When Cas Anvar, one of the stars of the SyFy television series The Expanse, takes the stage at Wizard World’s Cleveland Comic-Con this weekend (Feb. 26-28), he will be right at home.
Anvar will appear Friday and Saturday at the geekfest, which debuted in Cleveland last year and did so well that it returns with the likes of Chris Hemsworth of Thor fame and local filmmakers Anthony and Joe Russo, who will discuss their association with the Marvel Universe.
Anvar, however, will get his chance to meet with fans who know him from a lot of work he’s done in genre projects such as Source Code, SyFy series such as Olympus and, now The Expanse. What’s different now?
Although Anvar appeared at cons before because he also voices the lead in Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed video game series, it will be his first time since The Expanse aired its 10-episode season.
Ownership of more than 10,000 comic books and his love of sci-fi and fantasy put him in a position to enjoy the convention experience while appearing. But there’s also symbiotic relationship in that his geekdom prepared him for the career journey that he’s taking now.
“I think so in that everything I’ve done in my life has led to a point where me diving into this role on The Expanse and doing this genre of work,” he said when asked if that were the case. “All of this tends to be the kind of stuff I love to do. What’s near and dear to my heart are these wonderful action, fantasy kind of things. Those are the kinds of things I like to go and watch.”
Anvar also appeared in non-genre projects including the Oscar-winning film Argo and current Oscar nominee Room. In fact, after his Cleveland appearances he will jet back to Los Angeles in time for the Academy Awards Sunday night.
But in conversing with him, the love of the genre projects shines through. He references the quality of Battlestar Galactica – the series reboot on SyFy, not the ‘70s slice of cheese that aired on ABC – one moment and then easily segues to a discussion about the vastly under appreciated J. Michael Straczynski sci-fi opus Babylon 5 which ran on television in syndication in the early ‘90s.
The Expanse has much in common with both those productions with respect to overall quality and narrative. The show took a couple of critical hits early on because some considered the plot development slow. Anvar disagreed with that assessment.
“I saw it as an acknowledgement of the type of organic and deep storytelling that we were trying to do. We were trying to tell a story in the vein of Battlestar Galactica, Firefly, Blade Runner, Alien,” he said. “It’s so easy to get caught up in shock and awe – lots of hype, lots of flash, not enough substance, not enough character, not enough story.
“Then you run out of steam by the time you get near the end of your run, you’ve kind of blown your wad and you don’t have the substance to deliver a really meaningful payoff.”
On The Expanse he plays Alex Kamal, a Martian pilot of Pakistani and East Indian descent, who is the consummate alpha male with the intellect that complements his mental strength. He earned the role after auditioning via tape. The showrunners wanted him to do an in-person audition afterward, but he rolled the dice and told them he couldn’t possibly do it better. Obviously the gamble is paying off. Kamal’s background appealed to him, but not for the obvious reason – ethnicity – but because little is made of it.
“What’s not to love about that? Sign me up. How often am I going to get to play a character who is a protagonist where ethnicity and race is not even an element to the role,” he asked. “In fact, not only is it not an element of the role, but you get to play someone who is a little bit along the lines of a Han Solo-like character.”
It’s refreshing considering that Anvar, a Canadian, portrayed his share of stereotypical roles – terrorists, Middle Eastern Guy No. 1, etc. – since beginning his career more than two decades ago. In that time change continues to come at a glacial pace in the TV and film business.
He, however, remains optimistic and realistic regarding how to help nudge things forward.
“I’m not an aggressive kind of vocal, opinion basher,” he said. “However, I am extremely passionate about diversity and racial equality and showing our world for what it really is and not for some stereotypical cross section that is in anyway not representative of our population, whether it’s the United States, whether it’s Canada or the world.”
He said that it is a matter of putting yourself in a position to make a difference in that regard. As an example he offered Source Code, an underrated film directed by Duncan Jones and staring Jake Gyllenhaal. Anvar played a person of presumed Middle Eastern descent that Gyllenhaal’s character profiled in the film. Initially that character had an accent. He suggested to Jones that the scene would have more impact if there were no accent, adding more of an emotional payoff if the character were more Americanized. Jones agreed to the change.
“I worked my way into a position because of all the work I’ve done, to be able to suggest something like that and have them take it seriously and do it,” he said. “I got to serve the purpose of the film. I got to do the role that was written and served its purpose in the story, but I also got to make a little bit more of a comment about society [that said] we are all not jihadists.”
Like Source Code, the best science fiction movies and television shows hold a mirror to our society and deal with such subjects intelligently. The Expanse, which has been renewed for a second season and returns to production in April, is no different.
Subjects such as racism and bigotry are handled in a different way – through the lens of belters (people who inhabit the asteroid belt and are among the working class), Martians and Earthers.
“We’ve gone from racism to planetism,” Anvar said. “Human beings are human beings are human beings. No matter how much we change and grow, we stay the same.”
How The Expanse, which is based on a series of novels by James S.A. Corey, handles such topics and others that relate to its fictional universe and our current one will dictate its success, one that SyFy is counting on considering that it hasn’t had a mainstream hit since Galactica.
If Season One represents an indicator, the cast and show runners are on their way to creating something that will be remembered as classic television, not just classic sci-fi and self-proclaimed nerds such as Anvar and their fans will reap the benefits. Is he ready for the next-level recognition that could come from that?
“The geeks shall inherit the Earth,” he said with a chuckle. “They’re a powerful, passionate breed. I agree. I think I’m lucky in the sense that I come from that world. I used to be on the other side of the table as one of them, so I’ve kind of identify with them. I play the video games that they’re freaking out about. I watch the movies they’re fanboying and fangirling about, so I kind of get it. So it doesn’t freak me out quite as much.”
Wizard World Comic-con Cleveland show hours are Friday, Feb. 26, 3-8 p.m.; Saturday, Feb. 27, 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sunday, Feb. 28, 10 a.m.4 p.m. Advance tickets are $35 for Friday, $45 for Saturday and $40 for Sunday. Prices at the door will cost $45, $55 and $50, respectively. Three-day admission is $75 in advance or $85 at the door. Up to two children (ages 10 and under) get in free with each paid adult admission.