Having a Ba’al: Interview with actor Cliff Simon of Stargate SG-1

In the universe of the long-running science fiction show ‘Stargate SG-1’, the Ori may have replaced the Goa’uld as Earth’s enemy du jour, but at least one of the Goa’uld System Lords, the enigmatic Ba’al, still has some muscles to flex. Actor Cliff Simon talks to Carole Gordon about the character and his past career as a model, dancer and gymnast during a visit to the UK for an appearance at a Wolf Events convention.

Cliff Simon walks languidly into the room and settles into an armchair. His dark and exotic good looks, combined with a soft South African accent, make him stand out from the regular crowd of the Hollywood handsome.

And he’s extremely likeable, in contrast to Goa’uld System Lord, Ba’al, who first appeared in the ‘Stargate SG-1’ fifth season episode ‘Summit’. Ba’al went on to enjoy torturing Jack O’Neill in the memorable sixth season episode ‘Abyss’, and has since multiply-cloned himself in the episode ‘Ex Deus Machina’ in Season 9.

The character is very much Simon’s creation, the producers of the show having given the actor considerable leeway in his development.

"I had a lot of freedom in turning him into what I wanted to turn him into," he says. "Right in the beginning of the show, a lot of the bad guys I noticed in the show were pretty wooden – not anything to do with them, they were all really great actors.  But people make a mistake when they play a bad guy of being [b]bad[/b] the whole time, and you become very boring."

Ba’al became a more three-dimensional character by Simon’s portrayal of him as human, with human emotions.   

"I gave him a sense of humour and you could see when he was upset or you could see when he was angry or you could see when he was happy.   That makes him more of a believable character.   I think that’s what worked.   They gave me a lot of freedom in that, especially working with Peter deLuise and Martin Wood [producers and directors of ‘Stargate SG-1’] in the beginning. They let me develop the character and I think that’s why he’s still in the show."

Fans of ‘Stargate SG-1’ often cite the sixth season episode ‘Abyss’ among their favourites.    In it, Jack O’Neill (Richard Dean Anderson) is captured by Ba’al, who tortures O’Neill for information left behind by a Tok’ra implant.    Except, for most of the shooting, Simon was actually torturing a stand-in.

"It was very difficult, also because I was pretty new in the show and I hadn’t worked with Rick [Richard Dean Anderson] before.  Rick had to get out of town – I think he was doing a ‘Discovery’ show or one of those kind of things.  So I worked with him for one day only and the rest of the time I worked with a stand-in.   It’s very very hard because as an actor you are reacting the whole time, and to get a guy standing there –  he looks like Rick, he’s a great guy, but he’s reading off a script.   It took about two weeks to shoot that episode because there were a lot of special effects.  But yeah, ninety percent of it was with the stand-in."

Even so, Simon agrees that he has a great time working on the show.

"The Stargate guys, the crew, they are great and they make it look really believable."

‘Stargate SG-1’ was Simon’s first appearance on a science fiction show.   He had no idea, he says, that the genre had such a huge following, and is grateful to the many loyal fans.

"The last episode I went up to shoot, Brad Wright, the producer, came down into the wardrobe department.   I was putting on new costumes and he wanted to see them, and he said to me, ‘Cliff, did you ever think that little part you had in Summit would end up being this big?’ And I said ‘No, I had no idea.’  But it’s great, I love it and thanks to all the fans, because without them, we wouldn’t have a show."

In the Season 9 episode ‘Ex Deus Machina’, Simon plays four clones of the character.   Had he tried to differentiate between them?

"I thought about that," he says, "but I played them all exactly the same, as if they were one.  We had that discussion on set and I said, ‘No, we’re all psychically linked.  We all know what each other is thinking the whole time.  We are not separate. I know when one of my guys is killing somebody I know about it, so it’s not a surprise when I hear about it or see it.’   There is a scene in one of the episodes where one of my clones shoots a Jaffa warrior behind me and I don’t even turn around because I know he’s going to do it."

With a number of Ba’als running around on Earth, there are clearly more storylines to come, one of which will be the Season 10 episode, ‘The Insider’ in which Stargate Command has to deal with a number of the clones – and must try to determine which is the "real" Ba’al.   But what would Simon wish to see for the character going forward?

"I would like to see him on Earth as he is in ‘Ex-Deus Machina’, but I would like to see the character working with the SG-1 team against bigger, badder guys, that kind of storyline."

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Simon himself would probably have little problem defeating bigger, badder guys.   Before he moved into acting, he was an international athlete and swimmer.   The transition was made when he started appearing in Las Vegas-style cabaret shows as an acrobat.   Following this, he was a professional model and dancer.  But he was aware of the short-lived nature of modelling and dancing – and it wasn’t what he really wanted to do.

"I always wanted to act.  Like anything you have to train at whatever you want to do and I studied [drama] for five years before anything ever happened. I won a Mr South Africa competition, which was an action-man, beauty competition kind of thing, not a body-building competition."

One of the prizes of the competition was an audition for a popular South African TV soap opera, ‘Igoli’.  Simon did the audition, following which the producers wanted him for one episode.   But the very determined Simon wanted more than a one-shot deal.

"I said to the producer, ‘No, I don’t want to do one episode.  This is what I want to do.  So give me a chance, let my drama coach tell you when I’m ready to come into the show.  You don’t even have to pay me.’  They paid me the minimum amount of money that they could, so I got more air time.  Instead of doing one episode a week, I’d be in three episodes a week.   I wanted the exposure.  And I worked with them for three months and then they gave me a permanent contract."

Simon eventually remained as a permanent cast member for six years, giving him the recognition he needed to properly launch his acting career.    He is grateful to the show for giving him the opportunity and, unlike some actors, doesn’t consider soap operas a lesser form of TV work.

"A lot of people look down at soap operas, but it’s a great, great training ground for actors.  You are working with three cameras; you’ve got to know your lighting, your eye-lines, and it’s very very fast.  You’re shooting an episode a day, you are doing 22/23 scenes a day and every night you are learning scripts.  I worked out that the total amount of time that I was there, I shot minutes-wise, 140 full-feature films.  So where can you get that kind of training?"

Simon moved to the US in 2000, after having appeared in a number of  South African movies.    He was spotted by a producer from ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’ and invited to audition.     And his career has continued
to blossom from there.   He is currently working on a possible project with Michael Greenburg, of Gekko Productions, one of the former producers of ‘Stargate SG-1’.

"The movie we are talking about is a CIA movie called ‘Gentlemen of the Shade’, it’s based in Somalia, it’s a true CIA story, one of those undercover, hidden CIA stories.  The character that I think I’m going to play is the son of the Somalian president, which is a great character.   We’re probably going to shoot it in Cape Town, South Africa, so I get a chance to go home as an American actor," Simon says with obvious pride, having been granted US Citizenship in November 2005.

"It’s an achievement.   It feels like an achievement, you know?" he beams, suddenly looking not at all like his evil System Lord alter ego.

© Carole Gordon, May 2006

Cliff Simon:      http://www.cliffsimon.com/

Wolf Events:    http://www.wolfevents.com/php/

 

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