The CBS series Extant is a new 13-episode serialized drama, premiering on July 9th. The mystery thriller tells the story of female astronaut Molly Woods (Academy Award winner Halle Berry), who tries to reconnect with her family after returning from a year in outer space. Her mystifying experiences in space and an inexplicable pregnancy lead to events that will ultimately change the course of human history.
During a recent panel interview to promote the upcoming show, executive producer/ showrunner Greg Walker and executive producer/show creator Mickey Fisher were joined by show star Halle Berry to talk about the story they’re telling in this 13-episode season, how this show came together, that the movie Gravity was their benchmark for the space scenes, what flying in zero gravity is really like, how much the pregnancy will fit into the storyline, what makes us human, and just how open-ended this series is. Check out what they had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
GREG WALKER: Extant centers on the story of Molly Woods, who is an astronaut and scientist that’s just returned from a 13-month solo mission in space. It’s set in the not-so-distant future. She returns with startling news, and has to react to this extraordinary circumstance of having brought back an unexpected visitor. And she also has a family at home that includes her husband, John, who is a humanic designer. Humanic is an android of the future – the first robot child who will be integrated and mainstreamed into the world, using the philosophy that what will make machines and robots more human and ultimately give them a human experience. So, we have a woman returning to her family, faced with this extraordinary circumstance of bringing back an unintended visitor and having basically two children to deal with, the one inside her and the one that she’s been raising, who is this humanic. And the story is set against a backdrop of international paranoia and conspiracy. It ultimately tells the story about how this family struggles and how Molly Woods struggles to keep this family extant, meaning not extinct.
How did this show come about?
MICKEY FISHER: When I started writing I was challenging myself. Like a lot of male writers, I short-changed a lot of my female characters, over the years. Out of a desire to write someone who is complex and interesting and faced with an extraordinary situation, I set out to write this and it ultimately became a story about this family, at the center. And it’s also a story about what is human and what makes us human. Hopefully, it’s something that a lot of us relate to today, with the fears and paranoia around technology, and where we’re headed in the future, how we survive and retain what is the best of us, faced with the struggles we are going to have over the next decades or centuries, and how we stay alive. So, it really was born under that. And I hope that it’s exciting and something that’s relatable to everybody.
WALKER: I think what I responded to in Mickey’s writing and what ultimately drew in Mr. Spielberg was this idea of the essential human question at the center of this, with what makes us human? Can machines be human and do the things that exist outside, in the world? Do they want to come here? What are they looking for? Are they looking for that thing that essentially defines us as humans? The genius in Mickey’s writing was to really center a story that deals with a lot of familiar themes and areas, rooted in a family story about one woman and one family’s struggle to survive, seen in not a dystopia or not a utopia, but in a reality that we all can imagine the future to be. It’s not skewed one way or the other, but really skewed towards survival.
FISHER: I did the thing that they always tell you to do, as a writer, and wrote the show that I would want to watch. It’s one of the easiest things to forget to do because you second-guess yourself, or you are following a trend. I feel that some of the best writing in the world is on television right now. I’ve been watching so many great shows. So, when I came out here three years ago, to try to break in, I sat down and looked at some of my favorite shows. I pulled them apart and almost looked at them like an engine. Once I felt like I learned the structure, I wrote one that was a practice pilot. And then, I sat down and said, “What is the story that I would tune into, week after week after week? What’s the one that I’m dying to watch?” So, I sat down to write that, and this idea was born. I came to through performing in musical theater. I went to school to be a musical theater actor, so I did a lot of work in the theater, and I was writing a lot of theater. It started off as a one-person show, with one set and projections. And then, the second thing that I came up with was the idea of this character meeting this person from her past, and then coming home and finding out that she’s pregnant. I realized that I couldn’t contain it there and it couldn’t be a movie. It had to be told over 13 hours. That’s really where it started.
Halle, what was it about this show that drew you to it? As a mother, did you find yourself really relating to the character?
HALLE BERRY: There were so many elements that drew me to it, but probably the first one was being a mother. This was a character, when I first read it, that was so relatable to me. I felt like it was just in my DNA. I had a knowingness about this character and a fundamental understanding. While I’m not an astronaut or scientist – far, far from it – I still had an understanding about the human quality of this woman and her struggle to not only find time for herself, which is what she loves to do, but also to be a good mother. That’s the struggle that I have struggled with since my kids were born. So, that drew me to her. She’s also strong. She’s complicated, and I’m complicated. But, she has a will to survive and to win. She’s good at her heart. I love playing strong, complicated characters who refuse to be victimized, and that’s what our Molly is.
And then, when Steven Spielberg came along, you don’t really sneeze at a name like that. I know the quality of his work, and I know that he loves this genre. These supernatural stories are right in his wheelhouse. For me, I feel like the best writing now is on television. That’s been a real reality that all actors have been talking about, for years now. There was always a stigma with going to television. People used to say, “If you do movies, you can’t do television,” but that line is becoming very grey. What’s important now, with the way the industry is evolving, is that we go where the good material is.
If you are an artist, you just want to do good work that inspires you, that ignites you, and that makes you want to wake up in the morning and go to work, and that’s what this series and this character has done for me. And the fact that the studio did me a real solid and did this show in Los Angeles, so that I don’t have to leave my family was another reason to do it. I really want to be home and be a hands-on mom, and I get to stay in town and work now, and not be a gypsy and travel all over.
For the scenes on the space station in zero gravity, how close to the movie Gravity can you get? How challenging is it to tell this story on a TV budget?
BERRY: We get pretty doggone close to doing something that is on par with any film you’ll ever see. I like to say that Gravity was our benchmark, and I think we tried very hard to hit that mark the best that we could. I think our space looks as good. I think our spaceship looks as good. There was no expense spared. CBS was very invested in making this show look really good, and they have put a lot of money into making that a reality for us. We have a lot of support from the network to keep turning out show after show that will be of feature film quality.
What was the process like, for performing in the space scenes?
BERRY: Well, luckily, because I had been Storm (in the X-Men movies), I was used to flying. I’ve done a lot of wire work and had a lot of experience, that way. So, putting on that harness and those wires just seemed like something that I was used to doing. And I did actually take a real zero G flight, so I have really experienced being weightless and understanding what that is. That sense memory certainly helps me be able to assimilate being in a weightless environment.
WALKER: I want to add also that in Mickey’s script there was originally no zero G. Steven Spielberg read it and really pushed us to put zero G in, in a big way. The effects work is extraordinary. Halle is a natural. We shot the zero G stuff over three days, in a way that was beautiful to watch. It was like watching ballet, the way that they work with the wires and the way that they flew Halle through space. She did it effortlessly.
How did you handle the zero G flight experience? Did you have control of your own body?
BERRY: Yes, that was pretty amazing, actually. And the first time I felt the sense of weightlessness, I was surprised that it took very little energy for me to move. You just lift off the ground. And what also surprised me was that, when you go upside down, because there’s no gravity, you have no sense of being upside down. You feel exactly the same when you are upside down, as when you are right side up. You start to lose sense of what is upside down and right side up. It was a very freeing experience. I can really understand why astronauts love to go up there and love to live in that medium. It’s as close to being a bird and having that kind of freedom. But I also have to say that, after 15 times of going up and down, I did vomit. My body was done dealing. But, it wasn’t as bad as this one guy who started to vomit after the first up and down. He was five shades of purple when we landed. He just hurled the entire time. I felt so bad for him. But, it got most of us, in the end.
Aside from flying in zero gravity, what else did you do to prepare for this role?
BERRY: We have some consultants on our show, and I spent time talking to one of the consultants. She was a female astronaut who gave me some information about the psychology of going on a space mission, what that entails, and the training that they have to go through. We took a trip to NASA with Allen Coulter, the director of the pilot, and we picked their brains there. Doing the zero G gravity flight helped me an awful lot, just to put that experience in my body. I’ve watched tons of videos of space travel and space flight. It’s been about putting some of that scientific information in our heads. But at the core, at the end of the day, this is really a human story about people. The fact that she’s a scientist becomes a little bit irrelevant, pretty fast. That’s what she does as a job. John is a scientist. It’s about a husband and wife trying to live together. It’s about a woman trying to be a mother and raise a child. It’s about trying to answer some tough questions for herself and her family. So, all of that stuff is important. I also broke this down like I do with any other character that I break down. It’s about finding the heart of what’s making this woman tick and why she is doing what she’s doing. What’s driving her? What does she care about? It’s all of the things that go into creating any character, really.
Halle, what can you say about your character’s journey in the first season? Is she pregnant, the whole time? At what point after your own pregnancy did you have to be pregnant again?
WALKER: We pitched the story to Halle when she was eight and a half months pregnant. We were sitting at her house, and I was pitching stories about all these terrible, horrible things that could happen. I was looking down at this stomach and thinking, “Can she handle it?” But, she handled it quite well.
BERRY: First of all, I love being pregnant. I was the happiest in my life, when I have been pregnant, truly. So, to be pregnant again on a show, right after giving birth, didn’t scare me, at all. I know how to be pregnant and I thought, “I’m going to ace that part of this, for sure.
WALKER: It’s safe to say that we don’t watch 13 episodes of Molly being pregnant. Some startling and strange things happen, during that pregnancy, that drive her down a really curious and odd path, as a character.
Halle, what do you think it is that makes us human?
BERRY: Well, I don’t think there’s one thing that makes us human. That’s what this series is all about. We are discovering that, as we are portraying these characters and telling this story. One of the questions that the series poses is, can this robot become human? Can we teach it to become human? Can we teach it to love? Can we give it free will? Will it act as human beings act, over time? And can we, as human, love that it is not real? These are all the questions that we are asking. So, if you ask me what it is to be human, I don’t have one answer for that. What intrigued me about this series is to try to discover the answer to that. Can we teach someone to be human? Hopefully, by the time we finish this series, we might have a better answer. We might be able to intelligently talk about it. I think that’s what is exciting all of us, right now. We are discovering. We are asking ourselves those questions. If you believe that love is what makes you human, then that beckons the question, will the robot ever be able to really love? Will he be able to love his parents?
Do your own kids constantly do things that remind you of just how human they are?
BERRY: My kids do things, daily. My daughter had a nightmare. She was dreaming, and in the middle of the night, she got into my bed, on Mother’s Day. She got into my bed because she woke up in the middle of the night saying, “Mommy, no!” I tapped on her and said, “Honey, what is it? I think you are having a nightmare.” She never opened her eyes, but she said, “Mommy, there are two cupcakes. There’s a purple one and a pink one. You are eating the pink one, and you know I want it. Mommy, no!” And in that moment, I realized that she was having a nightmare that was so important to her, but I was relieved because it was about cupcakes.
Are you a sci-fi fan?
BERRY: I do like a fair bit of science fiction. I was a big ET fan. That is my version of science fiction. That’s why, when I heard that Steven Spielberg was involved, I was really excited. That’s the kind of science fiction I really like because it has a lot of heart, but is supernatural. That hooked me.
How much of the story is about the pregnancy and how much is about the AI, and how much does it overlap?
WALKER: In terms of the mix of the story, there is a thriller element to our show, there’s a family element to our show, and there’s a science fiction and AI element to our show. There is a real threat coming in the story, that Molly has brought back and that she personally has to deal with because it imperils her family. That’s the heavy foot on the accelerator, all the way through. As we get to know that family better and connect with them more, you will see how they are essentially imperiled by what she brought back and by other people who want that thing to be here. So, that’s the larger story that we’re telling. It’s this larger conspiracy about people trying to foster this alien intelligence, if you will.
Is Ethan designed to remain a child forever, or do they change him out, every couple of years?
WALKER: He is designed to be in a two or three year stage, with each body. As the AI progresses to the point where it gets to the level of maturity, as the human experience evolves, he’s ready to get to the next three-year stage. You will see John in the lab, building prototype bodies for that. Basically, the computer will move in the body, as is appropriate for the age.
Halle, as a mom of two, can you even contemplate falling in love with a robot child?
BERRY: My character, Molly, struggles with that, which is why I so related to Molly, when I first read the story. Having two children who are so very human and help me get in touch with my humanity, on a daily basis, makes me struggle with whether a robot would evoke the same kinds of feelings from me. Would I really be able to love a machine? Those are the questions I ask myself, and that Molly is asking herself in this show.
Does this show have something of a Rosemary’s Baby vibe to it?
BERRY: It’s funny you should say that. That is an element to our show. It won’t be the entire element of our show, but there is a period that we’re going to go through, where it will have elements of Rosemary’s Baby because she’s having it with something that is unknown. It is for us to decide, throughout the series, what this entity is, what it wants, will it stay here, is it really her baby, is it just an offspring, and what is it really. These are questions that we are asking.
What’s it like to work with an eight-year-old child, playing a robot, and introducing him to all of these very adult concepts? Do you have any special teaching methods for him, to make him understand the context?
WALKER: Well, as a father of boys that are nine and 11, I insist that our main goal is that we deliver him out of our process like we received him. He’s treated very much as a kid, on set. To that end, though, to be honest, he’s working with a bunch of adults, so he’s taught, every day. He has school, every day, like any other kid. There are industry rules about that. But in terms of his experience and being able to absorb the concepts, we are talking about a remarkably intelligent young boy, so much so that, at one point, he wanted his character to ride a bike. We had thought about it, but it wasn’t a major story point for us. But as a dad I said, “Okay, if you want to ride a bike, you have to do a book report on what bikes would look like in the future.” So, I assigned him this book report, and I was thinking that I would never hear from him again. And then, a week later, he said, “I’m ready to present the report.”
Not only did he have something ready, but he came up to the writers’ room, where he presented it to all of the writers. He had a huge chart that he’d made, that was a poster board with illustrations of the history of bicycles, and what an AI bike would look like. He totally sold us on this idea of what would be a great bike, and what would be perfect for his character. He came up with the storyline himself. He’s not getting writing credit. Let’s be real. But, he did come up with some tremendous ideas. That just is an example, in a nutshell, of who this boy is and how we don’t need to pull him forward. We need to restrain his experience because he’s moving so fast. We are telling a lot of parenting stories because they work in a parable way. This idea of a child moving faster than you are comfortable with, and eclipsing the boundaries that you set as your vision of him, really works with the computer, as well.
BERRY: From my point of view, he also has a great mother that’s on the set with him, every day. She’s grounded, she’s smart, she’s aware of the pitfalls and dangers, and she’s very instrumental in making sure that he stays right on track, where she should be. She protects him. She makes sure that he stays grounded, in the midst of this world that he’s been plummeted into. I think she’s a key element to him being healthy when he leaves the show, and staying healthy through the process, too.
How open or closed-ended is this series?
WALKER: That’s a good question. The stakes are global. One of the great things that CBS has really encouraged us to do is to create this as a summer blockbuster series, and we all know that summer blockbusters always have sequels. We love sequels, and we love the idea of Season 2 being a sequel for this. We have a lot invested. The threat that we establish in Season 1, from beyond and from within, will continue, in a huge way, in Season 2.
FISHER: That’s one of the things that I was excited about creating. What I feel like we’ve done is create a world where we can tell all kinds of stories. With artificial intelligence and the arrival of this other extraterrestrial being, how do we adapt and survive? It is such rich territory. A lot of people have done it before, but centering around this family gives us long-term. How does the world change around them? How do they impact the world?
WALKER: We have an extraordinary cast, with Halle, Goran, Pierce Gagnon, Camryn Manheim, Grace Gummer, and the list goes on. It’s funny, we keep a board in the writers’ room of each cast member that comes up. It started with five, and now it’s got 17. Every time we add somebody, we think of a story for them. It’s a really fun medium to work in, weaving these characters and stories into this larger plot and emotional fabric.
Extant premieres on CBS on July 9th.