Interview with Jason O’Mara from Terra Nova

I recently got the chance to speak to Jason O’Mara, star of the new FOX drama, Terra Nova. Jason also starred in the short lived series Life on Mars, as well as In Justice & The Agency.

Terra Nova follows an ordinary family on an incredible journey back in time to prehistoric Earth as a small part of a daring experiment to save the human race. In the year 2149, the world is dying. The planet is overdeveloped and overcrowded, with the majority of plant and animal life extinct. The future of mankind is in jeopardy, and its only hope for survival is in the distant past. The series centers on the Shannon family as they join the Tenth Pilgrimage of settlers to Terra Nova, the first colony established in this beautiful yet foreboding land.

The future of mankind is in jeopardy, and its only hope for survival is in the distant past. Upon the Shannons’ arrival, they are introduced to Commander Nathaniel Taylor (Stephen Lang, Avatar), the charismatic and heroic first pioneer and leader of the settlement. Taylor warns the travelers that while Terra Nova is a place of new opportunities and fresh beginnings, all is not as idyllic as it initially appears. Along with blue skies, towering waterfalls and lush vegetation, the surrounding terrain is teeming with danger – and not just of the man-eating dinosaur variety. There is also a splinter colony of renegades led by the battle-hardened Mira (Christine Adams, TRON: Legacy), who is vehemently opposed to Taylor and his leadership.

Jump with us for more info on the show and to read the interview with Jason O’Mara.

Even more threatening than what lies outside the protective walls of the colony is the chilling possibility that something sinister is happening inside Terra Nova. The Shannons will come to suspect that not everyone on this mission has the same idea of how to best save mankind; in fact, there may be forces intent on destroying this new world before it even begins.

The show stars O’Mara, Lang, and Adams, along with Shelley Conn (Mistresses), Landon Liboiron (Degrassi: The Next Generation), Allison Miller (Kings), Naomi Scott (Life Bites), Alana Mansour.

Check out the great Q&A with Jason below.

On how Jim looks at himself and what he struggles with most in the new world

Jason O’Mara: I think his primary goal is to protect his family and ensure that they thrive and survive in this new place. He’s also been sort of, whether he likes it or not, he’s sort of been made the sheriff in this frontier town. So he has to kind of go along with what Taylor does and says and sometimes he has reservations; sometimes he’s in accordance to it, but the questions that are brought up sort of affect the very fabric of Terra Nova’s society that is being created as we go along.

Even though Taylor is heroic in many ways in what he does, he also can be a little bit autocratic and so not everybody agrees with how he rules and Jim has to tow the party line to an extent. There is also a kind of partnership and a friendship that is emerging between Taylor and Shannon. I really enjoy kind of the subtleties and the little relationship beefs that we have between all the characters on the show. It’s kind of – I believe it’s quite unusual.

On the fatalities that might happen on the show—SPOILERS!

Jason: Okay, how best to answer this. Dinosaurs do kill people. We don’t kill dinosaurs because they’re animals and we are as humane as possible when we try to corral and wrangle the local wildlife so we use nonlethal, humane weapons to control them.

They, however, don’t have the same control with us; they’re animals; they’re wild and sometimes they get hungry so we have to be very vigilant around that. There are other fatalities to look forward to in the season, but they aren’t always series regulars. However, I can reveal that one of the characters that you will have come to know, and hopefully love, will die by the end of the first season. There will be a death of a regular character by this season’s end.

On acting in the world of Terra Nova

Jason: Yes, well, first of all you know Brisbane stood in for Chicago. Brisbane is the Australian city on the East Coast of Australia, and a lot of Chicago was CGI because we’re not dealing with Chicago, we’re dealing with that city 150 years or so from now.

We tried to recreate it in the most imaginative way possible. I think it looks pretty darn cool, but scary as well. The future is kind of a bleak place. Listen, it has been very challenging shooting this show. We’re outside for a lot of this. The Australian Outback can be quite unforgiving. We haven’t had any medical emergencies on the cast so far in terms of the wildlife. There are a lot of snakes. I don’t know how poisonous it was, but I had a toad like crawl across my boots just last week, which was really kind of cool actually, but we’re really out there. We’re really out there in the rain forest and on location and we’re exposed to the elements for better or for worse.

I mean anybody who goes out for a hike on a regular basis knows how tired you are in the evenings and you come back after a long day’s shooting of being out in the forest and you want the next day off, but we don’t get days off. The next it’s up early and it starts again. That’s the challenging thing with TV; it’s not the action scenes per se and it’s not the location scenes and the heavy dialogue scenes, but the fact that there is just no let up; there is no break. Oftentimes we’ll even work Saturdays to get all this in.

We’re shooting in eight or nine days per episode, but we shoot in blocks and to accommodate publicity like the tour I’m on now and other things we have to move the scheduling and the shooting days around, but it’s something we have made work for ourselves. It’s working so far. We shoot with three cameras per unit. Sometimes we shoot with two different units or where we’re shooting two different episodes at the same time. Sometimes we splinter units that have cameras on board helicopters. It’s a pretty big production—the size of which I’m not sure has been seen in recent memory on broadcast TV.

On appealing to a wide variety of audience

Jason: Well, I believe the expression in the TV business is four quadrant appeal and I think that’s what they call it in that world. As far as I’m concerned as an actor, I read the script and I thought, look, this is so cool that there is time travel involved; there are obviously a lot of visual effects. There are futuristic effects, dinosaur effects, all sorts of things going on, but one of the earlier scripts very much read as a genre piece.

We’re trying to create something that’s a little bit bigger than that. It’s not just for a niche audience; this isn’t Battlestar Galactica; it’s not Star Trek. This is not for, necessarily for sci-fi fans out there even though I think sci-fi fans will get a lot out of it. This kind of has that all-inclusive look and feel of a true Steven Spielberg production where people are going to E.T. for the cinematic experience not because it’s just about a boy’s relationship with his alien who comes down from space.

That’s kind of how the feeling is on Terra Nova. This isn’t just about time travel and dinosaurs; it’s about a lot more than that. I think that’s what’s going to bring this show and put it on sort of a level where an entire family can watch it from the ages of—I think it might be suitable for sort of 10 year olds maybe, 11 year olds. I’m not quite sure what rating they’re putting on us, right through to people in their 80s. I really do stand behind that. I think there is literally something for everybody.

I know that can be tricky. I know that’s hard to do. Everybody is really aware of that, but I’m betting that, and I have a pretty good feeling about the fact that we’ve done something approaching to that and hopefully we’ll succeed.

On being a show that seems like it has the potential to be a big hit

Jason: Oh, I hope so. Yes, third time lucky, is it, maybe? I’ve never got a show to a second season so I’m sure people online are painfully aware of this and maybe audiences are as well. What’s great about this is that in Life on Mars I had the most amazing cast assembled on television at the time, I believe, so I was ably supported in that.

In Justice was a great show, but I don’t think we were able to make enough noise to kind of break through, but with this I’m really not sweating the premiere because it’s really about whether people are ready for a show like this, and I believe they are.

It’s not really down to me. The show is way bigger than the actors are. Steven Spielberg’s presence is one of the selling points. The dinosaurs obviously are a huge aspect of all of this, so we’re hoping that people kind of come for these reasons, but stay because they’re enjoying the world we’ve created and the dynamics between the characters and the relationships that are forming. As the season progresses and deepens you’ll get to know the characters better and see where we’re going with the story lines.

To answer your question, I really feel like it’s out of my hands and I’ve done my work and now it’s just a question as to how much of a hit this is going to be. I think we might be on to something here, but I’ve been wrong in the past.

On the journey Jim and his family are on this season

Jason: Well, firstly, they’re a very lucky family. They’re one in a million. They’ve managed to escape this dying world and get this second chance in this sort of Utopia, this beautiful place which has been sold to them, certainly if there was ever a travel brochure it would be sold as just the most beautiful place imaginable, a Utopia.

However, once the Shannon family gets there you realize, and it doesn’t take too long, you scratch the surface and you realize that there is something else going on here. There are splinter groups, splinter factions, people challenging Taylor’s rule over the place. You also find out that there are people close to Taylor who have become estranged and might even be plotting against him and his sort of rule, for want of a better word, as commander over Terra Nova.

By the way, you know who put him in charge? Was he ever elected? All these questions are asked so the Shannon family are caught up in all of this and they become the audience’s eyes and ears and they get involved in a first-hand way directly in the intrigue that’s taking place, politically and socially. At the same time trying to sort of survive in this place that is certainly a lot more hostile than it’s first thought and it’s not just the dinosaurs.

Josh Shannon gets embroiled in the first season in something and gets in way over his head. Maddy Shannon has her story line and at times she’s put in terrible danger, as well as Zoe as well and some of Zoe’s stories, my seven-year-old daughter, really played really well. I think everyone was surprised how well her character plays in the stories, but also surprised with how good Alana Mansour is as Zoe. She’s just becoming a really great little actress. I really enjoy working with her. People warn you not to work with children or animals, especially dinosaurs in this case, but Alana has just been a delight from start to finish and her acting is really deepening and maturing and she’s starting to have a lot of fun with that.

So the relationship between Taylor and Shannon is obviously at the center, at the heart of the first season, but also you’re right in asking that question that the Shannon family and their experiences are also at the center of the first season. Obviously I have to paint very broad brush strokes here, but I think as the episodes progress you’ll get a feel for the kind of show that we’re trying to make week after week. Just to put everybody’s minds at rest there will be dinosaurs in every episode regardless of how human the stories become, we’ll always a healthy dose of dinos.

On how Australia (& Brisbane specificially) was decided on to shoot the show

Jason: I’m not really involved in those decisions, but I know that there was talk initially—I only know just through the phone calls I would get last year and it has been well over a year now since this whole journey started for me. I would get a phone call saying, “Okay, right now they’re considering Louisiana.” “Right now they’re considering Hawaii.” “Right now they’re considering Florida again.” I think it was deemed that Australia would offer the show the right kind of locations in a pretty localized way. We’re only sort of 30 minutes drive from one place to another.

From where we live to the studio to the Terra Nova location to all of the other locations that we’ve been shooting like waterfalls and forests and beaches and cliff faces and all that stuff—it’s all pretty localized. There is an amazing amount of sort of topical diversity when it comes to landscape in a sort of small amount of space. I think that’s probably why it was chosen over the other places.

There is also a fairly established infrastructure there that is their sort of Hollywood. They have stages set up there and next to it is like a theme park called Movie World. Sometimes we have roller coasters and people screaming as we’re having a break inside the studio and walking from our trailers. It’s kind of funny. They do have that sort of already set up. They have very experienced crews. Our crews have been fantastic. It’s also a beautiful part of the world.

I think while I find the separation very difficult, and while I always prefer production to be done on U.S. soil because I think it’s important for jobs here in the states and to keep the industry in the states, I do understand why Australia was the set location for the first season of Terra Nova.

[Note from Jenny: This was my question. I also asked him about playing Joe Morelli in the Stephanie Plum movie, One for the Money. If you’re interested in hearing what he had to say about that, let me know!]

On some of the challenges of shooting the pilot and stepping into the role

Jason: Well, first of all, it’s been well documented how difficult some of the shooting days were on the pilot due to the inclement weather. As if it wasn’t hard enough trying to create as ambitious and as complicated a show as this is to make, we had to contend with some extreme weather. The days where I opened my trailer and stepped down and literally was up to my knees in a pile of mud—they were the days where you go, I don’t think we’re shooting today.

They were able to work magic with the schedule and oftentimes we would be back in a studio or whatever, wherever we needed to be while it rained cats and dogs outside, or cats and dinos, as it felt sometimes. So that was probably the most challenging aspect of that.

I’ve always tried to keep my character—I like to play very raw characters, characters who have a degree of vulnerability and passion about what they’re doing. I suppose the greatest acting challenge was to allow Jim to have enough darkness and even allow him to be more flawed than perhaps he was on paper. That is something that I’ve sort of confidently been talking to the writers about, about trying to keep Jim as complicated as possible so he’s not just a hero running around protecting his family and chasing dinosaurs, either chasing after them or running from them, so that there is a little more to him than that.

I suppose that was sort of my challenge to try to keep Jim as grounded, as real, and as complicated and human as possible. Technically the green screen acting can be difficult because—there is something worse by the way than a tennis ball on the end of a stick, it’s an Australian visual effects assistant running around with a cardboard dinosaur head cut off on the end of a stick while wearing shorts and sandals running around a field. And you’re supposed to look intimidated and scared to death of this guy and he’s a very sweet guy, but it’s just really hard to be really scared of something like that when all you want to do is burst out into fits of laughter.

That stuff can be tricky and difficult, but then you’re really at the whim of the visual effects guys and the editor when it comes to that stuff, so you do your best with it and move on. I think just trying to keep Jim as edgy and engaging and as intriguing as possible given that we’re also trying to make this as appealing for as many different people as possible. That’s always a very thin line to walk.

On when the next round of visitors to the new world will come and how Jim handles being the “old hat”

Jason: The 11th Pilgrimage is coming and it’s coming at the end of Season 1, but we don’t know what the 11th Pilgrimage is going to be made up of. By then it could be pilgrims, but it could be something else far more terrifying.

[Jim] settles down is his role as sort of town sheriff. He settles into it pretty quickly, so he’s already kind of laying down the dos and don’ts for a lot of the colony. Yes, I think it would be nice for him to not be the new guy all the time, but at the same time it’s enjoyable for me as an actor and for the audience to see Jim do things for the first time.

It’s fun as an actor to discover things for your character as opposed to show other characters around. As I said, we don’t know what the 11th Pilgrimage will bring, so there are lots of mysteries and story twists to look forward to.

On how the part came about

Jason: Well, to be perfectly honest it was one of those kind of things that was—okay, let me start at the beginning. I was in London doing a play at the Donmar Warehouse called Serenading Louie. It was an off-Broadway play from like 1972, I think, or ’73, that was being revived and I did it with Jason Butler Harner, who is a great American actor. I think he’s going to be in Alcatraz on Fox in the mid-season. Simon Curtis directed it, who’s married to Elizabeth McGovern and he’s directed a lot of stuff recently, actually. He’s just directed My Week with Marilyn, which is coming out soon.

I really had a great time, but I really felt—I had skipped pilot season because I was in London for all of that and I thought that Hollywood had completely moved on and had lost interest in me, which would have been fine, you know, whatever. Things go in cycles. I came back and my agent called me and said, “Just so you know I’ve had several conversations with Dreamworks and Fox about a production that they’re working on called Terra Nova and Steven Spielberg is highly involved in the casting and is signing off on everything related to the production. That’s a hoop that we need to jump through before we progress any further.”

I hadn’t got an offer or anything. This was just, you know they were just sort of checking my availability and seeing if I was interested. I read a version of the script, which has changed a lot since, but I was intrigued by the scale of it and the ambitiousness of it. After I was done reading it I thought that this can never be made for television; it’s too big. This is a movie. Then remembering that Steven Spielberg was involved, I thought well, if anybody can do it, he can.

What intrigued me most about the script was that it was really about second chances and if we were given a second chance as a race would we make the same mistakes? That was kind of the thing that hooked me onto it. I said to my agent, “You know I would be interested if it goes further.” He said, “Okay, well there are a lot of people involved with this because it’s such a big production. I’ll discuss this with everybody and get back to you.”

Then I got a phone call. I was walking down the street in New York City and I got a phone call from him again, my agent, saying, “Okay, Steven Spielberg has been in touch and he wants to watch some scenes from your work. He wants to see some reels.” But not my show reels, he wanted to see some more dramatic stuff. I sent some scenes from Life on Mars to my agent and he put them together on a web site for Mr. Spielberg to watch and he watched them.

Then I didn’t hear anything for about 48 hours and I was sure that I would not get this; that I wouldn’t hear any more about it and I got a phone call saying, “They want you to take the role of Jim Shannon on Terra Nova. Would you be interested?” I said, “Hey, man it has Steven Spielberg; it has dinosaurs and it’s one of the most ambitious TV projects of all time. That sounds like a dream, sign me up.” I did and I haven’t regretted a single thing. It’s been a wonderful journey.
Thank you to Jason for taking the time out of his crazy schedule to talk with us! Don’t miss the 2-hour series premiere of Terra Nova on Monday, Sept. 26, on FOX at 8/7c!

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