Syfy has been making the full-court press with Alphas, and for very good reason. It’s an aces show with an aces ensemble cast, and we had the chance to chat with five of the participants over two very lively conference calls. Today we bring you producer Ira Steven Behr and two of the stars, Ryan Cartwright and Azita Ghanizada. In part two, we chat with show creator Zak Penn and cast member Warren Christie.
Cartwright and Ghanizada both auditioned as part of the usual pilot season parade – Cartwright was hired first and Ghanizada was hired last. Cartwright says that strength of the pilot script made him immediately want to be part of the show. “[The audition was] tricky because the character has autism and it was a bit intimidating,” he says. “But then once I’d signed on, one good piece after another fell into place and everyone [involved] was fantastic and smart. So I was super happy to get it.”
The role of Gary has been an education for Cartwight. “On a neurological level, it was amazing just learning about how [we] think and the fact that we don’t always think literally.” He likes that as Gary, he doesn’t have to really look at people and carry on that part of the conversation. “I realized that [when] you’re having a conversation with someone, there are two conversations going on – the words that you’re saying to each other, [the body] language thing, and this back and forth in your eyes,” he points out. “It’s quite relaxing to play Gary and just to deal with language during the day.” After work, he sometimes finds it hard to return to full interactive conversations that require eye contact.
He has also enjoyed creating Gary from scratch. “The beauty [is] that we [had] the brushes in our hands and we could create new things [based] on the deep science behind it. And it also helped me kind of conjure up like Gary’s little shorthand, like the way that he controls his world and [his] little mannerisms and ticks,” he offers. “I felt a lot more confident and rock solid coming at it having just researched it from a literature point of view.”
“The first thing that I had to tackle [was] to go in with a lot of respect,” he says. “I read a load of books on the subject, saw a lot of documentaries, and spoke to advisors. What was lovely was [that] once I had researched the condition/syndrome … I could actually give [Gary] a good sense of humor and lift [him] off the page. He adds that a lot of the time when actors create a role like Gary, they “mollycoddle the character and try to play it too safe [so they end up] patronizing the character and the condition.” He adds, “You don’t want to play the syndrome, you want to play the character and the person.”
He couldn’t be happier. “I like the set. I love the character. It’s a little holiday playing him every day. He’s [got] a very kind of cheeky sense of humor and it’s getting more and more fun each day just going up,” he says. He’s also thrilled that the crew has completely warmed to Gary now vs. the early days when perhaps they might have been wondering if Cartwright was OK.
Ghanizada came on after the show was ramped up. “I think they had a hard time finding Rachel,” she says. “She was originally written as somebody kind of very different than what she has become now. [The producers] and everyone else in the writers room have really dug their teeth into her.”
Ghanizada says she’s a little bit more ballsy and courageous than Rachel is, but she went in and rearranged bits and pieces of herself. “I’m a child from Afghanistan and grew up with very strict parents in the United States,” she points out, “and that was part of Rachel’s journey [too]; kind of not fitting in at home was something I responded to … and they hired me, those silly bastards.”
She researched the role online, looking for information on people who have the ability to super see and hear. “I did a little bit of work on echolocation [and] saw how people’s bodies physically passed out as they were hearing/seeing with their ears,” she says. “And then kind of tweaked that into Rachel [trying] to find her abilities, and how to do that as honest[ly] and human[ly] as possible.”
Ghanizada says Rachel has a lot of heart and you definitely feel her struggle “She’s extremely bright,” she says. “She becomes proud of her abilities and you see her kind of blossom as a young woman. I think that any young girl [raised conservatively has to learn how to] balance the person they want to be out in the world and the person they want to be in their home, and their expectations both at work [and] in the home. It’s a really awesome journey.”
Behr came to the show after a year-long sabbatical to finish a novel, which didn’t make his wife or agents very happy. “As soon as I was done [with the book], I called my agents,” he says. “I saw the pilot, which I thought was really interesting and I really liked the characters, which is what I really look for in a pilot.” He met with creator Zak Penn and co-show runner Michael Karnow to be sure they would all get along. “I had been doing a dance with Syfy for about ten years … so I figured you know what, let’s just end this once and for all and let me do something for Syfy. And here we are.”
Behr and Cartwright are drawn to the humor in Alphas that comes from the team just trying to get along. “I’ve realized [it’s] actually a lot funnier and drier and more real and comedy is best when it comes from a real place. So that really excited me,” says Cartwright, and Behr agrees. “[Humor in] genre television has always been a struggle, one that I have kept fighting sometimes when fighting will seem to be the most ridiculous thing to do. [Alphas] was a chance [to] do honest, real, character-driven humor in a show that [also] had drama and mythology … the humor was going to be woven into that fabric in such a way that it could not be pulled out. As long as it’s real, I think it will remain a really important … and a really true and unique part of the series.”
Behr says the show uses neuroscience as a jumping off point for the tales they tell. “Now, instead of [someone] being a savant, you’re an alpha, you know? And maybe the skills are pushed up a little bit beyond the savant scale.”
He is hugely fond of his cast. “The cast is phenomenal … and is one of the things that drew me to the project. I mean David [Strathairn] is David, you know? I’ve enjoyed his work all the way back to Matewan. I’m really proud to know he’s read lines that I’ve written,” he says. “Malik [Yoba] is really focused and powerful and knows his stuff and is a pro and just plays the truth to the scenes. Warren [is] our loner. I always try to find some kind of a McQueen character [who] doesn’t say a lot but is able to communicate a lot without a lot of dialogue at times. And Warren is able to do that. The funny thing [is] he’s a really sweet guy, a really nice guy.”
“Azita is a riot in the fact that she is the absolute antithesis of her Rachel. She just has the life spirit in her … [she] has like seven identities in ten minutes, so she’s great. Laura [Mennell] is terrific. She does this thing with her eyes and it’s pretty damn cool to watch. And obviously she has a really interesting physical presence. I mean she’s kind of magnetic on screen.”
Behr has special praise for Cartwright. “I’m shocked at the level of work that Ryan has done with this character. [Whenever] we’re not sure whether Gary would do something or someone with autism [would, Ryan can] tell us. He’ll know,” he says. “You know a character or an idea is successful if everyone on staff wants to write for it or for that person. Everyone wants to come up with Gary’s scenes and that really is the highest praise you can give to a character or to an actor.”
Behr was drawn to the ensemble nature of the show, much like his most recent series, The 4400, because it spreads the work around for the actors and gives him a bigger canvas for the characters. “When you have an ensemble show, you have all the elements at your fingertips to create interesting characters and relationships,” he points out. “Plus, [the] network usually is a little more comfortable about bringing on recurring characters and just bringing the family even bigger. And that’s how I like to work.” He teases that we will see some of his familiar series alumni around the Alphas set, and he’s excited for what the season holds. “We have great actors, we have great themes, we have interesting plots. So I think we’re all good.”
Photo Courtesy of Syfy