Six Degrees of Nathan Fillion

That guy on TV sure looks familiar doesn’t he? Didn’t you see him in Edmonton last week?

Illustration Robert Carter

Ask anyone in Edmonton “do you know Nathan Fillion?” and you’ll likely hear, as I often have, “a friend of a friend knows his brother,” or “I went to university with him,” or “I saw him in a play at the Varscona Theatre once,” or “I found a T-shirt he left in a recycled fridge in Mill Woods,” (the latter was part of an Instagram-driven scavenger hunt). At the very least, you’ll hear “I LOVE Firefly!” – a short-lived sci-fi series starring Fillion that maintains a passionate cult fan base. If the name doesn’t immediately sound familiar, you’ve probably seen or heard him in something: his acting roster includes everything from the lead on Castle to voice work in movies, TV shows and video games. But here in Edmonton, he’s known for his theatre legacy and ongoing support for the community – and you’re closer to him than you think.

Kevin Bacon is the actor to which every Hollywood entertainment professional can supposedly be linked to by six films or less, a phenomenon known as Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. In Edmonton, Nathan Fillion is the link between us all. Even though it’s been over 20 years since Fillion’s lived in Edmonton – he first moved to New York City in 1994 for a role on One Life to Live, then Los Angeles in 1997 where he’s lived ever since – he remains an important part of the city’s identity and is more familiar than most of our neighbours.

Degree: School

Fillion grew up in Mill Woods and attended primary school in Edmonton – he even went to his Holy Trinity High School reunion in August 2017, wearing a requisite sticker nametag that read “Nathan.” “Like we needed to know that [his name]!” classmate Rhonda Gariepy tweeted in response to a selfie she took with Fillion. “That is one of the things I notice often. He does not assume you know who he is. He often introduces himself – like we don’t know,” replied Gayle-Lynne, a fan in Los Angeles.

Fans across the world have similar testimonies about Fillion’s kind and generous personality, making him a popular guest at comic conventions. (Yours truly, after an interview and meeting at Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo, can concur.) Can his humble demeanour be attributed to his humble beginnings?

As the story goes, Fillion followed the typical post-secondary route and was enrolled at the University of Alberta. Like many students attending the U of A, even today, he worked at homegrown chain, Earls. “I miss Earls. I like Earls. I like their hot wings, I like their Santa Fe Chicken Salad,” Fillion says, and remarks that he was fired from Earls twice. When I ask why he was re-hired, he just laughs and says, “Exactly.”

But unlike most students at the U of A, Fillion never completed his degree because he had been scouted and offered a role on the soap opera One Life to Live.

“When I was going to U of A [Nathan] had just gotten his first big acting gig and it was such a big story around campus,” sportscaster Jay Onrait recalls. “The Gateway [student paper] had a big story on it, that this ex-U of A student had gotten a big acting gig on a soap opera, and I remember thinking ‘that’s probably his only big break, the only thing that’ll work out for Nathan Fillion.’ Obviously, it’s all worked out pretty good for Nathan Fillion.”

“Pretty good” in Fillion’s case means over 80 acting and voice work credits in film and television roles. His soap opera days quickly evolved into roles in cult hits like Firefly and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, a lead role in the 2007 multiple-award-winning indie film, Waitress, voicework for Disney in Monsters University, Guardians of the Galaxy and Cars 3, his own web series Con Man, the lead role on Castle for 173 episodes, a role in the just-released second season of Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events plus lead and executive producer roles on the coming-soon TV dramedy, The Rookie.

Degree: Theatre

Before Hollywood took centre stage in Fillion’s life, he performed on Edmonton stages. “I took a course on improv offered by Rapid Fire Theatre, and right out of the course they picked me to be on the show [One Life to Live] … and then I promptly left [Edmonton],” Fillion said. “So I learned how to improvise, and then before I could get good at it, I left.”

But before he left, he made a lasting impression on the local theatre scene. Varscona Theatre’s executive director John Hudson recalls directing him in The Reluctant Resurrection of Sherlock Holmes at the 1992 Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival. “It was a huge hit – and he was fantastic.”

Over at the Varscona Theatre, Fillion would often perform in Die-Nasty’s improvised soap opera shows. “The Strathcona theatre – that has a very personal place in my heart, it really supported me and got me started,” Fillion says. “I was 19 years old when those folks took me in and so that theatre has meant a great deal to me. And I’m hoping there are more young men and women in Edmonton who will have a similar experience and maybe follow along in my footsteps. That sounds really hokey. Let’s change ‘follow in my footsteps’ to ‘win the lottery like I did.'”

So when the Varscona Theatre launched a campaign to overhaul the physical theatre in August 2015, Fillion was a large part of its fundraising efforts. “We knew early on that we wanted to try and involve Nathan as he is our most high profile alumnus and is able to leverage his fame into dollars for causes he cares about,” Hudson says. “He has a very loyal fan base and they were instrumental in driving the campaign.”

Anyone who donated to the campaign was entered to win flights for two to Los Angeles and lunch with Fillion. It was a massive success, surpassing the Varscona’s goal and raising over $130,000 to build the new theatre.

“It should be noted,” Hudson says, “the grand prize winner came from the mid-west [United States] and has a boy with a disability. Nathan flew out the father, mother and the boy on his dime, they had a wonderful time together. Nathan paid for an extra day at the hotel and gave them [money] to go to Disneyland with. Very kind and generous of him.”

He graced the new Varscona stage in May 2017 when he performed with the Die-Nasty improv troupe, with whom he’s made the occasional cameo over the years.

He maintains his interest in improv in Los Angeles. “I see The Groundlings, I see the Improv Olympics [The iO Theatre] stuff, Upright Citizens Brigade. A friend of mine, Josh Dean, who is also an Edmonton theatre sports alumnus, has a really amazing show Quarters and June. They do a fantastic job and I’ve been a guest on it.”

While the Varscona campaign may be over, Fillion has advice for continuing to support the arts in Edmonton. “Be involved. Get involved. Go and attend. Go and take your friend Get friends together and say ‘let’s go and check this out.’ Go and be a patron. Support it. Put your money where your mouth is. If someone says ‘hey, I’ve got a show, I can sign you up for some tickets,’ you say, ‘you know what, let me buy those tickets.'”

Degree: Browncoats

Though Fillion’s lead role as Browncoat Malcolm Reynolds in Firefly was short lived – the show was cancelled after only 14 episodes in 2002, and led to one spinoff film, Serenity, in 2005 – it’s inspired legions of devoted fans, including formal fanclubs known as Browncoats.

“We began as a small group of fans of the show who decided to band together and do some good in the community,” says Sheelagh Semper, the chair of the non-profit Alberta Browncoats Society (ABS). Every year, volunteers organize fundraisers, including screenings of Serenity and booths at comic conventions, and have raised over $56,000 for local organizations including YESS, Nina Haggerty Centre and the Bissell Centre.

“While I enjoy the writing and acting in Firefly and Serenity, it was actually the fans which made a Browncoat out of me,” Semper says. “The idea of banding together to benefit others made Browncoats stand out. There’s a lot of sharing and selflessness that’s tied in with the Browncoat fandom. I’m sure the example set by cast and crew has rubbed off on all of us.”

According to Semper, Fillion’s family has facilitated the donation of signed photos, comic books, T-shirts, posters and Castle scripts for the ABS to use in auctions, and to share with other Browncoats chapters across North America for their fundraising efforts. “Nathan has been donating items to the group and signing items that others donate two or three times per year for the past five years,” Semper says. “He really has been a huge support.Amazingly, other famous Browncoats – or just fans of Nathan’s – have stepped up to the plate to donate items or autographs. Mark Meer, PJ Haarsma, John Barrowman, Felicia Day, Joseph Gatt, Wil Wheaton and Danny Nero have gone above and beyond for us time after time.”

Degree: Comic Books

In 2005 Dark Horse Comics released a Serenity comic with Fillion’s character, Malcolm Reynolds, illustrated on the cover. Fans of the series eagerly snapped up the issue, but Jay Bardyla, the owner of Happy Harbor Comics, recalls one particular customer who “bought a bunch” of copies. “At that point in time there were a lot of Browncoat fans, Serenity was a big thing, so I didn’t really question anyone buying multiples, fans are fans,” Bardyla says. “As we were wrapping up our conversation I said something along the lines of  ‘you must be a really big fan to buy so many copies,’ and she said ‘well, actually I’m Nathan’s mother.”’ She thanked me for helping her, and I told her to say ‘hi’ to Nathan.” According to Bardyla, a few days later Fillion wrote a post on his blog where he thanked Happy Harbor for helping his mother, and recommended that people shop there.

“At this point in time we had only been open in Edmonton for a few months, we were still small and growing. Next thing you know we’re getting hammered with orders for the Serenity comic,” Bardyla says. “Not just people coming off the street locally, we were shipping orders to England, to Australia, across Asia. As I’m getting these orders through our website, I’m letting people know that depending on their country, it’s going to cost them up to $25 to ship them a $3 comic. And people would reply ‘Nathan said to support you, so I’m going to support you.’ It was crazy.

“Shortly after Nathan’s brother [Jeff] came to the shop to thank us for helping out the family and treating his mom so well,” Bardyla says, adding that, while he was in the store, Jeff facilitated a phone call between him and Nathan. “[Nathan] said thanks for helping his family out, and I thanked him for the shout out. At a time when you’re fairly small and you get a big bump like that, it was a pretty exciting time for us.”

Degree: Comic Conventions

With roles in many, many fandoms, Fillion is a frequent guest at fan and comic conventions around the world. During meet and greets with fans, he’s often gifted fan artwork.

“There’s been some really incredible stuff done by fans and it’s truly, truly amazing stuff,” Fillion says. “Some of it I keep, but here’s the thing: it’s all of my face. So it gets a little weird. Do I gift it? ‘Hey, here you go, it’s my face.’ Some of it I put in the back of my house, an exercise/extra living room space. I call it the ‘hall of no shame’ so there’s a lot of my face back there.”

Local artist Elle Babin (who’s retiring from the convention circuit this year after 10 years) had her artwork admired by Fillion. Babin’s convention artwork combines pop culture with what she calls a “neo-nostalgic” movie poster look. In 2013 at Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo, Babin brought a Firefly poster of hers to have Fillion sign. “He commented that he really liked the poster,” Babin recalls. “I was really overwhelmed with him being impressed with my poster. I think I offered to send him part of the original or a print, and his card was given to me to set something up.” In the end, Babin never reached out, worried that “maybe he was saying those things to be polite.” “He’s always welcome to a poster if he wants it though!” Babin says. “I did actually end up later giving one to [Firefly co-stars] Gina Torres, Jewel Staite and Ron Glass.”

It’s fair to say that if Fillion weren’t a guest at conventions he’d be attending them as a fan. He often posts about gaming and various fandoms – and he’s long been a fan of Star Trek. “I really like Star Trek. I like that in Star Trek, that universe, you didn’t need any money. You can just walk up to a machine and say ‘I want some food,’ or ‘I want a blanket’ and it’ll make it for you. I was amazed at what you could focus on if food and shelter and safety was no longer priority because it’s automatic, it’s provided. Your health… you’d be fine. All you have to worry about is being as best as you can be. I really enjoyed that concept.”

And could Fillion soon have a bigger role to play in the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Fillion was recently rumoured to be playing Simon Williams, aka Wonder Man, a Marvel character who leaves the Avengers to become an actor. (Director James Gunn has since clarified the rumours, but never say never.) When asked what Simon Williams would need to do to method act as Nathan Fillion, Fillion says: “He’d have to embrace his inner child, he’d have to brush up on his Amazon shopping and he would have to watch a lot of How It’s Made.”

Degree: Kevin Bacon

In case you were wondering, thanks to the 2010 movie, Super, there is just one degree of separation between Bacon and Fillion.

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