Paul Telfer has had a crash course in soaps over his near on-and-off decade at Days of Our Lives and it shows in his breadth of knowledge on the genre, its fans and especially his breakout character, Xander Kiriakis.
TV Source Magazine got to sit down with the Scottish-born actor to learn about how he approaches playing the twisted but damaged Kiriakis black sheep, Xander’s tangled up love life and even more about his exciting thriller film, Green Rush and going full dark.
Our time was spent full of laughter but also insightful conversation that will hopefully enlighten you all on all things Xander but more importantly, inspire you to learn on the incomparable Paul Telfer as well.
TV Source: You’ve just made it to your seven year anniversary at Days of Our Lives, congratulations! Do you mind telling us a little bit about your journey with the show, starting as Kiriakis henchman, Damon and then becoming Xander Kiriakis?
Yes, actually, it’s funny. They say that every 7 years, your cells regenerate. So every 7 years you’re like a different person. So I’m a whole different guy now from when I first got this job!
Well, it’s been fun looking back. I watched the big wedding episodes yesterday with my wife Carmen. I don’t often watch the show on the day that it airs, but if there’s enough interest in it then she’ll watch it. But I was like, “Okay, you need to watch four more episodes first so it can make sense.”
It really was crazy to see how – not necessarily different Xander is, he’s still kind of the same terrible person – but to see how different his position in the show, in the town and his perception from everybody else is now.
It’s almost like my early experience on the show very much tracked like Xander’s, in the sense that, you know, I was dipping my toe in when I played Damon. I really, really enjoyed it. And I thought that this is actually perfect, you know. Just a small side character that can do like one or two episodes a month, get my health insurance, pay the rent, it’s all gonna be great. That’s what was going through my head.
Then they go, “How about a whole new brand new character, where you come on contract and do it for real?” I said great. And all they told me about him was that he was a charming psychopath that could flip on a dime. He could be so lovely in one scene and in the next be a different person, vicious and awful. I said, “Got it, can do, sounds great.”
TV Source: Charming psychopath? That’s definitely Xander, for sure.
That is, for sure. Especially early on, they don’t warn you what they’re going to turn you into. Know what I mean? They also may not even really know at that point. I come on, and I’m charming and I’m kind of mean to Serena, then I’m even more charming to Nicole and then I’m even more mean to Serena. It just keeps building and building up until I’m full-on wrestling around with her and throwing her around her hotel room.
It never quite crosses that line of full on, horrible abuse but he’s definitely a bad guy. I thought, “I can thread this needle for a bit longer. I don’t think everybody’s going to hate me that much. And I guess Serena’s a new character too, maybe they won’t mind so much that I’m so horrible to her.” But then they started having me sticking Nicole and Eric in a pizza oven to try and burn them alive. I don’t really know if I could come back from all this!
I remember going to Arianne Zucker who took me under her wing early on and asked her what was I to do, there wasn’t any coming back from this for Xander. I know I’m only on a year contract, I don’t see how the character can continue at this point. She goes, “We’ve all done terrible things! I was married to Victor and tried to throw a toaster in his bathtub to kill him.” I felt okay and then two weeks later, they fired me. To be fair at the time, they brought in a new writing team and let go a whole bunch of people on the canvas at the time. It hurt and was painful but I thought, maybe it wasn’t really my fault and they told me they’d try to get me back.
From then on, it really felt like how Xander vies for his position within the Kiriakis family and some kind of respect in Salem, I was also vying for my slot on the show as a recurring villain. Every time I came back, I got a little bit more to do as a useful player until they gave me another contract.
For now, it’s been the best and longest job I’ve ever had. It’s the most consistent institution I’ve been a part of outside of marriage.
TV Source: Xander’s always been the type of character striving for acceptance from his family, always the black sheep (whether deserved or not). How do you usually approach his character? How do you relate to him?
I think a lot of the charming psychopath stuff is mostly his attempt to cover and protect that he’s just a very vulnerable, sensitive, emotionally damaged little guy in a lot of ways. He’s very juvenile in a lot of his emotional reactions to things. Especially when he tries to be the big tough, international Man of Mystery there. “They seek him here, they seek him there”, you know? No one even knows where his accent’s from.
He’s essentially what the fatherless child raised by a struggling single mother – who has no name. One day we will get a name at least!
He’s just someone who has always felt on the outside of everything and at a certain point, he made a little deal with himself that he wouldn’t mind kicking the windows in to get inside. Why should he have to jump through every legal, and moral hoop when everybody else seems to do what they want and not get judged to the same degree because of who their parents are or who their uncle is.
Victor Kiriakis who is superficially respectable and legitimate but who Xander knows as a gangster being his closest male role model in his life. But he doesn’t have the resources or even mental resources to build himself into someone like Victor. He just does not have that same security. Victor is the most secure, solid and indomitable kind of guy but if you say the wrong thing to Xander, he’ll tear his hair out and run out of the room or lash out at somebody.
That frustration between how he’d like to be or like to be perceived versus the kind of person he actually is, is the fun tension to play with Xander.
TV Source: Did you ever imagine Xander would have his own romantic storylines after all the craziness he’s done?
I have to say, I was surprised that the story we did was he immediately fell head over heels in love with Maggie Horton’s daughter. Not only that, but nobly stepping in to help raise his despised enemy, Eric Brady’s child. But oh, no, it’s not really his!
It was not what I was expecting. I was expecting them to make him this ridiculous lothario. That had been my experience on the show. He’s supposed to be this hot guy who’s really confident with women and the women are often described as swooning over him. But he would never get any action. I used to start joking that he was like Pepe Le Pew, the old cartoon and then they literally made him start wearing patchouli. Now people are commenting on how he smells! I was like, “What have I done wrong that they don’t want me to be this romantic guy?”
In a case of careful what you wish for, the process of semi-redeeming and turning Xander something a bit more vulnerable was to just put it through the absolute ringer. But again, it never crossed my mind. I always assumed that if I was to have a regular place on the show, it would essentially be as the black sheep of the Kiriakis family where I would slip into this Victor-lite mode. You know, potentially be his CEO or his business assistant by day and then by night, I’d be doing crimes for him that would help the business or would help his endeavors. We’d have little spots of that here and there but really that turned out to be more the thing of when I was a recurring villain. Once I was on the the show they wisely knew to turn Xander into his own thing.
I don’t think I’ve even seen John Aniston in over a year now. But I think it was really smart to break him off of the Kiriakis family and push him to the other side of the Salem world for a bit. I’ve also noticed that a lot of fans essentially watch their version of the show and fast forward the rest so if they hadn’t been interested in the Kirakis drama, then they might not even click into who you are until they see you with someone they actually like. So the more you can glob onto legacy characters, the more chance you have to get noticed by the fanbase who are understandably resistant to new characters.
I think the shift towards Xander being his own person (even though he’s not very good at it), has done the character a lot of favors. If they do bring him back into the Kiriakis fold, he would come back as a different guy instead of the same stories of him vying for Victor’s affection. If he can build a life for himself, respect for himself, love and friendship then maybe he won’t be so needy and pathetic in the future.
TVSource: Xander is currently caught up in an extremely complicated love triangle with Sarah Horton and Gwen Rizczech – if it can be as simplified as that! How did you handle the fan reaction to losing such a popular couple to starting a new one?
Paul: The main thing I always try to remember is that fan reaction is valid, right? They’re not getting paid to do it. Before I was a consistently working actor and I occasionally worked in restaurants and suc, they would always tell those that a negative review will get shared a lot further than a positive review. If somebody has a bad meal at a restaurant, they’ll tell maybe 10 people. If somebody has a good meal restaurant, they’ll tell maybe two people. Just the way it goes. The most vocal are often negative. So once you accept that and don’t take it too personally – which is easy for me to say right now because I’ve been doing it for a while, but early on it isn’t that easy. Especially when you’re feeling secure, you’re not sure if you’re going to keep a job and how long it’s going to last, and you’re not really sure who even you’re trying to please. Is it the fans, the producers of the show, the writers? Eventually you realize that you’ve just got to forget all that and do your job and just enjoy it.
TV Source: What was the shift from working primarily with Linsey Godfrey’s Sarah to Emily O’Brien’s Gwen like for you?
So I felt in terms of the shift from Linsey to Emily, I was fortunate in the sense that Linsey is more experienced on soap operas than I am. So again, just like Ari had, she was able to… not so much to take me under her wing because I’ve been doing it for a little bit by that time, but I never really played a romance on the show. So to have somebody that I was a good friend, I could trust and could really talk things through about how to place things and what might be happening, what might not be happening.
Sometimes it’s hard, you know. If you know you’re going to be or you assume you’re going to be on a show for years and you’re going to have all this story, you never really know quite where you are in the story. And it’s very rare that the show gives us hints or even explicit facts about what’s coming down the pipe. So you’re kind of like the first audience for it.
In a typical job, you would have a script that has a beginning, a middle and an end or you might have between 12 and 24 episodes of a season. This is different. It’s a constantly produced narrative that you’re a part of the ebb and flow of. You’re not the center of it but sometimes you are, sometimes you aren’t. So sometimes it can be really hard to know where you really are in the story. And that’s when it becomes really important to just trust your partner. So shifting to Emily. I know she was struggling with the whole notion that she was playing this villain and it was very hard to make her sympathetic because of the kind of villain she was.
She’s not holding the town to ransom or any crazy schemes, it’s all this very manipulative, personal, emotional stuff that she’s doing. There’s children, miscarriages, sisters and fathers and it’s just kind of deeply rooted and real. I know that she struggled with how was she supposed to make her likable. I said, you don’t have to make her likable, you just have to make her not boring. That’s the main thing, the main achievement we’re looking for is to not bore people. As long as you don’t give up on Gwen and as long as you fight for her to have a reason to be doing things she’s doing, just watch and it will take a while, but the audience will slowly, but surely start to shift where they get that they’re supposed to hate you. The fact that they hate you isn’t like some weird accident, it’s the point. You’ll hit a kind of critical point where so much of the right kind of hate comes your way, that it’ll turn into love. I feel like it’s actually happening now. It feels like now is the shift.
TV Source: Xander and Sarah was a hugely popular couple with a lot of fan support behind it while his pairing with Gwen had a rougher start. As someone very in tune with and a part of social media, how do you handle the fan reactions to Xander’s stories?
As awful as the things that Gwen’s done and though it’s slightly different because Emily’s a woman and women viewers react differently to female villains than to male villains – but still, it’s so similar to the Sarah/Xander relationship. Similar in the sense that Xander was lying to Sarah for so much of it. You know, and he was doing it for love, he was doing it for Victor, he was doing it for Maggie. But really ultimately he was still lying to Sarah to maintain a relationship and that’s exactly what Gwen was doing about Sarah. So yeah, Xander doesn’t really have a leg to stand on morally but like I said earlier, that doesn’t really matter in terms of his natural reaction to what happened.
But in terms of the audience’s ability to sympathize with Gwen’s decision, even if it’s super evil and mean and awful, but as long as you can relate to it or some aspects of the audience can relate to it, you’re gold. In fact, the more they hate you, the more powerful that tension is between, “But yeah, I get why she did it… but she’s so bad!”
To be able to talk to Emily and say, “Look, I’ve been through this.” When I was first on the show and people would say nasty things, it got to me. The longer I was on, when they say nasty things, I’d smile like, “gotcha!”. At that point, very often they’re saying things about stuff that I shot up to six to nine months ago and I know I’m still on the show. So all their complaining that Xander shouldn’t be there is like, “Well, tough titties! I’m on the show!”
That’s what I always say to Emily. The fans are fighting yesterday’s war. You know that you’ve already moved on to these storylines and these things, just keep pushing. I’m really interested to see what happens next because she’s going to go through a whole, you know – Well, that’s Emily’s story to tell. Stay tuned.
But yeah, I really like that it seems that there’s no dead ends to any of these relationships. I guess there’s always the possibility of things being rekindled and coming back. And I should be so lucky to be caught in a love triangle between Linsey Godfrey and Emily O’Brien.
TV Source: Xander, Gwen, Leo and Craig’s double wedding was the talk of Twitter! How was it like filming such a big dramatic moment and did everyone hold it together during Leo’s entrance?
We shot it over two days. It really was one day was the Leo and Craig wedding and one day was for Xander and Gwen. We had all this heavy, dramatic, build-up about losing Sarah, and kind of saying goodbye to Maggie as well. I didn’t expect it to play as well as it did both when we shot it and when it aired. Xander doesn’t really have a reason to be friends with Maggie after he cut ties with little baby Sarah and also, he’s marrying this person everyone hates that’s done terrible things to people that other people care about so it’s going to be tricky to maintain the friendship.
It was all kind of just emotionally heavy stuff and so to come in on Thursday for the wedding, having a little mini-reunion with Leo Stark was a lot of fun. Because what can Xander really say to Leo? There’s a lot of that sentiment amongst the fans – as there should be – on who is this guy to think his poo don’t stink and then here’s Leo to explain exactly how it really is, and it’s pretty great.
But on a bigger television show or movie, that would take days to shoot but on DAYS we move so fast and cover things all at once, you really do sometimes get to watch the show. That was such a fun day! I hadn’t seen Leo’s costume for his entrance until he stepped out. So I got to react as myself and then as Xander which is always kind of delicious.
Then I didn’t realize until it was happening that Emily O’Brien and Greg Rikaart have a longstanding friendship when they were a couple on another soap opera years ago! That was kind of mindblowing and lovely as well. Nadia Bjorlin, Eric Martsolf and Wally Kurth were absolutely killing me! They were doing all this business stringing along the ceremony. Just getting to do a bunch of explicit comedy stuff they don’t get to was just so much fun.
I only had maybe one line in that first episode but I still got paid! But then the next day was like, now here’s the real work.
I kind of loved the two weddings in two days as fun as they were in different ways and as satisfying as they were for each audience to get to see this guy get his comeuppance and this girl get her comeuppance. No matter how different the two days were emotionally, they still had cohesive energy to them.
That’s just really got to go to Greg, Emily and Marci Miller, honestly, because they had the lion’s share of the dialogue. And Jackie Cox too, Jackie looked amazing. To just march into the show — and we move fast, we don’t get takes and, you know, it’s just whatever you do is going to go on TV. So for her to come in and just nail it like that was so satisfying.
TV Source: There should be a ruined wedding support group in Salem. Soap fans are used to wedding fallouts but this one was definitely new, unique and fun to watch. We even had a full on drag queen on daytime TV across America! That was unheard of until now!
Paul: Sometimes I have to make my wife watch the show but she kept saying these episodes were really fun, she loved it. I was like, “This aired at 1 o’clock in the afternoon in America! It’s really cool to be a part of.” And then we go into the next day, for a more traditional soapy disaster wedding which was cool too. It felt like a real, great piece of work.
TV Source: You mentioned before that these relationships don’t have any dead ends even after such a big bust up at the wedding. Where do you think Xander’s heart truly lies? Where do you hope that Xander finds himself with love?
For me, for Paul, I’ve always maintained that he loves Gwen and he loves Sarah. He loves them in different ways and for different reasons because the love grew in very different circumstances. But Sarah was first, you know, We’ve never seen Xander be in love with anyone until her. He was kind of obsessed with Nicole but much of that was about the fact that she didn’t want him than it was that he was really into her. So much of it was when he first came to town and he had a crush on Nicole and she kind of messed him around a little bit, not knowing that he was crazy and violent. So what happened happened. But he’s not really that guy anymore.
With Sarah, there was never any maliciousness or conniving aspect to how she treated him. She was always very upfront and he loves it when she’s like telling him off. She’s so little and she’s screaming up at him, and he finds it so adorable, you know.
But the major difference between the two loves is that one is aspirational, right? Like as much as he loves Sarah the person, Sarah also represents a lot to him. She represents a different kind of life to the one that he had, one of legitimacy and security, she’s leveraged into a very important Salem family outside of his own. He’s already a very disrespected and alienated part of the Kiriakis family, but then here’s Sarah with the proper Horton thing too. Then also there’s the analog between Sarah/Xander and Maggie/Victor. To Xander, here’s a template for how it could be. Wouldn’t it be wonderful having that, being the patriarch and Sarah’s his Maggie and all of the things that we could do.
To me, there’s this hugely aspirational part of Xander’s love for Sarah even though it is genuine. Early on when he was courting her, that was clearly a big part of his motivation was to basically marry into a certain kind of decency and legitimacy, so maybe a rub off on him. He did not realize all the work he was going to have to do to actually become a little bit more decent and a little bit more respectable.
But with Gwen, there was no chasing. He tricked himself into thinking he’s just helping out his best mate’s daughter who’s having a bit of a hard time and yeah, she’s gorgeous, but he’s just doing it to be a buddy. He couldn’t let her get into trouble. Then as things go along, you just can’t help but notice that well, they both seem to be unexplained British people and very similar criminal reactions to things, an instinct to lie and sneak around, dark humor with difficult, murky family origins. There was just a lot of connection there. So as opposed to Xander chasing after somebody, this was a discovery of somebody right in front of him with whom he shared all of these similar traits.
But I don’t want to have to walk between them because the Xander that can be with Sarah forever is a very different guy to the Xander that can be with Gwen forever. Andd it’s a soap opera! As long as he’s on the show and the show is on television, I don’t see him being with anybody forever. I’m sure he’ll end up getting drugged and forget who either of them are or his evil twin will come to town to seduce someone. Something will happen because we can’t just be happy, that’ll be dull. The last thing we want is to bore you guys, we’d rather torture you than bore you.
TV Source: What about throwing Leo into Xander’s dating pool?
Oh! That could work too. But they might need a bit more counseling but yeah, I could see it.
TV Source: What sort of new direction would you like to see Xander go in the main show or even on another DAYS digital spin-off series?
What I would love to win back is some of the danger of the character. Outside of scaring Dr. Snyder to death by accident – I was really pushing for Xander to just murder him but they were like no, you can’t just rip his throat out in the middle of the Horton living room, Paul. It’s one in the afternoon on NBC.
But there’s a big unresolved thing for me and I would love for them to address it just because it would give me more time with these actors. But you know, Xander did shoot Marlena. And Marlena and John kind of took it in their stride. I know I was like a recurring villain when I did it and it’s just like a bit of a retcon at the time because I’d been off the show for a few months and they told me when I came back. It just feels like at a certain point, John should’ve tried to get revenge but they always have so much going on. I’ve never gotten to work with Deidre Hall much but I have with Drake Hogestyn, and he’s a lovely guy.
I’ve always loved the idea of Xander’s mercenary, soldier for hire past and I think it’d be fun to pull him into the spy world like the ISA. I think it’d be kind of fun with his criminal connections from the past, it would be a way for him to be respectable on the surface. For instance, if he’s with Sarah, she’s not gonna let him go off and smuggle diamonds. But say John comes to him and asks for help to take down a diamond smuggling ring or something, and have Xander be slightly seduced to do the naughty thing while doing the good thing. Things like that would be fun.
I’ve also always wanted a full on Kiriakis and Dimera family war. A united front of the Kiriakis family against the Dimera family for a couple months where we just fight. There’s so many fun actors on both sides that don’t really get to interact with each other.
I would like while maintaining the semi-redeemed aspects of the character, for him to still indulge in his edge now and then. I think a simple way of doing that would be to allow him to get revenge on some other baddies. If he’s being presented as a semi-redeemed character, he shouldn’t be allowed torture good people but there’s no reason why he couldn’t get a little bit of revenge on Orpheus or Clyde. That’s the kind of thing that could get him into trouble!
Oh, and one more thing! The storyline I’ve always wanted to do is – Remember the whole thing when Xander and Sarah got together and he gave her Dr. Rolff’s diary to save Will? I’ve always thought it’d be really cool if in order to cure somebody, Sarah used Rolff’s research and kind of gets pulled into the dark side of dark medicine and magic, like necromancy. Whatever is that Rolff does! Then it kind of darkens her a little bit, you know. As long as she thought she was doing it for like good, solid, soap medical reasons.
But as long as they put the pages in front of me, I’ll keep saying them. I’m happy.
TV Source: Other than Xander who got married on 4/20, you play another baddie known as Ticker in Green Rush, a thriller about an attack on a cannabis farm that you also co-wrote! Can you tell us a bit about the film, the writing process and what it was like going full villain, outside of daytime?
It’s been a little bit tricky. You know, it’s hard to get financing for independent movies and that’s only getting harder and harder, especially for ones that aren’t horror films or have somebody famous in them that’s doing it as a favor to the filmmakers. My buddies and I had almost gotten multiple projects at different budget levels off the ground multiple times over the years and we just got to a point of frustration, especially our director Jared. He basically said let’s just do something. If we can just put something together that we can show people what we can do, whether it’s a short film or short. Just something done very high quality like something of a calling card.
I was lucky enough that I was pretty busy – I don’t think I was on contract but I was busy on DAYS. It was right around the time I was first working with Leo. I think that was when we were putting it together. We had toyed with this idea of a Scottish gangster, a Scottish criminal – well, really a Scottish debt collector. Someone who reminded us of people from our neighborhoods growing up. These quite nasty debt collectors that fill in the gaps where poor people can’t get loans and go to these criminals then if they don’t pay back, they get hurt. Very nasty people do this for a living.
We thought it would be nice to take this charming, funny and really vicious character and put him amongst typical American characters. We toyed with that for a while until our director’s friend took him up to his body’s place in Northern California to see his large legal weed farm. He was kind of blown away by how it all worked, not just how it looked. A big problem they have, the whole premise of the film is based on how cannabis is illegal on a federal level but legal in California. Which is fine within the state. But in state to state commerce, if you move it in any direction without it being illegal. Plus, you can’t put the money that you earn from it into federally insured Banks. So there’s all these weed farms all over California and I guess, other states too that essentially have to bury all the money they’re making in a hole in the ground. There’s nowhere to put it.
So it seemed like a fun premise for a home invasion thriller that will be relatively inexpensive and just go for it. So we wrote the script very quickly, only because we did it as kind of team enterprise. And like I said, some of the elements had already been worked out in terms of characters and it was more about finding them a place to all meet.
But I have to say the experience of it was the best thing I’ve done since I very first started as an actor. The pure experience of doing it. I’d had all this bottled-up. I get to let loose a lot as Xander, especially early on but this is still within the standards of what you can do on daytime.
So to let rip and be this sexually ambiguous, equal opportunity creditor. Who was like, sleazing and threatening and menacing literally everybody gets his hands on. But doing it all with this little twinkle in his eye, where he was enjoying himself. If I can pull off this Xander flavored character in an R-rated project, it would be really cool. And I’m really proud of how it came out. He’s nasty, horrible, horrible, vicious character but I think he’s enjoyable. He’s an enjoyable, hateable villain.
TV Source: What can you tease about what to expect next for Xander?
Well, you know, he’s absolutely devastated in the aftermath of yet another failed April wedding.
He already did the big drunken spiral the first time that he lost Sarah. So now he gets to try to rebuild himself in the aftermath of this heartbreak. But now we’ve got tons of romance coming from… well, just cross your fingers and hope that Sarah starts to recover from what was apparently an unrecoverable brain injury. Maybe there is some hope that she’ll be more like her old self sooner, rather than later.
As much as the wedding was some chickens coming home to roost for Gwen. You know, like the comeuppance for a lot of the things that she’d set in motion. It also was for Xander in the sense that what she did to him is very similar to what he did to Sarah. So there’s a certain amount of comeuppance there too. And so now, there is an outstanding issue between Xander and Sarah that has to be reconciled before they can get back together. So the fans can look forward to that being worked out in a slightly different way than they might expect.
I remember when we got the script, Linsey was kind of mad about it but I wasn’t. I said you’ll see, we need to earn this. We can’t just run back into each other’s arms.
So like I always say, expect it’ll be the usual mix of treats and torture.
Days of our Lives airs weekdays on NBC. Episodes are also available on Peacock TV.