If you ever meet Derek Mears in a dark alley, your gut instinct is to run… run away from him as far and fast as you can. We’re not being judgmental but Derek Mears — with his imposing height (1.95m), hulky build (104kg) and Lex Luthor chrome dome (caused by alopecia) — looks scary, serial-killer scary and the 48-year-old Californian actor/stuntman will be the first to say so.
“I look like a murderer in my normal life,” says Mears, with a laugh. And he’s played a couple of them. Mears isn’t a household name, his mug often caked in prosthetics, but the characters he’s essayed are instantly recognisable: the intergalactic headhunter in Predators, a cannibal mutant in The Hills Have Eyes, the ice-hockey mask-wearing Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th, just to name a few.
Playing villains is cathartic, a chatty and affable Mears tells 8days.sg and a group of Asian journos via Zoom. “You let that monster out of the cage where you’re not worried about hurting other people’s feelings. ‘Oh, I’m am going to step on the gas on being scary and let this aggression out.’”
And now Mears gets to be a hero in The Swamp Thing, the TV series — executive produced by Aquaman helmer James Wan — where he plays the DC Comics character, who's part-man, part-plant ogre and defender of all things green. Here, Mears shares with us some of the memories of making the show.
The secret to playing a comic-book superhero: listen to the fans.
When it comes to playing a character as iconic as Swamp Thing, it’s important to find out why the character is iconic and why they’re a big deal to the fans, “It’s important to me to represent the fans in the best way I possibly can,” says Mears, a DC Comics fan himself (“I learn to read through comic books”). When news broke that he’s playing the badass verdure, he received tons of messages from the Green Man fans telling him what the character means to them, especially folks who feel like outcasts because of their gender, race and religion. They would tell him how “a mud-encrusted mockery of man” like Swampy gave them a voice and an identity. “In a sense, I’m borrowing other people’s memories; I am guest to their memories,” he quips. “I’m a huge nerd of genre film and I get excited when I get cast to play characters I grew up loving. I feel that it’s my time now to give a whole generation that same storytelling experience that will hopefully inspire and reassure them that whatever they are dealing with, it’s going to be okay. I am a fan representing a fan.”
The Swamp Thing costume is a beast unto itself.
“I have worn a lot of prosthetic suits throughout my career and the suit [effects house] Fracture FX made is one of the best suits I have ever worn,” says Mears. “It was so easy to be able to emote through the make-up.” But donning the suit was not without its challenges. When he first put it on, it took him 4-5 hours before the make-up effects team got it down to two. That was the relatively easy bit — wearing the suit in water was something else. “It’s difficult because the water is heated, so it’s already hot when you’re in the water. And when you’re playing some of the existential crisis Swamp Thing is going through, the emotions raise your body temperature [to the point] that you start to cook inside the suit,” he recalls. “There were many times I’d yell cut and they would bring a fan over or an oxygen tank to replenish myself.” But he didn’t mind suffering for his art. “The Swamp Thing [suit and make-up] makes me feel like I’m looking at famous painting at the Louvre and I get to grab the painting and put it on my face! I get to represent their artistry. I get excited every time I look at the mirror — I’m someone else! The eight-year-old side of me is going, “Wow! This is the coolest thing in the world!”
He doesn’t collect mementos from the projects he's worked on.
Though a self-confessed nerd, Mears doesn’t collect souvenirs from the many fanboy franchises he’d worked on. Hard to believe, but it’s true. The only thing Mears kept was an ice-hockey mask from Friday the 13th. “There were six made and I had the special sixth one.” His attributes his ‘no-memento’ policy to his days of doing improv comedy. “There is no script, so you’re basically with a team of performers creating a beautiful piece of art [out of nothing]. Because it’s a live stage show, it’s gone forever once it’s over; only the audience saw it. It’s like looking at a shooting star — “Oh, that’s beautiful” and then it’s gone. So, artistically, I like the idea of me going to make something — I’m going to give it my 100 per cent, but at the end of it, I’m going to pour gasoline on it and burn it. It will inspire me to make something new and try to outdo myself from before.”
Lockdown has been tough — and boring — on him.
“I’ve been staring at a blank wall — Losing. My. Mind,” says Mears of his pandemic-induced downtime. “The only place I’ve been to is basically the grocery store, and it’s just frustrating.” He can’t wait for the crisis to blow over and return to work and start telling stories again with his fellow actors and artisans. Collaborations thrill him. “I love that we are all different artists from different mediums, coming together to create something that’s hopefully spectacular.” He continues, “The analogy I like to use is that when you’re doing a TV or film job, you’re making a rainbow — each department is a different colour, and I’m blue but you can’t make a rainbow with just blue alone. So we have to work together as a team.”
The Swamp Thing airs Wed, WarnerTV (Singtel TV 306 Ch & StarHub Ch 515), 9.50pm.
Photo: WarnerTV; TPG News/Click Photos