Other than the fact that he’s locked inside of a hotel indefinitely, Shawn Doyle’s character on “Endgame” seems like the prototype of human beings. Arkady Balagan has got whip-crack wit, a conversation-starter accent, and—a worldwide chess champion—he’s the smartest person in the room, regardless of the room.
But, again, about that hotel thing.
He’s the smartest person in the room, but it’s always that same room. Arkady’s fiancée was murdered, so he won’t leave the hotel where she was killed.
The agoraphobia gets to be sort of an issue when you hear about Arkady’s day job. To pay the luxury hotel bills, he uses his chess smarts to be one of those badass TV detectives. Meanwhile, he’s enlisted the hotel employees to be his crime solving assistants (pawns, if you will.)
So what you get is this show that’s trickier than “CSI”—it’s not meant for your dozing grandmother—and prettier and more stylized than Doyle’s go-to comparisons for the show—”House” and “Sherlock Holmes.”
Sound kind of awesome? Well, the first episode of “Endgame” premieres today exclusively on Hulu and Hulu Plus. And new episodes will be released every Monday.
And doesn’t it sound sort of like an impossible role? Arkady has to be both terrified and tough. Brilliant and totally illogical. He’s a walking contradiction, and that’s tough to pull off on TV.
So we decided to talk to “Endgame’s” star, Shawn Doyle, about being charming in tight spaces, almost trading lives with Michael Chiklis, and his arms’ proclivities for accidental breakdancing.
Hulu: How did you get attached to this script? It seems like such a cool idea for a TV show. Were you blown away immediately? What were your first impressions?
Shawn Doyle: Well, when I was first approached about it, I read the script and there’s no doubt about it: The character is a gift from the sky for an actor. He just has unlimited potential and he’s only limited by what the actor can do. I have to say, initially, I was a little concerned about the idea of signing on for a show that only took place in a few locations for me. I thought, “Am I gonna spend seven months in the same set going to the same places over and over again? And will I lose my mind completely or only partially?” Ultimately, I ended up having this email correspondence with our lovely creator Avrum (Jacobson) and he was able to help me understand that even though we’re stuck in this hotel—and a great amount of the storytelling and the mystery solving will take place there—I also will go out of my mind. So there was kind of an escape valve.
Hulu: You don’t get really get the feeling that you’re locked in when you’re watching this show at all. Were you worried about that from the get-go? Not personally, but the show feeling trapped a little bit. (The show) definitely avoids that.
Doyle: That was definitely a concern—that the show would feel small, right? But, first of all, when we did go out, there was enough talented people involved that the actors made it sing and really enliven the show. There are these incredible beautiful sets that allow us to shoot from every conceivable angle. All these different approaches to different scenes really helped. I just think that the element of the imagination can give us a more fantastical sense to the show than the regular, gritty cop show, for example. Acting in it, I never really did feel trapped, ultimately. When I’m watching episodes, I don’t feel like they’re constrained by the limitations of (being locked in.)
Also, what’s interesting about acting in the same sets over and over again: The sets almost become a blank canvas. The scenes become the paint. Every scene has a different color or a different hue or a different style. In that way, the sets were always fresh.
Hulu: There’s probably no better male identity than this character. You get this really omniscient guy who’s incredibly brilliant. I don’t know if you’ve taken that on—if you’ve personally identified as this guy who knows a little bit about everything. That’s a pretty cool alter-ego to have. Did you read this script and say, “I can’t wait to be this person for the next couple of months?”
Doyle: Well, it’s kind of like playing Superman or something, right? I’ve had the good fortune in this year to play both this character and another character, which was the John Adams of Canada. His name is John A. Macdonald, and he’s the father of the Confederation. He’s the guy who basically united country. He’s our greatest hero, you know. When I played that role, I was scared to death about taking on that responsibility. What I realized what I was doing was that that wasn’t my responsibility to come up with a character. My responsibility was just to be as present as possible in every moment. Just try to be alive in the moment. Keep breathing. Whatever the character is will be determined at the end of the process—after the editors do their things, and the directors and the writers.
This character is the same thing. I was kind of scared s–tless at the beginning. This guy was so incredibly smart and fast and facile with his mind and charming. Whenever you hear the word charming, by the way, it’s a bit like saying, “Don’t think about the elephant.” “Just be charming,” they say. Okay, I’ll just flick the switch. But, again, it was just about playing the moments.
These writers came up with such incredibly unique and weird and eccentric and funny lines and moments. I just tried to breathe and be present. They all add up after a while. Other than that, you just lose your mind trying to be something your not. I mean, I’m not a brilliant chess player. I don’t even have blond hair.
Hulu: There is this new genre on TV of males acting like dicks but being really endearing. But it’s very hard to do that. That character rarely exists in real life. You get one who is brilliant and it’s very hard not to like him. Were you conscious of trying to be tough and gritty, while being the guy in this show that every viewer needs to like? How did you put both of those things together?
Doyle: I think it requires a great amount of denial about what you’re doing. For me, it’s too much pressure to take on, “Oh God, I’ve gotta be ‘the guy.’ If I suck, the show sucks. If I don’t find those other elements than the ‘gritty dark,’ then how are we going to make this show?”
I think it’s just about jumping off the cliff. You’ve gotta have faith. You’ve gotta trust the writing. Even with the accent—the accent was this long process. We went with something that was originally more authentically Russian. Then I realized that the Russian accent that I was going to do was not going to be big enough for this sort of character. So I made him more of this cosmopolitan European. It’s not a 100-percent authentic Russian accent. At some point, I have to go, “Well, screw that.” I can’t concern myself with that anymore. It’s more important that I just play the character.
I think there was concern that it was all going to be too dark and that I was going to play this too dark. I’ve played pretty heavy characters in the past.
Hulu: Actually, it comes off as very light, considering the circumstances.
Doyle: Well, you know, when I met these guys I said the success of this character is going to rely on how the actor who plays him can surprise himself. You can’t go into knowing what you’re going to do with any moment or any scene with this character. You’ve just got to, again, just jump off that cliff and find out where you land. There’s that element of surprise for yourself that makes it fun. What people are responding to with this character, I think, is not that the character is charming or funny or light, but that I’m having fun doing it. I think that’s what’s attractive about it.
It’s also a blast, like you said, being a dick and being smart. It’s so much fun to mess with other people’s heads. As an actor, I’d find ways to play and screw around with people. You get the freedom to do that in front of the character that you’d never have in real life.
Hulu: Oh, this sounds fun. Give me one of the examples of you screwing around with people.
Doyle: In the first episode, when I go down to argue with the hotel manager to not cut off my tab, there’s one moment when my arms, unbeknownst to myself decided to do this crazy, bird-flapping breakdance thing. It’s not anything an actor would choose to do because it’s far less than cool. I did that in the scene and, at the end of the scene, I did a pirouette. These are things that House is not allowed to do. There’s certainly moments like that that happen throughout the shooting of the entire season. You’re never sure if they’ll ever make the episode, but more often than not they did. Because without those very peculiar, eccentric moments, then he’s just another detective.
The other thing, with this character, is that I walk around so quickly. I’m almost like a bird. He’s got a lot of things to do and a lot of places to go, except he’s going nowhere and hardly doing anything. There’s kind of a compensation for that. Our creator and our director, David Frazee, think this is something just works. It helps dictate the rhythm of the show in a way.
Hulu: This show does something that no other show really does: It has an actual grasp of technology. It tries to do detective work in ways that people might actually do things nowadays. It’s something that procedurals and crime shows just don’t have right now. They rely on old, 40-year-old tricks. You’ll see the same thing on an A-Team episode that you’ll see on CSI next week. In this show, you’re using texting tricks and using iPhones. There are no beep-boop computer noises. It’s very focused and modern. It doesn’t seem like TV. It seems like something someone would do in real life.
Doyle: The genesis for using all of those things was to make it modern, but it was also so a detective who was (stuck in a hotel) could actually do things. He wouldn’t have data banks and police resources. And, of course, it makes the show look cooler and sexier when you can hold up an iPad and zoom through a picture. For me, what made the show is when we got to these brain moments when he had to figure out how to do things in a different way than we’ve done them before. Some of that was accomplished with CGI, some of it was very theatrical in that there were real-time effects happening on-set. I think a lot of the technology helped facilitate that.
Hulu: So if you were talking to someone who had an hour or two to burn on Hulu one day, what would be your elevator pitch for “Endgame?”
Doyle: My elevator pitch?
Hulu: Is that a phrase anywhere but here? I just realized that this might be an inside baseball thing.
Doyle: I think so.
Hulu: Man, I’m so glad Canada does not have the phrase “elevator pitch.” So, if you’re trying to convince someone to watch something or do something, what is your best 15 second pitch for that person?
Doyle: The reason to watch “Endgame” is that if you’re a fan of the mystery genre, you’re going to find a combination of “Columbo,” “House,” “Inspector Poirot,” and “Sherlock Holmes” all tied in with something that’s modern and slightly whimsical. But, at the same time, it sometimes has really heavy dramatic undertones.
Hulu: What are your thoughts on releasing this show to U.S. audiences for the first time?
Doyle: Well, I think the show is really unique. If there’s anything American TV has proven over the last ten years, it’s that people are really curious about what the new, unique take is on things. I think it’s a really new, unique character, and we’re seeing it all over the world. I’ve got so many followers of this show—this character—from every corner of the globe. It’s crazy. From Turkey and Russia to Australia, New Zealand, South America, Africa and Europe. Clearly, it’s striking a chord with people. So I’m looking forward to it striking a chord in the States.
Hulu: And how do you feel about Hulu and releasing shows digitally in general?
Doyle: There was a period of time in the early 2000s and I was in California shooting a movie called “The Majestic” with Frank Darabont and I stopped in to see a specific casting director who was a fan of mine. She had introduced me to a bunch of creators of a show called “The Shield.” She was wondering if I was interested in coming in and auditioning for it—the Michael Chiklis role—a brilliant role. And that night I called my manager at the time—who I’m no longer with—and he said, “You don’t want to be on some stupid thing on FX! Nobody watches FX! Come on!”
And I think I learned a really valuable lesson at that moment—that you have to be cognizant of what the trends are, what history is, and what direction it’s going in. And, at the end of the day, good stories are what’s going to draw people in—whatever the medium is.