[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_2594" align="aligncenter" width="225" caption="Defying Gravity's Christina Cox as Jen Crane. Photo by Kharen Hill and copyright of Fox Studios/ABC"][/caption]
It is far from an ordinary day onboard the spaceship Antares for Defying Gravity's biologist Jen Crane. Rather than running experiments on plant samples or reviewing the progress of frozen animal embryos, she is standing on the ship's observation deck and helping deal with a life and death situation unfolding before her eyes. It is an emotional scene and one that actress Christina Cox, who plays Jen, is obviously relishing. Having fought aliens as Major Anne Teldy on Stargate Atlantis, chased demons as Vicki Nelson on Blood Ties, and hunted down Vin Diesel's Riddick as mercenary soldier Eve Logan in The Chronicles of Riddick, blasting off into outer space seems the next logical step for Cox. However, while Defying Gravity may be set among the stars, it was the story's more down-to-Earth elements that initially attracted her to the part.
"I'd heard about Fox Studio's plan this year for different shows, including one being shot in Vancouver involving eight astronauts - four women and four men - and I thought, "Hmm, Vancouver, plus Sci-Fi or spatial, and Christina; perhaps there's something there. What are the odds that I might be going into space?'" says a smiling Cox during a break in filming on the Defying Gravity set. "I asked my manager to keep an eye out for this show because I always like coming home and the idea really intrigued me, which is the exploration of human relationships n such an extreme situation and the types of personalities that wind up in these kinds of jobs. Obviously they're going to be pretty extraordinary people, and yet human beings with flaws, issues, baggage, damage and all that, which we learn about as we go along.
[caption id="attachment_2595" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Jen Crane in ISO's (International Space Organization) Mission Control prior to leaving on her mission of exploration. Photo by Sergei Bachlakov and copyright of Fox Studios/ABC"][/caption]
"When I eventually read the script I thought it was fantastic, and contrary to what some people are going to think when they see that we're astronauts on a spaceship, it never read to me like a Sci-Fi show whatsoever. I'm often asked why do I do so much Sci-Fi, and I really don't have an answer. It's just a coincidence. It's not like I look at a script and go, 'Ah, ha, oh, no, it's not Sci-Fi. Forget it.' It just so happens that I've done a lot of Sci-Fi, but, again, this never read to me like a 'space show.' On the contrary, it read to me like a relationship drama with a light touch and a fair degree of humor and sensibility, and that's something I was interested in exploring. I've had a great time doing straight Sci-Fi shows and firing 50 clips with my P90. I love that training and all that action, but I was really looking forward to getting my teeth into a character-driven show, and that, to me, is what this is.
"Probably more than anything else, Defying Gravity is about the alien within all of us and that we're trying to get to know," continues the actress. "We only learn to understand that [alien] self through experience, and this is such an extreme experience. Everyone's issues are going to rise to the top and they'll be forced to confront them. I think that's what a situation like this does, and one of the issues that we're dealing with right now [in the real world] as far as trying to plan long-term space missions, is what will something like that do to the human psyche? How will we cope if we're out there longer than six months? On our show, these people are facing six years of isolation from their family, friends, social network, etc., and it's going to have an effect on their psyches. Will they lose it? Will the ship come back empty with a bunch of blood smears on it? That's not Science Fiction, that's hardcore reality, and as human beings are we equipped to survive that?
"Acting-wise, I liked that the character of Jen that I've been give the opportunity to play has some real issues that are actually going to be confronted. Why is she so messed up? We're going to find out, and I was really looking forward to playing someone a little more flawed, a little darker and a little more sympathetic. There are so many great characters on this show, and one of the things I enjoy about Jen is that she can be slightly less together than, say, Vicki [from Blood Ties] was. Although in truth, Vicki was not truly together at all. She was just better at putting on a front."
[caption id="attachment_2598" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Jen senses that something is not quite right onboard the Antares. Photo by Sergei Bachlakov and copyright of Fox Studios/ABC"][/caption]
In Defying Gravity, the straight-talking yet compassionate biologist Jen Crane is part of a team of astronauts who, in the near future, are chosen for a six-year mission to explore Venus and other planets in our solar system. Although she had plenty of scientific credentials required for such a task, Jen still had to undergo an intensive physical and mental training program with the rest of the prospective Antares crewmembers. Like her TV counterpart, Cox did her own "training" before going in front of the cameras to play Jen.
"In my research for this series I was lucky enough to speak with the psychiatrist who is on the selection committee for the Canadian Space Program, and, in fact, had been my neighbor from the time I was around eight years old," she notes. "His current job is helping pick candidates for the Canadian Space Program, and the thing is they really don't know what the long-term effects of this kind of isolation might be. Their studies include profiling for the personality types best suited for the sort of mission that we're seeing on our show. One of the big questions is will they be able to have social interaction among a small group of people for six months, a year, two years, six years? Also, are they media savvy Do they put on a good front? They have to be able to communicate with the public and be sympathetic to them because the space program relies so much on public funding.
"On our show we have two groups on the ship - the engineers and the scientists - and they have very different objectives in the way they process information and search for answers. As an actor, this is my first time being on the science side of things, which is the 'what if?' as opposed to, 'OK, how do I handle this? How do I fix this? How do I contain it and make it function in a reasonable and tangible way?' which is more the engineering side. I've played law enforcement types, lawyers, federal agents and other people who need solutions. They're a little bit more linear in their thinking. They don't want things to keep extrapolating beyond the realm of their knowledge, and the thing is, Jen is looking for evidence of life outside of Earth. It's her belief that we're not the only sentient beings in the universe, so she's hoping to prove that. And in the process, she's also trying to figure out if we as human beings can survive out of our [familiar] environment for extended periods of time."
[caption id="attachment_2603" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="A bit of downtime for Jen in the Antares galley. Photo by Sergei Bachlakov and copyright of Fox Studios/ABC"][/caption]
During the Antares training program, Jen befriends geologist Zoe Barnes (Laura Harris), who, after a one-night stand with astronaut Maddux Donner (Ron Livingston), ends up pregnant. Meanwhile, Jen becomes romantically involved with astronaut Ted Shaw (Malik Yoba), but later falls in love with astronaut Rollie Crane (Ty Olsson). The couple marry two years before being assigned to the mission, but when Rollie and a second crewmember are subsequently grounded due to a medical condition, Donner and Shaw are ordered to replace them. Needless to say, all these prior relationships make for plenty of riveting space drama.
"It turns out that Jen's primary relationship is not with her husband, but her best friend Zoe," says Cox. "It's an interesting journey personally because at the beginning of the series, Zoe and Jen meet during training, so their friendship is new, just like the friendship between me and Laura Harris. So it's been evolving and developing story by story, and the more information that Laura and I get, and the more shared experiences our characters have, only helps further inform us when it comes to our performances.
"Jen believes that she's going on this mission with her husband and her best friend, but by the end of our first episode, complications arise and now she is going to spend the next six years with her ex-boyfriend and her best friend, while her husband Rollie is back on Earth. I don't know about you, but I wouldn't want to be trapped anywhere with an ex-boyfriend for six years," chuckles the actress. "Can you imagine, your ex and six other folks onboard a spaceship. Never go on a cruise or get into any type of vehicle where you may be stuck somewhere for a long period of time with an ex. This is my advice. After all my years of life experience, that's what I've come up with.
[caption id="attachment_2604" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="L-R (front row) - On the Antares observation deck: Maddox Donner, Zoe Barnes and Jen Crane; (back row) Nadia Schilling (Florentine Lahme) and Dr. Evram Mintz (Eyal Podell). Photo by Sergei Bachlakov and copyright of Fox Studios/ABC"][/caption]
"With Ted and Jen, it depends on how long they were together and how difficult their break-up was. We're still discovering as we go along on the series exactly what happened with them as well as Rollie and Jen. So it could get a little awkward up there in space, and maybe a little weird, too, but it's all good. Again, there are human issues being dealt with in a heightened situation involving these characters, and there are secrets that they're discovering. It's like the Lost world. People describe this show as Grey's Anatomy in space with a touch of Lost. I have to say that I like the idea of secrets in the story. It makes it more compelling and it's definitely going to be quite a trip for audiences to follow. The secrets are causing our characters to reflect on their own issues and life experiences, which I think is fantastic. It's done with a light touch as well, and I don't mean in a shallow or insubstantial way, but rather not hitting you on the head."
When asked about her work filming the first episode of Defying Gravity, one word immediately comes to Cox's mind. "Terror," she recalls. "It's such a big show, and my first ensemble show, and everyone blew me away because they're so flippin' talented. You're surrounded by this group of people, each of whom are very special and bring so many different things to the table, and suddenly you realize that you're in a situation to create something quite special and interesting. The casting process for this program was a long one, but the result has been a particular type of alchemy that's needed for a TV series to work.
"A studio can cast a movie by numbers, bring in blockbuster stars and then hope it works, but there are films where that's been done and they fall flat because the chemistry isn't there. Of course, I'd like Defying Gravity to be a huge hit and have a long and lovely life, but ultimately what I'll get to take away from it is an extraordinary experience with an incredible group of actors. When we shot our first episode we could feel that alchemy coming together. When you see the work that everyone around you is doing, you want to match it and hope you are, but you don't know. I don't watch dailies. I can't stand watching myself, so you have to trust your directors, and that if it [a scene] doesn't feel right, it probably isn't, so you have to figure out how to make it right."
[caption id="attachment_2605" align="aligncenter" width="199" caption="Jen suits up for a bit of space walk. Photo by Sergei Bachlakov and copyright of Fox Studios/ABC"][/caption]
Unlike most new shows that film a pilot, which may or may not then be picked up by a network, Defying Gravity shot a 13-episode first season which is airing Sunday nights in the States on ABC. Cox's previous series, Blood Ties, also had that same distinction, having made 26 episodes that then aired on the Lifetime Network. It is a rare creative situation that the actress is incredibly grateful for.
"This business is so up and down and I'm really fortunate to be able to do 13 episodes of something," she says. "I've done a bunch of pilots and it can be heartbreaking. You grow attached to the people as well as the premise and the story that you want to tell, and then you sit on your butt for 10 months while the network decides whether or not they want to move forward with it. If they decide not to, then it's back to the drawing board. So this [Defying Gravity] was like winning the lottery. Now that we have the 13 episodes, we'll just have to wait and see where that takes us."
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 and copyright of Fox Studios and ABC, so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any form. Thanks!