Featured Image credit to Noa Azoulay
Early this year, the CW premiered Batwoman, its sixth DC Comics-based series. The first season followed Kate Kane as she battled the many villains of Gotham. One of these foes was Mouse, a sort of shapeshifter who could imitate the people around him.
Sam Littlefield, the actor portraying Johnny Cartwright and his alter ego, discussed the superhero series, his complex role, and his SXSW film Mother’s Little Helpers.
Littlefield grew up in an “art-loving and art-appreciating” family. They were big fans of the Grateful Dead, and he’d gone to about thirty of their concerts by the time he was ten. Despite her debilitating stammer, his grandmother instilled a love of music and poetry in him from her background in opera.
In 2010, Sam starred in Extropia, a stage play about “a technological utopia where music doesn’t exist.” The production was incredibly unique because every night, it had a live band doing industrial Foley and sound effects along with the actions of the performers. There were no props, so much of the physical environment of the show was portrayed through sound. Littlefield described it as a “Blue Man Group / Stomp amalgamation that made for this sort of multimedia experience… more of a live concert than a play.” He says he’s never since been a part of anything that has “really enlivened and touched audiences” in the way Extropia was able to. A decade later, people still ask him about it, but he hopes that one day it can be revived.
Some of Littlefield’s most significant roles have been as villainous characters, but Sam isn’t sure that “bad guy” is quite the right term for them. “They’re mostly really just complex.” He loves finding the justifications for his characters’ actions and digging to find the nuance of why they do what they do. He joked that his voice may also contribute to that streak of antagonists.
Since early this year, Littlefield has starred as Johnny Cartwright (or Mouse) on The CW’s popular Arrowverse series Batwoman. He admitted to feeling a little “thrown to the wolves” when production started, as superhero projects are on such a different scale than anything else. Though he said it was “an exciting journey getting to experience what it is to be in the DC Universe… In a lot of ways, my naiveté to what working in a comic book franchise would be like might have been a little overly intimidating had I known what I was getting myself into,” especially noting the high production value and diehard fans that he would soon be interacting with every day.
In regards to the huge and passionate DC fanbase, Littlefield admitted that he does avoid Twitter, as “there can be some land mines there. People love you or hate you depending on what you did in the last episode,” something that’s especially true with an extremely complex character like Mouse who brings a ton of controversy and conversation every week. While messages from fans praising him and the show are gratifying, Sam always does his best to keep his head down and focus on the work and just “do what [he] can.” Though it can be easy to forget “in the thick of it” that there are even fans out there who have such passion for all the characters, so it’s often a pleasant surprise to see the positivity that fans have for the series.
In terms of special effects, Mouse (or Jonathan Cartwright) uses masks made of skin grafts to impersonate other people, and he’s constantly revealing himself by peeling off the mask, something that Littlefield has become very familiar with. “We’ve really got it down pat.” The special effects process is long, with regular two-and-a-half-hour makeup sessions and the occasional ten-hour process of getting hair extensions, but it obviously pays off very well with the high quality of the show.
When asked about his favorite on-set story, he recalled his very first day. “The first scene I filmed was in Chicago, when we were doing pickups there… We had to shoot my first scene at the very end of a very long day. By the time we got to my coverage, the sun was coming up, they had to shut down the second unit production, pedestrians were walking into the shot, and street cleaning was going by.” He ended up only getting one and a half takes to do his first scene. It was chaos, but he marks it as one of his favorite memories because it reminded him that “you’ve got to get scrappy, and once you get into the rhythm of it, it becomes such an amazing process with everyone.”
But what about his most difficult scene to shoot? Fans will recall the scene between Mouse and his father (played by John Emmet Tracy) where Littlefield is tied to the hospital bed and there’s “a moment of reckoning” between the two as he finally faces his abuser. Most of Batwoman is shot at night just due to the nature of most scenes, so this was shot near the end of their “day” at around 6:30am. “It was a very emotionally taxing scene… Everyone was a little on edge because we wanted to get it right.” Despite its difficulty, that scene ended up being a triumph for Sam because everyone was “firing on all cylinders,” and it turned into some of his proudest work as it really honors the relationship between the two characters.
There were many more taxing and difficult scenes, but Sam called Rachel Skarsten (who plays Beth Kane) his “partner in crime” through the process. He found her to be a great person to bounce concepts off of, and she was always open enough to receive new ideas. Mouse is unique among the Batwoman roster of characters as he’s one of the few that didn’t originate in the comics. Johnny Cartwright began as a blank slate for Littlefield to fill out, so there was a lot of wiggle room in how he could be portrayed. “I feel like there’s a lot of people who are starting to question just how bad he is, seeing where he came from and what he was working against in life. The cards were stacked against him.” Sam is proud of how his portrayal has been able to make fans realize how much he is just “trying to make something of himself.” Littlefield doesn’t see Mouse as a villain, he sees him as “a person.”
Batwoman was just going into production for its final episode of the season in Vancouver when it was announced that borders between Canada and the United States were going to be shut down. All film productions were shut down in the city except for their show, as an exception was made because it was the finale. The rest of the episode had to be rushed in one night, and after an alarm being set off and a visit from the fire department, Littlefield found himself crossing the border on a Greyhound bus with Lysol wipes held up to his face. Even has he re-entered America, passing through Seattle made him feel like he was passing through some post-apocalyptic world.
Of all of his other television credits, Sam’s favorite was his guest role on The Leftovers. He was a huge fan of the first season and petitioned to get on it. “I’ve never tried so hard to get on a show as I did on The Leftovers.” He thinks that the HBO drama is going to be one that can “stand the test of time,” and he’s proud to have been a part of it. He noted how the concept of the show (two percent of the population suddenly disappearing without explanation) is chillingly prescient and relevant in the current world climate.
At the 2019 SXSW festival, an indie dramedy called Mother’s Little Helpers premiered, starring Littlefield in an ensemble of estranged siblings coming together to take care of their mother in the last few weeks of her life. The director, Kestrin Pantera (who also stars in the film), called the cast only a week prior to filming and asked if they would like to be involved. The project was filmed over eight days with no script (the core five cast members are all credited as writers) just based on an outline that Pantera had been developing over the prior few years. “Kestrin made it very clear to us from early on that we were the specialists of our characters.” Much like The Leftovers, it’s become uncannily relevant, a sort of quarantine comedy, as the story follows the four siblings isolated and trapped together in their childhood home, “waiting for their boomer mother to die as they lose their minds.”
During production, Littlefield’s father had just passed away, and Breeda Wool’s father had as well. “Our experience in mourning the loss of our father really bonded us to the process.” The five cast members had to build not only a familial acting relationship on screen but a professional one as they worked to build the story, but everyone was so open to opinions and had such high regard for each other that it worked smoothly and they were able to organically bond. “You put a bunch of very strong-willed people together in a house and you have them make a movie, there’s going to be some alchemy that takes place.”
Pantera has a traveling karaoke RV bus, “the kind of RVs that Led Zeppelin or Taylor Swift take around the country… You are immediately transported into this vortex of karaoke joy.” They became their own sort of traveling party in Austin at SXSW, and they had many guests join the group on the bus. “It was a week-long celebration of our efforts and music and film.”
Littlefield currently has a film called Moyamoya in development, following a stroke victim who has lost his memory and ends up developing a relationship with a stripper who helps remind him who he is. Oh, and it’s also a musical. He recently finished his sixteenth draft of the script, and we’re hoping just as much as he is that it will be released soon.
Though for now, Sam is just like the rest of us, making his way through quarantine. His recent streaming favorites have been Little Fires Everywhere and the Netflix documentary Becoming, though he did admit that CNN has been getting the most views from him recently.