Interview With The Vampire – A Philosophical Discussion with Ty Olsson
The SPNFamily embraced actor Ty Olsson (the reluctant vampire Benny on SPN) after his first con appearance in Las Vegas earlier this year, so we were excited to sit down and chat with him at the next Creation con in New Jersey a few weeks ago. Ty isn’t afraid to be both passionate and vulnerable onstage as well as onscreen, something that fans can relate to – after all, being a fan is all about passion, yet all that passion also makes you vulnerable (every time one fan accuses another of ‘doing fandom wrong’ or a non-fan raises their eyebrows and silently accuses you of being batshit crazy or at the very least a stalker – or when the Show you love hands you an episode like Supernatural’s recent finale and it leaves you sobbing for days. My vulnerability, let me show you.)
So we felt like we could relate to Ty even before we sat down with him for a chat over breakfast.
Lynn: Your character – and you as an actor – were very quickly embraced by the fandom as part of the family. Were you surprised at the reception you got?
Ty: Yes and no. I think Benny’s the kind of character that I knew people would love, because he’s the kind of guy you want to root for. We can all empathize with the struggles that he faces, and although they’re more on a supernatural level, they’re the things that are in everyone’s story. It’s that kind of struggle.
We talked to Rick Worthy the day before about his character, the Alpha Vamp, and why it’s so difficult to be a vampire (aside from the obvious gotta kill people and drink their blood thing…). Imagine being born and living as a human, then being turned and losing that humanity that has defined you. As decades or even centuries go by, the people you were human with are long dead – you essentially have no cohort, nobody who is “like” you. How do you relate to anyone when you’ve been around for centuries? No wonder vampires are the perfect metaphor for loneliness and alienation. Which also explains the popularity of anything vampire-related, from Anne Rice to True Blood, Twilight to The Vampire Diaries. Ty saw it the same way.
Ty: It’s like when you walk into a club and it’s filled with 20 year olds and you’re like wow, I’m 30 and I don’t belong in this bar anymore.
Lynn: (definitely relating….alas….) Great analogy.
Ty: So that’s the small moment we can recognize, that this is no longer my generation, I don’t belong here anymore. Imagine that on a grand and absolute scale. And Benny doesn’t belong with the vampires either. As a vegetarian vamp, he has nothing in common with them either.
Lynn: (perhaps getting a little wibbly thinking about it) Benny is between worlds, he belongs nowhere. What a tragic character….
Ty: He is. And being in Purgatory, it’s like when you hear about people who get out of prison after life terms, and they just go out and rob a convenience store because they can’t take it anymore. Not because they wanted anything, they just put up their hands and say, take me back. There’s some security in that. In Purgatory it’s like a war zone, there’s that constant state of survival and keeping alive – and that’s also a hard thing for a vampire. What keeps people buzzing and driving and working is that our life spans are short, so we have a lot to accomplish. But what happens when you’ll never die? I love in my episode when we see my nest, the leader who was so young, which was a nice surprise and well played – but his character had been around so long, you could just see that he was ready to go. And that’s such a scary thing to have to face, that realization that, I’m not suicidal, but I’m happy to cease to exist. It’s so bizarre.
It was most definitely too early to be having deep philosophical discussions, especially on the morning after a crazy convention night, but the more we talked, the more fascinating the conversation became. Like many of the Supernatural actors who we’ve interviewed over the course of writing Fandom At The Crossroads and Fangasm, Ty is thoughtful about his character. And like so many of our interviews, this one pretty much took off in whatever direction it damn well felt like.
Lynn: When you think about it, vampires were created as humans, so their psyche is essentially human and expects a finite life span – we evolved to expect that, and our brains are organized around that expectation and making the most of the time we have. That’s such an integral part of human motivation – but now it’s not finite, and that’s horrible in a way.
Ty: Absolutely. And you also no longer have that biological imperative to reproduce.
(He pauses, and we both have an aha moment…)
Ty: (cocking an eyebrow meaningfully) Or do you? Is that why they keep making other vampires? But for Benny, if vamps are monsters, then the prospect of making other vampires, turning people into monsters, wouldn’t appeal to him.
Lynn: (silently sobbing) Poor Benny!
Ty: (deadpans) Now you’ve ruined my breakfast.
Lynn: You can see why I’m such a fabulous therapist. Oh, are you depressed? If not, just give me a few minutes….
At this point our good friend Alice Jester from Winchester Family Business joined the conversation. She was apparently getting depressed just listening to us.
Alice: Talk about depressing, I watched you die twice in two weeks on two different shows.
Ty: Try doing it!
Alice and Lynn: Point taken.
Ty: I’ve died so many times, my poor body. Because as an actor, you convince yourself of things, that’s why actors have to be careful sometimes that you don’t carry your work home with you. Imagine the lashings you’re giving your psyche by dying over and over again.
Lynn: No wonder you and Jensen get along so well. He said the exact same thing when we asked him something similar – that your mind knows you’re acting, but your body doesn’t, and it takes a toll.
Ty: As much as you have to keep the skills sharpened to go into those characters and into those moments, you also have to keep the same attention to being able to let them go. And when you don’t, that’s when people get unhealthy.
Lynn: So do you have to continuously work at it? Or does the character just sort of fall away over time?
Ty: You should constantly work at it. You need to say okay, it’s done. This is why, without subscribing to a particular method of acting, you hear about people who burn out because they haven’t kept that same muscle sharp. They’ve kept the muscle to go into these dark places sharp, but not the muscle to get out of them. So they don’t know how to let them go, and start taking them home. And if you’re playing a long-running series character, I can imagine for Jared and Jensen, if they kept that character and weren’t able to let go of that stuff and carried that weight and that burden with them, that would be tough.
Lynn: (wibbly again) Ohmygod, the Winchesters, they’ve had lives full of constant loss and so much tragedy, can you imagine bringing that home with you?
Ty: Exactly. So you have to be able to let it go, the same way you do with anything. If there’s nothing I can do about that, well, it’s gone now.
Lynn (taking Ty’s advice and switching gears to a happier topic – like cons!) So were the conventions a surprise for you?
Ty: Yes and no. Even though you know what to expect, it’s a little bit to experience.
Lynn: Who clued you in?
Ty: The other cast. They were like, this is gonna be like this, and this is gonna be like that. It’s a little like being a rock star, which is kinda cool – but on a weekend basis!
One of the things we’ve talked to all the cast members about as we were writing our books is the balancing act that comes with being a “rockstar” – even a temporary one. We asked Ty how he was negotiating having fans, which can sometimes feel like a juggling act trying to keep everyone happy.
Ty: It can be, like the people who follow me on Twitter or Facebook, who I’ve had some ongoing correspondence with over the last year, you worry about any hurt feelings, because people don’t always realize that you’re entertaining, if you will, hundreds of people at the same time. Somebody tweeted that they were upset because they paid to get something signed and they said, you scribbled something and sang that stupid song. When I was in Vegas doing my first autograph signing, it was literally like, no personalization, just sign it, go go go! So this time I had my own little booth, so I was writing everybody’s name and making little happy faces of squigglies. I’m signing 200 things, so it can be messy, so I was like, “try to figure out what this says.” I thought it would be fun, or somebody would ask, how are you? So I’d write, “I’m doing just fine, Ty.” I was being playful, but I think [the anticipation] is kinda built up. Like you wait in line, you wait in line, you wait in line, and then it’s oh, we’re closed. So I understand that’s a weird thing to navigate.
Ty really does get conventions. They’re all about the lines!
Lynn: It’s a weird responsibility, because you really are important to people. As fans, we get attached. (Yes, Lynn is the master of understatement.)
Ty: And it’s there forever (when you’re tweeting), and it’s easy to misunderstand. We’re actors, we’re artists, we’re emotional people, and it’s easier to go arghaughaghhh oh yeah well fuck you – and then you’re misunderstood. I had to laugh at Vegas con. Because I like to have fun, clearly.
Lynn: (grinning) Clearly. And fans do too. Fandom – and cons — are supposed to be fun!
Of course, another part of being a ‘celebrity’ is that everything you do is put under a microscope and analyzed. People see photos of Ty onstage and wonder, Is he mad? Is he having too much fun? Is he exhausted?
Ty: And then I get a million tweets saying, get some sleep, do you take melatonin?
Lynn: Fans are protective of the people and the characters we fan. Especially of Benny, who’s such a tragic character. And of you, too, since you show some vulnerability.
Ty: It’s like a blessing and a curse, because I’m very open and not judgmental, and there’s not a lot that’s taboo for me. And sometimes the things that other people judge, I just don’t get it. So if I get myself in shit, it’s probably gonna be that way. It will be something that I have no idea the rest of the world thinks is weird.
Lynn: (grinning for real) No wonder you fit in so well with fandom.
And then we were right back to deep philosophical discussion. Hey, with someone as insightful and thoughtful as Ty, we can’t be blamed! Conversation turned to how weird it was that in the US, you can be sent off to war at the age of 18, but you’re not old enough to drink. (We were having breakfast in a hotel bar, so this wasn’t the non sequitur that it might seem).
Ty: With great love and respect to my American cousins, but you guys have the weirdest system. You can send someone to war but you can’t buy them a beer. And correct me if I’m wrong, but when we do stuff for the European market, we have to be careful of the violence because they have really strict violence controls. But in America…
Lynn (interrupts loudly) It’s sex!!
Rest of the bar: Hey, keep it down over there…
Ty: Yeah, it’s the opposite! People can have sex on television in Europe and that’s okay, but you can’t blow somebody’s head off. Here it’s the reverse, and it’s mindboggling.
Lynn: It is. Having worked with lots of people who are so messed up because of sex and shame and our weird cultural values, I’ve seen how it can damage people. That’s one of the things we wrote about in Fandom At The Crossroads, how fandom can be all about shame-busting and being real for the first time, especially for women.
Ty: I had a great conversation years ago with a friend, and I don’t know how accurate this is, but the theory is that depending on the culture, they change the swear words. French Canadian swear words are religion-based, that’s the taboo. In some cultures, it’s all disease based, like ‘you’re a maggot face.’ And in America, it’s all sex based. Or gender based.
Lynn: (deadpans) No kidding. What does it say about misogyny when the worst thing you can call a man is a woman?
Ty: Or a pussy, or something about sex – you’re a bitch, whore, slut – all the things we use in North American culture are all judging something sexual, it’s ridiculous.
Lynn: And harmful actually. What does that say about what we think of females? You’d probably like the book we wrote, by the way.
Ty: It would probably drive me nuts.
Lynn: (nodding) It would, but you’d agree with us.
Ty: People don’t realize what we’ve done to ourselves. No wonder we have such issues between genders.
And once again, Alice got us back to more upbeat topics. Apparently Lynn and Ty could have talked philosophical questions all day otherwise.
Alice: Is this your first experience with a big fandom?
Ty: The biggest for me, certainly. Wait, is there a bigger fandom than Supernatural?? I don’t think there is! I’ve had little tastes of it before, but certainly not in the thick of it like this. I’m handling it pretty well, don’t you think? The fandom is the reason why these weekends happen, it’s the reason the show has run 8 seasons, and it’s a unique part of the whole package of Supernatural. I go to Rome in 2 days, to Germany, the UK. I’ve had this ongoing joke with the actors I know who get to go to great places to shoot, and I’m like, I’m going to Prince George in the winter. Finally I get to go somewhere!
Lynn: (attempting to get back to show-related squee topics). Can you talk a little more about playing Benny? Is there a chance we’ll see Benny again, now that he’s returned to Purgatory?
Ty: If they do bring Benny back, I’d like some advance notice. Because I have this great little fantasy in my own head that Benny in Purgatory becomes a little more feral. Because even though he’d been there for 50 years, there’s that little bit of jumping back into the pool and kinda letting go for a while when he gets back, after trying so hard to fit back in with human civilization. So he’d be going back and just going fuck it, because it’s harmless, anything you kill in Purgatory, they’re all monsters – so, embracing the savagery.
Lynn: Is that part of what made being topside so difficult for Benny? In Purgatory there was no guilt, but if he gave into bloodlust or killing humans, it’s wrong.
Ty: It was pure, like Benny and Dean talked about. I think having that existence of just pure survival, there’s no struggling with morality or conscience, it’s black and white, kill or be killed, so there’s the purity of that, not having the complications of real life. So I like to imagine that if he goes back, Benny is a little more feral. He just lets himself go into the addiction of that, even though there’s no hunger in Purgatory, but being the predator, allowing the predator to live.
Lynn: Can you say anything more about that iconic Dean and Benny scene that everyone is so fascinated with, the one that apparently got so emotional, according to Jensen?
Ty: (smiling) I didn’t realize it has been dubbed iconic! When he cuts my head off?
Lynn and Alice: (are nodding emphatically)
Ty: It’s funny, I think I tend to be pretty prepared. Not that I get stuck in a preconceived way that a scene should go, but I definitely come in with my work done. But that scene, I kept trying it different ways and playing with it, and was never 100% settled into it, even while we were doing it. But interestingly, I think maybe that’s exactly the way it was supposed to be, because you have to be really self aware to know when it feels right. They’re never gonna say to you, well, that was garbage but we have no time left, we have to move on – even if maybe that’s what they’re thinking – so you really have to be your own best judge. So if something’s not fitting quite right with me, I’ll keep trying to move around with it. And that whole scene, it wasn’t that it didn’t feel right, but it didn’t have that kind of ease that it’s supposed to. There’s a thing they say, that when you’re acting well, it should feel easy. But then I think in hindsight, maybe I was just in it enough to know that it just ISN’T a comfortable scene.
Lynn: How could it be, really? Your best friend in the world is about to cut your head off, you’re about to sacrifice yourself for him and for his brother.
Ty: (laughs) Right. So I think there was a slight tinge of this awkward unsettled unhappy unfulfilled, this isn’t the way it’s supposed to end, feel. You know when you’re struggling because you have something else to say, but you don’t really know what it is you want to say? Like we’ve gotta do this thing, but I don’t know, like maybe we should slow down and have a cup of coffee… So I think there was still something left unsaid, and maybe that’s part of the Dean and Benny story, there was something left unsaid. It certainly felt that way. And I know Jensen said this too on set, it surprises you even though you say of course there was, but it still surprised both of us. I think outside the emotional connection between these two characters, there was a weird – like, this is hard! How is this supposed to end?
Lynn: (nodding) How can something that has to end like that be anything but awkward and difficult…
Ty: (laughing) Yeah, it’s like breaking up with somebody you love, and nobody knows why you’re breaking up. Both of you are going, we just have to, but we don’t know why we have to.
Lynn: There was no time for them to talk about it…I think the fact that things were left unsaid and the characters are feeling so much but unable to express it, that added to the power of the scene – the audience is going no no no you have to talk about it!!
Ty: They both have a lot more to talk about, but they can’t.
Lynn: That’s why it was so heartbreaking. And it really left the audience wanting more. That’s why I think they’ll bring you back.
Ty: I hope so.
Lynn and Alice: So do we!
At this point, Lynn was having ALL THE DEAN AND BENNY FEELS EVER, because come on people, the way Ty and Jensen both talk about the emotion in that scene, how could you not?? Luckily at that moment we were joined by another SPN vampire, Rick Worthy, which made the morning even more awesome. We can’t think of a better way to spend a morning than chatting about the best bloody Mary’s (appropriately enough) in Vancouver with two vampires.
Turns out it was Rick who gave Ty the idea to phone a seriously ill SPN fan while he was onstage the day before.
Ty: One of the things I used to do when I was on Dragon Tales is call some kids in the hospital, and sometimes it was so great, and other times it was so heartbreaking because you’d know the kid on the other end of the line was medicated and could barely stay awake and you’re trying to do the voice and not choke up. The woman I called yesterday is in the middle of chemo, they found a match for a bone marrow transplant, but it’s not an easy fight. I’ve gotta thank Rick because he gave me the idea. I was on my way to the airport and I was late for my plane because I grabbed the wrong passport so I raced back and got it and I was so nervous because I didn’t have a lot of time, and Rick had called me just as I was getting out of the car. He was probably in the bar talking with fans, and that’s where I got the idea to call this fan from the panel, thinking that she’ll love that, it’ll be like she was at the con!
It was a beautiful moment as Ty held the phone up to the microphone and the ballroom full of gathered fans all got to say hi. In fact, several fans tweeted us afterwards to tell us how moved the fan was and how much it meant to her.
Ty: I’m so thankful for these opportunities, to come here and chat with people and it’s like a little weekend vacation, so you pay it forward as much as you can. I’m so fortunate to do something I love for a living, and whenever I can pay it forward, why not?
We ended our interview with Ty talking a bit about the differences between the Canadian and American acting community, and how it’s affected his projects. There’s more of a “star system” in the US.
Ty: It’s good and bad. The bad part is we don’t like to lift anyone up, we want everyone in the middle. It’s anti Canadian to be above others, which is great, but it also holds people back. We don’t have a star system, but that’s why we lose our best actors to the US. People tend to be a little more grounded, but we don’t have as many dreamers either. We tend to get less people who are ‘in the business’ – a lot of our actors come from the theater, whereas with the draw of Hollywood in America, people are like, you don’t need training, just go get cast in a tv show.
Lynn: So what’s happening with Borealis (a pilot that Ty shot recently)?
Ty: (laughing) Nice segue into the whole Canada thing. I love my country, but if something’s good, we kill it!
Lynn: Seems like a bad business model…
Ty: Borealis is set in 2045, the ice caps have melted, the last oil and gas reserves are in a Canadian territory, and everybody wants it. The planet has been sucked dry and devastated, and Borealis is the gold rush town that pops up. And my character is killed and rejuvenated with nano technology. Now he feels like he literally died and came back but feels like he left something behind. He’s a raging alcoholic but has this connection with the government so becomes the customs officer for this town. Everyone is fighting for a piece of the pie and my guy is the unlikely guy who’s trying to get his own piece, he wants to get that and get out – so he’s the reluctant hero.
Like any pilot it’s a hard thing to do, to create an entire world, especially if it’s a complicated world. With Supernatural, it’s still our world, even though these guys are hunting monsters. Because we all understand those parameters – the guys are hunting vampires but the basic premise is, this is our world, modern day, right now. We’re learning along with the brothers in the beginning about all this other stuff, so it’s off and running, boom, right from the beginning. But Borealis takes place in 2045.
So we shot the pilot, it went really well, and halfway through they ordered two more scripts, a good sign. Space Channel wanted it, then the larger network said yes, but then Bell Media said no, and the wheels just stopped after that. I found out four days before that they were airing it like a movie, but with no advertisement. This is the thing with Canada that drives me nuts – okay, you don’t think it’s a viable series, fine, it’s still a very good movie, so why not promote it? So they don’t advertise it at all, and it still ends up winning the night for the Space channel, and I got so much twitter action for it – I subscribe to tweetreach to see how many people your tweets reached, and for Borealis it was almost a million people. Another computer geek guy I know found all the sites that offered it, and 8000 people were offering it for download – so for every one of those, ten people see it, and then multiply that by a week, and there are a million viewers. A million viewers watching a tv show in Canada? Is a hit. So I encouraged people to make it available so people could watch it. So somebody put it on YouTube and you can watch it there. Oh, and the day it was supposed to air, the tv guide said it was a documentary.
Lynn: Some people must have been a bit confused. And alarmed. Just saying.
Ty: Then they were supposed to have it on their website for 2 weeks, but if you clicked on the icon for that, it took you to the wrong show! And this part’s funny. (he pulls out his phone to show us). So if I go to Space Channel, they have these comment sections and they have this thing called the popular threads. So for 3 weeks, there were no other comments but ours in the Recent Comments, but if you look at the “popular threads”, this one here has 7, this one has 8 – we had 247! So I was like, how many more do we need before we’re in the popular thread?? But I was proud of it, the cast was great. It’s my little baby, so let me know what you think.
We promised to do just that, and said our goodbyes to two of our favorite vampires. How about you? Have you checked out Borealis yet – if you do, be sure to leave a comment. Maybe it can finally make the popular thread!
Borealis on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XVMvqNygFk4
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