Nikita’s Xander Berkeley Talks Broken Bones, Sexy Addicts

Thursday, February 10th, 2011 at 5:00pm PST - by Kiel Phegley

On The CW, even action, adventure and intrigue earn a healthy dose of sexy 20-somethings vamping their way through viewers primetime TV shows. Of course, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for veteran actors on the network, including Nikita’s Xander Berkeley, who spoke to Spinoff about holding it down as the antagonist on the latest version of the action franchise.

In the series (which draws its premise from Luc Besson’s original French Nikita film, already the inspiration for the American Point of No Return and La Femme Nikita), Berkeley plays Percy, the hard-nosed leader of the secretive organization known as The Division. Hidden within the bureaucracy of the CIA, The Division trains a collection of runaways and last-chance women to be government assassins. The series’ titular heroine (played by Maggie Q) has broken free of Percy’s influence only to place an undercover agent in The Division in the form of a young lady named Alex.

A veteran of action projects including 24 and Heat, Berkeley explains why he came to a series that seemingly traveled ground covered by the other iterations of the franchise, how he’d toughen up to do more stunt work if called upon and how exactly so many beautiful drug addicts and social miscreants make their way into his character’s employ.

Spinoff Online: Xander, there have been a number of versions of this story done before from the original Luc Besson film through Point Of No Return and into the last TV series in the ’90s. Did that at all affect how you approached doing this show or this character?

Xander Berkeley: You know, it was one of the things that, to be honest, made me kind of reticent at first. I didn’t take it really seriously because I thought, “Haven’t they done this?” But I had enough people say, “You’ve really got to read this and meet these people. They’re going to do something great with it.” And I’m really glad I took the part. I think there’s maybe a lot of people who had that same lazy assumption that I had and hadn’t tuned into the show because of it. They were going, “Ah, haven’t I seen the other one?” But it is such a strong premise that it has the potential for infinite reinterpretation and storytelling potential. This was too good, and once I got into it, I thought, “Of course. Great.”

Tell me about your view of Percy. One of the impressions I get from the show is that while he’s the antagonist figure, he’s not necessarily a “villain.” For you, do you try to look at the character as being right or being justified in leading this secretive organization of assassins?

Yeah. Absolutely. I keep feeling like it’ll have more resonance in the long run in that way. I think it makes it more intriguing, and since the whole genre is based on intrigue and espionage, twists and turns and double-crossing – all of that stuff to me seems more vibrant as long as you keep an audience on their toes and guessing and thinking. To me, the series is much more engaging if the audience keeps having to ask themselves questions and go “Oh … OH! Wait a minute. Hold on” each time instead of assuming “All right, that guy is bad.”

And Percy does some bad things. I mean, that’s part of how I have fun with him. [Laughs] But I always find a way to get the writers to help me support what Percy does with a logic. I feel really strongly that he has his reasons for doing what he does.

Your background has so many different kinds of projects with it, but you’ve done a lot of action and espionage stuff over the years. At this point, do you tell the producers “This action stuff is great, but let’s have the younger guys do most of the punching and kicking, okay?”

[Laughs] A lot of people are voicing their interesting in seeing me do more of that stuff, and I’ll be honest in that I’ve had several ribs broken. Both of my elbows have chips in them. I’ve broken my nose three times. You know, I’m not a kid anymore, so I’m not chomping at the bit to get back into the action. But if the audience wants to see it. … [Laughter] I keep joking how it’s not happening, but I do have a lot of training for this stuff, so part of me is excited about jumping back in here and there.

And part of working on this show specifically seems to be that despite all the action going on, it’s a CW show with a hot young cast who needs to stay hot and young to a certain extent. Do you fear getting told “In this scene, you need to punch Nikita in the head … but don’t mess up her hair”?

You know, Maggie is such a pro at doing the stunt work, and I’m not sure how they always get it done. I’m not there all the time while they’re doing fisticuffs. But the times I have been there, I’m amazed because she does throw herself into it totally. She doesn’t have anything other than the action on her mind. She hurls herself into it headlong.

And maybe it is the nature of the network, but the pretty thing is sometimes seems baffling to me because with all the guest stars that come in, I keep thinking “These people were criminals, drug addicts, people at the end of their rope … they all got themselves in a place where they needed to start from scratch where Percy would take them on because they’ve ruined their lives. And they all still look so darn good!” [Laughter] I kept thinking that it would be interesting if they started looking more like life had taken its toll on them.

I do think the show carries a very specific visual style to it that’s almost surreal or part of a heightened reality.

You’re absolutely right. That’s a big part of it. And you work for a comic book site, which I think is a part of this genre too. The writers are so sharp, and the regulars in the cast aren’t approaching it like a comic book, but there is an element of a comic book or even a gothic novel in the nature of this show. That’s part of its strength, and that’s why the look is the way it is.

Tell us about what’s coming up. The fulcrum the show rests on is that you run The Division where Nikita’s ally Alex is undercover and feeding her information. Is that a secret that we’ll be driving to reveal over the coming episodes?

Absolutely. Every episode will advance that storyline further and complicate it further until everybody goes MAAAAAD! [Laughs]

Are there any particular pieces of Percy’s journey that you’re excited to get out on the screen?

It’s usually whatever I did last. There was a scene I did just yesterday with the actor who plays Kaseem for us, and there’s something really fun about the way they shot it, the way it was written and how we got to play it. Whatever I just got to do is great, and I get a kick out of it all. There are so many great twists to the show, and it’s really fun to play it. The directors that are returning for this part get to up the visual style and make it a creative, exciting process each time.