With Alphas s eason one being released on DVD next Monday through Universal Pictures UK, SFX talks to Ryan Cartwright, the Brummie actor who plays him.
Yep, we said Brummie… It’s quite a shock to hear his laconic Midlands drawl when you’re so used to Gary’s authentic American twang. “Often Americans think any northern English accent is Australian,” he laughs, before explaining that his adoption of an American accent is a partly a tactical move.
“Yeah, I’d like to talk in my own accent,” he admits, “but then there’s that thing about getting typecast as, ‘The British guy.’ The role that makes you, that’s normally what you’re cast as forever more. Like, if I did a huge film with my British accent, that would be that. After that, every time I put on an American accent, people would be like, ‘Oooooh, he’s putting on an accent.’ If I just do the accent first, there’ll be more roles, I think.”
Cartwright has his own theory about why Gary’s autism has made him such a popular character. “I think people see a lot of themselves in him. And he’s very sweet, but he can get away with being petulant. I think that they like the fact that he doesn’t have a filter and he says whatever’s on his mind when he feels like it. Often it’s the truth. It’s funny because it’s the truth. And they wish they could be like that.”
While Gary’s ability to see and read the digital signals that float invisibly through the air for the rest of us seems like a refreshingly original superpower in a genre full of superstrength, flying, telepathy and laser eye beams, Cartwright thinks the idea may have developed as a clever means to an end.
“It seems to be quite original, but it’s really just an extrapolation of ‘the computer guy’,” he suggests pragmatically. “Who is normally either a geek or a kid in a wheelchair. Whereas this is a nice new way of doing that. Because with these genre tropes, you have to have someone who can do a bit of exposition and figure everything out on the computer. This seems a smart way to get around that.”
Any other teenage boy with Gary’s power might be too busy in their bedroom to join a superteam, considering the sudden easy, instant access to internet porn it would allow them.
“I think porn just annoys Gary,” laughs Cartwright, “because it pops up all the time and keeps him away from his job. I think the only thing he likes is sexy women’s shoes. He keeps feeling Nina’s shoes and putting them in his office and stuff. I don’t think he even knows it’s a sexual thing. He likes having them around. I think porn just annoys him.”
Cartwright, perhaps surprising, reveals that playing the autistic Gary – which you’d assume might be rather exhausting – is actually a Zen-like experience.
“When you’re on set all day, and you don’t look people in the eye, it’s really relaxing,” he says. “Normally when you talk to someone, a lot of the conversation is in the body language and in the eye contact and stuff. And if you don’t do that, if you just listen to the words, it’s quite relaxing, because there’s just one thing to focus on. The literalness of the words. It can be a little bit weird going onto other jobs afterwards. Or even at the end of the day, when you start talking to someone and you look them in the eye, it’s like, ‘Oh god! There’s a whole other thing going on here.’”
On the other hand, he adds, “Sometimes it will throw the other actors as well, like if I suddenly look them in the eye. It’s weird.”
And putting the other characters off their stride seems to be something Cartwright has as a mission statement. His on-screen banter with Bill – played by Malik Yoba – has become legendary, and this has partly developed from their off-screen interaction. “Oh, I’ll just throw in extra lines to try to make him laugh,” says Cartwright with evil glee. “Or something that’s offensive. It’s great, because we’re allowed to improvise a fair bit so it’s fun finding those moments where you can try to make the other cast members laugh. It helps the day go.”
Cartwright is especially proud that Gary has been so enthusiastically embraced by the autistic community. “Yeah, yeah! I am a lot. The autistic community really like Gary. I’ve had nothing but compliments. ‘He’s just like my brother…’ or, ‘my cousin.’ So, that’s been really nice.
“I mean, signing on for it, I didn’t really know if they were gonna get it right. There’s only so much I can do on the day. It's a group effort, and there was trepidation at the beginning because it only takes one person to get lazy, and Gary would look ridiculous. But everyone’s been awesome about it. And there’s a consultant and stuff. It's really nice to hear from autistic people who find him a good… well, not so much someone to look up to, but someone they can empathise with. So yeah, I’m proud.”
The other main aspect of Cartwright’s performance is the “twitchy-hand” acting he uses to show that he’s plugged into the internet or the mobile phone networks. “There was one episode this year – I think it was the first episode of season two – where it seemed like all Gary was doing was waving his hands about. I’ve got used to it. I’ve been doing it for a while now. But every now and again you’ll catch yourself thinking, ‘I can’t actually see anything.’
“You know what would be great?” he adds. “If I could actually see my dialogue in my head. That’s what I’d be looking at. I wouldn’t have to spend the whole day learning it. I could just read it off like a Marlon Brando thing.”
Having filmed season two he reckons that we can expect the show to step up a gear in the new episodes.
“There are a lot of bigger moments this year, and it was about keeping them grounded in, at least, our reality that was established. It was fun. They have Gary doing lots of funny stuff but not too funny it’s ridiculous. And he’s a lot more independent this year. He moves out and goes to live in the office. Ignores his mum. He’s kind of off on his own because he realises the group is irresponsible. They’re not only the good guys, 100%. There’s a lot of grey there. So he kind of finds his own mission away from the team.”
This moral ambiguity at the heart of a show that ostensibly seem to be a simplistic good guys versus bad guys adventure is something that appeals to Cartwright.
“Even Dr Rosen… the fact that he would have this autistic kid a lot of the time in harm’s way,” Cartwright explains. “He’s putting all these people in jeopardy. And it makes you question his motives, and I guess Gary sees that this year a lot more. He can’t actually trust his new family.
“I like the grey.”