Mekhi Phifer interview: Torchwood, Miracle Day, ER and Torchwood season 5

Taking a lead role in the new series of Torchwood, Mekhi Phifer chats to us about Miracle Day, Russell T Davies, and going to some very dark places…

Warning: this article contains some mild spoilers for Torchwood: Miracle Day.

Earlier this year, as the production of Torchwood: Miracle Day came to Wales for a few weeks, we had a chance to join in a round table discussion with Mekhi Phifer, who plays Rex Matheson in the show.

Without further ado, here’s what happened…You’re the new man on the block. Have you been enjoying working on Torchwood: Miracle Day?

I’m having a great time. It’s nice to be welcomed with open arms. They’re really great, and we’re just having a great time. Russell [T Davies] and Julie [Gardner] are wonderful, and it’s my first time shooting in the UK. Yet alone Wales, or Cardiff, or Swansea. I’m thinking very warm thoughts!

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Had you been to the UK before?

Once before. Back in ’97, and I was only here for a very short time, and I was going to do a film in Africa, so I had to stay here for a day or two as a layover. But I’m having a great time now. Despite the cold! We’re doing good work, and it’s very exciting.

Tell us about your character.

His name is Rex Matheson, and he’s a CIA agent. And basically, this phenomenon happens throughout the world where nobody’s dying, and myself and my assistant start to investigate what this phenomenon could be, how it started, and what the devil is going on. And so Gwen Cooper’s name comes up, and I know I’m having to go to the UK.

I’m going to the UK to extradite Gwen Cooper and the Torchwood team back to the United States, by force. I think we’re going to take them back, and interrogate them, and work out what’s going on. But then there’s some form of betrayal with me and the CIA. I wind up ultimately becoming a partner in the Torchwood team, and we start working together. In a nutshell!

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Are you a big fan of Torchwood?

I hadn’t known about the show in the States. But when it came across my desk, Julie and Russell sent me Children Of Earth, and I loved it. I watched the whole thing in one sitting, and went wow, this is great. Then I read the script and I said I have to be a part of this. This is wonderful. And here I am!

What was it about the script?

It wasn’t just a typical sci-fi. It wasn’t like watching Star Trek. It wasn’t that sort of we’re on a spaceship thing. It felt adventurous and weird. It felt like something I’d never done before. I’d never done a sci-fi television show before. And once I started doing research, I found out about the huge following in the UK, and I really wanted to be a part of something special. This was right up that alley.

The script was really good, and being that we’re part of the Starz network as well, it allowed Russell and his team to add a little bit more edge to these characters and storylines, which I really liked. I had never done a series on cable before, I’d only done network, with ER and Lie To Me.

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How different have you found this to something like ER?

ER is a different machine. Our objective is to save lives. We’re doctors. We’re not running around with guns and helicopters, and having people chasing us. Even though ER did have it own level of action, every episode we’re busting through the doors with different traumas.

And disasters happen. But this is totally different. This is action, yet intriguing drama, and with a sci-fi element to it. ER is great. That’s the thing about being an actor, being able to do different things. I’m really proud of this show, as I was with ER.

Do you ever see ER coming back?

No, I don’t think so!

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You’ve been shooting on the same lot as ER with Miracle Day, though!

It’s crazy. We’re on the same lot, and on the same stage. Stage 11. I was walking in, and thinking I used to be here every day!

Reading what we’ve had through, it seems that your character is the way in for viewers who’ve not seen Torchwood before. That your character is the one that has to effectively sell the show to an American audience.

Yet Torchwood doesn’t do characters in anything other than shades of grey, so it’s not going to have the usual heroic protagonist to get people in. What’s the challenge for you there? I’m assuming Rex is a very shades of grey character?

Right. That is true. Episode one opens up with my character. Anytime you join a show that’s been successful, there’s a certain responsibility. And a lot of anxiety that, you know, you’re bringing the character to life, respecting the show and doing your part. So that you are not the weak link in the chain. So it’s hard. Russell did a great job with it, and I don’t think he’s going to have many problems with people really enjoying this. The action, the acting, and the writing, being on the edge of your seat for the whole hour. It’s going to really draw people in.

And with Starz and the BBC joining up, I think that Starz is really proud of the show. They’ll put a lot behind it, and create the awareness to make sure people see it and follow it. But my character is introducing Torchwood to American audiences, yes.

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What’s your outfit on the show? Jack’s obviously got his own look…

Yeah, he’s got his World War II outfit! [Laughs] I’m suited and booted in the beginning, but as I’m drawn in, we start to form our relationship and I become a part of Torchwood, then my clothes relax. Because now I’m not necessarily in the CIA, I’m running from them now, as we all are.

So you go over to the other side?

Yeah. But we’re still trying to find out what’s going on here, and it takes us on all these different adventures.

Do you infiltrate the CIA?

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Well, what happens is, without giving away too much, as I extradite them [the Torchwood team], as I get off the plane in the US, the CIA turns on me. The government turns on me. We have this great escape where we fight and do all this other stuff, and we try and find out what’s going on. There’s government shady stuff going on, pharmaceutical company shady stuff going on. Shady CIA stuff. And so once I become a part of Torchwood, we’re against the powers that be, basically.

Is Rex a likeable guy?

That’s the thing I love about doing series. When I first started doing ER, I didn’t think he was that likeable. But that’s the thing about a character arc. I think Rex is a little sarcastic, and I don’t think the audience is going to know where he’s going. It’s going to be hard to trust him at first. But I think as the series goes on, audiences will learn to like him.

How does Rex get on with Jack?

At first, Jack and Gwen, they don’t like me. And I don’t care for them either. I’m taking them back to the States, and I’m going to interrogate them, and find out what’s going on here. So it’s not like we start out all lovely-dovey. They definitely butt heads, but we’re forced to work together.

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Will you make it to the next series of the show do you think?

[Should point out that Mekhi had already told us that he hadn’t read all of the scripts at the time this interview was being conducted]

I hope so! We’re see! Any actor hopes that everything goes well. So let’s see!

You’ve made films yourself. As a creative person and a film maker, do you find that it’s television, and the cable networks in particular, where they’re willing to give you a full hour, where the really interesting work is right now?

Absolutely. Obviously films, and independents especially. But as far as TV is concerned, this is my first cable show. It does allow you to be a lot more edgy. It allows you to bump up the scripts to a different place that a network wouldn’t allow. The storylines can be a lot more heavy. It does make for more interesting television a lot of times, than when you’re watching primetime. These shows allow us to take us to the next level.

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In Torchwood, last series we rooted for a lead character, who ultimately sacrificed a child. Is your character, without giving anything away, going to similarly dark places?

Well, yeah. We will be able to go and have already gone to some really dark places. I think it’s going to shake up a lot of people in certain respects. It’s going to be that thing that’s all over the Internet, and getting people talking…!