Going Inside Syfy’s The Expanse with Its Cast and Writers

November 26, 2015

When the DIRECTV team made the rounds at New York Comic Con in October, one of our biggest thrills was connecting with some of the cast and creators of the new Syfy original series, The Expanse. Based on the best-selling novels of the same name, The Expanse, as star Thomas Jane puts it, is a “future noir”, taking viewers into a world of hard-boiled detective work in space.

We sat down for one-on-one chats with three of the show’s stars—Thomas Jane, Florence Faivre, and Cas Anvar—as well as series writers Hawk Ostby and Mark Fergus—at New York Comic Con in October.

Thomas Jane, who plays Josephus Miller…

DIRECTV: Your character is a little bit like a 1940s private eye?

Thomas Jane: Yeah, I love that genre, all that 20s-40’s detective-style fiction. This show is sort of a future noir. The issues we deal with in the show are issues that we are dealing with currently. Any good science fiction is a reflection of the time that it was made, so that was what was most exciting for me. It was a great story; wonderful novels.

The stories think about what it would be like for us to be bringing our humanness out into the solar system, which is going to happen if we’re going to survive long enough to get off the planet. This story deals with the idea of, “What if we bring all of our current life choices out into the solar system?” Is it the same thing, where we just screw up other planets like we screw up our own, or are the stakes even higher for humanity as a whole? I think they are…?

Is a lot of the time spent in space, or is a lot of the action on the ground? 

In this season there are two story lines, and one is all in space in a craft, but my storyline takes places in Ceres, a colony on an Asteroid that’s a couple hundred years old. One or two or three generations of people—who are just sort of taking a stab at life on Ceres—they’re dependent on Earth for air and water, and in return they’re a mining colony who exports resources to Earth and Mars. The gravity is about half of that on Earth, so the people after a couple generations actually start to physically change; they start to grow skinnier. Their bones become weaker; they take drugs to strengthen their bones. They start evolving in ways that are separate from what we’re used to on other planets. This raises the issue in the show—are they still human? Should they be considered another class of person? A lower class or a higher class? What kind of rights are they afforded? Qre they a colony or are they their own people with their own planet?

It gets interesting.

Thomas Jane

Thomas Jane

Does your character end up being the moral center of the show? 

My character, Detective Miller, starts out very much morally ambiguous, in the great tradition of detective noir. He’s out for himself, which is how you would survive in this world. The colony is like a Wild West town. They have their own law, and there really is no higher authority when you’re out in the middle of nowhere.

How is The Expanse different than other sic fi programs on today? 

I liked the books; the story is really great. It’ll have its own unique flavor, but I look for a great character and great story to put myself in, and this is a really fun character and has a good heart. I’m in the show for two seasons. He leaves the book after a while, and I wouldn’t want to change this storyline for the show—I don’t want to mess with the book! I took the job because I want to honor the original story, so this is perfect for me.

Florence Faivre, who plays Julie Mao… 

DIRECTV: Can you tell us a little about your character? 

Florence Faivre: I play Julie Mao. She’s an “Earther”, she comes from a very wealthy background—one of the wealthiest and most powerful in the galaxy. Her character ends up leaving all that behind to join a group of activists, the OPA, Outer Planets Alliance. She leaves the comforts of Earth behind to fight for the betterment of the people, and she ends up setting out on a mission to discover something quite threatening.

There’s such diversity on the show, and that’s refreshing. Tell us a little about that from your perspective. 

It’s basically what you’d expect. The world today is quickly becoming very mixed. And 200 years from now, you’ll see even more of it.

Is your character primarily in the ground or in space? 

You first find her in space, in her ship. She becomes this big mystery [about] what happens to her, but you don’t know what really happens to her until later on in the season, so I’m trying to figure out what I can tell you! Most of her early scenes are in space but she ends up on Ceres.

Is there something early on that you can’t wait for the fans to see?

The opening scene—Julie is the first person you end up seeing on the show, where she’s in lockup. You don’t know her backstory, but she’s being held captive and you’re immediately trying to figure out what happened that got her there.

Florence Faivre

Florence Faivre

What do you like most about The Expanse when you compare it to other projects? 

I started acting in Thailand, so I don’t have much experience acting in the US right now! My first film was a period film, and I’ve never done any sci-fi before. This is incredible. First of all, the cast and the amount of talent having been involved—from the special effects people to the directors to the writers and the actors, everyone working on set. Everyone’s worked with so much dedication and so much passion. It really brought out the excitement, knowing you’re coming to set every day and you’re safe and you’re in good hands. It puts a little bit of pressure on you at the same time, but it makes working easier and you feel safe. Instead of feeling unsure with what you’re doing with yourself. It’s great.

Do you act in a lot of your stunts, or do you get to do green screen work on the show? 

We had a lot of the sets built FOR us to make things easier while we’re acting/performing. They’ve put SO much work into it, and the sound stages we work on are the biggest in North America, so seeing that stuff being torn down to build the next set…it’s like, “WHY did you build this to break this down!?” But yeah, we’re very engaged in that part of the acting.

Cas Anvar, who plays Alex Kamal…

DIRECTV: Tell us a little about your character? How do you fit into this world of The Expanse

Cas Anvar: My character is Fighter pilot Alex Kamal. He is a fourth generation, Mars-born navy pilot who is of Pakistani-Indian descent with a Texas accent! He is basically a man who grew up on Mars in the Mars Navy, and he’s been given a lot of the less-glamorous piloting duty and has always dreamed of becoming a fighter pilot, but never really pushed himself to realize that dream. At the beginning of the series, our characters get thrust into this situation where we’re fighting for our lives, trying to survive and figure out who the hell has started the chaos that ensues in the first episode. Alex has to step up to the plate and become the fighter pilot he dreamed of being. All of us are forced to become something more than we were, and over the course of the season we get to see whether or not we are capable of stepping up to the plate.

How has the chemistry on set been thus far? 

The chemistry has been great. I’ve never worked on a film or movie before that’s had this level of camaraderie and talent. It started with the script, written by Hawk Ostby and Mark Fergus, who wrote the pilot (Iron Man and Children of Men), and then we have the director Terry McDonough (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul), and the producers from Breaking Bad, then the show runners from CSI, Star Trek, Farscape, and the great cast. Our creative team is like a dream team. Terry the director set up this precedent from the beginning, and we all enjoyed sinking our teeth into it to the point where now, we all hang out and have dinner together, we rehearse together. We have a Sunday rehearsal each week for the new episodes! One of us is responsible for buying the drinks and snacks, and we sit for about 3-4 hours, and work the script. We have so much fun and laugh so much on set, and if we did not have that chemistry there, the creativity would just not go to that next level.

Can you talk the differences between your character in the novels vs. the TV show? 

It’s always a challenge bringing a novel to the big or little screen because books are written with the conceit that a reader can read the mind of all the characters; they can know everything that’s happening in a character’s mind. Once you start photographing it and putting it on screen, we no longer can see that unless there’s a narrative VO, but that rarely works. Blade Runner is really one of the only films [where] that worked! So you have to adapt, you have to modify. One of the beautiful adaptations that The Expanse took into play—in the books all the characters have known each other for years. The creators brilliantly decided that when we introduce these characters to the audience, they’re going to discover the characters at the same time as the characters are getting introduced to each other, which adds an element of investment that the audience can come on that ride with us and see how these people became the people in the books, while we experience the events from the books.

Cas Anvar

Cas Anvar

Tell us some of the qualities you feel you personally brought to your character? 

Alex is kind of shy, he’s a person who sits back and listens, and he’s got a lot of pain in his past, and he deals with it through humor. He’s a little older and wiser and has more life experience than most of the other characters, so things that get other people more worked up, he kind of sits back and goes, “Alright, let’s take a deep breath, y’all, and talk things out.” And I hate confrontation! Life is too short. I always like to talk things out. So I deal with humor, and I crack jokes a lot, so that’s something that Alex and I share.

Series writers and executive producers Hawk Ostby and Mark Fergus…

DIRECTV: In adapting the book, did you pick and choose what to feature in the TV series? 

Hawk: The Expanse books are so well written and everything in them is there for a reason. It doesn’t feel like we had to sort of take 10% of the books and throw it out. We’re feature-film guys, so the great thing about TV is you can take time and bring out the world and characters, so that’s been really great. For someone who has read the books, I think you’ll feel like you’re watching them with The Expanse TV show. The original novelists are in the writers’ room as well, breaking the cardinal rule (laughs), but they’ve been fantastic. They’re incredible guys!

Mark: We’re very faithful to the novels. The source material is very adaptable, it doesn’t break when you push certain characters forward or move events, and that can’t be said for much of the content you typically adapt. The novelists did write very cinematically, and it’s been more of a question of emphasis—let’s honor the books but not feel strangled by the exact choices they made. At the end of the day you won’t feel like we went off on some wacky direction.

Hawk: There are things, like the invention of the Epstein Drive in the books, the propulsion system that essentially takes humanity to the stars, that has this fascinating story. There are little things like that you wish you could bring in. And we have found ways to do that, where we play a little bit with structure and get some of those gems into the story.

What has been the most difficult aspect of the books to showcase visually? 

Hawk: The Belters are an aspect of that. The Belters are people who have lived in space so long that their bones have elongated; they have physically changed. They’re almost a new race of people. That’s hard because you have to stretch humans from a visual effects perspective, and it’s hard to do because if you have a scene with Belters and others where you have to stretch certain on-screen elements and not others, and how do you do that on a limited number of shooting days and a budget…

Mark: That was always going to be the main challenge. And what we ended up doing is, we have the entire range. There are people who have spent time in much less gravity their whole life, there are people whose bodies are affected by gravity; so we have the whole spectrum of every Belter all the way down to one of our leads, Detective Miller, who is a Belter but he doesn’t look as Belter as other people. We ended up with a way more interesting story opportunity for us where you can pretend not to be a Belter if you’re ashamed of it; you don’t want to be a part of the underclass, you can be closeted. There are other people who are proud, extreme Belters there, so we wanted to get the whole range and show people who identify with their own group or don’t choose to identify with their own group, and let it be much more of a continuum of being a Belter. Something that annoys us about sci-fi is [that] you have another race of anybody with a certain trait that they all share—it becomes interesting for five minutes but then you can’t tell a story about it. The way we’ve taken up this production challenge is to tell a good story by realizing that there are ranges with how people identify and don’t identify with being a Belter. It’s a huge part of the way we’re telling this story.

Hawk: Often limitation is a good thing because you can find a better solution around it. With the stretched bodies, we knew we couldn’t do it totally but something better came out of it. Not all Belters think the same. Not all Belters look the same, just like us! It serves the world.

Mark: One of the larger themes of the books is racism, and how we immediately create new forms of it (in space) and Belter culture is a huge foundation of the books and shows. It’s really more fun to not know who’s a Belter and some people can’t hide it, while other people can like Detective Miller. The covert nature of your true self is a lot of fun in drama. If you can see what someone is, you’re done, there’s no story. That’s how we’ve chosen to handle the Belter aspect. It’s similar to Jaws, with the shark not working, though it turned into one of the greatest thrillers of all time. Sometimes you have to work with what you’ve got!

Writer/Producers Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby

Writer/Producers Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby

How did you capture the feel for all the different worlds in the novels? 

Mark: We had great production designers, so we built Ceres considering things like the tunnels—how would you hollow out an asteroid and put a colony in there with the gravity the way it is? How does New York look? How has it changed? You want it to look identifiable, but have new elements too like environmental sea walls. Then the ships…what’s the life of an ice hauler? They’re not big sexy Star Trek ships that don’t break down. All these worlds are indeed telling one story, though.

Hawk: Right, and our production designer was very adamant about having things just because it looks cool, but there’s a reason why it was that way. All the building materials for example that were taken up into space would look like they were from Earth, so that would spread out and you’d see that on all the various asteroids. The ships were used in the beginning to transport people and materials out into space, but now they’ve been converted to ice haulers, so there would be remnants of one of Mark’s favorite things, the “murals” that would lure people out into space. The Martian charter ships!

Mark: At each level, you get to see how this world functions economically and socially. We wanted to make this a real world, and the books have so many great details that we wanted to capture. Everything’s been done in Sci-fi at one point or another, and we just wanted to stick to a real world so we didn’t fall back to the trophy stuff that we’ve all seen before. The worlds were created with the truth of the story in mind.

Don’t miss the premiere of The Expanse, available to watch online and On Demand now ahead of its December 14 premiere at 10/9c on Syfy.

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