Veteran theatre actor Jonathan Cake chats about reprising his role as The Shade on DC’s Stargirl Season 3.
Jonathan Cake plays DC Comics character The Shade/Richard Swift on Stargirl. Since joining in Season 2, it’s fair to say both Jonathan and the character have made an impact. Whether it’s revisiting old relationships, or making new aquaintances. The Shade knows how to keep people on their toes.
In this Courageous Nerd interview, we chat with Jonathan all about his experience playing in The Shade. We also cover topics including Jonathan’s theatre background, meeting and working with his Stargirl castmates and what Jonathan hopes for The Shade’s future.
Although Stargirl fans know you as Richard Swift/ The Shade, when did you first start acting? What made you want to pursue acting professionally?
Jonathan Cake: Gosh, it all started quite early for me. You’ll know this Conor because you’re English, but we have a funny thing called Pantomimes over here. I don’t think there’s really an equivalent in the US.
It’s a big, English tradition of a Christmas show. Like most British kids, we would go to one every year. I remember whoever was doing the panto brought a bunch of kids up on stage. I was one of the kids, must have been 2 or 3.
When they were all supposed to leave, I didn’t want to go. I refused to leave the stage. I lay down, put my head in my hands and stared out at the audience for the rest of the panto. They decided to leave me downstage left, as the show went on around me.
For the audience, it was probably quite hard to concentrate on the rest of the show. There is a totally fascinated 2-year-old boy lying on the stage, looking directly at the audience. This doesn’t reflect well on me, but loving the fact that I’m being looked at.
That was quite an ignoble and egotistical beginning, but I’m not sure it’s gone really far from there, honestly, Conor. I got the bug of being on stage and got into the National Youth Theatre when I was 14. That felt like a big deal, because I come from a very small seaside town called Worthing, in Sussex.
We first met The Shade in the final moments of Season 1, although you weren’t cast yet. Did the theatrical nature of this refined, centuries-old immortal gentleman attract you to playing the role?
Jonathan Cake: So many things enticed me to the role. You’re right, I think with a lot of superheroes or supervillains, the world of fantasy is very theatrical. It has this larger-than-life aspect to it. Particularly with a character like The Shade, who is sort of playing a part.
When he’s Richard Swift, he’s masking his true self. There’s an innate enjoyment, I think, in him. [An enjoyment of] of power and a certain kind of status that comes with his powers. I think he’s quite self-consciously theatrical. He enjoys the drama of the situations he gets himself into.
I love that aspect of him, it’s very fun to play.
Like many comic-book characters, you can almost divide The Shade into two characters. The persona and also the man, Richard Swift. Does one aspect interest you more than the other, or do they feed into each other?
Jonathan Cake: Most actors love playing something that is concealed. There’s a real joy to playing Swift. He’s playing cat-and-mouse with people who don’t know his true identity.
Of course, there’s a joy to put on that top hat, overcoat and glasses. Assuming his full power. The concealment is so great in the acting of it, hiding behind this kind of mask.
Plus, I have to say on this show, he gets amazing suits. I love the 60s Avengers style of suit. There was a character in that called John Steed, dressed in his Savile Row suits. I love that style aspect of Richard Swift, too.
I wouldn’t say I prefer one or the other; I do enjoy the game he’s playing.
Even in DC Comics, The Shade is not a ‘black and white’ straightforward villain. Coming from a theatre background, did you appreciate the character’s nuances and layers?
Jonathan Cake: Absolutely, I think that’s one of the great things about the show, actually. [Series creator] Geoff Johns, the guiding force behind it, he’s much more interested in shades of grey than black and white.
One of the wonderful things about The Shade is… Geoff is so acutely aware of how complicated it would be, to be immortal. How difficult that would be if you had seen everybody significant in your life leave you. If you were doomed in some way to this eternal existence.
Geoff is so brilliantly aware of the boredom that might come. It would be your own Groundhog Day, if you’re stuck inside your powers. That’s an incredibly human trait. We all get bored and understand what that means. [Geoff] is more interested in the less glamourous, the less idealised side of someone like The Shade.
In turn, that is much more interesting to act. If you try and act an idea of omnipotence or infinite capacity, it’s really hard to do. We don’t know, really, what that is. All we can as human beings are the flaws and shades of grey. [The Shade’s] very interesting and I find that very exciting.
The cast combines acting veterans – Luke Wilson and Amy Smart – with talented, younger cast members, many of them playing their first major role. Were you excited to work with anyone in particular, before arriving on set?
Jonathan Cake: Well, Luke, of course, had been a real hero of mine. He’s worked with some of the great filmmakers of our time. That felt instrically enjoyable and he’s an extremely lovely man. He’s become a great friend. That was not a disappointment, for sure. Amy, I knew and admired also from independent films.
I was intrigued by all of them, really. Brec, of course, as Stargirl leads the cast. She’s really extraordinary doing that. I’m sure you have had other cast members say that. That’s a tough thing for a young person to do. She’s so brilliantly inclusive, so generous. She’s so good and so down-to-earth.
As #1 on the call sheet, she sets a terrific, really business-like, really humoured, really friendly tone. She’s really good at it, too. She’s so good as Stargirl.
There’s no airs or graces, she’s really great. I always enjoy doing scenes [with Brec], they’re all so snappy and fun. She’s got a sort of old Golden Age of Hollywood quality about her. Brilliantly sassy, great comic timing. There’s something delightfully plucky and fearless about her as an actor.
When we interviewed your co-star Cameron Gellman last year, he was very complimentary about your addition to the cast. How did you find working with Cameron in the second season?
Jonathan Cake: Cam is fantastic. He’s really inquistive, extremely bright, interesting guy. I think he’s really, really good in that part. Often, what stays with me is what people are like off-set. A day on a TV show is long, you spend a long time with people, without the cameras rolling.
You’re much more exposed to them offscreen than you are on-screen. On-screen, I think he’s terrific. He’s just so interestingly vulnerable in the moment, wonderfully human in that part.
I think he’s a great guy behind the camera too. He’s very keen to improve himself, to figure out who he is, what the whole ecoystem of this TV show is. He’s just very hungry to learn. I love someone who’s humble enough and smart enough to admit that.
You joined the series alongside fellow new cast member Alex Collins taking over Dr Charles McNider/Dr Mid-Nite. Considering how closely associated your storylines were, how did you find working with Alex?
Jonathan Cake: Great, he’s a huge amount of fun, too. He’s so incredibly easy to talk to. We had a tiny difference in the sense that we support rival football (soccer) teams. A very small patch of North London – Arsenal, which is my team and Tottenahm Hotspur, which is his team. On a fundamental level, it’s impossible for us to agree.
In all other ways, I would say we got on like a house on fire. I didn’t really do as much with Alex as I would’ve hoped. We got on the train together at the end of the season. That was enormous fun. I’d love to do more with him.
Stargirl Season 3 premieres on August 31 with the subtitle ‘Frenemies’ – incidentally, a perfect description for The Shade. Can you tease anything about what’s ahead?
Jonathan Cake: As you know, I have to be very careful about stuff like this. One of the things I love about the show is that it does a lot to confound expectations.
Just when you’ve written somebody off… or, understand what they’re capable of. Or, you think that they are one thing. The show does a very good job of wrong-footing you in an entertaining and pyschologically persuasive way.
Frenemies hints at that. It’s a modern equivocation between two opposites. So, I think you’ll find a lot of that. One thing I can tease is that certainly for [The Shade], there was a lot more that I understood about him. His deeper past comes back to haunt him. It returns to make sense of who he is and why he does what he does. That was something I loved playing. I thought the writing was great.
From a creative standpoint, were than any major differences in making Seasons 2 and 3?
Jonathan Cake: I think [Season 3] is more ambitious. I think it’s trying to take a bigger, bolder, more impactful swing. It’s getting more confident, if that’s possible. It’s really trying stuff and going to places you wouldn’t expect, perhaps, this show to go to when you watched the first season.
Really broadening its horizons. Trying to get at something bigger, deeper, more profound and more exciting. It’s taking a brilliantly big swing.
Although you don’t write Stargirl, do you have a sense of where you’d like The Shade to go? Or, a story you’d like to explore with him?
Jonathan Cake: Gosh, that’s an interesting idea. Personally, I love being surprised by storylines that come out and by scripts that come out. I love the sense of being like the viewer is.
At the same time, I love it when I can have a real relationship with another character. It’s very fun when you get a rhythm with another actor. For example, in Season 2, it was really nice to do all that stuff with Amy. There was a real sort of chemistry between us, it was really fun to have that relationship blossom.
I would love to do more of that with all of them, really. To have storylines that could intersect with all of them in that way. You get a relationship as people going between [The Shade] and another character. So much comes out when you are relating to somebody, one-to-one.
Other than that, I could enjoy driving his E-Type Jaguar. I’d like to do more fight scenes. I’ve done a few of them, but he’s always getting beaten up. Certainly in Season 2, by Eclipso. There was one at the beginning where I’m subduing the JSA, I enjoyed that a lot. I’d like to flex those shadow muscles a bit more.
This is a great question, Conor – I think it would be fun to lean into… I think he’s very funny. There’s something fun about playing the other side of that. The dryness comes from something we were talking about before. How desparately difficult it is to be immortal.
It’d be nice to lean into that in a very psychologically real way. That would be fun to do.
In a wider sense, do you have any goals you’d like to accomplish, whether professionally or personally?
Jonathan Cake: That’s another great question. In the short term, I’d like to try and teach my kids to do the washing up. At the moment, my wife (who’s also an actor), is back in West Massachusetts doing a movie. I’m both Mother and Father, cook, washer-upper and general household servant.
Having them do a little of the housework would be such a small, but for me at the moment, quite massive accomplishment.
What else? As we’ve already talked about, I love the theatre. Nothing is as great to me as doing a great play in a great theatre with a great cast. There’s something about the sports event of that, the liveness of it every night, the danger of it. I find it so exciting and life-enhancing.
” I love it when I can have a real relationship with another character. It’s very fun when you get a rhythm with another actor. For example, in Season 2, it was really nice to do all that stuff with Amy. There was a real sort of chemistry between us, it was really fun to have that relationship blossom.”Jonathan Cake, Courageous Nerd (2022)
Doing another great play in London would be wonderful. I’ve got this podcast that I’m working on called Stage Door Jon which is all about theatre. I can’t wait to get that out, so people can listen to it. It will be coming soon, probably by the end of the year.
I’d like to do more of this character, I love playing The Shade. He’s one of the greatest characters I’ve ever played.
So, I’d love to keep playing him on this show. I’d also love to do other things with him.
There’s a whole world to be explored there. It would be wonderful to do more of him.