HELIX: Kyra Zagorsky and EP Steve Maeda Talk The Complexities of the Outbreak (2014)

HELpm2Viruses are scary because they are a silent killer.  They can strike anywhere, any time and anyone.  They are even more scary when found in remote areas without ready access to help and escape.  Syfy’s new drama series HELIX offers a fine-tuned virus thriller set a research facility in the Arctic.  In a recent press conference call, star Kyra Zagorsky and executive producer Steve Maeda talked about the mysterious nature of the virus and how it effects in the infected and other challenges of this type of silent-killer thriller.

The setting of being up in the Arctic really seems to work well. It makes you think of “The Thing.” Can you talk about why a setting like this works so well visually and emotionally for this kind of story?
STEVE: It’s a setting that is great for us because it’s not the newest setting under the sun. It seems familiar enough, but I think we’re doing a pretty interesting spin on it.  And what works for us really well is that it lends itself to a very claustrophobic environment because you can go outside but only for brief periods of time. It’s really dangerous. The weather is horrible, and what it does is it forces you to be inside most of the time and that’s how we really saw this. That’s how Cameron [Porsandeh], who wrote the pilot script, really envisioned the thing to begin with, which was a contained environment, someplace it’s almost like being set on a spaceship where you’re trapped inside with unseen horrors and then there are all sorts of human problems as well that develop from that. So it really lends itself to the series as a whole.

To those who think it’s just another zombie show, what would you say to someone like that? What makes the show so much more than that?
STEVE: Our watch-word over the season is we’re not zombies. There is certainly a human-element to the show and a science fiction kind of trope that we’re sure to get compared to and that’s okay. I don’t mind that, but we’re really trying to not make it a zombie show. I would say the main difference about our “vectors,” as we call them, is that they are not kind of mindless sort of eating machines, and that’s something that you’ll see in later episodes. They’re very scary and they’re human and they look horrible. But our team will discover teams into and around the virus and also what we’re going to find out about the “vectors” is that they’re incredibly smart and so they retain a lot of their intelligence, if not their humanity, which I think makes them very different from zombies. The comparisons will come and that’s okay. But we’re really trying to do something that feels different than the typical zombie show.
KYRA: I think also since the show is based in real science, there’re real life epidemic scares out there throughout history where there’re these huge viruses that have wiped out huge populations and so we’re dealing with something that the CDC hasn’t seen before, but it comes from a virus, and so that’s something that’s based in reality. Then you put the science fiction on that and it’s a really interesting combination. I think that’s another thing that makes it unique.

How gross will the infected be?
STEVE: Well, we’re a little gross. I have to be honest.
KYRA: Yes, they’re gross.
STEVE: There’s some grossness going on. We definitely wanted to have our infected people, our “vectors,” play that something was wrong with them so that they didn’t just look like everybody else. It can be a very horrific transformation.  And so there is definitely there are horror elements in there that we did not shy away from. That being said, it’s not a gore-fest at all. And while there is gross stuff that happens, we were not trying to come up with, like, the coolest way to do something really vile. I mean, there are gross things; but it’s not a gore fest. That’s the best way I can put it.  They’re pretty gross and I like to watch gross zombies but we really were very conscience about trying to steer away from that as much as possible. So our guys are gross, but they’re gross in a different way.  There definitely are some horror moments in the episodes. There are scares and there is gross stuff that happens. Though I think that was not where we tried to lean into. It’s not our strength.  We don’t have the budget or the time to be able to out-gross or out-action, like a lot of the shows that are out there. So with us, it was much more about, “Okay, what’s the understandable character element that’s going on that we can relate to with the emotion in a scene that we can try to find?   What’s the really cool reveal that we can come up with where you’re going to, like: oh, no way, I didn’t see that coming?” And so that’s where I hope our strength is.
KYRA: If anything, it was more scary or disturbing than it is gross.
STEVE: Disturbing, yes. I would say sometimes uneasy, unsettling, yes.
KYRA: Especially when you were at lunch and you had to sit across from the “vector” in the makeup. That was one of the things where we thought, “Okay, I don’t want you to just sit next to me at lunch when you’re in that makeup.”

If you could describe the series to somebody who has no preconceptions about what it’s about, how would you describe it?
STEVE: That’s a good question. I would say the way that we’ve been describing the series both in in press and then just in talking about it in breaking stories, it is an “outbreak” show, at least at the beginning.  It starts off as a show about this terrible outbreak that happens in this very remote and dangerous location, And our team has to go up and deal with that. What then happens, though, it’s hard to describe because we don’t want to give too much away. But it becomes a mystery and it gets very deeply into science fiction and it gets very much into thriller and mystery elements. So what you thought the show was going to be about is not what the show is about any more, which I think is great. The freedom that Syfy gave us to kind of go out and say, “Hey, it starts as this, then it becomes that, and see what direction that takes you in,” that was pretty incredible and allows us to have the show be something you think it’s one thing and then it turns out, “Wait, it’s also about this.” It’s also about that too, and that’s a lot of fun.

How would you describe Dr. Julia Walker and what is it about the character that really drew you to want to play her?
KYRA: I would describe her as a very intelligent, accomplished woman in her field. She’s one of the top scientists with the CDC. The thing that I loved about this character is that she was incredibly ambitious and got herself to where she is in this line of work, but she exists for purposes outside of her relationships which I think is a really important thing for female characters in film and TV.  So although I portray the ex-wife of Dr. Alan Farragut (Billy Campbell), that’s not at all what her purpose is in the series. She’s there because she’s trying to deal with this virus. She’s there to do her work as a scientist. She’s passionate about her work.  But she’s an independent woman and she does have her flaws in her relationships. She’s just a very full human character and I think that’s what I really loved about her. Because sometimes when we’re creating strong females, we give them a weapon and turn them into something macho or or a superhero character, or else she has to be a full on business person and has to be cruel or something. There is something about this character that I just thought she’s just a full-bodied human character. She’s got a lot of purpose outside of her ex-husband and I think that’s what keeps her active and interesting.
STEVE: That’s what we were very conscience of when we were trying to talk about the characters and really round them out. We had many, many discussions about the female characters and how to really make them feel as real as possible to have to be credible as scientists, to have them be really smart, to not have them just be defined by their relationships. It’s easy to fall into those kinds of tropes. We try very hard not to do that and then you see what your actor or actress brings and it’s like, “Okay, good. We can do that as well” or “Oh, look they’re very good at this type of thing or this type of scene and let’s play into that.” Initially, I can tell you that the Dr. Jordan character, who’s played by Jordan Hayes was a character that we thought was going to be very backstabbing and was going to be kind of an Eve Harrington character from “All About Eve,” and when we actually got our actress and watched Jordan and we’re like, “Well, we could kind of play that, but that’s not really who she is and not who she’s playing. So let’s try and steer the boat in that direction.” And it worked great. I think she was wonderful. Then with Kyra, she really inhabited the role as it was written and then brought extra depth to it as well and we just kind of ran with it and she was really wonderful.
KYRA: It’s a kind of a dream role. There’s so much that I have to go through emotionally, physically, intellectually. It’s the whole package. So I couldn’t be happier being able to work on this show.

How this role is different from other projects that you’ve done in the past?
KYRA:  Most of the time, what I’ve done in the past is come in and do these really cool guest stars. So being in a show where you are one of the core cast members, that’s going to be one thing that’s going to be a hugely different experience, and you’re kind of creating. When I’ve come in to do guest stars for shows, there’s a sense of being in somebody else’s playground. And usually it’s a great experience but you come in ready to go and prepared and you have this amazing experience and then that’s it. And sometimes, for certain shows, especially in the sci-fi world or supernatural, like STARGATE, those things that I’ve done, there’s a sense of your character kind of lives on with certain people and that’s kind of fun about how sci-fi works but with this, you’re creating a playground, as far as the cast goes. So it’s great because it gives me a lot more ownership of my craft and of where I go with it and being able to bring my full experience to the part just because I’m there from the beginning.
STEVE: I think that’s a really good way to put it and also it’s a great opportunity as opposed to the feature version of this which would be 2 1/2 hours long and you’d introduce a character and you’d meet them and spend time with them and then resolve it and you’d be done. This is the 13-hour version of it and so it really allows you to spend some time with these people, really let the relationships play out. Somebody that you thought was this horrible, horrible person in the beginning ends up not being quite so horrible or at least you understand where they’re coming from and you have time. You can go for episodes thinking one thing about a character or a relationship and then find out 6-episodes down the road that, “Wait a second, there’s more to this than I thought.” And so that was our challenge is making sure that that stuff happened and still felt credible.

Billy Campbell and Hiroyuki Sanada are both so intense on screen. What’s it like working with them in person?
KYRA: Working with Billy is incredible. I mean, he’s technically amazing. He’s been doing this for a long time. He’s a master at what he does. He’s very emotionally-connected and full and always available and powerful.  So it’s an interesting combination. The other thing about him is that he’s a blast to work with. He’s so funny. For me, the thing that I love about the show is the psychological thriller aspect of it.  It’s frightening and it’s scary and there’re all these things that happen. You have these really dramatic scenes and then you get in a scene with him, and I can’t tell you how many times I would start cracking up. He is just so funny and he’s just a blast to work with. And Hiro is somebody that I’ve always admired since I saw him in “The Last Samurai.” I think he’s an incredible person and artist and he is always right there for you and he’s always supporting the story to its fullest.  He was amazing. I learned so much from just being in the room with him. So I think, for me, they just raised the bar for me and it feels like, as an actor, you’re only as good as your scene partner and I feel like anything that I do well on this show is probably from being in scenes with those two. So it was a pretty exceptional experience.
STEVE: I feel like we’ve really got a pretty incredible cast chemistry as well. I mean, considering that we have some of our actors who have been doing this for years and years and years and some that are like Billy, who are household names, and then others who you may not have seen before.  I think everybody really elevated and brought their A-game to this and I’m hoping that, in addition to the folks you recognize, there’s going to be some real breakouts in this as well.

What is it that you like best about the series?
KYRA: I love the psychological thriller piece of it. I think that because we are trapped in this isolated environment with a deadly virus. What’s really interesting is that everyone’s darkness comes out because we’ve got these life and death stakes going on and then there are these interesting relationships going on, but we can’t quite deal with the relationship right now because we’ve got something better to do — which is survive.  But it takes some of the characters to some very dark places and they start doing things that they might not do if they were in regular circumstances. So their true humanity comes out, the good and the bad. And I think that’s what’s so interesting about the show and for me, the unique part of it, the psychological side of it.
STEVE: I would absolutely agree with that. For me, on top of that, I would say the main thing for me, as I stand back now and look back at the season that we’re finishing up, is Syfy in particular (both Sony and Syfy), but Syfy really wanted us to get out of the box of a typical “outbreak” show. From the very beginning the pilot was a great template and really set the stage for us. But then Syfy just gave us free rein and said between studio networks, Ron Moore, and everybody, we all tried to put our heads together and say, “What can we do?  Where can we take this show where it starts in one place and then goes someplace hopefully really unexpected.” Where we want the audience to play along and say, “Hey, I know what’s going to happen here. Of course, it’s going to be this,” and then have it be something completely different.  And we tried to do that with creative choices we made, with story ideas, with some casting choices, whether characters live or die, with music choices, with how we edited the show. So that was really fun to have the creative freedom to be able to get outside of the typical TV show box.
KYRA: And something else that was fun is that because we had the 13 episodes right away, every director would come in so excited to go with their own creativity. So sometimes directors get hired into TV shows and it’s so formulaic and they’re kind of a slave to whatever everybody wants them to do.  But everyone came in with their own style and it blends together with the HELIX style that was set. But at the same time, they’re bringing their own ideas and their own input. So they were so pumped to be there, and it was really fun working with all of them.

Who came up with the idea to use the upbeat music that plays in different scenes?
STEVE: It was sort of a group effort in a way but really it was Ron [Moore] who came to our first editing session and said, “Hey, you know what? Let’s try to do some different things here. Let’s cut it up and let’s really have fun with this.” And then as we were thinking, we had the idea to try to do something different musically. Initially we weren’t thinking about doing a lot of songs. And I think it was one of our producers, who actually came up with the old Burt Bacharach song and the Dionne Warwick version and we’re like, “Yes, that would be awesome.” So what we tried to do is take that through the series and not all the time. But every once in a while, we’re going to pull out an old chestnut and have some fun with the musical parts of the show. And that was something that I’ve got to say that’s one of my favorite parts of the entire series.

Can you talk about how you’re working with such a small cast? Does that make it different from an acting standpoint?
KYRA: We actually do have a lot of guest cast. That’s the fun surprise about the show.  Because when you think about it, there’s 103 scientists or so on the base.
STEVE: There are 106 scientists on the base and a bunch of support staff, and then there are some other people that we won’t mention, but just to know that there are other cast members who kind of come and go.
KYRA: There’re a lot of surprise characters that you just would never expect and that’s what’s kind of fun about it. There’s a huge element of surprise that starts to happen pretty soon in the series that there’re some pieces where I have a whole episode where I’m not working with any of the core cast but just other interesting characters. So it’s pretty fun. It kept it interesting.
STEVE: That was part of the challenge, too, with the show, I think. The claustrophobia plus the cast, which is: how do we open the show up? And that was something that we were very conscience of in sitting down and trying to plot out stories. The issues of: what can we do? How can we open up this base and make the world larger? And part of it was getting outside when we could. And the other part of it was actually, literally going deeper and unpeeling the layers of the onion and finding that the surface level of this base is just the beginning and that there’s much more going on in and around and underneath.

Considering the amount of dishonesty and duplicitousness that plays among its principle players, can you talk a bit about the abundant amount of withholding that goes on?
STEVE: It’s kind of a dramatic staple, but we absolutely came to this with the idea that the series plays out in a pretty tight time period. We’re doing this idea of having each episode be a day.  So the idea was not to flashback and not to show what people were doing before the show started. We really wanted to keep it as contained as possible as far as keeping the timeline tight and the jeopardy up. So it really was loading characters up. We had a lot of discussions before we even started talking about what the second episode was going to be, in loading characters up with enough backstory that would allow things to spill over and play out over the course of the 13 episodes of the season.  So we really wanted to make sure that everybody had enough going on with them that once the tension increased, once things were going really poorly, which happens really fast, that we had characters who had their personal situations which could spill over.  So everyone’s got an agenda. Everyone’s got secrets, every single character. And some of them are giant things that will impact the plot some are smaller, but just as important character secrets.  And we just really tried to load everybody up as much as possible in a way that felt credible but also gave them lots to play once things started to go down the toilet. So we were very conscience of that.

Did you get a show bible initially revealing your character’s outcome or did you have to discover it episode by episode?
KYRA: I had to discover it. I had to discover everything and that was part of the fun in being on the show. It was so exciting. You could not wait to get your next script to see what was going to happen to you.  But there were a couple of things. The only information I got was that my character had a history with Billy (who plays Alan) and with Alan’s brother, Peter (who’s played by Neil Napier). So, that was the only information that I was given.  So that was interesting. By the time I was working through the third episode, that was the piece when I really felt I’d gotten myself kind of grounded into the character.  I feel like when I find the character’s darkness, when everything opens up emotionally, that’s when I started going, “Okay, now I’m starting to really feel like I’ve got a handle on her.”  And what was great is. When I first got up to Montreal and I met with Cameron and Jeffrey Reiner, we had a talk and I just realized this is my role. So I have no idea what’s to come, but I have to just trust that I’m her and start working with her.  Steve was great to work with, too; when a new script would come out and I had questions about things, I would always write to him and I’d have a dialogue with him about things, just figuring out what her character is made of. So it became a really interesting team collaboration. It was pretty incredible. But it was all a big surprise for me.
STEVE: That’s pretty typical too, for a serialized show. And even though you have certain things figured out, you don’t have all the pieces when you begin. We had a pretty solid idea of where we were heading through the 13 episode, but I’ve heard it described before, which I think is a pretty apt analogy of, we know that we’re starting off in Los Angeles and we’re heading toward New York. But along the way, you may not know that we’re going to stop at Omaha and then, three episodes in, you’re like, ‘Omaha sounds pretty great.’ So you can take that left-turn or right-turn still heading toward your same place at the end, but you can discover things along the way.  And what’s great about that is you can discover things in the show storywise, but then you also discover, as you see your actors, you discover who they are and they bring things to the character that you may not have seen before. And that’s really wonderful, to start watching the dailies and start seeing the cuts and to see what our actors were bringing. Then we went, “Oh, well hey, how about this?” And it gives us more ideas, which is really nice.
KYRA: You guys took me for a great ride in this series. I had the best time and, yes, Walker goes through some amazing things. It’s pretty incredible. Every episode was pretty dynamic.
STEVE: (Laughs) It’s a pretty tough 13 days for Walker.

Can you say a little bit more about Dr. Walker and Dr. Farragut’s relationship and how it maybe developed a little bit?
STEVE: From our point of view, the characters always had a relationship even in the very early drafts of the pilot script. We deepened that a little bit. We complicated it up as we were conceptualizing the show very early on.  And that was part of just trying to load up the show with a lot of potential drama to play out because we knew we were going to be stuck up at our base for the 13 days and so for us, it was trying to really make that character sing and have a lot of really interesting things to go through.  I would say, in a lot of ways, Walker, as the show progresses, becomes very central — without giving too much away. It’s a pretty important role and it’s a pretty interesting character. Good-ratings willing, we’ve got some interesting places to take her.
KYRA: Yes, and I think just coming into the series, I didn’t know where the show was going to go, but just knowing that this character is her ex-husband and then we’re here to do this job.  Some of the things that would start to come out and just kind of playing with Billy and a new episode would come and you see some interesting little dialogue between them or what’s going on. But they had marital problems. It’s one of those things that you just kind of bring relationship history and see that there is definitely a personality thing that happened between these two.  I think Walker’s character is something that I discovered from the information of just things that would happen in the show, which she’s the type of scientist that I think that really likes to be in the field. She’s very accomplished.  She’d already she’s won an award. She’s gotten herself to the top of the field in her work. And I think that what she’s about at this point in her life was about trying to really be out there helping people. Like, go to these countries and get right in the middle of the virus and get hands on and be there.  I think there is a difference in their personalities and that maybe he was a little bit more in the lab kind of thing. So you just start to see some of these interesting personality clashes of where they’re going to start having some issues with each other.  And it comes out in some pretty cool ways in some of the episodes. I particularly had some fun working with him when we had Jeremiah [Chechik] to direct because he’s got such an interesting style. I mean, he directed “Christmas Vacation,” and that’s just one of my all-time favorite Christmas movies.  He’s got such a great, quirky way about him already that he really pulled out some of the interesting marital stuff between us that was really fun.  So I would discover it as we would go, Billy and I would play with each other. You’re just bringing human relationships to the table and seeing where it goes.
STEVE: Yes, and part of what we try to do, as well, is make them all – all of our CDC scientists are incredibly accomplished and incredibly good at their jobs but also very flawed characters who have maybe not handled things so well in their personal lives. And that usually brings some pretty rich drama forward.

What would you say was the most challenging or difficult thing about doing this role?
KYRA: I would say there’s a certain piece in the middle of the series that there’s a huge mystery that happens to my character that’s just – it’s just kind of incredible and we were shooting quite fast.  And I would say that was the most challenging piece because emotionally I was connected, like, all day over and over again and it was just every day there was so much going that kept just getting worse and worse and more insane for her.  And it was so much fun and I really had to rise to the occasion but it was incredibly challenging because we were moving so fast and it was day in and day out for a few days in a row there.  So that was a big challenging piece but it was, like, I was mentioning before, it was – that was the piece in the series where I had to kind of bring everything about myself to the table at all times. So it was definitely fun but it’s, like if you’re an athlete, it’s like, leave it all on the field. That was just where I was at for a while with this role.
STEVE: And definitely it’s a challenge for the actors because not only are they having to come every day and bring it for six months, but also you’re shooting out of sequence and one of the things that we did this year was we shot in blocks, so we do two episodes at the same time.  So sometimes they were going between episodes, like, okay, now you remember that thing that you just shot that happened, well, that hasn’t happened yet, so get your mind wrapped around that it was incredibly challenging.

So was there ever a time during filming where the virus just freaked you out and what it does?
KYRA: Yes, especially with the first couple of episodes, I mean, as Steve mentioned before that there’re a lot of twists and turns that happen where the series starts as one thing and it starts to become something much bigger and much darker and more interesting.  But in the beginning when you’re looking at this and you’re thinking about it, the CDC gets brought up to this place to deal with this virus and it’s something that they’ve never seen and that, in itself, is quite frightening in a story because this is something that happens all the time, a real life epidemic scare, you know. I mean, I think there was just a couple reported cases this last week in Vancouver of some deaths of people passed away with H1N1. You know, it’s something that’s really out there for people. People are trying to make decisions about whether they should vaccinate their children or not, which is still a big debate, you know.  It’s something that is a true fear for people. So when we were getting into the story in these first few episodes and you’re seeing these people who are at the top of the CDC, they should have every answer. It’s almost like a god-complex.  And they don’t know what to do. I think that’s pretty terrifying and when we didn’t know what was going to be happening next as an actor, with where the story was going to go, that’s an interesting thing because you just think I have no idea what I can do.  How much worse can it get and I have no handle on it. And now, at some point, this is going to get everyone sick and we don’t have any answers. And that’s pretty frightening because that’s total annihilation of the whole planet. So what do you do there?
STEVE: Yes, that’s one of the things we really played with, this notion that we have to keep this thing contained and we have to solve it or figure it out or at least keep it here in this place because if it gets out, it’s going to be a calamity.  And so that’s the thing that our folks, our CDC scientists and the other scientists are not only scared for their own lives but scared of what might happens if this thing gets out.  And so we really play with that and kept that very much alive throughout the course of the series. It’s scary. It’s an invisible villain. You can’t touch it. You can’t taste it, but it’s there.  These types of stories I really like and I had done research on them before just because I was interested in them. But the kind of outbreak and epidemic stories not only are they something that people can really relate to but also it tends to either bring out the best or the worst in people and sometimes both because people get so terrified, they’re so scared of what’s going to happen, that they don’t know how to deal with the situation. And that’s something that we really, really tried to play a great deal is, does this bring out the best in you or is this going to bring out the shellfish kind of side that is more just concerned with self-preservation? And that is just automatic drama which was great.
KYRA: And then also, you’re getting this information that you want to study and you want to sound educated when you’re in the scene and know what it is that you’re talking about, what it is that we’re working from, that we’re doing.  So for those of us that were working on that stuff in the show, we’re doing a lot of research so it’s kind of fun. It’s kind of like going back to science class and I spent a lot of time with You Tube trying to discover, “Okay, how does this thing work when you’re dealing with this type of microscope and blah, blah, blah.”  But then suddenly you start seeing all these interesting articles and you’re researching, oh, okay, so Spanish Flu. Let me get back to this. I haven’t studied about the Spanish Flu since I was in school. But then you start really reading up on things and I think there was some article that had come out around when I was working on Episode 9, I think, and I think it actually came from the CDC but it was something about are antibiotics becoming obsolete?  And that’s kind of frightening when you’re thinking about, wow, in this day and age, so what does that mean, then? People just have to deal with whatever happens? So there’s a lot of real life things that were coming up while you’re just researching the sci-fi stuff along with things based in facts that start to make you a little bit more aware of how dangerous things can be.

All new episodes of HELIX air Friday nights 10:00 p.m. on Syfy.

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