[caption id="attachment_3737" align="aligncenter" width="225" caption="Laura Harris as Zoe Barnes in Defying Gravity. Photo by Kharen Hill and copyright of ABC/Fox TV Studios"][/caption]
For as long as she can remember, Zoe Barnes has always been the type of person who has identified a goal and then worked hard and done everything in her power to obtain it. She was determined to be one of eight astronauts selected for the Antares mission - a six-year journey to explore Venus as well as other planets orbiting Earth's sun. Zoe succeeded in turning her dream into a reality, but in order to do so she had to abort her pregnancy, the result of a one-night stand with fellow astronaut and Antares crew member Maddox Donner. As the Antares travels deeper into space, this dark secret begins to weigh heavily on her mind, giving Defying Gravity's Laura Harris, who plays Zoe, the chance to deliver a multi-layered performance.
"Zoe is very confident in the way her life is going and what that path is going to look like, so much so that it verges on hubris," explains Harris. "So what happens when you're overconfident, crap happens, and that's definitely the case with her, but in a way it's good. By that I mean Zoe rediscovers her true confidence in order to get back on her path. What's interesting about our show is that we see our characters in the past as well as present, so you have an idea of what's going to happen with them. I like that because you don't have to explain back story, but at the same time we as actors discover more and more about our characters as well as have more questions with each new script. That helps keep things fresh for us and the audience.
"One of the biggest challenges I had stepping into this role was getting into science mode. As soon as I got the job, I planned a trip to NASA [Goddard Space Center] in Maryland. A friend of mine who works there showed me around, which was awesome, especially from a day-to-day standpoint. There's quite a bit of archive footage and stories about the dramatic and exciting part of space travel, but there are also the everyday jobs that have to be done. I got to meet with a lot of extraordinary scientists as well as engineers and one astronaut, who also happens to be my next-door neighbor and an engineer.
[caption id="attachment_3738" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Zoe in ISO's (International Space Organization) Mission Control. Photo by Sergei Backlakov and copyright of ABC/Fox TV Studios"][/caption]
"So that helped get me in the right mindset. Zoe is a lot like Jodie Foster's character in [the feature film] Contact, a strong woman who has her own ideas about her life, all of which revolve around the space program and geology. My character is done with Earth rocks. Zoe wants space rocks now, and that's all she cares about," jokes the actress.
In the first episode of Defying Gravity, Zoe and the other prospective candidates for the Antares mission undergo a series of grueling physical tests to determine who will be able to endure their outer space adventure. This includes a ride in the centrifugal force chair, an experience that left Harris a little shaken but none the worse for wear.
"They strapped me into the chair, started to shake it and me, and said, 'It'll be all right,' and it was," she recalls. "Thank God for YouTube because it's totally changed the way an actor can prepare for a scene like this because you can actually see the effects of things like centrifugal force and nitrogen narcosis on the human body. There's tons of footage showing pilots experiencing such things and what you're supposed to do, including this little breathing exercise that sort of tenses up your whole body. So that's what I did and I think the scene turned out good, especially considering the way it was shot, which was guerilla-style."
[caption id="attachment_3739" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="At work in the Antares' lab. Photo by Sergei Bachlakov and copyright of ABC/Fox TV Studios"][/caption]
From simulated events to practical ones, the Antares crew experiences firsthand what it is like to work as well as live in zero gravity and float among the stars. That required some wire work along with green screen work for the cast of Defying Gravity, something that was both fun and taken seriously by all those involved.
"You want to be able to show a person experiencing the cosmos when they're actually in it," says Harris. "It's a very human thing to just look up at the sky and experience the cosmos, but to tangibly be in it, I don't know, I just think it must be pretty miraculous. So you don't want to milk it, and in a show like this it's easy to overdo something like that, especially me. I'm someone who's into experiencing nature in all its grandeur, and I'll admit that over the years I've sometimes looked kind of goofy standing in front of a green screen trying to imagine what experiencing the cosmos would be like," laughs the actress. "I'm hoping they edited any such moments out of Defying Gravity, but I tried my best to appear believable and sincere when imagining and reacting to such situations as Zoe. I feel like we have a responsibility to the audience, and that makes the work all the more challenging."
During their five years of training leading up to the mission, Zoe and her fellow crewmates develop relationships of varying levels and dynamics with one another. In the present, those bonds become valuable lifelines as the astronauts learn to adapt to and interact with each other onboard the Antares.
[caption id="attachment_3740" align="aligncenter" width="199" caption="Zoe and Steve Wassenfelder (Dylan Taylor) watch intently as a situation unfolds onboard the Antares. Photo by Sergei Bachlakov and copyright of ABC/Fox TV Studios"][/caption]
"There is a great deal of growth with all our characters' relationships, a lot of which isn't what you might be expecting to see, and I think that's pretty cool," notes Harris. "Jen Crane [Christina Cox] and Zoe are best friends, whereas Zoe and Nadia Schilling [Florentine Lahme] have this sort of modern-day love triangle between them and Donner [Ron Livingston]. Neither woman, however, is outwardly jealous of one another. Zoe and Nadia have their own rules and ideas about how they run their lives, and Donner is something that they both share, which is rather interesting. As for Zoe and Donner, they're connected in some way. I don't think either of them is clued into why or how, but there's a definite connection between them that's beyond their control.
"I have to say that working with this cast is such a delight, and that's true of every single person. I've had some really awesome scenes with Paula Garces [Paula Morales]. I love her character and everything that goes on with it. It's amazing to watch her drop into character because she does it just like that," says the actress, snapping her fingers. "For whatever magical reason, everyone has it in their heart when it comes to playing these roles, but there is also a major and very real transformation that takes place when we're in front of the camera. And that's something you don't always see. It's very much a wow-type moment of watching your castmate deliver his or her lines, and then stepping up to the plate and trying to match what it is that they're giving you," she enthuses.
A familiar face to TV watchers, Harris has guest-starred on numerous series including The X-Files, Stargate Atlantis and CSI:Crime Scene Investigation as well as had recurring or regular roles on 24, The Dead Zone, Woman's Murder Club and Dead Like Me. In the latter, she played Daisy Adair, an actress from the 40's who died but was then reborn as one of a group of "grim reapers" who collect the souls of others just before death and help them cross over to the other side.
[caption id="attachment_3742" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="A contemplative moment for Zoe in the Antares' observation room. Photo by Sergei Bachlakov and copyright of ABC/Fox TV Studios"][/caption]
"I loved doing Dead Like Me because I got to be girly, and the thing is, I don't think I'm really a girly girl at all," says the actress. "Daisy was so different from who I am, so it was a true acting adventure. And as a cast, we had so much ridiculous fun together. We had such raw creative energy and everything we did was full of love. The show was truly a gift and I'm so glad I had the chance to do it."
For Harris, it is who she works with that makes her job so rewarding. "You can't beat experiencing creative teamwork with really special, interesting people," she muses. "I love people anyway, and acting makes you go to places that you might not necessarily want to. In the process, you end up loving and appreciating people even more, because things that may seem unapproachable as qualities in others, all of a sudden aren't so unapproachable, do you know what I mean? And that sort of realization makes anything in this world seem possible."
Steve EramoDefying Gravity is produced by Fox TV Studios and OmniFilm Productions in association with the BBC, Canada's CTV and Germany's ProSieben. As noted above, all photos by Sergei Bachlakov or Kharen Hill and copyright of ABC TV and Fox TV Studios, 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!