Actor Chris Chalk has a CV that’s bursting at the seams with a variety of brilliant roles. He’s played the key role of Clemens in 12 Years A Slave, a journalist (Gary Cooper) in The Newsroom, a marine (Tom Walker) in Homeland, even a killer (Jody Adair) in Justified. More recently he stars as corporate mogul Lucius Fox in television’s Gotham, an adaptation of DC Comics’ Batman series.
Here he chats with Cream about the therapy of acting, playing good guys vs. bad guys, and how television is growing darker in nature.
Interview by Antonino Tati
Hi Chris. It must be pretty therapeutic being an actor as you get to delve into the different aspects of your personality. Do you find this so?
I love my job. So grateful. One of the best parts of the job is to bring humanity to characters that can otherwise be easily dismissed. I like to find what these cats love and take it from there. Everyone loves something, making them human and relatable. So, in the process, it’s less about me and what I get out of it, and more about how I can serve the script and the character. If I do that well, then that’s good enough for me.
In ‘Gotham’, you play Lucius Fox – who stands as a moral beacon for a young Bruce Wayne within a corporation that is otherwise shady. Is there a certain responsibility that comes with playing a character who helps shape Bruce’s being?
The responsibility for me, as Chris Chalk, is pretty easy. Lucius is a dude that feels he hadn’t done his best in regards to justice in Gotham and now spends every moment protecting Bruce Wayne and the city of Gotham. I, Chris Chalk, have a nephew who has children, and being a beacon of light and generosity for them easily translates to the protection of Bruce. The fun part is that we get to create a new version of Batman on Gotham and working with David Mazouz, so I get to see how my version of Lucius blends into his version of Bruce.
In the actual comic books, Lucius goes on to become Wayne Enterprises President / CEO just as Bruce Wayne is becoming Batman. Will your part in the TV series evolve into this bigger role, and what can we expect your responsibilities to be?
The joy of working on Gotham is that even we’re often surprised by the path the story takes. The writers do a great job while working with DC creating a new yet similar story for the audience to dig into. I assume the destination will be similar, but the journey to get there will be a surprise to us all.
Morgan Freeman played the role of Lucius in the ‘Dark Knight’ trilogy. Are those big shoes to fill and how similar or different do you see your character for TV compared to Morgan playing the character for film?
Morgan Freeman is great. Super talented. I’m lucky that I don’t do much in comparison, meaning I recognise that he did his work as Lucius in that universe of Gotham and I get the opportunity to create my version. We both play the same guy so there will be similarities but we will obviously be super different because of the age difference and our individual approaches to our work. So I’m not so much filling shoes as I am putting on my own pair and when the show is over I will hang them next to his on the Lucius Fox rack!
Nicely put. You’ve come a long way since playing bit parts and extra roles. All the while, from the beginning of your career, have you studied how other areas of the TV and film making operate? What benefit is there in knowing what the director’s job is; or just what the sound operator’s job is, for example?
When I coach folks in acting, I say something to the effect of “it’s a dentist’s job to know everything about teeth and every process involving teeth”. After all, they make the study of the mouth their entire life’s work. What that means, in regards to acting, is “know everything”. It’s our job to know our field and there is only good to come of knowing as much as possible. Knowing what a director wants, what a DP means when she says she’s looking for a certain thing or understanding how a scene will cut into the entire episode is beneficial for blending your acting into the entirety of the piece.
What are two things you look for in a role?
I look at the dimension of the character and his effect on the entirety of the piece. I also look to see what he loves.
Which do you prefer, to play the good guy or the bad guy? And do you have to psyche yourself up to play a baddie?
This makes me smile. I think every human is capable of what we consider good and bad. That’s the fun of playing fully developed humans. If I judge my dude as good or bad, I limit my choices when I’m exploring what he may do to get what he wants. I more-so just find that thing that makes the person tick and what they are willing to do to keep the tick going… and play with that. We all fight very hard to keep something and what we may do to keep it can be very surprising. It may seem bad to one person and perfectly rational to another.
Television has very much moved into darker territory. What do you think about this tendency of various series becoming darker; more noiresque?
I appreciate a balance. We have to explore our darker nature and deal with that part of our journey but I also appreciate a good laugh. I like to see characters that are fully developed;who can hug you one minute and wanna scream at you the next because that’s often how we are as people.
Do you think the darker story-lines and characters influence society and real life, or are producers taking from society and extrapolating on that?
Well, we’ve definitely seen television and film take story directly from real life with People vs. OJ, Fargo, Law And Order, 12 Years A Slave, etcetera. This is when I really appreciate truthful storytelling. People are capable of so many amazing – and also despicable – things. A story that really explores those stories and depth can bring humanity to things that may otherwise be harder to connect to. For example with 12 Years A Slave, seeing these people as not slaves or as a symbol of the institution of slavery, but as Solomon and Clemens [the latter whom Chris plays] gives the audience an opportunity to relate more to a very difficult subject.
Finally, television, film or theatre; if you had to pick just one of these fields to work in, and had to put the other two on the shelf, which would it be and why?
Hmmmm. I love theatre but it wouldn’t be theatre because of the limited audience. I think I’d have to go with film because of the broader audience. I would like my work to benefit as many people as possible, so whichever does that. I think it’s film. But if more people watch TV, then I say TV.
‘Gotham’ is part of FOX8’s superhero line-up, Monday 9 October at 8.30pm (AEST), while the series is also available to stream on Netflix.
Main photography (top of story and middle) by Jenny Tunberg.