THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH is a sequel series, now in its first season Sunday nights on Showtime, to the 1976 feature film starring David Bowie. Bowie played Thomas Jerome Newton, an extraterrestrial who comes to our planet to acquire water for his own parched world, only to become trapped here. The film and series are both adapted from the novel by Walter Tevis.
THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH series was adapted for television by Alex Kurtzman and Jenny Lumet. Newton, now played by Bill Nighy, is still around, albeit in hiding. The focus here is on planetary newcomer Faraday, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. Faraday is from the same world as Newton, and his quest is even more urgent. Before Faraday can accomplish anything, however, he needs to approximate acting like a human being. Aiding him in this quest are frustrated mathematician Justin Falls, played by Naomie Harris, Justin’s elderly father Josiah (Clarke Peters), and young daughter Molly (Annelle Olaleye). There are also sinister government agents in pursuit of the alien, chief among them the brutal Spencer Clay (Jimmi Simpson).
At a Zoom panel hosted by Showtime for the Television Critics Association press tour, executive producer/writer/director Kurtzman, executive producer/writer Lumet, executive producer/actor Ejiofor and actor Harris are joined by executive producer/show runner/writer John Hlavin for a Q&A session about THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH.
In developing THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH as a series, Lumet says, it “came from the idea of the next step because it’s not quite a remake of that wonderful original movie. It is certainly a next step. I think that Alex and I were very much in our lives wrestling with the question of, how did we get here? Do we feel lonely? Do we feel anxious? Do we still feel connected to ourselves, to our family, to our friends? Those questions of connection seem so powerful right now. And is the distance of one being coming from another planet to Planet Earth any further than the distance between ourselves and knowing our own hearts? That’s the kind of stuff that we were really thinking about. This show was not easy to write. It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, let’s make [Faraday] do this’ … The curiosity and emotional bravery that Bowie brought to what he did, we really tried to bring to what we did. I think that we were all in a place of ‘I really believe that human beings are beautiful. So, let’s examine what we can do still now, today, even today.’ And I think that’s how it showed up.”
Kurtzman adds, “I think we took tremendous inspiration from both Nicolas Roeg’s film and also Walter Tevis’s novel, but I think we also felt that it was important for us to find a way to both interpret and reinterpret the themes and ideas that we are living and breathing in both of these beautiful creative objects. And the thing that’s wonderful about the questions that Mr. Tevis poses in his novel is that they are timeless. They are essential questions that humanity at every phase has to ask itself, which [are], how do we get to this point here, and what choices are we going to make now if we want to choose to survive? We are obviously at a tremendous crossroads. Everybody feels it every day, all over the world. And the idea of getting to try and explore and understand what’s happening and how the choices that we have made as a species have aggregated to the sum total of where we are now was really the task of the show, was just exploring what that means and what it means to be a human being.”
Continuing, Kurtzman adds, “The character of Faraday as an alien becomes a wonderful prism through which we get to view ourselves, because every experience for him is a first. He’s like a child having a first piece of birthday cake, or experiencing color for the first time, or looking at the sky, or breathing our air, and because everything is a first for him, he articulates it down to its simplest and purest essence. We often get confused, I think, by the way we process things, because life is very confusing. And for him, it’s very clear and very binary. I think that was a really interesting thing because, at the end of the day, if the goal of this show is to try to understand who we are right now, there’s no better prism through which to view it than this alien who sees both the best in us and the worst in us.”
Faraday seems to have more humanity than many of the actual humans in the story. Lumet responds to this observation with, “’Aha.’ That’s probably one of the more intriguing parts of the show and one of the more exciting parts, certainly, to write and to watch our extraordinary cast grapple with. I would ask you then, what does perspective offer? What is the gift of perspective? Is our alien more attracted to the best of us? Is he desperate to connect with us?”
The Faraday character also seems much warmer than both the Bowie and Nighy interpretations of Newton. Ejiofor oberves, “Well, I think that as the character evolves, and as his relationship with Thomas Jerome Newton evolves, these are two different distinct aliens, and they have their own characteristics that are very much rooted in their home planet. So, all of that is explained in part of the show, where Faraday and Thomas Jerome Newton are similar and where they are quite distinct.”
Although other characters initially perceive and/or explain Faraday’s behavior as being on the autism spectrum, Ejiofor says, “I didn’t base it on any actual person or in any way the autism spectrum, and in fact, we didn’t really speak about it in those ways. He’s a character that is trying to understand the world and piece it together for himself, and the way that he’s doing that leads other people to categorize him in a certain way, but that did sort of organically come from the way that I was looking at the character.”
As to how fast Faraday adapts to American human culture, Ejiofor relates, “We decided in the nature of the show that he would have some trajectory. That is, he would be faster than us, faster and quicker in his alacrity and ability to understand and learn language and communicate, but not instantaneous. So, there would be a journey for him, and that’s what we are witnessing. In fact, I think we go on to witness that evolution through the show as he develops more and more alacrity with language and speaking, but also with human nuance, with the interpersonal dynamics and understandings, that he actually becomes eventually quite rich at being able to mimic and then sort of internalize. So, his development as a human in a way is very multifaceted and is a central part of the story.”
Harris’s career has been a mixture of powerful originals, such as 2002’s 28 DAYS LATER, history, such as playing Winnie Madikizela Mandela in MANDELA: A LONG WALK TO FREEDOM, and franchise fare, including portraying Moneypenny in the James Bond series and Shriek in VENOM: LET THERE BE CARNAGE. “I didn’t set about my career with any kind of agenda in that respect,” says Harris, “and I don’t choose scripts on that basis. I really choose scripts on the basis of whether they really connect with me, whether they have a powerful message, and I feel intrigued to go on a journey that the character is going on. But mostly what I really love is when you can have this marriage between entertainment and also something that’s edifying and that has a really relevant, powerful message, and that’s why I fell in love with THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, because I just think that it has an incredibly powerful and relevant message for us today to really examine what we are doing to our incredibly beautiful planet.”
In terms of what THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH has to say about humanity’s stewardship, or lack thereof, on our planet, Ejiofor offers, “What I was really intrigued by, for all of us, there’s no crystal ball. We don’t know on either side of the debates, the highly contested debates sometimes, these crazy debates, about where we are, about where we are in the world, what is going to happen with climate change, what is going to happen with the future. There’s no real way of knowing fully what the future holds, and the perspective of this character was so interesting for that reason because he wasn’t necessarily being prescriptive. He was just simply saying that, ‘Where I’m from, from the planet that I lived in, this is what happened to us, and this is what it meant.’ Now, one on Earth can take that in any direction. You can take it as meaning that things have to change. You can take it in the direction of meaning that things don’t, if you want, but his perspective is so interesting. ‘Where I’m from, our planet was destroyed, and a lot of that was destroyed by our own actions and inability to heed the warnings of our planet.’ Where we are on Planet Earth, we are still in a planet that gives us so much, that is so positive for us. Where Faraday is from, that was taken for granted, and he sees some of the similarities in the human experience. And so, for me, that was a kind of profound and interesting way to look at the issue, to look at the problems that humanity potentially faces.”
What does Ejiofor feel he has learned about himself from the characters he plays, including Faraday? The actor answers, “You end up learning quite a lot, certainly with something like this. Because of the nature of the part, you have to rely on your own experiences quite a lot. You have to rely on the ways that you’ve interacted with people, the ways that you felt like an outsider, the way that you’ve tried to belong, all of these very personalized dynamics in the ways that you’ve grown up and the way you’ve lived. And so, you have to bring that to playing this part, to even try to understand it, and inevitably, that throws out all of this contemplation about your own journey, your own personality. But it was the only way to really make this a kind of individual journey, I suppose, for me, because we have seen aliens portrayed before and so many times so incredibly well that you just feel like, you can’t borrow any of that. The only thing you can really do is internalize it to try to understand it for yourself. And the work that Jenny and Alex have done on this, these incredible scripts and this extraordinary story, really created an incredible framework for me as an actor to be able to go on that journey as a character and to go on a personal journey. So, I think my answer is, in this case, you learn a lot. You investigate a lot.”
While Nighy is not on the Zoom session, his performance as Thomas Jerome Newton inevitably comes up, especially as he has been cast as a character originated by David Bowie. Kurtzman says, “The character of Thomas Jerome Newton was always there from the pilot onward, and we knew what an extraordinarily challenging casting choice it would be because there’s really no way of looking at it in any other way than saying, ‘Someone is stepping into David Bowie’s shoes. So how is that going to work?’ It was tremendously important to us that we were choosing an actor who would not be doing a David Bowie impression but, in fact, was going to be bringing his own very unique soul to the character of Thomas Jerome Newton, which is separate from the human being that was David Bowie. First of all, Bill could do anything and it would be brilliant. Let’s just start with that.
“Naomie and Chiwetel have had the pleasure of working with him before,” Kurtzman continues. “It was my first time getting to direct him and getting to know him, and I’m happy to report that Bill Nighy is everything you want him to be as a human being. He is dedicated, collaborative, beautiful, soulful, thoughtful. He never relents until he has dug as deep as possible to get where he needs to go. He understood fully and completely what it meant to take on this role. And I think he knew Bowie a bit. So, there was a sense of honoring that relationship. And there really was nobody else that we could have imagined for it. You need a legend to step into the shoes of a legend.”
Of THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH overall, Kurtzman relates, “I found there were certain moments that are ‘pinch me’ moments. Certainly, working with Chiwetel and Naomie have been that for me every day because of the extraordinary trust and relationship that we all have with each other on set. So, we put ourselves in each other’s hands, and Bill certainly did that, knowing what a massive task he was taking on. When you have that kind of trust, you can build something really beautiful and really special, and you are free to open doors that you didn’t even know were there in the moment, which is a really lovely thing. I got to inherit a little bit of the relationship between Naomie and Chiwetel and Bill that had pre‑existed on different things and learn from them and watch them, but what blew me away – and again, this applied to everybody – is you see these actors with such extraordinary careers and such extraordinary legacies, and you assume, I think, entering into it … they’ve done everything, they could direct themselves. What I found, actually, is that when you are operating from that place of trust, I said, ‘Naomie, you can basically direct yourself.’ And she said, ‘No, I can’t. I absolutely need that kind of input. I need you to help me get there. And that’s what I mean when I’m talking about trust.”
“I would just like to say that I absolutely could not direct myself,” Harris interjects. “I’m so glad to be in Alex’s hands.”
Is Season 1 of THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH closed-ended, or could there be a Season 2? Hlavin replies, “It is both closed‑ended and open‑ended. The idea for us was always that we would try to tell a complete story in one season. But to be frank, in the writers’ room, we always talked about it as somewhat ongoing. Do we want to do it again? This was really incredibly fulfilling work, but it was also incredibly challenging work. We shot it during the pandemic. We were halfway through the writers’ room when COVID struck, and we had to go from seeing each other in person to seeing each other on Zoom. The next time I saw Alex and Jenny in real life was over a year later in London when we were filming. So, it was a very challenging show to make, but I think, ultimately, if it is only a one‑season show – of course, we would love it to be longer than that – speaking for myself, I’m incredibly proud of it. I think it is – and I rarely would say this about something I’ve worked on – really beautiful work, really meaningful work, and everybody’s contribution, I think, aided in that.”
Lumet credits everyone involved with how THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH has turned out. “Everybody in the cast. Everybody in the room. This is not me being super-generous. I’m straight‑up not. What everybody brought made a difference to every moment that you see, every moment of footage. Alex and I, [executive producer] Sarah Timberman, we had ideas. They coalesced. John Hlavin beat the scripts out of us. Everybody poured in curiosity and love and passion. I know it sounds like a boutique on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica, but I swear to God, everybody poured in their stuff.”
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Article: THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH: Cast and creator chat about Season 1 of the new Showtime sequel series to the 1976 cult hit film starring David Bowie