Superman had Lex Luthor, Batman and Robin had The Joker (among others), The Fantastic Four had Doctor Doom – throughout comic book history, all superheroes have had their arch enemies, and The Cape is no exception. In the NBC superhero drama series, our protagonist, Vince Faraday, whose alter ego is the comic book superhero The Cape, is pitted against Peter Fleming, also known as Chess. Good-looking, rich, powerful and resourceful, this antagonist knows how to work a crowd. No one has any idea of the twisted mind lurking behind Fleming’s entrepreneurial façade, which makes portraying the two-faced character a challenge for actor James Frain, but one he thoroughly relishes.
“It’s partly the nature of the beast that there is so much going on in The Cape in terms of setting up these characters and our story, that it has taken us a while to get into the flow of things and, for me, to find out who my character is and where the writers want to take him,” says Frain.
“The direction we’re been going in is that Peter Fleming’s grasp on the Chess character is not as solid as it first seemed. In fact, it seems to be rooted in some kind of traumatic event and that once upon a time he may have created the Chess persona as a way of handling that [trauma]. Over time, though, it’s become a bigger problem for him than he first imagined, and I think that’s a really fascinating direction in which to take that idea.
“Chess is completely amoral and psychotic, but in a way that is quite cold and clinical. Just imagine if you had dark and difficult parts of yourself that you didn’t know how to deal with, so you put them in one place and then chose to go that place and become that person without any of your good qualities or range of emotions. What if you adopted that ‘mask’ and told yourself, ‘I have permission to be totally without consequence or morality,’ which is what Chess seems to be.
“So it’s as if Peter Fleming wants to have these two really different personalities and thinks he’s in control of it. However, they actually bleed into one another and influence each other and it is becoming problematic for him.”
Frain had previously worked with The Cape creator/executive producer Tom Wheeler on the 2005 ABC series Empire, and it was Wheeler’s involvement in this new program that initially attracted the actor to it. He went through the various audition rounds and eventually booked the Fleming/Chess role. In The Cape’s two-hour pilot, billionaire entrepreneur Peter Fleming is trying to convince the residents of the fictional Palm City that they would be best served if his private security firm, ARK, took over policing of the metropolis. Part of his plan involves getting rid of hard-working and honest police detective Vince Faraday (David Lyons), who is subsequently framed for the murder of the city’s chief of police and accused of being Chess. Faking his own death, Vince goes underground and takes on the crime-fighting persona of The Cape in order to clear his name and bring the duplicitous Fleming as well as Chess to justice. Frain has some wonderful memories of beginning work on the series.
“The first thing I think of when I look back on the first day of The Cape wasn’t the first day on-set, but, in fact, the read-through where we all gathered at NBC Universal and met for the first time,” says the actor. “I was blown away by how well the show had been cast and how great everyone was. It was a very warm and interesting group of people, especially David Lyons. That was my first time meeting him and I thought he was a really cool guy and a perfect choice for the role.
“As for my first day on-set, I actually had to put the whole Chess costume on. Then, of course, there was the scene with the car blowing up. That was fun. We got to see some really good explosions during the pilot,” he notes with a chuckle. “There was that explosion and then there was something that we blew up on a train. Everyone gathered around to watch because they knew it was going to be a big deal, and let me tell you, when you see those types of things close-up, it’s nothing like what you see on TV. It’s quite impressive.
“So blowing stuff up and dressing up as a villain - not bad at all for a first day’s work. Overall with the pilot, it was wonderful being able to film in Los Angeles. It meant that we had this kind of sun-drenched environment, which is very unusual for this type of genre. It was also good for me because it meant I got to be home with my kids and working at the same time, which is always a good thing because we travel so much. What else can I tell you? Most of my scenes in the pilot were opposite David. A lot of it was fairly confrontational and interesting, too. As I said, David was just terrific, as was Dorian Missick [who played Vince’s partner, Marty Voyt, and is now Palm City’s new chief of police].
“I also remember very well when we traveled down to Long Beach and filmed on the Queen Mary. We were there for a few nights and it was a late shoot, so many of us stayed on the ship, which is rumored to be haunted, although, I’m disappointed to report that I did not see a ghost. I did, however, watch a stuntman jump off the side of the Queen Mary and into the ocean below. That was quite something. He was pretending to be my character, which was very nice of him because I wouldn’t have liked to have done that.”
Like most villains, Peter Fleming/Chess desires to ultimately do away with Vince/The Cape, but in some ways the cat and mouse aspect of their relationship and the constant struggle to get the upper hand on the costumed do-gooder might be even more appealing to him.
“In the way that the story is set up, Fleming and Chess are almost mirror images of each other,” muses Frain. “Something about the character of Chess, and Fleming as well, suggests that he was restless and bored and looking for a really interesting fight with someone who he could battle on his own terms as well as be challenged by. This guy is extremely intelligent and there aren’t many people who can play on his level or understand his game, and even though Fleming likes winning, he likes fighting, too, along with a real struggle.
“When Vince comes along, he has a whole myriad of qualities to him, but instead of choosing to follow a darker path, he commits himself to justice, to his family, to all the things that Fleming and Chess simply can’t believe in and haven’t invested in. So my character is fascinated by Vince and the idea of meeting one’s match. I think there’s a compulsion there, and a sense of, well, this is going to be a fun ride. On the surface there’s initial anger, frustration and a wish to extinguish Vince, but if you look below all that, I feel there’s far more intriguing stuff going on.”
Fleming/Chess is not The Cape’s only adversary in Palm City. Its urban landscape is littered with a variety of baddies including a pair of high-tech contract killers named Goggles (Pruitt Taylor Vince) and Hicks (Chad Lindberg), a master illusionist/escape artist, Gregor Molotov (Thomas Kretschmann) and Dominic Raoul, also known as Scales (Vinnie Jones), a criminal heavy who suffers from a skin condition that makes him appear to be covered in green and gold scales. Scales also has a bone to pick with The Cape, and he and Fleming have crossed paths once or twice as well.
“Scales is a fantastic character,” says Frain, “and it’s interesting because I think Fleming had completely written him off as someone who he could manipulate with relative ease, and I think that’s a mistake. We’ve discovered that there’s lot more to Scales than meets the eye. In fact, he’s extremely gifted as well as effective and is not about to consent to being manipulated by anyone, let alone Peter Fleming, so that creates another kind of conflict that I don’t think my character saw coming.”
In the first season Cape episode Dice, Peter Fleming prepares to launch a new technological program called T.R.A.C.E, which can predict a persons’ every single future move. His announcement coincides with the arrival in Palm City of Tracey Jerrod (Mena Suvari), alias Dice, the daughter of a research scientist once employed by Fleming and who also has a unique connection to T.R.A.C.E. She has a score to settle with Fleming and Chess, and The Cape must intervene in order to save them both. Frain especially enjoyed shooting this episode.
“I just think the scenes between Dice and Fleming have a fantastic crackle to them,” he says. “That’s the only word I can think of to describe them. I really enjoyed those scenes and working with Mena. She brought so much to her performance. Our characters’ relationship was dark and romantic in a weird sort of way and I thought it was interesting as well as great fun to play.”
In the previous week’s episode, Scales, The Cape had to join forces with Fleming/Chess when multiple events unfolded that endangered the lives of everyone attending a costume party onboard a moving train. “I thought it was a neat idea to put the bad guy [Fleming/Chess] in a white cowboy outfit with the white hat,” says Frain. “That was possible because he was surrounded by all these other costumed characters, so he didn’t stick out.
“Once I had the hat on, though, I thought, ‘When do I take it off?’ I don’t think you could see it very well, but I was also wearing a holster and these six guns that were pretty heavy. This was not my character’s costume, this was my character dressed up, and my greatest memory of that is, ‘Wow, look at all this fun gear. How the heck do I get it all off?’ As we moved towards the end of shooting and the scenes under the train where Fleming is helping Vince, those wound up being tremendous fun to film because I got to take the hat along with the guns off and wind down a little bit, if that makes sense.”
As The Cape’s first season continues to unfold, what further growth can viewers look forward to with Frain’s character(s)? “A lot of it relates to what I was saying earlier, which is the development of this idea of Chess being something that is becoming a problem for Fleming, where he might even be existing independently of Fleming,” Frain reveals. “So this is something that he no longer has a firm grasp on. In fact, it makes Fleming vulnerable, and I think that’s what the recent episodes have been exploring.
“Elliott Gould’s character [Samuel], who was introduced recently, comes back and we see that Fleming has a very trusting relationship with him, not unlike a parental relationship. It develops to the point where you almost see a more human side of Fleming, which I’m quite pleased about as it makes the whole character that much more varied. It was a pleasure to work with Elliott Gould. He’s a legend and a very sweet and warm human being.”
Born in Leeds, England, Frain was bitten early on by the acting bug, but did not pursue his passion until he was a little bit older. “It feels like this [acting] was lodged in me from a very young age, but it wasn’t something I necessarily thought was realistic,” he explains. “I didn’t know how one would go about becoming an actor, but when I was a kid it was my first love and primary kind of focus.
“It wasn’t until I was in my late teens that I thought, ‘Maybe I could actually do this for a living,’ and that was mind-blowing. In the interim I explored what other options existed for me. I followed my nose and tried to figure out what types of things I was interested in and was supported in my endeavors.”
Frain was still at acting school when he booked his first big paid acting job playing Peter Whistler in the 1993 feature film Shadowlands. “At the time I just figured the audition would be good experience and I didn’t expect to even get close to a final audition, but that’s what happened,” recalls the actor. “I went through a couple of rounds of auditions and then I found out I was going to audition for [director] Richard Attenborough.
“I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ and then I did the audition and was basically told right there in the room, ‘That’s terrific, you’ve got the job.’ I asked, ‘Do you mind if I sit down? Wow, can I call my folks and just let them know.’ He was very kind and let me call my parents from his home. I was completely green and had never done anything in front of the camera before. It was an amazing opportunity to work with people like Richard Attenborough and Anthony Hopkins [Jack Lewis] and beyond my wildest expectations for sure.”
Robinson Crusoe, Reindeer Games and Into the Blue are among the actor’s other big screen credits. He has also worked on several made-for-TV movies as well as guest-starred in TV series on both sides of the pond including Soldier, Soldier, Prime Suspect, 24, The Closer, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Fringe. Most recently Frain had recurring or regular roles in True Blood (as Franklin Mott) and The Tudors (as Thomas Cromwell) as well as played Jarvis in the 2010 movie TRON: Legacy.
“When you watch True Blood it’s this huge ensemble of actors with these multiple storylines going on, but the only time I met the rest of the cast was at the read-throughs that we’d have every week of the new script,” says the actor. “For me, the experience was kind of like making an independent movie with one other actor, Rutina Wesley [Tara Thornton]. The pair of us worked on our characters’ story sort of out on a limb somewhere and occasionally we’d connect with the other characters. The show is quite intense and the writing as well as filming of it is like that of a movie. Rutina is very gifted and professional and has a film-actor-type quality to her.
“As for The Tudors, it was actually written by one person [Michael Hirst]. He did the whole thing, even the rewrites, by himself and was very open to others coming in with research, questions and/or ideas. He encouraged that, which was great because it meant that I really got into the history of it all and trying to find out who Thomas Cromwell was and what happened to him. That was a great thing to be able to experience.
“I actually went, I think, from The Tudors to Tron and they both felt similar in that I had costume challenges. One was walking around fire-lit rooms in Ireland wearing a bearskin coat and pretending not to be suffocating from the heat, and the other was wearing these very complicated suits along with a mask and working with blue screen. It felt not unlike theatre in that you had to fill in with your imagination. There were limited sets and then the rest of it you sort of imagined who you were addressing or what you were looking at. It was a fun experience and what a great guy [director] Joe Kosinski is. Frankly, I was a little bit nervous to work with Jeff Bridges [who played Kevin Flynn/Clu in the original 1982 Tron film as well as this sequel] because I’m a huge fan, but he’s super cool, which made things relaxed and easy.”
From Medieval England to a fictional comic book-type city, no matter what the venue, Frain enjoys the world he is acting in and exploring the story unfolding around him and his character. “As an actor, you get to be curious about people and the world,” he says. “You’re actually rewarded for being into stuff that you’re already into, and the more stories you get to do and the more people you work with, the more you learn and the more enriched you feel. It’s an incredible privilege.”
As noted above, The Cape photos by Frank Ockenfels, Trae Patton, Jordan Althaus or Chris Haston and copyright of NBC, True Blood photo copyright of HBO and The Tudors photo copyright of Showtime, so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any kind. Thanks!