[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!
What do TV shows like The Bionic Woman, The Incredible Hulk, Forever Knight, Grey's Anatomy and Ugly Betty all have in common? If you said James Parriott, you are right. The veteran executive producer/writer has lent his considerable talents to these and countless other TV series over the years. In 2003, he and executive producer Michael Edelstein, whose credits include Hope and Faith and the hugely popular Desperate Housewives, worked together on the short-lived series Threat Matrix. More recently, they teamed up again to exec produce Defying Gravity, a Canadian-made space thriller that makes its Stateside premiere this Sunday at 9 p.m. EST on ABC.
Set in the not-so-distant future, Defying Gravity was inspired by Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets - a fictional docudrama produced by Impossible Pictures (the same creative minds behind Walking With Dinosaurs) for the BBC. It follows the crew of the spaceship Antares, an international team of eight astronauts (four woman and four men) who embark on a six-year mission to explore Venus as well as other planets in the solar system. Their journey is being monitored closely by Mission Control back on Earth, but only a handful of those involved are aware of the very real dangers and mystery surrounding this mission. Defying Gravity is not so much Sci-Fi as Sci-Fact and served up with a large helping of human drama, all of which is part of Parriott's and Edelstein's original blueprint for the series.
"Michael saw Voyage to the Planets on the Discovery Channel, and I then happened to see a rebroadcast on the Science Channel and thought, 'This is extremely well-made and cool. There's something here,'" recalls Parriott, who, along with Edelstein, took time out from their day to talk about Defying Gravity on the show's Vancouver-based set. "In this business you're always looking for a new arena for a drama. I mean, there are thousands of law shows and thousands of medical dramas, a lot of which are very, very good, but you're always thinking, 'What's the next arena?'
"So after watching Voyage to the Planets I got really excited and, right after the  holidays, I ran down the hall to Michael's office - we were both working at Disney at the time - and said, 'What do you think? If we throw in a little Grey's Anatomy along with a little Lost, this could actually work.' Because it has an international crew, it felt like an international show and, therefore, would have a broad appeal. It would appeal to Sci-Fi fans, but the drama part of it would appeal to those who have no interest in Sci-Fi. Michael and I looked at each other and said, 'This could be the one that really works.'"
[caption id="attachment_2289" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Ron Livingston (as Maddux Donner) and Malik Yoba (as Ted Shaw) in Defying Gravity. Photo copyright of ABC Television"][/caption]
Continues Edelstein, "What appeals to me about working with Jim is that he's all about the characters, and I just thought if someone was going to tackle this, give it to him. So Jim took this idea, put it to his brain and months later Defying Gravity came out of that. It was somewhat different from our early conversations, but I think it's richer and more compelling, not to mention addictive. We've been very selective about who we've shown the pilot to. Recently, I had an older female friend from London visiting me and I didn't think she was our demographic at all. However, she watched the pilot, got hooked and wanted to watch more and more late into the night. We're hearing stories like this from everyone who has seen the pilot.
"To Jim's credit and that of the other writers, they've come up with, once again, an addictive show. There's just layer upon layer of mystery, and the amazing thing about the characters they've created is that you can go to any one of them for a story and you can fall into their world and find those multiple layers. So that's been a thrill, and I get really excited when I read the scripts. I think the challenge, obviously, is to build a show of this complexity, and from day one Jim told me, 'Michael, this is a space show. Space shows are incredibly hard to produce.'"
Says Parriott, "I started out doing The Bionic Woman, The Six Million Dollar Man and other Sci-Fi and complicated shows with [visual/special] effects. And I told Michael, 'This isn't a medical show. This isn't Desperate Housewives. This is [outer] space we're getting into. Aren't you scared of getting into space, and on a budget?'"
Says Edelstein, "I came up here in early November  and since then I've been back home less than ten days in seven months. Initially, Jim was going to be up here a week or two, maybe a month, and he's been here at least three weeks a month, but it's been a ton of fun. Vancouver is a beautiful city and it has a great film community. We've inherited a wonderful group of people to work with and are settling into a nice groove."
[caption id="attachment_2290" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Paula Garces (as Paula Morales) and Christina Cox (as Jen Crane) in Defying Gravity. Photo copyright of ABC Television"][/caption]
Defying Gravity's international cast is led by Ron Livingston (Antares flight engineer Maddux Donner), Laura Harris (geologist Zoe Barnes), Malik Yoba (Antares commander Ted Shaw), Christina Cox (biologist Jen Crane), Florentine Lahme (pilot Nadia Schilling), Paula Garces (pilot, scientist and onboard documentary producer Paula Morales), Eyal Podell (psychiatrist and medical officer Evram Mintz) and Dylan Taylor (theoretical physicist Steve Wassenfelder).
Overseeing the entire operation back on Earth are Andrew Airlie (Mission Control Commander Mike Goss), Karen LeBlanc (scientist Eve Shaw), Zahf Paroo (flight engineer Ajay Sharma), Maxim Roy (flight surgeon Claire Dereux), Ty Olsson (capsule communicator a.k.a. cap comm Rollie Crane) and William Vaughn (assistant cap comm Arnel Poe). Episodic director Peter Howitt also plays BBC journalist Trevor Williams. In creating such a large and diverse group of characters, Parriott took a page out of his Gray's Anatomy days. Once the onscreen players had been named, he and Edelstein then began casting the roles.
"We wanted to create characters who are sort of archetypes," explains Parriott. "On Grey's Anatomy you can point to those characters and say, 'That's the pretty one who was the model,' or, 'That's the Asian girl who's the hard-ass,' or, 'That's the guy who is...,' etc. You create characters who, at first, the audience might not necessarily identify with, but at least they know who they are. I tried to do that with Defying Gravity in order that the characters would be very specific, and even a little bit stereotypical at the start, so you'd think, 'Oh, I recognize him, or her.' As the series goes on, you then give your characters different dimensions and continue to expand upon all that as the viewers get to know them."
Says Edelstein, "In terms of casting, we went through an exhaustive process. That really was a luxury, and I think it took us five months to cast the show. We cast out of Los Angeles, Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal and even Germany. Jim and I were up at five in the morning to audition actresses via teleconferencing and it was great. That's when we found Florentine and she's been fantastic. The funny thing is Jim and I have very different tastes in things, and we found that the right person for a part would be the one where we both overlapped. There are actors who Jim zeroed in on right away and it took me a while, and vice versa. It's been terrific casting this series together because we both looked for different things, and I think I speak for Jim and myself when I say that we're both thrilled with who we have on the show."
[caption id="attachment_2291" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Mission Control Commander Mike Goss (Andrew Airlie) and scientist Eve Shaw (Karen LeBlanc) watch intently back on Earth as the Antares mission unfolds before their eyes. Photo copyright of ABC Television"][/caption]
As the actors were being auditioned and cast, the cosmetic elements of Defying Gravity, including sets and costumes, were also being designed and built. "We were fortunate to find some incredible department heads, including our production designer, Stephen Geaghan," notes Parriott. "He has a tremendous amount of Sci-Fi experience and is also meticulous as well as wildly knowledgeable about [outer] space, and he brought his enthusiasm to the job. By the time we met, Stephen said we were already two weeks behind. We didn't start construction on the sets until mid-October  and we began shooting mid-January . So it was a Herculean effort, and there was a Christmas holiday right in the middle of it all as well."
Continues Edelstein, "There was very little stage space in Vancouver when I initially came up and scouted around. This [a portion of Bridge Studios] was, I think, the only stage really available, so we took it. Unbeknownst to all of us, Stargate Atlantis has left this massive steel cage-type set behind. Lucky for us, Stephen had the good sense to say, 'Hey, let's keep this. We can strip it down and turn it into something else.' So he built Mission Control around it, which was fantastic because on our budget I don't believe we could have achieved the same results from scratch.
"We were also lucky to get Monique Prudhomme, our costume designer, who has a wonderful background in feature films. She received rave reviews for her last movie, Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. We just thought that Monique had a great vision and she jumped headlong into research for the show. For example, with our EVA [extra-vehicular activity] suits, our white spacesuits, she looked at the new direction that MIT believes NASA will be going in next with their pressure suits. So Monique did some hardcore research and then she had to figure out how to make the suits 'work.' In real life they cost something like a million dollars apiece. Obviously we couldn't do that, but Monique figured out a way to make something that looks great on-camera.
"Our whole idea going into prep was, 'This needs to feel real and be believable.' One of the things that Jim and I learned at NASA is that the space shuttle, which had its first launch, I believe, in 1981, was built using solid-state technology. It was technology from the late 60's and 70's. The thing is, NASA has a great deal of redundancy in their systems. Once they lock into something they don't necessarily update as new technology comes along. The International Space Station is run by 46 computer chips, because when NASA first designed it, they knew peoples' lives were at stake, and that meant its systems had to be very reliable. So early on, Jim figured out that if Defying Gravity is set in 2055, the technology would probably be from the late 2020's to 2030."
Says Parriott, "We looked out to 2020 and decided that that's what we were going to do. Of course, everything on the show is from what we think will happen looking forward. I actually think some of our technology is behind 2020. It could be better in [the real world] 2020. In our case, though, what you see on-screen all depends on our budget and how much money we can put into the show."
[caption id="attachment_2292" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Zoe Barnes (Laura Harris), Steve Wassenfelder (Dylan Taylor) and Nadia Schilling (Florentine Lahme) on the Antares observation deck. Photo copyright of ABC Television"][/caption]
Adds Edelstein, "Budget-wise you don't get all the money in one lump. We had to take our episodic budget and use it to chip away at [building] the sets. The sets that you see now were not that evolved when we began shooting. However, we've slowly been able to put it all together and, fortunately, the studio has been very supportive of our vision. That's what's made this whole thing possible. It's a lot of hard work and people solving one problem at a time. Every day we've continuing to learn about the show. At the moment [late May] we're shooting episodes 12 and 13 and we're still learning things insofar as what we'd like to do in season two as well as ways to improve the show."
Story-wise, the 13-part first season of Defying Gravity is divided between the present day, as the Antares travels towards Venus, and the past, with flashbacks to when the astronauts were in the gruelling selection and training process. Although the show's characters are not aware of what lies ahead. Parriott has a definite plan for where this story is headed.
"Before we started filming, we had outlines for all 13 episodes,'" says the executive producer. "I'd basically arced out the entire season, which helped us a lot of terms of production and knowing what we needed to build. Beyond that, I wanted to do two things. One, in our ninth episode we have a major reveal, and it's a cool one that catapults you into the next part of the season. Also, having started in Sci-Fi, I know Sci-Fi audiences are demanding and I wanted to be demanding of myself, which meant I needed to know where the series was going. I didn't want to jump the shark; that was very important to me. So I know the ending to the show. I know season by season where it's going and the big [story] beats along the way. That's crucial for the Sci-Fi audience, in particular, and audiences in general."
Continues Edelstein, "My time is valuable as is everyone else's. There are only so many hours in the day to watch TV, and if someone wants to look at our series, then I feel extremely flattered that he or she wants to spend their time watching something that I'm a part of. You have to take that commitment to your audience seriously. It's sort of a covenant that you make - you give us an hour of your time and we're going to entertain you, we're going to move you, and we're going to keep your interest."
[caption id="attachment_2293" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Evram Mintz (Eyal Podell) and Nadina Schilling (front) along with Zoe Barnes and Jen Crane (back) sit through yet another training course. Photo copyright of ABC Television"][/caption]
Says Parriott, "It has to be a show that I want to watch, too. I think that's also part of the criteria. If you're making a program that you wouldn't want to watch, then you're kind of a cynic who's just out for the buck. We started out in a very calculated, dare I say cynical place of, 'OK, [outer] space, that will have a broad appeal.' But then as you start to write it, you fall in love with it and your characters, and you become passionate about it. We've very passionate about this project now, and I think all the actors and the crew feel the same way."
Adds Edelstein, "Episodes eight and nine changed everyone. After eight, everyone was like, 'What happens next?' And after nine it's just been a mad sprint to the end of these first 13 episodes. It's a very cool show and certainly not like anything else on TV. I feel the same way about Defying Gravity as I did about Desperate Housewives. When we first came out with Desperate Housewives there were no drama/comedies on the air and people didn't know how to react to it. Some people said that men would never watch a show called Desperate Housewives and there were those who wanted to change the title. With Defying Gravity we've made a show that's interesting and unique as well as compelling, and we're hoping it finds an audience."
Says Parriott, "I always say keep your eye on the ball. Make the shows as good as you can make them, and make the scripts as good as you can make them. That's the joy of something like this. I find I'm the happiest when I'm in the cutting room or when I'm writing. The time just flies by because you're doing what you love. The true reward is in the actual doing. And then in the larger sense, it's in the relationships that you build making a show. These last two episodes have been bittersweet. It's kind of sad and the cast as well as the crew are feeling it,too. They're like, 'Why does this have to end? Do we have to go home?' It really has become a very happy family and one of the tightest-knit groups I've ever had the pleasure of working with."
Steve EramoDefying Gravity is produced by Fox Television Studios and Omni Film Productions, in association with the BBC, Canada's CTV and Germany's ProSieben. As noted above, all photos copyright of ABC Television, so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any form. Thanks!