Actor John Billingsley.
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. In today's interview, stage, feature film and TV actor John Billingsley talks about playing ghost hunter/demon-buster Miles Ballard in the NBC supernatural TV drama The Others. Enjoy, and keep coming back for more familiar faces and shows!
When not lecturing in the classroom, most university professors can usually be found grading exams, tutoring students or attending school-related functions. Not Miles Ballard, the bespectacled, slightly disheveled teacher on NBC’s supernatural thriller The Others. Except for when it comes to helping his students, he prefers to spend most of his off-campus hours hunting for ghosts, excising demons and investigating paranormal phenomenon.
Miles is the studious facilitator of ‘the others,’ a diverse group of gifted individuals whose extraordinary abilities allow them to reach beyond this world and into other dimensions. The group assists wandering souls who are having trouble crossing over to ‘the other side’ because of unfinished business here on Earth, while also trying to protect those who are still very much alive from being threatened by otherworldly creatures. Ironically, the professor must experience these ethereal encounters vicariously through his colleagues.
“My character is the only one in the group who doesn’t have supernatural abilities,” explains John Billingsley, the affable actor who plays Miles. “Here’s a guy who is absolutely fascinated by the paranormal but has not, himself, actually been able to dip his toe in that water, much like myself. I’ve never had any kind of supernatural experience. There are so many people in the world that claim to have met a ghost. Me, I’ve never even heard a clank in the night,” he laughs.
“Having said that, my familiarity with the genre is fairly extensive because I’m a big reader. In fact, when I got this part I went to the library and culled many of the classic ghost stories from such well-known authors as J. Sheridan LeFanu, Wilkie Collins and M.R. James and read them. All those poltergeists certainly put me in the right frame of mind for this role.”
A veteran stage actor, Billingsley brings a wealth of acting experience to his work on The Others. Born in Pennsylvania, he attended Bennington College in Vermont where he chose to pursue a career as a thespian over that of a writer. “I always loved to act and I wrote plays as a child. But I’m a pretty social person and found that the discipline of sitting down at a desk for the requisite five or six hours a day was much harder to get used to than the fun of being in a rehearsal hall. In the end, I gravitated more towards acting because it offered the added advantage of allowing me to go out and have a few laughs and a beer with my friends afterwards.”
Upon graduating, the actor moved to Seattle, Washington and honed his craft by working extensively in regional theatre. “I felt that I had a better chance of breaking into the business there than in New York City,” notes Billingsley. “I also knew that I was a character actor and figured it would take me a few years to get to a point where I’d be prepared to look for television and film work in Los Angeles.” He begins to chuckle when recalling his feature film debut in the 1988 drama Seven Hours to Judgement, directed by and starring Beau Bridges.
“I look back at it now and tell my friends, ‘Don’t see this movie!’ I was so terrible in it. I was young, in my twenties, and except for college projects I hadn’t really worked in front of a camera, so I didn’t know that small and subtle could be a good thing. Man, you could have slathered me with mustard and put me between two slices of bread, I was such a ham,” jokes the actor. “Beau Bridges was sweet as pie, though. At one point in the film, I grab a shotgun out of the closet and chase him around the room. All I can remember being told was, ‘We’ve got to do this in one take. You need to fire the gun the second you hit your mark.’ I was petrified and convinced that I was going to screw it up, but in the end I did everything right and on the first take,” he says happily.
Billingsley’s other movie credits include Born to be Wild, Eat Your Heart Out and I Love You to Death. On television, he has guest-starred on such series as NYPD Blue, The Practice, The Pretender, Profiler and Martial Law. The Others marks his first time as a series regular and, unlike most of his roles, he won the part of Miles Ballard after only one audition.
“The ladies who cast our show, Megan McConnell, Janet Gilmore and their associate, Jamie Rudofski, are just wonderful,” praises the actor. “They had hired me in the past for Felicity and The Practice, so they brought me in to read for The Others. I did three scenes, which I felt went very well, and a week later I got a call offering me the job. I was in my manager’s office and her assistant was talking on the phone and began writing ‘Spielberg’ over and over on her notepad. Steven Spielberg’s company, DreamWorks, produces our show and, from what I understand, he does not believe in callbacks. Apparently, they’d shown my tape to Steven, he liked what he saw and wanted to make sure I kept myself available. Naturally, I did.
“A week or so after that I was up in Toronto, Canada shooting the pilot, which was an absolute delight,” continues Billingsley. “So much of what happens in this profession hinges on whether or not you get along well with the people you work with. Well, things started off on the right foot even before I left Los Angeles. I was standing in line at the airport and the man in front of me was John Aylward, who plays Albert, the blind man with a ‘sixth sense.’
“I’ve known John for twenty years. He and I worked together in Seattle and I used to be his cat-sitter. I asked him, ‘John, what are you doing here? Are you going to Toronto?’ He told me, ‘Yeah, I’m doing the pilot for this new Steven Spielberg show.’ I said, ‘You’re the blind guy,’ and he said, ‘And you’re the nerd!’ We got on the plane, they parked the liquor cart by us and we had a lot of laughs all the way to Canada.”
“Once everyone arrived in Toronto we had a meeting with Mick Garris, who’s now one of the show’s producers. At the time, he had just been brought in to direct the pilot but he enjoyed himself so much that he decided to stick with the series and we’re all elated about that. He’s such a warm, friendly person and his energy and enthusiasm for the project as well as his affection for everybody helped bring us together very quickly.”
In the show’s pilot episode, Miles introduces himself to a student named Marian Kitt (Julianne Nicholson), who is being haunted by the ghost of a woman who died in her dorm room a few years back. Although she is reluctant to admit it, Marian is a medium and has the ability to communicate with the deceased. Miles believes that he and ‘the others’ can teach her how to harness these powers so that she can help this woman’s spirit rest in peace. The professor would love for Marian to join the group, even though he knows that once she opens the door to ‘the other side’ her life will never be the same again.
“Miles has a great deal of affection for Marian and feels responsible for her,” says Billingsley. “After all, he’s the one who pretty much discovers her and brings her into the group. I think that sometimes he feels guilty about doing this because Marian goes through quite a lot for someone so young and may not as yet be ready to face some of the things she’s having to experience. However, he realizes she might be the only hope for ‘the others’ to carry on when their spiritual leader Elmer Greentree [Bill Cobbs] eventually passes on. Elmer knows this too, and proceeds to make Marian his protégé fairly early on. I’ll be curious to see if this results in any quasi-paternalistic jealousy because Miles doesn’t have as much of a chance to mold Marian since she’s working so closely with Elmer.”
With Marian now among them, ‘the others’ take on some of their most bizarre and dangerous cases yet. In the episode Unnamed, they search for a little boy who has been missing for three years, while in the chilling tale Eyes, the group must battle another man’s demons. Thanks to Miles, their investigations even take them to a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet to search for Souls Onboard a haunted aircraft.
“In this episode Miles sort of suckers his friends into investigating some psychic phenomenon without their really knowing that that’s what they’re being asked to do. Unfortunately, it backfires on him,” laughs the actor. “Out of all the episodes we’ve shot so far, this one features my character most prominently, so there’s a part of me that considers it my favorite because I’ve got the most to do. Honestly, though, I can’t say that we’ve done a story that I’ve disliked. The writers are trying all sorts of plots to attract as wide an audience as possible, which is one of the things I dig about the show.
“Something else that I’m really enjoying is the chance to work with so many famous directors. Because Steven Spielberg is who he is he’s able to get these marvelous feature film directors to direct our show. For example, we’ve had Bill Condon [Gods and Monsters], Bill Malone [House on Haunted Hill] and Tobe Hooper [The Texas Chainsaw Massacre], who did Souls Onboard. It’s just so fascinating because these guys have each developed their own very unique and distinctive visual styles. So each episode of The Others not only has a different look to it but also a different tone when it comes to the writing.”
Some critics are touting The Others as a cross between The X-Files and the feature film The Sixth Sense with a generous dash of Touched by an Angel thrown in for good measure. While the series does contain elements of these big and small screen hits, Billingsley believes there are a number of other aspects to it that will also appeal to viewers.
“As a thesis, the show says that the need for living creatures to relate to and deal with each other is so overwhelming that it transcends death. Because of this, a person may sometimes reach beyond the grave to finish what needs to be finished before they can move on,” he says. “I find that to be a very moving type of theme. In a way, it’s got some of the spirituality of Touched by an Angel but in a far more supernatural sense. This is something, I hope, will allow us to have a broader audience, you know?
“I also think The Others is a series with some really heavyweight talent behind it. As I mentioned, we have these wonderful directors and, because it’s a DreamWorks project, they have all the resources they need to create a first class visual production.
“Last but not least, it’s a program that’s driven by character acting,” stresses Billingsley. “It’s not about seven people all under thirty. In our show the leader of the pack is a 70 year old black gentleman [Bill Cobbs], John Aylward is a craggy 50 year old, I’m kind of a dumpy 40 year old and Julianne is so not your standard issue, twentysomething sex kitten. She’s absolutely lovely but in a very off-kilter sort of way. So The Others bucks today’s notion that a television show needs to be a built around gorgeous hard bodies, and speaking on behalf of this body, that’s a good thing,” he laughs.