Film: Waiting on a Breakthrough

Nathan Fillion shines in actress/writer/director Adrienne Shelly's swansong, 'Waitress'

May 23, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Fox Searchlight

Love doctor: Nathan Fillion and Keri Russell in Waitress.

Actor Nathan Fillion looks a lot like Han Solo, but, oddly enough, looks nothing like Harrison Ford. That's probably because the role he's most famous for — Captain Malcolm Reynolds on Joss Whedon's television series Firefly — is a wise-cracking space pirate just like Solo.

"Not really, no," he says when asked if he's ever made it through one of these promotional interviews without some fanboy like me asking him about Firefly or its big-screen spin-off, Serenity. "And you know what? I'm all for it. I've got no problem with those who are passionate about it. I'm passionate about it. On some level, they too have been touched and that's a good feeling to me."

It's a sunny Los Angeles day, one of the first truly hot days of spring, as Fillion hunches over a tape recorder in his Le Meridien hotel room in Beverly Hills. He's convinced that said tape recorder is, in fact, not working. This is probably because the sun pouring through the open double doors to the balcony is so bright that he can't see the red recording light blinking every time he says into it, "Test, test, test, test."

He's here, anxious to discuss his latest movie, Waitress, a project he's so damn pleased about that no matter what you ask him every one of his answers somehow, with a politician's oracular ease, comes back to it.

"There was a certain amount of appeal, 'cause I wanted to shift out of what I was doing," he explains, brandishing one of his boyish grins.

The guy is so gosh-golly good that you have to assume he's a Midwestern blue-collar graduate when he's actually — gasp! — Canadian.

"And yet I certainly enjoy what I've been doing," he says. "I get to play these heroic characters in larger-than-life situations — space captains, police chiefs dealing with alien invasions, you know."

Previous to saving the galaxy, he was a regular on One Life to Live before 1998 changed his life with a bit part in Saving Private Ryan and the lead opposite Ryan Reynolds in Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place, which was eventually cancelled thanks to bad writing that couldn't support even two of the funniest men on television at the time. Science-fiction fans weren't complaining — Firefly debuted in 2003 and, after a dozen episodes, was also cancelled.

Wait, that's not right, is it? Actually it is. Despite a fan base, called "Browncoats," as devoted as any "Trekkie" to Star Trek, Firefly died.

To make it up to Fillion, Whedon cast him on the final season of his other show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Through no fault of Fillion's, that show was cancelled, too.

Some might say Fillion's cursed, but the truth is that unlike most B-movie stars — which Fillion admits he seems to have become — he's widely regarded by critics as actually being good at what he does, thus it's becoming increasingly bizarre that he's yet to find the success he deserves.

This season's new gig, the television series Driven, isn't going to do it, and it's highly unlikely Waitress, despite being a saccharine-sweet romantic comedy, will get him there with its small indie-film profile.

"You know, as far as the direction of my career, it's like being on a roller coaster," he says, quick to insist none of his "luck" had anything to do with something like a strategy or even a great eye for projects. "You don't know where it's going, but it's obviously going somewhere else. Some bits go up, some bits go down. You're on it, on this ride, and it's exciting, but you have very little control as to where it's going. I've been very fortunate that my roller coaster ride has had a lot of ups."

That brings us back to Waitress, which is where Fillion's heart is today. It also stars Keri Russell as an unhappily married Southern gal with a knack for baking pies. After discovering her hubby knocked her up during one of the few times a year he gets her drunk enough to have sex, she begins a quip-filled affair with her gynecologist played by, you guessed it, Captain Malcolm Reynolds. Well, Nathan Fillion.

"I'm really happy with how it turned out," he says. "I enjoyed the work, I enjoyed the time filming it, and I'm so happy — what with the tragedy now — to have been involved."

That tragedy, which is about to make this interview get uncomfortable, involves director and star Adrienne Shelly, who was murdered in her Manhattan apartment on Nov. 1, 2006. When he's asked if he still remembers the moment he found out, his eyes grow teary and his voice chokes.

"Sometimes, it hits me harder than others, I'll be honest," he says of her death and of the act of promoting a movie she loved so much.

It's "as surreal as it is that I'm in a movie. I really can't believe I'm in a movie. That's not an everyday thing for me, and that feels special to me — that's surreal. The tragic loss — absolutely surreal. The fact that I am here, enjoying people say how much they like the movie, that's really great, but the woman who really deserves the credit isn't here and will never know what she accomplished. That's surreal.

"I try not to focus on the sad and instead focus on the blessing it was," he continues. "It really should have been just one more in a long line of projects from this beautiful lady, and now it's a legacy."

After another moment, he adds, "There is no accounting for crazy in this world." ©