Stana Katic Storms the Walls of Castle

Actress Stana Katic is on a roll. After scoring supporting roles in two of last year’s highest-profile films, Quantum of Solace and The Spirit, the statuesque Canadian stunner landed the female lead in ABC’s new police drama/romantic comedy Castle, playing Detective Kate Beckett, a tough-as-nails NYPD officer who finds herself with the regrettable assignment of allowing cocky, best-selling crime novelist Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion) to shadow her for research on his next book. Not only does she find that Castle’s creative instincts for the criminal mind help her solve some of the city’s most challenging murders, she finds her tough exterior melting under Castle’s considerable charms. The show airs Monday nights on ABC.

Stana Katic sat down with us at a local Greek eatery recently to discuss a variety of topics that make this brainy beauty tick. Here’s what transpired:

Let’s start by talking about Castle. It’s very reminiscent of the “banter” romantic comedies of the 1930s and ‘40s, which the ‘80s series Moonlighting later copied. Your character is also very complicated, with a bit of her back-story coming out in every episode. She’s someone who could’ve been anything she wanted, but she chose to become a cop.
Stana Katic: Yes, all true. She was on that typical Manhattan-ite, society girl path, then a personal tragedy struck, and she shifted course, and joined the police force to become a detective. I think she’s driven by her need to see justice prevail and her empathy toward victims and their families. She’s a woman, which means that she’s inherently strong. There are all these other wonderful facets to her, as well: hope, sometimes girlish hope; self-doubt; confidence. There’s a Joan of Arc quality to her, I suppose. There are different ways of communicating with people in different scenarios. In the workplace, you can really only be one kind of person, whereas with Castle, she has to maintain a certain sense of decorum for right now, but as we move forward and he gets to know her more, we get to see her other layers.

You and Nathan Fillion seem to have a good rapport.
He’s funny. He’s very nice, very kind. We didn’t realize that we were both Canadians until we had both been cast. It was nice to sort of bond over these Canadianisms that we would squeeze out every now and then. (laughs)

Like what?
“Eh?” for one. I’m always “eh-ing” all over the place. (laughs) You know what’s strange, is we found that one or two guest stars every episodes was Canadian. It was like “Wow, we’re infiltrating!” (laughs)

I thought you really stood out in The Spirit, which wasn’t easy to do with all the CGI eye candy. What was it like working in a green screen environment with Frank Miller?
I love Frank. I love his creativity. He’s a different kind of a director. He works from pictures and is a true genius. He has so many stories to tell and working with him was a privilege and a real education, because he directs through painting. He can paint the picture and you have to talk to him in that kind of an abstract manner. He’s tremendously open and is not about ego. He’s all about the work, which makes him very exciting to be around. He’s really quite poetic. As a writer and a speaker, he’s really electric and he paints pictures with his words. I’m looking forward to his next project. The way he merges history and visual beauty in something like 300 is really unique. He might do a kind of sequel to 300 that tells the story of the war between the Persians and the Greeks that took place on the water. The character of Zoltes has this fabulous line where he says “Why have all my men become women and my women become men?” The Greeks beat the Persians on the water and the only Persian ship left standing was the one commanded by a female. Frank is really crazy about the history of the ancient Greeks and Sparta, and the stories from that time.

So many of our modern stories can be traced back to the ancient Greeks.
Yes, and there’s also fabulous stuff that came from Persia, India, China. There’s ancient cultures with amazing stories all over the world. A lot of Aboriginal cultures have amazing stories, as well. That being said, Frank is really mad for this specific era and the story of this particular battle—it was decided with a single, very simple maneuver—the Persian ships were very large, and came at the Greeks from all angles, and the Greek ships, which were very small and fast, sort of exploded out of their cluster, like a supernova, and then attacked all the Persians, just crushing them, except for that lone ship, commanded by a woman.

If you look at every other species, save for man, the female is the dominant of the two sexes. And some of the greatest leaders in history have been women, like Cleopatra. 
Phenomenal woman! I think she’s fascinating. I’m just beginning to learn about her and her diplomatic capabilities. For someone to keep Rome at bay during her rule, they could’ve easily come through and taken over, but she kept Egypt in tribute to Rome, and she also managed to keep the Egyptians at bay, as well. She’s the only Ptolemaic ruler who learned Egyptian, who took on their ancient religion, thus endearing herself to the people. She fell in love, sort of. (laughs) We’ll see if the truth about that ever really comes to light. At the very least, falling in love with these two powerful men, Caesar and Marc Antony, was a brilliant strategic move. And she wasn’t beautiful, by any means. She was charismatic, incredibly smart: spoke Latin, Greek, Egyptian and God knows how many other languages and dialects, as well. Her whole family, all her brothers and sisters, were out to get her, yet she was the favorite of her father…You know it’s funny, I think Michael Corleone is such an amazing character, but we have a present-day history in our media culture of having those characters only being played by men. I’ve never envisioned myself as playing anything other than those characters.

Sure. You don’t want to be Connie. You want to be Michael.
Absolutely. And it’s not because of the masculine-feminine dynamic. It’s the concept of family, the concept of duty, the concept of individual passions in the face of duty and leadership and what is required in leadership fascinates me. It’s so bloody riveting, man. I was at the Hearst Castle this last weekend, and Mr. Hearst had a female architect working for him named Julia Morgan, apparently the most important architect of her time. She was the one who designed San Simeon for him. They worked together. She was like his “work wife,” and they created this fascinating piece of architecture, and she built over 700 pieces of architecture during her lifetime, which is just mind-blowing when you think about it. During a time when only 20% of North America had access to electricity, the entire castle was electrically run. To supply water, she took the mountain spring water and had it funneled down the mountain into boilers, and those boilers then heated up the water which were used in two huge pools on the premises. Fascinating woman. She’d be a great subject for a film.

Frank Miller seems to have a real affinity for strong women in his work.
Oh, he loves women, and in a very Marcello Mastroianni kind of way. He loves them all shapes, all sizes, all levels of intelligence and sanity. He just loves feminine. And he’s such a boy about it, it’s really gorgeous to see. And The Sprit encompasses a lot of that love of women, because it’s filled with all these amazing, strong female characters. Have you ever read Zorba the Greek?

Sure. I love the film, too. Do you like the film?
I love the film, but I love the book even more. The book really got to me, because it hits on this rhythm of life and existence with this need and this desire for living, this must for living. It’s like a hand going through the Earth. It’s fighting to exist, but fully, vibrantly, electrically. Zorba was wonderful, this character, and he loved women in that same way. Nikos Kazantzakis is such an amazing writer.

You got to work with the great Robert Benton on Feast of Love. What was he like? 
He loves what he does. He’s a fantastically delicate, passionate, complicated director. He sees life very vividly. He uses memory to direct his actors very patiently. He was like butter: very rich to work with on what was, in many ways, a first experience on a major motion picture. I think he has more stories to tell. He’s very poetic in his way, too. He and Frank Miller are poetic in two very different ways: Mr. Benton is little more “flower,” whereas Frank is a bit more “thorn.” (laughs)

Yeah, but remember this is also the guy who wrote Bonnie & Clyde so the color of violence and darkness is also a part of his palate. In his films, bad shit just comes out of nowhere and bites people, hard. In Feast of Love, too.
Yeah, that’s true, absolutely. It was a love story, but there were also darker elements, which I wouldn’t say were “bad” necessarily. I just think they’re part of life. Tragedy is a natural part of life. And there’s something wonderful about that, if it’s portrayed honestly, as it was in Bonnie & Clyde and Kramer vs. Kramer. I’d say that’s the best word I could use to describe Mr. Benton’s work: honest.

You got to be a Bond girl, albeit briefly, in the latest installment of the series, Quantum of Solace. What was that like?
It was a blast! I really wanted to be a part of that film, and was up for the role of Strawberry Fields originally, but they felt I wasn’t right for it, plus I didn’t want to play someone who got killed, and everyone gets killed in that bloody movie! (laughs) But I got to spend three days working on that legendary sound stage in London. Daniel Craig was great, very funny, very charming. And Marc Forster was an amazing director. We’ve become friends and he has such an amazing, light touch as a director, and at the same time, has this incredible core strength, which is a great combination for a director to have. In many ways he reminds me of the way Johnny Depp played the character of Sir James Matthew Barrie in Finding Neverland. I wonder if Johnny modeled his performance after Marc.

You sound like you have a very grounded perspective on life, which you don’t always encounter with people in Hollywood.
It makes it weird to work in this industry sometimes. When I need to get a moment of perspective, when I feel as if I’m getting ridiculous about something, I’ll just go away and try to communicate or become in communion with truth, and then I realize how ridiculous all these worries are. They mean nothing! In 300 years what will any of us or our little problems mean to people. What does someone like William Powell mean to people today? One of the great actors, a benchmark in performance and style, from less than a century ago, and he’s all but forgotten by most people.

I feel that way about a lot of my favorite directors. 
Like who?

Oh God…William Wellman, John Sturges, Robert Aldrich, Don Siegel, even John Ford, all the guys who influenced the ‘70s guys, many of whom have been forgotten by the upcoming generation themselves.
Yeah, they’re all amazing, but most people don’t know who they are today, which is really shocking, especially with someone like John Ford, who influenced everyone.

Do you know how Orson Welles prepared for Citizen Kane? He watched Stagecoach something like 47 times in a row.
(laughs) That’s brilliant! I love it.

Let’s get back to you. You were born and raised in Hamilton, Ontario. 
And grew up outside of Chicago, as well.

When did you move to the States?
When I was very little, then I would go back and forth to study, and to visit my family. That was the beginning of our emigration to North America, so it was all part of that.

Both your parents are from the Dalmatian Coast?

How many siblings do you have?
There’s six of us. I’m the oldest. There’s about seven years between all of us, from top to bottom. We’re all oddballs doing different things in the world, and they’re all on their way to growing into really interesting adults, although I don’t know if any of us will ever really be adults, because we’re all really strange. (laughs)

“Strange” must mean they’re all very interesting. 
They are, and they’re all beautiful, really tall, and they’re all adventuresome. They’re wonderful spirits and I’m really honored to have them as my siblings. It’s like walking with an army when we go someplace together. (laughs) I’m really proud of them.

What do your parents do?
We have a family business that we built from the ground up. In typical immigrant fashion, they came with nothing and built an empire. We have real estate and own a furniture business. I remember playing in our furniture warehouse as a little kid, and I think that was the beginning of my imaginative streak. We had a whole warehouse from the 1920s to play around in. Everything was accessible to us. We’d take these huge boxes that furniture was shipped in and make castles out of them. I would play with money: thousands of dollars that would lying on a shelf, at age three, on the floor with customers walking around, and not a single penny would be touched. That’s a really wonderful memory, and it was a tremendously wonderful playground to begin life in. The luxury of creativity wasn’t afforded to my parents because they had to build a life, and they had to survive, so I feel very lucky that I’ve gotten to pursue a creative life.

But they were able to give you and your siblings an upbringing of privilege, it sounds like.
They educated us. They inspired us. They challenged us. We challenged them. They let us travel. They gave us lessons: piano, ballet, karate, and so on. They are ambitious. They’re fabulous parents and I’m really fortunate to have them.

When did you know you were an actor?
When I was four, this lady in a pizza shop asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I said “An actress,” and my dad gasped in horror. (laughs) And that was always an element of my life from then on. I’d wake up at 6:30 in the morning and force them down to the porch and make them do plays, with ballet costumes and random pieces of clothing we’d collect. Whenever family would gather during the holidays, we’d put on a play, although somebody would inevitably argue and be upset with the character they were forced to portray, and the play would fall apart. It was always an element of my life. There’s nothing better than acting.

The creative life.
Not just the creative life. There’s something that is amazing about being an actor because we’re asked to live life as vividly and kinetically and electrically as we possibly can. I remember traveling to New York once with some photographers, and I started to see the world through their eyes, and the way they took photos. Their eyes were constantly taking photos, and what I think an artist does, is frame moments and making that moment noticeable. And by framing that moment and bringing notice to it, they were elevating it, and perhaps even elevating our experience as we walk through the earth and see. I think that actors are blessed with the opportunity to experience all our senses in that way, where we’re asked to frame every moment because one day, perhaps I’ll be able to grab a moment and it will create an echo in a character or it will be a definitive line I can deliver to the audience and maybe it will elevate our experience. There’s nothing better. We could be working in a steel mill, where you’re forced to shut so many of your senses down just to get through your day. So for those hours that we’re in the steel mill, we’re not living. But as an actor, you’re asked to remember it, and live vividly.

The life of the mind, then.
And heart. And gut. The heart is crazy, and as an actor, you always have to keep it open. I feel sorry for artists who have left us early. They deserved to have someone who could help them open their hearts again, and as an actor it’s hard because some actors are more resilient, but some actors need someone around them to help take some the hardness off that formed around their hearts. You can almost feel it in some people, and in yourself, happening on a physiological level. You can see it physically, too. What people do is they crunch in. It’s an animalistic thing where you’re using your ribs to protect your heart. The heart has been injured in some way. When you learn to open yourself up, it’s amazing the transformation that takes place: the breath becomes fuller. The heart becomes open. They’re vulnerable, but there’s something so amazing about brave vulnerability. You always have to fight for that as a creative person because it’s so easy to get clamped down. Sometimes the more sensitive of us, and the more “in moment” we are, the more sensitive we are, sometimes we need help from someone else, so that we can reopen. I’ve been blathering. What else do you want to know? (laughs)

You studied at the Goodman Theater in Chicago. What was that like?
I didn’t realize how great it was at the time I was studying there. (laughs) It was very important to the initial stages of becoming an actor, because you gain tools. I was young and naïve and inexperienced, so many of the tools I received at the time, I didn’t full receive, and it’s only now that I’m learning what those tools meant. But that’s okay, because you receive information, then when your body, mind, and heart are looser, you’re ready to receive it and it will settle in. I don’t think acting is ever a finished trade. Like every creative, we’re always learning more. In fact, I’m taking classes right now, in Suzuki, which is a type of training based on Japanese theater. It’s a mixture of martial arts and theatrical training. It helps an actor learn how to remain open through physical duress, which can come from anything: stress, physical pain, mental pain. It helps you learn how to communicate through all of that, which is really amazing. I’m taking it up again after initially studying it in drama school. I wanted to touch base with it again, because I felt like it was the basis of characters like Russell Crowe’s in Gladiator, Lady Macbeth, or Cleopatra who are powerful entities that experience because of their greatness, experience more than the average person does. In spite of all of that, they still have to express. Did you know there was a part of the ancient Greek theater, which was very spiritual in its original conception, where a priest would come out, call up to the gods, and ask for a blessing. In their beliefs, the blessing would then come down to the priest and he would then conduct that blessing out to the actors, who would then sing back a response, and the play would begin. I thought that was really wonderful, on a number of levels. The characters those actors played were so huge, so bigger-than-life that I think how they dealt with it was to let it leave their shoulders and be the responsibility of the gods, so they were only the conduits of this greatness, this great, insane power, without it overwhelming them in their lives. I feel like I’m blathering, again. Am I making any sense? (laughs)

Completely. When I write, and I’m really in the zone, I feel like I’m channeling. Don’t you feel that way when you play a part?
Yeah, you lose yourself, and it’s the most amazing feeling, really wonderful.

What makes artists different is just that they have different antennae from most people, so they receive and process information differently.
It’s brave to do that, isn’t it?

I guess it’s sort of a leap of faith. It’s something we don’t have a choice in.
I feel like we all have it in us, though. Some people are brave enough to give credence to their childishness, and some people shy away from it and choose a safer route.

Some people also let the system beat it out of them, which is what the system was created for: to destroy any shred of individuality or creative thought in us from the time we’re children. 
Yes, and then by the time they’re in their early 20s or so, they’ve forgotten it.

But if you give a four year-old a piece of blank paper and a crayon…
Amazing, isn’t it? Everything they can do with just a tiny piece of space is wonderful. That’s why, when someone accuses you of being “childish,” I think you should take it as a compliment.