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INTERVIEW: Tahmoh Penikett gives us a dose of ‘Painkillers’

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Painkillers tells the story of a military unit that wakes up in the hospital after a mission with amnesia. None of the soldiers remember the mission and they are given experimental drugs to help regain their memories safely. But as they begin to remember, they realize there is more to the mission, and the facility, than they were initially told.

I was privileged to speak with both the star of PainkillersTahmoh Penikett (Battlestar Galactica, Dollhouse), and its director, Peter Winther, about the film.

Here’s Part 1 in which I talk to Tahmoh Penikett. As a fan of the character Helo in Battlestar Galactica, needless to say I was very excited!

PM:  Thank you for doing this interview about Painkillers. You play Major John Cafferty, correct?

TP: That’s right.

PM: Could you tell me a little bit about the movie?

TP: The movie’s really about a group of soldiers, a unit that comes back from a mission. Or rather they wake in what seems to be a military hospital, and they all have collective amnesia. They can’t remember really what’s transpired on their mission.

PM: Could you tell me a bit about your character?

TP: My character is Major John Cafferty. He’s the leader of the group. You get the sense that most of these soldiers have worked together for a number of missions regardless of the fact that they all don’t remember what transpired on the mission. They do remember each other early on. Cafferty’s obviously the leader of the group. In the beginning he seems to be a compassionate, fairly intelligent man who really cares about his unit, and as the story goes on we start to question a lot of things. Maybe his integrity and the integrity of some of the other characters, and just how solid this unit actually is. We’re also slowly introduced to his family and his outside life, which he’s having a really hard time remembering. One thing he does remember is his daughter. Dr. Toutman, who’s played by the amazing Colm Feore, is the doctor at the hospital who’s trying to help us regain our memories.

tahmoh penikett painkillers
(RLJ Entertainment)

PM: I loved the scenes where Cafferty remembered his daughter. I thought they were very sweet. Those were probably my favorite parts. I’m a big sucker for father-daughter themes, so I really enjoyed them.

TP: [Laughs] Yeah, why not?

PM: Are there any similarities between you and Cafferty?

TP: Maybe some. He seems like he’s a very loving father and for the most part an upstanding individual. I’m not a soldier though. I haven’t experienced being on those tours. We could talk about the whole film, but it’s obvious at the end they’re not soldiers anymore, they’re private mercenaries, and if we examine the backstory even more, oftentimes a group of mercenaries will leave the enlisted military for, I don’t know, you might be able to say for different reasons. But getting into it sometimes they don’t have the best reasons for leaving, and there’s certain types who end up becoming mercenaries. Originally with this story I think they had possibly planned on doing a sequel, and the story is very much left open for that, but I was looking forward to that, finding out more about Cafferty’s story, who he is, how he got to his great relationship with Guts, some of their backstory.

PM: I’d definitely be interested in a sequel. I was very entertained during this whole movie.

TP: Yeah! That’s great!

Tahmoh Penikett Painkillers
(RLJ Entertainment)

PM: So what was the most challenging thing about this role?

TP: I think the most challenging thing was just, you know when you’re the lead, and you’re working on a project that has a very conservative budget, there’s not a lot of time to prepare or rehearse, and you’re working at a feverish pace. I’m in most of the scenes in the film, so there’s no down time. And that’s okay, I appreciate that and I liked that challenge on this project in particular. But, you know, it’s like, well, you might have a little more time to prepare. And we just didn’t have that luxury on this. And you’re working a very specific hustle when you’re working at that pace, so that was a little bit challenging.

PM: I can imagine. In the film, your character has to speak to an Afghan boy in his native language. What language was that? I know Afghanistan has more than one.

TP: I believe that was Pashto, but don’t quote me on that. We shot this almost two years ago now so my memory of the exact name of that dialect is a little bit fuzzy right now. But it was great because I had a recording of an actual native speaker saying it. And I studied it. Again, that was one of those things that I wish I had a little bit more time with, but I think I had enough to get it down. It was good, actually showing he’s someone who’s been there, he’s not just a grunt or an ethnocentric soldier. He’s someone who’s put in the time to learn the language and speak to the locals, and obviously this is not his first tour, this is not his first time in Afghanistan, right? So we get that sense. The young actor they got me to work with was pretty cool too.

PM: My last question is, what do you want viewers to take away from this movie? What kind of reaction are you hoping for?

TP: Oh, that’s a good question. I don’t know… [laughs]. That they enjoyed it. I personally love a good psychological thriller and that’s what first attracted me to the script. I hope it appeals to similar fans out there and I hope it maybe leaves some questions unanswered. You know this is a story that definitely can be continued and that’s why we watch things on television. We wanna go in, lose ourselves for a bit, lose ourselves in the character’s story and enjoy and root for them. Go on a little two hour journey, a little reprieve from our everyday lives. So if anything, I want people to enjoy it.

tahmoh penikett battlestar galactica
If you liked Tahmoh Penikett as Helo in ‘BSG’ you’ll love him as Major John Cafferty in ‘Painkillers.’ (Syfy)

I quite enjoyed this film. I had expected a standard sci-fi/military mission movie at first, full of gruff bravado. Those elements were present but there were also heartwarming scenes of a man trying desperately to remember his daughter and to take care of his mentally debilitated team. The relationship between Cafferty and Guts was also something to see. Cafferty not only trusts Guts to help him figure out what’s going on but he also relies on her to help him make the right decisions. Without her, he’d be a lot worse off both mentally and physically.

The set is minimal but that serves the purpose of making the location seem sterile and cold. Most of us are already creeped out by hospitals, or at least want to spend as little time inside one as possible, and the not-quite-right feeling of the one in the film just serves to make everything the doctors do and say seem ominous. Add to that Colm Feore (Thor, The Chronicles of Riddick), who makes my evil alarm blare even when playing a good guy, and you start to understand why Cafferty and Guts are so anxious to leave almost as soon as they wake up.

Just as Mr. Penikett hopes, Painkillers is a good way for a sci-fi fan to sit back and immerse themselves in another world for a while.

Look for it on DVD and Digital Video today, Jan. 12, 2016.

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About Jessica Gibson

Jessica Gibson
Jessica is a Midwestern girl living in the outskirts of Seoul. In between teaching classes and meeting friends, she likes movies, traveling, and fighting her cat for the warm spot in front of the space heater.