Sometimes people recognize him as Samuel Anders from Battlestar Galactica. Other people know him as Cooper Lee from One Tree Hill and if you’re a Big Bang Theory fan, you’ll remember him as the brainy but hunky Dr. Underhill in the infamous Christmas episode. But with more than 40 different roles to his credit, Michael Trucco says most people recognize him as Michael Trucco and that’s a nice place for any actor to be.
This weekend, Michael runs headlong into danger as the star of Syfy’s original movie Meteor Storm. Having survived the rain of fire from the sky, he and I both were muddling through the worst LA rainstorm in recent years when we sat down to chat. Bright, funny and immensely welcoming, Michael talked with me about the challenges of making a disaster film, his biggest roles on TV and the career change that changed his life.
Here’s ten minutes with Michael Trucco:
Cynthia: Let’s start by talking about what goes into making a disaster movie. What are some of the challenges involved and how close were you to some of the explosions?
Michael: There’s a lot of discussion of the scene before you start to shoot something, there’s a lot of storyboards, our director and our special effects guys, they get together and they did a really good job of explaining it to us before each shot. They would show us renderings done on the computer of what the final scene was going to look like once they had put all the plates in, but at the end of the day you gotta roll up on a motorcycle and look at a bridge collapse that’s just not there, and it’s a little bit daunting at times. So the challenge in making a movie of this scale is being able to conjure and fabricate images of impending doom that will be seen on screen but at the time you just get talked through it and the director’s going… ‘and then that blows up, and there’s collapsing and there’s devastation and there’s fire’ …you know, because there’s only so much you can do. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but you can’t actually destroy the city of San Francisco to make a movie.
Michael: Yeah, they won’t let you do it, it’s weird. We were gonna just kind of carpet bomb and they said no.
Cynthia: I’m pretty sure Irwin Allen did it when he made Towering Inferno, and I loved the little shout out to that film in Meteor Storm.
Michael: There you go, that was intentional so I’m glad you said that. We’ve been talking about this as sort of in the vein of those 70’s disaster movies, this is certainly not some big you know, Roland Emmerich disaster 2012. We don’t have that kind of a budget, nor do you need it. I think in a good disaster movie you have your story, you put the world in to some sort of impending doom and hopefully all’s well that ends well.
Cynthia: I was particularly surprised by the storm strikes so quickly and then it’s over, and I thought now what are they going to do for an hour and a half?
Michael: Yeah, when I read that is was like, ‘wow they don’t waste any time here,’ they just get right in it. In it to win it. Which I like. I like that we don’t mess around, just boom and then things start falling, but then there’s. . . you know it goes on in certain ways and it gets more intense and a hell of a lot of fun dodging fireballs coming out the sky that just aren’t there.
Cynthia: Was anything real?
Michael: We did some stuff. There was that guy tossing me out of a car, we lit some things on fire and we had our fair share of explosions and used pyrotechnics for certain explosions. They can throw things with debris cannons, which is basically compressed air and they put a bunch of cork and dirt and dust in them and blow those out of the cannon and that looks pretty realistic. We crashed some cars and turned them on their side and got flame bars and stuff, I like that and for me that just heightens the stakes, heightens the reality.
Cynthia: So I wonder, are you calm under pressure?
Michael: Yes, absolutely. I was raised the son of a policeman. My father retired as a police captain after 40 years and there’s something inherently stoic in his mannerisms that I think I, in turn, received in my DNA. I’ve never seen anyone as collected under pressure as my dad, but I think that it just came with his job you know. You have to be able to keep your head clear, and the more you are, the less you incite panic, and that’s generally where things go awry in a dramatic or traumatic situation. I’m a good ballast to my wife. She’s on the other end of the spectrum. She can jump from 0 to 60 just like ‘bang!’… ‘What’s going on?’ I’m just like, ‘wait, hold on a second, it’s just the alarm. Let’s just figure out why it went off, the cat maybe opened up a window. Let’s assess the situation and deal with it accordingly.’ I got that from my Dad, he was like that growing up and I think I have inherited some of that to a degree, and I like that, playing characters like that.
Cynthia: Did you ever consider going into law enforcement yourself?
Michael: Oh yeah absolutely. Before I was a theatre major I was a criminal justice major, because at the time, you know, if your dad’s a cobbler it’s not unlikely that you’re going to make shoes.
Cynthia: So how’d you end up becoming an actor?
Michael: Because he said ‘nah man, you should go try out for one of those plays at the university there. I’d done some high school stuff and I think his intention was ‘be a well rounded individual, extracurricular activities, a new environment. He was saying socialize a little bit. That first audition for a theatre production at Santa Clara University, the chair of the theatre department talked me into taking a class called ‘Theatre for Non Majors’ and upon completing “Theatre for Non Majors” she talked me into changing my major into acting. You can imagine that phone call home. ‘Hey dad, mom, guess what? Remember that college education we talked about? Yeah? Well mines going to be studying Shakespeare.”
Cynthia: You could say ‘I’m not a police officer but I play one on TV.’
Michael: That’s it exactly. For years that’s always been another dream, like eventually I’d love to be able to play a cop, a beat cop, like a uniform, in the car, the motorcycle cops at my back, because I have a keen insight into that world. When I watch cop shows, I always take my cue from my dad and he would say what’s a good cop show? NYPD Blue, that’s a good cop show, they got it right. See the way those guys interrogate that suspect, see the way those detectives…that’s right, that’s the way you do it. He hated when they put on funny dialogue, or when the cops are yelling on the radio, like they would never talk that much on the radio. You know so, so yeah, one day somewhere down the line I’d love to be able to play a cop; that would be great.
Cynthia: Let’s talk about some of your other roles. You are in my absolute favorite Big Bang Theory episode, “The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis.”
Michael: It is probably one of their best episodes of the series, having absolutely nothing to do with me. I just coincidently fell into one of the greatest episodes that they’ve made. It had everything to do with Jim Parsons, and that’s really where he captured the nation’s attention. There’s something about that episode and his performance that’s like ‘oh my god’ but all of them, I mean those kids are funny. I remember sitting there on that set going ‘this is awesome ‘ you just have to shut up look pretty and let the funny happen around you. I dug it. I was kinda hoping that guy would come back, you know.
Cynthia: I’m kinda surprised he didn’t ‘cause it was a great character.
Michael: Well, they tease you and say ‘well maybe you should come back,’ ‘yeah right,’ but it was a lot of fun. I’m usually not down with the sitcom genre because they make me very nervous, too many cooks in the kitchen, but this one was very relaxed.
Cynthia: And that’s done before a live audience right? You do it like a stage show?
Michael: Yes, that one we shot in front of a live audience. I just did another sitcom called ‘100 Questions’ which I think is yet to air on NBC, and that was also a multi-camera sitcom but there was no live audience, so that was a little less pressure. But there’s something about the audience that I kind of miss, because being from a theatre background. I haven’t been on a live stage for a long time and a sitcom in front of a live audience is as close as you can get in this field.
Cynthia: And now I have to ask you one Galactica question, I’m wondering just what do you think you took away from that whole experience of working on the show?
Michael: I think I took away a better career, I don’t mean that to sound superficial, but literally, that was such a gift. It put me on a different plane, not just by association, being on a show that was noted, but I learned a lot. I was surrounded by people like Edward Olmos and Mary McDonnell and Michael Hogan and Katie Sackhoff. These are the people who I feel raised my game. I was surrounded by talent and Ron Moore and David Eick were the top of that food chain and we had the writers and we had a crew that was jaw-dropping at times to watch this crew work. Two cameras all the time, like a choreographed dance sometimes. I’d say 99% of our stuff was handheld. I don’t think they ever had their cameras on sticks or on a dolly and these two guys would be weaving in and out of each other getting the shots. There was a certain level of talent that was omnipresent, so what I took from that raised my game, and by association opportunity has opened up.
There’s a certain respect that comes with getting in a room full of producers now on different projects and they all want to jump up off the couch and say ‘Battlestar’s my favorite show, thank you for being here.’ I didn’t have that respect five years ago. I’d go in a room and they’d go ugh… next’. Now there’s a certain respect that comes from being associated with a show as good as Battlestar, and you can’t put a price on that, it’s just pure luck and it’s a gift and I’ll never lose sight of that fact.
Cynthia: And a lot of people are nervous about genre shows like that and they feel it’s kind of a pigeon hole. Have you had that experience?
Michael: We were fortunate enough, or unfortunate depending on what way you see it, that our show ended on five years. We’re not going to be all stuck, I’m not going to be Anders for the rest of my life. More often than not I’ll get stopped and people will go ‘hey, you’re Michael Trucco’ and they don’t go ‘hey, you’re Anders.’ I was surprised but they’ll know the actor as opposed to being on a show that runs for ten twelve years, the ‘Friends’ and the 90210’s where those characters become so iconic that people look at the actor and all they can see is that character.
As many people come up to me and go ‘hey man, I love One Tree Hill’ and I only did like five episodes of that show. That mystified me and they wanted me to do more and I thought that if I had come back on One Tree Hill that might have been the only thing I’d ever be known for. That show has a huge audience and that’s the other side of the coin that you get instant recognition but will that be the only recognition? So I’m trying to keep enough diversity. It’s nice to have people to go ‘hey I saw your work’ or ‘this is great’ you know Big Bang Theory whatever, I want to keep mixing it up. I don’t want to get stuck in one rut.
Cynthia: And along those lines do you have a band, did I read? You’re musical as well?
Michael: Yeah I did, yeah ‘Simpleworld.’ We were a band mostly through college, then post college there was a little bit of a resurgence there when I was in L.A.. We were doing the gigs around L.A. for a while, the Viper Room, the Cat Club, that kind of thing. You know, we’re just too old. You get to that point where you’re like ‘who you kidding man, you can’t be in your 30’s and hitting the club scene. These guys out there are like 19’, and that’s what it takes. We had a blast, you invite a few of your friends, it fills up with people and you play your tunes, people clap and they dance and you go ‘alright that was cool.’ I lived my rock star moment. I miss it. There’s definitely a creative outlet to music that can’t be matched by anything else, but I’ve said this before, I’m not a great guitar player…I was a great guitar player in that band, but I don’t have a penchant to go and just jam.
Cynthia: And you did it which is more than a lot of people can say, they kind of wish they had that moment.
Michael: Yeah, no regrets, definitely no regrets. It’s not to say that… the singer and I are very close still, we’ve been close friends since college and since we started the band, and the bass player and we’ll get together and play. Put three guitars in our hands and it’s like old times you know, do the proverbial sit around the campfire and start playing tunes and two people start singing along and it’s like ‘Oh yeah, this is fun’. We still got it. We might not look like Mick Jagger, but we still got it.
Cynthia: Hey Mick’s still got it…
Michael: Damn straight! (laughs) Exactly!
Cynthia: Ok here’s the last one for you, what’s the most adventurous thing you’ve ever done?
Michael: I jumped out of an airplane—
Cynthia: With a parachute I hope.
Michael: Well, yeah that helped, It was right at the end so the guy goes here grab this. ‘Oh cool this will slow me down’ (laughs) I’ve been to racing school. I’ve done two races lately called 24 Hour Lemons, which is a riff off of ‘24 Hour Le Mans’, with $500 junker cars. But my gut reaction was throwing myself out of an airplane at 12,500 feet with some guy strapped to your back going ‘pull this’ ‘Are you sure man?’ It was crazy because it was something I always said I was going to do. I was like one of those guys the big braggart in the crowd like ‘Ahh I’d jump out of a plane’, but I never did it you know, so I think it was my 33rd birthday that I realized I had to put up or shut up, so I went out to Lake Elsinore and they have those schools out there and they have those places and you can get some schooling for half a day and you can go up in an airplane.
Cynthia: Nothing you’d ever want to do again? I mean it was a one time thing?
Michael: Yes, you know I’ve gotta be careful what I say, I’m not going to be that talker. I’m not saying never, but now that I’ve done it I’ve scratched that itch. Yeah, that’s a good time.
Michael also had a good time filming Meteor Storm along with co-stars Kari Matchett and Eric Johnson. You can see them battle to save the people of San Fran as a hailstorm of fire rains down upon them in this Syfy original movie.
THE BIG BANG THEORY — “The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis” — Christmas is a source of stress for Leonard (Johnny Galecki, right) – whose handsome colleague (Michael Trucco, center) starts dating Penny. Photo: Cliff Lipson/CBS ©2008 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.
BATTLESTAR GALACTICA — Pictured: (l-r) Michael Trucco as Sam Anders, Katee Sackhoff as Kara “Starbuck” Thrace — SCI FI Channel Photo: Justin Stephens
Screencaps from Meteor Storm