THE EVENT: Blair Underwood and Zeljko Ivanek Share Insights to the Mysterious Series (2011)


As “The Event” returns to conclude its first season with an 11 episode run on March 7th, the show promises to be even more octane-filled than ever before.  Abandoning the confusing timeline jumps that disrupted the linear storytelling last Fall, “The Event” will be stripped down to just the essentials – it is a show about aliens here on Earth and our search to stop a renegade faction of them from unleashing a potentially global catastrophic event.

Starring as President Elias Martinez, Blair Underwood talked about the inherent pressures that his character is burdened by and what he hopes to see as the rest of the season unfolds.  Also joining in the conference call, Zeljko Ivanek, who portrays Director of National Intelligence Blake Sterling and perhaps the last honest man that President Martinez can trust, also gave a glimpse behind the curtain into Blake’s murky soul.

Commenting on the new pace of the show, Zeljko said, “Just watching how the plot develops, it is just coming fast and furious in this second half of the season. You get this sensation of events are just hurdling at you  . . . and within the world of the show, we’re having to constantly reassess what’s going on and within every episode practically there’s a moment where you think like, ‘what the hell!’”  Zeljko explained that it feels like being amidst a high pressure cauldron — like the world of “The Event” is about ready to explode. In addition, the heightened pace and pressure makes “The Event” an exciting show to work on with so many twists and surprises.  Zeljko noted that as an actor, “[There’s a] kind of the excitement of the script arriving and going like, ‘oh my God, let’s see what happens next!’ It’s actually exciting just to kind of read through and realize how much the ground just keeps shifting under all these characters as the plot evolves.”

In addition to the faster pace and unexpected surprises, as a special treat, the March 28th episode is directed by Oscar winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, for which Zeljko enthusiastically shared, “It was fantastic! I loved working with [Kaminski]. He just brought a very unique energy to the whole process and a very different eye . . . It was kind of astonishing watching him tell a story as if it was kind of all in his head already in a way.  . . He kept a really clear eye on telling the characters’ dilemma right here, right now . . . so I had a terrific time with him.”

Echoing Zeljko’s assessment, Blair warmly noted, “We’ve been very fortunate to have some great directors starting with Jeffrey Reiner, our executive producer — but I tell you, Janusz Kaminski, who as [Zeljko ] said has an Oscar – he has two Oscars — he’s done most of Spielberg’s movies, if not all of them since Schindler’s List — he has an Oscar for Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan — and given just that whole pedigree of who he is and where he comes from, it was fascinating to watch.  . . . just personally, Janusz Kaminski, is a force of nature — just that energy — I wish I had that much energy on any given day so it was fascinating to watch and experience.”

So in addition to changes to the pace of the show and the show’s efforts to recruit and showcase great directors, there have been changes to each of the characters as well.  In fact, the character changes have been so much that Blair and Zeljko both confessed to having to re-think what they initially believed about their own characters.  Blair ruefully noted that he found himself reassessing President Martinez every week; and Zeljko added that in an upcoming episode his character Blake Sterling is forced to reassess his view of the entire situation and his view of the aliens after his quest takes him to an unexpected place and it shifts his entire perspective.  Zeljko cautiously noted, “We’ll see if it lasts and how circumstances kind of affect it but I think there’s a real moment of clarity for Sterling that he didn’t see coming.”

As for the journey of President Martinez, Blair shared, “It is very important to me how President Martinez is portrayed. It’s one of the many conversations I continue to have with the writers and the producers to be sure we show that side when we can. And we are beginning to see more of that with some of these new scripts that you’ll see in the upcoming episodes because I just think it’s important just to show different dimensions of all the characters which I think they’ve by and large have done an incredible job of doing so I’m happy about that.”  In fact, what inspired Blair to undertake such a momentous role was how diverse the show and the character were.  He shared, “What intrigued me was the world itself and the fact that it was envisioned to be and has become a hybrid of certain genres; and many people have alluded to it being like Lost meets 24; a political thriller/science fiction event.  So that was fascinating to me and to find out how to navigate through the blending of those two genres and beyond that, the character itself. I found him very fascinating in how he was initially drawn and even more so . . now that there’s a lot of twists and turns and our characters are constantly evolving.” To which he added, “And evolving pretty rapidly right now!”

Blair also noted that the weight of the president is overwhelming.  He said, “Just the sheer weight and gravity of the office and the responsibility of the President of the United States. How daunting that must be to try to sift through that and try to stay one step ahead of what’s really going on.”  Thus for him, he shared, “it’s definitely given me more of a keen awareness, if nothing else, and interest in the world of politics and foreign affairs.”

Talking about how he researched and prepared for the role, Blair explained, “You can’t help but be aware of course and possibly influenced by the fact that you have a youthful, family oriented, newly elected president, in his third year right now.  But also I’ve gotten in the last of course year or so much more interested in watching historical – some of the documentaries. I was watching one on President Reagan last night because now it’s a whole different perspective on that life lived inside the walls of that White House and behind that Oval Office desk. So I find I’m much more interested. I find myself pulling different pieces here and there and there’s always the person that the President is and then there’s the person – how the President is perceived — and it does influence how you build a character, portray a character. I mean in watching especially Ronald Reagan’s documentary last night, one of the things I wanted to be sure to do or hopefully will do more of is show his patriotic side. How much he loved this country. And I think sometimes you have to state that.  You assume if someone’s the President that he is that and feels that way but sometimes it’s important to say. And that, that’s impacted by, watching certain real life presidents; in this case Reagan.”

Mostly, what Blair has taken away from his research of past U.S. Presidents is, “The biggest lesson is that they’re all so different. I mean their personalities and their backgrounds make them all so uniquely different. So that was important to understand. I mean people talk about being presidential. What is presidential? And to me it’s someone who has – can engender trust and people will believe in him to follow his gut and his instincts to lead the country in the right direction, whatever that means. I mean that’s different for everybody. But you have to believe in that person. Beyond that, I think it’s trying to be as truthful and as honest and sincere as possible to do whatever you feel is the best way to lead a country.”

Adding his perspective on how he approached fleshing out the character of Blake Sterling, Zeljko shared, “[I] happened to read a book called The One Percent Doctrine about the kind of politics within the Bush Administration following 911 and a good deal of it is about Dick Cheney and, saying if there’s a 1% chance of something happening, then you are justified in basically taking all measures to prevent that from happening if it’s a threat to you. So that was very useful and the politics that go along with that and the bureaucracy – bureaucratic politics that go along with that were all kind of useful information going in.”  Though Zeljko was quick to point out that there is a difference between the reality of what these people do versus what he is being asked to portray on screen, by noting, “Then at some point, the real story and the show takes over and the real relationships take over and you’re kind of – it’s not that you leave all the rest of that behind but suddenly you’re dealing with a very, very specific new set of circumstances. So it was certainly an inspiration looking to kind of characters – real life characters like that but at some point, you’re in the world of the show and that takes over.”  So research and looking to real politicians for insight and inspiration only goes so far.  Ultimately, the show’s story demands a different kind of portrayal and then they shade the character to fit the story.

In Zeljko’s case, Blake looked like a villain from the beginning, but as the first half of the season revealed, Blake was actually more of a hero — a genuinely good man caught up in circumstances that he had no real understanding about.  Thus, even Zeljko was surprised by the changes in how he perceived his own character.  He revealed, “One of the things that I’ve really liked as the season has gone on is — the assumption was because I was playing this part, automatically he must be the bad guy in all of this — and I’ve been happy to find out that there are worse guys lurking in this administration in this world.”  He was also surprised to discover the developing friendship between Blake and Martinez.  He said, “What I’ve liked is that things really change and shift gears as the season has gone on and there have been big changes and shifts in the relationship between Blake and the President which has been really fun to work on as well. As things happen, they each kind of change their positions and find themselves kind of making the opposite arguments at each other than where they started.”  He also insightfully noted, “Anybody who reaches a position like the one I’m supposed to be holding, I’m sure has a lot to answer for but at the same time [Blake’s] clearly a patriot and clearly is trying to save the world and then you get into the nitty-gritty of what is he willing to do to do that and that’s kind of the crux for a lot of the characters is how far are you willing to go to protect the things you think need protecting — and we’re constantly kind of challenged as the storyline ratchets up the stakes.”

For Zeljko, he is drawn to the question of:  how do ordinary people behave in extraordinary circumstances? And “The Event” offered the perfect recipe for exploring this unique dilemma as, “This was a situation with very heightened stakes and very real characters caught up in them and watching them kind of try to maneuver in a world that is so quickly getting past their grasp.”  Thus for Zeljko, “It’s the kind of thing that I just really respond to and I really like him and that’s certainly kind of held true as the season has gone on because you find him constantly having to shift gears and reassess where they are because the events are just coming at them so fast.”  He further added that there is a lot of appeal to such a storyline as a potential alien invasion and the threat it could pose.  He revealed, “What I always liked from the beginning of the show was just how strong these characters were and how many kind of different worlds you were following and, at the same time, there’s this overwhelming story ark going on . . . there’s plenty of moments and plenty of scenes where the reverberations among the characters and how they are each individually kind of struggling with these things are played out.”

The other fascinating aspect has been the unfolding reliance and friendship between President Martinez and Sterling.  Zeljko noted, “To me that’s been the most interesting relationship [between Blake and President Martinez]. Obviously, there’s an enormous amount of story swirling around us but that really has been the crux of the season to me so far is the deepening of that relationship. We start in a very clear, antagonistic place at the start of the season and as things happen, we’re both forced to kind of reexamine where we are and who’s right. And there are no kind of like black and white answers anymore to this situation that we’re in and so that the change in the tone of that relationship and the kind of almost deepening friendship that evolved and then gets challenged again as they find themselves, doubting each other again. That’s been the most kind of fascinating thing to me and certainly the most enjoyable.”

Blair chimed in to add, “Because truly Zeljko’s character, Blake Sterling, is especially in the later episodes – he’s the only person that the President can really trust right now. And, of course, at the beginning of the season, you would have never thought that would be the case but it’s very interesting. So definitely those scenes and, of course as I alluded to before, all the scenes that show the family side of where the President is not being non-Presidential but being, a family man in addition to the office that he holds.”

As to what to expect, Zeljko would only comment, “Most of what is coming is just like one surprise after another and one turn after another and I think that’s exactly what they don’t want us to be discussing but I would say what’s coming up very soon is like a major shift in the relationship between Sophia and the President.  And that’s kind of a driving force for the rest of the season in a sense as far as I can tell and that’s been fascinating to me to see that again, I had assumptions about where things were going and how things would play out that have been upended pretty much with every script that I’ve read. And I’m hoping, obviously it will do the same for the audience and make you go like, ‘oh my God, now what?’ over and over again — and hopefully just keep you in suspense and let you ride through the rest of the season.”

When asked if President Martinez will be forced to compromise his stalwart values in order to do what is best in the protection of the American people, Blair was surprised by the question and yet thoughtfully replied, “I hope not.  I can say we haven’t yet but I mean he’s tested. As Zeljko said, I mean the story’s accelerated so fast and it makes us all question who we are.  I mean in many ways I think the overriding and undercurrent of the show is the idea of identity; who are we and who are we in certain circumstances and as circumstances keep shifting and changing and evolving. So to answer your question directly, that’s such a great question. He hasn’t lost himself. I think his values have been – wow. He’s rethought a lot of his values but he has not shifted as of yet; not to say that I won’t.”  Jumping to Blair’s aid, Zeljko added that, “It’s fair to say I think for him and for Sterling and for a lot of characters that people have found themselves doing things they never thought they would do.  Whether that’s changing your values or just having your values kind of confronted with reality. I’m not sure which it is but certainly everybody has found themselves caught short in ways that they never anticipated and behaving in ways that they would not have predicted for themselves.”

Finally, the one question everyone really wants to know is: what is ‘the event’?  Even Blair and Zeljko do not have clearance for that kind of spoiler.  Zeljko did reveal, “In terms of the secrecy – I still don’t know what ‘the event’ is. I don’t know how many or if any of our cast members do. And in some sense, I respect the process that the writers have and that there’s a story that’s still evolving here and you’re trying to figure out at what pace to tell it and, in some sense, I know as much as my character does in that moment and that’s kind of not a bad place to be.”  Blair added that for him, “I feel the same way in terms of the secrecy and I just haven’t really pushed the issue and not asked too much because I kind of don’t want to know. I just want to take the ride as the character takes the ride.”

Lastly Blair admitted, “I fell in love with this story and these characters from the very beginning. So I’m very excited about where it’s going.” So with many twists and turns to be revealed, be sure to catch the exhilarating 2-hour return of “The Event” on Monday March 7th at 8:00 p.m. on NBC.

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