In advance of the season 4 finale of Stargate Atlantis, "The Last Man" (March 7, 2008), I had a chance to talk with the very funny and charming "king of the nerds," David Hewlett, who plays the sometimes insufferable astrophysicist Dr. Rodney McKay.
Let me first say I'm a huge fan of Rodney McKay.
[laughs] Well, you and me both.
Did you ever wonder whether fans would "get" Rodney -- that they would get past Rodney's difficulty to see his complexity and potential?
You're talking about what an absolute ass he was, basically. When I first discovered that I was actually going to be doing it again -- when I went in for SG-1 and I did those episodes there [starting with Rodney’s introduction in the season 5 SG-1 episode “48 Hours”], I was first very surprised that I came back at all, because he was such an incredibly caustic character. So I was kind of with the fans. I was like, "My god, why would they -- ? Of all the people to bring back, why are they bringing this guy back?"
And all the other Atlantis characters are so nice.
They're all nice people, and there's this just absolute arrogant jerk. And my biggest concern was that they were going to soften him up, turn him into a nice guy all of a sudden. They've done a very good job of walking that fine line between making him -- not more likable, but he's sort of more understandable.
It helps that the other characters have started to understand him and like him.
Well that's it. I think it's one of those things where my character has been able to fill in the gaps. Like my hairline. I try to fill it in as much as possible.
Is Rodney going to get a rug in season 5?
I think so, I think some kind of all-natural hair weave kind of thing.
The other thing that helps is that everything happens to Rodney. He's the universal victim. He nearly drowns [2x14, “Grace Under Pressure”], he gets superpowers, he almost ascends [3x14, “Tao of Rodney”] ... he's got a hip alternate universe alter ego [3x08,”McKay and Mrs. Miller] ...
I love "Rod," yeah, yeah.
He has women throwing themselves at him … he proposes to one and has a baby -- no wait, that's you.
[laughs] Let's not confuse things too much, because it's really bad for my social life.
Joe [Flanigan, who plays John Sheppard] must get jealous every time the cool stuff happens to you.
I don't know how jealous Joe is. Joe is the first one to mock me when I'm drowning in the freezing cold water. But he's had his bug episodes, where they turn Joe into a bug.
And you can make fun of him for the "Kirk" thing.
Yes indeed. His Kirk thing is shameless. Both on and off camera.
But that's happening to Rodney now -- he's got Katie [Brown (Brenda James)], Sam [Carter (Amanda Tapping)], Dr. Keller [(Jewel Staite)]. And he has no idea what to do with them. Is Rodney really that clueless with women, or is it a defense mechanism?
[laughs] I'm really hoping it's a defense mechanism. I think he's in that interesting situation where as a scientist and a nerd he's basically only ever objectified women. So to actually have to communicate with them -- that's the wonder of his relationship with Sam Carter, is that not only is she in his terms "hot," but also just as smart as he is. He finds that both absolutely alluring and alarming at the same time.
On SG-1 she had all the technical dialog, and Jack kept cutting her off. And now you have the technical dialog and she's cutting you off.
And believe me, I can see in her eyes the sympathy as I'm plowing through pages of this stuff. I referred to it as technobabble once and I was corrected by [co-creator] Brad Wright -- he said, "You mean, 'gold'."
And you have to say it really fast -- Rodney talks so quickly that you just have to toss this stuff off.
I think that's the key to this stuff. I'm a fast talker, and I'm getting help for that. But nerds -- they don't ponder their technical prowess, they rattle it off. Knowing a lot of nerds, and being one myself -- I got into computers early, and I had a lot of friends who got much more into it than I ever did. And that's what these guys are like, they just assume that everybody knows all this stuff. And if you don't, then you're an idiot.
[Doctor Who star] Peter Davison said the same thing -- to make the bafflegab believable you had to say it as rapidly as possible.
Yeah, I mean otherwise they're hanging a lantern on it. The thing about sci-fi is it's almost never about the sci-fi, it's always about the characters and the situations and exploring -- the technology is basically a backdrop for the character stuff.
It's very easy to forget that. As a sci-fi fan, you read this stuff and you hand someone else a sci-fi book that you love and they don't read sci-fi, they often don't get it because they can't get past that stuff. It's an acquired taste and you start to get a sense of how these things work. I consider myself very lucky, because I'm not just a nerd on television -- I'm a nerd at home as well.
You're not only the president, you're also a client.
[laughs] Going back to my damn hairline, thank you very much. I got a boat from Rachel [Luttrell, who plays Teyla] last season as a present, which was called The Bald Truth. It seems to be an ongoing theme on this show.
And with your luck it was Radek [Zalenka] that got trapped in that elevator with Sam [in 4x13, “Quarantine”], and not Rodney.
Believe me, I remember. Still I couldn't really lose in that one -- I mean, Katie Brown or Amanda Tapping, you really can't complain.
And you've got Jewel now, and she's going to be a regular next season.
She is indeed, yes, the lovely Jewel Staite. She's just amazing to work with, and she's got a wicked sense of humor. It's another one of those relationships where McKay doesn't really -- it's a sort of respect/disrespect thing.
I know people who can't get past how beautiful she is to see her as a medical professional and so on.
[laughs] She is a ridiculously good-looking woman, but I try not to hold it against her.