THE PASSAGE Cast and Crew Tease Fox’s New Vampire Drama
By Pauline Perenack
ScreenSpy recently had the opportunity to sit down with some of the cast and crew of the upcoming drama, The Passage, to talk about what the show is, why people will want to watch it, and what to expect coming up. Those talked to included Director Jason Ensler, Showrunner Liz Heldens, and stars Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Saniyya Sidney, Jamie McShane, and Henry Ian Cusack.
This show is a collection of genres all interwoven, what was it that drew both of you to be involved in this project?
Liz Heldens – I read the book in 2012 and just loved it, devoured the second book, went to read the third book and it hadn’t come out yet. I preordered it on my Kindle. I was a super fan, and I had a deal with 20th Century Fox, and when I found that they had the material, I just went bananas and I jumped on it.
Are you going to keep the show very similar to the books?
LH – The book is gigantic, and the beauty of TV is that we can take a deeper dive into some of the characters, we can get to know The Twelve more, we can take our time a little bit and I think we’re going to expand some of what’s there, but I think if you’re a fan of the books, you’re going to be really happy with the show.
What do you think that you’ve done so far in the show that really pulls the viewers in immediately?
Jason Ensler – I think there’s a lot of things that hook you in. There’s the search for a virus that is the cure to all disease that’s side effect is vampirism. There is the project that has been set up subsequently that takes death row inmates to experiment on. There is the hook of the foot solider that becomes the surrogate father for a girl they want to experiment on. There is the hook that the little girl self-narrates everything you’re watching from a possible future. And that’s a lot of hooks.
LH – Our vampires are psychic. They can get into your dreams. Which is really fun and scary and also kind of sexy. So it’s a big, juicy genre character based, big scopey, epic driven – I think there’s something for everybody.
JE – The scientists like to listen to classic rock, that’s a hook.
When you were building the writer’s room, what was important to you to look for in qualities of writers who could balance the different stories?
LH – I have a few genre people for sure. I wanted it to be gender balanced for sure. We probably have more women than men. We do, for a fact. But mostly I was looking for good character writers and story tellers who know how to find the emotion in all these stories. I think the genre stuff is great and it’s such a fun thing about the show, but I think what’s different about Justin Cronin’s book, and I think what will be different about our show, is just kind of the human connection that’s at the center of it.
People who have read the books, how far ahead are they of people who haven’t read the books?
LH- You’ll recognize some things. We’re putting some more twists and turns in so that if you’re a fan of the book, you’ll still be surprised. The first season is at Project Noah, so we’ll be able to be there and explore that a little bit more and put some scares and hard left turns in there that maybe they won’t see coming, but I think we are certainly following the trajectory of the book.
I always thought that the best genre shows use the genre to tell a bigger story. What kind of literary tropes or other themes do you guys weave through the show?
JE – There is a few larger themes that you can interpret as you will, and I’m sure other people will look at the show and see things we’re not even thinking of, but there is the theme of surviving in an uncertain world which all the characters are faced with. There are more intimate themes of identity and duality where the vampires used to be a person and now they are this new thing and they have to grapple with that. And at the same time, the scientists have to grapple with the ethical dilemmas of doing this experiment in the first place and experimenting on human beings but for the greater good to save humanity, and at the same time, especially in the case of Dr. Lear for instance, he has to grapple with the guilt of turning his best friend into a vampire. So, there’s themes of identity and themes of survival. There’s also great love stories in this. There’s the tension between Wolgast and Lila who have been separated as a result of the death of their daughter, but still long for each other, so there’s that. There’s a theme of that longing. Especially in the case of Lear and his wife. Even in the case between a vampire and a human. Between Babcock who longs for Richards, and Richards who is loath to admit it, but longs for her.
LH – The other theme I come back to over and over is parenting. I mean, Amy Belafonte played by Saniyya Sidney is just wonderful in the part, she’s this little girl who becomes a surrogate daughter to Brad Wolgast and she’s going to become the most important person in the world. She has to save the world and over and over again, I just think it’s about how does Brad prepare her for that. How does he parent her through that? And that’s something we always come back to in the writer’s room for sure.
How did Saniyya become attached to the project?
LH – She came in, she auditioned, and she just took it. It was just her part and it was pretty easy once she walked in. You’ll see. It’s just really, right actor, right part for sure.
What’s the main thing you want people to take away from the show?
LH – That it’s totally awesome.
JE – They can’t wait for next week’s episode.
Are we going to get more of Brad’s backstory? That seemed to be pretty vital to the pilot.
LH – Yes. For sure. We’re going to get to know everybody’s back story. It’s a character piece. It really is, truly.
Tell us about your characters and what we can look forward to in the show.
Mark-Paul Gosselaar – We’re sort of going off the trilogy of books, written by Justin Cronin. As far as what we did in the pilot, we sort of do the first quarter of the first book. We haven’t seen a second script yet. We haven’t started shooting so there’s not much information I can tell you beyond that.
Saniyya Sidney – Amy Belafonte in three words. She’s a bad girl, she’s still a little girl, and it’s up to her to save the world, and that’s what I’m all about.
That shooting scene. Was that actually you shooting at the carnival?
SS – That’s kind of movie magic. Yes, and no. He [Gosselaar] taught me how to really hold a gun.
MG – That was all real instruction.
SS – Yeah.
MG – When I say, ‘Oh, you’re left handed?’ That was actually a real observation.
SS – Yeah, because I’m left handed and he goes, ‘oh, you’re left handed?’ And I was like yes.
MG – And they actually kept that in the script.
SS – At first I was doing it right, and I was doing it wrong, so then I switched over and he goes, oh you’re left handed, and I’m like, yeah, so I did it and then I really held it for real and it was fun.
There’s so much in the story that is appealing to everyone. What drew you to the project?
MG – I first got the script and I knew that Liz Heldens had taken a crack at it and it was unbelievable. This is a piece of property that had been around for years with Ridley [Scott], and Matt Reeves trying to adapt it into a film, and then reading Liz’s version was like, oh my god, she really did it. She was able to make this into a TV show. And I’d worked with Ridley and Scott Free [Productions] before and knew the operation, and was just excited. I knew how epic it would be to tell this tale, so I was excited to just be a part of the pedigree. And then once I knew there was an opportunity for me to play the part, I read the books and just fell in love with the books and became a fan boy.
How much of your performance did you draw out of the books?
MG – All of it. It’s very rare as an actor that you’re given the blueprints to your character. To have the author come to the set and explain to you how he came up with the character, what he was thinking when he was writing the character, and then give you his blessing. To say, you know what, you’re my Amy, you’re my Brad.
SS – Amy, when I play her, I have some things I take from the book, but when I play Amy, I play her from my heart and I’m not going to focus on, oh she did this, or she’s like that, so I need to be like that. I need to be shy, or I need to be scared or something. I can play her in a different way. I know what she’s about and how she is, but do it from my heart. But having the blessing from Justin Cronin – I’m so close to Justin now that it’s like, I love him so much.
MG – Is he in your favorites?
SS – He is in my favorites.
MG – I’m not in your favorites.
SS – Sorry. It’s just like, giving you the blessing, it’s like oh my gosh, thank you, wow. He accepts us, and that’s a big deal just to be able to say, you’re my Amy.
We all know that as part of your arc, Mark, you become a surrogate father, and even sitting at this table you guys exhibit some kind of the chemistry. How quickly did you gel? Was it instant?
SS – No. When I first met Mark-Paul, I didn’t really, sadly, I was like, he’s cool, but then over time I couldn’t get enough.
MG – I have a young daughter same age as Saniyya so I could relate to the character quite a bit. But also, we were fortunate enough to film the show in sort of a linear fashion, so while we’re filming the scenes we were able to develop our character so that by the time we shot that scene at the river which was sort of a very important scene, we were at that point in real life.
What are you guys looking forward to going forward in the series?
MG – Years and years of coming to Comic Con promoting the show. The whole goal of doing television is that you just hope that it finds an audience. I think most actors have the right intentions, you just, you’re on a show that you really enjoy being around the people and the material and you just want to do it for a long time. Right? You want to do this until you’re in college, right?
SS – Of course.
Tell us a little bit about the show and favorite parts about filming it.
Jamie McShane – We’re doing The Passage for FOX based on the novels and if you haven’t read them, you should. We’ve got a really wonderful cast and everyone is really nice, so we’re looking forward to going to work.
Henry Ian Cusack – I play Dr. Jonas Lear.
JM – I play Dr. Tim Fanning.
HC – We are Harvard graduates. Microbiologist.
JM – Neurologist.
HC – And we have a lot of back story that we’ll get into later on in the show so you know we’ll do flashbacks, which is kind of cool.
JM – He has his mission to find a cure.
HC – Yeah, so the show starts off with us, and this is probably the stuff that was the most fun to shoot, we are traipsing through the Bolivian jungle, which is actually Atlanta, and trying to make it look like a Bolivian jungle. Anyway, we are looking for this virus. There’s this story of people who are living very long and can fight diseases and we go thinking we’ll change the world. And there’s these military guys with us, which is a big mistake.
JM – Basically, they want to find a cure for healing people. We want to find the cure for people. They want to find it if a soldier gets shot, that’s a lot of money lost to the military. You train the people, you put how many years of training in them, they want people who can keep going back into battle who have that experience.
HC – Anyway, we find something, we don’t know what it is. You run in and he gets attacked.
JM – It doesn’t go well.
HC – I think he’s dead and then he’s not. And then he comes back to Project Noah where we do all our research. I’ve lost my wife, I’ve lost my best buddy, I feel really bad about the whole thing and I carry on doing experiments.
JM – My storyline, I am the first viral – I am patient zero. And basically anyone that is turned viral is essentially an offspring of mine and I have some sort of control over. I telepathically communicate with them, so I’m kind of the granddaddy of the pack. It can be fun.
HC – He loves it!
The story is a mix of different genres, but for each of you, what was the hook that made you want to be involved in this?
JM – When I was asked to audition, they had given me the audition pages. I had this one scene and I was like, oh my god, I know what I want to do with it. I thought it would be a lot of fun, and fortunately they responded to that, so that’s what drew me in to that. And then once I was offered the job, it was who was involved. I’d worked with Mark-Paul on a couple of different shows of his, and Scott Free Productions, and FOX, and Liz Heldens and Jason Ensler. He wasn’t involved in it yet.
HC – I was a replacement casting for someone else.
JM – No you were not!
HC – They hadn’t done the role yet. I was a happy accident. There is a scene where I’m looking at Jamie, patient zero, and he’s already turned, and I’m looking at him, and that was the hook. I thought, oh my gosh, this is going to be some beautiful tragedy. He’s so tragic sitting there. That for me was the moment. I was coming on to be a guest, but when that moment hit, I thought this could be a really cool role, and we have a really good relationship. I thought this could be a really good acting partnership.
Both of you in the past have played characters that blurred the line between protagonist and antagonist. It sounds like the roles you’re playing here, you could be very sympathetic or not. How has it played out so far?
HC – So far I would think, even though I’m the reason for it, you have some sympathy for it. I don’t know. Ask the audience. You can already guess that there’s some sort of moral confusion of how are you supposed to feel about a character.
JM – It’s very subjective, too. I’ve played a lot of bad guys, and like in Bloodline, there’s some people that say you were such a bad guy, and I never saw him as bad at all. He was troubled. And then there are other people who got that.
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