Actor Peter Mensah in The Universe of Midnight Texasby Brad Balfour
July 31, 2017
You can’t meet a nicer vampire than Peter Mensah — as he has been in “True Blood.” This well-traveled actor has had his chance to infuse supernatural characters with his own unique insights and permutations. In joining the cast of the upcoming NBC otherworldly series, Midnight, Texas, The lanky Ghanian has been granted the opportunity to take the character from blockbuster’s generating successful author Charlaine Harris series and make him his own. He has to since the character Lemuel was originally envisioned as “The Thin White Duke” and Mensah is anything but that.
But this life isn’t the one Menash originally had been setting up. A former engineer, Mensah came to Canada 11 years ago, and then to England where he worked for British Gas developing gas fields at Morecombe Bay, But he had done theater in school. Coming from an academic family, education and the arts were a big part of his life growing up.
Born 27 August 1959, the Ghanaian-British actor, became best known for film roles in “Tears of the Sun,” “Hidalgo,”and “300;” more recently he starred in the Starz series, “Spartacus: Blood and Sand,” “Spartacus: Gods of the Arena,” and “Spartacus: Vengeance.”
His parents were from the Brong Ahafo Region in Ghana, but had moved to Hertfordshire, England, with his engineer father, writer mother, and two younger sisters. But when Mensah emigrated from Britain to see the world, it was a toss up whether his destination would be Canada or Australia. Then the paperwork for Canada came through first so he land there and then shifted in the arts. Mensah has been doing martial arts since he was six years old, when growing up in St. Albans, England, north of London. So he applied his skills and training to playing noble military men. After he met James Cameron in a parking lot, Cameron cast him in 2009’s Avatar on the spot.
Television appearances has established him as a got- actor have been in “Star Trek: Enterprise,” Tracker, “Witchblade,” “Relic Hunter,” “Earth: Final Conflict,” “Highlander: The Raven,” and “La Femme Nikita.” He was a member of the repertory cast of the A&E Network series A Nero Wolfe Mystery Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. And he played the character Oenomaus in Spartacus He also had a recurring role in the fifth season of True Blood. And now he is a key character in NBC eerie groundbreaking series based on Charlaine Harris’ books — “Midnight, Texas.”
How did you get into this universe? Did you have to watch all the episodes of True Blood?
Peter Mensah: I actually had the good fortune to do a season of True Blood prior, and, strangely enough, [I was] playing a vampire. So in that sense I had a little bit of experience. Having said that, Charlaine [Harris] does write some unique characters and, in this particular case, I was taking over a character that looks nothing like me in her books. In her books, he’s the “Thin White Duke.” I’m not the “Thin White Duke” [by any means].
I was actually really pleased they gave that challenge to me to bring a dead character to life. In order to get into character, it’s actually eased by the fact that he’s rather unique. He has piercing blue eyes, he leaches rather than devour people. It gave him the ability to form relationships because he doesn’t necessarily kill humans and he becomes a bit of a sheriff in the town. He’s the father figure that protects everyone. That was quite a unique [opportunity], but that’s why we do what we do. It’s fun when it’s different.
The conceit that’s of “True Blood” — everyone is out and open. It’s a haven.
PM: It reads quite similarly in the book even though we have a unique take on it. It’s a group of outsiders rejected by everybody else or they couldn’t fit into any other group in society. And even within the area of Texas they are based the local towns all shun midnight. So they form their own community and magically family forms within a group of completely diverse people.
In one way or another these universes are connected. Are you expected to behave differently from one vampire to another or are the mythologies connected?
PM: Well in this case, the mythologies are nicely connected, it’s a fairly unique storyline and I love that they did that. You want the audience to fall in love with the character created than just the image of a vampire. So this was unique because I get to bring to life the dead person who’s very much in love with alive human beings and other ethereal beings. He’s really not similar to my previous vampire character and that’s great. In building a character, you want to make someone the audience can relate to.
Were you disappointed that you were only in one season of “True Blood” before and hope to rectify it here?
PM: “True Blood” was an established story and series. I went in to support, and when you go in to support you tell your story, you do your bit, and you move on. [Doing “Midnight, Texas”] is wonderful because we’re building [something from the start]. I don’t see them in the same way at all even though it’s Charlaine who has given all of us in this [universe] a life. I really enjoy this. I don’t think there’s anything to rectify, I was delighted to be a part of that story.
It’s good that you have had your foot in both places.
PM: The fans will certainly have something to talk about.
And could you talk more about what the show has to say about family?
PM: That’s one of the charms of this show. Family in this particular instance doesn’t always look similar or even come from the same background. And yet they find family. Manfred (François Arnaud) is running away from something in his life so he runs to a town where everyone he meets is similar to him in some way and aren’t liked by anyone else. And yet this group of misfits eat in the same place, they look out for each other, and he joins in with them. The audience learns about the other characters through Manfred because he’s getting used to the town at the same time.
Since you’re dealing with mythic characters, that must give you freedom to define the characters. How do we build community in this series?
PM: Interestingly, the same challenge is in any group. It doesn’t matter; it’s a challenge. What is really endearing about this particular challenge is the characters are so clearly diverse and the audience gets to peel away their layers. Their special powers or otherwise their history, background, and development. And in this fantasy world we can tell a bigger story. Where the angel comes from is a bigger story, where Tiger comes from is a bigger story. There’s so much more rich material you can get into in telling the individual stories and informing the relationships. It’s a very rich tapestry.
It’s not just a vampires vs. werewolves situation.
PM: Not at all. It’s actually a really unique situation where the people that are rejected become the guardians and protectors of society.
You’re Ghanaian. Does the community there have more transparency or acceptance with regards to supernatural beings. Does that intercede or affect what you’re doing?
PM: It does in a very broad way reflect the native story here in America. The traditional older cultures almost all tell stories of the land, of creatures, the spirits, and they riddle the entire lore. As is true in Ghanaian structure. Ghanaian fables are told through Anansi, the wise spider that tells a story; it’s similar. I find fantasy in western culture to be one of the areas where we can engage in these stories without anyone blinking. It’s now possible to have our real world, our spiritual world, and our scientific world, and our dream world all exist in the same plane, which is what traditional fantasy stories do in most native cultures. Fantasy gives us that breadth to work.
Did you always want to be an actor?
PM: I always enjoyed it. I started very young just doing stage plays and I developed in the sciences, which is what my father did, then returned to the stage prior to going on camera. Originally the stage was where I thought I’d go if I were to become an actor. Then TV and film beckoned and here I am.
Maybe the rise of genre fandom is part of our need to find this mythos in our culture through pop culture. It must be hard to leave this thing because you have a rich opportunity to inject yourself into these characters and see how people are translating this thing you do into their lives.
PM: You’re right, but over the years and doing different shows and seeing the response from each, one of the things I’ve been [gratified] and humbled by is how the storytelling enriches people’s lives. I personally don’t take responsibility because it takes a village to build these stories. Charlene writes them, Monica develops them, the studio pays for them. It’s just a lot of us. I’m just humbled by the response and I’ve learned to be very respectful to the fans because you realize the value it brings.
It’s the way the fans relate to this that it becomes important to their lives.
PM: I didn’t go in thinking I was going to influence anyone. I went in to tell the stories because I enjoyed doing it. Then you find out from others how the characters you’ve had the privilege to perform has helped them or informed their lives. As such it was a side effect of doing this that I hadn’t anticipated.
A lot of people view supernatural stories as metaphors for the real world. What do you draw from?
PM: The thing is the supernatural, as you pointed out, allows the dialogue. And my job isn’t necessarily to enter the dialogue so much as play a person going through the situations, and that’s what I do. What happens when two people view the same story is that they come out with very different views of what happened. So I don’t go in attempting to do anything other than saying this is a particular person in a situation going through it. What’s interesting is people find a way to relate to that.
Theater actors find a way to relate to characters in a way film and television actors don’t usually. Is that true for you?
PM: Possibly. The theater allows you to practice just delving into the story in a broader way. It informs playing characters without as much structure around you. But having said that, I really do think the love of stories and reading, that sort of development is just as important in delving into something that isn’t tethered in the reality as we know it. You have to love stories to play it.
Actors in television series have more of a responsibility to the time they’re given than those in movies that are hours long.
PM: Having been fortunate enough to do both, the level of concentration has to be there because our job is not to tell everyone how difficult it was to get there, be there when called upon no matter how long it took because there’s someone working very hard behind the camera to set it up, shoot it, develop it. So with all due respect, I just have to be ready to go for no matter how long it takes.
With this show, you shot the whole season without any audience response, almost like a very long film.
PM: And we’ll see what happens. That’s part of the excitement — that we’re excited. We had the opportunity to do 10 episodes over a very long period of time and to feel excited at this point which is a very good feeling. Because, if you’ve come this far and are not thrilled about it, it’s a little hard [for someone].
What do you like to do here in Albuquerque New Mexico where the studio is?
PM: It’s about discovery. The locals take us around. I haven’t had much personal time. Our hours are extreme and my character is both in the physical fantasy world where there’s fighting, training and all sorts of stuff on top, but I have found this area, Knob Hill, where I found a house that’s fantastic. There are places, you check with locals, and you were to go. That’s what I do when I go anywhere.
Are you itching to get back to theater?
PM: I would love to. Scheduling has become the bane of my existence. I’m going to do this, then I’m on a plane somewhere else in a week.