Interview with Ryan Cartwright, Azita Ghanizada, Warren Christie, and Exectuve Producers Zak Penn & Ira Steven Behr from Alphas Part 1

Ryan Cartwright, Azita Ghanizada, Warren Christie, and Exectuve Producers Zak Penn (he is the creator, too!) & Ira Steven Behr from Alphas recently spoke with the press about the new drama series on Syfy, which premieres tonight at 10/9c. There was a lot of information given in the great Q&As, so I’ll post it in 3 parts. If you haven’t seen the show, check out the blurb below, and then see what the stars & showrunners had to say.

Alphas follows a clandestine group of average everyday citizens with amazing abilities operating within the U.S. Department of Defense. Led by preeminent neurologist and psychiatrist Dr. Lee Rosen (David Strathairn), the team investigates cases that point to others with abilities like theirs, and as they work against the clock to solve this new brand of crime, they must prevent their own personality differences and disparate backgrounds from interfering with their missions. The show also stars Azita Ghanizada, Laura Mennell, Malik Yoba, Ryan Cartwright, & Warren Christie.

On how they became involved with Alphas

Ryan Cartwright: I think I was the first actor on board. I was having another fun horrible pilot season in LA running around doing my monkey showings trying to get a job and then this really good script turned up and I just wanted to be a part of it immediately.

[I] went into the audition and it was a tricky role for me because the character has autism and it was a bit intimidating. But then once I’d signed on one good piece after another fell into place and everyone that got on board after that and that was already on board that I met was fantastic and smart. So I was super happy to get it.

Jump with us to see how the others answered this and to see what else they talked about.

Ira Steven Behr: I had taken a year off actually to finish up a novel I had started a couple years ago and decided to finish it. And I just turned down TV work for a year, which did not make my agents happy or my wife.

She wanted me out of the house and as soon as I was done I called my agents and said let’s see what’s out there. And one of the first jobs I went on was Alphas and 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.

And I met with Zak and Michael Karnow because it’s really important you know, if you’re going to be the show runner it’s always nice if you can get along with the guys who thought up the project so there’s not going to be any kind of tension.

And we got along really well and I just thought the possibilities for a really good show were there. So and I had been doing a dance with the Syfy Network for about ten years of them offering projects and me turning them down or me going to them and it not working out.

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.

Azita Ghanizada: You know, I was the last person cast. I think they had a hard time finding Rachel. She was originally written as somebody kind of very different than what she has become now that Ira and Zak and Michael and everyone else in the writers room have really dug their teeth into her.

And so, I think in my real life I’m a little bit more ballsy and courageous than Rachel is and so I think people had a hard time originally seeing me as that. But I kind of went in and rearranged bits and pieces of myself and understood very quickly what it was like to live in a conservative home.

I’m a child from a Afghanistan and grew up with very strict parents in the United States and that was part of Rachel’s journey from the pilot, kind of not fitting in at home was something I responded to. And I just kind of went in and did it and they hired me, those silly bastards. And I got on a plane, I went to Canada and we really you know, kind of found it on the day.

It was like building a play every day when we were shooting the pilot. We really kind of found all the nuances and it was such a new experience and I really credit Zak Penn and (Jack Bender) and everybody that was there that just really kind of helped fill her out flesh and bone. And now even so even after the pilot meeting Ira and everybody else in the writers room, kind of took a step back and just saw the character and decided to kind of build so much more of a story for her that I respond to even more so.

And it’s been really interesting. I mean if you [like the pilot,] you’re going to love the series. I think all the characters get faster and sharper and I think the writing, the stories that they’ve been breaking are just so cool. And the concepts are just so awesome. It’s just from the pilot it only goes up and that’s just a really cool feeling because the pilot was cool to me.

And the series has just become even cooler. So I’m lucky that they were foolish enough to cast me in the first place. You know, so that’s how I got involved. I lied. I acted my way into this job.

On what drew them to the show

Ryan: For me, I was actually excited by a lot of the good humor in it because you know, I love comedy and been in really good comedies and stuff. And a lot of the pilots that I was going up for were comedies (and good comedies).

But they didn’t compare because the comedy was kind of just a lot wetter and not as real. And the humor in Alphas from the people trying to rub along I’ve realized is 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. Yes, I really liked the comic element of the characters’ relationships with each other.

Ira: My answer is pretty much in line with Ryan’s. I’ve done a lot of genre television and it’s always been a struggle, one that I have kept fighting sometimes when fighting will seem to be the most ridiculous thing to do.

And I wish I would have just stopped fighting but I was always fighting to try to get humor into the shows. And it wasn’t always easy and sometimes it was impossible. And here was a chance, I mean like right there on the plate to do honest, real character driven humor in a show that had enough other elements in terms of you know, drama and mythology that the humor was going to be woven into that fabric in such a way that it could not be pulled out.

And I thought yes, finally, they can cut this, they can cut that but they can’t cut it all, in each episode. So and as it turned out much to my shock, everyone was really serious about the humor and they were not you know, turning around and saying you know what, second thought, screw the humor.

They actually have supported the humor and as long as it stays as Ryan said, as long as it’s real I think it will remain a really important part of the series and a really true and unique part of the series.

On similarities between Vincent Nigel Murray from Bones and Gary from Alphas

Ryan: Obviously the first thing that came up was the fact that he is autistic. And I’m not sure Nigel Murray was. I think he was just a bit mad, see? I think he was a little bit just eccentric.

But this guy is like 32 on the Karr scale and that was the first thing that I had to tackle just because if you’re playing anything like that you have to go in with a lot of respect and it was fascinating actually just getting to research that. I just read a load of books on the subject and saw a lot of documentaries and stuff and spoke to advisors.

And it was really good actually. It got me thoroughly interested in neuroscience and stuff, which is great for this job because it’s like every week there’s a new kind of extreme neuro condition that we get to investigate. So what was lovely was like once I had researched the condition/syndrome part of it, it was really good piecing together Gary to the point where I could actually give him a good sense of humor and lift him like all actors say, you want to lift the guy off the page and not have him.

You don’t want to play the syndrome, you want to play the character and the person. And the way it was written as well was really good. He had a voice already there. So yes, it was a really good challenge but a fun challenge and now he’s up and running it’s really good to be Gary every day.

On the gifts the characters have

Ira: Well, as Ryan said, we certainly use neuroscience as a basis for a lot of the jumping off points for the tales that we tell. If you go on YouTube you’ll see the most amazing things that people can do.

I mean growing up it was always he’s a savant, he’s a savant. Now instead of being a savant you’re an alpha, you know? And maybe the skills are pushed up a little bit beyond the savant scale but I don’t know if you’ve seen the gentleman who they take up in a helicopter and fly him over a major city like Rome for 45 minutes in a helicopter.

And then when they land they put him in a room, which is filled with white drawing paper covered every wall and they leave him in there for five days. Obviously they feed him and let him sleep and he draws the entire city, every window to scale, every pillar, every post. It’s an amazing thing to watch, you know? And if that isn’t an alpha ability, I don’t know what is.

So yes, I think the thing that dramatically we like is that every ability comes with a down side and how true is that? I mean look at Gary is a perfect example. He’s this incredible transducer who can pick signals out of the air. But obviously his down side is very apparent with his autism.

Or you have someone like Hicks who is hyperkinetic and has the most amazing ability and control over his body and yet at the same time he has certain psychological problems that have put him in AA, he’s divorced. So all these abilities come with a down side and I think that’s an interesting thing.

But I think if you’re talking about themes, we could talk until the sun goes down and the stars come out. I mean there are a lot of themes and obviously we’re only in the first season so we’re getting close at least in the writing towards finishing the first season. And you know, a lot of the ideas are only going and themes are only going to get deeper and richer as the show continues on its 14-year stay on Syfy.

On some of the challenges of playing out super powers

Ryan: I mean apart from on a technical level like every now and again when you have to do your certain skill you know, sometimes the shot is a little bit tricky and everyone has to stop and wait for you to kind of look very serious.

But to be honest, it’s actually I think a lot of the crew are jealous of our powers because they’re like because they’re quite real it’s not that crazy. So they all like at the end of the day you’ll just hear them murmuring and wandering off set saying man, I wish I could just do that. Man, I’d give that guy what for.

And apparently like some of the people they said that their wives are telling them not to do Gary when they’re on the telephone. They’re like I know, I can tell that your hands are waving in the air and you’re trying to open windows while you’re talking to me. So just stop it. So no, I think they’re quite fun. I think they’re going to imitate in a nice way.

On what he likes about the cast

Ira: Oh man, Ryan is on the phone. I hate all this self congratulatory stuff. But you know, the cast is phenomenal. I mean the cast is one of the things that drew me to the project.

I mean David is David, you know? I mean I’ve enjoyed his work all the way back to Matewan. He’s one of those actors who you know, when I look back at people I’ve written for it’s like that’s the guy I’m really proud to know he’s read lines that I’ve written. Malik is really focused and powerful and knows his stuff and is a pro and just plays the truth to the scenes.

And Warren – he’s our loner. I always try to find some kind of a McQueen character right, that I can play with, the guy 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 about Warren is he’s a really sweet guy, a really nice guy.

And when I was up there in Toronto it was like you’ve got to play against that nice guy at times, you know? You’ve got to do the mystery thing and he’s doing that now completely. And Azita is a riot in the fact that she is the absolute antithesis of her character Rachel. In real life Azita, if she was on this call I don’t think any of us would get a word in edgewise.

She just has the life spirit in her let’s say and obviously she’s playing this really conservative, really uptight, really quiet girl searching for her identity. And Azita has like seven identities in ten minutes so it’s she’s great and Laura’s terrific. She has that she is able to do the push as we call it when she’s able to get her victims to do what she wants if they are indeed victims.

But 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 and you know, Ryan’s character…

I mean, it is amazing. I’ve said this already in other interviews. I’m sure I’m going to say it to death but, I’m shocked at the level of work that Ryan has done with this character.

We keep talking amongst ourselves whenever we’re not sure whether Gary would do something or someone with autism would do something it’s like we should just call Ryan because he’ll tell us. He’ll know. He has done a ton of research. You know a character is successful and I’ve been on a lot of writing staffs.

You know a character or an idea is successful if everyone on staff wants to write for it or for that person. And you know, everyone wants to write Gary’s scenes. 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 is when everyone is just jazzed to sit down at a computer and think up stuff for that person to say and do.

On the journey Gary is on in season one

Ryan: Well, he’s gone straight into the deep end now that the team has suddenly like properly stepped into the arena. Obviously they’re still having therapy and it’s an ongoing process helping.

Dr. Rosen is helping everyone with the down sides to their abilities and stuff and their own neuroses and everyone getting along. But also now there’s just a ton of action and it’s gotten seriously dangerous and it’s at a certain point now for Gary where he is having to decide himself and also those around him are having to decide whether it’s even right to put a person like Gary in these dangerous, life threatening situations.

And it’s very interesting because it seems like it actually is the best thing for him in a way because he is his own person. And even though he is making decisions within a limited capacity it’s still his decision. So it’s a very trying time I guess for little old Gary but he seems to be having fun so let him get shot at.

On where season one will take viewers and characters

Ira: Well, oddly enough in about 3-1/2 hours I will be going into the network and pitching the final episodes of the season and telling the network where the series is going.

So I’m going to be very interested to see if they agree with us. One of the things that really appeals to me about the show is you know, in line with some of the other stuff that I’ve done is that this is a show that is going to evolve and is always evolving and is not a cookie cutter kind of series where every episode is exactly the same and plays out basically as the episode the week before and the episode the week after.

So this show is evolving. It evolves in five episodes and it’ll evolve more when we get to the tenth episode. And so I think what’s obviously going to happen without giving anything away is this is a group of people who are not really your first choice to be an investigative unit or to be going out into the field and getting shot at as Ryan said.

They are kind of working for the government but the government doesn’t totally know whether to trust them, they don’t know whether to trust the government. They’re working against this organization of alphas called Red Flag and Red Flag keeps telling them that they’re on the wrong side. And it’s a very precarious position to be in.

And as we like to say in the writers office, the center cannot hold. Eventually you know, things are going to start cracking. You know cracks are going to appear on the surface and I think by the end of season one there will be cracks appearing all over the surface.

On what he learned of a personal nature through his character

Ryan: Crikey. I mean I guess just on like a neurological level it was amazing how just learning about how I and I guess most people as well, just how we think and the fact that we don’t always think literally.

We don’t always go to pictures in our minds, how we kind of fill in the blanks a lot of the time. Our brains do this wonderful job of making us socially aware of the minutiae of what people are actually saying and just we live a lot more – we get by a lot more living on the gist. Like we just take little clues of what people are saying and just run with them.

And also the eye contact thing was quite bizarre because it’s quite relaxing sometimes when you play Gary, when I play Gary on set because I realized that apart from when you’re having a conversation with someone there are two conversations going on. There are the words that you’re saying to each other.

But then when you’re looking in someone’s eyes there is a whole other conversation going on, not just a body language thing but this back and forth in your eyes. You can understand people’s intent a lot more and it’s quite relaxing to play Gary and just to deal with language during the day. And then sometimes when you finish filming it’s kind of difficult to go back to looking people in the eye.

It’s kind of exhausting. Sometimes people will just look me in the eye and I’ll go not now. I don’t want to talk about it. So that was interesting.

On some of the keys to making the show work beyond the super abilities

Ira: Well, I do think that there are a couple of major ones. One is we are kind of dealing with you know, neuroscience and brain chemistry and we’re trying to keep the show.

We don’t consider ourselves a superhero show by any means. We’re trying to take what’s already going on or what can already go on within the human brain and just kind of up it a little bit more extreme science I guess. So I think that is interesting. I think the fact that the characters themselves are not exactly suited to the position that they’re in.

These are not as I’ve said before; these are not your typical heroes if I dare use that word. So I think that is really interesting. And I think there is a real honest and true humor to the show and humor to the situations these people find themselves in. I mean the stories can get extremely dark. Don’t get me wrong. They can be dark.

They can be violent at times but we try to remain true to what would ordinary people, how would they react to being in those situations? And there is a lot of humor in extreme situations as protection just to get through them because people yearn for the normal. And to get them there they will depend at times on their relationships and the humor within those relationships.

On the appeal of this show for fans of The 4400

Ira: Well, hopefully it’ll appeal to them because it’ll be another quality show with interesting characters, a different but equally fascinating mythology. Obviously the major difference is that we were unable to add much in the sense of humor to The 4400 even though you know, USA turned into the Blue Skies Network and it was all Monk all the time.

And we were always being called the dark, apocalyptic show on their lineup, which is why ultimately we were off their lineup. But every time we’d try to put humor in the show they would yank it out. And so you know, the simple way I guess of saying it is this is The 4400 with a sense of humor.
See more in Part 2 of our Alphas interview: HERE. Alphas premieres (90 minutes!) on tonight, July 11, at 10/9c on Syfy.

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