By Curt Wagner
3:36 PM CDT, July 6, 2011
"Torchwood"actress Alexa Havins wasn't opposed to using plot secrets to get some help around the house.
The actress plays CIA analyst Esther Drummond in "Torchwood: Miracle Day," which premieres at 9 p.m. July 8 on Starz. Everything Havins knew about the show before she took the job she had learned thanks to her husband, actor Justin Bruening. He is a huge fan of the series and promised to stay home with their new daughter, Lexington, if Havins took the role. Once she did, he wanted details about the story.
"I've got a little bit of leverage," the 30-year-old deadpanned during an exclusive interview in June at the Cable Show in Chicago. "'Torchwood' is my ace in the pocket. 'Babe, can you do the dishes? I'll tell you what happens with Captain Jack.'"
For those of you who aren't "Torchwood" fans like Bruening, Captain Jack (John Barrowman) is the omnisexual, immortal and rascally leader of the now defunct Torchwood Institute, which for three seasons on British TV (and BBC America in the U.S.) investigated alien happenings on Earth.
A spinoff from "Doctor Who," "Torchwood" is moving to Starz for its 10-part fourth season, called "Miracle Day."
Barrowman, Eve Myles, who plays former Torchwood operative Gwen Cooper, and Kai Owen, who plays Gwen's husband, are the only major players from the original show in the Starz season. Creator/writer/showrunner Russell T Davies and producer Julie Gardner also are on board.
Havins said she has "the honor of being the 'Torchwood' tour guide" for new viewers. Since her character, along with CIA agent Rex Matheson (Mekhi Phifer), knows nothing about Torchwood, they must get up to speed just like new audience members will.
"The questions that Rex and Esther are asking, "Who is Captain Jack?" and "What is Torchwood?" are the same questions new viewers will be asking," Havins said. "Esther is digging deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole, so I feel like, in a way, Esther is the introduction to 'Torchwood' for the new viewer."
And just what is Esther digging up? At first, it's all the information she can find about Torchwood. That leads her and Rex directly to Jack and Gwen, and together they tackle a scary new threat to the world.
That threat is that no one is dying, which at first sounds like good news. They may live forever, but people now suffer terrible, normally terminal, illnesses for eternity. Even when their bodies are crushed or burned or blown to bits, they live. And because no one dies, the sudden overpopulation threatens to gut the planet's resources.
"[It's] so disturbing in the best possible way," Havins said of all the issues that arise because "people are living when they shouldn't be." She said the actors couldn't wait to see each new script.
"It's this inner woven web of Russell fabulousness. We have this huge story, but at the same time I love it when he throws a little tidbit of comedy," she said. "I feel like there is a little something for everyone. That's the nice thing with this show."
Havins believes that while things will be explained to new viewers, longtime fans like her husband won't be bored with it. Bruening, whom she met when they were both on "All My Children," was not allowed to read the scripts. But he has seen the first episode.
"It was more exciting just watching him react," she said. "He just wanted more. Yeah, he's a big fan."
How much did you know about “Torchwood” before it came to you?
I was privy to the information by way of my husband, Justin Bruening. … He is a big sci-fi fan, so he starting watching from the beginning and I got sucked in and by way of him. I’d be walking by and I’d see a little something and it was that slow-sit onto the couch, leaning forward. Next thing I know I’d be four episodes in. It’s one of those shows that sucks you in.
Right. Did you ever think you’d be fighting side-by-side with Gwen Cooper?
Gwen, I feel, is a bad ass. Esther, as great as she is in her own right, she is no Gwen Cooper. Esther is the computer [person], the techie. I would say her computer and her brains are her weapons. I didn’t get a bazooka or a machine gun or anything as cool as Eve did.
But in the premiere you, as Esther, have one of the most difficult stunts from the first three episodes!
These heels! They’re like five-inch heels! They’re stilts! I either call them torture devices or stilts. When we did the wardrobe fitting I was like, “Great, so you know that I’m doing these running and action [scenes]? Cool. OK, great.” [Viewers] see it once, and I hope I make it look effortless, but we shoot things a couple times, a couple 10 times! So it was one of those balancing acts of not falling on my face.
How were the calves after that day?
Sore; I would say the director owed me a foot massage. I’d go, “I hope it looked good, now what can you do for me?” But it was such a fun sequence; we shot in this building downtown that just was so vast and beautiful. I like that they had me running up the stairs. And I got to have Captain Jack chase me, so that’s not a bad day.
The shoes also speak to the position that Esther is in; she is not a field agent so she wasn’t prepared.
Exactly. It’s interesting, she is a little bit, a little sloppy. It’s a little raw because she doesn’t know [field work]. You watch Gwen and you watch Captain Jack and you see Rex and they know what they’re doing. They’re comfortable in the field, but it’s such a fun journey watching Esther. She is this desk girl and that’s her safe world and as much as she longs to be out in the field she doesn’t know what she is getting into. And when she does [get into the thick of it], she doesn’t know what she is doing. Fortunately she has good instincts.
It’s interesting to watch her kind of stumble and find her feet and not really know the proper way to save the world, to be a Torchwood team member. She quickly finds herself in it and it’s sink or swim. Fortunately she has the best teachers to keep her afloat.
But she has a lot to offer too, a lot of helpful knowledge…
Exactly. Esther is pivotal in the fact of just knowing computers and hacking in. As we’ve seen in the past series, you have to have that character to help save the day.
Aside from Justin, what made you decide to go for the job? The “Torchwood” name? Was it the character?
A little bit of both. For me it’s always character. It’s part reading a script and thinking, “I want to know what happens next.” I look at it like a viewer would, or I want to be a part of something that is exciting and groundbreaking. In this instance, there wasn’t a script, which is fine because I’d seen past seasons. And it’s not like there was a brand new writer [or] producer. Russell is still a part of it and so is Julie, so I knew where it was going to be.
Russell really had such a strong character fleshed out in Esther. Even the breakdown he wrote is just beautiful, the description of who she is and who he wanted her to be. So it was a real honor taking her from the words on the page and bringing her to life.
More of the appeal to me, and an honor, was being a part of something as huge as “Torchwood” that has such a cult following. And to play a character that I genuinely love playing. Esther is a great character.
I think Russell writes women really well.
Thank you! I agree, and thanks to Russell, because it’s very rare. Sometimes the girls are just the pretty girl or ditsy girlfriend. In comedies it’s like the guys are hilarious, but [the women] are just setting them up to be funny. The women are not that interesting. But Russell writes men and women really well.
All his women are strong, but they’re never the same. They all have very distinct histories, personalities, motivations.
Right. And he is very clear on that, on who they are. He does a lot of our homework for us and we just take a little bit of our own and sprinkle it in. He knows who Esther is. We talked at the beginning about the big story arc of where we wanted her to go and who we wanted her to be and it’s fun watching her journey.
She is a little naïve and she is the innocent of the group, but quickly she is put in situations that expose her to a whole other world. You see really strong character growth in Esther, which was fun for me, not to just play the same thing day in and day out. There were always like action sequences, which I loved. My first big action fight thing is so fun.
I can’t wait to see.
It’s so fun. I think I may have enjoyed it too much. I was like, “Can we do it again?” No, can I do this. We have stunt doubles just for safety. You’ll see in Episode 1 that crazy high fall. They’re not going to let me jump off the building. They’ll let me run in five-inch heels, but no hundred-foot falls.
Did your stunt double hurt her arm hitting that concrete?
I know what you’re talking about, dropping into the fountain. Sweet Nancy, she has got guts. Nancy is my stunt double and she is amazing.
The very first time we see Esther, we see only her lips. How much prep did you have for that?
[Laughs.] It was some serious prep! I did some lip exercises and I made sure I had perfectly puckered. [Laughs.] I loved it visually; it was such a great shot and very powerful. That originally was supposed to be the very first segment of the show, me saying “What is Torchwood?” I’m loving what they did, that it starts with Oswald, because he is kind of brilliant anyway. But I get to say “Torchwood” first and in extreme close-up. It was an honor.
Everyone is led to the edge of the cliff and dangled over and the Miracle Day brings out the best and worst in people, and fortunately for the Torchwood team members it shows all sides. But at the end of the day it’s all about humankind and saving the world.
Speaking of Mekhi Phifer, who plays Rex, Esther kind of has a thing for him, doesn’t she?
Just a little bit—a little unrequited love. [Laughs.] I think it’s one of those boss crushes. He is in a position of power and he doesn’t pay much attention to sweet Esther.
He is kind of mean to her, actually.
Yeah, that’s what I said! I'm like, “What are you doing Esther? There are many men out there.” She definitely has feelings for him, and I think from his standpoint it’s more of a sisterly love. You kind of see their relationship develop over the season. It’s her longing for him, in a way, that’s kind of fun seeing. Russell writes great relationships, but it’s never the main point of [the story]. But it’s sprinkled a little bit into the plot. He doesn’t write a love scene just to write a love scene. There is reason behind it.
Captain Jack, being the omnisexual love machine that he is, I fear for poor little Esther. Do I need to?
[Laughs.] Yeah, that’s what I thought. I was like, “If we could [do a love scene],” because Captain Jack and John [Barrowman] might be the most charming man on television, and the most charming man alive. I met John and I was in love, and then on camera when Esther first meets Captain Jack, he just flashes his grin and I'm like, “Can we arrange this? He is omnisexual, right? Can we?” She is in vulnerable territory, for sure.
Did you want to change that script because she initially was scared of him when she first sees him? Did you want her to run into his arms?
[Laughs.] Run into his arms and embrace me in that sweet coat of yours! [Laughs.] No, I liked it because the audience doesn’t know who he is. Is he bad? Is he good? What is his deal?
How was your experience as one of the newbies?
It’s always fun on set. We have such a fun time, as you know. You’ve met and talked to them. John brings just a real mellow vibe. They love what they do and I feel like they set the standard for the rest of us to have just a great time.
Eve talked about how she felt like this season was almost a whole new show in a way because so many things were different. Were you nervous because it was such a big show and you were new too it, or did the fact everyone was new in a way put you on even footing?
They had to do such a big move and it’s a different landscape for them. I never was nervous. There was always an excitement. … The current viewer who has been a fan from the beginning will not skip a beat. I know there is some concern that we’re going to Americanize [it] and this and that. That’s great; I think they should have opinions on what they want it to be. But it’s still the same writers, producers, stars and it just picked up some American souvenirs along the way.
I always hear great fun stories from “Torchwood” sets?
When you’re doing 14, 16 hours or whatever a day and you’re in some dank, dark basement thing with monologues of techie talk, you want to be able to have fun and be laughing and be silly. That’s what they do. They set a precedent; we’re very serious about our work, which we all are, but at the end of the day I would say we get paid to play. It’s just a fun job. We’re like little kids on a playground.
The premise of the no one dies, when you first read that, you think of the positive aspects of that. I didn’t think about the down side.
Esther’s initial reaction is “OK, maybe this is good; we live forever.” I think she’s always the glass is half full type of person. But quickly if you strip away that surface layer it’s kind of like, “OK, wait a minute, if no one is dying and the population is increasing, what do we do about food supply and water supply?”
So would we want that to happen?
I think that’s part of the fun of “Torchwood.” For a second, we fantasize about if it really did happen. What would I do? Would I go skydiving? You have the freedom to do things, but not good without a parachute because you’d still be living! [Laughs.] I don’t know about that. No, I think what we’ve got going on is just fine. I think Torchwood quickly realizes that and tries to alleviate what is going on.
Are you pretty shocked with what comes at the end of the whole season? I'm not going to get you to do a spoiler, but…
I'm going to tell you everything. That’s OK, right? [Laughs.] It’s satisfying in the fact that the answers are there. It’s not one of those, “Wait, what?” There are still questions lingering, but I think he wrote a really, really strong finale. I think the last episode is going to—you can’t breathe. There’s a lot going on. I really do think that the audience will be satisfied because even us reading it, we were like, “Wow!”
It’s a lot to explain and you’ll see in the middle of the season there are so many connections to make. Who is that? How are they connected to Jack? Who is behind the miracle? Is it foreign? Is it not from Earth?
We meet all these shady characters in the first three episodes and you’re not quite sure how they fit into Miracle Day, or if they even do. And it makes you want to see who is pulling all the strings.
Who is the puppeteer?
Or what is?
[Laughs.] Yeah, exactly, who, what, where.
You work with Paul James, one of my favorite actors from “Greek.”
It was great. It was an honor. He is an absolute love. It’s funny, he actually was in the same acting class as my husband. It’s this small world. They cast some insanely great guests and recurring characters. Each day you’d show up and you’d see the call sheet and be, “Are you kidding?” He is a prime example of that. He was saying it was fun for him because it was such a different character. Our characters work together in the CIA and he is an analyst as well, and we got to spend some time together.
Did you do a lot of research for CIA stuff and the techno babble?
[Laughs.] Yes, because my husband was like, “You’re doing what? I'm the techie in the house! What are you doing?” [Laughs.] I did. I just researched what exactly an analyst does but I tried not to get too caught up in the technical aspects of it. I really focused on character more than anything, but you can’t go in blind to what you’re saying. Some things you say, and you’re like, “OK, I think that’s what it is, but I really want to know what I'm talking about.” So then you have to get online and do some googling.
And training too, for the weaponry?
We didn’t have too much official of a full on guns course, which I would have loved, but everything was safe. I think that’s more Torchwood’s end. Like I said, Esther’s training would be on the computer stuff.
If there is another season is it like you’ll be ready to do it?
In four seconds, yeah. [Laughs.] But you just don’t know. You just kind of have to wait and see.
There has to be!
It’s such a great show; it’s one of those rare shows that I think gets stronger each season and they’ll be the first to attest to that. Like Season 1 they weren’t quite sure. They were finding their feet. I think they hit a homerun with Season 3, “Children of the Earth.” They had this story they wanted to tell and they just took that and kept going, which is rare. Russell and Julie know where they’re going.
What is the most surprising thing to you about the way that this long-format storytelling works?
I prefer this format. I think stories can be told in an hour and there is great TV that does it. But I think there is something for a viewer that you can really invest in the story. I feel like in an hour some of the most interesting aspects get cut. You just don’t have time. You’ve got 30 minutes or an hour to tell the story, but this we’ve got 10 episodes and I think it gives Russell the freedom to tell the story he really needs to tell in a way that the audience can so completely invest in it that there is no looking back. I think that’s why “Torchwood” works. It’s not like, “I'm watching this thing mindlessly and I'm doing the dishes.” You are on the couch and you are watching that because if you turn away it’s so smart and fast-paced you’re going to miss something, which as far as from a viewer’s standpoint that’s what I prefer.
Were you surprised every time you saw a script?
Yes, it’s one of those, “I want more!” You’re hungry for more. … I love doing comedy, so it was fun that even though it’s dark times, [Russell] throws that in and there is a little romantic aspect.
It’s fun to be part of that Torchwood team?
It’s an honor. It’s so fun.
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