What the Frack?
Tahmoh Penikett and Aaron Douglas
By: Evan Kayne
Date: May 2010 (Issue 79)
Source: GayCalgary and Edmonton Magazine
In town recently for the Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo, Tahmoh Penikett is best known either as Karl “Helo” Agathon on the television series Battlestar Galactica or as Paul Ballard in Joss Whedon’s series Dollhouse. He has also played roles on Cold Squad, Smallville, and recently in the Syfy channel’s mini-series adaptation of Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld. A very personable actor, it was fun to see him verbally parry at a panel discussion with co-star Aaron Douglas (Chief Tyrol) and Aleks Paunovic (Sergeant Omar Fischer in BSG and the grandfather of Admiral Adama in the new series Caprica).
Admittedly, with the physique Tahmoh has from training in the martial art of Muay Thai, many straight women and several gay men enjoyed seeing him frequently shirtless in Dollhouse. Given Joss Whedon’s openness to gay characters and the following Joss has in the LGBT community, GayCalgary and Edmonton Magazine asked Tahmoh about the sexuality of the Dolls on Dollhouse. We wondered – given it was hinted the Dolls could be gay or straight — were there any long term plans to actually show this before the series was cut short?
“They alluded to it,” Tahmoh mentioned. “It’s probably because it’s network…Fox at that…so there was probably some issues there…I know with Joss if he had his choice he would have written it in, obviously.” Unfortunately, as the series was cancelled, we’ll never know if this aspect of the dolls would have been shown onscreen.
In comparison Battlestar Galactica did cover a lot of issues which probably wouldn’t have made the cut on a network show. Tahmoh admitted as much, and he felt it was a good thing they didn’t get to a network: “In the beginning there was talk we might be on NBC…and I think that would have been the death of us very quickly.”
Several fans at the Expo noticed this and asserted if Dollhouse had been on the Syfy channel it would not have been cancelled. Tahmoh agreed it was a pity; yet he’s not too worried about series creator Joss Whedon: “Joss just can’t stop working…that’s all he does, so there’s a lot of stuff coming up from him.”
What people liked about the character Helo on BSG was how honourable and even-tempered he was compared to others. While some may credit this to Tahmoh’s acting, I think these characteristics of Helo were drawn from the actor’s progressive and mixed upbringing. His father is former Yukon (and NDP) premier Tony Penikett and his mother is a member of the White River First Nation.
Seeing as Helo faced prejudice because of his mixed marriage to a Cylon, I wondered if there were any experiences of prejudice Tahmoh had in his real life. Mostly he felt his experience being of mixed heritage (and white in appearance despite his mother’s Native American heritage) impacted him growing up: “The irony is that I hated my white skin as a kid. I grew up in the Yukon…I grew up in a lot of small northern communities, the majority of times with my native cousins. So I was the funny looking one, I was the minority, and oftentimes I just hated it when I was younger, I wish I grew up with darker skin…I got ribbed and teased a lot because I was the ‘white boy’.”
With First Nations communities, some are accepting of “Two Spirited” people, others not so much. Certainly, his father’s NDP background would see sexuality and equality discussed at the dinner table, yet I wondered what was White River First Nations like in that regards. Regrettably, living in a lot of small northern communities, it wasn’t something he experienced. “I don’t remember ever hearing anything negative or any discrimination towards Two Spirited people, but I never heard it referred to…”
While nowhere near discrimination, many actors do have to worry about being typecast. While he’s not currently working on any major projects, if another cop/detective type role came his way, Tahmoh would accept it without worry. “I kind of enjoy it, and why not? I’m at the age and physicality where I might be chosen to play roles like that.”
He’d prefer these roles have some depth, and so far he’s been pleased with the ones he has received. He does want to explore and challenge himself, but he hasn’t found quite the right thing, which is why he is a bit selective at the moment. With both BSG and Dollhouse, he has been fortunate to have worked for seven years straight and is now taking the time to be particular about what he does next.
Known for his role of Chief Galen Tyrol on Battlestar Galactica, and now Frank Leo on The Bridge, Aaron appeared alongside Tahmoh Penikett at the Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo. With a quick wit and the soul of a great story-teller, he was one of my Expo favourites. Additionally, Aaron acknowledged many gay men admire him for his “bear-ish” qualities whether he be portraying Chief Tyrol or Frank Leo.
Regarding the character of Chief Tyrol, it was an interesting parallel to the struggle many people have coming out of the closet – the suspicions, the denials, the step back into the closet and the final step out. The character Tyrol suspected he was a Cylon in season two, then had it confirmed at the end of season three. When I asked Aaron what he thought of the similarities, he said he personally had nothing in his history growing up which he could draw from. However, he did have some fans who noted the similarities his role had to people who were of a minority group: “…You get a few people talking about what it was like for them being different, growing up different, whether it was them being a minority, them being gay. They drew a little bit of a parallel.”
As well, Aaron did have to keep his knowledge of his Cylon heritage “in the closet” for several months. While the other “Final Five” found out at the end of filming for season three, Aaron snuck a peak at some script notes months earlier – then had to keep his mouth shut all that time.
Examining how LGBT individuals still have to struggle for acceptance in a paramilitary units, like police forces, would seem like a natural fit for The Bridge. “It’s an interesting thing – my character is loosely based on a real guy. I think the real guy probably really had to look at himself in the mirror when he was president of the police union when he found out some of the officers were gay or lesbian.”
Unfortunately Aaron didn’t know if they were going to tackle that issue. “What I liked about Battlestar, we didn’t make a big deal of it (homosexuality). It’s obvious we all knew who was gay on the ship and who was straight, but nobody cared. Ron Moore never wanted to make a big deal about it because it shouldn’t be a big deal….I don’t know that our new show will do that. There’s the one character – Jill – who’s bisexual, they make no bones about that. I know there’s an episode where a cop gets killed and they’re questioning whether it’s because he was gay or not.”
Aaron did admit a bisexual FEMALE character does cater to the straight male, two girls one guy fantasy, but he thinks showing two men kissing or even showing any type of intimacy shouldn’t be a big deal on network television. The men don’t even have to be kissing – “…just the intimacy of holding hands or a gentle touch, showing that two men are genuinely in love and caring for each other”. Sadly, he had to concede in some ways, our society hasn’t advanced far enough to make that not a big deal on television shows and in real life.
Whether The Bridge gets to show any LGBT characters is up in the air at the moment, as Aaron is unsure whether there will be a second season. Consequently, he’s looking around at other projects:
“I did a pilot called Betwixt for the CW, and that’s going to go into their vault of pilots and they’re going to decide if they’re going to make a series or not, and I’ve got some movies and shows knocking on the door.”
With his sense of humour and ability to reel off a story, he could always get into comedy. Audiences were entertained with his hockey stories – thrilling at his discovery of Flames Central, and laughing with him about his hockey bets with Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Wil Wheaton. He also played the role of “embarrassing parent” as he pointed out his teenaged son in the audience and then went on to tell us about how when his son was 9 years old, an on-set visit led to frustration after finding out that Vipers really don’t fly.
However, the best story was the one he tells of a costume malfunction causing him to inadvertently…um, “cold-cock” a sound tech. It was so good we got him to retell it on camera for your enjoyment. Visit this article online to watch the video – of him telling the story, that is; sadly not the original incident.
[click thumbnails to enlarge images]
NOTE: You can watch the video that accompanied this interview at http://www.aarondouglasfans.com/?p=12671