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.
Even though Taylor is heroic in many ways in what he does, he also can be a little bit autocratic and so not everybody agrees with how he rules and Jim has to tow the party line to an extent. There is also a kind of partnership and a friendship that is emerging between Taylor and Shannon. I really enjoy kind of the subtleties and the little relationship beefs that we have between all the characters on the show. I believe it’s quite unusual.
I get the sense and the feeling that your wife is going to be chip and a source of contention between you and your new buddy there, Nathaniel. Am I wrong?
Well, listen, there are a couple of times in the upcoming season where we do argue about what is right. There are a lot of moral questions being asked with regard to how this place is run. Yes, there are a few moments where our opinions cross, but that’s what’s really exciting about this world because we’re sort of building this place from the ground up we’re able to ask these allegorical, sociological, and philosophical questions about the world we’re living in now and where we’re going and what we would do if had a second chance. I must say that dinosaurs aside, that’s kind of the thing that I find most intriguing about the series.
I really enjoyed the pilot and we see a couple of dinosaurs sort of are able to have a meal of some of the humans there. Are we going to be seeing characters we know that get put on the menu, so to speak?
OK, how best to answer this. Dinosaurs do kill people. We don’t kill dinosaurs because they’re animals and we are as humane as possible when we try to corral and wrangle the local wildlife so we use nonlethal, humane weapons to control them.
They, however, don’t have the same control with us. They’re animals; they’re wild and sometimes they get hungry so we have to be very vigilant around that. There are other fatalities to look forward to in the season, you’ll be glad to hear, but they aren’t always series regulars. However, I can reveal that one of the characters that you will have come to know, and hopefully love, will die by the end of the first season. There will be a death of a regular character by this season’s end.
In the pilot we see Jim and his family arrive and they’re newcomers. Wondering how long it’s going to be before the next group of settlers arrive and Jim has to step up and be the old hand and kind of show them around and show them the ropes and have that kind of role reversal.
The 11th Pilgrimage is coming and it’s coming at the end of Season 1, but we don’t know what the 11th Pilgrimage is going to be made up of. By then it could be pilgrims, but it could be something else far more terrifying.
What kind of a journey would you say that the Shannons, and specifically your character, are on during this first season? What can we expect?
Well, firstly, they’re a very lucky family. They’re one in a million. They’ve managed to escape this dying world and get this second chance in this sort of Utopia, this beautiful place which has been sold to them, certainly if there was ever a travel brochure it would be sold as just the most beautiful place imaginable, a Utopia.
However, once the Shannon family gets there you realize, and it doesn’t take too long, you scratch the surface and you realize that there is something else going on here. There are splinter groups, splinter factions, people challenging Taylor’s rule over the place. You also find out that there are people close to Taylor who have become estranged and might even be plotting against him and his sort of rule, for want of a better word, as commander over Terra Nova.
By the way, you know who put him in charge? Was he ever elected? All these questions are asked so the Shannon family are caught up in all of this and they become the audience’s eyes and ears and they get involved in a first-hand way directly in the intrigue that’s taking place, politically and socially. At the same time trying to sort of survive in this place that is certainly a lot more hostile than it’s first thought and it’s not just the dinosaurs.
Josh Shannon gets embroiled in the first season in something and gets in way over his head. Maddy Shannon has her story line and at times she’s put in terrible danger, as well as Zoe as well and some of Zoe’s stories, my seven-year-old daughter, really played really well. I think everyone was surprised how well her character plays in the stories, but also surprised with how good Alana Mansour is as Zoe. She’s just becoming a really great little actress. I really enjoy working with her. People warn you not to work with children or animals, especially dinosaurs in this case, but Alana has just been a delight from start to finish and her acting is really deepening and maturing and she’s starting to have a lot of fun with that.
So the relationship between Taylor and Shannon is obviously at the center, at the heart of the first season, but also you’re right in asking that question that the Shannon family and their experiences are also at the center of the first season. Obviously I have to paint very broad brush strokes here, but I think as the episodes progress you’ll get a feel for the kind of show that we’re trying to make week after week. Just to put everybody’s minds at rest there will be dinosaurs in every episode regardless of how human the stories become, we’ll always a healthy dose of dinos.
Just from an acting standpoint, what maybe were some of the initial acting challenges stepping into the role for you?
Yes, well, I’ve always tried to keep my character—I like to play very raw characters, characters who have a degree of vulnerability and passion about what they’re doing. I suppose the greatest acting challenge was to allow Jim to have enough darkness and even allow him to be more flawed than perhaps he was on paper. That is something that I’ve sort of confidently been talking to the writers about, about trying to keep Jim as complicated as possible so he’s not just a hero running around protecting his family and chasing dinosaurs, either chasing after them or running from them, so that there is a little more to him than that.
I suppose that was sort of my challenge to try to keep Jim as grounded, as real, and as complicated and human as possible. Technically the green screen acting can be difficult because—there is something worse by the way than a tennis ball on the end of a stick, it’s an Australian visual effects assistant running around with a cardboard dinosaur head cut off on the end of a stick while wearing shorts and sandals running around a field. And you’re supposed to look intimidated and scared to death of this guy and he’s a very sweet guy, but it’s just really hard to be really scared of something like that when all you want to do is burst out into fits of laughter.
That stuff can be tricky and difficult, but then you’re really at the whim of the visual effects guys and the editor when it comes to that stuff, so you do your best with it and move on. I think just trying to keep Jim as edgy and engaging and as intriguing as possible given that we’re also trying to make this as appealing for as many different people as possible. That’s always a very thin line to walk.
How has the filming experience been?
Anybody who goes out for a hike on a regular basis knows how tired you are in the evenings and you come back after a long day’s shooting of being out in the forest and you want the next day off. But we don’t get days off. The next it’s up early and it starts again. That’s the challenging thing with TV; it’s not the action scenes per se and it’s not the location scenes and the heavy dialogue scenes, but the fact that there is just no let-up; there is no break. Oftentimes we’ll even work Saturdays to get all this in.
We’re shooting in eight or nine days per episode, but we shoot in blocks and to accommodate publicity like the tour I’m on now and other things we have to move the scheduling and the shooting days around, but it’s something we have made work for ourselves. It’s working so far. We shoot with three cameras per unit. Sometimes we shoot with two different units or where we’re shooting two different episodes at the same time. Sometimes we splinter units that have cameras on board helicopters. It’s a pretty big production—the size of which I’m not sure has been seen in recent memory on broadcast TV.
Do you find it even the little off time that you’ve had a weird transition to doing mundane things like taking out the trash or doing dishes?
No. No, what’s good about this is the really hard thing about this … being away from my family … That’s the bad news. The good news is my wife hasn’t been there to tell me to take out the trash, so every cloud has its silver lining. I’m so intense on this show; I work almost every scene. I work almost every day. I literally do not have time to take out the trash. I’m going to be coming down to earth hard when I get back home because that is one of my major jobs in the house is to stamp out the garbage.