Jeanine Mason on ‘Roswell, New Mexico’ and the Importance of the Immigrant Storyline

     January 23, 2019

roswell-new-mexico-jeanine-mason-interviewFrom show creator Carina Adly MacKenzie, the new CW series Roswell, New Mexico tells the story of what happens when Liz Ortecho (Jeanine Mason) returns to the town she grew up in, 10 years after the death of her beloved older sister, only to find that her teenage crush, Max Evans (Nathan Parsons), is now a police officer with secrets of his own. When Liz finds herself in a situation where Max reveals to her that he, his sister Isobel (Lily Cowles) and their friend Michael (Michael Vlamis) are actually aliens with otherworldly abilities that they’ve had to keep hidden, the ever-present threat of a government conspiracy could endanger all of their lives.

During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actress Jeanine Mason talked about what excited her about this series, what she loves about Liz Ortecho, how important the immigrant element of the storyline is to her, the relationship between Max and Liz being at the heart of the show, shooting one of the series’ most iconic moments, the murder mystery element, how she thinks fans might react to where things go, by the end of the season, and the hints they’re dropping along the way.

roswell-new-mexico-jeanine-mason-interviewCollider: I’ve seen the original series, so I was very interested to see how this series would handle and change the material. I was excited because I think aging the characters really makes the show feel so much different, right from the beginning.

JEANINE MASON: Right? I thought that was really a smart device, too. The original series was wonderful, in the way that Shiri [Appleby] and Jason [Behr] worked together. It was that gorgeous, untouched naivete, and overwhelming love for each other, like when you’re young and you just feel like it takes over your whole body. It was fun to think about, what if we tried to approach being an adult and the stuff that’s complicated are your responsibilities and the weight of the world, and your identity and who you believe yourself to be, and then that’s totally put into question when you meet someone that’s as strong and powerful for you, as Max and Liz are for each other.

When the possibility of this series came your way and you hadn’t read it yet, what was your initial reaction? Were you one of those people that were like, “Why are they remaking another show?,” or did you want to wait until you read the script before making any judgment on that?

MASON: To be honest, pilot season was just madness. We were shooting Grey’s Anatomy, and was trying to rally myself and as was my team to pick something that we were really pumped about, and prioritize that project above the other options that I was going in to audition for. So, when I got the email for Roswell, I was walking into a meeting. I open up the sides first and just read the character, and then I do more digging. I fell in love with Liz off of the sides, and then I realized all of the particulars of the project – that it was a reboot, that it was on The CW, and that WB was behind it. That was exciting to me because I’ve worked with WB before and had a great experience with them. And I knew that Julie Plec was involved, and she’s a showrunner that I’ve always wanted to work with. After coming off of like a year with Shondaland (Shonda Rhimes’ company), it was exciting for me to get to work with her and her whole community at The CW. So, I really fell in love with the character first. It was the words. She felt like she was a bold and ignited woman, and an activist, and she was saying things that made me excited and that I wanted to get behind. I was like, “Hell, yeah, let’s do this one!”

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Image via The CW

At the same time, The CW is a network that keeps their shows on the air for a long time sometimes. Did you need to take a minute before deciding to sign on to play a character that you could be playing for a number of years, or is the stability of knowing what you’re going to be doing, as an actor, part of the appeal?

MASON: I feel like, in the last couple years, I’ve done a lot of pilots. I’m one of those actors where you’re surprised by how many credits they have. This is my seventh network pilot, but only the second one to get picked up, so I am quite used to signing my life away. I’m like, “What are the odds of it actually happening to me?” So, with this one, I was very lucky that I just fell in love with Santa Fe and being in New Mexico. I’m lucky to be in such a wonderful little pocket of the world. But, I had no questions because I love Liz. She’s such an intelligent woman. She’s a scientist. She’s insatiably curious, and so capable. Her ability with what she’s able to do with her work rivals Max’s inhuman ability. It excites me to think about where her progress and her brain power can take her, for potentially seven seasons. For that reason, it’s just such a blessing to get to be number one of a show. I have never done it before. It’s a small little community, and I’ve been so fortunate to be friends with people who have led shows. They were the first calls that I made to say, “What do I need to know? How can I take care of myself, and my cast and crew, and just be a good leader?” That all seemed like such a fun challenge for me. What other job could I have asked for, where I think there’s gonna be so much learning to do? And there definitely was, in Season 1.

You’ve talked about how you liked Liz, from the very beginning, but what have you grown to like and appreciate about her, as you’ve played her?

MASON: In never having led a show, I didn’t really realize that meant I am the protagonist and that I am heroic, inherently, in the structure of the story. So, Liz is always the person who does the thing that makes you, as the audience member, go, “I wonder whether, in that same situation, if I would be that brave, or I would be that selfless or empathic?” The ways in which she rises above, in moments, was interesting to me. I’m used to being a guest star actor, so I lean into the way that I, Jeanine, would react. But Liz finds a way to go, “I’m gonna connect to the part of me that I will be proud of, two weeks out of the feelings that are impulsive right now.”

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Image via The CW

How important is it to you that this is a series that’s also exploring what it means to be an immigrant in today’s world?

MASON: It’s been the most rewarding part of the job for me because it really put me to task, in educating myself in something that I’ve always been passionate about. What I love about this job is that you get a gig, and then suddenly you’re asked to become an expert, and it was such a challenge for me to dig deep into that work. We really pooled our resources, as a show, and worked with an organization called Define American, which I love. They also worked with the writers’ room on Grey’s Anatomy because my character on that show was undocumented. It’s just been a really beautiful gift from the universe to work on two characters, back to back, one of which is undocumented, and the other lives with the fear of losing her father, in particular, who’s undocumented. Define American works with media, whether it’s journalists or TV shows, or whatever it might be, as a resource for the accurate portrayal of the undocumented experience. I love their work. I think it is such an important part of the non-profit sector, to be supporting culture and representing it in a way that is socially conscious and accurate. It’s lovely to support causes that need research, or are going to make loved ones who are battling something comfortable, but it really excited me to know that there’s an organization that is working to just make sure we are seeing ourselves accurately.” I think that has been the most powerful for me, in my life, growing up watching TV and meeting people who are different from me, and opening up my heart to something that I might otherwise feel like is too other for me to understand.

Obviously, Max has spent a lot more time thinking about his feelings for Liz than Liz has spent thinking about her feelings for him. What can you say about that relationship between the two of them, especially with it being so much at the heart of the show, and how will that evolve, over the season?

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Image via The CW

MASON: The thing that really attracted me to Liz, off the top, is that she feels to me like a very jaded Lorelai Gilmore. She’s a fast-talking, whip smart scientist, but life as been tough, and it has put her through the ringer. She’s built up some high walls around her heart because she’s been shafted and abandoned. We start to unveil a little bit more about her relationship with her mom and how being abandoned by her has shaped Liz’s life, so she’s not a candidate for an open heart, and throwing herself into a vulnerable situation and falling deeply in love, right now. That was so exciting to me because Nathan Dean Parsons, plays a Max that is so open and so certain while Liz is so complicated. That dynamic was so exciting to me to navigate, with her catching up to his steadiness. I think it’s beautifully tracked in Season 1. We worked our butts off, and it takes a minute before it starts getting good. There were a string of episodes where we were like, “Why can’t they just work?”

The whole alien thing would make any relationship difficult.

MASON: Yeah, it’s a complication.

How will Liz knowing about their secret add to the tension between her and Isobel (Lily Cowles) and Michael (Michael Vlamis)? Will they ever be able to get to a place where they could also see her an an ally?

MASON: That’s the really fun set-up this season. It’s a show about otherness, and Liz is a champion for otherness. She has experienced that with her family being undocumented, and the circumstances surrounding her sister’s death has really alienated her from everybody. She is a protector by nature, and she’s probably the most capable person because she’s so intelligent, but it’s whether they want anything to do with her. It will have to get to a point where they’re in so need of a protector that they’ll have to figure out whether they can make it work, so it will be interesting.

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Image via The CW

One of the most iconic moments in this story, which was also in the original series, is the moment in the diner when Max makes the decision to save Liz and, as a result, turns their worlds upside down and leaves a handprint on her. What was that scene like to shoot, especially knowing that it’s such an important part of their story?

MASON: Oh, absolutely! I was grateful to our writers because I think they quite brilliantly put in quite a bit of things that would lighten the scene up and make it an opportunity for us to showcase our versions of Liz and Max. The scene opens with me dancing at the jukebox, and it’s just such a little peak behind the curtain moment, where she’s completely comfortable and her defenses are down, as much as they could possible be for Liz Ortecho, at that point. I thought they crafted it in a way where you’re hopefully on our side and playing along with us trying to play it cool. It was one of those things where you just have to honor the page. I’m an actor that just loves the words. The words are the bible. Instead of thinking about what it needs to be, or putting any stresses or expectations on that, I thought, “Let’s just do what’s on the page and elevate it, as much as we can.” I think it’s just such a well-written pilot. That scene was a pleasure to do, and I think it works. I hope people think it works because it was so fun to shoot. There were so many moving parts. It was like a full day, shooting that whole sequence.

There’s also the mystery element of the series, with her sister and what happened to her sister. How challenging is that for Liz to deal with, especially as she learns about Max’s connection to all of that?

MASON: Rosa, for Liz, was her whole world. She was her big sister, and I have a big sister. I have a younger sister, too. I understand the dynamic of your idol that you grow up with. She has such a strong feeling in her gut that she is being lied to and that the story she’s been told on the circumstances surrounding her sister’s death aren’t true. I love that about her. I love how, even after 10 years of having lost her sister, she still takes such strong care of her. And as soon as she is back in town, that question of, “Is there more to explore here?,” is something that’s been in the back of her head for 10 years and she’s on the trail. It’s just a really beautiful story about family. There’s Max and this trio of aliens, and how they take care of each other. There’s also the quartet of Liz and her sister and their parents, and how they take care of each other. It propels the story in such a dark and heartbreaking way. It’s what we’re able to keep Liz and Max apart with. There’s this epic small town romance, but with such a strong murder mystery at the spine of it, and it’s all propelled by love.

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Image via The CW

You’ve finished shooting the season now, so you know the answers to the questions that we’ll learn, by the end of the season. What was your reaction when you found out where things would ultimately end up this season, and how do you think fans will react to learning those answers?

MASON: I’m not exaggerating when I say, as silly as it might sound, that my jaw dropped when our showrunner, Carina Adly MacKenzie, told me what the end of the season was gonna be. I don’t think anyone is gonna see it coming. I don’t wanna ruin it, but there was this scene that we shot, where I’ve never had that much fun at work before. They were such daunting scenes to tackle, with heart out on the table, absolute shock. It was amazing! I think it’s well worth sticking around for the ride because I really think the end of the season is just going to floor people.

Your showrunner, Carina Adly MacKenzie, told me that, having been a journalist and covering shows where she could see that the showrunner didn’t necessarily have a long-term plan, she thought it was necessary to come up with a five-year plan, so that she knows where the show is going. Have you been clued into any of that? Do you feel like you have a sense of what Season 2 would be, or are you anxiously waiting to find out where things are headed next?

MASON: Carina has been very gracious, and she’s clued me in a bit. There are always gonna be surprises, which I honestly love. I will say that, if viewers are paying close enough attention, we drop a lot of hints and we lay a lot of groundwork, early on. It’s pretty impressive. I think it’s pretty next level, in that regard. It’s pretty great.

Roswell, New Mexico airs on Tuesday nights on The CW.

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