Time travel. Saving the world. And keeping a step ahead of the bad guys.
That’s a very brief intro into the world of SyFy’s new thrill of a series, 12 Monkeys.
Yes, it’s based on the 1995 film of the same name that starred Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt and directed by Terry Gilliam - but the series takes its own path as it follows time traveler James Cole (Aaron Stanford, best known as Birkhoff on Nikita).
On 12 Monkeys Season 1 Episode 1, Cole enlists the help of virologist Cassandra Reilly (Amanda Schull, known for playing Katrina on Suits) to help stop a virus that will destroy much of the population.
To get the lay of the land for the new series, I sat down with Stanford and Schull to talk over their take on their characters, how the show differs from the film and what kind of message the show is trying to spread...
First up, let’s check in with Aaron Stanford:
TVFanatic: I didn’t watch the movie again before watching the first episode. Do you think people should see the movie or just dive into this?
Aaron Stanford: I think it’s six of one and half dozen of the other. It’s nice to see this with fresh eyes and not to be comparing and contrasting but, on the other hand, it’s a great, great film. Our show tells the same basic story, which is a fantastic story and it’s a really fun melding of two of my favorite genres – the apocalypse genre and the time traveling genre.
It’s the same basic story but we make it our own. As you can see, the casting choices were very different choices that we made from the film and it’s the same with story choices, character choices…it will be its own unique experience. We are not trying to only remake 12 Monkeys.
TVF: What was your process on how to play Cole? You could’ve gone several different ways since it’s such a heady role/
AS: It’s an interesting mix. You can’t really research what it’s like to live through the apocalypse. Some of what I did to try to get into the mindset…one of the closest thing I could think of was the experience of warfare. The war in Vietnam might be a good measuring stick of Cole’s experience. He’s seen a lot of horror and he’s experienced a lot of trauma. I read things like Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, which is a great Vietnam book and also watching a lot of science fiction. Just put yourself into the mindset so you can play with it.
TVF: Do we find out why you survived the apocalypse?
AS: It will come out but I think one of the core characters traits of James Cole is he’s a survivor and you’re going to see over time what it took to survive, why he survived and why it haunts him and why he’s carrying it around with him and why he sometimes wishes he hadn’t survived.
TVF: What about romance in the show? You had it in Nikita despite the intense world but how does it work in 12 Monkeys?
AS: It’s difficult. There is no room for romance in the given circumstances. The stakes are so high as he’s trying to save humanity but there’s an interesting relationship between Cole and Cassie. I wouldn’t say that in the pilot it’s a romance but there’s some kind of spark. They are definitely drawn to each other and obviously as the show goes on it could turn into something or it might not. I think the writers want to see where it goes.
You also don’t want it to be forced upon you and a lot of the time that’s exactly what happens because a lot of times people think you can’t sell a product with no romance in it so they shoehorn it in. There is absolutely room for relationships but the word itself ‘romance,’ at those stakes it almost seems frivolous. There is room for love but romance? Maybe not so much.
TVF: Now you still have the same Birkhoff look that you had in Nikita. Are you okay with that also being your look for 12 Monkeys?
AS: It’s how I’ve looked the last four years. When they first cast me for the role, the first thing I talked about with Terry and Travis was if I was going to shave my head like James Cole but they vetoed that. I was willing to go for a different look and a lot of times in television the actor doesn’t have a final say in what the look will be and I think they saw James as a wild, feral character and I think they liked the bedraggled look, which is my natural look.
TVF: Is there an overall message to 12 Monkeys? Is it trying to say something?
I think the show will say many things and I think any story worthwhile will say many things. To reduce it to a single message, I don’t see why you’d want to do that or why you would do that. Hopefully it will say a lot about life, love, relationships, about betrayal, about anything you think of, one would hope.
Amanda Schull takes on a very different role from Suits, that’s for sure. Here’s what she had to say about the new series:
TVFanatic: What do you think makes Cassie believe in what Cole tells her?
Amanda Schull: Obviously the first thing is when he disappears in front of her very her eyes. That helps! What makes that believable is she knows herself to be an intelligent, logical woman. And if it was someone who didn’t base her whole life around truth and fact finding, then maybe it would be a momentary lapse. She knows what she knows and she is certain of what she saw.
One thing I thought was interesting is that she didn’t keep it a secret that she claimed he disappeared before her very eyes. I remember thinking when I read the pilot it was an interesting choice the writers made and it was a very deliberate choice. She comes right out and says ‘He said he was a time traveler and he disappeared before my eyes.’ Most people would probably keep that tidbit of information to themselves but she doesn’t.
There are two years between that moment and the moment where they pick up in the hotel and I think there are probably many moments when she does come to question but she goes full force knowing what she saw but it’s two years of questioning yourself at your lowest lows and think ‘what am I doing? Why have I made this my mission when the person who gave me this mission is nowhere to be seen?
TVF: I feel like Cassie was picked for a certain reason. Is that part of her journey?
AS: Yes! I got the script for 102. I got it in my email and I was so excited. I was on the plane right before take-off so I couldn’t download it onto anything so I downloaded it to my phone so I downloaded it to my phone. I read 102 on my phone!
The pilot is my perspective, really. 102 gives you more backstory of Cole so that was really smart and interesting and I knew what they were doing with that so the audience is on board with him as well. 103 you’re going to see more of what my character is going through and went through and all that.
TVF: Would you say this is more of a character drama than just a sci-fi show?
AS: I think so! I think I see it that way because I don’t do the time travel. My character doesn’t deal with all that. I deal with logic and I think her quest in life is to seek the truth and to understand the truth and to get down to the very atom or molecule and the beginning of the disease. She’s truth finding through all of this and she was chosen for this for this specific purpose. She does have a bigger mission that she was chosen to pursue.
TVF: There’s not much in the first episode but is there room for romance in the show?
AS: I think there’s room for anything in the show. It’s time travel and there are so many rabbit holes and what ifs, which makes it really appealing because what if at that moment one little thing were changed, would they be able to connect? Would her life with Noah Bean’s character be different? Would he believe her? There are a lot of different directions it could take…and it made me start to think, if we were able to stop something from happening in the future, should we? It’s kind of a heady question but…and if we start messing with things in the past, what happens in the future?
12 Monkeys airs Fridays at 9/8c on SyFy.
Jim Halterman is the West Coast Editor of TV Fanatic and the owner of JimHalterman.com. Follow him on Twitter.