Syfy’s Blood Drive: Star Alan Ritchson On Stunt Driving and Outlandish Grindhouse

Alan Ritchson shows more than his badge as Blood Drive’s top cop Arthur Bailey.

Blood Drive is careening its way to cable and it promises to break barriers of speed, style, content and language. In the new series from Syfy and Universal Cable Productions, there are few rules in the cross-country car competition, and the Ken doll cop in the suicide seat is out to bust every one of them, while maintaining some semblance of law, order and sanity. Officer Arthur Bailey is played by Alan Ritchson, a song and dance guy who swam to fame as Aquaman on The CW’s Smallville and stripped his way into Paula Abdul’s heart on American Idol.

Ritchson is no stranger to deadly competitions. He mentored tributes as Gloss in 2013’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and, as Raphael in 2014’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot, and its sequel, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, he is no stranger to ridiculous, over-the-top escapism.

The reluctant ballet dancer who proved he could do that on I Can Do That, spoke exclusively with Den of Geek about his upcoming turn, twist and dangerous curve on Blood Drive.

Den of Geek: How many times did you have to take your driver’s test before you got your license?

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Alan Ritchson: Just once. I aced it. Expert driver.

Do you remember your first car?

I do. I remember it well. I saved up my pennies for a 1988 Toyota pickup truck. And it was pretty sweet because whoever owned it before me put giant tires on the back and like little bicycle tires on the front. So it looked like it was jacked up on air shocks and they flipped the “Toyota” around backwards on the back, so it said “atoyaT.” Where there wasn’t rust, it was all black, with black tinted windows. It was just the coolest little hoop-dee ever to ever roam the streets of Nightsville, Fla.

Do you remember your fastest car?

Probably the one I have now. I have an Equis, which is a V8, almost 400 horsepower. It’s pretty quick.

Did you ever drag race?

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No, I never did. Well, I mean yeah, I turned the Toyota into, I would drag race just about any, if I pulled up next to a Miata, man, I was gunning it. I was gonna take that thing down. And usually, like older people. I’d sort of pick off the weak and unhealthy and I’d usually win those races.

Did you get to take the Blood Drive cars for a personal spin?

Yeah, we had a day when we first landed in Cape Town, one of the first things that we did was a stunt driving course. We spent a day learning techniques to handle a course and drift and park and do 360s and spin out and all that fun stuff. I murdered my hand that day. I was drifting a little hard in an old Dodge Charger and I was trying to recover. I was whipping the wheel back as hard as I could and I bashed my finger against that very hard steering wheel, and the rest of the shoot I had my finger in splints when I was shooting cos it was hammered pretty bad. That was my first “have fun driving” day on Blood Drive.

What’s it like being the co-pilot when someone else is doing the crazy stunts?

A little unnerving, I have to say. I would grip whatever, there’s not much to hold on to in the car we had. It was a little stripped down inside, the stunt car we would drive. And then the show car, we would shoot a lot of that on the sound stage. It was a lot more kitted out. It was pretty bare bones, the one I was in, so I never felt like I quite had enough to dig my fingernails into, as I was gasping for breath while Christina would whip us around town. But she was actually a really, really good driver. I give it to her. I should have just relaxed. But it’s a little scary whipping around when somebody else is at the wheel.

Those are some intricate fight sequences, how much rehearsal goes into that and what’s the most fun part of that?

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We would always spend a day on the more intricate ones. So, if I wrapped early on a day I would go in for an hour or so and I would rehearse and block all the fight scenes. Then, of course, they always change a little bit on the day because you’re in a different environment or whatever. But yeah, we’d spend thirty minutes or an hour learning those. Then figure it out on the day. The fun part, for me, is being the one to do it. I always felt I’ve done the show a service and done the fans a service if I’m able to pull off all the stunts. I take a lot of pride in the fact that I can do all those fights. I’ve had a lot of practice with it but that’s the most fun. The act of doing it. I have an absolute blast, being the one to figure it out and make it look good.

Is there any difference in approaching a fight scene and dance choreography in something like I Can Do That, besides the obvious lack of music and the intent, but in terms of blocking?

Interesting parallel. There’s not a huge difference to me. I’ve got a pretty musical brain anyway, so there’s kind of a rhythm to the fight scenes just like the stuff I would do on I Can Do That. I’ve always had a hard time with the blocking, a lot of my die-hard, frat guy fans, they are going to hate to learn this, but I’ve got an Associate of Arts Degree in Ballet. I was pursuing a degree in music theater, so I had to take a ton of dance class for that. I wish that I’d liberated myself a little bit more to enjoy it, but I was always hiding in the back of class, because I was embarrassed to be in ballet. But I just never really gave myself over to that and had a really hard time when I did want to do well, learning the steps. I’m dyslexic so my feet wouldn’t do what I was picturing in my head.

I do still have a little bit of that with the dance stuff. In I Can Do That, I experienced the same problem. I don’t know if doing it with the music makes me feel I have to be it at a certain pace. I’m better at the fights. I pick that stuff up as quickly as I do dialogue. I only have to see it one time and I can get the whole thing down. But I still approach it the same way.

Do you use music as prep, or is it too distracting because you’re a musician?

I hear, and maybe this is why I pick up dialogue insanely fast, I only have to read it once or twice, I hear it more as music. I hear a very musical rhythm to the pitch and the meter when I read something on a page and I try and honor that instinct. It makes learning it and delivering it, for me at least, really easy.

Blood Drive on the June 2017 Sci Fi Fidelity podcast at 36:25. iTunes | Stitcher | Soundcloud

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Colin Cunningham said that the wardrobe makes it so much easier to act because half the work is done. What happens to you as an actor when you put on that cop uniform?

He’s exactly right. I would agree with him entirely. He’s by far my favorite character on the show, by the way, for what that’s worth. I love what he created. I think any actor would have a field day with his character. I’m envious and I admire the work that he got to do. Anyway, I think he’s right. When I put the cop uniform on, I immediately stiffen. My tendency, I tend to walk with a little bit of a loose swagger, carefree, but when I put that on, my posture changes. The fabric is a little bit like cardboard and I feel like that’s sort of what it does to his personality, in a way. It stiffens his personality. He has the best intentions, but he spends most of his energy fighting his inhibitions. I think that causes a certain stiffness. His personality, in my mind, I don’t know if it comes across, but it mirrors the stiffness of that uniform.

So what happens when you take it off?

Oh man. What’s funny is I fought the show’s creator, James Roland, really hard on that happening because he, apparently, just had this picture in his head from the inception of this idea. He explained several times that he always saw this final image of my character, the very final shot of the season, in the cop uniform. I wanted to really evolve the character, and show outwardly this inner journey of change. This world pecks away at the walls that he’s constructed in his inner life. I wanted there to be some reflection of that outwardly. Like, let’s lose the cop thing and maybe that will make him uncomfortable and let’s see what that does to him. If he now starts to look like these people he still inwardly detests and wants to arrest.

We had conversations for weeks and weeks and weeks. It was a really big deal with everybody. Everybody was taking sides. Some wardrobe were like “I really love this idea. I really want to see you in jeans and head band” or something. He really wanted to see me in the cop uniform the whole time. He eventually, we put a new outfit together and showed it to him. He said “uh, kinda looks cool, yeah, okay.” He eventually relented. It changed everything. Once he was in that. That uniform was the last barrier to allowing him to really change inwardly. Now that that was off, it was just one or two little shoves before he was “fine, now I’m going to do what it takes, and speak your language to get what I want.” That was the beginning of him really going dark and to put that on for the first time, I felt really liberated and was excited about now where things could go.

You did a striptease on American Idol and played a stripper on Alexandra Wentworth’s Head Case. On this show, so far, I’m only up to episode 4, you really only peeled to go native at the asylum. Are you a little jealous that both of your partners, Grace and Christopher, spend more time with less clothes?

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If I was jealous, I had my thirst quenched by the final episode where I finally got to go balls out. If I was, it didn’t last very long. I’m a very, very giving actor. I’ll allow any other dude to be naked on the show if they’d like. I’ll happily give them the rates anytime somebody would like to be the stripper on the show. That’s totally [something] I’ll sacrifice.

Have you ever seen anything onscreen, when watching it as a spectator, that grossed you out even though you were on set making it? And yes, I’m talking about episode 4.

No, I’ve never had that experience. It really is hard for me to enjoy things that I made as a spectator because, even though I’m watching the image on the screen, in my mind I’m seeing two images. One is the experience I had within the scene and the other is what I’m seeing on the screen. I’ve never been grossed out. If I’m vomiting in a toilet and it’s gross, I’m still tasting the banana pudding or whatever I had in my mouth that day that tasted great.

In the Hunger Games, Gloss and his sister were the only brother and sister who ever made it to Cornucopia. Does Arthur see Grace as a sister?

No, I don’t think so. I asked that questions many times while making this. I think it’s a difficult one to answer because their relationship evolves so many times. It changes based on the circumstances, I think they continually surprise each other. Anytime it starts to feel comfortable in the sense that there’s some kind of kindship, sure you can feel that way but I think these are also two people who, regardless of the suit that he wears and his insistence on having a single-minded focus on accomplishing his mission, he’s still a human being who is secretly fighting the urge of being what he would describe as distracted by this beautiful, smart, strong willed woman next to him that I think any man would find attractive. It never really felt brother and sisterly to me.

So, building up the adrenaline to override the systems and make it to the finish line, was that method acting?

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I think far from it. I think, in filming that scene I got some kind of bug or food poisoning that day and in mid-coitus, we were shooting and rolling, I had to stop and throw up violently in a trash can and Christine is such a sport, she’s like “Are you done? You better? Okay.” We ready?” And we went right back into it. What we deal with in our personal lives or bodies sometimes makes it hard to dive into the method world, for me at least. No method. That was pure, unadulterated acting at work.

The show is a different movie each week, different set, location. Where are you and Arthur most comfortable?

Comfortable is maybe not the right world, because he was never comfortable. He was probably most comfortable in the police station in episode one. Him being a cop on the beat and just trying to hold the fort and go unnoticed was comfortable for him but that didn’t last very long at all. He’s never really back in that world. I don’t think he ever does get comfortable.

For me, as a performer, I had the most fun and was most comfortable bringing to life the episode where he essentially goes on a vision quest. It was a very difficult to film. It took a lot out of me, as a person. But that was where I want to live as an actor so that was the most fun. He is never comfortable, which is what makes him so interesting to me.

Do you get production notes, like Slink does? I heard the stories about what the writers did to the producers, so wondered if suits made suggestions.

Not on this show. I have on other shows. John Hlavin, the showrunner, spent most of his time watching the footage that came into LA while we were shooting. I feel a little lucky he came when he did, mid-season, because there was a real turning point in the character arc. I had marked it at a certain place in the season where I felt this change happening in him, where my character behaved in a certain way, and he happened to be there that day and said well what about this? And I was like: “oh you really want to push it to now.” We were on the same page but he thought that that change would come sooner in that moment. So we did it that way, and it felt really nice. It kind of sped up sped up the evolution of the character in a really nice way. I’ve always felt very grateful that he just happened to be there that day because it was a very pivotal decision. That’s as close to I think I got to that on the show. But on other shows I definitely have and it’s never fun.

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Blood Drive breaks ground with sex, language and freedom of style. Do you anticipate a lot of backlash about that?

Well, my mom, first of all, she would still ground me if she could. I don’t think she’ll be watching this show, but sure, there will be backlash. But I’ve also been the guy who’s taken on roles that are almost guaranteed to get backlash and I’ve grown used to it. I just have a different perspective than a lot of people. I’m pretty conservative in my beliefs and want to make the world a better place and all that, but some people confuse entertainment and the need for some healthy escapism, I think, with my actual belief system or actions in real life. They are two very different things. I am honored to be able to provide people with escapism. I think there’s honor in that. I do receive a lot of backlash for certain characters. I totally expect it to this and I’m happy to brave that storm because at the end of the day I know who I am and I’m not my character and so if he stabs somebody in the face five times, it’s all and good. It’s what he did in his world to survive. I don’t mind it. I expect it.

I interviewed Roger Corman for the Death Race reboot. He saw the franchise as unsubtle commentary, is there a correlation between a lower budget and more freedom?

Oh sure. It’s not always true, but in my experience. I’ve been on big budget features, for example, where the broader the audience, the less they try to say. In fact, I think they make an effort to say less, make less social commentary because they don’t want to alienate anybody. They want everybody to come and enjoy it without feeling alienated. I’ve also been a part of something, Hunger Games, for example, was big budget. I think the author absolutely had some intent to make social commentary on the state of our society. I think it may have been watered down slightly from the books, a little bit. But that world really lends itself to that. On the whole, a lot of times the bigger the budget the more broad the audience they’re seeking and the less they want to ostracize people with a set of beliefs or by saying something, some ideal. So, absolutely, more independent or smaller budget projects lend themselves to sayng more and being more controversial.

In Blood Drive there’s some social commentary on the environment, and the society as a whole and I think my character’s story is definitely one of redemption. I actually think it’s quite beautiful. I know the world he inhabits and the action he endures is quite horrific, almost outlandish or hysterical at times. I was always drawn to his story of redemption and I think it’s a realty beautiful one, regardless of the setting. I think the show does that.

Do you think it’s easier to make broader social comment on a show that sets out to take itself more ridiculously than seriously?

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No, I think the setting doesn’t matter. Whether it’s comedy or satire or completely ridiculous, I think if done well, it still will say something. Sometimes we need extravagant paintings like that to make a point. I think, if what you’re looking for is to find some deeper meaning about your life through this form of entertainment, you’ll find it. I think Roland is smart enough to provide that, and does. If you just want entertainment, you got that too. You choose your own adventure, I think.

Blood Drive premieres on Syfy on June 14th.