Exclusive Interview with Into the Badlands’ Benjamin Papac

1Talk Nerdy With Us recently had the pleasure of chatting with actor Benjamin Papac. He is best known for roles in The DuffFantastic Four, Goosebumps, The Walking Dead, Stalker, Battle Creek and NCIS: New Orleans. This Sunday fans can see Papac as Bale on AMC’s Into the Badlands which premieres at 10/9c pm. Read our interview below.

Tell us about you. How did you get into acting? What made you want to pursue an acting career?

When I was 13 years old, my mother made me go to an audition for a local theater show and I hated it. I didn’t want to go in. (Laughs). I almost convinced her in the parking lot to take me back home but she finally made me go inside. I just knew how to fulfill the role. It was some kids’ show. It was School House Rock or something like that. I don’t know.

I could see the lines and how they ought to be portrayed and I was watching kids perform and I was like, “No, no, no you should do it this way.” Of course I wasn’t really telling them that because I’m not a jerk. I knew what needed to happen, you know? I knew how to fulfill characters. I noticed very quickly that I felt happiest as a person when I was helping tell stories. When I was fulfilling a character, someone who wasn’t myself. I’ve been passionate about stories ever since and I just kept going.

For the first couple months when I was doing local shows, I pretended to hate it. (Laughs). I was like, “Fine I guess I’ll go to this audition, whatever.” I secretly loved it and within a year I was trying to get agents and trying to break into the market.

So you really do have your mom to thank, when you win an Emmy or an Oscar. (Laughs). Let’s talk about Into the Badlands! What drew you to the role of Bale?

He went through a transformation as we were working on the character. What I thought was so fascinating about the guy is he’ll do absolutely whatever it takes to become the best at what he does. He’s not going to stop. He’ll find anyone around him who will help him. That’s why Bale is drawn to M.K. at The Fort, because I see M.K. striving in situations he’s not even ready for.

Bale’s a relentless character. He’ll do whatever it takes to survive. He’ll do whatever it takes to get ahead. He knows that if he becomes a full Clipper, he’s going to have a better life for himself and anyone he cares about. I guess that’s the defining feature for me.

You said that Bale changed. What was the original character description that they gave you? What changed about it?

I think the transformation was more on my side of things, like how to bring out the character. When I first read about it and I first met the character Bale, I saw him as an ally to M.K., like a friend. I think that’s still true, but the more I got to know him, the more I worked on him, the more episodes I got, the more he became self-centered. 

There’s a lot of bromance in that first episode, between M.K. and Bale. Absolutely. I realized the more I worked on Bale, it wasn’t necessarily because he liked M.K., it was because he thought M.K. would help him get by.

That’s really interesting!

It’s more like a utilitarian thing. He sees M.K. get into that scrap and he’s like, “Oh, this guy’s going to be tough. I’m going to align myself with him.” There’s still bromance happening, but it comes from a selfish place, yeah. The fact that it’s such a brutal world, it’s so bloody, and everywhere you turn there’s death and violence and destruction, so really to survive they have to focus on, “What do I need to make it through this?” You know what I mean?

Exactly! What year is Into the Badlands set in? 

It feels like we have a lot of old school stuff, like martial arts weaponry, but every now and then you’ll see a vehicle, so it’s kind of trippy to see all of those different things together. It takes place, let’s say, 500 years in the future. It’s a few centuries beyond today.

Society as we know it now has crumbled, it’s gone away. As that happened, society’s structure changed and you end up with this feudal society in this area that we call the badlands where 7 Barons, as they’re called, control this area. They keep the resources and deal with one another. Quinn, who you see in the first episode, is the Baron of the area where we’re watching the show.

Sunny finds M.K. and I’m one of the Colts there. Quinn is essentially the most powerful Baron at the start of the show. He’s the one everyone’s gunning for. He’s the one that you don’t really want to mess with. He has the strongest army, he has a powerful ally in Sunny, who is his Reagent, his second in command.

500 years in the future the Feudal society has developed. If you don’t make it into the military, if you’re not a Clipper, you have a very difficult life. Within each Baron’s domain, you have the elite, which are the Clippers or the Baron in his household or her in some cases, and they have Cogs. Cogs are people who live under the Baron’s protection and they essentially live the life of slaves. They have to work in order to be bedded and in order to be clothed and have housing. They’re very put-upon, they have a very dangerous life day-to-day, and they’re considered expendable.

Bale’s an orphan?

Yeah. My parents are dead. I’m an orphan. Fun fact, I (Bale) actually have a sister who works as a Cog in the Baron house. She works in the household and I make it into the Clippers. I’m a Colt, I’m not a Clipper yet, but I’m working on it.

She’s not a live character on the show, you don’t see her, but I have a sister. Sorry, kind of off point, but anyway. (Laughs). It’s his back story. I’m trying to become one of the best Colts so I can become one of the top Clippers one day. Actually, I’ve already been assigned to one of the Clippers, because each Clipper takes on a Colt.

My Clipper is Petri. You see him briefly in the pilot, he’ll show up a lot more later in the season. He’s played by Mike Seal. He’s a really strong character. It was fun because in one of the episodes where we were in the pit, he had me doing push-ups between takes like a Clipper would actually make a Colt do.

You really got into character! (Laughs). So how many episodes are you in? Bale isn’t in the second episode, right?

Right. I do not appear in episode 2. I appear in five of the six episodes. Yeah. I skip episode 2. I’m very prominent … My most work, my biggest episode is going to be episode 5. That’s going to be the big one.

How much of Bale’s back story did you make up, and how much of it was already given to you by the creators and writers?

They gave me some. We get the back story, the breakdown, at every audition. The back story they gave me was I was an orphan, I was a Colt in the Clipper society and I was going to align myself with M.K. and be an ally with him. That was essentially it from the breakdown. They started giving me pieces in the script. That’s really where I started learning more about where my character came from.

I know that I have a sister only because of a conversation I have with M.K. in the pilot where I mention her briefly. That happened. It’s in passing, one quick reference, little clues like that. Each episode I’ve learned a little more about myself as I read the script.

What physical training did you do for the role?

I came in not long before we started shooting. There wasn’t very much time, and I already had some stunt experience, so I came straight on site and started doing the work and then going with the fighting on the weekends and shooting.

The core characters went through several weeks of martial arts training. They were trained in several different styles. They went through fitness and all of those things. They started working on that a few months before we started shooting. I wasn’t booked until just a couple of weeks before I had to show up on set. They didn’t really have the time to put me through the martial arts program, but Marton Csokas (Quinn), Daniel Wu (Sunny), Aramis Knight (M.K.), Ally Ioannides (Tilda), all went through several weeks of intense martial arts training a few months before the shoot.

What was your audition process like?

That was actually interesting. I ended up doing three auditions. The first one was just a tape but after that, everything was via Skype because David Dobkins, who directed the first three episodes, was already down in New Orleans on location getting ready, so he couldn’t be at my auditions because I was in L.A. I had to do these very interesting interviews where I’m working with the casting director and then I see David’s face on a little screen off to the side because he’s looking on on Skype and he’s trying to watch me. It was just kind of funny. (Laughs). 

The other thing that was cool was when I first read the character, I imagined Bale with a southern accent. It was just natural to me, so I prepared him with an accent. I grew up in Georgia. I grew up just south of Atlanta, so when the director saw my work he actually thought I truly had an accent. We ended up having one last call back because they weren’t sure I could do the character in his real voice, because they thought I had a Georgia accent and didn’t know that I don’t.

That was a funny moment. I walked into the last audition and I’m doing the work and David stops me and goes, “Hey, man. You’re from Georgia, right?” And I’m like, “Yeah.” And he’s like, “Yeah, we’re just worried about the accent.” I’m like, “Oh! I’m sorry. I can do this in neutral voice. I’ve been preparing this the whole time.”

That’s so funny. It’s like, “This is actually me being a good actor and using a dialect for you guys. It’s not my actual voice.” (Laughs). So what kind of stunt training do you have?

I did a lot of stage combat when I was in school. I was in the opera program at the Louisiana State University and we did a lot of work in stage combat and sword handling, things like that and then I’ve done some stunts on television before. I did fight sequences for some shows. I’ve worked with stunt coordinators. I have some fight training, simple fight choreography. It’s not martial arts specifically, but stage combat, which was workable for the show. They brought me up to speed on anything specific I needed to know for the fight scenes.

You went to LSU but you were home schooled for high school, correct?

I was. I was home schooled during high school. My parents had me in private school before that and then we ran into a rough patch where we didn’t have the money to keep me there anymore. My parents knew about some local co-ops because with home schools there are a lot of different ways you can do your education. They thought they would have more options to get me the education they wanted for me by home schooling me instead of by sending me to public school.

It worked out because I got to learn how I learned. I got to study subjects the way that works for my brain. I was definitely ready for college. I graduated high school at 16 and went straight to university after that. I was 17 when I started and 20 when I graduated.

That’s impressive!

Yeah. For me, I grew up that way. So for me it was like, whatever. I would tell people and they’d be like, “Wow! That’s so cool.” I was like, “Yeah, I guess. (Laughs). I don’t know.” That was my experience. I was like, “Okay. I’m 17 going to college, great. I’m going to graduate before I can drink.” (Laughs). It was just my norm.

What were your favorite subjects in school?

I always thought I would be into the sciences and it’s kind of sad because I never really took any science courses in college, which was unfortunate. I really dug history. I always dug history and I was obsessed with the Roman Empire. I always thought their military stuff was super cool. When I was 13-14 years old, I thought siege towers were the coolest thing ever, and catapults and ballista, which is essentially a giant crossbow, as long as two men or something like that. It’s a massive weapon and it would chuck spears across the battlefield. I was obsessed with history, specifically military and military tactics and things like that, which was cool because then I ended up on this period piece with martial arts and cool swords and stuff.

This must be your dream role, since it combines everything you like!

It’s such a freaking cool job. I can’t put it into words how much fun it was! I’m running around with armor and a sword and I’m in fight sequences and partaking in battles and stuff. It was so cool. Yeah. Dream job, for sure.

You filmed Into the Badlands in New Orleans?

The New Orleans area, but yeah, New Orleans. The coolest location for me personally, the pit, which is the training grounds for the Colts, we shot that at this old fort from the 1800’s. It’s down there and it’s falling apart piece by piece. We were in this old brick military barracks, basically, and it was just cool to see it sitting there on the edge of the bayou. Actually, we would watch gators swimming around in the water from where we were shooting. The crew would bring fishing poles so whenever they had breaks they would go toss a line in and see if they could catch some fish.

Tell us five reasons why fans should tune into Into the Badlands this Sunday!

Other than seeing my face? (Laughs). One of the big ones, and this is something that the producers were really crazy about and I think is super cool, it’s the only T.V. show that’s a martial arts show. It’s the only one out there right now. That’s kind of groundbreaking.

Producers have been talking about how there were a lot of martial arts movies and a lot of the creators of the show have backgrounds in some of those martial arts movies and things like that, but there has never been a really successful T.V. show based on that. I think anybody who’s into martial arts and really cool stylized action is going to love this show. They have fully fledged out scenes where it’s just combat and it’s super interesting to watch.

Dan Wu, who plays Sunny, is so skilled and watching him work was incredible! I got to watch him spin into the air and kick things six-seven feet in the air and it was so cool watching him work up a stunt, figuring out how it’s going to work, and then seeing it pulled off. It’s so awesome to get to see that.

Any George R. R. Martin fans, I think will love this show. George R.R. Martin had nothing to do with it. But there are a lot of different characters with a lot of different plans and agendas and everybody’s trying to get something. It’s kind of like controlled chaos because of that. You don’t know who’s going to make it, you don’t know who’s going to die. You don’t know where the next plot twist is going to come from. It keeps you on your toes and it keeps you coming back.

Another reason is the gore. Oh my God. It’s so bloody. Even the first scene, it’s so intense. I’m not sure how they got clearance to put that on air. It’s pretty intense stuff and they don’t hold anything back with that.

I know The Walking Dead is a gory show and it has a lot of graphic content. In my personal opinion, I think Into the Badlands takes it up a notch. If you like the gore of The Walking Dead, you’re going to love Into the Badlands. The gore is also more visceral. It’s like, “Oh God!” The opening shot of when Sunny comes up on that scene in the beginning where he comes across the ambush site. And he finds the aftermath. It’s so moving. It’s crazy.

The fifth reason is the performances. The actors are so good at their jobs. Every character is flushed out and complex and interesting to watch and it’s so engaging to see what they’re going to think of next, what’s going to happen to all of these characters. 

Back to that George R.R. Martin feel, it’s like there are plenty of people who you root for, there are plenty of people who you love to hate, and there are plenty of people who are just so interesting to watch, whether they’re diabolical or heartfelt. There are just plenty of riveting performances all across that show.

What’s your favorite genre to watch?

My favorite show that I watch right now is Rick and Morty. I’m a massive Sci-Fi nerd and Rick and Morty is this adult swim show that is certainly geared towards science fiction, but it does it with such a great sense of humor and awesome characters. It’s really witty and it’s cynical but then it will turn into a heartfelt moment between Rick and his friend Morty in the blink of an eye and you won’t see it coming. That’s a great show. People should definitely tune into that.

It just got renewed!

Oh it did? Awesome.

Did you watch Alfred (Gough) and Miles (Millar) earlier work to see their style when you knew you got the part?

I was already familiar with some of it. Al and Miles worked on Shanghai Noon, Smallville, and Shannara, which is over on MTV. So I was familiar with the kind of work they did before going into 

I remember reading the pilot for Shannara. I was super into that script. I think that’ll be a really fun show. That comes out in January. It’s coming up soon. 

I remember reading that pilot and I was familiar with some of their work beforehand. They’re a great team and everything they come up with is fully flushed out. The world of Into the Badlands, it’s so big and we have to figure out, well I didn’t have to figure out, they had to figure out, how to pack in all the information for the audience into a one hour episode. There’s so much going on and there’s so much more than what you see on-screen. It’s like picking and choosing and I think they did a great job of that.

I think that’s part of most of their work. I think Shannara is going to be the same. I think Smallville has some of that.

That’s awesome! Besides Into the Badlands, you also have Saving the Human Race coming out soon. What can you tell us about that?

Saving the Human Race is going to be super fun. It’s a digital series. It’s going to air for the CW Seed, which is the CW’s website that they’re starting out. I say, “Starting out,” but it’s actually been on for a few years now. It’s a zombie comedy. We’re going to have, I believe, six 10 minute episodes.

It’s a short series about a kid in the middle of a zombie apocalypse and all he cares about is losing his virginity. (Laughs). He goes off on escapades trying to succeed in that and as he goes he learns that other things are far more important, specifically friendship.

It should be a really fun show. It’s going to come out early next year. January-February-ish. I don’t have an exact date. That should be super fun. 

We got to shoot that in Norway, which was cool. We did some footage down in a Nazi bunker from World War II. We went up into the Fjords, which are basically, actually, I still don’t know what a Fjord is. (Laughs). I asked everybody there and nobody could tell me. (Laughs). It’s like mountains plus ice plus river equals Fjord, or something like that. Really beautiful landscapes up there, and everybody was super nice. That should be a really fun show.

You’re the main character?

Yes, yes I am!

That’s your first lead role! What did you do to prepare for that?

It was my first lead role. Gosh, I’m thinking back on what I did to prepare for that. I talked to the director about getting a little extra back story. I focused on the script a lot. I read through every episode a few times to try to understand it. I talked to the writer a lot, just building up, “What’s important to this character? How do the relationships evolve throughout the series?”

Really, it doesn’t matter what size of the role you’re doing, what you do is exactly the same. I put the same amount of effort for co-stars I did a couple of years back, that I put in for that lead. It’s just there’s more to do because there are more scenes, there’s more dialogue, more episodes, more relationships, all of that.

I basically brought the same dedication and just did it for a longer period.

For Into the Badlands and for Saving the Human Race, how long was the filming process? How long did it take to film the series?

Into the Badlands shot from- The exact dates I’m not going to be good at, but it shot from around late April, early May, to into the beginning of July. That was a good four months or so. Saving the Human Race we banged out in three and a half weeks! We shot that in just under a month. It was long weeks, short weekends, and we just kept going, every day. That was actually an exhausting shoot because we were in cold weather, it was super cold, and it was raining pretty much every day and we had- I was awake for more than 12 hours every day and I was jet lagged and everything.

By the end, I had gotten sick once, one of the other leads had gotten sick as well, because we’re just not used to that weather. It was one of the most fun shoots I’ve ever gotten to do. I was laughing pretty much every day because it was such a fun group of people to work with. I do think that’s going to be a really fun, lighthearted show. That should be really enjoyable.

For both shows did you film the episodes in order or did you film them out-of-order?

Great question. Into the Badlands was shot in two blocks. They shot episodes 1 through 3 and then they shot episodes 4 through 6 and within the same day you would be jumping from the first scene of episode 1 to the last scene of episode 3, for example. It can really screw with your brain a little bit because you’re jumping back and forth and all those relationships and what’s going on, what does my character know right now. That’s how they did Into the Badlands.

Saving the Human Race, it was also jumbled up. All 6 episodes were thrown together, so really all I could do was focus on the scene in front of me. What’s going on right now, what is this moment, what are my relationships? I couldn’t really think about the overarching plot. You’ve got to keep that in the back of your mind, but if you’re thinking about that too much, you’re just going to get confused because what you’re shooting is completely out-of-order.

You grew up in Georgia but now you live in L.A.?

For the last year, I’ve spent most of my time out here in L.A., but I have gone back to the southeast, either for work or just checking back in with my family. I’ve really followed where the gigs are. Into the Badlands took me to Louisiana. Saving the Human Race took me off to Norway. Actually, it wasn’t until this fall that I spent a large chunk of time in L.A. I’ve been a nomad this year. (Laughs). It’s been a trip, for sure. (Laughs).

So you were once nearly decapitated? While tobogganing? Tell us the story!

My dad worked for a company based in Switzerland, so when I was six years old he took the family over there on a trip. We go up into the Alps and we’re in these beautiful snow-covered mountains, and the weird thing, kind of off point, but you would have a couple of feet of snow on the ground, so you’re walking in shin-deep snow, but it was 90 degrees. It was hot. You’re sweating your butt off but you’re making snow balls for snow ball fights.

The one that I was riding was this little sled with a steering wheel because it had a rudder in the back which you could control. It even had brakes, like if you pressed this pedal it would shove something down into the snow to slow the vehicle.

You were in a fancy toboggan!

Yeah, it was a fancy toboggan. There was this little kiddy hill where all the kids were practicing skiing and running around and playing and at the bottom was this road that had some snow on it and needed to be cleared. I’d gone down the hill a couple of times and I learned through experimentation that if I tried to steer, the toboggan would flip and I would crash and it would hurt, and if I tried to brake, the toboggan would flip and it would crash and I would hurt. (Laughs). I decided I’m done with that, and I wasn’t going to steer the toboggan and I wasn’t going to stop the toboggan. I was just going to go straight down the hill and I wasn’t going to stop.

It just so happens that as I’m getting ready to go down the hill, a big snow plow was coming up the road. My mom sees it but she doesn’t see it in time, so I kick off and she’s like, “Ben, wait!” She’s screaming down this hill. Kids are running out-of-the-way, people are trying to get me to stop. I don’t care. I get to the road at the same time as the snow plow, and the plow, the big metal object on the front end, was at the perfect height to remove my head if I were to make contact with it. Right as that would’ve happened, I simply leaned to the left and I go careening under the plow to the other side of the road and I actually got the toboggan to turn and I ran into a tool shed or something.

Was that the last time you’ve ever tobogganed?

I think it was, actually. I don’t think I’ve tobogganed since! (Laughs).

Besides that, what’s something else that your fans don’t know about you yet?

Ooh. Very good question! The first thing that hit my mind was I don’t think most people know that I’m actually very interested in baking. I’m an actor, baker and hardcore nerd. I’m excellent at making a crème brulee. That’s something I’m quite good at.

Do you have any other projects that you’re working on or auditioning for that you can tell us about?

Into the Badlands right now, Saving the Human Race early next year. Those are the big ones. I guest starred on NCIS: New Orleans and it aired last week. I was really thrilled with that. That was such a great episode. I’d say those are the big three right now. I have a big month this month actually, and then Saving the Human Race. Other than that, nothing I can talk about yet. Sorry.

Are you going to be live tweeting the premiere with fans?

I really want to. I’m going to be in the Caribbean on the premiere. I have to figure out how to get on Twitter and be able to see the show. But yes, I’m going to make it happen. I’m going to be on Twitter making that work, if I can. It’s my mother’s birthday and she’s having friends and family come with her on this cruise to the Caribbean so I’m going to go celebrate with her.

That should be super fun and I’m going to find a way to watch the show and yes, I will be on Twitter.

Have you seen the Into the Badlands pilot already?

Yes I have.

How much of the season have you seen? 

I saw the pilot and then I went in for ADR sessions for later episodes. And then, of course, I’ve seen the script. The footage I’ve seen is freaking gnarly. I stop talking because I can’t. There are no words. It’s just so gritty and realistic and high energy. It’s going to be a blockbuster of a show.

Is it how you visualized it, reading the script, or did they kind of go beyond what you visualized?

In a lot of ways they go beyond what I thought, but specifically, that big fight scene with Sunny towards the end of the first episode in the rain, the fight scene in the rain was pretty much exactly how I imagined it and that was so cool. Watching my imagination be proven right on-screen, that experience was really, really cool. They wrote it so well that I saw what it was going to be before they ever shot it.

Since our website is called Talk Nerdy with Us, besides history and Sci-Fi, what else do you nerd out about?

Oh my God. I’m super into Dungeons and Dragons, a big fan of that game. I try to play with my friends whenever I can. I’m playing in a campaign right now. I created my own little world in which I could run campaigns for my friends, too, so we do that sometimes, which is super fun.

My character in the campaign I’m playing right now was a farmer and then he became- his class is Ranger, that’s what people would know. He’s a Ranger, he’s a dual wielder, he fights with a short sword, he’s got a Mohawk, and he’s got a sword right now that deals fire damage and then he’s going to get one with ice damage and he’s going to name them Space and Time because I’m that much of a nerd.

And I love to read, too. I read all of A Song of Ice and Fire, which is what Game of Thrones is from. I read a lot of Isaac Asimov. He’s like the foundation of 20th century Sci-Fi. A lot of his ideas show up in Star Wars and Star Trek. I, Robot is based on one of his stories, things like that. Isaac Asimov is really cool.

League of Legends, the video game is very fun. I’m about to reach level 30, which is not an accomplishment. (Laughs). If you reach level 30, you’ve finished the training of the game. The first 30 levels are just figuring out how the game even works and you’re playing online and you don’t know what’s happening, and then after that it’s actually becoming a competitive player and becoming really good. I’m about to be competitive. Yay!

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