Depicting a Demagogue

Season Three of BRASS introduces a new character, Lord Trent, a dissolute aristocrat who’s catapulted to political prominence as part of the machinations of the Crime Minister. Before you protest that such a thing is too fantastical, let’s just say that despite current political events, there’s little new in the biographies and methods of demagogues. (Though yes, it’s perhaps true that the inspiration for Trent comes from a couple fairly well-known political figures.)

Yet one thing that leaders like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson lack is the eloquence of traditional demagogues. The word “demagogue” itself, born of Athenian Greece, is linked inextricably to the notion of Democracy, for a rabble-rouser needs to gather the rabble first. Oratory has always been of great use to such people–at least until recently, when tweet-storms, photo ops and carefully staged rallies for supporters have taken its place.

In an era with neither tweets nor television, a would-be demagogue must convince through speeches. And Lord Trent, for all of his faults of character, knows how to deliver one.

We spoke with Tadd Morgan, one of BRASS’s favorite actors (Oscar Wilde, Peck-in-the-Crown, Vincent Law, Comrade Buttons and many more), about the particular challenges he faced in portraying the loathsome but undeniably articulate Tent.

Tadd Morgan

BRASS Bulletin: When you were working on the character of Trent, what were your initial inspirations?

Tadd: Given his strictly British identity, I started looking at some of my favorite classic UK actors who portrayed characters that touched the themes we were looking for. David Niven was an initial tonal reference, although later Roger Moore became my primary guide. I also initially thought of Peter Cushing, but I don’t think there’s much of Moff Tarkin in the final mix. Trent ended up becoming a sort of political, amoral, layabout James Bond. Given that both Niven and Moore played the legendary super spy, it felt like a good match, a sort of mirror ‘bizarro’ version of Bond for our alternate Steam universe.

BB: Whatever Trent’s failings as a person, he’s got skills as an orator. Again, as you began working on his big speech in Parliament, what were your thoughts about its delivery?

Tadd: I listened to a fair bit of Winston Churchill in preparation for this speech. I tried to mimic that strident tonality, rising and falling within the sentence structure while also keeping sight of a build in his larger argument. It was tricky, however, because he still needed to sound like himself. There couldn’t be a complete divergence from the man in private chambers to the man in front of Parliament. I will admit, it seemed distressingly easy to find the rhythm in a nationalistic, racist, inflammatory text. This is credit to our brilliant writer, of course, for tapping into the core energy of movements like this. But the prevalence of such rhetoric all around us is undeniably infectious.

BB: Trent isn’t Trump or Boris Johnson. He’s his own sort of demagogue. But was there anything about the contemporary rise of this sort of leader that informed your reading?

Tadd: The primary connection between my approach to this character and the populist leaders of our modern era can be distilled to a single word: greed. Trent is not in it for his country, for his movement, for any considerations other than his own simple greed. He is a tool being manipulated by someone else, and he’s amenable to that as long as it enriches him considerably. I am not a political scientist, but it seems to me that greed is a strong motivation for those who seize the reins of power and manipulate their populations by whatever means necessary to align with their agenda.

BB: Trent is in some ways a more “realistic” villain than Vincent Law or the Graveyard King, in that he’s closer to what we understand as someone who from the contemporary political and social environment. Is there a shift in your acting this character towards something more what we might recognize? Or do you have essentially the same technique about all of these fictional bad guys?

Tadd: I do think my read on Trent is more naturalistic than my other Brass villains. He’s so ordinary, which is part of what makes him terrifying. However, I believe that at the core of every villain is something very human and ordinary: a weakness, some kind of damage that the villain spends a considerable amount of energy defending. In this way, Vincent Law is not that different from Trent. They both are built the same way, but they approach their defenses differently. Vincent Law compensates for his crippling fear of instability by performing, he creates an air of strength and structure around himself so that he can lean on it. Trent, I think, is wounded by his own massive sense of entitlement. He’s bewildered by the fact that the enormous wealth he started with is beginning to dwindle, and the world hasn’t offered him a solution until he is approached by the Crime Minister.


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