For seven years, he played one of pop culture’s most iconic villains — but what Michael Rosenbaum really wanted to do was make people laugh.
Rosenbaum, who’s in Brisbane this weekend for the Supanova Pop Culture Expo, is best known for his role as nascent supervillain Lex Luthor opposite Tom Welling’s Clark Kent on superhero series Smallville.
As much as he loved his time on the show (and as much as the fans loved him), he admits now that the decision to walk away after seven seasons back in 2008 wasn’t a difficult one, because his true ambitions lay elsewhere.
“I’m not going to lie to you, it wasn’t really a tough decision to leave the show,” Rosenbaum says. “I’ll give you the honest answer. Honestly, I worked 70 months on that show. I shaved my head, and I spent thousands of hours spray-painting my head. I delivered tonnes of the same lines, just with slightly different words. I was contracted to play the part for six years and I actually played it for seven. And truthfully, as much as I loved the character and I loved the cast – and I still do; Tom Welling just texted me today and we still keep in touch – I always wanted to do comedy.
“I always wanted to do other things. And I’d never experienced being on a show for seven years. I was on a show that lasted a year, and then another show that lasted a year, and I thought, ‘This is great, I can play different roles every year!’ Then you hit Season Four, Five, Six, Seven on the same show, and you think, ‘This is great, but it’s time to move on’. As much as I loved it, I had to move on.
“And it wasn’t like I left the show, exactly. That’s what people say, that I left the show, but they’re confused. Leaving the show would have meant leaving before my contract was over. My deal was for six years, and I did that, and then I did another year! I loved it, but it was time to go, because I knew that I wanted to do comedy and movies and other things.
“Playing a super villain is great and it’s intense, but it was time to go do some other stuff. That was all it was. And other people were leaving the show at the time, too. The original creators left. It was time. You just know when that ship’s sailing, when it’s time to move on.”
Rosenbaum essentially backed himself by walking away from a hit show (“Believe me,” he says, “if I thought I didn’t have anything else going for me and I wasn’t going to work again, I would have milked Smallville for all it was worth”), and it’s proven to be a wise decision in the long run.
He had a recurring role in Fox comedy Breaking In. Last year, he wrote, directed and starred in the comedy film Back in the Day, and though the critics weren’t kind to it, he backed that up this year by scoring the lead role in the hit comedy series Impastor.
The series, which airs on TV Land in the US, stars Rosenbaum as a fugitive and gambling addict who steals the identity of a recently deceased gay pastor in order to hide from loan sharks. The show, on which Rosenbaum also serves as executive producer, was recently renewed for a second season.
“The first day on the set of Impastor, I said, ‘Guys, if we’re not laughing every day, we’re doing something wrong’,” Rosenbaum remembers. “I really want to have fun. No drama, no bulls**t. And we do! The crew, every day, look like they’re having fun, like this is a good job to go to. That’s the kind of job and the kind of environment I want to be in, in any field, really. It doesn’t have to be acting. It could be anything. I like to have fun. That’s kind of my thing!”
As much as Rosenbaum is enjoying his new show, however, he knows it’s the enduring appeal of Smallville that makes him a favourite at conventions like Supanova.
“It’s a small miracle,” he marvels. “Whatever the odds are of winning the lottery, being an actor on a hit show — where years after you leave the show you can still travel around the world and sign autographs and meet people — that’s got to be a really close second. It’s got to be. I am blessed, there’s no doubt. I was on the series for seven years, and I played a great, iconic character.
“I was also on an animated series called Justice League at the same time, where I voiced The Flash for six years. I didn’t know the impact that would have. Every time I go to a convention, kids are dressed up as Lex Luthor and The Flash. You just count your lucky stars. Other actors always come up to me and say, ‘Hey, I want to go to conventions’, and I’ll say, ‘Well, I don’t know if the appeal in England or wherever is going to be there for your soap opera’. It’s a very select group of shows – sci-fi, horror, anime – that develop that sort of following.
“I can’t believe I can still go to these things! I always say, ‘Oh, there’s probably only going to be five people at my table this time’, but there are always people there. How are they still coming? It’s overwhelming. It’s great that people want to come and see you, and I always like to take the time with each person, because it’s like… they’re coming to see you, you’ve come all this way to see them, let’s have a moment here!”
Despite spending such a long time bringing Lex Luthor to life, Rosenbaum doesn’t see himself as a custodian of the character. In fact, he’s not all that interested in the upcoming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, in which The Social Network star Jesse Eisenberg will shave his head and take his turn playing Superman’s nemesis.
“Here’s a little secret I’ll share with you,” he mock-whispers. “I’m not into comic books! I love Smallville, and it was the first of many, many comic book shows like that, but as a kid, I was never into comic books and I never read all that stuff. I loved horror movies. I’m buddies with [Evil Dead star] Bruce Campbell, and he’s the coolest guy in the world, as far as I’m concerned. That’s what I love.
“You know, I like the old Superman movie with Gene Hackman, but it’s at the point now where every time I turn a corner there’s another superhero movie. I loved Guardians of the Galaxy, and not just because my friend James Gunn directed it, but because it was different. It wasn’t a superhero movie. It was edgier and it didn’t take itself so seriously.
“Who’s directing this new Superman movie? Zack Snyder? I mean, great! I loved when he directed Dawn of the Dead! That was a great movie. I loved 300, too. So I know the movie’s going to look great, and I know Jesse Eisenberg’s probably going to do a great job.
“I understand why you’d be curious what I think about it, but in my egocentric mind, I always think, ‘I can play anything’, because that’s what you’re supposed to think as an actor, and that’s what Eisenberg will be thinking, too. If you doubt yourself, you’re not going anywhere.
“Look, you could say Zack Snyder picked the wrong Jew. He went for Eisenberg instead of Rosenbaum! And, seriously, if they’d have asked me I would have said ‘F**k yeah, I can do it’, and then I would have been nervous as s**t, and then I would have worked with a coach and I would have done everything I could do to be the best I can be, and I’m sure that’s what Jesse Eisenberg’s doing. He probably got really excited and nervous and then busted his ass and now he’s going to be terrific. Because that’s what happens when you have talent, and he does. So, you know, he’ll be great.”
Michael Rosenbaum will appear at the Supanova Pop Culture Expo at the Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre from November 27-29. For more info, visit supanova.com.au.