There’s a scene early on in The Rookie, Nathan Fillion’s new police procedural on ABC, in which he foils a hold-up in his local bank by oversharing with a masked, gun-wielding bandit. ordered to remain prone on the bank floor,
Fillion’s John Nolan — a newly divorced 40-year-old with a nothing-to-live-for scruff and a bad case of mid-life crisis — keeps rising to his feet, musing about his emotionally confused state as an unconventional tool of distraction.
“This bank robbery is the most exciting thing that has happened to me in a lot of years,” he says, managing a tone that toggles effectively between terrified and confessional. “Is that sad? Does that sound sad?”
It was the promise of such nuanced moments that drew Fillion back to the grind of starring in a one-hour drama for network TV. Some two years earlier, Fillion’s breezy crime-solver, Castle, also on ABC, ended after its eighth season.
“That was such a heightened reality,” he says of his role as Richard Castle, a writer of popular mystery novels who is as exasperatingly flippant as he is helpful to the New York Police Department when it comes to tracking down murderers.
Fillion felt that The Rookie, based on the true story of the Los Angeles Police Department’s oldest recruit, offered him a chance to remind viewers that he could do more than deliver rapid fire lines or wring laughs out of a well-timed arched eyebrow.
“If you’re playing a character that people can’t take seriously, I think maybe there’s a weird connect that you don’t take acting seriously,” he says on a blistering summer afternoon, sitting in his Rookie trailer on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, California. “My experience has shown me that if you’re out there being goofy all the time, people forget that you can act.”
Fillion’s belief that The Rookie could offer him a dramatic showcase required a certain leap of faith. When Alexi Hawley — a writer early in the run of Castle who returned as co-showrunner in the final season — first sketched out John Nolan and his fragile sense of identity to Fillion, he hadn’t written a word of dialogue.
Once on board, Fillion joined Hawley and Mark Gordon (Ray Donovan, Grey’s Anatomy) in pitch meetings. When they got around to visiting ABC, Fillion kicked off the conversation by asking the assembled execs if anyone else, like himself, had been working at the network since the ‘90s.
“Of course, nobody else had,” says Hawley, recalling Fillion’s shrewd way of reminding the group that he was a loyal company man: beginning his career as Joey Buchanan on ABC’s soap opera One Life to Live, appearing in guest arcs on everything from Desperate Housewives to Modern Family, and then starring in Castle, which attracted a cross-generational demographic.
Fillion was also endearing. “He said how grateful he was to the network,” Hawley remembers. “And he meant it.” In the end the Nathan Fillion project was sold straight to series to ABC. (In addition to starring, Fillion is also an executive producer, along with Hawley, Gordon, Michelle Chapman and Jon Steinberg. Liz Friedlander directed and executive-produced the first episode, which airs October 16.)
That sort of leverage in Hollywood — when your sheer presence in a room helps sell a still script-less show — must have seemed unimaginable to Fillion in his days as a student at the University of Alberta. Back then, his professional résumé included appearances at Edmonton’s legendary Fringe Festival and a handful of industrial videos aimed at the likes of chicken farmers and the Alberta forestry department.
“I was a reasonable kid,” Fillion says of his back-up strategy to become a teacher, following in the footsteps of his older brother, Jeff, an elementary school vice-principal, and his parents, Cookie and Bob, both retired high school English teachers.
But along came a break: his agent called to say that Ordeal in the Arctic, an ABC disaster-of-the-week TV movie, would be filming in Edmonton. Starring Richard Chamberlain and Melanie Mayron, it told the tale of airplane passengers marooned at the North Pole. Fillion’s character — “his name was Tom Jardine!” — exits permanently after minute 21.
Can he recall any scraps of dialogue? “’Don’t let them eat me!’” he offers, then adds, “That’s not true. I can’t remember.”
If some careers reveal recurring patterns, Fillion’s is marked by twists of fate. Three months before graduating college, he got a call from the New York offices of One Life to Live. An audition tape that he’d sent to a Vancouver casting company had somehow migrated south to L.A. and then headed east, where it ended up at the venerable daytime drama.
Three weeks later, he was living in Manhattan in a belt-tightener’s apartment and memorizing pages and pages of dialogue.
To account for his appearance in the show as Joey Riley Buchanan, it was written into the storyline that Joey had jetted off to France, then returned as a much older Fillion. “They called it RAS, or rapid aging syndrome, and it happened a lot,” he says. “I had four guys play the same brother while I was there. One guy was there for only two weeks. Kevin Buchanans didn’t seem to last very long.”
Two years after his debut on the show, Fillion was already a Daytime Emmy nominee as Outstanding Younger Actor, and veteran soap star Bob Woods, who played his Uncle Bo, advised him to try his luck in Hollywood.
“He said, ‘If you have to live in your car and eat baloney, live in your car and eat baloney,’” Fillion recalls. “’But try. You don’t have property or a family — you don’t have any financial burdens, so you can hack it for a little while. If it doesn’t work out, they’ll take you back in a minute and no one will be mad at you for trying to leave.’”
As it turns out, the entertainment industry was ready to embrace a handsome, square-shouldered Canadian with a gleaming Pepsodent smile. “I felt like I was on a rocket,” says Fillion, who immediately booked five jobs, including his feature film debut in a key bit part in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. (He’s “Minnesota Ryan,” the soldier Tom Hanks’s army captain mistakes for Private Ryan.)
Then the offers stopped coming. An entire year passed, Fillion drained his bank account, and just as he was steeling himself for the humbling, take-me-back phone call to One Life to Live, he landed a recurring spot as a juke-box repairman on the second season of ABC’s Friends knock-off Two Guys and a Girl.
“That was the job that pulled my fat out of the fire,” he says, because even when the sitcom was canceled after two and a half years, there was still more silver lining: executive producer Kevin Abbott told Fillion, “I’ll do right by you, buddy,” and secured him a talent holding deal at 20th Century Fox.
The next thing he knew, Fillion was being walked into the office of writer- director-producer Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer). At the time, Whedon had a pitch out to Fox for an hour-long sci-fi drama called Firefly. Set in the year 2517, it was a space-age western that followed the escapades of the crew of Serenity, a transport ship led by Captain Malcolm Reynolds.
“I don’t remember what I thought when he walked in, but I know I was done casting when he walked out,” Whedon wrote in an e-mail. “Everything about Nathan is a little bit bigger than life, but none of it is obnoxious.”
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Go behind the scenes of emmy’s cover shoot with Nathan Fillion. Visit TelevisionAcademy.com/cover.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 9, 2018