Caroline Chikezie in THE PASSAGE - Season 1| ©2019 Fox/Michael Lavine

Caroline Chikezie in THE PASSAGE – Season 1| ©2019 Fox/Michael Lavine

THE PASSAGE, new on Fox Monday nights, is based on a millennia-spanning trilogy of novels by Justin Cronin. When a scientific expedition to Bolivia goes disastrously wrong, one of the scientists, Dr. Tim Fanning (Jamie McShane), comes back with a virus that has the potential to wipe out humanity. Pre-teen Amy Bellafonte (Saniyya Sidney) may be the key to a cure, but at the cost of her freedom and perhaps even her life.

Caroline Chikezie (pronounced chick-E-zee) plays Dr. Major Nichole Sykes, a medical and military official tasked with trying to contain the plague by any means necessary. Originally from London, Chikezie has appeared in a number of genre projects, including AEON FLUX, ERAGON, TORCHWOOD, SUPERNATURAL and THE SHANNARA CHRONICLES. Other credits include FOOTBALLERS’ WIVES, THE SWEENEY and EVERLY.

Partway through our conversation, we are joined by Jason Ensler, who is an executive producer and director on THE PASSAGE. Ensler has also been an exec producer/director on FRANKLIN & BASH, CULT, HEART OF DIXIE, THE RED BAND SOCIETY and THE EXORCIST.

ASSIGNMENT X: Although you’ve worked in other genres, you do a lot of science-fiction, fantasy and horror. Are you a genre fan, or is this just where the work has been?

CAROLINE CHIKEZIE: I’m a fan of the genre, definitely. I love science-fiction-futuristic-apocalypse-y-type shows, so yeah, I’m a fan of the genre. And I have also just always gravitated towards those projects, and luckily have always been accepted into those roles.

AX: Do you like these kinds or projects because they speculate about what our future could be, or do you just like them because they’re more eventful, and you get to play different types of people?

CHIKEZIE: Yeah. Because it’s more eventful, I get to play different types of people, it’s futuristic stuff I love. I’m a bit obsessed with the future, and what could happen as well. I think it’s a bit of everything, and visually, I find it the most entertaining.

McKinley Belcher III, Brianne Howey, Jamie McShane, Saniyya Sidney, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Caroline Chikezie, Vincent Piazza, Emmanuelle Chriqui and Henry Ian Cusick in THE PASSAGE - Season 1| ©2019 Fox/Michael Lavine

McKinley Belcher III, Brianne Howey, Jamie McShane, Saniyya Sidney, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Caroline Chikezie, Vincent Piazza, Emmanuelle Chriqui and Henry Ian Cusick in THE PASSAGE – Season 1| ©2019 Fox/Michael Lavine

AX: Did you have to do any research for your role in THE PASSAGE, either with the jargon, or how to handle the medical equipment, or anything like that?

CHIKEZIE: This is quite funny, actually – my character is a doctor, but she’s also a major in the Army. I have to do the salute that they do in the Army. And do you know, I couldn’t do the salute for the life of me. Do you remember, Jason? I was trying to do the salute, and literally, I had Jason and [show runner] Liz Heldens trying to coach me, and in the end, they were like, “You know what? Just nod.” So that’s one I had literally been trying to learn how to salute. That’s been the extent.

JASON ENSLER: It’s a hard thing to learn how to do correctly. We know when it looks right to the eye, but we don’t know how hard it is to do.

CHIKEZIE: Yeah.

AX: Are you the directing producer on THE PASSAGE?

ENSLER: I am, yes.

AX: So that means you direct some episodes, and tell the other directors, “This is the look we’re going for, this is the tone we’re going for …”?

ENSLER: Yeah. I try to set the tone and give people a chance to make the movies they want to make, but keep it within the spirit and the tone of the show that we’re making.

AX: There are some unusual visual perspectives in the pilot, which you directed. I think there’s one shot where there’s a fish-eye lens …

ENSLER: Yes. There’s a fourteen-millimeter lens to hold – it’s not exactly Fanning’s point of view of all the scientists discussing him, it’s setting the stage for bringing in the child, but it was a subjective shot to hold the frame of all the scientists, but also to say something was a little askew with this space.

AX: In the books that THE PASSAGE is based on, is Sykes British?

CHIKEZIE: No.

ENSLER: In the books, Sykes is a man.

AX: And American?

CHIKEZIE: An American man, yeah.

AX: Did you have everybody come in and read, or was it decided to make Sykes British and female before Caroline Chikezie came in?

ENSLER: No. She [Chikezie] made her British. We saw Caroline and we said, “Okay, whatever she is, that’s what Sykes is. So we’ll embrace that.” Because we wanted that. That part was very difficult to cast, because we needed someone who could hold the authority that the role demands, and at the same time, carry the ethical dilemma, and show a vulnerability, and a sense of compassion, and to have both of those things. We found a lot of people who could play the authority, but couldn’t play the vulnerability, or vice-versa. And Caroline was really the only person who came in and we said, “Oh, that’s how it’s done.”

CHIKEZIE: Wow. I was blown away hearing that. Thank you.

ENSLER: Not only that, but she brings so much more to it on a three-dimensional level. There are so many other layers to Caroline that we’re excited to explore in the series.

CHIKEZIE: Oh, my God. That’s amazing. Thank you.

AX: The characters shy away from calling the infected people “vampires,” even though that term could describe them. What do you call them?

ENSLER: The Virals. Sort of lab-generated vampires.

AX: Do the Virals have different specific states, like where they’re dormant, where they’re hungry, where they’re being manipulative …?

ENSLER: Yes. In fact, they have states, some that are sometimes controlled by the scientists, where we slow their heart rate, where they’re dormant, and then there are other states that are more animalistic, where they want to feed, or they are feeding. And then there’s a state that we’re exploring in the series where, when they go into a mindscape, which is to go in to either torment one of their human captors, or to actually go talk with another Viral about strategy, about how to manipulate their human captors and be free, they go into this sort of fugue state, an almost meditative state where you can’t reach them. What the doctors are starting to learn is that, when they go into those states, it’s possible that they’re involved in some kind of telepathic activity. So that’s another wrinkle, another sort of unfolding that one of the scientists starts to discover.

AX: How long does it take Sykes to realize that there is danger to other people with the Virals, that there’s a bigger problem than just what’s happening in the lab going on here?

CHIKEZIE: How long does it take my character to realize? Pretty soon, we realize that it wasn’t going to plan. At the beginning, we had people [as experimental subjects] who were on Death Row, so in a way, we kind of justified what we were doing, because we had people who were about to die anyway for the crimes they committed. So we took them in and we did our testing on them, and we knew there was a strong possibility that they wouldn’t be okay, but we were okay with that, because they were about to expire anyway.

AX: How long does it take Sykes to realize that there’s a problem because it’s not just that the human test subjects are getting sick, it’s that they’re telepathically messing with people, and they’ve figured out how to get out?

CHIKEZIE: I think that’s unfolding right now, isn’t it?

ENSLER: Well, I would say that the Sykes character hangs onto her sense of awe when it comes to the power of this virus, which creates immortality, and then of course, the side effect of vampirism. But each time they inject it into a person, they’re getting closer and closer [to a cure]. And with Amy, I think she finds Amy to be a miracle. And so Sykes is a little bit resistant to the idea that there is maybe something telepathically or supernaturally going on with the Virals. There are other doctors that come to it first. I think that Sykes is the skeptic, the last man standing. And she’ll come around, perhaps, eventually. We’ll see. I think what it will take is for a Viral to get into her head.

CHIKEZIE: Oh, and then I’ll be convinced. I didn’t know these things. We’ve shot the pilot, and the episodes are rolling out as we speak, so I’m getting some good info [laughs].

AX: Sykes is a character who is in command. Is playing a character who is in command different than playing a character who is just sort of on their own or part of a group?

CHIKEZIE: Absolutely, definitely. There has to be an air of authority about yourself, and my character makes a lot of decisions that could have a really far-reaching effect on humanity. So yes, I definitely have to put on my “I’m in control” hat, and just be badass.

AX: Can you describe the look and tempo of THE PASSAGE?

ENSLER: It’s a few different looks, and hopefully they all work together in cohesion. There’s the formal, grounded, strong, impervious tone of the Project Noah world, and that plays in contrast to the organic and naturalistic and handheld style of Wolgast [played by Mark-Paul Gosselaar] and Amy on the run. And then in the series, we’ll have flashbacks, which will be a little hyper-real, with the light blown out, and the colors exaggerated. And then we have mindscapes, where the Virals go into your mind or talk to each other, which will be the opposite, which will be very desaturated and cold, and a little scary. So all of those things will communicate the various worlds we’re trying to create, and hopefully they create a larger world.

AX: How much of that is done on set with the lighting and production design, and how much of that is done in post-production?

ENSLER: Ninety-eight percent done practically, and then we come in and we’ll color-correct, and we’ll fine-tune it, but the idea is [to do most of it on] set.

AX: This may be more a question for the writers, but it seems like Project Noah goes to extraordinary lengths to capture Amy once they target her. Wouldn’t it be easier to grab a kid off the street than somebody who’s in the foster system and sort of being tracked?

ENSLER: Well, she’s both. First of all, she’s not in the system, because if you remember, her mother dies, I think it’s on a Saturday, and they say, “Let’s put her in foster for the weekend and do the paperwork on Monday.” So there’s no paperwork, which is why they’re able to grab her the next day. And they reason they need her is because Wolgast is a liability now. They Wolgast as much as they need her, and Wolgast has her. And so now it’s about containment.

AX: Do either of you have a particular fondness for vampires as subject matter?

CHIKEZIE: Up until now, I would say not really, but as we’re working, actually, yeah, I’m getting into it.

ENSLER: I’m a big horror movie fan and a big genre fan, so I’m familiar with the vampire tropes, and the evolution of vampires cinematically, and they’re always fascinating to me. I never had an affinity towards them particularly, but I’m happy to engage with the vampires.

AX: Are the people working on THE PASSAGE consciously trying to stay away from anything FX did with its four-season vampire series THE STRAIN?

ENSLER: I’d have to be more familiar with THE STRAIN to consciously stay away from it [laughs]. But that said, yes. I think the difference is that these vampires are lab-made, scientifically, medically-induced. They’re born of the error of the virus. Justin [Cronin] speaks to this much better than I can. He wanted to get to the biological source of the myth of vampirism, and so when we find this two-hundred-and-fifty-year-old man, his idea of the epidemiology of it is that, that man, or at least the source of that original virus, and the myth of that, created the myth of Dracula and Vlad the Impaler, and all the vampires that followed, that this is actually the biological basis of the myth. Does that make sense?

AX: Yes, the notion that all of these stories are based on a reality. The scene where we find the two-hundred-and-fifty-year-old man has an interesting set in an unusual environment. Do you have any more of those coming up?

ENSLER: At some point, there will be the genesis of how Fanning and Lear [played by Henry Ian Cusick] came together and decided to go to Bolivia. There’s also more back story about other scientists that tried to find him and disappeared. So potentially, there are places to return to some strange environments. That [set] was a real cave, by the way.

AX: Was it in Georgia, where you shot the pilot?

ENSLER: Georgia, yeah.

AX: Did you have to clear out any of the cave’s residents, like bats or snakes or anything?

ENSLER: Yeah, we did. And we had to drain the cave for some spilled water, and then fill it in with dirt, and create a staging area for the vampire. It was a big deal. We didn’t know what was in the water. There were snakes and … yeah. So we had to clear the water out.

AX: What would you both most like people to know about THE PASSAGE?

CHIKEZIE: I’d say I think it will be incredibly entertaining, and I say this just purely from when I first received the script alone, I read it, my heart was racing. I put it down, I read it again, my heart raced, and I just feel like there’s something in it for everyone. There’s a bit of horror in there, there’s mystery, love, it’s got a big heart. And I think we need THE PASSAGE. There’s a gap that only THE PASSAGE can fill. I know it sounds really cheesy, but I do believe that.

ENSLER: I think genre fans are going to love it, because it’s got epic scope. I think people who like good emotional character work are going to love it, because ultimately, it’s about community, it’s about family, it’s about surviving tragedy, it’s about love. And so it’s got a little something for everybody, and it all works together as a whole. I’m surprised when I screen it for genre people that are psyched and surprised by the emotion. When I screen it for non-genre people, they’re like, “I don’t like vampires, but I love these vampires, because I love these people.”

This interview was conducted during Fox Networks’s party for the Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour.

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Article: THE PASSAGE:  Executive producer Jason Ensler and actor Caroline Chikezie on new Fox horror Series – Exclusive Interview

 

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