Jensen Ackles only got into town a couple of hours before NME sits down with him and Karl Urban at a London hotel on a rainy Friday morning, but you wouldn’t know it. The pair’s easy, relaxed camaraderie is on full display, exchanging fun banter and occasionally finishing each other’s sentences as they discuss their very first on-screen collaboration.
We’re here to talk about the imminent third season of The Boys, the superhero satire show that debuted on Prime Video in July 2019 (beware: light spoilers lie ahead). Adapted from Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s 2006-2012 comic book series of the same name, it imagines a world where superpowered individuals (‘Supes’) are marketed and monetised by the powerful-but-morally-bankrupt Vought International corporation. Its violent, NSFW delights and superheroes-gone-bad storytelling style has made it a winning alternative to the more clean-cut heroism of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and success and acclaim has naturally followed.
“When it came out, [The Boys’ showrunner Eric] Kripke was emailing us going, ‘Hey, this has really connected,’” recalls New Zealander Urban. “But you really feel it when you go out in public and start interacting with people who are expressing their affection for what you’ve done, and that’s so lovely as an actor.”
Urban is back for season three as The Boys’ leader Billy Butcher. This time, his quest for the ultimate weapon to once and for all take down the sociopathic ‘superhero’ Homelander (played by Antony Starr) leads him to Ackles’ Soldier Boy, a new cast addition for season three. The Boys is a show that the Supernatural star was eager to join: “The opening sequence of season one when the body explodes, I was all-in on it from that moment, and then it just continued to get more layered. It resonates on a multitude of levels.”
Anticipation is at fever pitch for the third season. “I’ll have people coming up to me saying, ‘Oh, man, I can’t wait for season three,’” Ackles continues. “It’s just testament to what these guys have put together for the past two seasons. It’s really a great show.”
Urban and Ackles only met for the first time on the set of The Boys, but they quickly became friends while filming. “I was just super-thrilled to discover that Jensen was not only such a great guy, but such an asset to have on set,” Urban says.
“Jensen’s a real team player, and we’re so lucky to have him” – Karl Urban
“When you’re in the trenches with someone who has an ability like Jensen does to assess the situation and then actually come up with a solution that helps everybody, that’s the type of guy he is. He’s a real team player, and we’re so lucky to have him.”
The Boys’ third season was filmed in Toronto during 2021, when nearly everything was still shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic. But the pair still managed to play a few rounds of golf on their days off. Who’s the better golfer, then? “The first time we played, I think it came down to the last hole,” says Ackles. “He had me by one stroke. I had a shitty drive, but I somehow got on the green in two and I think I beat him by one stroke.”
“When I got home, I had an MRI done on my shoulder and I had a partial tear on my subscapularis,” Urban fires back, his competitive streak shining through. “I don’t know if I told you, but I was wounded.” Ackles playfully retorts: “All I hear are excuses…”
A rematch with a fit-and-healthy Urban is surely on the cards, but Ackles’ main focus remained on his work on The Boys. Marking his small-screen reunion with Kripke, who created Supernatural in 2005, the Dallas-born actor had stayed in touch with The Boys’ showrunner as the CW series came to an end in November 2020 after 15 years on the air.
“I was such a fan of The Boys already. I told Kripke that I’ll come over and just do a bit part: ‘Just put me in coach!’” Ackles laughs. “He’s the one who came up with the idea and said, ‘There’s this role that we’re starting to talk about for season three’. He’s like, ‘I’m gonna send you some material, let me know what you think’. Within the first couple of lines, I was like, ‘Oh, I gotta fight for this’. And I did.”
The part which Ackles coveted so much was Soldier Boy, Vought’s original Supe who was created during World War II. In some ways, that makes him The Boys’ version of Captain America: a superpowered individual from history who is unearthed in a now unfamiliar present. Being that it’s The Boys, however, you can expect him to be less likeable than Marvel’s boy scout.
“The opening sequence of season one when the body explodes, I was all-in from that moment” – Jensen Ackles
“It was interesting coming in as the new guy, but playing the guy who’s supposed to have been there the longest,” says Ackles. “I just kind of tapped into my inner grandpa. [Soldier Boy] is very much an analogue person living in this new digital land. We see him walking the streets in New York, and a guy walks by with a Bluetooth headset on. He’s just having a conversation, but, to Soldier Boy, it just looks like he’s talking to himself. So navigating that was interesting.”
While most of our time with Soldier Boy in season three is set in the present, there are multiple flashbacks. One such glimpse into the past sees the Supe sing and rap on a Top of the Pops-esque show – Vought’s marketing tactics were less evolved back then – and though we only see a snippet, Ackles teases that there’s much more to come.
“There’s this solid-gold video where I’ve got dancers and I’m doing a Blondie song. And then I did another Robert Mitchum song. It’s so bad! You’ll have to wait for the special features for the whole thing, but we filmed it!”
Ackles’ musical performances may be laughably bad, but they probably weren’t as demanding as his first day on set. In the scene where The Boys first encounter Soldier Boy in the present after Butcher and his team bust him out of a cryogenic chamber, the actor is in the nude: talk about being thrown in at the deep end. “It was fun to join a new cast and show and meet new crew members with just your bait and tackle in a sock,” Ackles says, before Urban chips in: “It’s just the way he walks around!”
This big reveal (ahem) is all the more exciting for the action that precedes it. This season sees Butcher gain superpowers of his own after taking an experimental drug known as Compound V, bringing a new dimension to the over-the-top violence that has become a staple of the show. It does beg the question, though: is The Boys’ leader headed down a dark path?
“I think Butcher’s arc this season is what is the cost of turning yourself into the very thing that you are trying to destroy? Is it worth doing that to yourself? What’s the cost?” Urban offers. “He makes a choice this season that has a catastrophic impact on everybody else around him, and it forces everybody to make the same kind of choice: you’re either with him or against him. And if you’re against him, you better stay out of his way.”
“Butcher makes a choice this season that has a catastrophic impact on everybody else around him” – Karl Urban
While Butcher may have laser eyes, Soldier Boy often relies on his trusty shield when he’s in the heat of combat. Ackles did much of his own stunt work, and went through a few props in the process. “The shields had different variations of weight: there were really heavy ones, but also rubberised ones for the stunts,” he says. “But I was swinging that thing around so much that I was ripping the handles off the back of them!”
As for the relationship between their characters, Urban and Ackles tease that while their goals may initially align, it isn’t long before conflict arises. “For Butcher this season, he’s determined to level the playing field,” Urban explains. “Not only is it a matter of levelling himself up, [he’s] utilising anything that he can. He recognises a powerful asset in Soldier Boy, and if he can wield Soldier Boy to help take down Homelander, that’s what he’s going to do. But through the course of the story, he comes to realise that that’s easier said than done, and that Soldier Boy has his own agenda.”
Ackles adds: “What Butcher comes up with is essentially the idea of ‘you help me, and I’ll help you’. That’s kind of how it starts out. But then the train goes off the tracks very quickly.”
The Boys isn’t the first time that either Urban or Ackles have swum in comic book waters. In 2012, Urban played the titular law enforcer in Pete Travis and Alex Garland’s gritty sci-fi Dredd, and while it deservedly won critical acclaim, it didn’t make enough money at the box office for a sequel to be green-lit. That hasn’t stopped talk of a spin-off or TV series coming to life in the ensuing years, and Urban is keen to see more Dredd on our screens.
“I think there’s such a wealth of material that [Judge Dredd co-creator] John Wagner and co. have written over the years, and I would really love to see more of that world out there,” Urban says. “The way that the technological evolution of film and television-making has advanced, especially over the last few years with the introduction of The Volume [a virtual production stage that is surrounded by screens that extend the set] which they utilised in the Star Wars and Mandalorian shows, I think it opens up a world of opportunity when you can envisage a world, like a mega city, in a fully realised way. So I’m excited to see more, whether it’s with me or not.”
Ackles, meanwhile, has tasted success in the animated realm. 2010’s Batman: Under the Red Hood – in which he voices Batman’s former partner, Jason Todd – is widely regarded as one of the best DC animated films, while he voiced the Dark Knight himself in the two-part animated adaptation of The Long Halloween last year. There’s more of the latter on the way.
“When I got asked to do the Red Hood, I was just excited to be a part of any kind of Batman franchise and jumped at the opportunity,” Ackles reflects. “And then when they called back and said we’re gonna level you up, I was even more excited! I’ve done about four features as Batman because they’re doing some Justice League stuff.”
While Ackles will also be keeping busy playing Sheriff Beau Arlen in the US crime drama series Big Sky – he recently got upgraded to series regular for the forthcoming third season – Urban will soon be moving onto his fourth Star Trek film, in which he’ll reprise the role of Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy.
For a while, it looked like Quentin Tarantino was set to direct a Star Trek movie with the current cast of characters. The idea was ultimately nixed, but Urban was nonetheless excited by the prospect: “I’m a huge Tarantino fan. I love his movies, and the opportunity to collaborate with him would’ve been a no-brainer.”
“With The Boys, the possibilities are endless” – Karl Urban
That still leaves the question of what’s next for Urban and Ackles on their respective journeys with The Boys. Assuming both Butcher and Soldier Boy make it out of season three alive – which is not a guarantee in a show as unpredictable as The Boys – we could be seeing much more from the pair further down the line.
“We all have so much fun making The Boys. The possibilities are endless,” says Urban. “I think that Kripke has a very definitive story in his mind, and I don’t think that he has any intention of outstaying his welcome. I just know that Kripke is not a fan of how the comics ended. So whatever we do will be different, for sure. We shall see.”
Having just completed a 15-season run on Supernatural, though, Ackles recognises the same “lightning in a bottle” with The Boys. And though his and Urban’s future on the show is uncertain, it’s a safe bet that they’ll at least live to banter with each other another day. This isn’t the end of their burgeoning bromance, or golfing contests: it’s surely just the beginning.
‘The Boys’ season three is available to stream on Prime Video from June 3