‘Cowboy Bebop’ Star Alex Hassell on Making ‘A Live Action Love Letter’

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Alex Hassell in Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop GEOFFREY SHORT/NETFLIX

Netflix’s live-action reimagining of the classic anime series Cowboy Bebop manages to capture the deliberately exaggerated style of the medium while building something new. The jazzy, free-flowing Western vibe of the original remains intact as does the hyper stylized violence—imagine a cross between Firefly and Kill Bill—but this new Cowboy Bebop truly shines in its ability to reshape familiar elements around new stories.

Perhaps the best example is the elevation of Vicious from peripheral anime character to primary live-action antagonist. His backstory is inextricably linked to our hero Spike Spiegel (John Cho) and their dynamic serves as the foundation of this new iteration. As Vicious, Alex Hassell walks the fine line between flair and ferocity, and in speaking with Observer, he revealed what went into adapting an iconic anime series, how he pulled off his character’s epic fight scenes, and what he’s excited about in a potential second season.

Warning: mild spoilers ahead

Observer: In 2017, you talked about how you became involved in Suburbicon, with casting director Ellen Chenowith asking if you would make a tape for the new George Clooney movie written by the Coen Brothers. You said, “Yes, as any sane actor would,” which was a great response. Was that similar to how you became involved in Cowboy Bebop?

Alex Hassell: I got sent the script and it was almost unrecognizable to anything in the show, because that’s how these things work. They get redrafted, but the world was incredibly exciting and the character was really intriguing, because he’s very unlike me, and very complex. I really enjoy challenges and I really enjoy trying to get into a very different frame of mind and headspace and try to understand why someone who is absolutely nothing like me—and from an outside point of view, the choices that they make are deplorable—to try to get my head into understanding why someone would do something like that, and acting that way. I find it very exciting.

Were you a fan of the original anime series before being cast?

I got the script for the pilot and then took a deep dive into the anime and the film and then became a massive fan, so that was my entry point into the show. I instantly loved it, and it’s been a massive pleasure to really get to know the anime and to see how amazingly the writers, along with the showrunner and the producers and everyone, have expanded the world of Cowboy Bebop.

Everyone on the show is such a fan of the anime, and we created a live action love letter to the fans. There are Easter eggs littered throughout the whole thing. So we’ve been very faithful in many ways, but it’s also important to have surprises. You wouldn’t want people to watch it and get nothing new from the live action version. So there are plot twists and reveals and surprises that I think people are going to love.

Alex Hassell DWGH Photography

What surprised you most about the anime before hopping into this adaptation?

Obviously it has all of this amazing action and this flair with the music and the storylines and the characters and the repartee. But there’s this spine of longing and yearning and loneliness and isolation through it, which I think is really unusual and interesting. It’s something that I hadn’t seen before. Also, almost each episode is a completely different world and style of its own—how very wide and disparate the storylines and tones of the stories are I think is really, really exciting. And, again, it’s something we’ve attempted to emulate.

You’re the co-founding artistic director of the Factory Theatre Company. Part of the Factory’s manifesto is, “Just imagination, passion, and a whole lot of spontaneity.” Has that applied to Cowboy Bebop?

Definitely. I had to imagine a whole other kind of world. The world building in this show has been absolutely amazing, obviously starting with the anime but now turning it into a real, live-action thing. There was loads of sets made, so you had to imagine less, but in terms of getting into the space of a completely different life, a completely different world, a completely different future, definitely. And I think it’s really important, especially with the kind of character that I play, who is unhinged in certain areas.

One might definitely say that about Vicious.

One might say, and very violent. Part of that threat can come from people not knowing what he’s going to do next, how he’s going to respond to something, and the idea of learning how to be spontaneous helps that. For me not to know what I’m doing next either, to surprise myself, too, is useful.

Alex Hassell (L) and John Cho (R) in Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop. GEOFFREY SHORT/NETFLIX © 2021

You play Vicious with this theatrical, dramatic flair. He’s a villain with style. How much of your performance drew on the anime, and how much was your own creation with showrunner André Nemec?

It was very important to us that there was a spine of Vicious that was obviously built from and recognizable from the anime. But then in the anime, Vicious is only in a small number of episodes and scenes. In this, they wanted to make him a larger entity. That required fleshing the storyline out and creating backstory. I wanted to be faithful to the original anime, but also obviously to the new story and the new world that they had created, which gave him different dimensions that hopefully will be surprising and entertaining.

I want to touch on your big action scene in Episode 8. How long did you have to train for that and was that among one of the more complicated things you’ve ever had to do as an actor?

I absolutely loved every second of it. I trained extensively for it. That fight scene you’re referring to, I would say I think 98 percent of it is me. That was really important to me, to do as much of the fighting as I could. Firstly, because it’s really, really good fun, and to get to work with that amazing stunt team, a lot of whom are world-class martial artists as well as stunt people. But also for the character. The violence, and using that sword, is such an important part of that character and such an important part of his life and how he sees himself. For me to believe myself as the character, it was paramount for me to understand how to use the sword. I loved it.

So after all that training, do you feel a bit tougher? Think you can hold your own in a rowdy bar?

(Laughs) I would know how to hit very closely to people’s heads and swing a sword very close to people’s heads. But not actually hit them. The interesting thing about my playing Vicious is that I’ve never been in a fight—I’m always the type to break up fights, that’s not the way I operate. So it’s interesting to get into that headspace.

When I interviewed producer Jeff Pinkner last year, he revealed that the writers were already working on Season 2. Is there anything you’d like the show to explore in a potential follow up?

Radical Edward. I’m really excited to see where that character goes, and what happens to everyone now, what the storylines are, where they all end up. In terms of Vicious, personally I’d love to do some more fighting. It’d be interesting. I have no idea. I’m just as excited as the audience hopefully will be.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Cowboy Bebop is available now to watch on Netflix .