Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Nathan Fillion was perfectly suited to the quippy, droll Richard Castle role for seven seasons on the show Castle.

If the actor Nathan Fillion decides to have a video on his tombstone (it’s a thing), I know which clip he should use: His entrance as Jacques Snicket, brother of Lemony Snicket (Patrick Warburton), in Episode 2, Season 2 of Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. (It lands March 30.)

A nice guy is trapped in a walk-in freezer. Pacing, he recites aloud, “He laughed at his own foolishness. As he laughed, he noted the numbness in his bare fingers.” Suddenly, a voice outside the freezer booms, “Jack London, if I’m not mistaken.” The freezer door is kicked down. We see a figure silhouetted in blue light swirling with frosty mist.

“Snicket?” Freezer Guy asks.

“Jacques Snicket,” Fillion announces snappily. He steps into the freezer, immediately finding the key light for his eyes. His swept hairstyle and dapper moustache are très Old Hollywood, and in case you don’t get that, he wears a Clark Gable/Errol Flynn flight jacket. “Did somebody call for a taxi?” he declaims.

This is different from, but on the continuum of, Fillion’s entrance in Season 2 of The Santa Clarita Diet, also on Netflix (streaming now): as a rotting, wisecracking severed head. See, Fillion’s character, slimy realtor Gary, was the first victim of newly minted zombie Sheila (Drew Barrymore) way back in Episode 101. But she forgot to kill Gary’s brain. Zombification, however, has brought out his gentle side, so Sheila and her still-human husband, Joel (Timothy Olyphant), can’t bring themselves to kill him. He becomes a sage in a champagne flute in a storage locker, the only “person” Joel can confide in about his plight. Or as Fillion put it in a recent phone interview, “He’s a shoulder for Joel to cry on – minus the shoulders, ba-dum.”

As an actor, the Canadian-born Fillion, 47, is always in on the joke. There’s the gentlest, most digestible dab of irony in his every line reading. It’s why he was perfect to play the quippy crime novelist-turned-police adviser Richard Castle for eight seasons on Castle, a show that unashamedly joined such series as Murder She Wrote and Diagnosis Murder in a genre I like to call Murder Lite. His drollness also colours every word of our 15-minute chat.

Fillion is skilled at letting others feel they’re in on the joke, too. It’s why fans radiate such goodwill toward him. (And possibly why he’s such a babe magnet: He dated, among others, George Clooney’s ex, Krista Allen. He’s had his share of “odd and icky” experiences with superfans who “can’t draw the line between reality and fantasy.” But he accepts that as part of the job.

“I’m having a great time,” Fillion says. “My worst day is still a great day. I try not to take myself too seriously. I try to enjoy myself every day, and I try to be kind to the people around me. If folks are sensing anything, maybe it’s that.”

His glee certainly is evident in his two Netflix series. “It’s great to dip my toes into somebody else’s shows,” Fillion says. “The work feels like vacation time. It’s a lot less responsibility. There’s no pressure of, ‘Can I keep this series on the air?’ I feel like I’m getting away with something.”

In A Series of Unfortunate Events, he’s alternately sweeping co-star Sara Rue into his arms or dashing about Vancouver, where the show was shot. “We did a lot of experimenting with hair and mustaches,” Fillion says. “It got very 1970s at one point, a handlebar mustache and long feathered hair. When it comes to being cheesy or hammy, my weakness is that my gauge is way off. I’ll be chewing scenery before you know it. So I try to pull back a bit.”

His work on Santa Clarita was more technical: Barrymore and Olyphant filmed their scenes with a mannequin. Afterward, Fillion filled in his lines – with his head strapped into a contraption that kept it still. “Apparently I move my head a lot when I act,” he says. “I do a lot of up-nods. I call it the Aloha of nods. It could mean Yes, Go, We’re gonna fight, How’s it goin’ – it could be anything. It’s universal.”

Later this year, Fillion will reseize the responsibility of keeping a TV series alive as the star of The Rookie. Created by Alexi Hawley, who also did Castle, it’s about John Nolan (Fillion), who ditches his small town to pursue his dream of joining the Los Angeles Police Department. For the first time in his life, Fillion signed on before a script existed.

“The idea of the show is very relatable,” he says. “You hit a certain age and life changes, time changes, your situation changes. If you don’t change, you’re left behind. I think there’s real honesty and truth to that.”

Fillion is living his dream, he says, and he’s grateful for it: “I used to watch TV and think it was a magic window into a world I would never see. Now, I live in that world. I don’t know a ton of people who can say that.”

He stays grounded by remembering the year he didn’t work. Born in Edmonton, he moved to New York in 1994, where his chiselled looks landed him on the soap opera One Life to Live. Three years later, he moved to L.A. and scored several big gigs in a row, including the series Two Guys and Girl, a role in Saving Private Ryan and the lead in the Joss Whedon-created Firefly. He thought, “I’m on a rocket, I can’t fail.” Then, nothing.

He watched his savings dwindle. He paid his rent on credit. He was ready to retreat to New York and rejoin the soap. Miraculously, in 2009, Castle arrived. “Unemployment was one of the best things to happen to me, because it makes me understand how fragile a career is,” Fillion says now. “It showed me that you have to be who you are in your heart. You have to make decisions you’re proud of.”

When he first moved to L.A., people would say, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” as if that “had a real stink to it,” Fillion continues. “But it’s not a stink. It’s a boon. If you can work with good people who are talented, and they say, ‘Let’s work together again,’ you’re doing something right. I look at my career as a long list of projects that are me riding on the coattails of talented people. My talent is choosing the right coattails.”

That, and a rakish gleam in the eye.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe