Playing “idiosyncratic characters put against epic circumstances” is one of Todd Stashwick’s specialties.
Todd Stashwick laughs at the end of the world.
Stashwick's most recent series, 12 Monkeys, follows scientists and others as they race throughout time to stop those who would destroy time itself. It is dark, serious stuff. The series opens in 2043, when a plague has killed the majority of the earth's population, and the streets, what's left of them, have been taken over by "Scavs" (scavengers) and gangs.
Stashwick plays Deacon, the leader of one of those gangs, who has a history with the main character of the series, James Cole (Aaron Stanford). Cole and his best friend Ramse (Kirk Acevedo) have escaped the gang and end up in a lab where scientists are using a machine to send people back in time to try to stop the plague.
There, under the direction of Jones (Barbara Sukowa) Cole travels to the past and meets Dr. Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull), who becomes his lover and comrade-in-arms in the fight to save time. Also in the mix is Jennifer Goines (Emily Hampshire), a former scientist and daughter of the man who created the plague. Jennifer is also a "Primary," one who has visions and may be the key to saving the world.
Coming off four seasons on the series, Stashwick could not be prouder of the show. "I love idiosyncratic characters put against epic circumstances. So, I'm very attracted to genre, which is 12 Monkeys. I think the characters that we play on that show are so specific and idiosyncratic and they cast them really interestingly across the map.
"I mean, Barbara Sukowa, Amanda Schull, Emily Hampshire, Aaron Stanford. Just, across, it's just phenomenally specific and yet, the circumstances are so huge, and their world's ending. And, I really love seeing very specific people in very extreme situations, and that's kind of what I like to write, as well. And so, when choosing a role, I also like to find roles that allow me to dip into my comedic heritage. Like a mash up."
In a show like 12 Monkeys, some levity is necessary, and Stashwick is more than happy to oblige. "In an otherwise serious show, I like to bring elements of levity because I think that's truthful, because even in the darkest of times, we find little moments of lightness. Or, delight, or silliness, or all of it.
"Often when you look at a lot of half hour situation comedy, the characters really don't change. That's part of why we're attracted to watching them. Because it's comfort food. You see a show like Friends. The circumstances change, they may make a different choice, but the characters may have a plot arc, but they don't have an internal arc. I find it fascinating when characters have an internal arc. And, you're gonna find that more in hour-long drama and genre.
"I think now, in a post Breaking Bad world, the line between drama and comedy is very, very blurry. And, that really speaks to the kind of stories that I'm attracted to. I think there's a lot of humor in 12 Monkeys, as well as great special effects, and stunts, and all of those things.
"Everybody gets little moments of comedy. Jennifer and I tend to be a bit more of the comic relief, because truth be told, we don't have to carry the weight of the plots. Our core leads, which obviously are Amanda and Cole, they are the emotional core of the story and they wear the credibility mantle. In order to watch the show, it lives or dies by us worrying about their struggle.
"And then the storyline with Jennifer and myself and Jones, those are a bit more peripheral, but no less important. In order to have an ensemble show, you need to widen the story. Especially if you're telling a story about the world ending. You need to see more people and care about more people in that world to worry about it ending.
"So, they often show really fun stuff between Jennifer and myself to lighten the moment, or to show the irony of a moment, or to be the voice of the audience in that moment. And, sometimes, I'll improvise moments. Terry [Matalas, creator and executive producer] and the directors left some room for us to discover stuff. And, to the credit of Amanda and Aaron, they also are very adept at finding a comedic flash within an otherwise dark situation. We just have such a talented cast and talented writers."
When he first entered the show, he was only supposed to be a guest star for a few episodes. He says, "I was brought in for episode four, and I think originally it was gonna be a bit of a one and done character. Maybe come back for another episode. I mean, he was technically in four episodes, because I had little tags of my returns at the end. So, he was in four, but I really only had two kind of chunky episodes, where I was integral to the story.
"But, at first, he was intended as just kind of a season one antagonist. And, Terry Matalas, and the writers, and I got into this character.
"They saw potential for him being a flavor that the show felt could use going forward, giving us a phenomenal opportunity to explore a really, really big arc for a character who's just playing the traditional antagonist in season one to have him be part of a the team, and conflicted, and emotionally challenged and torn to become a thorn in the side for some, and an ally for others. It's a really fascinating role that just started off as a week of work."
Although the cast is not made up of household names, each actor brings his or her own audience to the show. Stashwick says, "Everybody on the show, for the most part, we've been around for a long time, but we've often lived on other people's shows. I'm the guy that people snap their fingers at and go, 'How do I know you?' Because it was eight years in between when The Riches [one of Stashwick's earlier regular roles] ended [and this show].
"Then I got 12 Monkeys as a season regular. I'm very known in very small groups. People who watch The Originals know who I am. People who watch Supernatural know who I am. But, those are the niche shows. They're not on ABC or NBC, and so they don't garner the 14 million viewers that The Walking Dead does.
"So, the audiences that watch the shows that I'm fortunate to be on are very passionate and they know me from those shows. But, then I would say the same about Aaron and Amanda. We were all doing our work for years but flying really under the radar in terms of public profile. They didn't just pop out on the scene, but this opportunity and this show, even though again, we have a small, passionate audience, has really given everybody an opportunity to stretch and really show their gifts."
Those opportunities come from the writers on the show, for whom Stashwick has high praise. "They touch right to the strengths of the different performers so that everybody gets to showcase. But it makes the writing sing, and it makes the story sing, and it makes the show deeply watchable. It's such a dance. Any show that is good, is such a dance between writers and actors.
"That relationship is essential. It's essential that we're not just puppets walking in to just say their words. And they're not just there to write vanity pieces for actors. They have a deep story they want to tell. It's all about the writers and the casting. And so, when you get a good one, you know, you get a good one."
Although the show is currently wrapping up its final season, Stashwick hopes it will live on in streaming platforms so that more people have the opportunity to see it.
"We've had a great run. We finished shooting last August and now all the fruit of our labor is finally on television. I always find that people that finally get turned on to the show, they become evangelists for it. And they start pushing it on their friends.
"It's a very crowded, crowded, saturated television market and it's hard to get seen above the fray. That's our hope, is that it finally reaches as many people as it deserves to reach. I truly believe it is going to be one of those, when people can watch all four seasons in one place, it'll take off. And we're super proud of the work. And we love the people that love the show, because the people that know, know."
As much as he will miss working on 12 Monkeys, Stashwick still has plenty to keep him busy. When he's not performing, he is also an accomplished writer.
"Currently I am co-writing Suicide Squad 2, the sequel to the 2016 DC Comic's film Suicide Squad. I've been co-writing it with the director Gavin O'Connor and screenwriter and playwright David Bar Katz. And, again, like what I was saying before about really enjoying writing idiosyncratic characters put against fantastic situations, I do that emotional core along with all of the problems of these worlds. It fits right into my strength zone."
"I've been very, very fortunate because I started my writing career at the Second City in Chicago in the early 90's. We had to write sketches. It developed there. And then, just on my own, I created a web comic, collaborated on it with comic book writer, Dennis Calero. And that's called Devil Inside. And, we're still running it, and it's still free. You can read online.
"And, then Dennis and I sold the pilot to the SyFy Channel a number of years ago. We developed a space show with them. And then, I was co-writing a Star Wars video game with Amy Hennig, Uncharted. And then I have my own screenplays that I write, and pilots that I develop, and now Suicide Squad 2. So, it is a bit like two separate careers."
Both careers, however, are essentially about telling stories.
Stashwick says, "I consider myself an entertainer, which takes many facets, whether that's writing, or improvising live on stage, or acting in television and film. It all sort of stems from story telling, which is important. It's a deeply important thing as a society. Often it's a campfire that we gather around and we share. We work through things collectively through story. We can empathize with other humans through story. It's just a tremendously powerful, necessary tool.
"I mean, when we dream at night, we're telling ourselves a story to help figure out how to live better."