The Expanse possesses many typical qualities of a solid science fiction drama. From the timely, sweeping metaphors about our own culture’s missteps to the story’s diverse set of characters and grand universe building, there’s no question as to why it’s being heralded as one of the season’s most anticipated new series.
Another one of those qualities is the pervasive, but appealing “reluctant hero” — the handsome, quick-witted natural born leader who shies away from anything that remotely smells of real responsibility. He’s the guy you either love or hate all the way up until everyone realizes he has exactly what it takes to save the day.
Steven Strait, known for lead roles in Magic City and 10,000 B.C., is that guy in Syfy’s new space opera. The Expanse follows the growing (and dangerous) relationship between private police detective Josephus Miller and the rag-tag crew of an ice-freighter ship, which is lead by Strait’s character Captain James Holden.
As both parties get involved in the search for a missing woman, they unintentionally become players in an impending civil war between Earth and Mars — and fall deeper into one of the solar system’s greatest conspiracies.
ScreenSpy had the opportunity to talk with Strait, the man behind the reluctant hero, about what drives James Holden, the series’ anxiety inducing tension and what it was like acting in heavy space suits.
ScreenSpy: So can you tell us a little bit about who Captain James Holden is and what made him such an interesting role to play?
Steven Strait: Everybody on this ship when you meet them is running from something. James, when you first meet him, is a second in command. He’s a guy who’s a little arrogant. He’s running from authority, he doesn’t want anyone telling him what to do. He keeps passing up promotions, he doesn’t want more responsibility. He wants his life the way it is, the way he wants to live it. Being a second officer on the “Cant” is essentially like being a second officer on an oil tanker. The ship is breaking down, things are leaking — there’s always stuff going wrong.
SS: Holden is kind of like the match that lights the initial plot action. How does he deal with the fall out of his big decision?
Strait: So [James] has this one moment where he does something very simple and very altruistic, answering a distress call, and he gets pulled into this much larger conspiracy. It inadvertently turns him into this revolutionary based on this socio-political tension around the solar system. I don’t want to give too much away but there’s [another] major event in the beginning of the show that drives him. He carries the burden. Even if it’s not necessarily his fault, he still feels as if it was. And it’s that guilt, that drive that pushes him past what he thinks he’s capable of himself. I think what was so fun about playing him was that from the beginning of the season to the end of the season there’s so many different colors because he’s had to grow so much, just because of what’s thrown at him. He’s not the kind of guy that would have chosen to have been the hero. He’s very much the archetypal reluctant hero in that way. But he’s capable of it.
SS: That major event you mentioned happens at the end of the pilot and essentially skyrockets the tension from five to 11. Will the show remain at that level or should viewers expect that high intensity to ebb and flow?
Strait: It doesn’t stop. I mean, what I loved so much about the books was that they just grabbed you by the throat and never let up. It’s a ride. I can tell you this, after the first episode it just keeps rationing up from there. And the more you get invested into these characters, the more tension-filled those things inevitably become. The circumstances, also, just continue to get bigger and in a bizarre way more intimate. So there’s a lot to look forward to if you enjoy that kind of tension. It’s definitely not easy on the nerves.
SS: From the pilot it’s clear that the role is pretty physically demanding. What was the hardest part about acting “in space”?
Strait: The most obvious physical challenge of doing anything in space is floating around. Doing the wire work with the suits in particular — because they’re not built to be ergonomically correct — if you’re leaning back you’ve got this heavy pack and really heavy helmet. You’re trying to keep everything up and it’s difficult. I mean, it’s incredibly hard. You’re there and it’s very surreal. You’re floating around the studio and you’re like “this is my job.” It was a fun challenge though because we actually had a choreographer every time we were doing zero-gravity stuff. It’s not quite like floating in water and it’s not really like flying either. It’s kind of this mix of having weight and not having weight, and moving around very specifically.
But it does inform the way you make choices in a scene, which I think is really fun because you start making these choices that you wouldn’t have thought to make. I look at a script and I’m like ‘Well, maybe if I do that line upside down, how will I say that line?’ It totally changes the way you deliver it, what the intention might be. So it throws an extra element into the pot of what you’re capable of using at any given time.
SS: Those suits! As I watched I thought “Those look heavy.”
Strait: So heavy. And they’re —
Strait: Oh yeah. They’re so hot. [Laughs] By the end those suits were walkin’ on their own. It was so gross. We would shoot half the day and then for lunch we’d take the suits off. You don’t want to keep putting them on and off because it’s just too gross. You take them off for a little chunk of time and then you put them back on afterwards. We dry them out at lunch.
The Expanse initially premieres over two nights on Monday December 14 and Tuesday December 15 at 10/9c on Syfy.
The series will then regularly air on Tuesdays at 10/9c for the remainder of its 10 hour first season.