Torchwood: Meet Rex

Exclusive interview with Mekhi Phifer, who plays CI Agent Rex Matheson in Miracle Day

“I really hope to do you guys proud,” says incoming new Torchwood star Mekhi Phifer when SFX chats to him on a transatlantic phone call. But his reasons my not be entirely selfless: “I want the show to be a success so I can spend more time with these people!”

Phifer, who plays CIA agent Rex Matheson in Miracle Day (which began in the US last Friday and we get to see this Thursday in the UK) has clearly had a blast in his first TV roles. Best known previously as Dr Gregory Pratt in multiple seasons of ER, he also had a memorable appearance as rapper David “Future” Porter in Eminem’s 8 Mile, but his only other major genre credit was in Zack Snyder’s Dawn Of The Dead. Torchwood, though, seems to have given him a new appreciation for sci-fi: “I’m gonna be at Comic Con with these guys. I’ve never done anything like that before either. I’ve never been to a sci-fi convention before. It’s pretty damn exciting. Shows like this remind you that you’re living life.” I think we can quite safely welcome Phifer into the fold. And as you’ll see on Thursday (if you haven’t seen the episode already) he has no worries about doing us proud. The charmingly blustering Rex is a great addition to the Torchwood family, though some members of Plaid Cymru may take a little convincing.

For those of us yet to see first episode, can you let us know a bit about Rex?

“Rex is a CIA agent who is extremely dedicated to his job and all that kind of stuff. He is a really resourceful kinda guy though also unorthodox in some of his approach. As the first episode starts out, Miracle Day starts straight. He’s in a car accident, I get the pole through the chest, but I don’t die. Normally I would have died but being that it’s Miracle Day, they are able to stitch me up, and fix me, because my bodily functions are still working. Luckily I didn’t get hit in the brain or anything like that because then I would be alive but I’d be comatose. You know what I’m sayin’?

“So being affected by the Miracle in such a huge way, that becomes his new obsession. Because in the beginning he’s sort of dismissive of Torchwood. It’s just a name he comes across in the course of his job. Who cares about Torchwood? Nobody knows anything about that. Who cares?’ But once this Miracle thing happens to him it sort of turns on a switch, because he becomes aware of Torchwood at the same time and is convinced there’s a link. He becomes extremely gung ho about finding what the devil is going on here, and who’s behind it”

You spend most of the first episode in bed. Were you itching for action?

“Absolutely. Absolutely. Obviously in the first episode I go to Wales and all that jazz. Eventually. But that’s what I love about the show. Russell and all those guys did a great job at keeping it real. It just shows his diligence, that he spends a lot of the first episode trying to solve the case from his bed, inside the hospital. Then Torchwood comes up, and Torchwood is the thing, and boom, right, now he’s on the move now. I’m going to the UK and I’m gonna extradite these guys! After me being in the bed for half the first episode, after that I’m not in the bed ever again. After that, it’s a sort of whirlwind of craziness”

Was being on Torchwood unlike anything you’ve acted in before?

“Yeah. But not just because it’s sci-fi. The real interesting thing was I’ve never been on a cable show before. Apart from Curb Your Enthusiasm. I did, like, a few episodes of that. Um, but I’ve never been on a cable show that allowed us to, frankly, curse. There’s nudity, you see people getting killed. There’s stuff that you can’t do on a show like ER, on NBC. They would never be able to show that stuff. And I’ve never been on a show that didn’t have any commercials or anything like that so you can watch it straight through. So what I loved about doing Torchwood was the edginess we were allowed. And not be intimidated by any sort of regulation.”

So it was a freeing experience?

“Absolutely. Absolutely. Because you’re not like, ‘I can’t say Goddammit’, ‘I can’t say shit!’ And sometimes those are the only ways you can express the sentiment you want to express. ‘Sheee-it!’ You wanna say that sometimes, and Torchwood allows you to do all that”

Did you know where Wales was before joining the show?

“Actually, I’ve got such a great support group. They sent me a book on Wales. Me as Mekhi, I knew that Wales was obviously separate from Britain, or whatever. And from London. And when I told everybody I was going to the UK, they said, ‘Mekhi, you’ll have a great time in London.’ And I said, ‘I’m not going to London, okay. London’s a couple of hours away on the train. I’m in Wales.’ And they’re like, ‘Where? What’s Wales?’ So I’m glad we’re putting Wales on the map in that way, you know? Quite a few people I spoke to didn’t even know what Wales was. What’s funny is that that’s my character. Rex is like, ‘Wales is separate?!’ What are you talking about. Goddamn Wales!’

“But we had a great time, and the people were really cool. I would love to come back to Wales but it would have to be in the summer time. We were all on the beach, and it was a cold as hell”

Did you actually feel like you were making an American show or a British show?

“You know what? It didn’t feel like either one. It felt like we were making an important show that was world wide. It didn’t feel like one or the other. I have never done a British show, so I don’t have a frame of reference to compare it to, but the energy felt that same as any time I’m on a project that people really care about. And I’m not talking about just the fans; I’m talking about the actors, the writers, the producers. There was just so much passion and energy. It just felt like we were doing something good. Which for me is what matters. It wasn’t a British show or an American show or whatever. It just felt like we making something special that the world could grasp onto.

Does Rex eventually become an official part of Team Torchwood?

“That’s the beautiful thing about doing a series. People are always asking, ‘Do you like doing shows or movies better?’ And I like both, but I love series because you get to have this character arc, and that’s what Rex is going through. So without giving away any spoilers, there is an arc that takes place. Obviously we start out and he’s in extreme opposition to Torchwood. I don’t trust them. I don’t like them. I think they’re idiots. But, oh man, I need to know what the hell’s going on with this miracle stuff.

“So obviously, as the series goes on, I do become a part of Torchwood. We start in opposition, but then we do start to see eye to eye. Nothing corny. Not straightaway. There’s no love fest going on. But we do become part of the same energy because of circumstances that we’re in. I don’t want to spoil anything but I don’t just stay CIA. No.”

John Barrowman has a bit of a reputation for being a little bit naughty on set over here. Was he on better behaviour in America?

“Well, you know, maybe all the stuff John does in the UK that everybody says is naughty is just normal in the US. What I love about John, Eve, Julie, Russell, Kai, is that they created a family atmosphere on Torchwood. So when you’re on a Torchwood set, it’s like being at a family reunion. You’re gonna have the drunk uncle. You’re gonna have the cousin who is a little off-beat. You’re gonna have the different family members with their different personalities. But you love them all the same. And that’s kind of what the Torchwood set is like.

“And John, he’s a fun guy. He’s enjoying life. I think if more people were able to express themselves like John does, like Eve does, the world would be a better place. Because there wouldn’t be so many inhibitions and the world would be able to relax a little bit.

“And that’s what the set is like. It’s a straight-up, relaxed environment, and you come on the show and you’re a part of this family. And I really appreciate them for that. Those guy welcomed me with extreme open arms. We hung out together, we travelled together, we drank together, we expressed to each other our life stories, and those guys made a great, great set that was fun to come to every day. I always looked forward to coming to work. I laughed a lot”

Had you heard of Torchwood and Doctor Who before starting work on Miracle Day?

“I had definitely heard of Doctor Who because it’s been around for so long, and I would see it in the DVD stores or things like that. But I didn’t know the whole origin of it or anything. But I didn’t know Torchwood. What happened was the script came across my desk from my agent, and I met Russell and Julie, and we started this whole sort of love fest. We fell in love with each other. And they gave me the Children Of Earth DVD. And I watched it. I watched all five episodes in one sitting. I sat there on the couch. I remember my girlfriend, you know, making food and all that kind of stuff, and I’m watching this thing and I called them immediately and said, ‘I have to do this.’”

Presuming your character survives the series, would you come back for more?

“Absolutely. Absolutely. There’s no question about that. This is the first time since ER that I’ve felt that same family atmosphere. Where me and my lady are hanging with John and his partner, and Eve and her husband, and Julie and her husband, and we’re all like a big happy family. I love that energy. Life is short, and it’s too short to spend it with people you don’t really like. And I really like these people. And I want to see them do well, and I want to see them prosper.”