Benjamin Ayres guest starred as the infamous William Tanner in the first three episodes of The Vampire Diaries – the Pilot, Night of the Comet, and Friday Night Bites, where he met his untimely (seriously – worst timing ever) end. Canadians may know him best as Casper “Cowboy” Jesperson from jPod, the cult favorite TV series based on Douglas Coupland’s novel; Americans will recognize him for guest appearances on shows like Psych, Smallville, The L Word, and films like Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and Good Luck Chuck. His career as an actor (theater, film, television), writer (he’s currently writing and developing a pilot), and director (Scott’s Land) is wildly varied. Watch for his new 12-episode CTV series and keep up with his upcoming projects, witticisms, and music obsessions on Twitter, @BenjaminAyres.
I interviewed Mr. Ayres a few hours before the airing of History Repeating on November 12th – which happened to mark the introduction of Alaric Saltzman (played by Matt Davis), Mr. Tanner’s replacement at Mystic Falls High. (Oh, how I wish I’d known about Tanner’s “Jackass Folder” beforehand…) You can experience Mr. Tanner’s violent demise all over again during the CW’s encore airing of Friday Night Bites tonight at 8/7c. (UPDATE: Ben was kind enough to change his Twitter profile picture to a nice, up close and personal shot of his neck wounds.)
Vee: First off, I just want to say we’re eight episodes into the show now, but Mr. Tanner’s death is still my favorite.
Benjamin Ayres: Awww. [laughs]
Vee: Were you told early on that you were not long for the world?
Ayres: It was interesting because the pilot was actually filmed in Vancouver, and then when the show got picked up, they moved it to Atlanta, Georgia – which is where they’re filming it now. And I wasn’t sure, actually, if (after the pilot) I was even going to be in it. So once the show got picked up and moved to Atlanta – and at that point I had moved [from Vancouver] to Toronto to work on another show – I was unsure what was going to happen. Then I got the phone call that they still wanted me on the show and they got me a Visa in time, and then I flew down from here to work for those two episodes. But I knew I’d be in it for those two episodes. I didn’t know how I was going to die, but I knew it was only two episodes. So, you know, it was so fun to work on, but at the same time I knew I was coming back [to Toronto] to start a different show, so contractually I wouldn’t have been able to – I may have been able to do one more [episode]. Obviously I would’ve loved to have done as many as I could have, but I was very happy with getting to do what I got to do on the show and to work with those guys.
Vee: Can you give us some behind the scenes insight into filming that particular scene? I actually just re-watched it last night and it’s still, to me, the most brutal, out of nowhere -
Ayres: Out of nowhere, I know! When I watched it, I was like, “What?!” You don’t see it coming at all and it’s – holy shit! That just happened!
Vee: Exactly! How was it filming that scene? Did it take a while?
Ayres: Yeah, it did take – I remember watching it and [saying] “Aww, man!” because they did such awesome work to my neck to make it look like I’d been bitten by a vampire, and you couldn’t see it! It was so close-up and I was like, man. But then when I was dead, lying there, of course they did show it better and I was like okay, good, because I thought the guy who did the make-up did it so fast, and it looked so good.
But yeah, it’s always so funny filming a scene like that where – it was quite technical. How [Ian Somerhalder] had to bite me, how fast he had to spin around to say his lines, how I had to drop to my knees… We probably did it five or six different times. And Ian having to get up – I’m a pretty tall guy. So to make it look like he wasn’t reaching up to me… [laughs] It’s always a hard thing being six-foot-two in this industry when a lot of the people aren’t as tall as me, so I feel like a giant walking around on set sometimes. So [Ian] had to have a step-up so he could get up to my neck fast enough, because I’m standing upright for him to get up to me. So they built this little ramp that he could walk quickly up and get to my neck so that I could drop, and then there was this pad for me to land on, but of course the pad was just out of the way… [both laugh] The way the ramp came up, I may have dropped down and hit my knee on the ramp a couple of times. It was just so funny how technical it was doing it – and then you see it and it’s like – [snaps] – that.
Vee: I thought the close-up on your face actually made [the scene].
Ayres: Oh yeah? That’s another funny thing, too, ’cause they had to do ADR, which is additional voice recording that happens after. So a lot times you’ll film a show and some lines didn’t work, or the sound didn’t quite pick it up, you have to go in a re-dub your line over the top of how you’re saying it. For that scene, they wanted some death sounds. [Vee laughs] I’m like, “Okay.” So then there’s a close-up of my face and I’m doing the [makes choking death sounds]. And [the sound engineer] is like, “But I don’t think he’d have too much voice ’cause, you know, he is ripping his throat out. So more of an exhale.” So I’m like [exhales dramatically]. “Oh, yeah, that’s good.” I don’t even think they used any of it, but it was so hilarious watching me die over and over again as I’m making these noises.
Vee: Yeah, the close-up on your face and the actual noises of everything – not just that, but the squishy, indefinable blood noises…
Ayres: Oh, yeah.
Vee: I just love that scene so much. I thought it was awesome. So how did you get to be involved with the show in the first place? Did you audition? Do you recall the initial casting call?
Ayres: Yeah, it was funny, because I remember them auditioning in Vancouver, and I got a call from my agent saying, “You’ve got an audition for The Vampire Diaries.” And I’m like, Yes! I’m thinking, It’s about time; I really want to play a vampire, right? And he’s like, “Yeah, he’s the teacher.” That’s what? A werewolf or something? “I dunno, he just teaches History.” Oooookay. And then I read the breakdown, and it said, “Older, weaker, nasally, annoying man.” What? Why am I going out for this? And he said they did the casting – I believe they had cast it – and they wanted to go different. And I know from the books that my Mr. Tanner is much different from the books’ Mr. Tanner, right?
Vee: Right, and I was actually going to ask if you were familiar with the character in the book.
Ayres: Well, I was once I booked the part. And again, it happened really fast – when they did the recasting, I went out on a Monday, and I think I shot on Wednesday. Two days later. It was very fast. “You got the part” on Tuesday – awesome, guess I should do a little research on the show. And I knew then that, okay, this character dies; I’m not going to be around that long. And once I was on set, Nina [Dobrev] was telling me, “The death in the book is so awesome, it happens in a haunted house,” and I’m thinking, Sweet! Maybe I’ll get to dress up as a vampire! And then I found out in the second episode that I was the football coach, too…
Vee: Yeah, there was the on-running joke that the high school only had you, and you were doing everything.
Ayres: [laughs] The principal…
Vee: Exactly. Tanner was just the ambitious sort. Did you have your own little back story that you created for the character? Did you ever have a teacher like Mr. Tanner?
Ayres: I think we all have.
Ayres: Right? And it was hard because… It’s always hard when you’re playing the asshole. You don’t want it to be – that’s it? But that’s all they really wanted. They were like, “No, he’s just a real asshole.” So any time I tried to soften up a scene, they were like, “No. ASSHOLE.” They really wanted him harsh like that. I guess it makes it better when you die…
Vee: There’s the cheer element.
Ayres: You know, I’m trying to give him heart… [both laugh] “No. He’s not nice!”
Vee: The popular opinion is that Tanner’s a total douche, but there is that scene with Jenna [in Night of the Comet] -
Vee: I thought it provided that depth where, yeah, he’s a jerk, but he’s actually pretty damned observant. In that particular scene, I felt like – oh, you know, he’s got a point.
Ayres: That was a very fun scene. It was the first time I’d met [Sara Canning] but she’s from Vancouver as well, and we have a lot of the same friends in the same circles. So we did the scene a couple times, but we pretty much nailed it off the bat. I really like that scene too, and it did give that depth of the observance – especially in that classroom. He definitely knows what’s going on with his students. And you know, those hard ass teachers are doing it for your best interest, too. As much as he kind of gave ‘em the gears, they gave him reason to. [chuckles]
Vee: But on the other hand, you have that scene when you’re doing the date-sparring with Stefan [Paul Wesley] in the classroom, and it’s totally obvious that Tanner has this axe to grind. Is it purely about this guy, or is it not wanting to be showed up ever…? I was actually curious how many takes that took.
Ayres: It took us a few takes for sure. Sometimes I would screw up the order of all the different facts that were coming up, and especially at the end: “HA!” Right down in his face. [both laugh] It’s such a – “Easy, guy.”
Vee: I love that moment because it jumps right to the shot of Elena, where she’s looking at you like, “What the hell just happened? What is up with this guy?” That scene is a lot of fun to watch. So tonight we’re meeting Mr. Tanner’s replacement…
Vee: They are finally getting a new History teacher.
Ayres: [amused] So what have they been doing? Have they been in class at all?
Vee: Hardly at all, actually. And now it’s rather worrisome because who’s doing the other jobs in the school? Because you were the only one. [laughter] So I was wondering if you had any tongue-in-cheek advice for the new History teacher, from Mr. Tanner’s perspective.
Ayres: Oh, god, from Mr. Tanner’s perspective? Wear turtlenecks. [laughter]
Vee: The guy who runs Vampire-Diaries.net with me, Red, was speculating that Tanner could have a twin brother that came back to Mystic Falls in search of his brother’s killer – to congratulate him on a job well done. But let’s assume for a moment that Mr. Tanner’s still alive and Mystic Falls is getting all crazy – how would he be reacting and what sort of shenanigans would you have wanted to be involved in?
Ayres: Well, it’s funny, because I had said on the day that I died, we should probably get a close-up of his thumb twitching at the end. [laughter] Maybe he’s still alive.
Vee: That hint that he’s still hanging on…
Ayres: In the body bag, you could still see his foot kicking a little bit and you’re like, “Uh oh.” [more laughter] He’s coming baaaaaack. But more than anything, to get to come back as a vampire would just be amazing.
Vee: I hope in the future you’ll get to do a project where you’ll be able to play that supernatural character.
Ayres: Oh, yeah. Sure. I hope so. Like you say, as far as Tanner coming back, it would be fun to see him come back as a vampire and cause shit for sure. I think he would definitely have an ax to grind with Damon.
Vee: For sure – and in general, it seems.
Ayres: That’s hardcore… So what episode is it tonight? Eight, you said?
Vee: Tonight is nine.
Ayres: I haven’t had a chance to watch many of ‘em since I’ve been so busy, but I have [recorded] them, so I’ll sit down at one point and watch.
Vee: It’s getting interesting!
Ayres: My mom and my aunts love it. They watch it every week.
Vee: That’s great. Props to them!
Ayres: Yeah. Got them hooked.
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