Modesto-raised actor James Marsters is no stranger to being part of big pop culture fandoms. After all the Davis High School graduate is a veteran of the cult shows “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Torchwood” and “Smallville.”
Still nothing prepared him for what it meant to be part of the sprawling, not to mention secretive, Marvel Cinematic Universe. This week Marsters debuted on the new Hulu series “Marvel’s Runaways.” It was an honor that came with an official welcome to the neighborhood from Mr. Marvel himself, Stan Lee.
The famed comic book creator and publisher behind many of Marvel’s most iconic titles introduced Marsters at a convention in Australia last weekend. But getting to that moment was nerve-wracking because of the “terrifying” level of security on set.
“I discovered they have these people on set called Marvel Security Officers. I went up to one of them and asked, ‘Are you here to keep us safe from fans?’ They said, ‘No, James, we’re here to keep you off Twitter. Don’t tweet.’ There is a lot of secrecy. I think we all realized that on the first day. We’re not going to be on Facebook talking about this show.”
While Marvel won’t allow behind-the-scenes reveals about the series, the actor is happy to talk about his onscreen persona. The show is based on the Marvel superhero comic series of the same name about a group of teens who discover their parents are part of an evil crime syndicate called The Pride. Marsters plays one of the parents, engineering genius Victor Stein.
Stein is hard on his teen son son, Chase Stein. But if you ask if Victor is a straight villain, Masters said it’s all about perspective.
“We’re really exploring the gulf between parents and kids. They’re not just making this a black-and-white world where the kids are the good guys and the parents are the villains,” he said. “On one level that’s true. But one of the themes of the comics that makes them so interesting is they explore this chasm between generations. I have experienced this; I’m a father.”
He said he drew on his own experience with his kids, now 21 and 20. Parents often keep things from their kids, or tell white lies, with good intentions. But that creates tension.
“I really enjoy playing characters that can be perceived as evil, and yet shine a light that maybe they are a little more like the audience than the audience may like admitting,” he said.
He already has plenty of practice turning so-called bad guys into beloved characters. On “Buffy” his character of the vampire Spike was supposed to be killed off after a few episodes, but he went on to be one of the show’s long-running romantic foils and heroes.
The series, which ran from 1997 to 2003, celebrated its 20th anniversary this year. He said the show’s enduring popularity has to do with its writing and its message.
“I think that Buffy has a really strong central theme, which is don’t give up even if the world is hard,” he said.
Yet he still finds people who are a little disappointed to hear the messenger’s real voice. Marsters said he constantly runs into fans who are bummed to learn he does not have a British accent like Spike.
Besides his acting, Marsters travels the world going to at least a dozen fan conventions a year. That also allows him to indulge in his two favorite side projects: his live music and his streaming series. The former is his longtime band Ghost of the Robot. The five-man rock group has its fifth album, “Pair of Bulls,” coming out in the beginning of 2018. Marsters sings, plays guitar and song writes for the group.
His other new venture is the web series “Vidiots,” which he does with fellow actor and friend Mark Devine. While the pair goes around the world they visit famous places and invite famous friends to join them as they play video games. Marsters said they always game to wind down anyway, so they decided to film themselves for fun.
“There are a lot of really popular Youtube videos where you watch someone play video games,” he said. “The person is very good at video games, but when they try to be funny and they’re not as good at that. We thought we’d flip the whole thing. It allows us to be horrendously bad at video games and good at talking.”
All that globe-trotting leaves little room to get back to Modesto, where he grew up. But he lived and raised his son in the Central Valley city until he was 13.
“You would have seen me at Toys R Us or the Target on McHenry or Funworks, one of our favorite places. It has a great track,” he said.
While most of his family has since left the valley now, he credits his time here as laying the foundation for his career. He was active in theatrical productions at Davis High and with Modesto Performing Arts. The lessons he learned there, from company founder Paul Tischer, gave him a head start that has served him through his time at New York’s prestigious Juilliard School and beyond.
“Paul gave me such a foundation of professionalism. I had a level of professionalism that other students and young people my age did not have. That was a huge benefit to already have been part of a huge theatrical production and also have the responsibility of not messing up a huge theatrical production,” he said. “And I can’t thank him enough for that.”
“Marvel’s Runaways” debuted this week and can be streamed now on Hulu.com.