A charismatic villain? The answer is yes, Chris Wood. Many know him from his on screen role as everyone’s favorite bad guy in Vampire Diaries, playing Malachai (Kai). These days he’s taking on a completely different character in a new series you can catch on the CW Network, called Containment. Off screen, Chris is on a mission to expose and spread awareness about the stigma around mental illness. Like so many do, he secretly battled through speaking out loud on the still taboo topic. Now, he’s diving mind first into research and sharing his own experience, “mental illness forever changed my family” he recently tweeted. Chris is working on a campaign to make more noise around mental illness and act as a resource hub, hoping to connect those with unanswered questions. He met with ABILITY at delicious café in Studio City, CA for lunch and chatted a bit.
Lia Martirosyan: Do you eat healthy?
Chris Wood: Yeah, I try to eat organic, to fuel my body.
Martirosyan: I was checking out your Instagram and saw your wine fiasco.
Wood: Oh, my God!
Martirosyan: How was that? Did you have fun?
Wood: It was great, yeah.
Martirosyan: Which vineyard was it?
Wood: Linne Calodo in Paso Robles. It’s just north of here about three and a half hours, sort of near the coast.
Martirosyan: Is that the one right on the edge—along a cliff?
Wood: It’s a little more inland.
Martirosyan: So you’ve been pretty busy?
Wood: They keep me busy.
Martirosyan: That’s a good thing. You probably don’t get to do that kind of stuff very often?
Wood: No, it was good. We took a few days off. I just hung out with my dog and my girlfriend.
Martirosyan: You’re a big animal fan?
Wood: Yeah, I love ‘em.
Martirosyan: When did you start the series Containment?
Wood: That was back in last March, I guess, when we shot the pilot.
Martirosyan: Are you liking it?
Wood: Yeah, it’s great. We shot the pilot and then we had to wait however long. I think it was the first week in May we found out we were going, so we went back in the summer to shoot the rest of the episodes.
Martirosyan: How do you compare that show and the Vampire Diaries?
Wood: They’re very different. It was a more mature theme show, a little more suspense-drive in a realistic way instead of a fantasy way. That was a fun role to play.
I just saw the first billboard, it just went up a couple days ago.
Martirosyan: How exciting. You should take a cheesy selfie with it.
Wood: The billboard’s actually just a shipping container, which is a big thing on the show, with this red circle with a dash through it. There’s nothing else on it.
Cooper: It’s cryptic?
Wood: Yes, it’s ominous and cryptic, and they said within a few weeks we’ll see more of the signs popping up around the city, sort of like what happens in the show, and then eventually the full title with it. It’s gonna’ creep in. We’ll see what happens. I like it.
Cooper: Did you have to work out to get in shape with this part?
Wood: Yeah. That was sort of a size difference. It just helped a little bit.
All that boring stuff you have to do to get ready. I exercise anyway, so it’s just short of shifting my workout to match.
Cooper: More weight-train?
Wood: Yeah, weight-train more heavily so I could put on a little bit of weight for a role. He’s a SWAT officer, so their training regimen would be more intense than a street cop. I just wanted a bit more size.
Martirosyan: Do you do your own stunts?
Wood: Yeah. I have a stunt double, too, who works with me on the show. We’ve worked together for a couple years now. He’s great. But the stunts were sort of minimal in terms of things I couldn’t do. I told the coordinator up front I wanted to do as much as I could on my own. Anything that was super-dangerous, I had a double for.
Wood: Dangerous deskwork, paperwork.
Cooper: Paper cuts.
Wood: (laughs) Those are lethal, very dangerous. I also make sure my double gets in if we’re doing something dangerous. That’s their livelihood, too. If they don’t actually appear on-screen for the stunt, they don’t get paid the same way.
Martirosyan: It’s good of you to think that way.
Wood: We’re all in this together. Everyone on-set is making the same product.
Martirosyan: My sister-in-law is a huge fan of yours and Vampire Diaries. She was the one who found you speaking out about mental illness. We saw that you are an ambassador for Mental Health America (MHA). Do you want to go into how all that began?
Wood: I sort of have wanted to get involved with mental health initiatives for a bit. There’s such a plethora of organizations out there, all striving for similar but different forms of the same cause. And I was talking to Rebecca, who I think you guys talked to over at my publicist’s office. We looked at a bunch of them. We tag-teamed some websites and engaged in a couple conversations with people. I read up on what different places were doing and where I felt that my passion for it fit in best. We found that MHA’s mission statement was—they used little phrases from things, almost like sound bites, things I had said about what I felt needed to change and what I wanted to be out there. It was a good sign that someone else’s mentality and mission statement mirrored pretty directly what I was trying to accomplish.
Cooper: So they were following you around and picking up your sound bites?
Wood: Obviously, yeah! Way back in the early 1900s they started picking up sound bites from me. (laughs) They’re ahead of the game.
Martirosyan: Great that you found that connection.
Wood: Yeah. They’ve been around for a long while. They were founded in 1909 under another name [National Committee for Mental Hygiene, & formerly known as the National Mental Health Association], but the same organization. They began as a psychiatric patient foundation, by Clifford Whittingham Beers. He wanted to fix the way that patients were treated because he went into a couple of institutions since he was struggling with bipolar disorder, and the way he was treated there he felt was a form of abuse. He didn’t feel like they were working to help him, but to punish him for having this problem. He very early on was depressive in the way that he verbalized it. Everyone told him to pursue this cause anonymously, because of the stigma that was associated with it, and it’s still taboo today, which is my biggest opposition, how it’s “not okay to have mental problems.” Any other illness, any other disease that we’re faced with, there’s sympathy and understanding. We get help for those. With mental illness, our go-to is to categorize them as, “Oh, they’re crazy,” to belittle the problem.
Even in the Democratic debate recently, there was a question to Bernie Sanders about mental health, and he made a joke about the GOP debate. That, too, doesn’t help. That belittles, that says that people who are saying things that are either racist or bigoted, which is what he was making the broad generalization about the GOP, he was associating that with mental illness, saying that they were behaving as a mentally ill person. That’s not fair. That pushes the problem even further, because it makes us think of mental illness as something that is not acceptable, as a bad thing. And it’s not a bad thing. It’s very real—it’s a disease. It’s the same form of a problem that someone would have with a physical illness, something involving their heart or cancer. But we handle it different.
Going back to the roots of the foundation, they encouraged him to stay anonymous, and he said, “I can’t be afraid to speak out. I have to publicly do this, because that’s part of the problem. No one’s talking about it.” That was big for me, learning that, because the way I perceive the world of mental health, that’s the number one issue facing it, that we don’t—because we don’t understand it and we’re faced with a lot of the negative consequences of untreated mental illness, like school shootings and violence, a lot of that comes from people who are mentally unwell and don’t get the help they need early enough. If we’re able to prevent that by removing the stigma and making it so people are okay and expressing the problems they’re having, we’re gonna’ avoid the whole evil path that people go down when their minds aren’t able to be healed.
Cooper: Why did you choose this subject?
Wood: I lost my father four years ago to what was the culmination of a manic episode that seemingly to my family came completely out of the blue after 59 years on this earth with no issues that we knew about, at least, sort of a normal run-of-the-mill guy who did his job and came home and had a family, did all that in the classic American way, just out of the blue, for lack of a better word, lost it, starting hearing voices, having psychotic symptoms, was unable to sleep, ended up losing his job because he thought he was hearing—that God was giving him a plan to save the world and he pitched that. Obviously that was a problem. The short part of that is, he lost his way a bit and left my family and wandered the country. The thing that my family and I were faced with was the difficult task of trying to get someone the help they needed when they didn’t want it.
It was a long process leading to when he passed. I was 22 when it started, and it took a couple years. At that age, with no obvious resources to go to to find the answers I needed, I kept on running into walls everywhere I turned. I couldn’t find someone who could tell me what I could do to help him.
Cooper: Was this in California?
Wood: I grew up in Ohio, but when this was happening, my family had moved to Pennsylvania. I was doing a national tour of the theater production, so I was Everywhere, USA. My sister lived in New York at the time. My father had a heart attack when he was—I didn’t know he was in Arizona, but he had gotten out to Arizona. I got a call from the hospital. I went out there and I was able to petition and work with their system out there to get him—it’s a 72-hour hold that they do first, and then you can appeal to have them committed indefinitely if you can show that they pose a danger to themselves or others. And that was widely apparent. He apparently walked into the hospital while having a heart attack. He was so manic that his body didn’t shut down. He was on his feet saying, “I’m having a heart attack,” and fully awake, which they said they’d never seen before and that was very odd.
He had a quintuple bypass. They medicated him and put him in this facility. Arizona this year was 50, the bottom of the barrel, in terms of the quality of mental healthcare. The care in my summation, based on phone calls I got from him while he was in there, was to medicate and isolate. Sedate ‘em and leave ‘em in a room without shoelaces and let time pass. And one day I got a phone call that they thought he was better and they were putting him on a plane. They sent him to Ohio, and my mom was in Pennsylvania and I was in New York, and we had to scramble to get friends to go out and pick him up. We put him in a hotel. It was awful, a train wreck. The system didn’t help us.
That completely threw me for a loop. To me, my dad was just sick. With any other disease, like the heart, they operated, they know what drugs to give, they are there to help you and help him. With a mental illness, because your behavior changes, because it’s something that people respond to differently, they say things that they don’t mean or they say things that aren’t actually of them, it’s of the disease, causes the world around them to turn their backs. And the system does the same thing.
Look at our healthcare programs, in most places, even workplaces, they offer behavior coverages that are so minimal, as if it’s not something that requires the same care that your dental or your vision plan would be necessary to have. Mental health screenings, just prevention outlets for teens who are having suicidal thoughts or adults who are feeling confused and anxious, there aren’t easy places to go to find that help. You’re left with the unfortunate crash-and-burn methodology; once they’ve threatened to hurt someone or caused harm to themselves. Like my dad, who was a perfectly healthy guy, lost 65 pounds in a couple of months because he wasn’t eating or sleeping, and then his heart failed after a whole lifetime of nothing other than some blood pressure advice from his doctor. Without the help that he needed early enough, he just spiraled.
Sorry. It’s such a vast world. It’s hard to even consolidate it into specific answers. I’m sorry about that.
Cooper: No, I think you did a nice job.
Wood: It’s such a massive problem, so broad. It’s hard to—
Cooper: You are so right; our lead editor is a psychiatrist. We’ve worked around mental health issues for over 2 decades.
Wood: I saw some stories where you covered people who worked with mental health.
Cooper: Some people believe, “There’s no such thing as mental illness.” Also people who don’t want to take any medications, “Let me be who I am. I don’t want to loose my creativity.” And others stop their meds because they feel fine–not realizing it might have been the meds that got them to feel that way. For instance, your father’s experience, he spirals and there is no support—it’s complex.
Wood: It’s a massive problem. So hard to find places to help. I’m trying to build a campaign through MHA right now that’s essentially an anti-stigma and general awareness campaign that will hopefully be of the theme, like, talk about something in that world, because it’s a big problem, and we’re scared to say it. I was scared to say it. For three whole years, after my father passed away, there were only a handful of people I told the truth to. I told everyone else it was heart failure. I was of that same mind, that I didn’t want people to think poorly about my father. I didn’t want his remembrance to be that he was “crazy”, mentally ill. Only by realizing that it was hypocritical of me to want to spread awareness, but I’m not admitting what actually happened, that’s part of the problem. We have to talk about it. If we don’t talk about it, then we continue to stigmatize it.
Martirosyan: Tell us more about the campaign you’re starting.
Wood: Hopefully I’ll have a website soon. We’re still working on it. I’m trying to figure out the branding for it. The big thing for me is, I want to—the Think Pink campaign is so brilliant in that it made a color and a little ribbon associate with a cause. So every time you see that, you know what that means. And Think Pink, those two words don’t even say “breast cancer” in it. That’s what’s so smart about it. With two words you know what someone’s talking about. And it is respected.
I’d love for there to be a united front for all of the organizations that do anti-stigma and also accessibility for people seeking help, all the suicide prevention websites and hotlines. Provide online tools for people to answer questions and get results to see if they need help. The slogan is the hardest thing to come up with, if you’ve ever watched “Mad Men,” apparently you don’t land on the million-dollar idea overnight. Sometimes I wish that we would just find something. I want to put everything behind it and try to get as many celebrity influencers as we’re able to get. Social media is such a powerful tool now. We’re able to get youth engaged in that way. That’ll be big.
Cooper: You’ll be a resource of resources.
Wood: That’s the hard thing, boiling it down to what the exact purpose is. I think that’s the target. There’s enough places pushing for legislation in Washington, and MHA, that’s one of their primary causes, trying to change the legislation.
Martirosyan: So they’re lobbyists?
Wood: They lobby, they work with Congress, with Senators, like the health committee in the Senate, they’re trying to get them to have more screenings and get more funding for grants and things that will add to the research world of mental health. We know so little about it, and understand it in such a vague way. The mind is too hard to point at and say, “That’s bipolar. That’s anxiety.” They all overlap. Symptoms can fall loosely into certain categories. It’s very hard to get government officials interested in even talking about it.
I read an interesting article where someone was engaging with CNN trying to get them to cover a story, and one of their spokespeople responded, “We’re not really covering mental health issues unless it pertains to a massive case, like a school shooting.” Well, that’s exactly the problem. We’re waiting until it explodes instead of trying to go back to the root where the spark is happening. What is creating the fire? It’s untreated issues. I can’t stop landing back on the problem, we don’t talk about it.
We need to get a campaign of celebrities in whatever their medium is, musicians, politicians, writers, and actors, whoever they are.
Even within the nonprofit world, multiple organizations vying for the same cause get competitive. We forget that we’re all fighting for the same things. It’s wild. It happens with every cause. They turn against each other fighting for the same positive—you start with a mission to improve the world and to better people, and then you fight each other.
Martirosyan: It’s different personality types.
Wood: So you need to fight alongside each other. That’s what I want to do more, a coalition. It doesn’t matter where it’s located.
Cooper: Most of it should just be web-based.
Wood: That’s what it probably will be. I want to have swag, the t-shirt-water bottle world. That’s the biggest—I’ve seen people do a t-shirt for water conservation and they raise $10,000 in a day just by selling t-shirts.
Martirosyan: Don’t they have to wash t-shirts with water?
Wood: You’re not supposed to wash them. You’re supposed to wear them without ever washing them. That’s the goal.
Martirosyan: (laughs) Remember “DARE to keep kids off drugs”? I think that the t-shirt campaign might have put them on the map.
Wood: I had a DARE shirt. And you’d see the kids wearing the shirts smoking pot after school.
They loved the irony.
The statistic is that one in five people suffers from mental illness. That’s astounding when you then look at, of that percentage—for men, too, specifically, men in my age group, the statistics on who seeks help; it’s the lowest number, in the teens. If one in five people suffer from it, one in 200, I think that’s the stat I most recently read, actually gets help. That’s a lot of untreated people.
Cooper: Recently mental health parity passed. I wonder how Arizona’s health system is managing.
Wood: It’s disheartening when you see that a program that is in place with the intention of being able to get people the help they need in those moments is not doing that. It’s very sad.
Even if you Google organizations, it takes a second of scrolling down the page to even find them. If you’re looking—because I did. I pounded the internet for resources. I called organizations that were in Ohio that could help me with understanding the law, called nonprofits. Everyone said, “That’s awful. I don’t know what to tell you.” Doing that over and over again, it’s mind-boggling that there’s not enough of a system in place to fix that.
It took me a long time to get myself into therapy. We need to think of going to therapy as—
Cooper: —going to the gym.
Wood: As regularly as going to the gym. It’s so essential. Our minds are so fragile and so important to the rest of our health. If our minds go, our other health deteriorates. It’s so easy to see where that’s the thing that we’re scared to try to fix. Schools that check their kids for vision and have fitness evaluations, there’s no reason they couldn’t have mental screening. There’s no reason we couldn’t have the same thing for workplace requirements of employment, that they try to get people help. It’s hard. The ADA sort of protects people once they’ve been wrongfully eliminated from the workplace they stand beside them, but there’s nothing in terms of keeping them from getting to—
Cooper: There are five main components to the law, and none of them address this issue.
Wood: No. It slips right through. It’s such a massive undertaking to want to overhaul the mental health perspective of an entire population. How do you do that?
Cooper: It would take weeks.
Wood: Minutes a day at least!
Cooper: As you were saying that, It takes different departments within the government, is MHA lobbying for screening within schools?
Wood: They are pushing hard for that.
Martirosyan: That’s good.
Wood: And they just launched an early draft of a bill that’s a step in the right direction, but it’s missing the central components that will put more money into the researcher, into the state programs, and make it so that if people want help they can get it. Even trying to find a therapist is such a difficult task. I asked around for recommendations. If you go online and search for in-network providers, I saw someone’s picture on their page; it was a picture of their dog, a headshot. For the bio, it was a dog. How do you find someone who’ll help you and whom you’ll trust with your entire mental well being based on a picture?
Cooper: It’s not just mental health. The healthcare system—
Wood: Oh, my gosh, absolutely.
Cooper: And to try to find out if that physician is good or not.
Wood: “Psychology Today” has a therapist finder. You can look at ratings.
Cooper: How do you trust the information? You can have people who are upset about everything, nobody can do anything right and they write negative reviews. Do I make an opinion from someone who didn’t like a doctor’s personality?
Wood: And there’s a lot of bad out there, too. Or bad fits. I remember having a phone call, I called someone by weeding through the web, maybe three times over the past four years, I decided I was going to start therapy, and I sought it out, spent hours looking and trying to find somebody, and every single time I would hit the same point where I was like, “I don’t trust anybody.” And I would just not go. And I feel like that happens in all different facets of health. It’s so hard to find the right provider. ...To read the full article, login or become a member --- it's free!