MacGyver interview: Michael Des Barres on Helman’s return, Murdoc, & living in the now

Nicholas Helman“All I know is trailers and makeup and love and guitars and appreciation and teamwork and lunch.”

Out of context, that quote may be appear completely random. Yet, it is a wonderful summation in many ways of the mind and the experience of Michael Des Barres. He’s an actor, a musician, a radio host, and a whole lot more. For the sake of this interview though, the majority of the focus is of course on MacGyver leading up to Friday’s new episode. His character of Murdoc’s one-time mentor Nicholas Helman will be back, and in this particular episode, Mac and the rest of the Phoenix Foundation may be in the unusual position of having to ask Murdoc himself for help bringing him in. This is going to be crazy, explosive, and all sorts of delicious to watch. Think about the first appearance of Des Barres and adding another 1000 volts.

CarterMatt sat down with Michael for a fantastic conversation about the show, being the original Murdoc, working alongside David Dastmalchian, and his philosophy on living and acting wholly in the moment. He’s an incredibly fascinating man and this is certainly one of our favorite interviews in quite some time. Enjoy, and come back on Friday for a full review for this episode.

CarterMatt – When you first heard that MacGyver was coming back to CBS, what were some of your thoughts on it?

Michael Des Barres – I have no problem with reboots. I think it’s an absurdity to compare anything with anything else, first and foremost a TV show or a song. They stand alone and this stands alone. I was delighted because I don’t think anyone else has done it — only me and Jesus, man!

I really think that should be the title for your next appearance.

Absolutely (laughs), or at least you can use it! My point is that I don’t think anyone has created a character on the one show and come back and done it again, albeit in disguise as Nicholas Helman. And for that alone, I think it’s cool. I love David Dastmalchian, I love Peter Lenkov. Craig O’Neill. These people are fabulous people who know what they’re doing. It’s great to work with professionals like them.

As you may or may not know, I’m on the radio and I have an enormous audience of five million listeners on my program. That’s really inspiring in that you’re playing music that isn’t yours (laughs). You get away from the ego of it, and then you pop down to Atlanta and try to kill people.

I was just looking over your career before talking with you, and your resume includes so many iconic shows.

I think they’ve all morphed into one, in a sense. Yes, Murdoc was incredibly important for so many — and maybe more today than yesterday because of the constant replaying of these things and the availability of these shows. I mean, Seinfeld freaks love me because of that, WKRP fans love me because of Scum of the Earth, which was the most popular show they ever had.

I just seem to fall into interesting situation where the characters I play perhaps touched a nerve in people. I don’t take any of this personally! In terms of zeitgeist, I just so happened to do zeitgeist shows for some reason. It just became that. I’ve done 150 hours of American television! I’m exhausting myself right now! It’s a lot of stuff and that, coupled with the fact that I’m a rock ‘n roll musician, has just sprinkled a little bit of golden dust on it. I just express myself and I don’t see myself as an actor or a musician. I don’t think either of those words are adequate.

While I was in Power Station we did Live Aid, and that was the biggest audience of all time, and I’d written ‘Obsession’ and that was #1 everywhere. For a couple of years, it was that. Then, it was Murdoc, and so on and so on. It’s like one big poem!

You didn’t show up on the new MacGyver until season 2, but back in season 1, were you actively watching and seeing what was going on?

I wanted to see how they dealt with Murdoc. To my great delight, Dastmalchian kicked a–. He will tell you that the first thing that I did was go online and say ‘this guy is f—ing great. Watch the show.’ I really am not fond of people who create characters who are then represented by someone else and they really don’t like it. I always use the analogy that I’ve seen thirty Hamlets — the play’s been around for 500 years, you can at least do a reboot after a couple. It’s an absurdity. I thoroughly enjoyed David.

I didn’t watch the show much, mostly because frankly, I didn’t have much time. Right now I’m doing a massive video game with motion capture — I’ve been doing it for a year and a half — and I’ve been doing my radio program, which is three hours. I just got married, and I also have my band. But, I did thoroughly enjoy David and Lucas [Till] and Justin [Hires]. They’re all really good actors, and working with all of them and Tate Donovan [for this upcoming appearance] was a delight.

So when did you first get to have a conversation with David?

I tweeted out that he was great, and he had tweeted me back saying ‘thank you so much.’ What had happened was that a lot of my fans, I guess, were having a go at him saying ‘you’ll never replace this guy’ and ‘you’ll never do this,’ but the moment I said ‘he’s cool,’ they changed. He credits me, I think, with that, and that made me feel very happy, especially in this stupid, negative, competitive world of show business, which I despise. I’m in it for the honor and the poetry of it. I really dislike anything competitive — unless they give me an Emmy this year, which would be fine (laughs).

David then got a hold of me and said thanks, and we became good friends.

So when did the conversation first start about you coming on the new show?

They called me! They got a hold of me. They said ‘do you want to do this,’ and I said ‘sure.’ Simple as that.

Did you know then that they were basically out to make you the Murdoc before the Murdoc?

You’ll understand this, because you know how all of this works. Who is Murdoc? How many Murdocs are there? Is there a series of Murdocs? This is a notion that they can explore through seasons, and I think that’s the key. Is there a little bit of Murdoc in everyone? I think it sets up a premise that is really interesting. That’s what was pitched to me.

F— the name. Clearly, if people are looking at me, they’re not going to see Jayne Mansfield, are they? (Laughs.) Or, maybe I should be more current and say Tilda Swinton. Someone asked me the other day who should play me in a movie and I said Tilda Swinton. She’d be perfect. 

So when you play Helman, what are your touchstones? Are you trying to think back to how you played Murdoc?

I don’t think. I be. I am. Action. There it is. I don’t think about anything. I never have.

That’s so fascinating, because I don’t talk to too many actors with this philosophy.

I’m not interested in philosophy. I’m interested in now. What I am now. I don’t believe in anything other than you and to be talking.

So you have this ability to just be completely focused, in that moment, when filming starts?

I could burst into tears or I could punch you in the face.

You can just go in, do the work, and then move on. How does that make the overall experience for you? Does it stick to you, or do you just move on to the next thing?

How do you feel right now?

Right now, I’m happy. We’re having a good conversation and I’m getting to know about you. I enjoy perspective, and I enjoy thinking about perspective after the fact.

I don’t believe in after the fact. I believe in the fact, and the fact is that when they say action, you do something interesting that you believe is true. If I said to you or you said to me as an actor ‘your mother is dead,’ you don’t know how you’re going to react to that. If I say ‘I’m going to kill you’ or ‘I’m going to kill your family’ (pauses) … you hear the silence between us right now?

Yeah.

That’s as evocative as the best speech ever written.

How much of your performance is collaborative? If you’re in the moment, do you feed off of what other people are doing and saying?

No. It’s really happening for me! I’m not feeding off of anything; I’m eating it and they’re eating it. When something is flowing, it’s natural. You don’t tell the oceans to create a tsunami. The surprise of the tsunami is what great acting is all about.

So let’s get into this particular episode. How does this compare to your previous go-around, and the stuff you did on the old show?

It’s f—ing amazing. You are going to be so delighted by this episode. Anyone who’s into something that is different and interesting is going to love it. I had a wonderful director in Roderick Davis and he’s been a wonderful editor for Peter over on Hawaii Five-0. I was one happy guy. He let me do whatever I wanted and was very helpful.

Was the reaction you got for playing Helman the first time what you expected? Were people who loved the original Murdoc happy?

I think that they wanted more, but this is Peter at work. At the beginning I said ‘well, they’re going to want me to jump off a f—ing cliff and scream MacGyver,’ and he said ‘exactly, and that’s why we’re not doing it.’ I understood him completely. Less is more always; I believe that cliché is true, and I saw it as an hors d’oeuvre to the meal that would come next season! It was a little taste.

So with this line of conversation in mind, would you come back again for season 4 if asked?

Of course. Absolutely. The crew — half of them I’ve known for a long time — and it’s a lovely thing to do. I love to keep things moving and I suspect you’re doing the same. You’re not just concentrating on MacGyver; you’re concentrating on a lot of different cultural elements that you’re interested in. I am too! I just have two new singles coming out on Steven Van Zandt’s label in May and on the night that this airs, I’m playing at the Hi Hat in Los Angeles with my band the Mistakes. That’ll give you an indication of who I am just based on the name [laughs]. I learn from mistakes! I like mistakes. I’ve been at it since I was eight and I’m 71. I’ve been at it a long time and I do different things. Each thing informs the other.

Is there something especially appealing as an actor about being villains? You do have this opportunity to do things that maybe you don’t have license to do in real life.

Let me tell you this — I am like that in real life (laughs). If you’ve got high cheekbones and you’re English, you’re going to play a bad guy. That pretty much answers your question. But, I’ve gotten a lot of props for being funny and I’ve been in so many sitcoms playing all sorts of different characters. Some of them have been moronic rock ‘n roll stars, and others are cynical maître ds or hairdressers. There’s always an edge there that he could cut you, even if he was making you laugh.

Before I wrap things up with you, I’m just curious — with everything that you’ve done and everything that you’re doing, is there still something more you’re chasing and something more that you want?

I’m not chasing anything. I don’t think I ever have. Everything that’s happened to me, I expected.

Is there a certain degree of contentment you’ve found then from your work?

It’s not work.

It’s just enjoyment then, it’s just living.

That’s what I do. That’s all I know. All I know is trailers and makeup and love and guitars and appreciation and teamwork and lunch. I don’t think too much and I’ve never chased a dream. I did a musical when I was 19 and Andrew Lloyd Webber saw it and said ‘you can sing; I think you should do this.’ He got me a record deal and [so on]. Before that I had To Sir, with Love with Sidney Poitier, when London was paved with velvet. It all came to me; I never chased velvet streets. I just seemed to walk on them.

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