Denisof On One
Alexis Denisof explains why he moved from the theatres of London to the dangerous streets of LA to play Angel’s disgraced Watcher, Wesley
Alexis Denisof is a native of the State of Maryland in the Northeast section of America. However, he grew up in Seattle, in the Northwest portion of the Sates. And yet, his acting training came from his years at the prestigious London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts where he enjoyed a prolific stage career.
Today he is best known to television audiences as Wesley Wyndham Pryce, a Watcher from England who was removed from duty and has since joined Angel Investigations. “I had a passion for classical theatre when I started my life as an actor,” he reminisces. “So I went to London and trained and was lucky enough to join the Royal Shakespeare Company and work in Shakespeare and the classics on the stage around London for a few years.” And why England and Shakespearean stage plays? “I admired those actors and I thought, ‘Well, that would be amazing if I could got do the same.’ I always admired the English actors and I thought if I could have a chance to study in England, I would be very happy.”
Perhaps the highlight of that portion of his career was appearing in Hamlet opposite esteemed actor Ian McKellen. “Oh, he’s a wonderful actor,” Alexis says, “I admire him tremendously, and [he’s] a great person. An amazing actor. There are few actors that I’ve worked with in my life where I’ve been so impressed, because you see in rehearsal an actor come up with the most fantastic idea, and when I see it, I think to myself, ‘That’s it! It’s finished. You’ve got it.’ But a great actor, he throws it away and goes on and finds another idea and another idea and another idea, and Ian McKellen is one of those. In rehearsal with him, I saw him find a hundred different ways to play the scene and all of them fantastic.”
Having had years of stage experience in London, Alexis says, “Gradually I became more and more interested in film and television. And there’s a very large community of TV writers and directors in England and young film-makers there, so I did some European, kind of low-budget, art-house movies and period dramas there, like the Sharpe series for ITV, which is a long-running period drama based on the novels. And I really came to LA by chance.” He pauses before explaining. “I didn’t come here to look for work. I was here on vacation with friends and I was going through a terrible break up with my girlfriend at the time in England. So we came here just to have fun and go to Vegas and go skiing and sit in the sun.”
By total coincidence, a film in which he appeared, The Misadventures of Margaret, was being shown at the Sundance Film Festival during his stay. Executives at NBC saw it and approached Alexis about the possibility of offering him some work. Nothing materialised with NBC, but he was subsequently cast in a television pilot for Fox.
“Then after that, things were going well here and I was so angry with my ex-girlfriend that I didn’t want to go back to London. So I thought, ‘I’ll teach her a lesson by staying here and working.’ And so far, it’s worked out.
He laughs aloud before turning his attention to an inquiry as to how his American-based family has responded to his unique role. “My dad doesn’t get the show because he lives in a very rural area on the East Coast and the station in his town doesn’t carry it,” he explains. “So he takes a blank tape every week to a friend who lives, like 5 miles away, who gets the show.
“She records it and he watches it usually three or four days later when he gets the tape back,” he adds. “So I always get a phone call after that and I have no idea what episode he’s talking about at that point and he’ll give me a long review over the phone about it.”
Family aside, an aspect of doing a popular show as opposed to stage work is the fan mail that arrives regularly. “We get pretty nice letters,” he says. “Mainly the fans of the show, they’re very passionate about the show. I think there’s something about the Fantasy genre that brings out very strong feelings from the fans. So the letters that we get are mostly very sweet and it means a great deal to them.”
While it also means a great deal to the actor, he admits there are moments on he set when what he’s doing feels unreal. “Well, you do pinch yourself at work,” he acknowledges. “I’m sitting there and there are three monsters around, there’s a pool of blood on the floor and there’s a fire and I’m drinking a cup of tea in my chair and I’m thinking, ‘I’m at work!'” he says with a laugh.
At the same time, he admits that unlike theatre work, where weeks of rehearsals are followed by weeks of nightly stage presentations, Angel entails long hours, often six days a week. And most of the filming is at night… “well, I can tell you one thing, you’re very tired,” he says seriously, but with a grin. “The main cost is energy, and then secondly, time, because it’s using so much of those, it means there’s very little left over. It thins out your friends to the ones who are willing to not get their phone calls returned, that know what you’re going through and will stick around. Your family has to be patient, your partners have to live with a crazy work schedule, and your food, your diet, your exercise, everything is changed. So it takes a great toll.
“The time we have off is really two and a half months, which enables you to restore all the things that go haywire during the shooting season. You get to see your family and see your friends and eat right and sleep a normal eight hours that everybody else in the world is sleeping.”
Consequently, any work outside the series is infrequent, although he does have a starring role in a film that’s yet to be released. Beyond The City Limits along with Nastassja Kinski and Alyson Hannigan, who readers must know by now is both Willow on Buffy and Alexis’s girlfriend.
“You get a call and someone says, ‘Hey we want you to audition for this movie and it shoots in October’ and I was like, ‘Well, I’d like to but…’ there’s just no way.” Besides, Alexis would rather spend non-acting time with Alyson. “Having someone in your life does off the support one needs when working the time and hours we do,” he suggests. “I think it gives you a centre away from work that is important. Alyson has the same schedule, more or less, that we do, so we understand what we’re going through together.”
Original article in Cult Times issue 86