By Jason Delgado
The first time I saw star Casper Van Dien was on the train ride home from SDCC back in 2018. I happened to be sitting across the aisle from him, trying to take a nap, when I heard his distinctive voice reciting some of his famous lines from Starship Troopers. His reverence for that movie, the fans, and director Paul Verhoeven was readily apparent. By the time that it was my stop, I didn’t want to leave because I was having too much fun listening to his enthusiastic Hollywood stories.
Having the opportunity to interview Van Dien four years later at SDCC for a new show was a no-brainer for me. I was given a screener for the first two episodes of Salvage Marines, and it did not disappoint. The series has some fun nods to Starship Troopers, but it’s also something that’s new and exciting in its own right.
Salvage Marines takes place in the future, where corporations own everyone and place enormous life debts on them, essentially making them slaves for life. Samuel Hyst (Casper Van Dien) has a lowly career as a factory worker, but his ambitions suddenly go into hyperdrive when he finds out that his wife Sura (Linara Washington) is pregnant. Hyst and his trouble-making best friend Ben Takeda (Peter Shinkoda) decide to risk life and limb to join the Salvage Marines, which could help them pay off their debts in a few years. The show is action-packed, but also features relevant social commentary, which great science-fiction series usually do.
Casper Van Dien says that the show “is a throwback to Star Trek and Dr. Who. It features a diverse future, everyone is equal, men and women, which is similar to Starship Troopers.” The heart of the show lies in the love that Hyst has for his family. The commentary on our real life struggle is also key, as co-creator/co-writer Rafael Jordan says that we can all relate to “a lack of upward mobility increasingly in society. This show really epitomizes that and the lengths that you would go to, in order to change it. Sam Hyst (Van Dien) will do anything to provide for his family, even if that means an eighty-percent chance of mortality (by joining the Salvage Marines). These are the major themes of Salvage Marines, which we go more in-depth into the making of the series in the interview below.
Many thanks to the cast: Casper Van Dien, Jennifer Wenger, Peter Shinkoda, Shane Graham, Kevin Porter, Linara Washington, Ashley Marie Nunes, co-writer/co-creator Rafael Jordan, and director Shaun Paul Piccinino for doing this interview!
(Interview edited for length and clarity):
Casper Van Dien (on being back at SDCC): I’m loving it. It’s so much fun to be back, and to see everybody. First night here, we ran into all of our friends at a party (Ready Player One – Thor: Love and Thunder party).
Jennifer Wenger (Casper’s wife and the DC comics reference model for Wonder Woman for twelve years, Jada Sek on Salvage Marines): You know you have this break for so long after everything, a couple things happened in the last few years and we haven’t been in touch. So it’s so funny, in one second we saw thirty people that we have missed for years, and it’s like can we all just hug together!
FoCC Blog: Casper, so I read that you have a family history of military service…
Van Dien: My father was a Navy pilot for twenty years, he’d hunt submarines, my grandfather was a marine and medical foramen, my other grandfather was a marine in World War One and a coast guard in World War Two. My brother is in the army, he’s done seven or eight tours, been in Iraq. I went to a military school, but not into the military, and there’s a big difference between that, but I loved it. I love the military and have the utmost respect and admiration for those guys. The men in my life who served, except for me and my uncle, and he’s a big hippie (laughs all around the roundtable), are such great men, and I have so much respect for them. They’re polite, kind, thoughtful, and tough, and that’s what I grew up with.
Wenger: And that would’ve been your path if you hadn’t won a modeling competition.
Van Dien: Probably.
FoCC Blog: So does that history inform how you play these types of military characters?
Van Dien: I think so, very much. I wouldn’t want to portray the military in an unflattering light. I appreciate what they’ve done for us, that I can afford to do this, and that we can afford to be here and do this. I appreciate the sacrifices that my grandfather made, he lost his brother. There’s a monument in Wyckoff, New Jersey with my grandfather and his friends’ names on it, there were only three survivors from his battleon. There’s a huge sacrifice that these men are willing to take, so any chance that I get to play someone in the military, it’s a huge thrill. I turned down a role once that was a negative guy, I was like no, I’m not going to play that. And I’m not saying that there’s not people like that, I just don’t need to. And I didn’t like the script. If I had liked the script, I might have been like “Heeeey.” (laughing)
Van Dien: This is a throwback to Star Trek and Dr. Who. It features a diverse future, everyone is equal, men and women, which is similar to Starship Troopers.
Reporter: The shower scene!
Van Dien: We have a shower scene too!
Wenger: Rafael (co-writer/co-creator) took care of you guys!
Reporter to Peter Shinkoda: You carry the big gun, and your character is referred to as an ex-con. Do we find out more about that?
Peter Shinkoda (Daredevil, Ben Takeda on Salvage Marines): It’s eluded, my previous life. I tried to reflect that in the first couple of episodes. He has a journey to be who he becomes in the last episode. Perhaps in the future we’ll see some of the things that he has done. I’m kind of an F-up. The only person who keeps me in line is probably the Sam Hyst character (Van Dien). What he does, I do, because it’s the only family he knows. So he does practice some kind of loyalty, but alone, he’s an F-up on a really F-ed up planet.
Shaun Paul Piccinino (Director): Oh my gosh, I’ve got a great story about Ashley (Nunes). So we’re filming in the sand dunes, where they’re all running up there and sliding down the dunes. By the way, we had a very limited stunt crew on that day, for whatever reason, we had three stunt guys, and then our actors were doing all their own stunts. And this person comes flying over the hill, leaping over the entire trench and landing and rolling. I’m like, “Who was that?!” They said Ashley. I said “Ashley did it?!” What were you, a high jumper, a long jumper?
Ashley Marie Nunes (Yvonne White): I did track and hurdles.
Piccinino: You jumped twice as high as Casper. Our jaws just dropped.
Nunes: It was a lot of fun, I’m not going to lie. I was very juiced to do all that.
Shane Graham (Harold): I think it was take one, Shaun said action, and we’re all supposed to run to this dune spot and I’m thinking alright, we’re actors in an outfit. I’m just going to jog, and as soon as he says action, there’s this little girl going brrrrr (laughing). She left us in the dust and we were like “Holy cow.” All of us picked up our game, and no one caught her.
Kevin Porter (Boss Wynn Marsters): We looked up and realized that there’s a drone watching. I remember saying this to Shaun and he’s like “Okay, I want you to run here, go underneath, jump up and then come down.” I’m like Shaun, I’m 240 pounds (laughing). Shaun, you get three of these (laughter continues). And he’s like, “I think we can do it in three!” And you think you’re going to dog it, but then you’ve got that drone watching. It changes everything, you’re like well damn! And you’ve got five foot nothing (Ashley Nunes) just jumping over everything and booking it. I’m like, “She’s making us all look bad.” (laughing) You’ve got three of these Shaun, and then I’m tapping out! Too much fun.
FoCC Blog: So in the show, corporations are very powerful, is that kind of a commentary on today’s times?
Rafael Jordan (co-writer/co-creator): Very much. I think you guys would agree that one of the themes is being stuck in a situation and not being able to figure a way out. A lot of us can relate to that, just a lack of upward mobility increasingly in society. This show really epitomizes that and the lengths that you would go to, in order to change it. Sam Hyst (Van Dien) will do anything to provide for his family, even if that means an eighty-percent chance of mortality (by joining the Salvage Marines).
Porter: One of my favorite scenes is when I’m sitting there with the bosses, and we’re listening to all of the motivations on why they signed up. It’s basically everyone’s introduction, and they’re eating green grits, yellow grits, and it was just wonderful, how it was written. Each character has a reason, and my character has a reason which is beautifully written as well, but listening to why you joined, and why you joined (pointing to the other actors), and why the other Reapers are there, and it was just beautiful because as you said, they all have reason, they all have purpose, and they’re all different. It humanized them as well, and it goes back to your great writing (to Jordan).
Jordan: Thank you for that. Honestly with Sean-Michael Argo, the author, and working with Jamie Thompson (co-creator) and Shaun and everyone, was really a great process because the first episode in particular, there was a lot of added material that we fleshed out. The books kind of jumped right into it, which doesn’t necessarily work for a TV show. We needed to start sooner in the show about how it came to be.
Reporter: So should you read the books or watch the show first?
Jordan: I have an unpopular opinion about this. I think that you should always watch the show or movie first, and then read the book as great supplemental material.
Graham: I’m with you.
Jordan: Because how often do you read the book first and you’re never satisfied with the thing.
Linara Washington (Sura Hyst): Because you create the story in your head as you read it, and then you watch it and it feels…(different).
Jordan: If I see something that I really like and then I go read it, it really enhances the experience.
Piccinino: It’s like bonus material. You’re like oh, I get something extra and I already enjoy it.
Jordan: Because Sean-Michael’s writing has such a vision for combat, he’s so detailed about the beats, and you really feel it’s immersive. Shaun did a great job of capturing it. Ten pages of action will only give you three minutes onscreen, so if you want to get all of it, you have to read the book.
Graham (Harold): You guys did a really awesome job of expanding Harold. In the book, there’s not a whole lot of Harold, so they diversified his history a little bit. They did that with all the characters, where they gave them a little bit more development. Like you said, the book is wicked. The book has such great action, but you want to flesh out some of that start.
Reporter: Are you trying to stay close plot-wise to the book, or are you like we’re Game of Thrones style and going off on our own?
Jordan: It hues very close to the story of the book. It’s the same story, just told in a slightly different way, reorder some things, maybe add a few beats or take away a few things. It’s a fascinating process, and Sean-Michael was exceptional. He was really easy to work with, he wasn’t overly precious about anything. If I said, “Hey maybe we lose this or move it around,” he said yeah, do it.
Piccinino: He’s so cool. He’s like, “Hey, that’s a really cool idea, I’m going to implement that into future books.” He’s so cool that way.
Jordan: He sent me a really funny text today. He said, “So I’m adapting one of my own books. I’m doing this process for the first time myself. I have a newfound respect for what you went through.”
Piccinino: It’s really hard to adapt (from books to screen).
Washington: It’s almost like you have two separate lives. It’s like you have a child, from toddler to whatever age, it’s kind of the same but they’ve grown now to different personalities.
Jordan: The whole fun of it is having two slightly different things that are supplemental, or complementary, because if you watch a movie and then read the book and it’s the same, you’ll be like what did I read it for?
Nunes: Because I like to read. (laughing)
FoCC Blog: I think that you guys did a great job. I read the book right before I watched the first two episodes, and I felt the same essence but I did notice the changes. I thought it was really good.
Jordan: Awesome, thanks. Admittingly, I knew that Casper was in it from day one and we all love Starship Troopers. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was influenced by that in the first couple episodes. I wanted it to feel like a spiritual successor to Starship Troopers.
FoCC Blog: Yes, it did.
Jordan: Watching it was so satisfying. One of my favorite scenes was the boot camp of you yelling at everyone (to Porter).
Graham: He was so good at yelling at us. (laughing)
Porter: They gave us so much freedom to flesh out our own interpretation of the characters. Boot camp was shot first and so I didn’t know who Marsters was yet. We had done the read through but there’s a specific voice, you have the actual voice and then the voice inside of you. They started and this big, huge loud guy came out of my mouth. (laughing) It was just screaming, and honestly he never shut up. (laughing) I went to Shaun and was like I think my character is a space cowboy, like a Sam Elliot, and he said, “I love it, do it.” They did the boot camp, and I’m yelling at my friend Casper, I’m yelling at everybody, and afterward I said, “I’m so sorry.” (laughing) It comes from great writing and great freedom, and having the ability to interpret between the two.
Graham: One of my favorite scenes was actually when he was yelling at us in line. He said, “Drop ship.” So we all get off and get in line and he’s looking at us and says, “You, get your chin up!” And he goes to me, “You, get taller!” (laughing) I was like, oh, that’s so funny! That was the coolest improv. Shaun is an actor’s director.
Porter: In the thirteenth hour, fourteenth hours, they were bringing us pizza, and it was so freaking hot. They were trying to bring fans but it was just blowing hot air.
Piccinino: The reason why we were doing thirteen and fourteen hours is because we were in Louisiana, and while we were filming exteriors, lightning storms just dropped right on your head, and that’s three hours that you lose in the day. Just what can we do, you know? That’s some of the challenges.
Jordan: You know Kevin, one of my very favorite lines is when after several weeks of training and you’re looking at a ragtag bunch and you say, “I haven’t gotten one of you to quit yet. I’ll be goddamned if I don’t!”
Porter: I was literally just talking about that scene a few days ago. It rained that day. I was so happy, we’re doing everything that we love, with the people that we love, in the state that I love, couldn’t have been happier. And I had to be miserable, so it helped when it rained. Thank you so much for that (to Jordan), it was a beautiful line.
Jordan: And you say it with a mixture of pride, frustration, and aggravation. Like you genuinely were going to make someone quit.
Porter: I was very proud of that.
Piccinino: That was the day that you (to Graham) and Casper had the fight scene.
Graham: That fight scene was the coolest.
Piccinino: You guys were hitting pretty hard.
Graham: Yeah, so Casper was just like, “Are we going hard?” I’m like we can go hard. Every time you’d say action, we’d do punches which were barely missing each other. We were getting close, and then he grabbed me, and judo threw me on the floor. I was like I’ll just go for it and make this real. So I threw myself over, landed hard on the sand, and after two takes was like, “It’s not going to work.” (laughing).
Porter: There’s a big monologue, it’s like a two or three page monologue. It’s a big rallying cry, and honestly so inspiring. We were in the read through, and I got chills and was emotional because it’s such a beautiful speech. It’s talking about freedom, true freedom. I’m honored and touched to be able to deliver this. And it’s only the coverage left, and I’m super happy, so now we go and it’s raining. Then we go back and we flip it, now it’s on the other coverage. So I have to do a loose interpretation of what I did before, and it’s gone from my head (laughing). So I’m just out there and I’m riffing, and I said, “Commerce and corporations take advantage of the individuals, it has happened forever, it’s a tale as old as time.” (laughing)
Piccinino: We were looking over at each other like was that Beauty and the Beast? (laughing) I thought you did it on purpose.
Porter: I’d love to take credit for doing it on purpose, but I was just like gone.
Piccinino: Jenny started actually singing it, “A tale as old as time.” (laughing). Sorry you missed that (to Washington).
Washington: (laughing) I missed all the fun stuff!
Piccinino: You were like alone in the woods.
Washington: I know, all my scenes were either alone or with Casper. I’ll take Casper on my own (laughing).
Porter: You had the scenes that give it heart. Like the scene where you tell your son who his father is.
Piccinino: Don’t tell Casper this, and don’t tell Kevin, but you know what Peter said his favorite scenes were? Anything with Linara.
Piccinino: He said she is freaking awesome.
Washington: Thank you, I really enjoyed it. It goes back to the writing, back to the amazing directing. You really did allow us to all blossom our characters.
Piccinino: Remember that time we were in an abandoned factory, and we didn’t know if it was safe to breathe the air.
Washington: Yes! (laughing)
Piccinino: Scary, and when the lightning storms hit, as they always did, it was like is this building grounded? (laughing). There was a structural engineer there, and it was like, “this one’s safe.” Okay (laughing). It was pretty harrowing, but it looked incredible. When Casper is walking on the side of that building and you see the cityscape behind it, and ships going, it’s like “this is cool!” When we were there, obviously none of that was there. I was imagining it there.
FoCC Blog: So are you guys going to continue on through the book series?
Piccinino: If this gets some traction, and they want to make more. There’s definitely more books for inspiration.
Jordan: We basically cover the first three books in the first season. There’s at least three more in this specific series, and there’s spinoffs.
Piccinino: It could definitely go Game of Thrones style, with the creator Sean-Michael Argo. I’m sure we could continue the heist story.
Washington: I wonder what happened to Sura all that time while he (Sam) was out there. I gave birth.
Piccinino: And we could cover a lot of that in season 2 (if it’s renewed), we could have the flashbacks, and show what was going down. There’s a lot to explore about all the characters.
Jordan: Because you know years go by. Obviously the whole “it’ll only be two years” thing doesn’t hold.
Reporter: How did the process of bringing everyone together work?
Piccinino: Casper and Jenny are obviously the ones who spun this stuff out, like hey, these people would be great to work on this. We actually did not have a casting director. This is one of the only projects I ever worked on that I think didn’t, because we already knew the network of people that we wanted to be a part of. Then it was me begging, and Casper begging you guys to come on. And it was like, “Ashley, do you want to come hang out in Louisiana for three months?”
Nunes: Absolutely! (laughing)
Reporter: So what was that like when you guys got the script for the first time?
Graham: I got through episode one and was like this is expensive! (laughing). And they made it happen. I was blown away. I thought that this action was amazing. I’m a big Star Trek and Star Wars fan. I like all things space. I like the book. I said let’s go, let’s do it. When I got there, everyone was so legit, and loving that they were there. Shaun always has the energy of a twelve year-old boy (laughing). Which is good too, because when you’re working long days, and you’re getting workouts, you’re in the sun, you’re sweating, you need someone at the steering wheel that’s like, “alright, let’s go!” Everyone stayed on it. And you need people like Ashley that can outrun you (laughing), to inspire you not to get lazy. Everyone here turned in some of the best performances. I was blown away by it because we actually brought this script to life.
Porter: I got a call from Jamie and Shaun, and they’re like there’s a character we’re interested in having you play, but it’s huge. I was like, what’s the problem with that. They were like no Kevin, you don’t understand. It’s huge. I said well define huge? They said big chunks, and you’re going to be standing up and you’re not just regurgitating this information. It’s about things that don’t exist, creatures that don’t exist. You’re not really rooted in your reality. You can say well we’re going to go to Africa, to Spain, but these are planets that don’t exist. Technology that doesn’t exist, and I’m having to debrief the Reapers on all this. Then I really understood what he was talking about. So my days consisted of shooting, and then going to Popeye’s Chicken. (laughing)
Piccinino: Did anyone tell you guys about the karaoke bar that was in the studio? (To the reporters) That was a bar that was on the property that we were shooting on, like a country, honky tonk bar, and it had karaoke. So we were doing karaoke all the time. One of our crew members, Dustin, would play guitar.
Graham: Yeah and he would play with no shirt on (laughing). Always just wearing overalls with no shirt. He was like, “it’s my kind of place!” And I was like, “it is Dustin.” (laughing)
Piccinino: He was actually just working there as a groundskeeper. Something like that, he was taking care of the property, and our production designer, Michael Cooper, saw that he could use an extra hand in the art department and hired Dustin. He started doing every job that you can imagine in the art department, he’s making all this armor and building sets, and he’s actually a really good art carpenter. Flash forward, I love this story about Michael Cooper especially, so after we finished the show, he said “what are you going to do Dustin?” Oh, and he’s a really good musician too. He said, “well I really would like to get into programming.” I was like “code?” He said yeah. And this is a guy who hops on trains to travel and plays music, and doesn’t wear shoes. Michael took him back with him to Portland, having worked with him on different shows, but also having put him through school. He now works for Google as a programmer.
FoCC Blog: That’s great!
Graham: I love that he’s still wearing overalls (laughing)
Washington: I feel really blessed to have been offered this opportunity. I think the first challenge for me was, could I be Casper’s wife? It doesn’t match, you know. What I love about sci-fi is that it’s so much more accepting in ways than ways Hollywood can sometimes be. I mean, Casper Van Dien, Starship Troopers, and I’m just a girl next door who does tampon commercials. (laughing). It was great.
Piccinino: I think one of the cool things about sci-fi, and this is certainly because of the material, and it’s something that I’ve always strived for, is to normalize those kinds of things. It shouldn’t matter. By the way (to Washington), for Casper and Jenny, you were the first and last name that came up for this role. There was nobody else, we didn’t know what we were going to do if you said no.
Washington: Well I wasn’t going to say no (laughing)
Piccinino: They didn’t even give me a choice. (laughing) They showed me the materials. You didn’t audition.
Piccinino: We had a phone conversation. I watched stuff and was like she’s wonderful, and they were like honestly she’ll be the best actor on the set.
Jordan: They were like this is the actor, and “this is the job” (which is the big catchphrase of Salvage Marines). (laughing)
My first ever interview at San Diego Comic Con (SDCC) could not have been with a finer group of people. Each person in the cast and crew of the Salvage Marines came off as delightful, kind, and eager to talk about their experiences on the show.
Stream Salvage Marines now on Popcornflix! You can also discuss the show in our Forum!