Martin Carr chats with Mark Jackson about The Orville, working with Seth MacFarlane and Jon Favreau, and more…
Just a short walk from Waterloo station I sat down to talk with Mark Jackson. Known to UK television audiences from The Royal and theatre goers in productions as varied as War Horse and Noises Off!, we discussed his love of science fiction and a need for optimism in the genre. Starring alongside Seth McFarlane in the Fox network sic-fi The Orville, he proved to be funny, self- effacing, passionately engaged and easy company.
Martin Carr: For those who don’t know, what is The Orville and who is your character Isaac?
Mark Jackson: The Orville is a space comedy/drama. It’s not so much a spoof. Although that was the sort of thing people might have been expecting, it doesn’t go that far. It’s set 400 years in the future and there’s a conglomeration of planets and societies, alien and human, called ‘The Union’. The concept is quite familiar to a lot of sci-fi series. Isaac comes from a planet called Kaylon and he’s an artificial life form. We don’t tend to use the term ‘robot’ – I think he probably gets offended by that. The Kaylon consider themselves to be vastly superior to biological lifeforms and actually they are, for all intents and purposes, but they are not part of ‘The Union’. So Isaac is sent as an ambassador and science officer to the USS Orville, which is a ship and exploratory vessel of the Union. He is sent to report back to Kaylon, to observe the aliens and the humans and determine effectively whether it is worth joining ‘The Union’.
MC: You’re the only English actor in the show. How did your casting come about?
MJ: Well, as you say, most of the other actors are American, but with a couple of the roles, Isaac and Bortus, they cast the net quite wide. I know they auditioned in America, Canada, Australia and here for Isaac. I got the audition through my agent while I was living here and went up for it. Obviously it was a sort of crazy concept that had Seth McFarlane attached to it. A sort of sci-fi, Star Trek-esque show. I grew up with The Next Generation and always wanted to be in it. I’d have killed to be in that show, so obviously this was a strange opportunity to live that. So in terms of the audition I was thinking this would be nice but, like with most auditions, actors are quite pragmatic in thinking ‘I’ll never get this’. We knew there was interest quite early on. Seth had already seen the tapes after about twenty four hours. The man works like a mule so I’m not surprised by that. There was a lot of dialogue going on, a couple of times FOX checked my availability to go out and do a test for the part which is quite common practice, and both times they said ‘well no, actually you don’t need to come’. Read into that what you will. Then six weeks after auditioning I eventually got offered the part. I was just stepping on a plane for a holiday to Barcelona so it couldn’t have come at a better time really.
MC: Isaac’s voice, it’s quite distinctive to the character. Did you get any inspiration from anywhere else? Is it a specific homage to a particular character?
MJ: Once I finally got offered the part, I had a telephone conversation with Seth shortly afterwards and we immediately bonded over Star Trek: The Next Generation. He really grew up with it you know. He is a Star Trek nut and, interestingly, a few years ago he approached a company to actually bring Star Trek back but for various reasons it didn’t work out. So with this show there is no escaping it, it certainly doesn’t deny it, it is an homage to Star Trek. ‘A love letter’ are the words that’re being used quite a lot, but at the same time it goes off in a different direction. What’s nice about The Orville is it takes the main characters that you would have seen on Next Generation, but really delves into their everyday lives on the ship. You get to meet their partners who are often behind the scenes on Next Generation. And that’s where it’s really different. Yes the mission of the Orville is the same as the Enterprise, yes there are endless worlds and possibilities, and it is essentially an adventure show, but that is why it’s appealed so much to the ‘Trekkies’. They’ve really responded so warmly to The Orville.
MC: I know when the premiere aired ratings went through the roof and our reviews of the series have been very popular on the site.
MJ: Well the original reviews weren’t good, let’s put it that way. Seth is one of America’s leading satirists, and therefore one of the world’s leading satirists, and he is not afraid to speak his mind, so I think he’s probably rubbed a few people up the wrong way, including critics. When the pilot aired I looked for the reviews, and they were just terrible, and I thought ‘oh well that’s it’. But the audience response was incredible. I think it was the biggest FOX premiere for a couple of years. The thing is pilots are very tricky. The first episode of anything is very hard because you have to introduce all the characters and there is just a load of exposition. It’s not just the characters but their relationships you have to introduce, so that’s a lot of work for a pilot. And it did really well. What was nice was as soon as we got to episode two it could really take off, and we could start exploring the characters, we could start going on specific adventures. So that was really nice to see. The ratings did fall a bit partly because they moved from Sunday to Thursday, but they’ve remained steady. It’s been very encouraging.
MC: I was going to ask about the rehearsal process considering your theatre background and how it differs because I know Seth McFarlane does open table reads as live events. Is it more theatrical in that sense? Do you get more time in the same room with people?
MJ: Well we have a table read for every episode and it’s a nice way to meet the new actors who come on for each episode, because there is always a guest cast. Obviously with theatre you get three to six weeks rehearsal which you need – you can’t do a play without it. It’s improvisation otherwise. I think with film you do get more rehearsal time, they have the luxury of time and the budgets, but with television in general there is little time for rehearsals. With soaps there’s no rehearsal and you get on and you play your doctor and you get off. With this we got a bit of rehearsal, but it would be in the half hour before you shoot, so it’s certainly not weeks. If anything needed changing that would be a good time to bring it up, but generally that wasn’t the case because the scripts are so tight. It’s a testament to Seth that he knows exactly what he wants and it doesn’t change. Not because he’s draconian in any way but merely because it works and it’s really good. You also need to have a thought for the entire crew as there are ninety people on set. You need to do blocking for them, the director and the director of photography (DOP) need to figure out exactly which shots they want. They have an idea but it can all change on set because they think ‘actually that light there and that background is rather nice’, which allows for their creativity which is great. So we get a bit of rehearsal but you certainly need to know your lines when you get there, don’t bump into the furniture and, I think as it goes on and everyone has their character down, it becomes a lot easier and you throw yourself into it.
MC: This harks back to something we have already talked about where others have labelled The Orville as a parody. Being on the ground and being directly involved with that, how did it come across to you while doing it?
MJ: Every episode has drama to it and certainly as we go along it becomes more and more apparent that some of the characters and their relationships are having real difficulties. The Orville, like all great sci-fi, takes issues of today and transplants them to a place millions of light years away. Often addressing human prejudice, because we all carry that with us to an extent. If it was just a straight out comedy it could be done in a half-hour episode and it would be funny and lovely and that’s fine. But it’s the drama that makes the comedy work well,. You have to earn the laughs and then you have quite disturbing endings to some of the episodes, which people don’t expect. I like how the show is not a parody but gently pokes fun at the sci-fi genre.
MC: There are also some subtle sight gags which are just in frame for a moment and gone, but that’s the thing – there are moments of real human emotion which separate it out from other sci-fi shows in general, making this very much an ensemble piece with a focus on character over comedy. Where do you think Isaac fits into that?
MJ: Isaac is often the foil or the straight guy when it comes to jokes, partly because he doesn’t quite understand human humour. What I love about the show is that you’ll see the Moclan sense of humour is very different from human humour. That’s nice because it’s not just synthetic lifeform against biological lifeforms in terms of humour, it’s also aliens against humans. Really every race is different in terms of their humour and it all comes into the show, which is great. So I think he is definitely a straight guy, but he is adapting and morphing in front of our eyes. What he does do is save everybody’s arse on a regular basis. This is becoming more apparent – he gets a lot of flak but he is always there to tell them what technology they need to get out of a scrape!
MC: The Orville feels like a real departure for Seth. When you actually got to talk to him in the moments that you did, what surprised you most about him?
MJ: He is very funny, he’s very bright, such a clever man and you really get that when you talk to him. He’s just full of ideas, very switched on, and really engages with you as a person. He’s got a huge respect for the craft of acting and establishing character, making sure character comes across. He’s quite quiet but most funny men are. I think it is because he is observing, seeing how things work around him. He’s wanted to do The Orville for a very long time. He felt like now was a really good time to do it because we’re surrounded by a lot of sci-fi which is dystopian and it’s all a bit grim and bleak. What he wanted to provide with The Orville was an optimistic science fiction series, which he does.
MC: Considering the combination of drama, character and comedy in The Orville, which Star Trek incarnation is it closest to and why do you think?
MJ: I think it draws a lot on The Next Generation, the look and character relationships. It certainly stands on the shoulders of that show but also, aesthetically, it harks back to The Original Series and, I think, the innocent optimism. But it also draws on the inventiveness of Iain M. Banks novels. I just thought The Orville was so clever. I didn’t see that coming and I didn’t really see anything in these scripts which I’d seen before.
MC: I have to bring up Jon Favreau who directed the pilot. How does his style differ from people that you have worked with?
MJ: He was incredible. They were very clever to bring him in because everyone wants to see something directed by Jon Favreau. The fact that he was attracted to the show was a testament to Seth’s writing and his reputation as a creator. Every episode of the first season is directed by a different director and I still find this a strange concept. If you’re doing a play you’re living in the pocket of the same director for a good few weeks. But actually the nice thing about bringing in a different director every time is that they get to bring their own flavour to a particular episode. If an episode is quite drama heavy they can bring in a House of Cards director, if its comedy heavy bring in someone from Modern Family. I watched the Jon Favreau film Chef a few weeks ago and he really is a good actor, and the good thing about that is he talks to actors really well. He’s on your side immediately which, believe it or not, is not always the case with directors. Most of them I would say haven’t been actors and sometimes they find it a bit difficult to get across what they want out of an actor. Because actors are all so varied and weird and wonderful and we all have our own unique personalities, it’s quite a challenge to come across to that whole spectrum in a really productive way. Jon Favreau is excellent at that. Also – and this is a really big thing – he keeps the crew buoyant. There are eight or so actors but there are ninety crew members who have been there from the very start and are going to be there until the very end.
MC: So I have some quick fire questions. Kirk or Picard?
MC: Theatre or film?
MJ: I can’t answer that.
MC: You have to pick one.
MJ: Both. I’m greedy.
MC: Family Guy or The Simpsons?
MJ: Family Guy
MC: Patrick Stewart or William Shatner?
MJ: Patrick Stewart.
MC: Isaac or Data?
MJ: I mean…Isaac. They were ridiculous questions!
MC: Thank you so much for taking the time for this interview and good luck with the rest of the season.
MJ: My pleasure. Thank you very much.