the guys who were on my television every week on a different show. All of these great character actors who were the backbone guest stars on these shows.”

Welliver has indeed been the backbone of many acclaimed shows such as The Good Wife, Deadwood, Sons of Anarchy, and Lost. He can soon be seen in episodes of Grimm, CSI, Touch (Keifer Sutherland’s forthcoming FOX outing), and the film Man On a Ledge.

The son of renowned landscape artist Neil Welliver, Titus Welliver considers himself a Yalie baby. “My father ran the Graduate School of Fine Arts at Yale, left there to start the Graduate School of Fine Arts at University of Pennsylvania and also taught at Cooper Union. I’ve always maintained a very strong connection to [New Haven, Connecticut and Yale University] because all of my extended family were Yalies."

The acting bug bit him when he was a teenager. “One summer my mother was living in Boston and I didn’t really know any kids there. I wasn’t living with my mother at the time and I think she realized that I didn’t have much to do and I was probably making her crazy. She signed me up for a summer program at the Actor’s Workshop in coastal Maine. That was the summer prior to my freshman year of high school. I went there and I loved it.”

titus-welliver-1.jpgHis talent for art and the fact he had started formal training with his father did nothing to derail his interest in acting. “I acted in high school productions. I did it more for fun or for the social aspect, still not really seriously considering it. It wasn’t until after my first year of college, sort of quasi-art school. My experience had been that I had trained for so long with my father that by the time I got to art school there really wasn’t much they could teach me. Their critiques of my work would be helpful but they weren’t going to teach me about color or how to mix paints, medium, history, etc.

"So unfortunately, or I should say fortunately, I had one or two professors that were intimidated by my father’s success. They felt it necessary to draw endless comparisons and I felt very disenchanted. I spoke to my father about it and said I don’t know that I want to do this. Not just because of the adversity. That’s always going to be there. You can’t stand in the shadow of someone who has done something successful and consider that same journey in your life. It’s inevitable. Most of us pursue a different discipline from what our parents chose. For obvious reasons.

“Something that had always been operating on some level was an interest in acting. I loved theater. I went to the theater on a regular basis. My parents took me all the time. I was a total cinephile. My parents took me to the movies from the time I was a small child. It really wasn’t an enormous leap. And I was a pretty dramatic kid. I was not a shy kid at all. I was a bit of a clown. So I don’t think that when I said I was going to be an actor my parents violently shook. My father said, 'Just remember, this is not a road that’s any easier. Art is art.'"

Welliver abandoned painting for many years but went back to it at a time when he needed the creative freedom it brought. “I returned to painting about nine years ago. I started to paint again in a time of intellectual frustration and a kind of artistic frustration as well. Bored. Just feeling really bored. I was just working to work. I wasn’t growing artistically or intellectually. I was just at kind of a standstill. I began to paint again and I hadn’t picked up a brush in 25 years. It was frustrating and surreal at first and then I started to paint. I’m blessed by the fact that I was able to show some of my work to my father before his premature departure from this earth. He was very supportive.

“I started to show my work. I paint now and I’ve shown my work over the past six years successfully and a lot of people have asked if I’d ever leave acting. I said even if I could make the same living as a painter as I do as an actor I wouldn’t because in painting there’s a solitude that I enjoy. But I also play well with others and I enjoy that process of collaboration and creation. It’s really, really fun.”

Welliver has had what might be considered some landmark television roles, one of his most heralded being The Man In Black on Lost. Was he aware of how important that role was before he took it? Was he surprised by the reaction afterwards?

"Yes and yes. Elizabeth Sarnoff, a colleague from Deadwood, and a writer/producer on Lost reached out to me and said, 'Look, this is the pitch.' And the pitch was pretty simple. 'This is a really important character to the universe of Lost. I cannot go into details with you. I’ll be able to be more forthcoming if you accept.' She was a colleague and someone I respected so I said, 'Of course I’ll come and do it. It’s you.' So I didn’t really give it a second thought. I got there. It was very abstract. It literally said 'Man In Black' on the page and it was a four-and-a- half minute scene, at the most. It was the first time you saw Jacob and The Man In Black on the beach and the ship off in the distance, which you ultimately found out was the Black Pearl. That was the one scene that I did and then I kind of forgot about it.

“So I shoot Lost. Life goes on. I go on to do other work. It airs. I didn’t see it. I’m in Starbucks the day after it airs. I walk into the Starbucks, the one I go into all the time. People turn around and there was this audible gasp and they start asking me [things like] is this the story of Esau or Samuel? I look at these people and I remember saying to one guy, 'You’re mistaking me for somebody else.' 'You’re Titus Welliver?' he said. 'Yeah,' I said. 'I don’t know what you’re talking about.' 'Lost!' 'Oh, yeah, yeah. I did that awhile ago. Was it good?' 'Yeah, it was good!' They were incredulous that a) I didn’t have answers to their questions and b) that I was completely clueless.

“The day after the second episode aired (the one in which The Man In Black was revealed to be the Smoke Monster), whatever had happened the first time, was not even remotely near the crazy ethic. People would shout at me when I walked down the street in New York. 'Smokey! Smokey!' Now I’m Smokey to everybody, which is fine.

“There are very few characters that I’ve played where I’ve felt like they’ve needed more time. If they said they were going to go another season and we want you to be a series regular, I would have just said, yes, of course. It was one of the most poignant and one of the most beautifully realized characters. Heartbreaking. People refer to him as a villain and I said, 'You don’t get it. He’s not a villain.' The Man In Black is a victim of circumstance. He wanted to have a normal life. He wanted to be human. He resented it. He hated it. He didn’t want the power. The Smoke Monster typically went after people who were bad. I miss that character. I do and I only did three episodes of that show.”

Smoke Monster aside, Welliver takes pride in all the characters he’s played and was happy to discuss some of his most memorable roles.

The Good Wife (Glenn Childs): “I recurred on that. It was a lot of fun. The cast were all good friends. There was an effortless quality and summer stock feeling sometimes. Certainly the hours were a little bit longer than summer stock. We all got on so well. The writing was great. I liked that character. He was a terrible prick but he’s a politician. What politician isn’t a prick?”

Sons of Anarchy (Jimmy O'Phelan): “Arduous but a great bunch of actors, a really great ensemble, really good writers. I was given enormous room to really interpret and realize that character so that it worked for me and allowed me to choose my own ethnicity from my own Irish and Scottish roots to be able to implement certain things. It was a lot of fun.”

Deadwood (Silas Adams): “I have ADD and I need to keep things interesting for myself. I can get very distracted and very bored but it never happened with Deadwood. The great writing left no room for boredom or dissatisfaction.”

Touch (Randy): "It will be a recurring role and it will be how they shoehorn him in there. That character has a broader arc in Keifer’s universe than is exposed in the pilot. I only say that based on what I’ve been told. I don’t have any real details on that. I did enjoy shooting it and certainly enjoyed working with Keifer even though it’s weird shooting a pilot. It’s kind of 'run and done'."

CSI (Mark Gabriel): “I did a three-episode arc, playing a guy named Mark Gabriel who is the head of a company that’s sort of like Blackwater. A weapon that’s been processed by his own crime investigation team in Iraq shows up in a homicide in Las Vegas. I come into the picture and a lot of things unfold. The stakes are very high dramatically. It was great fun.”

Grimm (Farley Holt): “Once again, another great character. I play a guy who, on the outside, would appear to be a black ops guy. Ultimately what you discover is he’s been living for hundreds of years. It’s a sort of Lord of the Rings type storyline in which some coins were struck from a mine in ancient Greece in the eighth century. These coins possess a power. They have a kind of charismatic influence over whoever possesses them. Now the Grimm have recovered these coins and have been protecting them because the coins possess the soul of those who possess them and not for the best cause. The coins were stolen and I’ve been in pursuit of the people who have the coins.

1jyc2afn2git2cf1.jpg"I have all this great backstory. I think the fans will flip out. I’m a pretty cool creature called a Steinadler, which is like a six foot one golden eagle who’s really powerful. Once again: really smart show with a very strong fanbase. The writing is really good. I would definitely go back to that show. At some point I’ll revisit them.”

After finding success in both the acting and art fields, what are Welliver’s plans for the future? “I spent the past few years doing a lot of research and kind of scribbling in a notebook ideas for a series of my own. That’s what I’m going to put my energy into: fully realizing my own show of my own creation. Ultimately I will be collaborating with other writers. I will be the star of the show so I won’t be able to write and do it all. But that’s what I want to put my energy into because I have a very strong idea. I need to pursue that and make that happen.”

You can see a selection of Titus Welliver's artwork here.

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Mindy Peterman is a freelance writer whose focus is on television, movies and pop culture. She has written over one hundred articles for the award winning Blogcritics.org website and has conducted interviews with producer Peter Asher, psychic-medium John Edward, Greg Grunberg and Bob Guiney from Band…

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