At the turn of the 21st century, Hollywood was firmly under the spell of a little phenomenon called the Teen Movie. And unless you were under the age of eight (and/or living under a rock), you were probably familiar with the spiky hair and pursed lips of Shane West. He practically ruled the genre, churning out classics like Get Over It, Whatever It Takes, and, of course, A Walk To Remember. But at 34, West is all grown up with a starring role on The CW’s hit action series, Nikita. Read on to get his take on high school, the teen movie heyday, and aging in Hollywood.
What attracted you to the role of Michael in Nikita?
I had always been interested in these types of shows, and when they decided to remake Nikita, it was done very well, with a great group of producers. They hired Maggie Q to be Nikita, who has to be hands down the best Nikita that’s ever been cast, and that’s how it was packaged to me. I loved Roy Dupuis’ work as Michael in the original series, and loved how dark the character was, and I really wanted to give that a shot. Also, Michael was supposed to be a little bit older than I am—I’m 34, but we’re on season 3, so I guess I was 30, 31 at the time—and to have the chance to play this type of role so early on in my career was kind of a no-brainer. The episodes just continued to get better and better; they really put you on the edge of your seat and grab your attention, and that’s something that hasn’t slowed down.
Nikita obviously involves a lot of action scenes. What was your training like?
We didn’t get much training! We kind of got thrown into it. They had Maggie, who had had all the training in the world, doing most of the stuff in the beginning. But I think they got a little fortunate with the casting of myself, and Lyndsy Fonseca, and Devon Sawa, and everyone else, because we all come from some sort of an athletic background. I played a lot of sports growing up, Lyndsy was in ballet, Devon played a lot of sports, and even Aaron Stanford, who plays Birkhoff, is an avid rock climber. So we all had that as a good base, and were able to turn it on when we needed to for the action sequences.
The show films in Toronto. What do you do in your down time?
Well, we know the city pretty well by our third year here. You know, it is tough to be displaced from home for so long, we shoot 22 episodes and that’s 9 months out of the year, basically. But Toronto is a very fun city, and it’s incredibly culturally diverse. The food is phenomenal, the people are great, the nightlife is great; it kind of considers itself a mini-New York. The weather is not fun, but I’m kind of getting used to it now.
How was life different for you as an actor in the early 2000s versus now?
You know, it’s changed a lot, both in terms of my career and my life. Those were my early twenties, and now I’m in my early thirties. That time was a little bit more free-spirited and carefree. I was like 22 when I did Get Over It, which means I was 23 or 24 when I did A Walk To Remember. We were all just young and having fun and bonding with each other, and probably less focused than I would be now. It was a crazier time because in those times teen films were rather large, rather popular. It’s been fun to see everybody kind of grow. In order to survive in this industry, it’s very important to make transitions. So for me, when A Walk To Remember was successful, I was able to do A League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I wanted to use that as a transition, to not be a teenager anymore, because I wasn’t obviously a teenager in real life. I think also being on E.R. for 3 years helped me a lot, playing a doctor.
Did you enjoy that experience?
Oh yeah, it was unreal, a lot of fun. And it helped me get taken a little bit more seriously for adult roles, but you still have to grow into that. When you get into your 30s, you’re still kind of competing because people over 40 are going for your roles. It has been a hell of a decade of change, and I felt that with Nikita, it was the first television opportunity I’d had since E.R. where I would be playing a character who was clearly a man, clearly an adult, with adult problems.
Of all the characters you’ve played, who do you relate to the most?
That’s a good question. Way back when I was 20 and 21, it might have been Eli Sammler, when I was on my first television show Once and Again. I didn’t have a learning disability like he did, but his divorced family situation was similar to mine. His struggle in high school was familiar, as well.
What was high school like for you?
Well, I never had a high school experience like all of those films. My family was very nomadic, so my high school experience was a little muddier than some because we moved so much. I graduated with a very small class, and I guess I was known in school, but I wasn’t popular, necessarily. There weren’t as many cliques in my high school, so it was very much the antithesis of those teen high school movies. I was on the basketball team, but we didn’t even have cheerleaders, so we didn’t really have that whole dynamic. I think people paid a little bit of attention to me during my junior and senior years, because that’s when I started trying to act. I’d have to leave class for auditions, and booked a couple of print modeling jobs at all those teen magazines, like YM and that kind of stuff. So people would see it, because the magazines would be out and about in classrooms. That was fun, I was seventeen, and it was exciting to have kids in school point it out and think it was cool. But then, you know, I graduated, went to one year of college but I was fully focused on acting. I got tiny parts in like Boy Meets World and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, just like two lines, one line, and when I got “Once and Again” I was twenty years old. And when I did Whatever It Takes with James Franco and Aaron Paul, I was just turning twenty-one. We were all good friends, I think Aaron was seventeen, Marla Sokoloff was eighteen. We were just reminiscing about this the other day, it’s funny because Aaron Paul is just now blowing up with Breaking Bad. And his biggest role before “Breaking Bad” was Whatever It Takes, that’s how long he’s been working.
Who is your all-time favorite co-star?
That’s a dangerous question [Laughs]. I actually don’t even think I can truthfully answer that, because I’ve been very fortunate, almost every project I’ve had I’ve come away with a good friend. I’ve also been very fortunate, too, with television; with Once and Again, E.R., and now Nikita, I’ve made lifelong friends with the people involved. Because there are plenty of television shows that are successful where everyone hates each other, and I just happened to have not had that problem.
What’s next for you?
Right now, it’s focusing on the show, seeing what projects might be available during my hiatus, and I’ve started my own production company with my best friend, who’s an amazing writer. We’ve actually got a film that we’re trying to produce, so that’s exciting. I’m also producing an online comic book called Big Bad Wolf, which we’re also going to try to make into a series. I’m not a workaholic, but I try and keep myself busy. I’m doing as much as I can, while having a steady awesome job, so it’s a good time.
“Nikita” airs Fridays at 8 p.m. EST on The CW.
Photography by Angelo Kritikos