AMERICAN ODYSSEY Interview: Jake Robinson on Playing Political Activist Harrison Walters

     April 5, 2015

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From writer/director Peter Horton and writers Adam Armus & Kay Foster, the NBC drama series American Odyssey is a complex journey through global politics, corporate espionage and military secrets. When the lives of female Special Forces soldier Odelle Ballard (Anna Friel), disillusioned corporate lawyer Peter Decker (Peter Facinelli) and a political activist named Harrison Walters (Jake Robinson) unexpectedly collide, a cover-up with lethal implications threatens to come to light.

During this exclusive interview with Collider, actor Jake Robinson talked about how he got involved with this show, what drew him to the story and character, being given a clear idea of where the story would be headed, how thrilling it is to be involved with such a quality project, and the action-packed twists and turns.

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Image via NBC

Collider: How did this come about for you?

JAKE ROBINSON: I got a script, over a year ago. I was on the subway and I was reading it, and I know it’s a good script when I miss my subway stop home. I live in Manhattan, and I went all the way out to Queens, reading this thing. I finally closed it and realized that I was really far away from where I needed to go, but it didn’t really matter. I really, really loved the script. It was casting out in L.A., so I put myself on a self-tape for it, in my manager’s living room on a little flip-cam. And then, I heard back, about a month later, that they were really interested in me, but they wanted a better quality video. So, I Skyped with Peter [Horton], Adam [Armus] and Kay [Foster], the creators and executive producers, and I got cast. I was more than happy to come on board because it was really truly one of the best scripts I’d read, all pilot season. I was thrilled just to be a part of it.

What was it about this story and these characters that really spoke to you?

ROBINSON: For me, with Harrison, I really enjoyed the fact that he’s a political activist in his 20s because I am in my 20s. I know that a lot of people in my generation and in my age group are really in this mode of searching and seeking. We don’t really know where we fit in, with how everything is changing in the world. So, I was really excited to explore that, and I think the pilot really does that. Harrison Walters is a really slow burn, in the pilot. He’s always standing on uneven ground. He doesn’t really know where he sits, until he gets information that Odelle Ballard (Anna Friel) is actually alive. And then, all of a sudden, he has something that galvanizes him. That’s something that people in their 20s can relate to. I think it will be a very relatable character, for a lot of people. I thought it was incredibly topical, too. That’s what drew me to it. It’s exciting. It’s coincidence because it’s been in the works for five to ten years. There wasn’t just one event. All of a sudden, these things are happening in our world, and we’ve become even more relevant, but it’s not about any one specific thing. Good storytelling and good acting, at its best, really holds up a mirror to society and says, “Where are we?” It asks questions. American Odyssey asks a lot of questions of its viewers, and it asks you to answer questions because we don’t necessarily give you the answers, which is refreshing.

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Image via NBC

Your character really is at the age where a lot of people start to question what their family decides for them.

ROBINSON: Yes, and as subsequent episodes happen, you’ll learn a lot more. You’ll meet both of his parents and see how the relationship unfolds with them.

There are various different storyline threads that this show keeps going back and forth between. Did you also enjoy that aspect of the storytelling?

ROBINSON: Yeah. It never lets you sit in one character’s storyline for too long. As soon as you get invested in someone, all of a sudden, you’re in another person’s world and you have to invest in their world. It’s constantly keeping up the tension of each character’s storyline. This show is about human beings. At its best, this show is about individual human moments, where we have to make a choice to go after the right thing. Sometimes doing the right thing means that people close to you get hurt, and they don’t shy away from that. As an actor, I go, “Oh, man, this is a lose-lose.” There’s something beautiful about accepting that. We put ourselves in those situations in life. All too often, television and film likes to have concrete and resolute and neat things, but this show stays away from neat. It’s messy, at its best. 

How much were you actually told about where this story would be headed, and were you given much background about who Harrison Walters is?

ROBINSON: Oh, yeah, absolutely! One of the great things about working on this is that they had already mapped out the entire season, before we started shooting it. I think they had half or all of the episodes written, before we even did the first shot. So, the story was very clear, and I think it’s really going to be rewarding for the audience to watch the events transpire throughout it. It gets so intense and so crazy. Poor Anna had to keep getting beaten up. She has all of this action stuff. And things start hitting the fan in New York City, pretty early on.

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Image via NBC

After reading such a great pilot script and seeing such a great pilot made from that, were you even more nervous about reading the scripts for the episodes after that?

ROBINSON: It’s so thrilling. I had already read up to Episode 5, by the time I started shooting Episode 2, so I knew where it was going. The great thing was knowing how good the pilot was. As an actor, once you put your stamp on it, it goes off. It’s not an actor’s medium. It’s more of a director’s and editor’s medium. So, it’s really encouraging when you put your stamp on it, and then it comes back to you and it’s what you thought it would be. That makes it incredibly exciting.

Will the characters become more connected and start to cross paths with each other?

ROBINSON: You’ll definitely have to tune in to find out. It’s exciting that, as an actor, I get to watch something that I’ve never seen before, on my own television show. That’s really neat. Normally, you’re all working together, so you know what’s happening and everyone is on the same page. On our show, we have three separate casts. When I sit down to watch, it’s the first time I get to watch stuff in Morocco, and that’s 40% of the story. It makes it more enjoyable for me to watch my own show because I’m actually invested in it. I’m excited to see what happens with it. I think we’ve got some really beautiful stuff coming up that’s amazing and action-packed and tough.

How would you describe this show and its three storylines to people?

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Image via NBC

ROBINSON: They’re really woven around a central event, being that this U.S. corporation is funding terrorist groups in Mali, in order to protect their interests. The government is in on it, the companies are in on it, the media is in on it, and everyone is in on it. So, these individuals are all centered around bringing this company down and trying to show the truth about what’s going on. What happens is that Odelle Ballard is supposed to be dead. She’s actually alive, but everyone thinks she’s dead. There are so many near misses, throughout the episodes, but they’re all talking about the same thing, just in different ways, in their own lives.

How did Harrison end up as an activist?

ROBINSON: In my mind, he was a kid who went to college and didn’t really know what he wanted to do. He got a good degree and started working in corporations, but realized that wasn’t for him. He has a very tough relationship with his parents because he rebels against them. And then, Occupy Wall Street happened and he really saw a chance to put his stamp on something. In my mind, that’s how it got started. He met people who were actively seeking their own truths and finding out truths and busting conspiracies, and they put him in touch with people who were on the fringe.

When Harrison finds himself in the middle of what’s going on, is it the type of thing he’s been waiting for, or is he in over his head?

ROBINSON: At first, he sees it as an opportunity. I don’t think it’s necessarily initially about getting Odelle home. It’s more about him putting his own stamp on what he wants to do. And then, as it continues, it becomes less and less about what he’s doing and more about other people in his life. I think it’s a beautiful thing to watch, over the course of the season. You’re really going to see him mature, as an individual, and not go after his own interests, but protect the interests of others and start investing in other people’s lives, in a way that he wasn’t capable of, at the beginning of the season. How do you know what to do, in that situation? You experience it, and you handle it, as best you can. Things happen that are good, bad and terrible.

American Odyssey premieres on NBC on Sunday, April 5th.

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