The con is on: Talking 'Con Man', 'Firefly' and Star Wars with Alan Tudyk

The creator and star of a new Web series making fun of the sci-fi convention experience tells us how his moment of panic led him to create "Con Man".

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
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Alan Tudyk, creator and star of "Con Man".

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Alan Tudyk remembers a specific moment when he found himself facing a bleak future. It was after " Firefly", the science fiction show in which he appeared, was cancelled, and he found himself meeting fans at conventions.

"I was sitting at a hotel bar in Orlando, Florida," he remembers, "with some actors who were those types who had done something back in the early 80s and then it was over for them. And they were trading on this one thing and they were miserable, trying to pick up girls in a very awkward way with their faded celebrity status. And I questioned, oh is this it? This is it. This is my thing. I thought I was going to be something else."

So what happened after that moment of panic? "Then I got a job! But I remembered it very well and it's something that helped me write ' Con Man'."

"Con Man", available on Vimeo On Demand today, is a new Web series created by Tudyk. He plays Wray Nerely, an actor whose science fiction show "Spectrum" was cancelled, and now finds himself meeting fans at conventions. "Wray bears more than a passing likeness to my life," says Tudyk. "He was on a space show 10 years ago, I was on a space show 10 years ago -- but we do diverge at a certain point."

That point is in their attitude to science fiction. "There's a moment where my character says to a group of fans who are asking about what he wants to do in the future, if he could do anything, and he says, 'I would not do a sci-fi show. I would do a movie by Wes Anderson. I would do a movie by the Coen Brothers.' They say, 'Why, don't you like sci-fi?' And he says, 'I hate sci-fi.' That was really an odd moment in the theatre [during the first screening for fans]."

Tudyk stresses that he's very different to Wray in that regard. "I'm very happy, I'm very grateful," he says. In fact, he's also currently filming another big sci-fi movie, " Rogue One: A Star Wars Story".

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"Con Man" was funded by donations from fans on crowdfunding site Indiegogo, raising a whopping $3.15 million (roughly £2 million or AU$4.5 million). Tudyk describes "Con Man" as "a show that was crowdfunded by fans about a guy who doesn't appreciate the fans. It makes you a little nervous but they loved it."

The show draws on Tudyk's experiences of traveling to conventions across the globe. "I go to conventions all over the world. I went to Dubai. I've been to Australia three different times. England a few times." He remembers a strange experience at one UK appearance in Milton Keynes. "It was in a mall. And it was a very particular experience because the mall was actually running as a mall. But we were just sitting on tables in the mall as people walked by going, 'Do you know who he is?' 'No.'"

During his time as a convention regular, Tudyk has seen first hand the explosion in popularity of science fiction, fantasy, superheroes and other genres previously derided as geek territory. "Actors who are in one thing will go, it's not just for things like Star Trek. It's for anything that has even a passing qualification as sci-fi. A production company, a studio, will ask that you go to Comic-Con, the big one in San Diego, maybe the one in New York that we're going to in week or so, because they see the value of the potential of meeting people."

"Con Man" pokes fun at celebs and fans alike, which was a fine line for Tudyk to walk. "I wanted to make sure that it respected them and didn't insult anyone," he says. "That was the first concern going in that anybody had. When I would bring up the subject and ask what do you think if I wrote something like this, do you think this type of show would be a good idea, the first thing that was always said was, 'Don't make fun of the fans.'"

Alongside Tudyk and his former "Firefly" co-star Nathan Fillion, the series is packed with cameos by stars of genre stories including "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", "Battlestar Galactica" and "Supernatural". And there's room for more. "If people like 'Con Man', I have a few more stories," says Tudyk. "One of them is Lou Ferrigno who I like very much, who played the original Hulk. I'll get to see him a few times a year at different conventions, and I would love to do an episode with him. We were talking about acting, and what would we do if we got to work together, and he said we should do John Steinbeck's 'Of Mice and Men'. He'll play Lenny and I'll play George, and that just, even saying it again my brain gets...it just shakes."

Tudyk has his own fanboy moments. "There's so many people at the cons. When you go as an actor you're also a fan as well. Because you go into a room and you're like, 'Woah.' And you'll see it with other people going, 'Can I just talk to him?'"

Cons are an opportunity to hang out with other actors. "Scott Wilson, who is in 'The Walking Dead' is a really interesting guy, a really great guy to hang out with. There's really big actors that go to these. Anthony Mackie, who's in 'The Winter Soldier', but he's been in movie after movie after movie. He's another Juilliard actor, he went there after I was there. Dennis O'Hare [of 'American Horror Story'], one of the best character actors working today, was there."

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Tudyk (second from left) with creator Joss Whedon (seated right) and the cast of short-lived but much-loved sci-fi show "Firefly".

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Not everybody is starstruck, however. "I remember one time getting an assistant, like in the first episodes, where Felicia Day plays my assistant. Usually they're volunteers who work for the convention, and they're fans. But I did one where the guy couldn't care less if I lived or died. He was annoyed that he was having to assist me. He was an illustration artist fanboy who wanted to be near this other group of artists in Artists' Alley, but he didn't get assigned to where he wanted to be assigned. That was an odd one..."

Some of the comic highlights of the show are based on real life, like a meeting with a cosplaying fan from the dark side. "The Darth Vader one, that happened to me in San Antonio last year. The guy came up and he was very tall. He was exceptionally tall and then said, 'Can you make it out to Gareth?'" The dark lord of the Sith also struggled with his signed photo. "He couldn't pick up the photo with his really heavy gloves on. And then he's like, 'Can you hand it to me?' And I handed it to him, we talked for a little while about the potential of him taking over the universe. Just use the Force, man, what are you doing? It's good that he has other people to press the fire button on the Death Star."

Tudyk may not be like his character, but that's not to say Wray is entirely a work of fiction. "I've seen people like Wray, and I mean not a long time ago -- there are people right now that go to cons that walk out on the floor and shake hands and sign their headshots and then come back in and go, 'Ugh,' and feel very comfortable dissing the fans. And it's weird, it's like they don't see it. Some people just don't get it."

He does acknowledge the struggle of typecasting for actors. "There are people who did one thing, and they wanted more of a career after that, obviously, that was just gonna be one stop along their career and then that was the one, that's where it stopped. And so, instead of seeing this place where the one thing that they did has value, and celebrating it as a good thing, it makes them bitter. And they dismiss it."

But Tudyk is surprised and delighted by the reaction he gets at cons. "I guess I feel really lucky," he says. "I mean, 'Firefly' got cancelled as a TV show and it's gotten bigger since it got cancelled! Some sci-fi goes against the laws of physics. It doesn't make sense! We did 14 episodes and were cancelled, and now I can go to conventions. I was at one the other day with 3,000 people people in the audience, and they're there mainly for 'Firefly'."

Where his character Wray Nerely is emphatic he doesn't want to see "Spectrum" return, Tudyk is more positive about a revival for "Firefly" -- except for one small problem (er, spoiler alert). "My character's dead! Yeah, that's a tough one. So it is trickier to visualize it, what it would be. I don't wanna be a different character, I wanna be my character. So for a long time I would say, well, just do a prequel. But now I look at us and go, yeah, that's not working. There's no pre-anything that we're pulling off here!

"I've always said that it's going to come back in some way. I think all you really need is Nathan Fillion and Joss Whedon."

But even if he can't return to one beloved sci-fi universe, Tudyk is venturing into another in "Star Wars" prequel "Rogue One". Some of the cast are newcomers to the world of conventions. "I'm gonna show them 'Con Man' as an introduction to that world," says Tudyk. "I don't know how good it will make it look..."

Wray Nerely may not be happy with his life as a con man, but Alan Tudyk certainly is. "It has over the years become this big part of my life and a very good part of my life. I have a lot of great memories, and it is part of my identity, not just people's identity of what they project on me. It's what I do and who I am."