Julian McMahon doesn’t look much like fans are used to seeing him in Hunters, and the veteran actor is quite happy about it.
McMahon plays alien terrorist Lionel McCarthy in the new Syfy series. On the run from a government agency known as the Exo-Terrorism Unit, McCarthy wears dreadlocks, then dyes his spiky new ‘do Billy Idol white. There will be more looks, McMahon promises.
“I came up with this idea that each time he was seen by these guys he changed his look,” McMahon said. “I think we went through a total of about 12 looks and six of them will make the screen.”
I chatted with McMahon and his fellow cast members Britne Oldford and Nathan Phillips in January during the TV Critics Association winter tour in Pasadena, Calif. Oldford plays an alien working for the ETU and Phillips stars as her new partner, a former FBI agent whose wife is kidnapped by McCarthy.
The international cast members talked about the terrorism allegory prevalent in “Hunters,” living in a diverse world and McMahon’s ever-changing look in the show.
Are your characters more in danger from outside forces or from inner issues or conflicts?
Britne Oldford: Allison Regan is definitely, significantly more in danger from herself. She’s so conflicted with the hunter that is within. She’s concerned about what she will do nearly at all times trying to be human, working with the humans against her own kind.
I think that’s really this moral dilemma that we all go through: Are we our worst critics? Are we our worst enemies? That’s something that I think each character experiences and is part of each character’s journey in this show.
Julian McMahon: I think every character goes through that, and there’s the extraneous and outside circumstances which become very untrustworthy. Another element on top of that is the environment that the characters are working in; the environment that we’re living in becomes untrustworthy. So each of our characters specifically are living in an environment that at some point in time turns against them in some way.
And then you also have the internal conflict and that is the internal conflict of the individual. And all three of us, every character in the show goes through that, even the smaller parts, I think. There’s conflict throughout it. I think there are really kind of three layers to that.
Nathan Phillips: There are a lot of gears for our characters. The characters were given their flaws and their idiosyncrasies, their strengths and their weaknesses. We’re very human. At times I found it so interesting because the humans seemed more alien and more monstrous than the aliens. So what’s human and how do we define human and humanity? What’s the human condition? What are we remembered as? What are the best things about us?
For me, the highest [accomplishment] of civilization has been our art, and storytelling to me is so important. So now we’ve got this sci-fi genre and this massive cosmic vastness of possibilities with the characters, with their alien-like qualities, with the insecurities, their issues—let alone a guy who’s got PTSD and is looking for his wife.Then he’s introduced to Britne’s character and the world of the ETU, the exo-terrorism unit.
And then he encounters the other aliens like Julian’s character, who’s this enigmatic, crazy, pop culture dude. He just sucks up everything. He’s a very interesting character because he seems to be more human than he was alien at times. But he was such a piss take on humanity as well. I found it so intriguing, because I was constantly thinking the humans are worse than the aliens.
With the allegory for aliens and terrorism and the subject matter …, I think it’s going to be very entertaining and enlightening to watch. And Gale Ann Hurd and Natalie Chaidez are two wonderful women of film. [Editor’s note: They are producers of the show.]
Nathan, is your character initially the Donald Trump of Hunters in that he doesn’t want to be around an alien?
Phillips: [Laughs.] No, no.
Oldford: I definitely think that it’s difficult for anyone who hasn’t experienced something outside of their world—something that’s different—to be accepting and understanding because there’s so much fear in the unknown. But over time I think anyone is capable of accepting and at least being able to relate to the characteristics and morals and values of others. Speaking to our world and our Earth, everyone around the world has very similar struggles at various points in their lives.
The aliens-as-terrorists allegory in Hunters is so close to what is happening in the world today. Did you recognize from the beginning that this was much more than another alien series?
Phillips: We’re touching a very sensitive subject matter, but in such a safe environment of sci-fi.
Oldford: What struck me—and I’m very open about talking about this—[were parallels to individual struggles]. It can be very hard to be of mixed race. It can be very hard to be a woman. It can be very hard to be a man. It can be just hard to be your individual person. Talking about “the other,” or immigrants or people from different cultures, different walks of life, different sexualities, different genders—it can be very difficult to just get on and live your life on a day-to-day basis.
That’s something that each character deals with, which is very accessible, as Nathan said, under this umbrella of sci-fi or fantasy or supernatural, superheroes, et cetera. It’s something that we love. These are genres and sub-genres that we love to watch and that we are very entertained by, but at the same time strike us on such a personal level. That is amazing and that’s at least why I wanted to get on board—aside from Gale and Natalie and Whitley Strieber [who wrote the book upon which “Hunters” is based] and everybody else involved and my fellow actors. We have some amazing talent.
Phillips: And we have amazing aesthetics and amazing effects crews and stunt crew. It’s a real big bang for your buck show. I definitely didn’t waste my time … I can’t make my time back. My time is well served on this. Sharing a great concept, great storytelling. So walk away with that and hopefully an audience will just enjoy that.
Julian, you have a very different look in Hunters. How have you felt about that?
Phillips: A lot of time in the makeup chair, mate.
McMahon: I kind of started this whole thing and then in the middle of it I was like, “What am I doing?” I should have just shaved my head and just kept it zen the whole time. … It was a lot of conversations, a lot of photographs on phones sent to networks to get comments back. “What the hell does he think he’s doing in that outfit and that hair” and blah, blah, blah.
There were some things I was quite specific about. I really liked the dreadlock thing at the beginning, and that was hard to sell to everybody. Nobody wanted that. I set it up with the makeup girls to be able to take it off really quickly and do something else really quickly. I said to the producers, “Look, just give me an opportunity to show it to you on film.” It’s very different seeing it on a snapshot in a trailer than it is on film. We put it on film and just because of the angles and the lighting and the structure it kind of worked. So that was really fun for me.
I did spend a lot of time in the makeup trailer but I’ve got to tell you, I loved every second of it because I felt like I was really kind of creating something that was unique for me, that’s for sure.
Phillips: That was definitely unique to watch, mate. I had a great time acting with him because it was always like a show. Every take he had something different. The writing was great, too. It helps to have a good blueprint so you know how to design the house.
Oldford: You never knew which McCarthy you were going to get, which is very exciting.
Phillips: Internally, it’s very dark and scary and it’s horror. There are a lot of different tones and its shot very beautifully. The cinematography is gorgeous. So you’ve got lovely human essence all through it of just the senses. The show’s about senses, and you realize how much we’re not in tune with our senses. The characters are great because they’re so varied—just like you said there are the Donald Trumps and there are the Bernie Sanders and as in our show we have them. There are people who you want to fear, but let’s try to understand them and ask questions before we shoot first. So you’ve got that dichotomy there.
McMahon: And in the shooting we had some talented Australian directors, too. There were a bunch of really cool indie film directors who came and put their mark on it. They all had their individual take on it and it was really cool to not have to have a continuity of piece. Obviously there is and I’m sure they’ll cut it that way, but each director came in with their own vision and their own sensibilities of what they wanted to bring to the piece.
Speaking of Australians, there are so many Aussie actors in the U.S. now. Do you feel you helped kick off that trend, Julian?
McMahon: I came over when Nicole came over and Russell came over. I think it was the three of us kind of at that point in time. Obviously we know them very well; they succeeded greatly. But they came over a little bit different than I did. They came over with really good films under their belts. I kind of just wanted to move somewhere else.
And look, things were different then. I was talking to a friend of mine yesterday about this and they were talking about the Australian invasion. At that point in time they were calling it the Australian invasion because Paul Hogan was here and those guys were here and I was here. And now it’s more so. But at that point in time it was difficult to get permits. It was difficult to get work in things. You couldn’t do anything in Australia and the U.S. government and the Australian government were not as friendly as they are now. So it was a different kind of beast at that point in time.
Look, talent is talent and I love seeing talent be successful and I’m not talking about financially successful. I’m talking about being able to express themselves. Canadian, Australian—I’m a hybrid.
Phillips: I’ve been here since I was 18 and I love it. In Venice Beach. [He’s Australian as well.]
Oldford: And I have dual citizenship. I’m American and Canadian, so that’s been kind of a trip.
McMahon: I love living here. When I go back to Australia I love going back to Australia, but when I come home here I feel like I’m home.
Phillips: Me too.
McMahon: It’s been a big part of my life. I’ve actually lived in America longer than I lived in Australia.