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Before he returns to the small screen for The Flash, Tom Cavanagh takes on a villainous new role on the big screen for Matt Osterman’s 400 Days.

The sci-fi thriller follows the journey of four American astronauts — Theo (Brandon Routh), Emily (Caity Lotz), Bug (Ben Feldman), and Dvorak (Dane Cook, who also serves as executive producer) — who give up 400 days of their lives for a simulated mission that will test the psychological effects of space travel.

Just like the film’s inspiration, Mars500, a real-life experiment where an international team of six astronauts volunteered to be locked inside of a simulated spaceship for 520 consecutive days, 400 Days also has a team of astronauts living an underground life of daily routine and testing. Tensions inevitably start to rise between the four participants, and when they decide to prematurely emerge from their ship, they discover that the world may or may not have drastically changed.

The film reunites Cavanagh, best known for playing the morally ambiguous Dr. Harrison Wells on The Flash, with his fellow Arrow/The Flash actors Routh and Loitz, who play The Atom and The Canary, respectively, in the DC television universe. For this project, however, Cavanagh plays Zell, an offbeat and questionable diner owner whose devious intentions are quickly revealed. And although he doesn’t appear until halfway through the film, it is a scene-stealing role.

I had a chance to speak with the actor about what attracted him to 400 Days, his fascination with space and astronauts, and what we can expect from Dr. Harrison Wells on The Flash. The highlights of the interview are below.

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On why 400 Days appealed to him:

Cavanagh was drawn to the film’s premise — “You’re put in a simulator to see how you accept the challenges of each day, and so we’re gonna put you here for 400 days in the simulator, or is it a simulator?” — a concept he likened to a Twilight Zone episode. “I like how it was evocative of simple storylines, with things that you had to sit up and pay attention to; as a viewer, you had to get involved a little bit,” he said.

On his character:

To portray a man who, in spite of the dramatic changes on earth, continued his daily routine of maintaining his diner, Cavanagh borrowed from Old Hollywood Westerns, where the good and bad guys were immediately evident to audiences.

He explained, “You didn’t have a lot of backstory; they didn’t waste a lot of time. He’s the man in the black hat. You knew [that] when the hero rode into town there was going to be conflict here and that was a nice thing. They knew it was going to be a fight between white and dark, good and evil.

“If you look at Zell, how I talk, the clothes I’m wearing when you meet me for the first time, you can see I’m clearly stealing from these old Westerns. I like the fact that there’s a guy who’s presenting himself [in] a certain way to them. There’s clearly darker layers behind that, and that for me, anyway, that’s very enjoyable to play.”

On whether Zell is a villain or a survivor:

“Unless it’s very simple stakes, the villain is not to be seen as the bad guy by the villain,” explained Cavanagh, who compared Zell to Earth-2’s Dr. Harrison Wells, his latest incarnation on The Flash. “This is a guy [Wells] stuck on this earth, and he just wants to go home to his time — who among us doesn’t want to go home to the place we know and love?”

He continued, “Does he do bad things to get there? Sure. He does. Does that make him a bad guy? Well, he’s just trying to get home. In other words, he’s not like, ‘I’m the bad guy! I’m a villain!’ And Zell’s no different; he’s got this thing happening. And then these other people come in, these astronauts, and he deals with it.”

On the selflessness of astronauts:

As suggested by the film’s title, the four astronauts signed on to devote over a year of their lives for science. It’s this selfless trait that is one of the key principles to being an astronaut. “The exploration, the science of it has an altruistic and higher goal,” said Cavanagh, who revealed that he was always fascinated with the profession. “For these people, their missions take on not only that higher goal, but also the built-in heart of it for them is team — we’re doing this together. It always comes down to togetherness. You don’t want to let down your brothers and your sisters.”

He compared their objective to that of the crew’s in Ridley Scott’s space epic The Martian, in which a group of astronauts are on a mission to find their lost partner, Mark Watney. “If they’re going to go back and risk their lives to save the Martian, they’re also going to add a year and a half of space travel to their lives,” Cavanagh said. “They’re away from their families, and they don’t hesitate. That’s how these people are … They are part of a team of huge, huge stakes. I find that very, very appealing.”

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On the appeal of space films:

With the success of films like Interstellar, Gravity and Moon, the space genre has resurged amidst the era of the superheroes. Cavanagh narrows it down to two main factors — the first being the advancements in technology. “This is a great time to be able to put those imaginings and realize them fully on screen as you see them,” Cavanagh said. “The stories are well told. Had they been poor, had they been Gravity: The Musical, you probably wouldn’t see other iterations on the screen.”

The second? Social media. “I’ve done plenty of small independent films,” Cavanagh said. “It just gets rubbed under the rug; it never gets seen. But nowadays, even if there’s only 12 of them, they will find 400 Days, and they will see it, because it won’t go amiss. And that’s thanks to the social media platforms that say this is available to you. These are your interests and you have a search engine — you can find it.”

On the film’s ending: [Warning: Spoiler Alert!]

Unlike recent space films like The Martian or Gravity, 400 Days concludes with an ending that is open for interpretation. On the film’s divisive ending, Cavanagh said, “Our movie is like, well, they had billions of dollars and they told it that way. We’re telling our movie this way. This is what this smaller movie is, and I feel really convinced that there’s room for both.”

On The Flash:

When we last saw The Flash, Dr. Harrison Wells and Zoom negotiated: If Wells helps Zoom defeat Barry Allen (by helping Barry grow stronger), then the Big Bad will liberate Wells’ daughter, Jesse Quick, from captivity. It’s a sinister plan that could easily tempt a man as desperate and vengeful as Wells. “I just really like this version,” Cavanagh said of his latest iteration. “He’s dark, angry, got a lot of rage. He’s holding around a pulse laser; it’s robust and athletic in many ways.”

The CW series — which returns for its midseason premiere on Tuesday, January 19 at 8 p.m. EST — will have Barry and the Star Labs team going against The Turtle (played by Battlestar Galactica‘s Aaron Douglas), a meta-human who can slow down time. As for what we can expect for Wells, Cavanagh teased, “He’s not messing around, and I love that — I think you’re going to see more of that for the remainder of the next few episodes.”

400 Days is available in select theaters, Amazon, and VOD.

(Photos courtesy of Syfy Films.)