Niall Matter found the perfect role when he joined the cast of "Eureka."
"I'm not unlike Zane in a lot of ways," said Matter, speaking of Zane Donovan, the snarky, bad-boy physicist he's played since the second season of the Syfy series about a town of genius inventors and scientists.
Matter isn't a physicist, but he knows computers well enough to have recently fixed co-star Neil Grayston's. His eight years working on Canadian oil rigs when he was younger prepared him for the action-hero-worthy stunts he gets to do as Zane. And, he admits, he still has "that little flair of a troublemaker" that led his parents to send him away when he was in high school.
"When I auditioned for this role … I just thought, 'Really, this is like spot on,'" the 30-year-old told me during a recent phone interview, laughing. "I knew right away that I'd be playing this guy."
As Season 4.5 blasts off at 7 p.m. Monday, Zane's shenanigans accidentally cause the launch of an old rocket into space, with Fargo (Grayston) and himself onboard. "Liftoff" is Matter's favorite of this new batch of 10 episodes.
When Season 4 began, Zane was not one of the five main characters who traveled in time and ended up in a current but different timeline in which they have different jobs, living arrangements or love lives. Despite—or maybe because of that—the actor seems to be getting more and more screen time.
"The reboot was probably the best thing that could happen because it reinvented the character," Matter said. "He was the only lead who didn't go back in time, so he is the only one who has to change his interactions with every single person."
That gives Matter a lot of fun scenes with Grayston as well as with Erica Cerra, who stars as Zane's old timeline love, Jo Lupo. In this timeline, Zane mostly just gets under her skin—at least for now.
Matter's own wild streak as a kid growing up in Alberta, Canada, often tried his parents' patience.
"When I turned 17, my parents couldn't deal with me any more," he said. "I was quite a bad kid actually … My parents actually forced me to go work on the oil rigs with my grandfather."
He came home for his senior year a different person, he said, improving his grades and deciding that he would study film. He returned to work on the oil rigs to make money while pursuing his dream in Vancouver until his was 25, when he was nearly killed in a rig accident that crushed his right leg.
"It took me about six months to learn how to walk again. And when I got back to the rig, my very first week I saw a terrible accident … and the next day I quit," he said. "I came back to Vancouver [and] … after a month of working as a bartender I ended up booking my very first lead role...
"I have not quit working ever since."
Matter and I talked more about the new "Eureka" episodes, Zane and even about getting into trouble.
Let’s talk about Zane Donovan, aka Professor I.P. Freely.
[Laughs.] All right.
You’re getting a lot more screen time.
Yeah, especially in the last half of Season 4. And as for Season 5 [which is currently filming], I’m on set every day now; it’s great.
I’ve seen “Liftoff” and I love all the great comedy you and Neil Grayston get to do. It’s almost two episodes.
Yeah, that’s the thing. It really is like two episodes because you have what’s happening on the ground and then you have what’s happening up in space. And all of the CGI up in space? Could you believe that? It was amazing, phenomenal. It looked incredible. You do get a really different feel whenever you’re up in the capsule with us … I was really impressed with how that episode turned out.
Do you enjoy the comedy?
Oh yeah, I love doing the comedy. That was originally my interest in “Eureka,” because it was a dramedy and I was drawn to the comedy aspect of it. And it’s fun to play because Zane is usually so calm and cool most of the time. And then, up in space he kind of shows a little bit of his fear, that’s where the comedy comes from that episode.
Right, he pretty much loses it.
Yeah, yeah, which is great. It’s nice to be able to have somebody with such a cool exterior lose it.
Going forward in the season, Zane and Lupo have a lot together. Has it been fun to step back with the reboot of the series and have them be separated and Zane be sort of the bad boy again?
Yeah. Every single one of the characters went back in time and then came back. Now they have a different back story with Zane … I’ve had a lot of fun trying to figure out the relationship with each one of them and how it differed from the original timeline.
I do like the [Zane-Lupo] relationship a lot more this year. It’s just a lot more involved now.
[NOTE FROM CURT: I’ve removed big chunks of the interview for spoiler reasons. Check back each week for Matter’s take on the first three episodes.]
I did some research on you and about the only thing I could find was that you work on oil rigs. Nothing much else out there.
I keep it that way on purpose.
Oh yeah? Let’s see if we can change that today. You were working on the oil rigs for eight years, is that right?
Yeah, It’s something that I was born into. I’m a third generation oil rigger.
How did you get into acting from there?
I got into acting actually when I was much younger. I got into writing and directing at 13, and the acting thing kind of happened naturally because I didn’t have enough actors in my small hometown where I grew up, so I got in front of the camera as well. And it just kind of became my passion.
… I was forced to go out and work on the oil rigs with my grandfather and I did a three-month hitch. I worked every single day for three months, like non-stop, and I missed the first little bit of my Grade 12 year because I was still on the rig. And when I came back I was a completely different person and I knew then that I wanted to pursue film. So what I did was I turned my grades around in Grade 12, graduated with honors, and then I moved to Vancouver and studied at Vancouver Film School. But right after that, because Vancouver was so expensive for me, I had to return to the rigs. And then I kept a place in Vancouver the entire time and flew back and forth until I turned 25.
I had a really bad accident that actually forced me to take time away from the rigs. I had to learn how to walk again. It took me about six months to learn how to walk again. And when I got back to the rig, my very first week I saw a terrible accident. I actually witnessed a guy leave his legs on the rig and then the next day I quit. I came back to Vancouver, lied my way into a bartending job, after a month of working as a bartender I ended up booking my very first lead role. It was actually a Syfy originally called “Beyond Loch Ness” and I was opposite Brian Krause. So that was my very first acting gig and that was two weeks before my 26th birthday.
So that explains your Twitter profile saying “almost died a few times.”
[Laughs.] Yeah, it does. I was crushed inside the cab of a drilling rig … which weighed 17 tons … They had to rip me out of there. It was pretty awful. It was horrific actually. I got to the hospital and the doctor immediately wanted to amputate my right leg. In the end I was able to remain intact and go through extensive physio to be able to walk again.
That recovery mus have taken forever?
Yeah, it was a really long time. Even after the six months I was walking with a little bit of a hitch, like a little bit of a limp. I just had to get back into sports. I started played hockey a lot again, started training and working out. Because basically what had happened is I ripped my quad muscle off my femur, and I had something called compartment syndrome. My muscle had to slowly re-attach to my femur and I had to train my muscle again … It was really painful but getting back to sports and getting back to being more active really helped a lot. And I don’t have any problems at all any more with it.
No pain or anything?
I have no problem with it whatsoever now. And now I’m back at the gym and I’m able to do quite heavy squats and stuff with it. It took about two to three years for it to really feel like a normal part of my body.
That’s amazing. So using a flame thrower [in an upcoming episode] is small potatoes for you then, apparently?
That’s nothing, yeah. Using the flame thrower is nothing. I could do that any day. And honestly, I enjoy all of that stuff; getting to do anything that’s semi-dangerous, I’m all over it. One of my first jobs when I came to Vancouver was hanging out the side of skyscrapers changing windows and fixing the weather stripping.
I’m just naturally drawn to that type of work. And now I’m on set and it’s not really dangerous, but some days you get a flame throwing … If I can do my own stunts I’m doing them. Like this season, Season 5, I’ve done all my own stunt work this season and I love it; I really enjoy it.
Is that your favorite part of the job?
Well, that’s definitely a big plus for me, getting to play more of an action hero type on the show now. But my favorite part of the job is actually working with the people I’m working with and the interaction between the characters. I have so much fun with Colin Ferguson. When I’m in a scene with Colin Ferguson, when we rehearse it, it just flies. It’s just a natural friendship. Things just seem to fit really well.
Colin and I have become really close friends too. We hang out a lot off the set. I hang out all the time with him down in L.A. when we’re both back home. We have that rapport, like we are actually friends. So getting to work together on set and having our characters interact in the way they interact, because they don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye with each other, it’s a lot of fun. You’re basically just going to work and playing. It’s make-believe and you get to play with one of your best friends.
I was just on a conference call with Colin and Sally, and Colin said he thinks the cast probably gets along better now than ever before.
Yeah, we do actually. We all love each other. There’s a really strong sense of family unity when you walk onto the set of “Eureka.” And that’s why I think some of the guest stars are just flying right out of the gate, because the atmosphere is conducive to work.
I would agree with Colin on that, definitely … And whatever we’ve all gone through in our personal lives too, we’re always there for each other. I mean we’re together every single day on set, so those are the people that know your life through and through, right? So yeah, it’s a good family.
I saw the photo tweeted of you and Neil with your laptops…
Oh yeah, yeah. I was upgrading his computer. We were on set and he was talking about his computer crashing, and I was like, “Oh man, I’ll come over and take a look at it and upgrade it.” I do all that stuff on my own, anyway ... When I was younger I used to take apart every single electronic device that my family bought. I would take it apart, figure out how it worked, and put it back together. It started when I was about probably 8. I actually used to want to pursue engineering. I had an uncle that was an engineer and I was always asking him questions, and I went on the job site with him and did all these things.
Neil was shocked. He’s like, “You actually know how to do this?”
You get into the techy part of playing Zane too?
Oh yeah, the tech part of that, for sure, definitely … A lot of the terminology and the language I don’t understand, so I look it up. … I understand the majority of the technology because it’s just how my mind is wired.
OK, now I have a couple of heartthrob questions for you. Do you think of yourself as more a heartthrob or a geek?
Well, I never ever thought of myself as a geek because I was always a football player, a hockey player. … But I don’t think of myself as a heartthrob either. I just think of myself as a nice guy with a little bit of know-how, that’s it.
I noticed this Youtube clip, a compilation of scenes from your visits to “Melrose Place.” [Watch 'Niall Matter shirtless']
Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. [Laughs.] Basically I’m naked all the time?
It says in the caption, “The ‘Eureka’ writers refuse to show off his bod, so he went to ‘Melrose’ to do just that.”
[Laughs.] That’s hilarious.
Is that why you went for the “Melrose” part?
No! [Laughs.] They did want to know if I had a good body. As for me, I definitely wanted to be seen in a different light. When I started on “Eureka” I only weighed about 161 pounds. Today, as of right now, this very moment, I weigh in at 199 and that’s just from me going to the gym and working out every single day. I wanted to transform myself into a different type of guy, into a different character. And yeah, I definitely wanted to show everything that I had done in the gym and kind of separate myself from what I had been playing. It’s very important to me to always do something different and always be challenging myself. I took the challenge of transforming my body very, very seriously, and it took about three years to get to where I’m at now.
It was all gym work?
A lot of gym work, yeah. I remember when I first started, for a year I detested it, I hated it. I had to force myself to go. And now it’s second nature. If I don’t go, something’s wrong.
You hinted that Zane and you, when you were a kid, were not that different. You got in trouble a lot?
Yeah. I got in trouble a lot. I still get in trouble now, which I can’t talk about too much right now, but I’ll talk about it later when everything’s been dealt with.
Oh, this is new trouble?
Oh yeah, there’s some pending trouble that I’m going through right now; I like to drive way too fast. But the old me, the young me, I was really wild, like uncontrollable; always getting into things I shouldn’t be getting into. I discovered the worst of the worst when I was quite young, like 14, 15. I was a musician. I was in a lot of bands, living that lifestyle. I was a drummer and was always going out and staying out late. And then making my films as well. All the films I made were in the horror genre because I used to be obsessed with horror films. Now, not so much. Funny, I moved away from that. I think that’s just growing up and maturing. But even as I matured I still have that little flair of a troublemaker inside of me. I don’t know if that ever goes away. You know, it’s still getting me in trouble.