With the new NBC series “The Cape,” actor James Frain is starting off the new year in villainy — but that’s a familiar mode for the 42-year-old British actor after his leering bloodsucker work on “True Blood” and digital henchman duty in “Tron: Legacy.”
Frain was a scene-stealer on “True Blood” as the depraved, unhinged vampire Franklin Mott and he brought a sinister, sycophantic vibe to the “Tron” sequel as Jarvis, the evil underling who tries to curry favor with the film’s bad guy, CLU, even as he plots his own path to power. Now, with the Sunday night premiere of “The Cape,” the actor takes on a full-blown super-villain as Chess — a billionaire by day, psychotic killer by night.
“It’s a sophisticated idea of someone who doesn’t have superpowers but has a very focused strategy,” Frain said of Chess, who is a master strategist and manipulator and, like a grandmaster, is continually searching for his next great opponent.
Frain’s character and his machinations are the starting point of the show’s new superhero mythology — it’s Chess who plots to frame police detective Vince Faraday (played by Aussie actor David Lyons) as a murderer, leading to the cop’s disgrace, “death” and decision to become the mysterious vigilante known as the Cape. The Cape has (you guessed it) a memorable and multi-functional cape while Chess wears a body-suit costume as well as some creepy contact lenses with pupils shaped like chess pieces. Frain got a kick out of the reaction his look got from cast and crew on the set.
“It looks reptilian and people kind of freak out,” Frain said with amusement. “And that gave me a sense, something to play off; because [Chess] is a manipulator, he gets his information from how people respond to him. I learned that from the costume, basically. We have sort of been developing it as we go along. It’s sort of an ongoing process, finding what works, finding what is interesting to form this character.”
How does Frain — who earned rave reviews as Thomas Cromwell in “The Tudors” — feel now that his career is tilting in a way that makes him a go-to bad guy? The question caught him off-guard a bit. “That is not how bad guys think. They think they are the good guys and that everyone else is out to get them. And that is how I play them, and that is what makes me forget of course, that they are bad guys.”
The Cape has other evildoers to deal with, such as Scales (Vinnie Jones) and Cain (Raza Jaffrey) and the creative team behind the show hopes to create an underworld tapestry of the sort made famous in Gotham City or Metropolis. That mission is an exciting one for Frain, who grew up loving Spider-Man, Judge Dredd and “Batman” repeats with Adam West. Frain said he hopes the NBC series will push the boundaries of what’s possible on the small screen while giving superhero fans some familiar foundations to latch on to.
“It’s basically an homage to the genre,” Frain said. “These characters do remind us of other characters, even though they’re completely original. But the world they’re in is recognizable. It has a respect and enthusiasm for the superhero genre, which plays out in the writing.”
— Nate Jackson
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UPDDATE: The photo credit on an earlier version of this post cited “True Blood” as a Showtime series.