Defying Gravity

Peter Howitt, the award-winning director who made his writing and directing debut with the international box office hit Sliding Doors, recounts how he came to find himself in the somewhat unusual position of being both a director and simultaneously landing a recurring role on the series.

Originally approached by executive producers Michael Edelstein and Jim Parriott to direct some of the episodes, Howitt proposed acting, as well.

“I kind of cheekily mentioned, as I’d noticed there was this British reporter in the show, I said, ‘If you want, I’ll play him as well, ’cause I’m local and I qualify and I’m cheap.’ They phoned up and said, ‘Look, we’d love you to direct some episodes, and were you serious about playing Trevor Williams?’ So I ended up doing both, which has been really good.

“Obviously, the Antares mission is being covered by the world’s press because it’s such a huge undertaking, with interest from all over the world,” says the Manchester-born actor/director.

“Trevor is covering it for a major British news organisation, and he is a dyed-in-the-wool, old school journalist…He can see a bluff, and he’ll get the story. He’ll get the truth. Trevor almost represents the audience’s curiosity on screen, because there’s quite a lot in the story that makes you suspicious, and makes you wonder what’s actually going on. Everything isn’t quite what it seems,” says Howitt.

“Trevor’s the man who asks those tricky questions, and tries to get to the bottom of some of the more nefarious things that are going on, so it’s a good character.”

Howitt, who lives in Canada with his family, admits he often has a hankering to be back home on British soil: “I love living here in Vancouver, I feel lucky to live here, but I miss London quite a lot. There are times I yearn to get back to the UK.

“I’m lucky I have done three or four films in the UK since I moved here, but there are times when I miss my pals in the UK.”

The 52-year-old actor, whose film credits include In The Name Of The Father with Daniel Day Lewis and Some Mother’s Son alongside Helen Mirren, had a particular edge on acting the part of a journalist, since his father was one in real life.

“My dad, Frank, was a Fleet Street journalist for many, many years. He wrote for the Daily Express, and indeed uncovered the infamous Christine Keeler affair, the John Profumo scandal in 1963. He broke that story and I very nearly went into journalism.”

In the role of Antares flight director Mike Goss, stationed in Mission Control, the Final Destination 2 star Andrew Airlie plays another of the space mission’s key figures.

Airlie recalls that he welcomed the opportunity as a step away from his usual acting roles.

“Mike Goss is one of the masterminds of the more secret element to their mission,” says Airlie.

“I was immediately drawn to the character when I first read the script. I tend to play a lot of nice-guy characters and Mike is a guy who is not very concerned about being perceived as a nice guy. He is a guy who never doubts himself, who carries himself with a bit of conceit – he knows what he’s doing; he knows he’s right.

“Mike is really an astronaut at heart and he’s probably slightly embittered by the fact that he’s too old for this mission of a lifetime. Control is hugely important to Mike; it’s everything about his job. He has to control so many things in terms of the information that comes out of Mission Control, how much he lets the press know about various aspects of the Antares mission and the facts about the previous Mars mission,” adds the Scottish-Canadian actor.

And it’s thanks to that earlier Mars mission that Goss and Donner have a fairly complex and challenging relationship.

As Airlie recounts: “Donner and Goss butt heads a lot because Donner’s character isn’t privy to everything that Mike knows. There’s also something in Donner that Mike both admires and is envious of. Donner can go cowboy at any moment; he can be his own man. Goss is very much a company man, and knows what the hierarchy is and how it should work. Those different styles conflict quite a lot so they’re often at loggerheads.”

Airlie also feels that the show has a unique design and explores some fundamental truths about the kind of people who choose to risk their lives in outer space.

“I think the show has a very big heart. It’s about a lot of things. I’ve heard it described as ‘Grey’s Anatomy in space’, which I guess would make us Grey’s Astronomy, but I think it’s much more than any one thing.

“It’s not just a space or science-fiction show where you have eight astronauts travelling through the solar system and either combating or trying to make contact with alien races. It’s got a smaller, tighter concept than that. We’re looking at the lives of these really, really exceptional people that are in the astronaut programme and how they come through training together and how they connect with one another, ultimately, sometimes to lose their way from one another, as well,” says the Celtic football team supporter.

Having had previous guest star roles in Smallville and The X-Files, the Final Destination 2 actor says he didn’t have much time to prepare for his role as the mission control Flight Director.

“I came in quite late in the casting process, so I was only on about a week before we started up. Once I knew I was going to be playing the role, I sort of feverishly went around the internet getting various YouTube and NASA clips, and I looked at a few different websites to try to gather and assimilate some information about what it is a Flight Director does.

“Subsequently, I had more opportunity to look into it a little more fully, but it was baptism by fire at the beginning.”

“Maddux Donner is basically an astronaut who’s getting a second chance he never thought he would get. As the engineer on the ship, his job is mainly to fix broken stuff,” says Ron Livingston.

“He’s an engineer, so he’s really practical. He likes to think of things as problems that can be solved. I can relate to that. He loves what he does and he’s not really happy unless he’s working and doing the one thing that he’s trained to do. That’s very much like me.

“I think Donner’s greatest strengths are really his confidence and his arrogance, which are all sort of intertwined. He’s not afraid to trust his intuition, and he’s not afraid to assume that he’s right. He’s not afraid to assume that he knows more than anybody else in the room. And I think that is something that usually serves him well and every once in a while gets him into a lot of trouble. He’s good in times of crisis. He can be a little tough to get along with and the women in his life find him exasperating. I think emotionally, he’s probably a little stunted.

“Donner’s got a couple of love interests. There’s a bit of a triangle going on that includes Nadia Schilling (Florentine Lahme), who’s the ship’s pilot. She’s sort of like the ace German fighter pilot turned astronaut, number one in the class. And she’s really a man’s woman – hard drinking and better than the guys at most things. I think they have kind of an understanding.

“And then there’s Zoe Barnes (Laura Harris), who’s the girl-next-door type. Donner finds himself kind of pulled between the two of them for different reasons. Zoe’s that girl that you see across the playground who you can’t stop looking at, and you’re not quite sure why. He’s been around a while, and he’s definitely had a lot of experiences with a lot of women, so he thinks he understands it. He thinks he’s got it all figured out, and Zoe’s the one that kind of makes it all new for him, and it draws him and scares the hell out of him at the same time. So it was really interesting to me, the idea of this guy that’s supposed to be a big astronaut, jock, womaniser, and there’s one woman who scares the hell out of him, and he spends most of the first season of the show trying to run away from her,” says the star.

There is also, for Donner, the shadow of his former love, the astronaut he was forced to leave behind during the Mars landing tragedy. The last is part of a common thread that unites many of the characters in Defying Gravity, as Livingston points out.

“All of the characters in the story have something in the past, something in their closet that surfaces throughout the course of the story. That’s a big part of the show, people dealing with the baggage of their pasts, and it’s part of how the unknown rears its head.”

The Iowa-born, Yale University graduate, who audiences will also remember for his role as Captain Lewis Nixon in the award-winning HBO series Band Of Brothers and as Jack Berger in the hit series Sex And The City, was at first engaged by the script and then even further impressed when he realised that the storyline for the entire series was already thought out.

The 42-year-old actor, whose film credits include The Time Traveller’s Wife, describes the central theme of the series and how it relates to the interaction of the characters.

“Ultimately, it’s a show about people exploring the unknown, and that takes place both at the level of the astronauts being explorers, taking baby steps out into the universe, and on an emotional, inner level. It’s about people exploring the dark places in their own pasts, places maybe where they’re not comfortable with each other. At the heart of it, there’s always some deeper mystery, and I think this show is, in large part, about that mystery.”

Livingston, whose own research included a trip to Cape Canaveral in order to get a better idea about the lives and living conditions of astronauts, has nothing but praise for the cooperation he received from the people in the space programme.

“I made a trip down to the Cape, and I saw one of the last shuttle launches, which had always been on my list to do, and this was a great opportunity to go do that. I found the NASA people to be really generous with their time and their expertise.”

Thanks to his own family background, he also admits to a life-long interest in the subject of outer space.

“My dad came out of school in the late Sixties as an aerospace engineer. He was in high school during the Kennedy years, the Apollo years. He was one of those kids that really kind of took up Kennedy’s challenge and the idea that we could do anything we could set our minds on. I remember growing up building models of the very first test shuttle, the Enterprise. And my dad worked for Rockwell, so I spent a summer working there.”

The Golden Globe-nominated actor admits that he once wanted to be an astronaut and recalls meeting one of his real-life heroes.

“I think every little boy wants to be an astronaut at some point in time, and I was no exception. I actually got to meet John Glenn at one point when I was in college. I remember telling him that he was a hero of mine as a kid, but that I was a bit confused. I thought he was from space and I was disappointed to learn that he was actually from Ohio. But then I got over it, and he was still my hero. I don’t know if he appreciated that or not.”

Ron Livingston (Sex And The City, Band Of Brothers) stars in Defying Gravity, a new adventure drama series from creator and executive producer James Parriott (Grey’s Anatomy) and executive producer Michael Edelstein (Desperate Housewives). The 13-part series will broadcast on BBC Two in October 2009.

Set in the near future, Defying Gravity revolves around the exploits of eight astronauts from five countries (four men and four women) who undertake a mysterious six-year international space mission through the solar system. With the eyes of the world upon them (everything they do is monitored and every emotion they feel scrutinised) they soon discover that their real assignment is not at all what they thought…

The series’ international ensemble cast is led by Ron Livingston (Sex And The City) as flight engineer Maddux Donner, Laura Harris (24) as ship’s geologist Zoe Barnes, Malik Yoba (New York Undercover) as flight commander Ted Shaw, Christina Cox (Blood Ties) as biologist Jen Crane, Florentine Lahme (Impact) as pilot Nadia Schilling, Paula Garces (The Shield) as pilot, scientist and on-board documentary producer Paula Morales, Eyal Podell (24) as psychiatrist and medical officer Evram Mintz, and Dylan Taylor (House Party) as theoretical physicist Steve Wassenfelder.

The cast on planet Earth is led by Andrew Airlie (Reaper) as Mission Control Commander Mike Goss, Karen LeBlanc (ReGenesis) as scientist Eve Shaw, Zahf Paroo (Battlestar Gallactica) as grounded flight engineer Ajay Sharma, Maxim Roy (MVP) as flight surgeon Claire Dereux and Ty Olsson as Rollie Crane, once Mission Commander onboard Antares, and now cap comm; episodic director Peter Howitt (Sliding Doors; Bread) also plays the role of British journalist, Trevor Williams.

Filmed in Canada, Defying Gravity is a US/Canadian co-venture with Fox Television Studios and Omni Film Productions Ltd in association with Canadian broadcasters CTV and SPACE, German broadcaster ProSieben, and the BBC.

The creator/executive producers are James Parriott (Grey’s Anatomy; Ugly Betty) and Michael Edelstein (Desperate Housewives).

Executive producers also include Brian Hamilton (Robson Arms) and Michael Chechik for Omni Films and Tim Haines (Primeval; Space Odyssey: Voyage To The Planets) for Impossible Pictures.

Directors include David Straiton (House) and Peter Howitt (Sliding Doors).

More content about Defying Gravity will be published, as transmission approaches, on this page: www.bbc.co.uk/tv/comingup/defyinggravity

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