Halle Berry and Goran Visnjic Discuss ‘Extant’, Robot Kids, and Zero Gravity

Halle Berry and Goran Visnjic Extant Interview
Halle Berry and Goran Visnjic star in 'Extant' (Photo © 2014 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved)

CBS has set a July 9, 2014 premiere date for the sci-fi drama Extant starring Oscar winner Halle Berry, Goran Visnjic (ER), Pierce Gagnon, and Camryn Manheim. And although we’re still a few months out from its debut, Berry, Visnjic, showrunner/executive producer Greg Walker, and creator/executive producer Mickey Fisher took part in a press day to discuss in-depth the premise of the show and the main characters.

Extant, which is our new show, centers on the story of Molly Woods who is an astronaut scientist who just returned from a 13 month solo mission in space,” explained Walker. “It’s set in the not-so-distant future. She returns with startling news, as you see in the trailer […] and in that she has to react to this extraordinary circumstance of having brought back, I guess, some unexpected visitor. And she also has a family at home, a husband, John, who is a humanic designer. Humanic is a kind of android of the future, the first robot child who will be integrated and mainstreamed into the world using the philosophy that what will make machines and robots more human ultimately is to give them a human experience. So we have a woman returning to her family faced with this extraordinary circumstance of bringing back an unintended visitor and having basically two children to deal with, the one inside her and the one that she’s been raising who is this humanic. And the story is set against a kind of backdrop of international paranoia and conspiracy and ultimately tells the story about how this family struggles and how Molly Woods struggles to keep this family extant, meaning not extinct, ultimately.”

Halle Berry, Goran Visnjic, Greg Walker and Mickey Fisher Interview

Halle, what was it about this show that drew you? As a mother, did you relate to the character?

Halle Berry: “There were so many elements that drew me to it, but probably the first one was what you hit on, being a mother. This was a character when I first read it that was so relatable to me. I felt like it was just in my DNA. I had a knowingness about this character. I had a fundamental understanding. While I’m not an astronaut or scientist, far, far from it, I still had an understanding about the human quality of this woman and her struggle to not only find time for herself, which is what she loves to do – our Molly goes into space for a year – but also to be a good mother. That’s the struggle I have struggled with since my kids were born, so that drew me to her.

She’s also strong. She’s complicated. I’m complicated. But she has a will to survive, to win. She’s good at her heart. And I love playing strong, complicated characters who refuse to be victimized and that’s what our Molly is. And then when Steven Spielberg came along, a name like that you don’t really sneeze at. I know the quality of his work and I know that he loves this sort of genre. These supernatural kind of stories are right in his wheelhouse. And for me I feel like the best writing now is on television. That’s been a real reality that I think all actors have been talking about for years now, but there was always a stigma with going to television. If you do movies, you can’t do television and I think that line is becoming very gray. What’s important now with the way the industry is evolving is that we go where the good material is. If you are an artist, you just want to do good work that inspires you, that ignites you, that makes you want to wake up in the morning and go to work, and that’s what this series and this character has done for me.

And the fact that the studio did me a real solid and did this show in Los Angeles so I don’t have to leave my family was also another reason to do it. I really want to be home and be a hands-on mom and I get to stay in town and work now and not be a gypsy and travel all over.”

In the scenes on the space station in zero gravity, how close to the movie Gravity could you get doing those scenes?

Halle Berry: “I think as you can see from our trailer, we got pretty doggone close to doing something that is on par with any film you’ll ever see. I like to say Gravity was our benchmark and I think we tried very hard to sort of hit that mark the best that we could. I think our space looks as good. I think our spaceship looks as good. There was no expense spared. CBS was very invested in making this show look really good and they have put a lot of money into making that a reality for us. So we have a lot of support from the network to hopefully keep turning out show after show that will be of feature film quality.”

What was the process for you in performing those space scenes?

Halle Berry: “Well, luckily, because I had been Storm, I was used to flying. So I’ve had a lot of wire work and a lot of experience that way. So putting on that harness and those wires just seemed like something that I was used to doing. And I did actually take a real zero G flight so I have really experienced being weightless and understanding what that is. So that sense memory certainly helps me be able to when I have those wires on, to assimilate being in a weightless environment.”

Greg Walker: […]”Halle is a natural. We shot that 14 over three days, the zero G stuff, in a way that was beautiful to watch. It’s like watching ballet, the way that they work with the wires and the way that they flew Halle through space. She did it effortlessly.”

Mickey Fisher: “It was one of those nights I forgot all about Storm and one of the first nights we were shooting it, she had been doing it for a while and I said, ‘Are you worn out?’ And she said, ‘I’ve been doing this for a little while.’ I said, ‘Oh, right, the giant superhero movie.'”

How did you handle your zero G flight experience? Were you bumping into things?

Halle Berry: “Yes, that was pretty amazing, actually. The first time I felt the sense of weightlessness I was surprised that it took very little energy for me to move. You just kind of lift off the ground. And what also surprised me was that when you go upside down, because there’s no gravity you have no sense of being upside down. You feel exactly the same when you are upside down as when you are right side up and you start to lose sense of what is upside down and right side up. And it was a very freeing experience. I can really understand why astronauts love to go up there and love to live in that medium and experience. It’s as close to being a bird and having that kind of freedom I think one can ever get.

But I also have to say by 15 times going up and down and going through that I did, you know, vomit. My body was done dealing. But it wasn’t as bad as this one guy who started to vomit after the first up and down so he had to go on this plane for an hour and a half as we kept plummeting up and down and going in and out of the zero G. He was like five shades of purple when we landed and he was strapped to his seat in the back of the plane and just hurled the entire time.”

How open or closed-ended is this series? If it’s a hit, could you potentially continue either with Halle Berry or with the situation you set up here and other characters?

Greg Walker: “Absolutely. The stakes are global. That’s a good question. One of the great things that CBS has really encouraged us to do is to create this as a summer blockbuster series. And we all know summer blockbusters are always sequels and we love the sequels, but we love the idea of season two being a sequel for this. We have a lot invested. Hopefully you will enjoy as much as we do season one, but really the threat that we establish in season one, the threat from beyond and from within, will continue in a huge way in season two.”

Mickey Fisher: “That’s one of the things that I was excited about was creating what I feel like we’ve done is create a worldwhere we can tell all kinds of stories. Because with artificial intelligence and the arrival of this other extraterrestrial being and then how we adapt and survive, it is such rich territory. A lot of people have done it before but centering around this family I feel like gives us long-term, how does the world change around them, and how do they impact the world.”

Greg Walker: “And we’re just beginning to kind of prime the pump for this cast. We have an extraordinary cast with Halle and Goran and Pierce Gagnon. If you haven’t seen the movie Looper, you’ll be blown away by him on our show. Camryn Manheim, Grace Gummer, the list goes on. It’s funny, we keep a board in the writer’s room of each cast member that comes up and it started with five and now it’s got like 17 because every time we add somebody, we think of a story for them. So it’s a really fun medium to work in to kind of weave these characters, these stories into this kind of larger plot and emotional fabric.”

Mickey, how did you come up with the idea for this?

Greg Walker: [Laughing] “Stole it from me.”

Mickey Fisher: “Yes, hacking. I did the thing that they always tell you to do as a writer and that is to write the show that you would want to watch. And it’s one of the easiest things to forget to do because you second-guess yourself or you are following a trend or whatever that is. And like Halle said, I feel that some of the best writing in the world, the great American drama is on television right now and I was watching so many great shows. So when I came out here three years ago to try and break in, I sat down and I looked at some of my favorite shows and I pulled them apart and almost looked at them like an engine. Acts and scenes and things like that. And once I felt like I learned the structure and I wrote one that was sort of a practice pilot and then I sat down and said, ‘What is the story that I would tune into week after week after week? What’s the one that I’m dying to watch?’ And that’s what I did and I sat down to write that. So, the idea was born. I came to writing like a lot of people do, I imagine, through musical theatre, through performing in musical theatre. I have a long line of science fiction in musical theatre.”

Greg Walker: “Absolutely, there is a big crossover there.”

Mickey Fisher: “But I went to school, to the conservatory to be a musical theatre actor so I did a lot of work in the theatre and I was writing a lot of theatre. It started off as a one-person show, the idea — you know, everybody does sci-fi plays, why not? You could do one set, make it really cool and projections.

And the second thing was I came up with the idea of this character and meeting this person from her past and then to come home and find out that she’s pregnant. I realized that I couldn’t contain it there and it couldn’t be a movie; it had to be told over 13 hours at a minimum of that. So that’s really where it started.”

Halle Berry and Goran Visnjic Extant Interview
Halle Berry in 'Extant' (Photo © 2014 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved)

Halle, can you talk a bit more about your character’s journey in the first season? Is she pregnant the whole time? Do you change belly’s all the time and at what point after your own pregnancy was it annoying to have to be pregnant again?

Greg Walker: “I’m sorry, when we pitched the story, we pitched the story to Halle when she was eight and a half months pregnant. We are sitting at her house where she had us and I’m pitching the stories about all these terrible, horrible things that can happen. I’m looking down at this stomach and saying, ‘Can she handle it?’ And she handled it quite well.”

Halle Berry: “I, first of all, love being pregnant. I’m the happiest when I have been pregnant in my life, truly. So to be pregnant again on a show right after giving birth didn’t scare me at all. I know how to be pregnant and I thought I’m going to ace that part of this for sure. Secondly, I don’t know if I should be talking about this…”

Greg Walker: “It’s safe to say that we don’t watch 13 episodes of Molly being pregnant. Some startling and strange things happen during that pregnancy that drive her down a really curious and odd path as a character.”

Goran, can you talk a little bit about your character on the show and how your son in the show came to be?

Goran Visnjic: “How my son came to be? I created him.”

Halle Berry: “Another woman.”

Goran Visnjic: “There is another woman but not in that way, Halle. We work together. She’s my partner in creating a robot, so thank you for messing things up. [Laughing] John is a scientist, a robotic scientist, and he created Ethan. And when Molly left in space she left kind of like with a relationship with Ethan being a little bit I would say unresolved, a bit under a question mark because it’s very difficult to deal with let’s say a 10-year-old when he’s your son from birth on, not to mention a little robot, having him in your house. So in the pilot we are seeing Molly coming back and John is very comfortable with this little robot and Molly obviously is going to have some issues reconnecting with him after not seeing him for so much time spent in space. And basically that’s going to be John’s biggest problem to get this family together.”

How would you answer what makes us human?

Halle Berry: “Well, I don’t think there’s one thing that makes us human and I think that’s what this series all about. We are discovering that, as we are portraying these characters and telling this story, what does make us human? That’s a good question. And one of the questions that the series poses is can this robot become human? Can we teach it to become human? Can we teach it to love? Can we give it free will? Will it act as human beings act over time? And we, as humans, can we love that that is not real, that is sort of fabricated? These are all the questions that we are asking. So if you ask me what it is to be human, I don’t have one answer for that. And what intrigued me about this series is to try to discover the answer to that. Can we teach someone to be human?

Hopefully by the time we finish this series, we might have a better answer. We might be able to intelligently talk about it. But I think that’s what is exciting all of us right now. We are discovering. We are asking ourselves those questions. What is that exactly, and can it be taught?”

Goran Visnjic: “I think when Molly leaves for the space mission for these 13 long months, John and Ethan are just having that kind of relationship and he is a robot, something he created. But by the time she comes back, he actually loves this kid. He sees him as a kid. So what makes us human, I would like to say, ‘Love,’ because John has really stopped seeing this kid as a robot anymore. He’s really seeing him as his own kid. And that’s where all these problems are going to start happening, because he’s going to try to affect his life because the kid is getting marter and smarter and smarter. How smart is he going to be? He can become so fast, he’s going to become so much faster than an adult human. If that happens, are we losing him? Is he going to stay a kid or is he going to become some kind of a super God-knows-what?”

Halle Berry: “And if you believe that love is what makes you human, then that beckons the question, will Ethan, will the robot, ever be able to really love? Will he be able to love Molly and John, his parents? That’s the question that our show is also asking.”

Are you a sci-fi fan?

Halle Berry: “I do like a fair bit of science fiction. I was a big ET fan. That is kind of my version of science fiction which is why, when I heard that Steven was involved, I was really excited because that’s the kind of science fiction I think I really like because it has a lot of heart but is sort of supernatural. That kind of hooked me.”

Goran Visnjic: “I started with fairytales when I was a kid. That was the introduction, you know, like Greek myths and stuff like that. Then as you grow older, you pretty much read all of those things that have already been written. These guys are dead, so science fiction becomes new mythology. And I started with Clark, Asimov, and then some new guys now like Peter Hamilton we’ve been talking about, a very good writer. So this is like really after never being a part of the science fiction world as an actor and coming into this was like really kind of like I was extremely happy just because of that little fact.”

How did you prepare for your role?

Halle Berry: “We have some consultants on our show. I spent time talking to one of the consultants. She was a female astronaut who sort of gave me some information about the psychology of going on a space mission, what that entails, the training that they have to go through. We took a trip to NASA with Allen Coulter, the director of the pilot. We sort of picked their brains there. Doing the zero G gravity flight helped me an awful lot just to put that experience in my body. I’ve watched tons of videos of space travel and space flight. And it’s been about putting some of that scientific information in our heads, but at the core, at the end of the day this is really a human story about people.

The fact that she’s a scientist becomes a little bit irrelevant pretty fast. That’s what she does as a job. John is a scientist, but it becomes very human. It’s about a husband and wife trying to live together. It’s about a woman trying to be a mother and raise a child. It’s about trying to answer some tough questions for herself and for her family. So all that stuff is important but I also broke this down like I do any other character that I break down. It’s finding the heart of what’s making this woman tick and why is she doing what she’s doing. What’s driving her? What does she care about? All of the things that go into creating any character, really.”

Goran Visnjic: “Well, I have a 7 year old at home so we practice every day fighting and screaming at each other and throwing him in the pool. Can Ethan go in the pool?”

Mickey Fisher: “Sure.”

Goran Visnjic: “That’s the next episode. So, really, what Halle said. We’ve been talking to some experts in artificial intelligence and we’ve been talking to some people who are really out there. There is some breakthrough research happening right now but we are still, of course, far away from creating real AI and of course it will be much bigger. We are not going to be able to fit it in a little boy’s head. But a couple of decades in the future, we don’t know. But it is actually about us. It’s about these relationships. So, honestly, what Halle said, ‘Being a mom helped me a lot,’ it’s the same here. Having kids at home and dealing with them. Because at the end of the day, the episode that we are actually doing right now, which I can’t talk much about, but it’s a lot about this little boy is starting to be a little bit like a real kid. And I’m like, ‘That’s not how I built you.’ So there are a lot of these things that you experience kind of with your own kids.”

Is Ethan designed to remain a child forever or is the idea that in two years they will put him in a teenager robot and then an adult robot?

Greg Walker: “He is designed to be in kind of a two or three year stage of each body. So as the AI progresses to the point where it gets to the level of maturity as the human experience evolves, so he’s ready to get to the next three year stage, adolescent, post-adolescent. You will see John in the lab building prototype bodies for that. So basically the computer will move in the body as is appropriate for the age.”

In the series, Halle and Goran are married and Halle’s an astronaut while Goran built the robot kid because they couldn’t have children. When Halle returns to Earth, how long is it until Goran finds out she’s pregnant? How do you explain that or do you make us think it’s his kid?

Mickey Fisher: “That’s a big part of the drama in the early episodes. How do you tell him?”

Greg Walker: “How do you explain what happened that you can’t explain yourself? And then, two, when you do have a sense of maybe what it is, how do you tell him? That point you are pointing at right there, you’re poking at, is really what the first episodes wrestle with early on.”

Mickey Fisher: “We always use the Joseph and Mary sort of story. You know, Mary goes to Joseph and lays out the story. We have a chance to show Joseph’s reaction to that. You know, like, ‘What?'”

Goran Visnjic: “It was a pretty good scene, let me tell you.”

Halle, as a mom can you even contemplate falling in love with a robot child? What are the little behavioral things that your kids do, the characteristics that you would miss in a robot?

Halle Berry: “I think I struggle with that and my character, Molly, struggles with that which is why I so related to Molly when I first read the story. Having two children who are so very human and help me get in touch with my humanity on a daily basis, I struggle with if a robot would evoke the same kinds of feelings from me. Would I really be able to love a machine? Those are the questions I ask myself and Molly is asking herself in this show. And my kids do things daily. Like my 5 daughter just had a nightmare. She was dreaming and in the middle of the night she came into my bed on Mother’s Day, and this is what I don’t think a robot would do. First of all, I’m not sure if a robot can dream for real. So she comes into my bed and she wakes up in the middle of the night and she’s saying, ‘Mommy, no. Mommy, no, no.’ I tap on her and I say, ‘Honey, what is it? I think you are having a nightmare.’ And she never opens her eyes and she said, ‘Mommy, there’s two cupcakes. There’s a purple one and a pink one and you are eating the pink one and you know I want it. Mommy no, no.’

In that moment I realized she was having a nightmare that was so important to her, but I was relieved because it was about cupcakes. I’m not so sure a robot would do that, and that is one of the gems, one of the jewels of what motherhood is really all about.”

Goran, are there a lot of technical, scientific things you have to wrap your head and your mouth around to deliver the dialogue for your character?

Goran Visnjic: “Not too many. It’s pretty good. The most we’re talking about is what Mickey was talking about before as we’vebeen discussing about the same thing Halle is talking about, because my character sees him actually as a kid. Now how is that possible? And where this little boy, this robot is going to go and how far we can stretch this reality. I mean, what’s going to happen to him? My main fear with Ethan or with any robot we are going to be able to create is how fast they are going to become…you know, by the time you say to him, ‘I love you,’ between the ‘I’ and ‘love’ this kid can read three books. So if he gets into that phase, we are going to definitely lose him. So there’s so many philosophical questions also that we are struggling with how to answer them and what’s happening with John. It’s more about actually every script I get and I have a scene with Ethan, I’m thinking, ‘What the hell is going through John’s head in this moment?’ I can’t get it from anybody else except from my head and it is a bit of a struggle. But having Pierce there, who is this amazing kid, and he is one of these kids that is able to concentrate, able to memorize his lines flawlessly. He actually reminds me of my lines every second day and he collects money when I curse. I owe him about $300. But he’s still a kid so once we say, ‘Okay, cut,’ he turns into a little kid and then you can see this difference.”

By Fred Topel

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