One conversation with the veteran actor reveals Sebastian Roché to be a polished raconteur, a welcomed throwback to the transatlantic affectations that permeated film in the early twentieth century. Although still a young man, Roché is a member of the old guard. Classically trained, he has shared the stage with Al Pacino in Salome and worked with director Julie Taymor on The Green Bird and Titus Andronicus.
In film, he has collaborated with director Steven Spielberg on The Adventures of Tintin, Michael Mann on The Last of the Mohicans and Robert Zemeckis on Beowulf. And on television, Roché has cultivated a large fanbase on Fringe as Thomas Jerome Newton, on the long-running Supernatural as Balthazar, on General Hospital as terrorist Jerry Jacks and on The Vampire Diaries as Mikael.
In 2013, a spinoff of The Vampire Diaries debuted set in the world of Mikael. Called The Originals, the new CW series focused on the original family of vampires that would eventually begat the biters at the center of the soapy Vampire Diaries. And Mikael is their patriarch, the powerful primogenitor of the world’s most beautiful brood.
Sebastian spoke with me over the phone from the set of The Originals, which is set in New Orleans and filmed on location in Georgia and Louisiana. The show’s second season finale aired on April 20.
MH: Whether it’s politics or bad movies, your Twitter feed is very bold, sir.
SR: Haha. Yes, it is!
MH: Is that your stream of consciousness or do you take to Twitter with a purpose?
SR: I believe in being opinionated. I like to engage in a discussion with the people that actually follow and maybe look up to you and maybe are interested. I don’t only want to post selfies of me or photos of my chest when I’m working out. To me, politics is something that I’m passionate about. It started in my early childhood in France, and I continue to be involved in politics and the things that I care about. The environment, women’s rights and how loathsome something like ISIS is. How dangerous ideologies are all over the world.
I like big ideas. And people can write me back and tell me that I’m an jerk and that’s fine. And actually, some of my followers get a bit of their news from my Twitter feed. Some people get their news from Jon Stewart. I’m not saying I’m Jon Stewart, but I like to have a little more consciousness in my little realm of social media.
MH: I think a lot of people in the entertainment industry stay away from politics for business purposes. But at the end of the day, I think most people who have a passion for politics really have a passion for people. That’s really their concern that is shining through.
SR: Yes, absolutely. And I just don’t believe in shutting your mouth. I can’t. It’s something that is just not in my DNA. I just don’t subscribe to that kind of thought. I’m not criticizing anyone for not doing it. I just think we love the art of debate. People hate to have an opinion, but I think that’s how we evolve as a human species. There’s nothing wrong with voicing your opinion. However bad it is!
MH: And how uninformed it is sometimes!
SR: Haha! And uninformed, yes!
MH: We’ve lost the ability to debate as gentlemen. Everybody goes for the jugular right from the beginning.
SR: I used to love that growing up as a child. The French loved to debate the Brits and there were really interesting conversation going on. People would sometimes scream at each other, and at the end of the night, they’d go, “Oh wonderful, that was a great discussion. Let’s go have a drink.” Now, it’s a much more divisive society, especially in American politics. I think Congress has contributed largely in doing that. The extreme sides of the parties contributed to a total lack of dialogue and a regressive mentality. Only eight percent of Americans like our elective body. We basically hate their guts and yet we continue to elect them. It’s a sad state of society, it really is.
MH: Well, we can’t give up what we enjoy complaining about everyday.
SR: Exactly! Ha! It would be nice to do a clean sweep and get the money out of politics. Then we’d start to see the people who actually do something, instead of worrying about their re-election and who’s going to fund and support them.
MH: Plus, we also must have good characters to parody on Saturday Night Live. That’s the thing we really need as Americans.
SR: That’s true! You’re right. But that will always be there. From the days of Punch and Judy to the great caricatures from the 19th century to now. It’s always easy to parody someone. I can parody most of my fellow actors so easily. I’m sure there’s someone out there parodying me! In fact, I know there is! My best friend. He basically makes fun of me on a daily basis.
MH: On the television series The Vampire Diaries and The Originals, you play a vampire. And vampire’s are, of course, immortal.
SR: Yes, I play one of the oldest vampires that exists.
MH: In real life, you really take great care of yourself. What is the key to looking thirty years old forever?
SR: Hahaha! The key is diet and exercise. If I was responding seriously, without humor, I would say living a very active lifestyle. Eating responsibly. Seeing the benefits of eating fresh food and limiting animal fat (although that’s for different reasons). If you eat too much processed foods you will get sick. It’s very important to lead a healthy life and get enough of sleep. Meditation. It’s not that easy. I live a blessed lifestyle. It’s not an easy thing to do at times. When you’re working eight-to-six and you’ve got five kids and you’re not making enough money, it’s very hard. Hopefully, we can bring consciousness to people and encourage them to live by these rules, and they’ll lead a much happier and healthier lifestyle.
MH: You’re in Georgia shooting The Originals right now. How was set today?
SR: It was really good. We finished doing this extremely intense episode. It is very rewarding when the roles are so well written. Huge stakes. There’s a lot of scenes with the stars, including Joseph Morgan. He’s a wonderful actor. He’s pretty fabulous.
MH: I can tell that you’re a very intellectually engaged actor.
SR: Yes, I am. I’m intellectually engaged. I’m also very passionately, emotionally engaged. Very much so. You fall in love with acting. You fall in love with it, and it’s a love story that will last until the day you die. There are two types of actors: those who want to be famous and those who are passionately in love with the craft.
MH: I can tell that you are engaged with the character you are playing and the character that others are playing. But there are also some actors who I feel are really unconcerned with the particular character. The fun for them is engaging purely with the other actor or purely with the director.
SR: That is also a lot of fun! Acting is reacting. Whatever your partner in the scene does will affect your performance. And also, the director can make your performance better. He can freeze you up, but most of the time they can make your performance better. They can say, “It’s too much, bring it down a bit.” It’s a very collaborative art form. That’s what makes it so fascinating.
MH: I love that The Vampire Diaries and now The Originals have come into this genre space that was already well trodden, and they have just done their own thing. They have their own mythology that’s really compelling.
SR: It really is. It really stands on its own. It’s very emotionally complex family dynamic. It’s a fascinating series. It takes place in New Orleans, actually, which is a really interesting place to set the series. With all its history and heritage with voodoo and magic. They are part of the cultural heritage.
MH: If vampires were real, they would definitely live in New Orleans.
SR: They would definitely live in New Orleans. I’m sure if it. But to tell you the truth, I have to admit I’ve never been to New Orleans. It’s a town that I’ve always wanted to go to, being of French origin. I’m a huge foodie. I’m half French. I should’ve gone to New Orleans, but I’ve still never been. I’m sure I’ll be there in the near future.
MH: It really is the only European city in America.
SR: I really would love to experience that. I know the amazing Jazz Festival that I might be coming to. I think I might be coming to Jazz Fest if my schedule can permit it.
MH: I’ve got some questions for the fans of The Vampire Diaries and The Originals. Mikael has a really messy history with his children. Klaus especially. Why has your hatred for him lasted so long?
SR: Knowing the history of the family, it started pretty early. Even before Mikael found out that he was a bastard son, I think there was something about the boy that rubbed Mikael wrong. There was maybe a degree of competition. Not with the other sons. There was something about Klaus that he instinctively knew that he was not of his own blood. And I think that was a very interesting point in the flashbacks. When he found out that he was a bastard son, then his suspicions were proven true. He truly took on a new dimension in hating his bastard son.
The crazy thing is that he taught him everything he knew. He was not the son that he expected because he was not as much of a warrior. As soon as he grew of age, I think Mikael taught him how to become the monster that he was himself. It’s funny because he’s not Mikael’s son but he’s the most like Mikael. And the dynamic of the show is interesting. The hatred grew even more when Klaus decided to kill his wife and make Mikael take the blame for it. Therefore, creating a thousand year old antagonistic relationship with the whole family. He lost basically everything. Not only did he lose his wife, he lost the rest of his brood, his bloodline.
For a thousand years, he was a hunter trying to hunt down Klaus. Over that period of revenge and hatred, he turned it into a true art form. It’s a fascinating hypothesis: how do you live for a thousand years with the knowledge that you accumulate and hatred that grows? You do not age and yet you “age.” You go through heartbreaks, you still have this vengeful hatred in your heart. Which comes from pain. I truly believe that Mikael’s bloodlust comes from pain. Deep within him.
MH: That reminds me of the saying, “Hate is injured love.”
SR: Absolutely. Before Klaus was born, Freya, the daughter that he loved before everything went awry, died at the age of three. And it created a true sadness within Mikael. She was the apple of his eye. His first daughter. His first child. He loved her and he felt responsible for her death. She was never found again. You’ll see what happens in the episodes to come. It’s really intense. It’s a pretty intense dynamic with what happens to her. He’s a wounded übermensch. He’s got a thousand years of experience within his tortured brain. A fascinating character, really.
MH: He’s a really unique guy. With some issues. Why do you think that Mikael drinks vampire blood?
SR: Mikael drinks from vampire blood because he has no respect for other vampires other than himself. I think that he considers himself above. I think it’s a way for him to gather the strength, experience and knowledge. Like warriors who would eat the brains of the enemy to gain their strength. There’s a bit of a medieval warrior, a Viking warrior, in Mikael. It’s a sense of domination. He is the alpha vampire. Therefore, anyone under him deserves to die. He’s a very ruthless character. A lot have died within his path.
MH: They’ve definitely got you doing some gruesome stuff on this show as Mikael!
SR: There’s more to come! It’s gruesome, but that’s his way of defending himself. It’s his life. That’s what he’s been living for a thousand years. He’s a warrior. He’s the alpha warrior-vampire of all. Nobody should stand in his way.
MH: Is that how they pitched the character to you? If I was an actor, and somebody gave me a pitch like that, I’d be like, “Where do I sign??”
SR: Oh yeah, believe me! They told me he was a vampire hunter. They did tell me that he was the father. And I thought, “What a great role to play!” We had gone into the Viking stuff. I knew about that. I thought, “What an extraordinary character to play.” He’s really a truly exhausting character to play, and I mean that in a good way. He carries with him so much energy. The fiery ruthlessness that he carries with him is exhausting to play. His potential is intensity. It’s like doing gymnastics for hours. Gymnastics of the mind. You feel that his eyes are on fire. He looks the part.
MH: He’s a really brutal guy. The rumors are that there will plenty of flashbacks with the family. In the near future, or maybe in the distant future, do you think we might get a glimpse of the softer side?
SR: You will! That’s all I can say, really. I don’t want to divulge too much. There will be a softer side. In his own way, of course! It’s always got to be in his own way.
MH: Are we gonna see a softer side of Sebastian when you play King Stephen in Once Upon a Time?
SR: Maybe. Ha!
MH: I think anything is softer than Mikael.
SR:Yes, anything is softer than Mikael. This is a character that is still evolving. I’m interested to see what will happen in the coming weeks.
MH: Are you familiar with the novels that the show is based on?
SR: I’m not, actually. The show is based on the Vampire Diaries novels.
MH: You should put in a bid to read the audio books. I think you’d be a pretty good read. It also makes so much sense because Mikael is the patriarch.
SR: I would love that. You know, you’re right. That’s actually a really good idea! Cause they did release the books. An Originals book. That’d be a good idea!
MH: You’re on this other show, Supernatural. The fan base is absolutely crazy with enthusiasm.
SR: It’s unbelievable. It’s the most formidable fan base I’ve ever seen. I’m sure Star Trek actors go through the same thing. But I think this is the closest to Trekkies there is. I think the fan base is actually even bigger now. I don’t know, exactly. But the Supernatural fan base is incredible, and it’s been such an amazing ride. And I was on season six or seven for six episodes. My character was actually one of these characters who they wrote so well. He was an angel who was sort of debonair and decadent. I think he left an indelible mark on the fandom.
MH: It’s huge! That show has legions and legions of fans. And has been on the air for eleven or twelve years now?
SR: Yeah for twelve years. They’re amazing. We love our Supernatural fans. I love my Originals and Vampire Diaries fans as well but there’s a lot of crossover. It’s fabulous. And doing those Supernatural conventions is a way of seeing those fans again. Seeing them and thanking them for supporting us. That’s why I love doing those events. Most of the Supernatural actors and guest actors have become gracious friends. We love just having this wonderful travelling theatrical troupe. It’s truly like a brotherhood on Supernatural. All these actors are really interesting people. Good people. It’s a great group. It’s been amazing. We’ve travelled the world spreading the Supernatural love. It’s been really fabulous. I’m still amazed to this day.
MH: Is there any chance that Balthazar will make a comeback on Supernatural?
SR: Aww, man I would love to. I’m gonna have to call the producers and say, “Hey, guys how bout it?” That would be phenomenal. I would do it in a second.
MH: The fans are really what are holding the show together.
SR: Absolutely. The show is going into its twelfth season!
MH: Daytime dramas shoot incredibly fast and are very demanding on the actor. How did your work on General Hospital pay dividends into your skillset as an actor?
SR: First, I didn’t do it at the beginning of my career. I did it a little
when I was younger, but I didn’t understand the process. I was too green at the time. When I had the second opportunity of doing it, I wasn’t sure about it. But I took the job and it was one of the best decisions I made in my life. It completely changed my life.
I was in New York and I was going through a difficult time. I went to do the job on General Hospital and they welcomed me with open arms and treated me so beautifully. They gave me basically carte blanche to play this pretty incredible character, who was a mastermind of evil. Because that’s what I do, it seems! Ha! But he was a great character who took the whole cast hostage. I did forty episodes and it went so well. I had so much fun on it.
It is extremely rigorous in the sense that you have to learn about thirty pages of dialogue. In this case, I had to shoot nearly all monologues. It was amazing in the sense that I felt very free. I thought to myself, I’m gonna use this to experiment. To relax as an actor. It was like doing theater because it was going so fast. And it does go very, very fast. You have to be very well prepared! It was an absolute joy.
It didn’t last very long, but it completely regenerated me as an actor. It’s funny and it’s really interesting: I had grown a little disillusioned and I started having so much fun again. They gave me so much license with my character. And they trusted me. I had so much fun and I explored. I overdid it at times. Then, I underdid it. I experimented and it was great!
So, I understand what Bryan Cranston says when you have to work fast, and you have to suss out a scene very quickly. You are basically working that acting muscle. Then you find something that shoots slower and it’s a luxury to you. It’s fantastic. It was a great experience. I couldn’t be more thankful. They’re so nice. Every year they bring me back for a tiny little stint and they’re so gracious to me. They’ve been really wonderful. I’m very thankful for that.
MH: There’s something good about the artistic mind being pushed to produce a great amount of volume. Who knows what Charles Dickens’ career would have looked like if he wasn’t pushed to stretch out his stories in the papers. If he had been too precious about his art form, he would have ended up only producing one or two books that weren’t as voluminous.
SR: It’s the same with Alexandre Dumas, the French author who wrote Three Musketeers and other truly wonderful masterpieces of literature. And they were not considered masterpieces at the time, but they are. He wrote volumes of books, too. It depends. I also think that in an actor’s career, there’s one defining role that will define you all your life. Well, maybe not always. Meryl Streep is a total genius and everything she does is flabbergastingly good. Art in great volume can be wonderful. It can be amazing. I mean, look at Van Gogh. He produced a tremendous amount of volume as well. Picasso, too.
MH: You had a role in one of my favorite movies of all time, The Last of the Mohicans. What are your memories of being on Michael Mann’s set?
SR: It was great. It was one of my first jobs. It was so amazing to me to be on such a massive movie set. I adored Michael Mann and I still adore him as a filmmaker. He’s one of these really honest, frank filmmakers and I think he’s a genius filmmaker. The Insider is one of my favorite films ever! For me, it’s one of the most perfect films ever made, along with Heat. It was an honor to be on that movie. I experienced it for six weeks but I was cut from the movie. I loved the way he worked with us.
He loves actors. He trusts them. He was very gracious with me even during the audition process. I love the man. The Last of the Mohicans was a massive enterprise, shooting in Asheville, North Carolina.
MH: In many ways, it was one of the last films that would shoot on that scale until CG came in and really changed the way movies are made.
SR: I love that about it! There’s no CG. There are movies where CG is used beautifully and you need it. But I’m excited that I heard that the new Star Wars will not use as much CG. It’ll go back to the classic Star Wars and I’m so happy about that. I think that CG can de-nature a movie. It turns into cartoon. I’m more of an indie type of viewer. Anything that’s independent, foreign. Gimme subtitles galore. I love it. My favorite movies of this year were Whiplash, Leviathan, the Russian movie. Ida, the Polish movie. There’s so much good stuff. I’m a huge movie buff. I’ve realized I’ve seen a lot of stuff. Some obscure stuff. But even Guardians of the Galaxy, I loved. One of the best superhero movies I’ve seen in a long time. It reminded me of the first time I saw Star Wars.
Sebastian Roché is a supporter of Room to Read, which works in collaboration with communities and local governments across Asia and Africa to develop literacy and other life skills. Find out more at roomtoread.org.
Micah Haley is an author and filmmaker and a partner in Scene Magazine. His recent projects include two short horror thrillers, The Angel and The Red Ribbon. Both are now available on Amazon. You can find more of his work at micahhaley.com, on Twitter at @MicahHaley and on Instagram at @itsMicahHaley.
(Some photos by Odessy Barbu and some courtesy of AMC)