There wasn’t a lot Mike Vogel, Daisy Betts and Yael Stone could say about “Childhood’s End” at the TCA Summer Press Tour, spoiler-wise, but thanks to the source material the ambitious Syfy miniseries is based on, there was still plenty to discuss.
Even if you’re not a fan of classic sci-fi, you might be a little bit familiar with Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, if only because it’s known as the book that even Stanley Kubrick couldn’t figure out how to adapt as a film. The story tracks a major turning point for humanity after the arrival of an alien presence, featuring a wide cast of characters and an epic scope.
Vogel (who plays Ricky, the man selected to speak directly with the Overlords), Betts (who plays his wife, Ellie) and Stone (who plays Peretta, a religious activist whose life is turned upside down by the arrival of aliens) all seem to really like each other, so interviewing them as a group proved to be fun. We sat poolside at the Beverly Hilton to dig into the miniseries’ big ideas, the changes that occurred in order to amp up the story’s lady quotient and the impact of knowing how it all ends.
To start things off, had you guys read the book?
YAEL STONE: I’ve read the book. I read it upon the job arriving. I hadn’t read it before. I’ve certainly heard about Arthur C. Clarke because of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but no, I hadn’t read it.
MIKE VOGEL: I did not. I started it and I quickly realized that my character was a 60-year-old Head of the U.N. and I went, “Hmm, that’s not at all the midwest farmer that I’m playing.” But that’s also a choice I made when I did “The Help” and “Under the Dome.” I’ve not read the books because I found that inevitably you cannot fit everything that is in that book into what is inevitably going to go on screen. And so you start crafting a performance to be true to a book that eventually never makes it. You hit the big points of those things, but people are going to take creative license with things. So a choice you may have made now all of a sudden doesn’t work. All you can do is what you’re given.
For 50 years people have been trying to adapt this to film, to some sort of screen, and to get it made, it was thought to be too blasphemous and too grandiose because of the ideas that it talks about are so all-over-the-map and so big. How do you put that into a finite amount of time? So, I think that this is a perfect — six hours: three two-hour events. It hits all the major parts of the book for the purists; it will satisfy all of those things. Matt Graham, our writer, went through great pains to preserve all of that but I think he has also made some great changes to make things more relatable to today.
From the best that I can understand, you’re all playing relatively original characters to the story.
VOGEL: Ricky was there. And Ellie was there as a sidekick.
DAISY BETTS: Peter Van Ryburg. So I think as a tip-of-the-hat they called my character Ellie Van Ryburg. There’s not really any parallel with the characters, other than they worked together in the book and we’re a couple in the story. And I think that was important because in the time the book was written– It was a different time, so the main themes are relevant, but the human story our TV show embodies is now much more relatable.
Especially because what has a great reputation for great, stellar, well-developed female characters is mid-20th-century science fiction.
BETTS: Yes! You nailed it. You absolutely nailed it. I was just going to say, yeah, there just was no female presence in that time and in those positions. To bring in these strong female characters was a very important balance [the story] needed, because there wasn’t really a female presence in the book.
VOGEL: I think the beauty that you guys bring to this is you served the biggest part of the story, which is the ideas. In a sense, we’re all playing ideas.
BETTS: The cool thing is that the characters we play, they start off the narrative, which the book does, but then loses those narratives and goes into some really big themes. But the characters that we create in the first night, they continue their journey through those themes, instead of just losing track. The book becomes quite philosophical. It doesn’t follow a strong narrative. Whereas our show tried to find one and hook on to the characters to take you through the journey.
You guys all have had varying levels of interaction with sci-fi, but when you’re taking on something that’s really a hardcore property like this, is there that level of excitement for you of like, “Oh boy, I get to play in this very famous sandbox”?
STONE: I think there’s the weight of inheritance in terms of a story like that, that has this kind of cultural capital. It’s a wonderful thing to be part of that and have a turn in the playground. It’s nice. It’s nice to feel like you’re a part of it. I really hope people enjoy it and perhaps bring people’s attention back around to the book.
BETTS: I think, as an actress, when you choose a show you really don’t know where it’s going to go. Sometimes things let you down and sometimes things just surprise you and fulfill you way more than you thought. And this had a big reputation, but the fact that Syfy is getting behind it so strongly and the production value is so high and just everybody was so excited about it… It makes us feel more excited about it than we already were based on the pressure of adapting an Arthur C. Clarke novel.
For you guys, as actors with a miniseries like this, what is the advantage to knowing the ending versus not?
STONE: It’s wonderful. You’re playing an arc. It’s a much more traditional way into acting.
VOGEL: Yeah. When something like “Breaking Bad” comes out and is as incredible as it is, having experience in film and television, I can look at that and go, “It’s not just incredible.” It’s incredible because knowing all the challenges that go into it, the amount of lightning that has to strike multiple times to get something to line up — cast, story, writing, an audience grabbing on to what you’re doing — it’s tough. Because you’re playing at something that you don’t know, that’s evolving, that’s changing and the way that it changes may not grab people, may not resonate with people. But with this, it frees us up to craft a performance so much more, because I know where I need to get.
What’s incredible for me watching this thing. I don’t know if you guys have had the same experience, but when I signed on to it, it all happened so quick I didn’t quite know the full weight of what I was doing until as I’m on the airplane flying here going, “Oh. Oh crap. It’s Arthur C. Clarke and wow, it’s the one they wanted to adapt even before ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ but just couldn’t.”
And then getting there, finding how serious everyone is and so after the first day of filming, looking behind the monitors– Normally I can’t watch playback. I can’t watch anything because I know that it’s so rough and there’s going to be effects that are added, there’s going to be sound effects, there’s going to be so much stuff that happens between this point and that finished product that it just ruins the illusion for me. But I sat there behind the monitor going, “Oh my God. Guys, this looks fantastic.” And I hate everything that I do.
So, for me, whatever the outcome, it’s nice to sit back to something and say, “Man, I’m really proud of that. I’m real proud of the experience that I had, I’m proud to be a part of something so iconic whether anyone watches it or not. They can’t take away the experience that I had, which was really great.
Something I heard was that when you guys would stop filming and keep discussing the issues that were being brought up.
BETTS: It was an ever-evolving project and that was one of the challenges for me, is that we got into production, it did happen quite quickly — the casting — and so then we’re on board and we haven’t quite figured it out ourselves. So we have to surrender some of that control to the creators — the writer and the director — and just put a lot of trust in them. But then you also have to be smart and you want to do good work, so you have to question and you have to figure it out before you shoot the scene. So there was a lot of debate ongoing and there were scripts being changed to the minute before and then changed back after a discussion. It was a constantly evolving process and I think we got there in the end. That’s what is really cool about it, is it was very collaborative and ever-evolving.
There are so many big ideas being discussed. Did you guys all agree with your characters’ stances on the issues?
STONE: I think I’m probably the opposite. I’m a Jewish atheist and Peretta is a very, very committed religious person of a different faith, and that’s incredibly challenging. She’s also very somber and quite tight and quite conservative and that’s not really me. I also spend a lot of my time playing a different character [“Orange is the New Black’s” Morello] who is very loose on morals, although she wouldn’t say that. It’s a wonderful thing. That’s the whole point, to kind of explore another point of view and to find connection and empathy with that and understanding. It was in fact incredibly comforting to play somebody who’s so clear, who can measure a situation against a moral compass and know what the answer is. It made me envious of that kind of clarity. That was really interesting for me.
VOGEL: She plays her with such fervor and passion and depth of feeling.
STONE: Come on…
VOGEL: No, seriously! There were takes I would literally just stand there and go, “What!” Admittedly for me, Ricky is in my wheelhouse. He’s a guy I identify with. To have a character that is the opposite of you and to somehow find common ground with that, that’s the challenge. The thing that we get to do — to open your mind to a different viewpoint, to sit in their shoes, to try that on for a second — that’s part of the fun of the journey. And the heart that Daisy brings to the relationship between Ricky and Ellie — there’s a loss that takes place with Ricky that we can’t talk about much prior to this — but Daisy had an extremely difficult job, too, because this other relationship is shown in such a perfect light. But she’s very much the grounding force that’s trying to bring him back and keep him here, and it could have been interpreted as naysaying and nagging and yet it comes out as extreme heart, love and care for someone.
BETTS: Yeah, it’s not needy.
VOGEL: It’s not needy. It’s a fully independent woman who’s saying, “I love you just because” and “I’m here when you’re ready just because, when you figure it out.” It was so wonderful to be a part of it on so many levels.
Mike, you said that you feel like your character is very much in your wheelhouse. Was there any aspect to it that was challenging?
BETTS: [laughs] Even when it’s in your wheelhouse it’s still pretty hard dealing with aliens and spaceships. The stakes are kind of high. The world is under attack but in a kind of benign way.
VOGEL: I would say it’s one of the more consistently emotional roles that I’ve had to play. It’s funny because I’ve often said to my wife that I grew up plumbing and working hard with my Dad digging sewers and wells and ditches all day long. But I come home more exhausted after a day of emotional work on set than I’ve ever had in any sporting event I’ve played or anything. It’s draining. But it’s also part of the fun.
STONE: I certainly had a newfound respect for folks who do lots of green screen, who do lots of imagined elements, when the stakes are indeed fantastical. It’s a huge thing to play a type of truth to that moment, when you’re like, “Wow. This really is a large invention of my brain.”
BETTS: And another challenge that I’m reminded of is the fact that it’s basically six hours that we shot in one hit. That’s a very long movie. Usually episodic television you shoot one episode at a time, so you have a chance to kind of wrap your head around it, but this was just all integrated into one big shoot and so you constantly have to remind yourself, “Where am I in my journey right now, what do I know, what’s happened, how do I feel about that right now?” Because there were so many emotional highs and lows and so you just have to kind of like pinpoint, “How’s that growing? How I feel right now?” That was a big challenge for me.
Especially because you weren’t necessarily familiar with the books, were you drawn in by the scripts in that way?
BETTS: Yes. I mean, the first night made total sense to me. It’s about Ellie and Ricky. It’s the start of it, the journey establishing their life together. The background drama, you kind of get that. It’s starting to tell the story, but then it just goes woo! [Laughs]. It just goes there. It goes places that you don’t necessarily expect and it confronts you and it kind of just drops the big bombs of this is the new reality and you go, “Whoa… that would suck. But does it suck? Good is bad?” There are so many questions that are brought up.
I find it really interesting, the question of whether or not there’s optimism to be found in this story. Because you could look at the broader plot points and say, “No. This is sad.” How do you guys feel?
STONE: I think it’s really open for interpretation and that’s actually what makes it a complicated and wonderful piece of writing in its original form, and hopefully we’ve captured that. I’m hoping that the edit really allows for that ambiguity of perspective because there are a few ways to interpret it and I think that there is a great deal of celebration of humanity and of love, commitment and faith, and honoring what you believe. And at the same time there’s a grand condemnation of humanity, and I think that’s essential to Arthur C. Clarke’s work, that you have this progress and that you have it at a price.
BETTS: Yeah, it’s so interesting. People have had very optimistic views about the ending and I kind of go, “Did you and I read the same thing?” But I was left with a positive feeling because I was like, “Okay, well, that’s not our reality,” and so now it makes me appreciate what we do have in life and how I’m going to live my life and my kids. I just value everything.
VOGEL: I’m normally a pessimistic person. What I love about this project is that we all see what we’re going to see in it. And I saw a hope in it. Even in the ending: It’s called “Childhood’s End.” A lot of people can kind of figure a lot out through that. But even in what comes next — that journey of the unknown and where it goes from here — there’s something interesting. I think back to the first time I saw “Blue Valentine” and feeling like someone had done a speed bag on my stomach. After watching that, picking up the phone and calling my wife and tell her, “Baby. Oh my God. I just need to say that I love you so much right now and whatever it is, whatever is happening, we can get through it.” And this for me was very much the same kind of thing.
BETTS: We’ve had people tell us that they had the same reaction to reading this script. It’s the exact same thing.
VOGEL: Right. Yes.
BETTS: Remember the guy last night? He called his wife. It reminds you just to love.
VOGEL: And that it’s possible to change now, that even the things that we may look at humanity and go, “Ugh I don’t like that about us.” Even in that, there’s some great stuff. It spawns great stuff. Again, I know we sit here and toss around a lot of ideas and talk [but] it’s hard to talk about. I think that’s why it has taken so long to make the project, because it’s like, how do you bottle that?
“Childhood’s End” premieres tonight on Syfy.