Based on a series of best-selling novels by James S.A. Corey, Syfy’s new series THE EXPANSE, Tuesdays at 10 PM, is set two hundred years from now. Humanity’s technical prowess has grown enough for people to spread throughout the solar system. Alas, humanity’s emotional and psychological flaws remain much as they are now, which means interplanetary war may break out.
Cas Anvar plays spacecraft pilot Alex Kamal. The prolific actor, originally from Saskatchewan, Canada, also starred in Syfy’s series OLYMPUS earlier this year, and has three feature films out in 2015 alone: the award-winning ROOM, the exorcism thriller THE VATICAN TAPES and MISS INDIA AMERICA.
Sitting in the lounge at the Beverly Hilton Hotel during Syfy’s portion of the most recent Television Critics Association press tour, Anvar talks about working in space and other topics.
ASSIGNMENT X: What can you say about THE EXPANSE and Alex Kamal?
CAS ANVAR: It takes place in space – that’s all you need to know, right? [laughs] In THE EXPANSE, Earth has colonized our solar system. That’s as far as our technology will let us go. We’ve got a colony on the Moon, we’ve got a colony on Mars, and we’ve got colonies in the asteroid belts between Jupiter and Saturn. And we’ve got probably about thirty to fifty million people out in space. And as is wont to happen to all colonies, there begins to become a little bit of unrest, with Mars and the Belt people, which we call “Belters.” The Mars people are called Martians, obviously. When we start the series, the solar system is right on the verge of some sort of interstellar conflict. They’re just waiting for a spark to ignite a war.
Mars has become an incredible force of military force of power. The Earth is trying to terraform Mars and turn it into new home. Twenty-five million people there, and their technology has advanced to an amazing level. The Belters have become basically the working class of the solar system. They’re the ones working hard in the asteroids, mining it for minerals and water and ice, they’re barely able to survive, they’re taxed up the wazoo, and they’re the ones providing all the resources for everyone to be able to survive out there. So everyone is unhappy, and Earth has become a unified force, where there are no borders any more, it’s run by the United Nations, and they are a governing body that has sent out all these colonies, and everyone is getting resentful against their Mother Earth.
Alex Kamal is a Mars-born Pakistani/India-descended spaceship fighter pilot, with a Texas accent. In this universe, the creators felt, “Who would be the people to populate Mars? Who would those people be that would brave unknown dangers, go out as pioneers and establish new communities, new colonies, with huge obstacles and huge risks to themselves?” And they figured it would be the Asians, the East Indian/Pakistanis, and the Texans. Those are the ones that would become the colonists of this new colony on Mars.
So you find Alex Kamal on an ice-hauling spaceship, which is basically the equivalent of an oil rig, or THE MOST DANGEROUS CATCH, the crab fishermen – they’re independent contractors, hauling ice from one part of the solar system to another part of the solar system, where the ice gets turned into water and air, and they’re just making a living, and everyone in this field is very much like these oil rig workers, or these fishermen. Usually, they’re running from something, usually, they want to be isolated, they want to be alone. [Kamal] and a whole bunch of other people on this ship that basically don’t want to be found and are just trying to make a living.
THE EXPANSE has three completely separate storylines. One is the ship, the Canterbury, which is us; we’re just minding our own business. The Earth storyline is led by Shohreh Agdashloo’s character, Avasarala, who is the Undersecretary of the United Nations, and she is an incredibly fierce, intelligent, hawkish and driven woman who is trying to figure out where this conspiracy is coming from that is trying to start an [interplanetary] war. And then we have a third storyline, which is led by Thomas Jane, who is our detective, Miller. He’s reminiscent of the old Humphrey Bogart or Columbo fedora-wearing-type detective gumshoe. He’s on a quest to locate this missing girl, who he finds has a mysterious connection to this war that’s about to start and to some secret kind of conspiracy. She ends up being the fulcrum, the hub of the entire action that takes place over the series, and his goal is to try and locate her and bring her back home. Our group gets caught up when this war starts to catalyze. We get blamed for it and then we end up running for our lives, trying to stay ahead of whoever it is that’s causing all the problems. And the three separate storylines converge as the season goes on and that’s when the fun starts.
ASSIGNMENT X: And Alex Kamal is a pilot?
ANVAR: He’s dubbed the best fighter pilot in the solar system, so he’s someone who has always wished and dreamed to be one of those pilots of those sleek and sexy fighter ships in the Martian Navy and the Marines. And he just never got to it. He was a family man, he couldn’t get his focus, so he ended up hauling ice on a supply ship. And then when the series starts, circumstances beyond everyone’s control come together to force him into a position to step up and become the person that he’s always wanted to be.
AX: Did you have to learn anything in order to look convincing as a spacecraft pilot?
ANVAR: I spent a wonderful time down in Houston at NASA. They gave me a whole tour of their facilities and taught me everything I could possibly need to know about space travel and piloting spaceships and all that, so that was extremely beneficial. We learned about the incredible dangers, how hostile space is actually.
The beauty about this series is that it is incredibly attentive to realism, in the sense that we don’t have any artificial gravity, we don’t have any faster-than-light travel, we don’t have any of the bells and whistles that are huge conceits that are much in the science-fiction world. They really wanted to show us what would happen if we populated the solar system. How would it be – how difficult, how challenging? Our technology barely allows us to get just out to Jupiter – it’s not like we’re streaking at light speed across the solar system or the universe. We’re really just basically like the pioneers in North America – it’s like Gold Rush times, and how deadly and dangerous that was. You could go across the desert in Texas and you’d be lucky if you survived the hostile environment of the Wild West.
AX: You’re originally Canadian, so how difficult was Alex’s Texas accent for you?
ANVAR: Oh, it’s not that hard. For about fifteen years, I ran a Shakespeare company back in Canada. And we would tour it from Montreal, where I was based, all the way down to Texas. And we toured all through Texas, Dallas and San Antonio and Corpus Christi and a whole bunch of other places, and when we brought our troupe down there, the Texans all said the same thing – “You know what? We really like Canadians.” They felt that Texans and Canadians really shared a bond and really had a very similar type of mindset and soul. So to be able to connect to the Texas accent and the Texas perspective was not difficult at all for me.
AX: Why did you stop running the Shakespeare company?
ANVAR: I had always started out to be an actor. I was trained classically at the National Theatre School of Canada, and Shakespeare was a huge passion of mine. I just happened to be good at producing, but my passion was always acting. And so after that length of time, I needed to get back to my love. I mean, I acted in those Shakespeare plays, producing and artistic directing and directing, it was fulfilling up to a point, but I needed to tell stories. I needed to act. So finally, a few good opportunities came along, with THE TERMINAL and SHATTERED GLASS and ARGO, and those [movies] brought me down to Hollywood, got me my agents and basically, I haven’t stopped working since.
AX: Earlier this year you were on another series on Syfy, playing Xerxes in OLYMPUS …
ANVAR: OLYMPUS was created by Nick Willing. Nick is one of my best friends – I’ve worked on NEVERLAND with him, I’ve worked on BABY SELLERS with him. OLYMPUS was my third project with him, and I love working with him, because he always takes these classics, these tried and true tales, and he turns them on their heads and he crafts something new and dark and sexy. And so he took the ancient Greek myths and he twisted and turned them, still telling this epic tale, this operatic Greek tragedy of this one hero on a quest to find Olympus through the secret map that’s hidden in his blood. And then all of the people around him who know he’s carrying this map are trying to get at it, because anyone who makes it to Olympus becomes a god themselves. So there’s an incredible quest for power there.
Xerxes was this conniving, incredibly intelligent, driven member of the ancient Greek clergy, so he was worshipping all the great gods, such as Apollo and Mars. But he had an agenda, and you never really wanted to get in Xerxes’ way. He was like Kevin Spacey from HOUSE OF CARDS. People tended to disappear if they were obstructing Xerxes’ agenda. He usually ended up being the smartest man in the room, with the exception of Queen Medea, who always ended up being one or two steps ahead of him, much to his frustration.
AX: Where is Alex Kamal on the intelligence/conniving scale?
ANVAR: Alex is one of the good guys. Alex is a family man whose family didn’t quite work out the way he had planned, which is why he ended up hauling ice on the Canterbury. He is kind of the glue that keeps his crew together. He’s a little bit more mature, a little bit more experienced in life than the rest of the gang, and when things start to fall apart, he’s the one that keeps everyone together. He’s a wisecracking, dry, sardonic, funny kind of guy. He keeps to himself a lot, unless there’s something that needs to be said, and then he’ll pipe up. And usually what he says is delivered in a way that kind of makes everyone crack a smile and not take themselves too seriously.
AX: Is that harder to play than somebody who’s conniving and treacherous?
ANVAR: I don’t know. I think in some ways playing funnier and more subtle, it requires a little more attention, because you don’t have reams and reams of dialogue to grab onto, so you’re much more of a listener and your performance is done through reactions, rather than delivery of epic monologues. But me personally, I’m a smartass [laughs], so it does come easier to me. I love being a smartass, I love being a wisecracker, I love being an observer and a watcher. [Alex] reminds me a little bit of a Mark Twain type of character, just someone who sits back and watches life and observes and has wiseass comments. He always has something funny to say that makes everyone kind of double-take and go, “Oh, okay. Hadn’t thought of that.”
AX: If there’s no artificial gravity in THE EXPANSE, do you have a lot of wire work?
ANVAR: Personally, I do not, but there is a lot of wire work. There’s a lot of zero-G acting in the show. Hell, we even have zero-G sex in this show. People will get to see what it’s really like in outer space.
Much like the cosmonauts that we have now, going up in the shuttle, you’re all strapped in, and we have these special contraptions called crash couches, because in this universe, in order for us to be able to travel distances without growing old, because it takes so long, there is propulsion system that’s been invented called the Epstein Drive. It does not approach light speed by any means, but it will take us at incredible velocity, sometimes twenty, thirty, forty, fifty Gs, fifty times the force of gravity, and that would kill any normal human being if they’re doing it for an extended period of time. The people that are launched into spaceships now, they’re typically going between ten and twenty Gs in a launch. They’re only doing it for minutes until they get into orbit, at which point, their velocity has peaked and now the acceleration has stopped, and they’re just traveling at a high velocity.
Whereas in [THE EXPANSE], we are constantly accelerating, constantly decelerating, so we have these contraptions that protect us. We’ve also developed a special concoction we call “the juice.” This is a cocktail of steroids and endorphins and blood thinners and all sorts of drugs and stimulants to keep us alive and awake and keep us from stroking out and having heart attacks and blood clots while we are under those incredible physical forces, which are reality, which is exactly what would happen if we were to travel in space in that manner.
AX: Have you had to learn anything else for the show?
ANVAR: I had to learn how to float in space, I had to learn a lot of science, about gravity, inertia, acceleration. I learned how to flip a poker chip through my fingers.
AX: If you’re not on wires, how do you float in space?
ANVAR: We have mag-boots on the show. These are magnetic locking boots, and a lot of times, when we’re at zero-G, those mag-boots will lock onto the deck. So you will be in zero-G and you’re weightless, but you are able to walk. So there’s a whole different type of acting that goes on when you are technically weightless and walking around, because you don’t have gravity now anchoring you, so you’re kind of like walking through water.
AX: Do they tilt the camera ninety degrees to make it look like you can walk up a wall?
ANVAR: They have different kinds of techniques. There’s some really cool camerawork that they use to take advantage of the zero gravity.
AX: Who do you play in ROOM?
ANVAR: I play the therapist that treats both Brie Larsen[‘s character] and a beautiful child, Jacob Tremblay, who plays the boy, Jack, after they’ve been rescued.
AX: How did you like playing a therapist?
ANVAR: My mom’s a psychiatrist, I was a psych major, so it comes pretty naturally to me.
AX: And how was working on THE VATICAN TAPES?
ANVAR: I had a great time. [Fellow VATICAN TAPES actor] Dougray Scott and I go back to the days when he did DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, and I was his prosecuting attorney, trying to incarcerate him, so it was nice to work with Dougray again. And I worked with Michael Pena for the first time, and I loved working with Michael. He’s a great actor and really wonderful person. So I had a really terrific time working on the show. They were very ambitious, very creative, everybody on the set was really passionate about the project, so it’s not a middle of the road project. It’s an extreme project that’s probably a love/hate project.
AX: What would you most like people to know about THE EXPANSE?
ANVAR: This is probably one of the biggest science-fiction shows on cable ever, based on an amazing series of novels that are New York Times bestsellers, and if you loved BATTLESTAR [GALACTICA], if you loved FIREFLY, if you loved BLADE RUNNER or ALIEN, this show’s going to blow your mind. And it is absolutely stunning to look at. It’s like watching a ten-hour Ridley Scott movie.
Article Source: Assignment X
Article: Exclusive Interview with THE EXPANSE star Cas Anvar