In today’s techno-minded world, the average person is “plugged into” at least one if not more gizmos and gadgets. For Alphas’ Gary Bell, this type of connection is a very special one. A high-functioning autistic, he has the ability see and hear a wide range of electromagnetic frequencies including television, radio and cell phone signals. Gary and a handful of others who also possess unique skills – called Alphas - work with Dr. Lee Rosen as a covert U.S. government-sponsored team whose job is to track down and apprehend Alphas abusing their abilities.
Gary is a valued and important member of the team who takes his work extremely seriously. He expects others to “respect the badge,” referring to his DCIS (Defense Criminal Investigative Service] badge that he takes great pride in flashing when arriving at a crime scene. Having walked in his character’s sneakers for two years, the talented and affable actor Ryan Cartwright has enjoyed watching Gary grow, which in turn has given him the opportunity to further hone his skills as a performer.
“I think last year there was a lot of Gary coming into his own within the team, because this is the first group of people that he had ever ‘lived’ with,” explains Cartwright, who along with the rest of the Alphas cast and crew has spent the day on-location in Ancaster, Ontario filming scenes for the season two episode Alphaville. “It was the first familial situation where my character was respected, and because of that, Gary came out of his shell in a rather ‘Bolshie’ way. He was a bit like the cock of the walk, fanning his tail feathers and showing off. That happened even more after he was given his DCIS badge. Suddenly he was a respected figure and would often tell people that when out in public,” says the actor with a chuckle.
“So all that was fun to play in season one, but after Anna died, I think Gary began to realize that despite being a part of this group that respects him and where he feels safe, the rest of the outside world is, as we all know, a painful place that will sometimes bite you in the ass at the end of the day. At one point your bubble will burst, no matter where you are or who you are. In the first season, Gary was ready to leave his mom and real family for his Alphas family. However, he’s now realizing that the group still isn’t a perfect home, and, in fact, there is no perfect home. So he retreats inward a little bit and experiences a slight regression in regards to his social sphere and how he feels about Dr. Rosen and his teammates.”
Gary met and formed a friendship with the aforementioned Anna (Liane Balaban) in the first season Alphas episode Rosetta. Suffering from a neurological disorder, she was an Alpha with ability to understand and translate any language. Anna was also a senior member of the rogue Alphas group Red Flag, and was killed when the Department of Defense launched a full-scale attack on Red Flag in the season one finale Original Sin. At the end of this same episode, Dr. Rosen announced the existence of Alphas to the outside world. This revelation coupled with Anna’s death had a profound impact on Gary, who audiences found in a very different place in the second season opener Wake Up Call.
“My character was imprisoned in a special facility just for Alphas, and had this chip implanted in the back of his neck, which caused him to be totally out of it,” says Cartwright. “From an acting point of view I just sat there for 90% of the episode and not doing anything, which got a bit boring after a while. It was just Gary being rescued and dragged around.
“In one of the scenes, Malik Yoba [Bill Harken] did a stunt where he picked me up and ran through a crowd, knocking everyone out of the way. Because he was carrying me over his shoulder, the part of me that was in front of us were my legs, so he was bashing people and chairs aside while using me pretty much as a human shield. I was bruised all over my legs. It was like, ‘Yeah, thanks for rescuing me. I’ll just spend the rest of the season in a wheelchair,’” jokes the actor with a smile.
“No, seriously, it was all fine, and this episode was a nice easy one with which to get back into the swing of things. Everyone arrived back at work and was gung ho to get started. We hit the ground running, but in my case I was able to take a bit of time to slip back into my character. It was a big episode with tons of cars flipping over and gunfire – not unlike the season one finale – so it was good to kind of relax and let all the stunts unfold around me. I just stayed in my little actors’ cocoon if you will.”
Although acting-wise it has been business as usual for Cartwright when it comes to playing Gary this season on Alphas, the actor remains vigilant not to slip into rote with his performance.
“A lot of Gary was already up and running,” he notes. “Most of the challenges were in the beginning with the preparation and research and finding the sweet spot where Gary was on the autistic spectrum, how he’d be played, his voice, his mannerisms, etc. Once that was set in stone, the main thing was and continues to be making sure that I’m on the same page along with the writers, producers and directors as far as maintaining the continuity of the character.
“Oftentimes there can be fan favorite moments with Gary and it can be quite easy to slip into certain patterns and have him do the same thing over and over. However, you don’t want him to become a parody of himself. So it’s important to keep that freshness and, again, continuity of character as well as keeping it real. It’s a very fine line between the drama and jokiness. I love comedy, but first we need to find the reality of the situation and follow it like a drama. Then if there’s a way that we can fit in a nice little Gary joke or how he sees the world, that’s wonderful. The challenge remains not abusing the character. Apart from that it’s just this skinny British guy – me – walking and talking while trying to avoid doing any physical stunts,” says Cartwright laughing.
In the second season Alphas episode being shot at the time of this interview (mid-May), Alphaville, Gary and his teammates accompany Dr. Rosen (David Strathairn) to a rural community populated solely by Alphas, including a familiar face to everyone, Skylar Adams (Summer Glau). The change of scenery is something that Cartwright welcomes.
“From a production standpoint, this is the first time we’re actually out in the countryside, which is lovely,” says the actor. “It’s a bit of a trek from Toronto, but it’s nice to get out of the city, especially now that the weather has turned sunny-side up. I think everyone is enjoying themselves, and it’s sort of like a busman’s holiday for the crew.
“With regards to Gary and his ability, there’s not so much a change in this episode, but rather a deeper shift for him. He’s been taken out of his element and the bustling city life of electromagnetic signals and streams. Suddenly, Gary is in the boonies and the Alphas part of his life is ‘mute.’ As a result, his vision reverts to the average persons’ and he ends up learning some new lessons as well as noticing things besides wavelengths and stuff like that. So it’s a relaxing experience for him and a slightly revelatory one as well for his abilities.”
Playing a character with autism who also happens to be a Sci-Fi “superhero” is certainly rare, and the actor has received a great deal of positive feedback about his portrayal of Gary on Alphas. “Autism is quite prevalent, so, for example, a member of the crew might come up to me and say, ‘That was a great take. A friend of a friend, or my son’s cousin, or my son is autistic and what you did was exactly right,'" says Cartwright. “All the response I’ve received has been really positive. Early on I think there might have been a bit of confusion, but I did this one interview that was really in-depth with regards to autism and it took me ages to figure out the proper wording because I wanted everyone to understand exactly what I was doing on the show.
“The thing is, Gary is an individual, and autism covers a huge spectrum. People are different all along that spectrum, and it was just a matter of picking specifics. Some people who are autistic or who know autistic people will comment, ‘That’s not necessarily like me or my friend who is autistic,’ again, because it’s a huge spectrum, while others will say, ‘Oh, Gary is just like this guy I know.’ There’s a vast amount of footage and documentaries on autism, including a new one by Louis Theroux [BBC television presenter/documentary filmmaker] that features several autistic children. There are some who suffer from severe cases of autism and are nothing like Gary. They’re not sociable and they don’t know you’re there. These kids will just lash out and start punching and the parents have to restrain them. It’s extremely difficult on parent and child.
“So someone could say, ‘Gary is not autistic because he’s not like that person,’ but he is specifically a little bit on the spectrum and like that individual at that particular point on the spectrum. It’s the marriage of my character’s actual personality, again measured against the spectrum, and his Alphas ability, which has affected him as well. There are all these little elements that have made him what I believe to be a real individual. Everyone is pleased that Gary isn’t an easy pastiche or something similar, and I’ve been very happy that viewers are enjoying what I’m doing.”
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