Alexander Siddig interview: Alien: River Of Pain, Star Trek

Deep Space Nine's Dr Bashir himself, Alexander Siddig, chats to us about his new Alien drama, and his Star Trek past.

Adapted from the 2014 novel by Christopher Golden, Alien: River Of Pain is a new audio drama released on Audible. We spoke to Alexander Siddig, who plays the villainous Dr. Reese about working on the production and how – as Dr. Bashir on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – he was ahead of his time…

Can you tell us about the Alien audio drama and who you’re playing in it?

It was written by Christopher Golden, who’s written several terrific Alien novels, and directed by Dirk Maggs, and it uses some of the familiar tropes – big deserted ship found on a frontier mining colony, people snoop around and find things they shouldn’t find, and life gets pretty hectic. I play a character called Dr. Reese, who’s one of a group of scientists sent to the far reaches of space to hopefully capture an alien alive – despite whatever human cost that incurs. So I’m not a particularly nice piece of work.

The scientists in Alien stories tend not to be!

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No, no they don’t. I’m pretty ruthless even by those standards!

Do you enjoy that sort of role?

It’s great fun to do in audio. I love doing most of the roles I get, but this one was terrific fun. I could really make up what this guy looks like, it doesn’t really matter that I look like me, walking in off the tube really messy. It’s all about the voice. I really enjoy audio work because it’s a halfway house between a novel and a movie, and the audience’s imagination can run riot.

So what’s your relationship with the Alien franchise? I mean, I assume you’re a fan of the original…

Oh, big fan! I’m 51, so I remember seeing it in the cinema and it was one of the best movies I’d ever seen at the time. I’m not a devotee, it’s not like I can’t wait for the next iteration. But I’ll watch a new one when it’s on telly. I think the original’s one of the most imaginative and scary films around.

Am I right in thinking Alien: River Of Pain is a horror piece too?

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It’s a suspense-horror I suppose, yeah. The amount of gore is quite minimal, like the first Alien movie where you only saw bits of the thing from time to time and had no idea what it looked like. I think an audio piece can do that really well too. I think unlike the later versions of the franchise we can do that a lot better in audio, partly because our hunger for carnage is so heightened that you have to start with it and keep going!

How did you come to be involved with it?

I got offered it! Just out of the blue. That’s how I get about half of what I do, I’m a very lazy actor. I don’t look at what might be happening and go “ooh, I want to be involved with that!” and then track down producers and directors. I just hang about and wait to see what happens. Sometimes someone comes along and asks me to do stuff!

Have you worked with Dirk Maggs before?

I haven’t! He’s really lovely. He’s really lovely, it didn’t really feel like working at lot of the time. On my first day we say round a big boardroom table and were just chatting away, and started reading scenes from the show. It wasn’t until about halfway through the day where I had to check whether we were rehearsing and he went “no no, this is all recorded!”

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So he’s got a very unusual way of doing this sort of thing, he does like to mix it up.

There are few better people to work with inside the medium.

He’s really brilliant yeah, I’ve been very lucky with my directors in audio. I also worked with John Dryden who was great, and recently discovered they’re really good mates. I can see why! They’ve both got a weird, mixed-up style of doing things, working in the street and in attics and stuff.

Do you have to dial your performance up, knowing that you haven’t got expressions and body language to work with?

You’ve got to be expressIVE – you don’t want to waste the valuable syllables. But the mic is so close to you, and it’s so quiet, that you can speak very quietly indeed. There’s a lot more subtlety and range, that I can get at least, by being quite subdued and relaxed.

You’ve been part of some big franchises, as well as Star Trek and Game Of Thrones, now Alien

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Yeah, four or five! And Gotham‘s just starting, that’s really good fun! Pretty certain I was in Star Trek for a while, I did 24

Do you find people know you from those and does it affect the work you’re offered?

I think so, I think I’m fairly lucky that I get to try different hats on. On one level I’m an independent actor who does indie flicks, and relatively political television – usually as an arab with some sort of desperate crisis happening – and the other side of my life is working in these really juicy genre pieces which I hugely enjoy. It’s where I came from.

Some actors find that if they have ethnic heritage that pigeonholes them, so I’m interested in whether you feel like being half-Sudanese has given you that sort of experience.

That’s probably for other people to judge, certainly from my point of view I don’t feel constrained. Obviously I was born in Africa, my mum was English and my dad was Sudanese. Very few roles are written for half-English, half-Sudanese people, so I have to do the best I can and be versatile. My agent once accused me of spreading myself way too thin and suggested I be strong in one area, and I thought I was quite enjoying being only vaguely recognisable to a broad range of people. So I’m quite happy with how things are going. Obviously I always want to earn more money, but my career’s been my choice and if anything, my heritage means I get to play roles that are politically quite important like in Syriana, and Kingdom Of Heaven. I treasure those roles.

As an actor, is it more enjoyable to stick with one character or do you like nailing one performance?

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I find nailing a single performance in a film – I’ll get hung for saying this! – is marginally easier. Because you’ve got the complete creation there, you’ve got a $60 million production trying to make sure it’s a success. You just have to do your job. When you’re doing a series, audiences tune in for characters, so you have to work hard at keeping a character afloat. It’s more challenging because it can easily go flat.

I gather when you did Deep Space Nine you had a little pushback over that character?

Yeah, we’d just come out of the 80s so everything was about Thatcher and Reagan, big muscles and loadsamoney, everyone was beautiful and acted with such poise… and Bashir just wasn’t, he was just a bloke. The studio tried to get me fired every year for the first three years, and Rick Berman saved my life every year, saying “nope, he’s great, he’s got to stay!” and the studio would be saying “but he’s nothing like Jason Priestley!” and Rick would say “Well he’s not supposed to be!”

Deep Space Nine was a television rebellion in a way. It was so anti-glitz and glamour, it was nothing like Dynasty and Dallas with its model actors. Audiences now seem to appreciate that, but I think they like the grittiness.

It’s become quite well-regarded now, even though at the time even Star Trek fans were saying it wasn’t very Star Trek-y…

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Yeah, I think so. Bashir in a funny way embodies the Marmite loathing and loving of the show. He was a nerd.., there was one review that mentioned me and it was just “Bashir throws like a girl.” That was it! I was like “Okay, thanks!” – but it’s come full circle. The 2000s saw the age of the nerd dawn and everyone has to be a nerd or a geek! So Bashir was the proto-geeks.

The show itself has very longform ongoing arcs and storylines which at the time was quite rare, and has now become the thing everyone does.

Yeah, it’s everywhere. There were a couple of shows that set the standard in that regard, and I think because Deep Space Nine was Star Trek it wasn’t noticed as a trend-setter, or innovative. Shows like Buffy, which is of course astonishing in its own right, get the credit. DS9 defied the commercial ambitions of the studio because they couldn’t put it out in any order. That was nerve-racking for them, so they quickly put out Voyager to give them something more like what they wanted. It’s only in the last 5-10 years that people have gone “actually, maybe people quite like watching things in order.”

Audiences can get their shows ways too now – now it’s literally all there on Netflix for you to watch. Do you find that, this far into your career, the rise of Netflix has changed things for you as an actor?

Oh, absolutely. TV is huge now, it’s a revolutionary change. It’s become this crucible of experimentation for story and character, whereas the money from movies – from a financing point of view – has switched to TV. Everything’s having trouble getting made unless it’s a big franchise or you’re Will Smith.

But that’s partly because – I mean I’m no expert – I think it’s partly because people like watching TV late at night at home, and they can watch what feels like a three hour movie in one night. People have been challenged, and they’ve responded by taking the enormous complexity of shows like Game Of Thrones in their stride. They actually want rich, complicated characters, and that means it’s a great time to be an actor.

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Alexander Siddig, thank you very much.

Alien: River Of Pain is due out in April on Audible.