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Nathan Fillion: Geek god

From the ”Firefly” fans to the mainstream ”Castle” crowd, everybody loves Nathan Fillion. Don’t worry: There’s plenty of man-boy to go around

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Nathan Fillion is sound asleep. After working all weekend, he is catching some much-needed Monday z’s in his modest and cozy trailer on the set of the hit ABC crime dramedy Castle. But because Fillion is a man of the people, he rouses himself from his slumber to welcome a visiting reporter. He even offers treats. ”Girl Scout cookies?” says the actor, sporting dark slacks and a white T-shirt but not looking the least bit rumpled from his power nap. ”I have Samoas, but no Thin Mints. I’m not a Thin Mint kind of guy.” After clearing a spot to sit and switching off the TV (he was watching Avatar; he says having some background noise helps him rest), Fillion reflects on the topsy-turvy ride that has seen him go from being a daytime soap star to a cult action hero to one of network television’s most popular leading men. ”I have been very fortunate in my career to have a long streak of projects where I’m thrilled to be part of them,” he says. ”I don’t think I’ve ever done a job where I said, ‘Well, I really need the money.’ Everything I’ve done I’ve done with an excitement of ‘I can’t wait to do this!”’

Afterward, Fillion walks over to the set, where he runs into one of the episode’s guest stars, Peter Parros. ”Talk about coming full circle — Peter and I shared a dressing room on One Life to Live,” says Fillion with the genuine enthusiasm of reuniting with an old friend. Then he takes his arm. ”Shall we go to work, brother?” And with that, they march off together in unison.

If Fillion is more polite than most — with fans, costars, journalists — perhaps it’s because he occupies a special place in Hollywood. It started back in 2002, when, thanks to a few key roles from the mind of Joss Whedon — Capt. Mal Reynolds in Firefly and its big-screen adaptation, Serenity; an evil preacher in Buffy the Vampire Slayer; and a vain superhero in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog — Fillion began receiving A-list treatment from sci-fi fans, even if he wasn’t quite an A-lister himself. And he was more than happy to play to that audience. ”I think of Galaxy Quest and the plight of those pigeonholed actors who don’t do anything except for conventions,” he says. ”To be pigeonholed as a Malcolm Reynolds? Uh, dream. Winning.”

And then, in 2009, along came Castle. It wasn’t clear when the show debuted as a midseason replacement that it would be Fillion’s ticket to anything more than a front-row seat to its lead-in, Dancing With the Stars. The actor, who turns 40 on March 27, had already had a few shots at the big time with a string of short-lived TV shows (Drive, anyone?). But in the boyishly charming crime novelist Richard Castle, the charmingly boyish Fillion found a role that has won a whole new legion of fans. Now in its third season, Castle averages 10.6 million viewers.

Viewers may very well be responding to Castle, who began tailing NYPD homicide detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic) for book research, because there’s so much of Fillion in the fun-loving mystery writer. The quirks around Castle’s edges — from the obsession with gadgets to the clever miming — are vintage Fillion, and while it’s the actor who often rides a Xootr scooter to and from his trailer on set, that could just as easily be a trait of man-boy Richard Castle. The show’s creator, Andrew W. Marlowe, a longtime Fillion fan from his days on Buffy and Firefly, thought as much when he cast him: ”He’s a guy who I thought had the many facets to show the many different kinds of faces of what it meant to be a man. To play the beleaguered son, the loving father, a potential love interest who’s charming but someone who is also really annoying yet can get away with it — Nathan had that in spades.”

Costar Katic would agree. ”He’s just a genuinely nice, level-headed guy — that comes through in his character,” she says. Katic recalls a day of filming in downtown Los Angeles when the crew inadvertently blocked the entrance to a new restaurant, upsetting the owner. Moving quickly, Fillion bought food for the crew from the restaurant, tweeted an endorsement of the place, and gave the owner signed photos to hand out to fans who’d be coming by. ”In spite of all the goofiness and glibness, there’s deeper waters running there,” she observes. ”And when you see glimpses of that, it really draws a girl in.” That could also explain why Castle was recently crowned the TV character EW.com readers would most want to date. ”I would date Richard Castle, but not for very long,” Fillion gamely responds. ”He’s got some money and nice tastes. He’s not an a–hole, but he is a bit of a prick.”

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Fillion can usually tell his two rabid fan bases apart within seconds of their approach. ”Castle fans — I’ll say 75 percent of the time — are women, and they light up. They go [eyes and mouth open]. They get really excited,” he says. ”Firefly fans will see me, do a double take, stop, nod, and say, ‘Captain’ with an air of ‘I know what you’ve been through. I’ve been there too.’ A guy did it to me in a furniture store the other day. I was walking by, and he saw me, stopped, stood up straight, and said, ‘Captain,’ and I nodded and said, ‘As you were.”’

Firefly fans are still saluting Capt. Mal Reynolds eight years after Joss Whedon’s space Western was canceled by Fox just 11 episodes in. And the show is finding a whole new audience on the Science Channel, which began rerunning the series earlier this month. ”It’s been a game changer for us,” says Deborah Adler Myers, general manager of the network. ”We had 6,000 [Firefly-related] tweets that first night.” Talking to EW when the plans to rerun the show were first announced, Fillion innocently mentioned that, were he to win the lottery, he’d buy the rights from Fox and don the overcoat and boots again. Three weeks later, a fan-created Web page had received $1 million in pledges toward the cause. ”Would I want to do [Firefly] again? Yes. Do I want people sending in money? No,” says the actor. ”But it warms my heart that people are going, ‘Wouldn’t this be great?”’ (Count Whedon himself among those struck by the idea; he sent Fillion a text saying he had a dream that they were shooting Firefly again — ”like a little slice of heaven.”)

It’s not the first time Fillion’s had to rein in his legion of admirers. When news broke last fall that David O. Russell (The Fighter) would be directing an adaptation of the Uncharted videogame, devotees were sure that Fillion was the right man for the role of treasure hunter Nathan Drake. The actor agreed, encouraging a Twitter campaign on his behalf. But after Mark Wahlberg mentioned possibly suiting up for the role, fandemonium ensued, with one follower approaching Russell directly to make the case for Fillion. The awkward encounter was filmed and posted to YouTube. ”That’s when I go, ‘Eeee. Wait a second, wait a second, wait a second. Let’s not burn any bridges,”’ laughs Fillion.”If somebody came to me and said, ‘How come you get to be in another Joss Whedon production? Shouldn’t it be this other guy?’ I’d say, ‘Hey, man, me and Joss are buddies. This is what we like to do with our time. Why you gotta come down on me?’ So you know what? If you see David O. Russell, maybe say, ‘Hey, Nathan would love to work with you one day.’ Maybe say that.”

Though, at other times, just being Nathan Fillion has been enough to get the job. Recounts Lost exec producer Damon Lindelof, who cast the actor in an episode in 2006: ”We were looking for someone charismatic and instantly likable to play the one guy who we would believe Kate would stop running from the law to marry, and I remember saying, ‘We need to get a Nathan Fillion type!’ to our casting director, who thought for a moment, then said, ‘What about Nathan Fillion?”’ The end result, in Lindelof’s words: ”It was rad.”

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While Fillion is keeping his side projects to a minimum these days — Castle is still shooting its current 24-episode order and has already been picked up for a fourth season — longtime fans don’t have to worry about him losing his geek cred. ”It’s easy to keep the geek fan base stoked by simply remaining true to the inner geek,” he says. ”I just continue to be excited by the things I am excited by. I love sci-fi. I love computer games. I love technology. I like flashlights that are really small but really bright. If it has buttons, batteries, performs some kind of unusual function — yeah, I got it. I want it.” Two upcoming roles should also help. In next month’s Super (helmed by his Slither director, James Gunn), he plays the Holy Avenger, a cable-access host/evangelical superhero who inspires The Office‘s Rainn Wilson to become a vigilante masked crusader. And while he won’t be playing Green Lantern on the big screen in June (that honor goes to his former Two Guys and a Girl costar Ryan Reynolds), he will voice the role on the animated Green Lantern: Emerald Knights DVD, timed to the film’s release. So who really makes the better superhero: Fillion or Reynolds? ”If you’re just going to hear him, either one’s going to do. If you’re going to hear him and see him, go with Ryan Reynolds. He’s a very safe bet for heroic skintight outfits,” laughs the ever-humble Fillion. Aye, aye, Captain.

Castle and Beckett: Date or Wait?

It’s not only fans who have an opinion on when the supercharged pair should take it to the next level. Here, the stars make their cases.

Stana Katic (Beckett): ”I might be naively romantic, but I believe that a relationship can be just as spicy when people get together as it was in the chase. The complications that happen when characters like Beckett and Castle get together can make for interesting viewing. They have ex-boyfriends and ex-girlfriends, he has a certain kind of lifestyle and she has a certain kind of lifestyle — and then on top of all that, they actually really care for each other. It would be neat to see how these two people attract each other and drive each other crazy. I’d love to see what happens when Beckett actually touches on a couple of his pet peeves. It would be fun to see her torture him a little bit, you know, in a fun way.”

Nathan Fillion (Castle): ”When you get people together, [viewers] stop with the yearning, they stop with the wanting. They go, ‘Ah, finally. They’re together. All right, what else is on?’ I know as an audience member, I enjoy knowing more than the characters I watch on TV know. [With our show it’s] looking at these two, saying, ‘Just turn around! She’s making the face right now! She’s making the face! You’ll see it! Ah, you missed it.’ The lack of resolution is what keeps people coming back. I think the challenge is how do you serve that so it’s not repetitive.”

(Additional reporting by James Hibberd and Jeff Jensen)

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