In Fox's new "Terra Nova," Irish actor Jason O'Mara plays Jim Shannon, a Chicago police officer in the year 2149 who, with his family, travels 85 million years into the past to colonize Earth and build a better civilization.

Future Chicago appears in the 7 p.m. Sept. 26 premiere of the family adventure series for just a few minutes before the action transfers to its dino-riffic prehistoric setting. Most of what you will see of Chicago is computer-generated, including a crumbling Sears (Willis) Tower. Still, the eastern Australian coastal city of Brisbane had to stand in for Chicago.

"A lot of Chicago was CGI because we're not dealing with [present-day] Chicago, we're dealing with that city 150 years or so from now," O'Mara told me during a conference call last week. "We tried to recreate it in the most imaginative way possible. I think it looks pretty darn cool, but scary as well.

"The future is kind of a bleak place."

That’s an understatement. Pollution has gotten so nasty, citizens must wear masks called “re-breathers” just to suck a little oxygen from the air. Some children have never even seen the moon. Technology may have advanced far enough that time travel is possible, but humanity hasn’t used it smartly enough to save the planet.

They can save themselves, however, which is what they attempt by sending people on a one-way trip back in time to the Terra Nova colony, where they find sun, moon and an abundance of fresh fruits, vegetables, water and breathable air.

Australia also stands in for Earth of the Cretaceous period. The show films in Southern Queensland, where filming conditions can be anything but ideal, according to O’Mara.

“It has been very challenging shooting this show,” he said. “The Australian Outback can be quite unforgiving … We’re really out there in the rain forest and on location and we’re exposed to the elements, for better or for worse.”

It sounds like a lot of “worse.” Rains, storms and flooding were so bad at times the Terra Nova sets, many built on location and not on soundstages in studios, were destroyed or damaged. O’Mara joked that some days it rained “cats and dinos,” or so heavily that the production was delayed, which probably contributed to a ballooning budget for the two-hour pilot that the L.A. Times says was around $20 million.

“[There were] days where I opened my trailer and stepped down and literally was up to my knees in a pile of mud,” he said.  “They were the days where you go, ‘I don’t think we’re shooting today.’”
Another aspect of working on location in the wild is wildlife. Cast and crew didn’t have to worry about dinosaurs, or course, but there were smaller critters.

“There are a lot of snakes,” O’Mara said. “I don’t know how poisonous it was, but I had a toad crawl across my boots just last week, which was really kind of cool actually. But we’re really out there.”

O’Mara said that despite all the hardships and long filming hours, the most difficult aspect of being part of the show and filming in Australia is that he is away from his wife, actress Paige Turco, and his 7-year-old son, who live in New York.

“I really, really miss them. They have come over to visit me for an extended period of time, but not for the full 5 1/2 months or whatever it’s been,” he said. “I’ve spent a lot of that time missing them terribly.”

O’Mara talked more with reporters about the show, his TV family and fighting dinosaurs. You’ll find excerpts from the interview below.

How did this part and this show come to you?
Let me start at the beginning. I was in London doing a play at the Donmar Warehouse. It was called “Serenading Louie.” It was an off-Broadway play from like 1972, I think, or ’73, that was being revived and I did it with Jason Butler Harner, who is a great American actor. I think he’s going to be in “Alcatraz” on Fox in the mid-season. Simon Curtis directed it, who’s married to Elizabeth McGovern and he’s directed a lot of stuff recently, actually. He’s just directed “My Week with Marilyn,” which is coming out soon.

I really had a great time. I had skipped pilot season because I was in London for all of that and I thought that Hollywood had completely moved on and had lost interest in me, which would have been fine, you know, whatever. Things go in cycles. I came back and my agent called me and said, “Just so you know

I’ve had several conversations with Dreamworks and Fox about a production that they’re working on called ‘Terra Nova’ and Steven Spielberg is highly involved in the casting and is signing off on everything related to the production. That’s a hoop that we need to jump through before we progress any further.”

I hadn’t got an offer or anything. This was just, you know they were just sort of checking my availability and seeing if I was interested. I read a version of the script, which has changed a lot since, but I was intrigued by the scale of it and the ambitiousness of it. After I was done reading it I thought that this can never be made for television; it’s too big. This is a movie. Then remembering that Steven Spielberg was involved, I thought well, if anybody can do it, he can.

What intrigued me most about the script was that it was really about second chances and if we were given a second chance as a race would we make the same mistakes? That was kind of the thing that hooked me onto it. I said to my agent, “You know I would be interested if it goes further.” He said, “OK, well there are a lot of people involved with this because it’s such a big production. I’ll discuss this with everybody and get back to you.”

Then I got a phone call. I was walking down the street in New York City and I got a phone call from him again, my agent, saying, “OK, Steven Spielberg has been in touch and he wants to watch some scenes from your work. He wants to see some reels.” But not my show reels, he wanted to see some more dramatic stuff. I sent some scenes from “Life on Mars” to my agent and he put them together on a web site for Mr. Spielberg to watch and he watched them.

Then I didn’t hear anything for about 48 hours and I was sure that I would not get this; that I wouldn’t hear any more about it and I got a phone call saying, “They want you to take the role of Jim Shannon on Terra Nova. Would you be interested?” I said, “Hey, man it has Steven Spielberg; it has dinosaurs and it’s one of the most ambitious TV projects of all time. That sounds like a dream, sign me up.” I did and I haven’t regretted a single thing. It’s been a wonderful journey.

How does Jim look at himself within the world of Terra Nova and what he struggles with most when he gets there?
I think his primary goal is to protect his family and ensure that they thrive and survive in this new place. He’s also been sort of, whether he likes it or not, he’s sort of been made the sheriff in this frontier town. So he has to kind of go along with what Taylor does and says and sometimes he has reservations; sometimes he’s in accordance to it, but the questions that are brought up sort of affect the very fabric of Terra Nova’s society that is being created as we go along.