INTERVIEW: Runaways’ James Marsters on developing the villainous Victor Stein

Marvel’s Runaways tells the story of a group of teenagers who discover their parents are evil, and then leg it. While in the comics the parents aren’t fully developed, the series sees them fleshed out, with perspectives of their own. In fact, the second episode of the series is a retelling of the same period covered in the first, only this time from the perspective of those parents. In our second in the series of interviews conducted on the Runaways set, we spoke to James Marsters about developing his character, Victor Stein.

Stein, father of Chase, is a genius with a scientific mastery he brings to the group of adults known as The Pride. “I think Victor is not unlike other industrialist engineers, who have come before him,” says Marsters of his character. “Not unlike, Henry Ford, not unlike Steve Jobs, or Elon Musk. He’s not that concerned with being liked. He is concerned with getting it done, and his staff probably doesn’t go home to their families, telling their families, ‘What a great guy I work for,’ you know? But they probably do go home to saying how proud they are to have built, what they just built.”

Of course, Victor is also a cruel man, which is putting it mildly. He sees his own genius reflected in his son, but doesn’t see the same drive, and punishes Chase for what he sees as lapses in his focus. Using abuse as he attempts to redirect his son’s genius. “[He’d] want for Chase the same thing that every parent wants for their child, which is for their child to reach their potential. I read once that, ‘What every parent should want, is for their child to be challenged, almost to the point of breaking, but not quite.’”

He continues, “The thing that I love about acting is that for me, it’s an empathy machine, and because I’ve played so many villains I have been forced to be empathetic for people who are making huge mistakes. I don’t think there are such things as villains in the world. I think there are human beings who are hurting each other, out of the best intentions sometimes. Sometimes we really are less than our best selves. And to recognize that, and to not judge someone who’s making the huge mistakes that my character is, is a challenge, but also a gift.”

Much of the research Marsters has done for his past roles as villains has been useful in his development of Victor Stein. “I remember when I played Macbeth. Macbeth is a soldier, he’s a warrior, and so I did a lot of research about warriors, and I found that one of the things that soldiers do not talk to civies about, to civilians about, is the fact that when you kill someone it’s fun. It’s an honest human reaction. I’m alive, and you are not. We came to a situation where only one of us was going to walk away, and I’m walking away. And there’s also a power, about taking a life. That’s just what it is, and that’s the animal that we are, and they come back into society with a huge guilt, thinking that they’re the only ones that felt that way, or that they can’t talk about that. And that’s to some extent what keeps them up at night, that and survivor guilt.

“And so when I did Buffy, and I played a character that was killing people, and just gleeful about it, I already had that kind of in my pocket, just give over to that, just have fun, kill them. Ha. And it was a real process for me, to come to a comfortable sense, and not feel guilty about that joy, in a weird way.”

He elaborates, “I don’t think that Victor is a villain. I think he’s not a perfect parent, and I think he’s making some huge mistakes, but I’m going to leave it at that.”

Beyond this kind of research, Marsters hasn’t done anything specific for his role as Victor. He admits he’s never read the comics the series is based on, and he doesn’t plan to. “I think it’s really important to give my Victor, and not try to do an impersonation of someone else’s,” he explains. “It sounds disrespectful to the people who created that, but the people above me, and there’s a lot of people above me on the set, they know the comic really, really well, and they are very good about steering it towards something that the fans will recognize. But I mean, [Vincent D’Onofrio] did a Kingpin that so surprised me, it was in so many ways, exactly opposite of the one I expected, the one that I’d read for years in comics. Because in comics, Kingpin is always charming. He’s an extrovert, he’s always in control of his social situation. He’s the nicest guy in the room, and then behind the scenes, he’s really mean, and that’s kind of the con, that’s the contrast. And Vincent just flipped it 180, and went for the vulnerabilities and the insecurities of the character, and just was able to layer it, so that it all made sense. But, he was able to bring out a sophistication that you can’t get in a static image.

“Like a graphic novel, for each shot, you can only have one frame, and so that one frame has to express the ultimate meaning of the scene. It needs to be painted in broad strokes. And, so you really can’t layer in the same way that you can when you have actors doing that moment to moment. It took me a while to learn that; I’ve only written two comic books, but that was hammered into me. Don’t get too complex here. I mean like, there’s a strength in that. As far as story-telling, there’s a real cleanliness in being able to identify the most important moment in each scene.”

You can see James Marsters as Victor Stein on November 21st, when Hulu drops the first 3 episodes of Marvel’s Runaways.