[caption id="attachment_2975" align="aligncenter" width="225" caption="Defying Gravity's Dr. Evram Mintz (Eyal Podell). Photo by Kharen Hill and copyright of Fox Studios and ABC."][/caption]
On the surface, Dr. Evram Mintz appears ready to take his first step into the unknown. As a member of the International Space Organization (ISO), he participated in a five-year program in preparation for six-year mission onboard the spaceship Antares to explore the other planets in our solar system. However, like his fellow shipmates, Evram brings with him some emotional and psychological baggage that could compromise his ability to care for the physical and mental well-being of those around him. Facing his inner demons is not easy for Evram, but for the actor who plays him on Defying Gravity, Eyal Podell, it is part of discovering just who his character is.
"Evram is the Antares crew physician, psychiatrist, resident drunk and in many ways voice of reality," says Podell, who is dressed in his character's flight suit and waiting in his trailer to be called to set. "The greatest [acting] challenge with him came, I think, when my conception of the character changed. Once all the roles were cast and everyone came together, we realized that between Zahf [Paroo], who plays Ajay Sharma, Florentine [Lahme], who plays Nadia, and Peter Howitt [who plays Trevor Williams], we already had three or four different accents on the show.
"So [executive producers] Jim Parriott and Michael Edelstein said, 'Let's strip the accent away from your character.' That immediately sent me right back to ground zero because I felt in many ways that one of Evram's defining characteristics was his foreign personality [Israeli] and point of view. So having to kind of start from the ground up again was a bit of a challenge, and then in the first few scripts there wasn't much character revelation or backstory with Evram. However, as episodes four, five, six, seven and eight came along, more and more of Evram's history began coming through," enthuses the actor, "so that allowed me to piece him together.
"In general, astronauts have to be terribly brave, visionary and optimistic people, and part of my challenge was figuring out what the hell was Evram doing here. That meant talking with Jim and Michael about exactly why he wanted to be part of this mission, other than the grandeur of being one of the first humans to travel to these other planets. There must have been something else behind it, and answering that question helped me form a clearer picture of my character. Evram has a dim view of humanity and he's experienced the trauma of war. He has been involved in some of the big Middle Eastern conflicts that have taken place in the future, and those experiences obviously shaped his outlook on life as well as humankind.
[caption id="attachment_2976" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Evram ponders what situation might unfold next onboard the Antares. Photo by Sergei Bachlakov and copyright of Fox Studios and ABC"][/caption]
"Maybe it was a subconscious choice of Evram's to get on a spaceship and get as far away as possible from his own flaws, including his issues with alcohol and war. If he's billions of miles away, he doesn't have to be drafted, or read on the Internet or watch on the news the non-stop footage of bombings, killings and murders - the atrocities that man commits against man."
Was it destiny that led Podell to his role on Defying Gravity? Ironically, when he was in 10th grade, the actor wrote a term paper about being a doctor. "Then, though, I realized I didn't have the stomach to go to medical school and spend however long it would take with internships, residencies and all that other stuff," he recalls.
"However, my parents raised me with the idea that an education is your ticket in life. One of the really important things they did for me was make sure I went to a good college [Dartmouth in Hanover, New Hampshire] so that I would have the proper foundation and tools to pursue whatever [career] I wanted. So I actually came into this business thinking, 'OK, I'll try this for a little while and see what happens,' but I soon found that it was almost like a drug. You get a little bit of the joy early on and become hooked. From there, I chipped away at it [acting] and built a resume role-by-role. Just a few years ago I booked my first regular job on a soap opera [The Young and the Restless] and landing Defying Gravity is my first big break."
The pilot episode of Defying Gravity establishes that the story is told in present day (2052) and in space with the Antares crew - four men and four women - as well as in flashbacks where the astronauts first meet and start their mission training. Audiences also see that despite Evram Mintz's rather dark and grim view of the human race, he has not scared away someone who truly cares about him.
[caption id="attachment_2977" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Dr. Evram Mintz during training for the Antares mission. Photo by Sergei Bachlakov and copyright of Fox Studios and ABC"][/caption]
"In the first episode we're introduced to my character's love interest, Dr. Claire Dereux, played by Maxine Roy, and it would appear that she and Evram have been in a relationship for a number of years," notes Podell. "And it's been interesting to find out through the flashback element of the show how they came to be in that relationship. It's also a little strange because in the flashbacks we're all just meeting as a crew, so we don't quite know each other that well yet. However, in the present day, we've already been through five years of training, so what does that mean in terms of our relationships? Which of our strengths as well as weaknesses did we reveal to each other during training? What personal struggles have we seen one another experience? Have we been there for each other as shoulders to cry on? Have we picked one another up off the ground and said, 'Come on, get back on the horse.' Have we had fist-fights? Who knows?
"So there's a while lot of history to be filled in. However, what we do sort of assume is that we've reached a point where we can look around at each other and say, 'I trust you with my life.' There's a camaraderie among the crew. They're a family, and they have to be because they're going to be together for a very long time. That being said, even with your brothers and sisters, you feel like 'killing them' sometimes, which I think is a compelling aspect of our show, especially in that these people are essentially locked under one roof."
Acting-wise, has it been difficult for Podell jockeying between flashbacks and present day? "It's not so much the bouncing back and forth as to who we [the characters] are, but more how we relate to one another," he says. "With relationships in general, you come into them being neutral. So as our characters come into the [training] program, they look at one another and think, 'Oh, there's a guy, and there's a girl.' The exceptions to that are those who have reputations, like Maddux Donner [Ron Livingston], Ted Shaw [Malik Yoba] and some of the other astronauts who have done some incredible things. However, the rest of these people look at each other and they don't know one another from a hole in the wall, so they don't have any preconceived notions.
"As the series begins to unfold, we see our characters in the flashbacks start to uncover pieces about each other. They then gather all this 'evidence' up and we sort of see how that affects their perception of one another. So the flashback elements are fascinating in that our characters are still trying to pull things out of each other and fill in the gaps. It's a strange dynamic, and in some ways I feel like those scenes are much more fun to play when it comes to character development."
[caption id="attachment_2978" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Evram on-duty in the Antares' sickbay. Photo by Sergei Bachlakov and copyright of Fox Studios and ABC"][/caption]
As far as a favorite Defying Gravity episode, one immediately comes to the actor's mind. "Part of our characters' training involves having to back each other up job-wise if necessary," explains Podell. "So as a physician, Evram has to teach the other astronaut candidates something about medicine. So that was a fun episode where I really got to play doctor and 'perform' surgeries and things of that nature. As an actor, I'd never had to do scenes like that before involving medical jargon, special effects, blood and guts and cool equipment like you see on TV. Evram also gets to share some of his backstory with the other characters, which I was pleased about.
"Funnily enough, my wife went in for surgery not too long ago to have her appendix removed. I wanted to make her feel at ease, so I was trying to make light of the moment and asked the surgeons, 'Do you want me to scrub up? I've had some experience.' I started throwing words around that I'd used in the show and the doctors were looking at me as if to say, 'Hey, you know your stuff.' I had a photo taken on my cell phone of me on-set, which I showed to the surgeon and said, 'See, I've been there.' Meanwhile, my wife is rolling her eyes and saying, 'He just plays a doctor on TV. Don't let him near me,'" chuckles the actor.
While Sci-Fi drama is nothing new to TV, Podell is hoping that audiences look deeper into Defying Gravity and discover what makes it different. "Michael Edelstein and Jim Parriott refer to this as Science Fact, and I think that's very interesting given that we're right on the cusp of these [real world] advancements with the European Space Agency as well as China and a whole new space race that's being launched," muses the actor. "All these things are relevant because our show looks at what's going to happen with the space program 30 or 40 years from now. Although the series is set in the future, it's not so far ahead that you can't comprehend it. I think audiences will be curious to see what our technology might be capable of and where humanity might be headed as far as working together to explore the universe.
"There is also the fact that the stakes with space travel are quite high from a very real perspective because our characters don't have transporters or any of the typical Sci-Fi devices. For example, they're still vulnerable to the affects of exposure to space on the human body. I think it's in the pilot where Donner says something like, 'When exposed to the vacuum of space, humans are like pinatas. We just explode, burst, freeze, die, etc.' So it's a fine line between life and death, which is always intriguing. And then there is the mystery element to our story, in that what are we going to find when we get out there in the universe.
[caption id="attachment_2979" align="aligncenter" width="200" caption="Evram Mintz standing in one of the Antares corridors. Photo by Sergei Bachlakov and copyright of Fox Studios and ABC"][/caption]
"Jim and Michael have some really cool stuff planned when it comes to planting things along the way and piquing the audience's interest to make people wonder what's going to happen next."
In addition to Defying Gravity, the actor's other TV credits include CSI: NY, ER, The West Wing, House and Without A Trace as well as recurring roles on 24 and The Game. On the big screen, Podell made his debut playing Al Pacino's son in The Insider, and has since appeared in such movies as Unconditional Love, Blowing Smoke and the independent feature Hard Scrambled. His fans perhaps best know him for his two-year stint on the aforementioned The Young and the Restless, as well as his multiple episode arc as Ryan Burnett in season seven of 24.
"24 was a lot of fun," says Podell. "It was great to be back on-set with Kurtwood Smith, who played my boss [Senator Blaine Mayer] in the show. He also played my boss in a little independent film we both worked on. Kurtwood tortured me in that, and here I was getting tortured by Kiefer Sutherland [Jack Bauer] in 24," jokes the actor. "It was awesome getting to watch Kiefer at work. I'm always looking to learn from people who have been in this business longer than I have and have endured. Kiefer gave 150% of himself. he was the hardest working guy on-set and totally dedicated and committed to making the best product possible. Not one ounce of him was phoning it in, and I thought that was amazing.
"The response I received from people about my being in the show was terrific. The second they saw me on it, they started saying, 'You're going to die, right? He's going to kill you. That's what happens. If you're with Jack Bauer, you're dead.' So that was tough having to keep my mouth shut about it for a few months. Of course, my character got tortured and then had his throat slit. I don't know why, but I tend to get killed a lot on TV. Hopefully that won't happen here," he says laughing.
No matter where his career takes him, Podell will never forget something Gene Hackman said to him and a group of other actors during a break on the set of Behind Enemy Lines. "One day we were all sitting around - these young actors playing sailors and naval airmen - and nervously pretending to do something else other than stare at Gene Hackman while he was sitting there reading a book," says the actor.
[caption id="attachment_2980" align="aligncenter" width="199" caption="Evram monitors a situation while on-duty on the Antares flight deck. Photo by Sergei Bachlakov and copyright of Fox Studios and ABC"][/caption]
"Gene could sense that we were all hoping that he would say something, so he looked up and asked, 'Do you guys still audition?' It was a totally redundant question,which he knew, and we were all like, 'Sure.' And he said, 'Man, I used to love to audition.' At first I thought, 'Why?' and then it dawned on me that he got to be the success he is because there was nothing else he'd rather do than walk into a roomful of strangers and put on a 'show' for two minutes. It wasn't about being in Yugoslavia and filming a multi-million dollar feature for Fox Studios. It was about the bare minimum of that moment in the audition room, and that for two minutes a day, a week, twice a week, whatever, you get to entertain people. Learning little lessons like that early on in my career is what continues to serve me well in this business."
Steve EramoDefying Gravity is produced by Fox Television Studios and OmniFilmProductions, in association with the BBC, Canada's CTV and Germany's ProSieben. As noted above, photos by Kharen Hill or Sergei Bachlakov and copyright of Fox Studios and ABC, so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any kind. Thanks!
[caption id="attachment_2621" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Ty Olsson as Defying Gravity's Rollie Crane. Photo by Kharen Hill and copyright of Fox Studios/ABC"][/caption]
International Space Organization (ISO) Astronaut Rollie Crane was a man on top of the world. After five years of training, he was ready to command a team of three other men and four women, including his wife, biologist Jen Crane, on a six-year mission to explore the other planets sharing Earth's solar system. Then, suddenly, Rollie's dream was snatched away from him and his long-anticipated journey to the stars was over before it even began. While he could not dispute the reason behind this,it was no less discouraging and heartbreaking, especially having to be separated from Jen. However, as he later tells a colleague, Rollie has to follow his own advice to "suck it up" and get on with his job. Sharing his burden is Ty Olsson, who plays Rollie in Defying Gravity, and while both the character and the actor suit one another, things could have turned out much differently.
"When my manager and I first got wind of this project, I put myself on tape because I wasn't available for the actual audition," says Olsson. "From that tape, the show's casting people brought me in for a live audition, and I ended up trying out for three different roles. I think I put Maddux Donner on tape first [a role that ultimately went to Ron Livingston], then I read for Ted Shaw [Malik Yoba], and twice for Rollie. My last audition was for Ted, and it's funny because I remember [executive producer] Michael Edelstein saying, 'Oh, I think the Ted character is perfect for you.' Then, of course, Rollie was the one that came down the pike, which, honestly, I think is a perfect fit."
In Defying Gravity's first season opener, Rollie and a fellow member of the Antares crew are called back to Earth prior to the actual start of the mission. Both men are found to have a previously undiagnosed heart condition and there is no other recourse but to ground them. Ted Shaw is chosen as the Antares' new commander, while Rollie is reassigned as capsule communicator. Rather than experiencing the mission in-person, he must watch it unfold from in front of a monitor in ISO's Mission Control. Like his fellow actors, Olsson was suitably impressed when he saw Rollie's working digs for the first time.
"I think you get a feel for the creative minds behind a project when you walk onto the sets for the first time, and when I saw Mission Control I thought it looked like a movie set," recalls the actor. "I was just blown away by its level of detail and that of the Antares set. It's comforting to look around and think, 'OK, they put the money in the right place. This is a really good set to play on.' That's easily my first memory of working on Defying Gravity. I'm sitting in the [production office] board room right now and looking at the dozens of drawings and pictures on the wall of the Antares bio lab, the medical bay, the flight deck, Mission Control, etc. It's unbelievable the amount of work and creativity that has gone into preparing this series, and it shows on the screen.
"Besides the sets, I can't talk about our first episode without mentioning [director] David Straiton. He is the wackiest and funniest dude and he has such a cool creative energy about him. When you start a new show you don't know what the people who are running the ship will be like. And from David, you get a sense that he's a guy who allows you to play as well as make bold [acting] choices and doesn't pigeonhole you into his idea only of how a scene should go. So I felt like everyone from the bottom up had the same type of creative energy that flows together. Our camera crew is the same one that worked on Battlestar Galactica and in my mind are some of the best in the business.
"When I saw those guys were signed up, and I got to meet David, and I'd already met Michael Edelstein, I knew I'd be very happy working in this place for the next five or six months. I'm very critical of the stuff I'm in, but I have no qualms about saying that this is a top-notch show and one that came together quite well. I mean, you look at the first episodes of some shows, even huge hits, and think, 'Wow, they weren't really gelled there.' Some first episodes never look as good as the ones that follow, but I have to say that ours looks really tight."
Fans of Defying Gravity know that its story is told in present day/Mission Control time as well as in flashbacks. So besides seeing Rollie at work, you also get to see him during training for the Antares mission, which is when he and Jen (Christina Cox) first met. As one of "the boys," Rollie joined his fellow astronauts for beers at the local watering hole, and even took part in a bet with their female colleagues that he and the other male astronauts could overcome the effects of a libido-inhibitor patch designed for use during their mission. While he is still just as good-natured, loyal and kind, Rollie has grown since his training days, which has allowed Olsson to show more facets of his character.
[caption id="attachment_2725" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Rollie Crane at his post in Mission Control. Photo by Sergei Bachlakov and copyright of Fox Studios/ABC"][/caption]
"When I originally auditioned for Rollie, I was told that they [the show's producers/writers] were going to go a different way with the character and make him a little goofier and a bit of a nerd," he notes. "I gave them a version of that when I read for the part, but later on when I got the job and read the first script. I realized that Rollie wasn't really like that. So I decided to kind of go against that and made him somewhat stoic, very professional and, for lack of a better word, a quarterback. I wanted him to be the high school quarterback/all-American type of guy who is always above-board and could be relied on to get the job done. The character read to me like someone who should be commanding a multi-billion dollar space mission.
"So that was an acting challenge because I was coming in with something performance-wise that I hadn't really shown them. Luckily, an episode or two into shooting, Michael said to me, 'We really like what you've done with your character.' I thought, 'Whew,' because you're never sure how something like that is going to turn out.
"The other thing I've tried to layer into Rollie, in particular during the flashback sequences, is to make it seem that he was much more easygoing and a bit wilder in his younger days. I think he experiences a lot in the five years heading up to the mission that kind of change him. Again, you never know how it's all going to play out, but in my mind Rollie is much goofier and younger in behavior in the flashbacks than he is in present-day as the former commander of the Antares. So that's been tricky, to kind kind of keep that in my back pocket and not make my character one level all the time. You don't want anyone to come across as one-dimensional, so it's a matter of trying to keep him all those things that I've talked about, but also make him a real person with flaws and who occasionally has chinks taken out of his 'armor.' Also, we haven't pinpointed 100% when Rollie found out about Beta, but I'm guessing it was fairly late in the preparation leading up to the mission, and something like that has to change your outlook on life a little bit."
The aforementioned "Beta" that the actor referred to is, in fact, an unseen enigma that appears to be manipulating events regarding the Antares mission. It is inferred that Beta is responsible for the medical condition that led to Rollie and Chief Engineer Ajay Sharma (Zahf Paroo) being removed from the mission. This also meant that Rollie's and Jen's outer space "honeymoon" would not take place. Instead, they spent some time alone together on the Antares observation deck before Rollie returned home to Earth.
"I think Rollie had a crush on Jen from day one," says Olsson. "When it comes to relationships with the opposite sex, that's one area where he's not the star quarterback who whisks women off their feet. He's not a great pick-up artist. I think he's slightly shell-shocked by Jen as well as a little love struck in the early days and slow to take action. Part of that could have been that he was a superior officer within the [mission] program at the time. Rollie is hopelessly in love with her, though, and falls for Jen early on. The chemistry between them is fun to play, and Christina Cox is terrific to work opposite. She's very giving and listens as an actor, and the two of us have had a great time exploring who these two characters are as a couple.
"Christina and I have had some wonderful scenes via video conferencing between Jen on the Antares and Rollie back on Earth, and the funny thing is we don't actually do the scenes together. I don't remember which episode it was, but I was doing one of these calls with Christina on the other end and, of course, they hadn't shot her portion of it yet. We did it a few times, and one of the great things about [director] Peter Howitt is that he has this belief that an actor should be able to do one take for himself - even if it's terrible, even if it's stupid, even if it's in another language - which is awesome.
"We did the scene as scripted and then I asked Peter if I could do one [take] for myself and he said, 'Sure.' So I just let it rip, and I'm sure it was my best take of the day. That's something I truly appreciate as an actor. When a director trusts you enough to say, 'Have a freebie. This one's for you. Do whatever you want,' that, as an actor, is gold for me."
[caption id="attachment_2726" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Rollie onboard the Antares. Photo by Sergei Bachlakov and copyright of Fox Studios/ABC"][/caption]
A husband, father and actor, Olsson was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, and, like many people in the business, never imagined that he would one day make this his career. "I actually went to a performing arts high school, and from grade nine onwards I did two hours of drama a day. So I had the [acting] bug, but because I was never one to think what tomorrow might bring, I never considered this as a possible profession," explains the actor.
"It wasn't until my final year of high school, when I still had no idea what I was going to do with my life, that it dawned on me that everyone else was trying out for theater schools and I thought, 'Wow, people can actually make a living at this. That's awesome. I'm going to try it, too.' I've lived a somewhat blessed life in that way, having been pushed and nudged in the right direction and I'm very grateful for that."
The actor chuckles when asked about his on-camera debut. "My wife loves to tell this story. My first paying job ever for movies or TV was The X-Files [season five's Kitsunegari] when the program was at the height of its popularity. I came home from work and my wife asked, 'How was it?' And all I could say was, 'The catering was amazing! They had steak, prawns, salads, fruit, desserts...' My very first professional day as an actor and the biggest thing I had to talk about was the food," jokes Olsson.
"Daniel Sackheim directed this episode, and he's a super-intense guy. I told him years later when I worked with him again that I thought he was going to have a heart attack on The X-Files. I remember doing a scene where I was supposed to grab a doorknob and open the door as part of a spooky X-Files storyline. We did 14 takes, and I began to sweat and get really nervous. I wondered, 'Why do we keep doing this over and over? What the hell am I screwing up?'
"I think it was one of the crew who finally noticed that I was starting to sweat, and he leaned over to me and said, 'Don't worry, it's not you. He [the director] thinks he's shooting a feature [film].' I was like, 'Thank God,' because I was going crazy trying to figure out how I could get something like that wrong. Those were the glory days, though. I was on that set for five days shooting the opening teaser and I had a blast."
Olsson has since appeared in several made-for-TV movies as well as miniseries and guest-starred on dozens of other shows such as Dead Man's Gun, Cold Squad, The Outer Limits, Tru Calling, The L Word and Eureka. The actor also played the recurring roles of Captain Aaron Kelly in Battlestar Galactica and Danny in the Stephen King miniseries Kingdom Hospital.
"I was a huge fan of Battlestar Galactica and all the people who worked on it, so I was thrilled whenever I got a call from the producers telling me that they were bringing Captain Kelly back," he says. "It was a fun show to work on and a bit stressful as well. This was a group of people who worked together for years and shot dozens of episodes, and I'd come back and have to remember how to pronounce some of the technical terms. I loved the challenge, though, and when I did the show, I also did my homework to make sure I was up to speed on everything.
[caption id="attachment_2727" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Mission Control Flight Director Mike Goss (Andrew Airlie) and Rollie. Photo by Sergei Bachlakov and copyright of Fox Studios/ABC"][/caption]
"Kingdom Hospital was a great show to work on as well," continues Olsson. "It was weird as well as creepy and creatively really on the edge in a lot of ways. My character of Danny was a paramedic and most of my scenes were with Ben Ratner, who is terrific to work with. I first met him during, I believe, a second callback for the part. The casting people were pairing actors up to read and they put us together. Ben and I chatted in the hall for 30 seconds, went into the audition room, did the scene, and the director looked at us and asked, 'How long have you two been working together?' It was one of those instant chemistry things where Ben and I just hit it off really well, and that's always a bonus."
On the big screen, Olsson's credits include Lake Placid, Missing in America, Elektra, The Day the Earth Stood Still and X2: X-Men United as Mitchell Laurio. "A job like that is a dream come true insofar as getting to work with all those people with such amazing careers," says the actor. "I was telling someone not too long ago that I put on 35 pounds in three weeks for this role. When I was hired, I was told, 'Hey, we want you to go on a beer and pizza diet.' Well, you don't have to tell me twice. I already admitted how much I love the catering at work.
"Wardrobe took my measurements three days after I got the job and I told them that I was going to put on some weight. When I went for my first costume fitting there was something like a three-inch gap between the button and buttonhole of my pants. I came back three weeks later and there was still a gap because I'd gotten that much bigger, so they had to switch pants. On the first day of filming, there was another three-inch gap, so they had to let the pants out again. After Ian McKellen [Eric Lensherr/Magneto] found out I'd put all that weight on, he would come over to me every day, pat my stomach and ask if I needed anything from craft services," laughs the actor.
Around the world, there are people who begrudgingly get up every morning and go to work, but Olsson is not one of them. "I'm so lucky to be doing something that makes me happy," he enthuses. "I like to audition, I like to work, I like to be on-set and I love the creative process and problem solving. I also enjoy surprising people and being the guy who doesn't look like an actor but who has a great deal to offer.
"Growing up, I was a daydreamer, and my daughter is the same. It makes me so happy when she says, 'I'm going to bed early because I would like to daydream before I go to sleep.' That was me to a tee. I used to love to lay in bed and daydream, and now I get to make those daydreams my career. I should have been born in a different time, too. I've always felt I was in the wrong time-line, and this [acting] is my way of finding those alternate realities that I fit into."
Steve EramoDefying Gravity is produced by Fox Television Studios and OmniFilm Productions, in association with the BBC, Canada's CTV and Germany's ProSieben. As noted above, all photos by Kharen Hill or Sergei Bachlakov, so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any form. Thanks!