‘The Phantom’ is back — but you might not recognize him

June 19, 2010 | 6:14 p.m.

FIVE QUESTIONS: RYAN CARNES OF “THE PHANTOM”

Beginning in February 1936 — three years before Batman went on the prowl for the first time – young readers across the nation thrilled to the comic-strip adventures of a different masked mystery man: The Phantom. The character created by Lee Falk is considered by many to be a key stepping-stone in the early evolutionary path of the American superhero (he is believed to be the first fictional crime fighter to wear a skin-tight costume, for instance). Now he’s back but in a fashion that the late Falk might not have recognized. On Sunday, SyFy airs a  revival of “The Phantom” in the form of a four-hour mini-series. I caught up with the star, Ryan Carnes, for this edition of Five Questions. — Geoff Boucher

GB: How did you find yourself in this role? And is it a character that you knew at all? The Phantom is not a character that many young people today even know about — although I suppose you could look at that as an opportunity for discovery.

RC: I came to the project with the process just like I usually go through, I got an audition appointment and I received the script. Actually, you know, I almost didn’t go on the appointment because I had had food poisoning. I had just got out of the hospital the night before. I liked the character a lot, so I went anyway…. A week after that, I found out I got the the part. And to be honest, I wasn’t very familiar with the character myself. Before the audition I looked it up and found out about the guy and the history. I did my due diligence.

The Phantom SyFy Lee Falk

But I think you’re right that people don’t know the character that well. When I got the part and told my friends about it they would get this look on their face, like they think they’ve heard of it but they’re’ not sure really. I even had a few people say to me, “Oh, the ‘Phantom of the Opera’ and I said, “Uh, no, not the  Andrew Lloyd Webber thing.” Maybe there is an advantage to that, maybe not. I do know that among the fans who are out there, the avid fans of the comic, there is definitely very little room for forgiveness where they’re concerned. Maybe they’ll watch and then get on the internet and say how much they hate it — but at least they’ll be watching it.

GB: One of the interesting aspects of The Phantom is he is part or a long line of fathers and sons who have inherited the job — in other words, the mythology of the character is that the costume and the duty pass on through generations. Tell us a bit about this new Phantom — how did you frame him in your mind?

RC: This character is a departure from the previous Phantoms, like the Billy Zane character in the movie in the 1990s. The producers and the writers decided to make this character much younger. He’s a law student.He’s very much an ordinary, average kid but he has extraordinary powers that he has not realized and an extraordinary lineage and future. His life gets turned upside down. He’s about to graduate from law school and he finds out his parents are not who he thought they were. He is destined for greatness, should he accept that role. That was what so attractive about the character, as an actor; this is a guy that really gets to go on a  journey. He goes from being a boy to being a man. He goes from zero to 100.

The Phantom SyFy Lee Falk superhero

GB: What did you add to the character that wasn’t there on the pages of the script?

RC: There was a lot there on the page to begin with, it was really well written. One thing I did do was look for all the different archetypes that were embodied within the character. As himself, Chris, the law student, there’s certain archetypes, and then as Kit, who then becomes The Phantom, there’s another set.

The story of the Phantom Lee Falk

I tried to look for what his tragic flaw was. His relationship with his adoptive parents was something the director and I talked about a lot. They are not in it that much, but they are so crucial to the story, we looked for way to bring that relationship out and establish it.

I asked myself, too, What can I do as an actor in those scenes to show that this is my home and has been for 20 years, how can I show the feelings between the character and his mother, for instance, so when the big change comes and his life changes that people feel that it’s major. 

The Phantom riding his tiger

GB: With any live-action adaptation of a  traditional super-hero, the costume is the tricky part. Things that look good on the four-color page often don’t work on camera. You guys have gone in a new direction with the costume. Can you talk about that?  

RC: Certainly one challenge is convincing the very avid fans to allow us to make a departure from the purple spandex and the stripes, the leotard. Obviously, a lot of people are upset with the choice of the costume. it was a big risk. The producer, the writers, all of us new it was a risk. But it was a calculated. We said “Let’s update this.” Another challenge for me was literally moving in the costume; it was very tight, very constricting and in the beginning very unforgiving. It would have been easier to move much more freely in the purple spandex! But all of that changed over time. It got broken in.

Wearing that suit, allowed me to go “Oh, okay now I’m the Phantom. Now I am a superhero.” It changed the way I walked, it changed the way I carried myself. For acting, the costumes, from the feet up, are so important. It really allows you to step into a character. There’s power in that costume.

– Geoff Boucher

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