Derek Wilson has a lot coming up. It’s always exciting to talk to people at the beginning of their career’s big break, because the excitement is fresh and the ambition is raw. With appearances on Preacher and Rectify, followed by a series-stealing turn as Wolf in Hulu’s Future Man, Wilson is ready to springboard from the supportive arms of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (executive producers and directors of Preacher and Future Man) into those of America.
Speaking with Paste, Wilson talks eyepatches, sexual identity and Avatar’s alien language:
Did Future Man come about from working with Seth and Evan on Preacher?
Derek Wilson: Yeah, it did. That role on Preacher [Donnie Schenck] got bigger as well. It started out I was just gonna be in the pilot and one or two other episodes. They ended up liking the character and made him a series regular. Then, about halfway through shooting that season, I got a call from Evan saying, “Hey we’ve got another series we want to shoot in L.A. and it starts shooting in four days. We’re going to kill your character off Preacher so you can come shoot this.”
So while I was shooting the pilot for Preacher, I shot the pilot for Future Man. Which is why my hair kind of looks like Donnie in the pilot of Future Man.
How was that transition, running set to set?
Wilson: It was pretty nuts. We didn’t really know how to tackle Future Man. They had a script that was funny and I had barely gotten a chance to look at it before we started shooting. On our first night of shooting, Seth came up to me and said something like, “Let’s just rehearse in front of the camera and figure out what this crazy character is.” I just trusted it would come together. It was scary. Really scary. But it worked out!
While you were pushing and pulling on this character’s personality, did you take cues from your co-stars on how to play him?
Wilson: Eliza [Coupe, who plays Tiger in the series] and I became pretty good friends pretty quickly, and the thing we kept telling ourselves to reassure each other was, “We don’t have to try to be funny.” We just play the stakes of the situation and the comedy should take care of itself. This is really life or death for these characters. And it’s a fish-out-of-water thing, but it only works because we’re playing it so seriously. We also get better as the season goes on.
That’s a lot of faith you have to put into a script you’ve barely read.
Wilson: [laughs] I know. And that’s what we had to do. I’m an actor, y’know, not a comedian. If they wanted a comedian, they certainly know enough comedians. So they hired me because they wanted something different, and that took some pressure off to be funny. I was also across from Eliza, who’s done so much comedy.
I think it was when we were shooting a scene at the diner, the three of us [Coupe, Wilson, and Josh Hutcherson] sitting at the table just started getting really dirty and raunchy in between takes. That’s when we started to click, that second or third night of shooting.
Even though you’ve mostly played dramatic roles, aside from a web series of yours called In the Now that I dug up on MySpace, of all places, do you think this role will lead to more comedy?
Wilson: Oh god… I remember not even understanding why I was there for that one. The director was a theater friend of mine. But yeah, [creators] Kyle Hunter and Ariel Shaffir keep saying, “Get ready, because you’re going to get offered so many comedic roles,” and it hasn’t happened yet. Of course, we’re going into the holidays, but it’s not like my phone is ringing off the hook. I’m down for whatever.
You do have a knack for playing complicated tough guys. If there was a year to deconstruct machismo, 2017 is it.
Wilson: Yeah, why not? I mean, Wolf breaks a lot of expectations of what “macho” is. He doesn’t necessarily have a sexual identity. He’s just open to whatever.
He did definitely become that kind of homoerotic Top Gun-style ’80s dude by the season’s end, but never quite pinned down on a spectrum.
Wilson: That was important to me, to keep him—as absurd as the show could be—real. We didn’t want to make him homoerotic because it’s funny. It’s just what it is. You see love between these guys and there’s no judgement there. And it can still be funny, but in a beautiful way. The cooking scene with Gabe [Ed Begley, Jr.] is funny because it’s endearing and surprising. When you see Wolf receive a hug for the first time it’s funny and moving.
The same episode has you realize “Wolf doesn’t know what a blowjob is” and “Wolf doesn’t know what a hug is” pretty close together.
Wilson: [laughs] He learns in stages.
How was getting into that totally alien mindset?
Wilson: I had to be open to the wonder and the surprise of it. There’s something very innocent and childlike about Wolf, so experiencing the world for the first time was a lot of joy. I went to grad school for acting and we had to take a lot of clown classes, and I used a lot of that for him.
Following the clown thread, another huge part of the character is the costuming that helps undercut all the seriousness.
Wilson: Oh, absolutely. Towards the end, Wolf has a red bandana and a mullet—that’s my favorite look. Originally, they wanted me back in full armor like I had at the beginning. And that armor is so uncomfortable. They made that for the pilot, in like a day, and it barely fits. It’s really constrictive and really hurts to wear it, so I was pushing for a pared-down ‘80s action hero. So the bandana was last-minute when I asked for it. They, on the fly, ripped a red T-shirt and made that for me.
I was really surprised you didn’t end up with a Snake Plissken eyepatch.
Wilson: I know! My original costume had an eyepatch. My scar was going to be revealed under the eyepatch, so I did a camera test with it. For one thing, it was incredibly uncomfortable. I couldn’t remove it, because they had to attach it to the makeup, so I’d be blind in one eye even between takes. But everyone thought it looked cooler with it off.
That would’ve made things way harder.
Wilson: When I was learning the fight for the pilot, I was practicing with one eye closed.
And now you’re twice as good at fighting. Did you get to emulate all your ’80s action heroes?
Rocky is like my favorite and I throw some of my own references to it in my acting choices. Primarily in the Truffledome. I know it’s ’70s, but hey, they made it in there. One, I went full Stallone scream when I can’t taste [because of cocaine abuse]. And then, suddenly, I have a cigar and a line that are very Burgess Meredith.
I have to respect you going Stevie Nicks and Sylvester Stallone in the same moment.
Wilson: You know what’s crazy? Fleetwood Mac was rehearsing on the Sony lot the same night we were shooting that scene. I was so hoping we would run into them or something. But I guess I was mostly still nervous we’d get a call from James Cameron’s people. I don’t think we have.
You still have some Na’vi in you?
Wilson: No! One little bit was in the script and everything else, someone would come up to me and tell me “Say this in Na’vi, this is how you say it.” I hope I pronounced it all OK. There are whole YouTube videos on the pronunciation of Na’vi and people take that stuff really seriously. I haven’t heard yet that I messed up.
Future Man, one of Paste’s 17 best new TV shows of 2017, is now streaming on Hulu.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.