Love it or hate it – and if the early reviews are any indication, people are going to have very strong reactions to it, one way or another – Sense8 is a lot to digest. The 12-episode, mind-bending Netflix series is about eight people connected all around the world who, after experiencing a violent vision, are able to see, feel, hear and talk to each other, as if they are in the same place. While they are being hunted by an organization that is out to do them harm, these eight individuals from very different backgrounds must quickly adapt to this new ability and to each other, and figure out what all of this means for the future of humanity.
After seeing three episodes of this epic project from the minds of Lana and Andy Wachowski and J. Michael Straczynski, Collider spoke to Straczynski, along with co-stars Naveen Andrews, Jamie Clayton, Daryl Hannah and Brian J. Smith, about how best to watch this show, and the affect that it had on them. From those interviews, we’ve compiled a list of 18 things that you should know about Sense8.
- Michael Straczynski and Lana Wachowski met to talk about possible ideas for a project for television, knowing that they wanted to do something that hadn’t been done before to really make a mark. Straczynski was inspired by friends that he has in different parts of the world, who will all go online at the same time, pull up a movie, hit play at the same moment, and then watch and comment about it to each other, sharing an experience, even though they’re on different parts of the planet. And Lana is huge into evolution, shared experiences, and the importance of humanity. So, their goal was to tell a planetary story on a scale that hasn’t been done before.
Once they had a plan in place, they had to establish what the rules were, how it all worked, and what it meant to be sensate. The theory was that originally we’re all sensate, and we all had this ability. The mutation was those who are born without the ability because they’re more efficient killers. Over time, those individuals outnumbered those who were sensate.
- People in a sensate cluster are bound to each other automatically, and can see each other. If you’re outside of the cluster, but you’re a sensate, you have to make direct eye contact. You can’t see inside every group.
- After they had the rules set, they had to decide what countries they wanted to explore. They saw it as both a storytelling opportunity, and a way to illustrate contrast, with Nairobi up against San Francisco, or Seoul up against Chicago, or Mexico City against Berlin. They went through a bunch of different permutations, and even considered Iraq, before finally deciding on the ones they used, and then developed the characters from there. And every city they were in, they shot on location, making sure that you could tell they were really in that place.
When it came to casting, they wanted the actors to be out of the countries that we were shooting in, as much as possible, so that they could have that authenticity. They would shoot every scene in a particular city, and then hand it off to somebody else, and the rest of the cast had to support that person. Said actor Naveen Andrews, “It was so disparate. You could spend a few days shooting a scene in Chicago, but you might have to finish in Berlin, in a completely different set for the same scene, four months later. That was extraordinary. But that’s why it was good to have those relationships with the actors. We kept talking about it to keep involved, so we weren’t outside of it.”
- Originally, actress Daryl Hannah was called in to meet Lana and Andy Wachowski for the role of Mr. Whispers because they were thinking of making that character androgynous. Ultimately, she ended up being cast as the mysterious Angel, who sets the entire story in motion. “I didn’t know anything about it. During the meeting, they said that they wanted to put me in the role of Angel, even though I’d never heard of that role. I was like, “What?! I can’t be Mr. Whispers?! Okay, then.” I was just really happy. I don’t have the vocabulary to express my admiration for Lana and Andy, and their creative process, their brains, their human empathy, and everything they try to express with their endeavors.”
- According to actor Brian J. Smith, he was given a couple of scripts to read, but those scripts went through quite an evolution before filming. “I got the first couple of scripts, which were pretty different from what we ended up shooting. The concept was always there, but the structure changed a lot.”
When asked what drew her to this unique project, actress Jamie Clayton said, “To be able to be on a set with someone who is trans (Lana Wachowski), who is directing me, who had written this part of a trans character was a dream come true. I thought to myself, ‘I want this experience. I want to be able to do this.’ It’s so rare in Hollywood. There’s more opportunity that’s being presented, especially really recently, for trans characters on television, but I thought, ‘Shit, when am I going to get to play one that’s actually written by someone who’s trans?’ I knew that that was really special. That was my number one reason.”
- From an actor’s perspective, being a part of this show was an experience unlike any other. Said Smith, “There’s really nothing like traveling around the world, and working with the Wachowskis and Joe [Straczynski], and working on material that’s asking these big questions. And every day on set, it felt so meaningful. It really felt like we were trying to do something different and important, that no one had ever done before, on every level. The logistics of this are insane. You’re not supposed to do a television series that takes place in nine cities, all over the globe. Everyone will tell you that that’s undoable. The whole idea was undoable, and that’s what the Wachowskis love.”
- Because she really didn’t know much about how this would all turn out, going into it, Hannah said it really was the chance to work with the Wachowskis, and their desire to create something original, that made her want to get involved. “They’re true artists. They really are trying to say something and trying to create something original, and there aren’t that many people who do that. When you’re an actor, that’s what you dream about, that’s what you wish for, and that’s what you live for, unless you’re just a personality, which is a different thing.”
With so many characters in so many countries, one might wonder if they would each get their own exploration. Said Clayton, “I hope that all of the characters are important. The amount of stuff that I learned about all of these countries, all of these places, and all of these people dealing with all of these issues blows me away. Of course, I love Nomi. She’s close to my heart. I hope that people see her and love her. Everybody is going to find someone, some place and some thing on the show that they can relate to, and I hope and dream, for a lot of people, that it’s Nomi.”
- Co-creator Straczynski said that they have a rough idea for five seasons, with a detailed second season already set, should they need it. “I’m big on five-year arcs. We have a rough structure for five years. Should Netflix decide to do it, we already have the second season worked out in great detail. And then, we have rough notes for the next three years, beyond that. I need to know where I’m going. I always write toward the ending, so I need to know where it’s going. Before I did Babylon 5, I knew what the last episode was, and the last scene in that episode, years before we ever did that arc.”
- Originally, the show was expected to be 10 episodes long, but then was extended to 12 episodes when they realized they needed more time. Said Straczynski, “Our first cut of Episode 1 was an hour and 45 minutes, which was a tad over. So, we went to Netflix and said, ‘Can we have 12 episodes and spread this out more evenly?’ On any other show, you would have taken that hour and three-quarters and just chop it down. It wouldn’t have been half the show that it is. So Netflix, to their credit, said, ‘You want two more episodes to spread it out, make it more smooth and make it what you want it to be? Go for it.’”
- Once the actual shooting of the show started, the Wachowskis were on set to guide their vision while Straczynski pulled back and worked more in post. He said, “I wasn’t really needed. When they were on set doing their thing, even with other directors, it was their vision for the show, visually.”
According to the cast, when it comes to working with the Wachowskis, you have to expect the unexpected. Said Smith, “When you work with the Wachowskis, there’s no such thing as a typical day. They never shoot a scene the way you think they’re going to. They never block a scene the way you think they’re going to. And even the scene itself completely changes when you show up. If you always expect the unexpected with them, you’re going to be okay. You just can’t come in with any preconceived ideas.”
- Andrews said that his way into the working process of the Wachowskis was simply by watching their approach. “What I learned from actually doing the piece, and working with [the Wachowskis] and with my fellow actors, was that what’s on the page isn’t necessarily what you feel or see on screen. I learned more from watching Lana [Wachowski] with the steadi-cam [operator], following him and whispering to him. And then, they’d reshoot the scene in a completely different way. That process, which if you’re an outsider would be unsettling, was, for me, the way into where they were coming from. That was a new experience for me.”
- Hannah revealed that, although she personally greatly enjoyed this experience, shooting the scene where we first meet her character was one of the most difficult she’s ever shot. “It was really difficult because so much of it was by myself. I had to create the whole story when I didn’t really know what had happened to my character to get her to that point. It was actually a hot summer night when we shot that in Gary, Indiana, in this burnt-out church. I had to shiver all night, but it was a hot and sweaty night. And forcing yourself to shiver is one of the hardest things on your muscles and isometrics. Obviously, it was emotionally really difficult, too. At that point, it was just easier to stay in it, rather than trying to come out and go back, and try to get back into that level of depth of pain and struggle. So, I just stayed in it for the whole time we were shooting it, and we shot that scene for over nine hours. I actually had felt like I had gotten hit by a truck, and I slept for 20 hours after that. I’ve done stunts before. I’ve been smashed through walls. I broke my elbow on one movie, and I’ve broken vertebrae. But, I was in more pain doing that emotional scene and shivering than I have been with a lot of my actual stunts.”
With 12 hours to work with, this is clearly more of a slow-burn concept that you will get more answers to, the longer you stick with it. Said Smith, “The whole idea, at least for the first four or five episodes, is about keeping the audience as off-balance as the characters are, which is a risk. As storytellers, we tend to want to force-feed everything and have everybody understand everything, right away, and we freak out if they don’t. When you have 12 hours of storytelling, the cool thing about it is that you get to really leave people with question marks, but hopefully wanting to come back. Especially in the first episodes, the whole sensate phenomenon that’s happening to them is slowly rolled out. It was always about these different people in these different cities who are living in these different cultures, dealing with separateness and tribalism in very different ways. And then, you bring them together for the last six episodes and see what happens.”
Sense8 is available at Netflix on Friday, June 5th at 12:01 am PST.