In AWAKE, which premieres tonight, Thursday March 1 at 10 PM on NBC, Jason Isaacs plays police detective Mike Britten. Britten and his wife and son are involved in a terrible car accident. When Britten recovers, his wife is alive and their son has died – except when Britten goes to sleep, he wakes up in a different reality where his son has survived but his wife has perished. The change extends to Britten’s work life – in the reality where his wife is alive, Britten’s detective partner is Steve Harris’ experienced Isaiah “Bird” Freeman, whereas in the other existence, his colleague is novice detective Efrem Vega (who we see as a uniformed officer in the other realm).
AWAKE was created by Kyle Killen, who also devised the much-admired but short-lived LONE STAR. Howard Gordon, co-creator/executive producer of Showtime’s hit HOMELAND (as well as author of the espionage novels HARD TARGET and GIDEON’S WAR) and formerly of 24, is Killen’s fellow executive producer on AWAKE.
Gordon and Valderrama, an actor perhaps best known for his comedic series regular Fez on THAT ‘70s SHOW, are hanging out with each other at a party thrown by NBC for the Television Critics Association. The two of them talk together about AWAKE – and each other.
ASSIGNMENT X: How developed was the concept for AWAKE when you became involved?
HOWARD GORDON: Very. I stole Kyle’s spec script from the top of a pile in somebody’s office. I was actually on a red-eye that night and I said, “Oh, what’s that?” and [the office’s occupant] said, “It’s a really interesting pilot that some guy wrote on spec.” And I read it while I was on that plane, and I got off the plane at six in the morning, and I was blown away. I didn’t lobby for it, because I had a competing pilot – I had HOMELAND at Showtime and I had this other pilot at NBC that I was supervising, which didn’t get picked up. Then [NBC] came to me and said there was this pilot, and I loved it. I met with Kyle, he came up from Austin, I had some reservations, we talked them through. At that point, it was a first draft. I helped him develop it, and I produced the pilot with him and here we go.
AX: Had the two of you, producer and actor, worked together before?
WILMER VALDERRAMA: [laughs] I guess not technically. I’ve been such a fan of everything he’s done. For us actors, when you hear that a Howard Gordon project is happening – and it’s funny, because he’s here, and I’m going to talk about him [to his face] – the exciting part about it is that you know that it’s going to be smart, it’s going to be amazingly produced, it’s going to be exciting and different. And when I was reading scripts, a bunch of comedies came my way and honestly it didn’t feel right, making that choice again. When I read this and I knew that he was involved and Kyle was writing it and Jason Isaacs was the lead, it seemed to me like it was very serendipitous.
GORDON: Wilmer came into the room, and aside from being a longtime fan of his, he’s maybe the most charming human being on the planet.
GORDON: He had an intuitive understanding of a character and a concept that was very difficult, and it was like, the light went on – “Please do this.”
VALDERRAMA: When I read it, the exciting part about it was that here was a character who was an officer, newly promoted to be a detective. I had so much of a good role. One of the conversations we had is that, is the character going to evolve, is he going to develop? And the more we started digging deeper and deeper in the character, the character became so complex and exciting. Is he just hired to be keeping an eye on Britten? Is he part of a bigger picture? And as we started talking about it, you get digging deeper on the layers of this character, and I’m not sure how tricky it was to cast the character, but for me, I just knew that I wasn’t going to let them get anybody else [laughs].
AX: I’m not sure if you’ve heard him say this, but Steve Harris, who plays Bird, describes AWAKE as being like a Benetton ad in terms of the multi-ethnic cast.
GORDON: Yeah. I give Kyle tremendous credit, and I wouldn’t say this out of political correctness, but he kind of has a very steep learning curve. He realized that LONE STAR was a very white show, and that it was politically not diverse, and I think Kyle meticulously set out to make a more diverse cast.
VALDERRAMA: I was super-proud, on a small and humble level, that I could come back to television with such a strong and honorable Latin character with such great integrity. And to be able to give that character in primetime to the Latin community, specifically in Los Angeles, was very exciting, and representing our culture is really great, and it’s been so amazing – this character is so part of the big picture and so I’m really proud of it. And aside from that, just being part of this ensemble has been great.
AX: It’s also multi-national, as Jason Isaacs is actually English. Was he involved from the outset, or was there a casting process for Mike Britten?
GORDON: Jason and I had met for lunch and it was set up for us just to meet. We had gotten along really, really well over the summer and so when this came around and his name came up, we jumped on it. I mean, it is traditionally a very, very hard role to cast, that part, a guy of a certain age with the gravity and the emotional range and the physicality and the leading man [quality] for it is a hard thing.
VALDERRAMA: Someone like that, particularly in television, is so tricky to cast, because you really want to assemble something around someone who people are willing to invite home, people are rooting for him, and Jason is just such a disarming and powerful actor, and I think that’s one of the values. When I met him, I said, “Wow, this guy as an actor is just amazing.”
AX: Is the character Mike Britten meant to be sleep-deprived? Because from his point of view, it seems like he’s never asleep – when he goes to sleep, his experience is that he immediately wakes up in the other reality.
GORDON: We haven’t really explored the pathology of that yet, but I have to assume at some level there are consequences to the phenomenon that he’s experiencing. It’s such a big conceit, there are so many ideas, and I have to say, we have frustrations – it’s just that we don’t have enough runway to service everybody in exactly the way we wanted to. I think we had aspirations that, just because of the complexity of the conceit, we needed to simplify it. So the answer is, I’m sure we will get to that if we’re lucky enough to have a second and third season. I’m sure we’re going to find out that Wilmer’s character has got a history that we’ve not been able to service yet, but this is something we just needed to sort of make so legible to an audience and education them [on] how to watch the show.
AX: In the writers’ room and in the discussions between the actors, do you talk about how to calibrate the nuances between Jason Isaacs’ character and your character?
VALDERRAMA: For me, in our discussions with Howard, Kyle and Jason, it’s a very early relationship for them. They’ve been [partners] for a little while, but they don’t have the history that him and Bird, which is Steve Harris’ character, have. So for me, we have a place to build from – how tight they become as partners, and who do they become to each other? For me, I look at [Britten] a little bit as a mentor. I’m a rookie and I follow his lead. At the same time, as a young rookie, I get to question him a little in a way that is not conventional, not necessarily knowing [the answers] and keeping in mind that he gets these subliminal hunches occasionally. But what we’ve done with it all is try to pace the evolution of the relationship and how they grow together, and we’ve been able to, as you said, calibrate how close they are from the beginning and letting that breathe a little. I think it’s made it very exciting and very fun for Jason and I to play with one another. When we have a disagreement, we have a discussion or we have a nice partner to partner talk, and it’s fun.
GORDON: They have great chemistry. I mean, they developed it – it’s not something that just appeared. Clearly, they’re doing the work that they’ve put in is reflected in the film.
AX: Britten has a different therapist in each reality, one played by B.D. Wong and one played by Cherry Jone; the two therapists disagree with each other, even though neither believes the other exists.. When did the dueling mental health professionals become part of it?
GORDON: That was Kyle’s conceit. I think it was a very bold narrative choice – Britten was there and we caught the audience up in very short order, very quickly, “This is what the show is about.” And the only wrinkle, the development, is that the crime story is an evolving concept [with clues from one world affecting cases in the other, so] that, “Oh, my God, the world is reflecting one in the other,” so the answer is, they are kind of like a Greek chorus that get us up to speed as to what this is about.
AX: Cherry Jones played the President of the United States for you on the last two seasons of 24. Did you just think she’d be good for the role of the therapist, or …?
GORDON: I would do anything always with Cherry. The character was [originally] a twenty-eight-year-old, a young shrink. And aside from the fact that I think that a man of Jason’s age isn’t going to be dealing with a twenty-eight-year-old woman as his shrink, Cherry was just the right person.
AX: Is there anything either of you would like to say about AWAKE at present?
VALDERRAMA: As an actor, I’ve been here for a long time and part of some special projects, there are a few times when you get a chance to experience a journey like AWAKE. And that’s the best way to describe the show, I think – it’s an experience, not only for us as the actors, but for the audience, and it’s this moment where hopefully the audience relates to something that is really unique, mysterious and unpredictable, and yet familiar with the [element] of the procedural.
GORDON: I’m just looking forward to seeing it on TV.
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Article Source: Assignment X
Article: Exclusive Interview with AWAKE executive producer Howard Gordon and star Wilmer Valderrama