Chad Michael Collins Talks With Us About His Role As Gerhardt In Once Upon A Time, His New Film Coming Out, And What It’s Like to Play The Handsomest Frankenstein On Historical Record
Interview by Diane J. Reed - @DianeJReed
With his background in journalism, I already knew Chad Michael Collins is that rare pretty face/action star with serious mental hardware upstairs - and his whip-smart humor and detailed answers in our interview did not disappoint! What’s even more amazing is that we were able to pin down this busy actor with all of the projects he has going. Nevertheless, Chad graciously made time for us, and the following is a fascinating discussion about his new role on Once Upon a Time - and what it was like to be transformed into a monster.
Diane: Hi Chad! In our usual style, we’re going to jump right into the good stuff, so here goes: You play Gerhardt Frankenstein in Season 2, brother to Viktor Frankenstein (who is also Dr. Whale in Storybrooke). I read in the press that your manager referred you to casting at Once Upon a Time before, but was told you look too much like Josh Dallas to get a role! Yet you’ve also been compared to Tom Berenger, which was why you were cast as his son in the film Sniper: Reloaded. I have to say I don’t see a resemblance to either one of them - other than tall, blonde & handsome. What’s your take on this perception? Do you have the kind of chameleon features that people can project onto you what they will? This seems like it might be an advantage in Hollywood, but perhaps not always?
Chad: Once Upon a Time is such a massively popular show and a big hit for ABC, so my manager was always in contact with their casting office to try and find a way for me to audition. Although I’m not a dead-ringer for Josh Dallas, we look similar and both play the all-American, leading man type. That’s great if you're going to play a sibling or an evil doppelgӓnger, but not so great if you’re playing opposite them, which is more likely the case. Luckily, David Anders needed a brother with lighter hair and eyes, so it all worked out for me to play Gerhardt.
But yes, I’ve been fortunate enough to play quite a few “sons” in my career - to Tom Berenger in Sniper: Reloaded and to John Schneider in Lake Placid 2. So that’s worked out for me in some cases, but in Hollywood you know they take liberties with looks and likeness, so I can't say it’s been some great advantage. There are plenty of shows I’ve been in where I look nothing like “dear ol’ dad”.
Diane: What’s interesting about your episode (“In the Name of the Brother” directed by Milan Cheylov) is that it was filmed in black & white. I’ve heard you actually shot your scenes against a blue screen with a CGI representation of the finished castle on a playback monitor. Several of your previous roles have featured outdoor action scenes or have been filmed in exotic locations like South Africa. What was it like to drum up believability for your scenes inside such a closed, artificial environment? Was it harder, or actually less distracting?
Chad: Although the backgrounds and surrounding elements were CGI, on Once Upon a Time they created fantastic little sets that we stomped around on - “Viktor’s lab”, my cell at the end of the episode, and the Frankenstein manor. So we weren’t naked in terms of imagining the scenery. Of course, it’s a little tougher when you’re running around outdoors and you have to imagine a giant crocodile coming at you represented by a stick in the mud 25 yards away. That was my Lake Placid 2 experience. But acting is just playing pretend, so that’s where it gets fun!
Diane: Yet sometimes it’s hard to “pretend” when you don’t even know the character you’re going to play! Once Upon a Time is notoriously mum about what role the actors are auditioning for. Is it true that you weren’t informed you were going to become a “monster” (i.e., the Frankenstein) until you showed up for three hours of grueling makeup?
Chad: I didn’t know that Gerhardt would become the monster until I read the script a couple of days before leaving for Vancouver. Even then, it didn’t really sink in that I would be playing the monster until I got an email from the F/X studio that was going to be customizing my prosthetics, stitching, etc. I had no idea what they had in mind for the role, and a part of me thought “Oh, well, they’ll probably just hire a big stunt guy to lumber around for those scenes.” Wrong! And I’m glad I was wrong - it was incredibly cool to put on that monster skin. And it wasn’t all that grueling; I just sat around shirtless for a few hours a day while a small team glued and airbrushed and painted me all over. Canadians are a very lovely, accommodating people, and they took good care of me.
Diane: So tell us more about your cosmetic transformation—since the filming was in black & white, the audience really only sees your stitches and scars. What colors were spackled onto your skin? The scar that ran down your chest looked particularly genuine! Did this authenticity help you feel more like a patched-together & monstrous version of humanity
Chad: Well, it was about 3-4 hours of putting me together and that involved gluing on latex strips of pre-stitched incisions, airbrushing and painting me a mottled, gray color, and then getting in there to do all the detail work—veins, blackened fingernails, deep, dark eye shadows. It looked fantastic, as everyone saw. And when I looked into the mirror and didn’t recognize myself at all, it definitely helped me get to a place as an actor where the monster probably was—a little bit of amnesia, learning to walk and function again, and then shifting along clumsily like it was his first time in a new body.
Diane: So let’s get real for a minute, here - you’re the handsomest Frankenstein on historical record! Was that a surprise to you that they didn’t try to “ugly” you up more? No bolts in the neck or dragging your foot across the floor?
Chad: Well, thanks for that dubious honor! But yeah, the vision for the character was great - Gerhardt was the good-looking “good” son, and the way the monster came out, you can see that he retained much of his original appearance and humanity. I think that made the character more sympathetic. While there was an overall awkwardness, we didn’t play it for freakish effect. We kept it as real as possible, which I think was perfect.
Diane: How daunting was it for you to play this character knowing that Robert De Niro had tackled the role in 1994?
Chad: DeNiro’s Frankenstein, from what I remember of the movie, was set in a much darker story, so he looked very much the part of the abomination that he was. I got to play more of the “Prince Charming” version, a character that retained his innocence and morality, and remained good despite the evil that he had unwittingly committed. I think the two characters, DeNiro’s and mine, were from such different universes that I honestly didn’t even think about previous incarnations of the classic monster.
Diane: There’s such a fun, Downton Abbey costume-period feel to the scenes with you and your on-screen father & brother early on in the episode. You’re all dressed up in over-the-top, stuffy clothing that we can imagine came from Prussia in the nineteenth century. Your white military uniform with glittery epaulets is tailored so snugly to your frame it looks like it might be hard for you to breathe—and those boots! Somewhere the ghosts of Michael Jackson, Jimi Hendrix, and Oscar Wilde are duking it out for your wardrobe! What was it like to wear all that stuff?
Chad: Well, the costumes in Once Upon a Time are second to none. I was joking that my military-inspired get-up was part Sargeant Pepper, part Liberace, and in the end, part Michael Jackson’s Thriller!
Diane: Did they give you any “Manx” (the male version of Spanx) to corset you in for that regalia? I saw that stuff in the Men’s department at Macy’s in Manhattan recently.
Chad: Oh, the costume was snug-fitting, yes, but no corset necessary, thankfully! There were no light-headed fainting spells on the set for this Frankenstein.
Diane: Well, I loved how you played your monster character softly—more like someone whose neurons are no longer firing quite right, leaving him confused & disoriented & primal in his reactions. Yet it was agonizing to watch your dawning self-reflection—in your scenes, you appear to grapple with your conscience and realize that there’s something wrong & you’re dangerous to others. How did you get into the head of this character? You acted as though someone had pushed the “soul reset button,” but the vessel of your body was damaged by this point—and your soul somehow realized this was a twisted version of reality. Nevertheless, the soul wasn’t scarred—just the body & brain. Was that an intentional spin on the character on your part?
Chad: I think you’re pretty spot on. I wanted to keep it simple, with the director’s blessing. But yes, there was this element of him coming out of a coma, albeit with a new superhuman strength, so there was a certain awkwardness, and fits of uncoordination, and then the senses re-adjusting. I felt the same was true for Frankenstein’s memory; a big chunk of it was gone. But I thought once in a while he’d remember his former self and be instantly horrified about what he’d become and be remorseful about what he had done, as well as be shocked by what he was capable of in this raw, primal reincarnation. So for me, it was equal parts puppy/young child and the incredible Hulk/professional wrestling heel.
Diane: It seemed so appropriate to see your character grab the gun & put it to his forehead. Gerhardt was a decorated soldier, after all, who was used to making dangerous sacrifices for the greater good. You did a wonderful job of letting that purity shine through your eyes—more of an angel in a very broken vessel than a devil or a monster. Had you wanted to retain Gerhardt’s former “goodness” as a character and let that shine through somehow?
Chad: Yes, absolutely. He never asked to be reanimated, and he was appalled by Viktor’s grave-robbing and the sacrilege of it all. He was an idealist, with a good heart, and at the end he was willing to die rather than run the risk of killing another innocent or be manipulated into worse. I don’t think he wanted to be put out of his misery pitiously as much as he couldn’t stand the thought of hurting another person, especially his own family.
Diane: Okay, now it’s time for our fan-boy moment: Tell us the scoop on working with such an extraordinary cast. Did you find yourself getting star struck at all? What was it like to meet the amazing Robert Carlyle or others on the set?
Chad: The cast is no-doubt talented and fantastic, but the Frankenstein storyline was isolated, and all of my shoot days were with David Anders and Greg Itzin. We had a blast, they are both such talents, and very generous and complimentary as actors. We had a lot of laughs and a lot of fun on and off set. I did meet Robert Carlyle in passing—he was very friendly and humble. And I hung out with Lee Arenberg after work—very cool dude, and a fellow Oakland Raiders fan! But outside of that, I didn’t have the pleasure of meeting anyone else in the cast except for Barbara Hershey briefly in the makeup trailer—she’s still as beautiful as ever!
Diane: For those of us who are fairy tale & literature fans, we want to know if you read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein before reporting to Once Upon a Time. Mary Shelley wrote it at the age of 19 in the most famous literary “dare” ever—she & Percy Shelley & Lord Byron were bored one dark and stormy night in Geneva, so they challenged each other to write horror stories. Have you ever been allowed to be that daring artistically? To set aside strict notions of a particular script and just wing it with improvisation? Do you enjoy that kind of work, or would you rather there be a predetermined artistic vision?
Chad: I did read Shelley’s original work back in college—pretty impressive for a 19-year-old, I must say. Personally, as an actor, I’m all good with the words on the page, but have worked on quite a few things—mostly indie films and comedies—where I was free to ad lib and bring my own unique takes to a character, which is a blast. Especially when the comedy is over the top and you just let it all hang out. It can be scary, but like one of my early acting teachers always preached, just “dare to suck!” There’s always another take.
Diane: I love that attitude! How else can you come up with good art? Now, I find it interesting that Gerhardt Frankenstein is not the first soldier you’ve played. In your career so far, you’ve covered an entire spectrum of military personnel, from a UN Forces gunman in Sniper: Reloaded to a gay officer in the NCIS “Recruited” episode. And you have the new film Company of Heroes coming out on February 26th where you play a WWII soldier trying to stop Hitler from releasing a nuclear bomb. Did you grow up with any particular affinity with the military or have family members or friends in the armed forces? Or were you a fan of classic military films like The Great Escape or A Bridge Too Far as a boy?
Chad: Most of my family has military roots—grandfathers, uncles, cousins, etc. But personally, the biggest influence I ever had in that arena was GI Joe. I was obsessed! I had the action figures, I read the comics, I watched the cartoon. I memorized all the figures’ names and military specialties. They were a huge formative influence on me. I’m also obsessed with knights, and that whole sense of justice and law-and-order is just coded into my DNA. I was a few signatures away from joining the Air Force out of college, but didn’t pull the trigger on that. Braveheart and Band of Brothers are pretty much my favorite film and TV series, and I was watching the latter when I first took an acting class in Hollywood and thought to myself, “Boy, wouldn’t it be fun if one day I could run around in the snow and mud, trying to save the world?” Fast forward several years later, and I’m starring in Company of Heroes. Pretty amazing!
Diane: I’m a big believer in the power of intention and dreams—look where it got you! And I have to confess, when I saw the trailer for your upcoming film Company of Heroes, I cried. [See the trailer here] The dialogue and stakes presented are so accurate compared to what my father, a WWII vet, told me about the war before he died—including fears that Hitler might have the nuclear bomb. When a character says in the Company of Heroes trailer, “We’re the right men for the job because we’re the only men here, and that’ll have to do,” it pierced my heart. That’s exactly what he said—they were simply farm boys & ordinary guys who had to be brave & achieve the impossible. For your role in Company of Heroes, did you have the opportunity to interview any veterans from WWII, the way you researched a Russian military professional for Sniper: Reloaded?
Chad: Yeah, that trailer was pretty sweet, right?! In Company of Heroes I play a farm boy who gets shipped out to Europe in the twilight of WWII. He’s naive, inexperienced, and only there to get more of a sense of who his father was, a vet that died in WWI. Coming into it, I didn’t want to do any deep research because the character is really experiencing what war is about for the first time. Shoot, he probably never even left his county before ending up in Belgium. But, on my end, I’ve seen Band of Brothers, which is basically a scripted documentary, and so many other WWII films, even some of Ken Burns’ The War. So I’ve always been pretty familiar with the times and circumstances.
Diane: What was it like to work with such a stellar cast—Tom Sizemore from Saving Private Ryan & Black Hawk Down, Neal McDonough from Band of Brothers & Minority Report, and Jürgen Prochnow from the classic military film Das Boot?
Chad: I mostly worked with Tom Sizemore—we were numbers one and two on the cast call sheet, and worked all 24 days together. The first eight days was like a boot camp in arctic survival—we shot on a Bulgarian mountainside with two feet of snow and replica uniforms. No Thinsulate. No Goretex. No waterproof anything, below freezing every day. It was rough going, but for me it was also incredible fun, seeing that the alternative is a desk job. But that first week really cemented a nice working relationship with Tom, who was generous in our scenes, and we had become good friends by the end of the shoot, laughing about how we almost didn’t make it off that mountain alive. Solidarity—the stuff of real soldiering, for sure!
Neal was great, a classy guy who is also from the northeast, so we shot the breeze a little bit but he was in and out in a couple of days. I’m still in touch with Jürgen, who’s a living legend as an actor, and I’ve hung out with him in L.A. and we’ve watched Lakers games together at his pad. Vinnie Jones was great, a guy who loves his good times but one of the most professional actors I’ve ever worked with. I’ve also remained good friends with my romantic lead, Melia Kreiling, an up-and-coming UK talent. So it was a great experience all-around, and on the back end I walked away with a lot of friends and a great film to promote.
Diane: You grew up in the countryside of upstate New York in what you’ve called a blue-collar family. What does your family think of your current, high-profile acting career? Do they watch your work in TV and film? Are they proud or a bit dazed by it all?
Chad: Yes, I grew up blue collar in a small town of about 3500, tops. My first jobs were working on local farms bailing hay, shoveling manure, bagging crops, until I was old enough to work at the local grocery store. My family is grounding—they’re still the same roll-up-your-sleeves, hard-working country folk, although now they’ve got more water cooler stories to tell their co-workers. They're proud—what parent doesn’t like to see their kid’s name in the paper? And they’re always excited to hear about my auditions or to watch the latest TV show, even if the inner workings of fame and Hollywood are lost on them. When I was a child, my family probably had about as much of an inkling as I did that I’d go on to become an actor. But in hindsight, they’re the ones that got me started on those GI Joes, so…!
Diane: By the way, have you googled yourself lately? Ahem—there are all kinds of shots of you on YouTube & Pinterest & other websites as the “Up and Coming Hunky Guy to Watch.” My favorite one on Pinterest lately is titled “I Hope Your Personality Is As Awesome As Your Face.” (Please tell us that’s true ; ) Were you the cute jock in high school who’s accustomed to this sort of attention, or are you more of a late-bloomer who’s finding all this rather surprising?
Chad: Well I’m not much of a self-Googler; the closest I get is maintaining my website for industry folks and a Facebook and Twitter presence for fans and whatnot. That’s all pretty hilarious to me, but to answer the question: yes, my personality IS awesome, ha! I didn’t get into acting for the adoration, but it’s flattering of course. Really, they can all just thank Ma ’n Pa Collins, who put this guy together back in the day. When I was younger, I was a bit of a late bloomer, an honor student who played a lot of sports, had a sweet, small-town girlfriend, and kept out of trouble. I have worked for a long time in the entertainment industry as a publicist, so that’s done more to prepare me for the attention that comes with being an actor. But at the end of the day, it’s all about staying grounded, grateful, and balanced.
Diane: Do you see a possible future in returning as Gerhardt Frankenstein in Once Upon a Time? If you had a fairy godmother with a magic wand, what other types of roles would you wish you could play in your career? Anything that might surprise your fans so far?
Chad: I can see myself returning, sure! It was a blast to play Gerhardt, and I think the Once Upon a Time universe responded to it. However, it’s all up to the powers-that-be, but let it be known that I'm ready and willing to get back in that makeup chair and get manhandled again. As far as dream roles, honestly, I can’t get enough of playing soldier. I’ve done it a handful of times, but it’ll never get old. I read that Spielberg is doing another WWII miniseries, this time centered around the Air Force, and I’d love to be a part of something so big budget, so epic.
I’d also love to play a cowboy in a western or a SciFi western of some sort, as I’m a big science fiction/fantasy guy and count the Battlestar: Galactica series as one of my all-time faves. Lastly, I’ve got to find a way to put on the armor and get my knighthood on! Like I said, I love Braveheart, and I also play Warcraft, devour the historical fiction of Bernard Cornwell, and got started on The Hobbit way early. So yeah—I’ve got to fire up a bow-and-arrow and/or the ol’ sword ’n shield one of these days!
I have no doubt that Chad Michael Collins will find his fairy tale sword and shield one day! But until then, you can follow him on Twitter at @ccollins32 and on Facebook at Chad Michael Collins. You can also check out his website at www.chadmichaelcollins.com
A big thank you to Chad for this wonderful & insightful interview! Dont forget to check out Company of Heroes when it is released on February 26th.