Joel de la Fuente as Paul Wang in Space: Above and Beyond.
Once again, I have decided to open up the interview vault and revisit some of the many interviews I have had the pleasure of writing over the years and that just appeared in-print and not on-line. Today's interview is with stage and screen actor Joel de la Fuente, who talks about his experiences working on Space: Above and Beyond. Enjoy, and keep coming back for more familiar faces and shows!
When you are shy and insecure, signing up for a tour of duty in the military is probably the last thing you would think of doing. For Paul Wang his own curiosity led him to join the Marines. Little did First Lieutenant Wang realize he and a band of newly trained cadets would one day be Earth’s first line of defenses against a race of aliens known as Chigs.
“He’s been someone very much in transit,” says Joel de la Fuente who plays Space: Above and Beyond’s resident philosopher and good humored pilot Paul Wang. “Emotionally, I feel that he’s gone from one place to very much another as the season has progressed. I think that Paul joined the Marines at a time when no one thought that there was going to be any more war. He was basically going for training, education and ideals other than fighting. Suddenly, he finds himself in the middle of what he was most scared of,” laughs de la Fuente. “His whole journey since then has been about coming to terms with this and being able to affiliate himself with a group of people, both of which have given him strength.”
De la Fuente was living in New York City when approached to play Wang. His audition tape was sent to Los Angeles and, not long after, the actor was flown out to California for a second screen test. When offered the job by the show’s creators and producers, Glen Morgan and James Wong, the East Coast resident traveled westward and relocated to Space: Above and Beyond.
“To be honest, what attracted me to the job, at least initially, wasn’t so much my character as the people who were working on the show, Glen and Jim. In the pilot there really wasn’t much for Paul Wang to do and it was unclear as to where he was going, so, I had some apprehension about that. When I went in to meet with them they were really great about saying, ‘As the season goes on, we want to develop this character in depth but a lot will depend on the person who’s in the part. If you want, why don’t you take a look at some of the stuff we’ve done before for The X-Files and then let us know what you think.’
“The very fact that they were so open about having a dialogue with me made me very excited about the prospect of working on Space,” continues de la Fuente. “When you start a relationship with people that could go on for a long period of time it’s really good when you feel that there’s a dialogue there right from the start. Since then I feel like we’ve had the opportunity to sort of try and find a direction as to where the show is going and, bit by bit, the characters have gotten more and more fleshed out.”
The son of medical doctors, de la Fuente was born in New Hartford, New York and raised in Chicago, Illinois. While both his parents would probably have been pleased to have seen their son pursue a career in medicine, they both supported him when he decided to become an actor. They also provided him an education he could always fall back on should he ever decide to change careers.
“This past Christmas my mother gave me a copy of this old Doctor Seuss book I had a long time ago. Inside were pages where you filled in responses such as, ‘When I grow up I want to be....’ Scrawled in my writing as a third grader I’d written actor, so, I think that I’ve always had leanings towards the profession.
“As I grew older and got into the position of making decisions for myself, becoming an actor was not foremost in my mind,” he admits. “This was due primarily to the fact that I didn’t see many Asian-American actors. When I did see them they were almost always playing characters who are stereotypical or negatively portrayed perceptions of Asian-Americans. Because of this I never thought it was a viable career option for me even though I loved acting.
“I think that’s where the influence of my parents really helped and pointed me towards something I really wanted to do. I love them so dearly for that because I couldn’t have done it without their support,” says de la Fuente proudly. “I needed their strength to provide an example because I didn’t have one out of popular culture. There are very few Asian-American actors out there whom you can choose to emulate - it’s not a complete anomaly - so, I credit my parents for that.”
While still in college, de la Fuente made his first appearance in front of a camera in a commercial for American football. The actor, who holds a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree from New York University’s Graduate Acting Program, made his professional theatrical debut in 1995 as one of the two leads in the New York Shakespeare Festival’s production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
“Working on that play and getting the chance to step out in front of two thousand people on a beautiful evening in Central Park is about as perfect as you can get,” he recalls. “Every night we were interacting with so many different cultures and people, some of whom had never seen a play before, let alone Shakespeare. I can’t think of a better experience because it was about the inspiration and craft of acting as well as about giving something back to the community. We were rewarded, not just emotionally, but with enough money to actually live on,” he laughs. “It was a great way to leave school and come into the full-time world of professional acting.”
After having been hired for Space: Above and Beyond, de la Fuente and the rest of the cast headed to Australia to film the show’s two-hour pilot. Although the actor had already worked in the theatre and appeared in the film Roommates as well as in the ABC Afterschool Special Summer Stories, he had no real experience in episodic television. This type of inexperience was shared by most of the young cast. De la Fuente credits director David Nutter for helping him and his fellow castmembers to quiet any initial fears they might have had.
“David had us in for individual conferences and made us feel very much at ease. The first week of filming focused mainly on Morgan Weisser and his character of Nathan West, so, the rest of the cast had some time off. All of us ended up spending a lot of time together, more than if we had shot the pilot in Los Angeles, and this enabled us to develop really strong relationships with each other. We’re all very different types of people but have become close friends. Since the pilot the show has turned into more and more of an ensemble piece, so, it’s very important for us as actors to be able to talk and communicate with each other. Working together on the pilot helped lay the groundwork for our relationship.”
The friendship that de la Fuente and the rest of the Space cast shared during their time in Australia has grown and developed further since they returned to Los Angeles to continue work on the series. He is sincere with his praise when asked about working with each of his colleagues.
“Working with James Morrison [Lieutenant Colonel McQueen] is a real treat. He’s been around a few years longer than I have and has a life in the theatre as an actor as well as that of a writer. He’s been a really wonderful sort of example and teacher for me.
“I love Rodney [Rowland, who plays Cooper Hawkes],” laughs the actor. “I’ve never met anyone like him before. He’s this incredibly dashing young man but at the same time he’s wacky and extremely childlike in the sense that he’s so open and full of wonder about everything. He’s the one who’s always kind of making the extra joke and is very insightful with his humor, so, it’s always right on, but he doesn’t really have a bad bone in his body. He’s a lot like Cooper.
“Morgan is such a terrific actor,” says de la Fuente emphatically. “I think he does great work and he, like Rodney, can be quite irreverent at times. He’s the youngest person on the show and brings not only an intensity to his work but a relaxed quality as well. That’s a really great thing for all of us to see and to learn from.
“I would have to say that Lanei Chapman [Vanessa Damphousse] is my closest friend on the show. She’s an incredibly intelligent woman and an aspiring filmmaker as well. When one character might have an entire episode to sort of elaborate a point, Lanei might have the equivalent of one line. To see what she can communicate to the audience with that one line or in the background of a particular scene, in which she ends up coming to the foreground later on, is really remarkable. She and I have bonded enormously over the workings of the show and I feel that we’ve learned quite a lot from each other.
“Kristen [Cloke, who plays Shane Vansen] has been incredibly supportive of everyone. She’s quieter than the rest of the people in the group. She has interests outside the group and the show, but when it comes time to do the work she makes herself present and has been very giving of her time when it’s been asked of her, so, I have a lot of respect for Kristen. She represents the demographic, for example, that Fox is going for. That’s an enormous amount of responsibility and one I haven’t seen her struggling with to kind of carry. She’s very graceful about it and that’s been the terrific thing about her.”
Throughout the program’s first few episodes viewers watched Paul Wang use his sense of humor to defuse and lighten up tense situations. The young pilot’s mood becomes much more somber, however, in the two-part story Hostile Visit and Choice or Chance in which Wang is captured by Artificial Intelligence (AI) beings. Scenes showing his interrogation and torture provide de la Fuente with a powerful vehicle in which to showcase his acting abilities and also set the stage for future obstacles the character must overcome.
“Hostile Visit is the episode in which I feel the program truly became an ensemble piece. Everyone contributed something to that show. It was similar to one called The Enemy which we filmed a couple of weeks prior, but McQueen was much more heavily involved in ‘Hostile Visit’ as was Tucker Smallwood who plays Commodore Ross.
“The episode concentrated a lot on character. The cadets of the 58th Squadron are made aware very early on that they might be going on a suicide mission. From that point on there’s about twenty minutes or so left in the episode during which you see the characters just sitting and thinking about the situation. I actually got to work with my real-life girlfriend Melissa Bowen who plays Paul’s love interest Lieutenant Stroud. She’s an actor, too, and had come out from New York City at about the same time we were filming this episode. So she auditioned for the part along with everyone else. We were worried that we wouldn’t have any on-screen chemistry,” he laughs, “but it worked out fine and we ended up getting to work together for a few weeks, which was nice.”
In Choice or Chance, de la Fuente filmed his interrogation and torture scenes with his friend Doug Hutcinson, who played an AI called Elroy-L. These scenes, which required both actors to reach a certain peak of emotional intensity, are particularly memorable for de la Fuente. “That’s one of my favorite recollections in terms of working with someone because Doug is such a terrific collaborator. We shot all those scenes in one day. Doug, the director Felix Alacala and myself were all on the same page creatively, throwing ideas out and trying different things, and I really think we got some nice stuff together. I feel very good about the work and happy that the writers trusted us to try something like that.”
Critics often compare Space: Above and Beyond with many of the other popular science fiction shows currently on the air. The series differs from them in that it is, first and foremost, a war drama which just happens to be set in the future. It does not sugarcoat the horrors experienced in wartime nor does it exploit them. It is this honest look at an often painful subject which has helped the show to gain its own legion of loyal viewers.
“While the comparisons are flattering there are strong differences,” explains de la Fuente. “A lot of times I feel that some people are quick to want to make comparisons. Finding the differences are a little harder.
“Our show is considerably more violent than programs such as Star Trek. I’m totally open to the fact that our show is too violent for some people. We play the show as a military drama with the model being classic World War II movies. So, when you start to go down that road that’s where the differences start occurring.
“From what I’ve heard, a lot of the criticism leveled at the show may stem from the ideological differences between where we are in the nineties versus where people were in the fifties and sixties. Back then there was an openness and a kind of optimism and simplicity that is often lacking in today’s world. It makes me want to say, ‘It’s too bad that we’re not as simple any more and that it’s a lot more complicated now.’ I feel that a lot of the issues that come up need to be dealt with extremely delicately. On the other hand, we need to be very careful of oversimplifying complicated issues like war, race, and things like that.”
Like his character of Paul Wang, de la Fuente feels that he has a certain responsibility when it comes to his job. “Personally, the most rewarding thing, I think, about acting is that when you do your job well you’re able to understand a little more about people and the human condition. As I get older I’m learning that, while it feels great to act, it doesn’t really mean anything until you’re able to share it and communicate it honestly and well. In doing this, you’re contributing something to the community, which is, I feel, one of the responsibilities that goes along with being an actor,” he says thoughtfully.