The NBC drama series Manifest tells the story of what happened to the passengers and crew of Montego Air Flight 828, after they survive a very turbulent flight, but land safely, only to find out that more than five years have passed and their families, friends and colleagues have all aged, in that time. They quickly realize that they’ve all been given a second chance, but the mystery of why and how has no easy answers.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Josh Dallas (who plays intelligence analyst and family man Ben Stone) talked about why Manifest was so appealing to him, playing a normal but flawed human, why he doesn’t want all of the answers to the bigger mysteries, the OMG moments in every episode, whether he’d ever take a voucher for another flight himself, the family dynamic, the relationship between Ben and his sister Michaela (Melissa Roxburgh), and how he’d react, if he found himself in a similar situation. Be aware that there are some spoilers discussed.
Collider: I really like how this pilot sets up so much that there’s really so much there to explore, going forward. For an actor, is that part of the appeal?
JOSH DALLAS: You’re absolutely right about that, there is so much to explore, going forward, with what this world is now for these characters and trying to figure out the mystery of what happened to them, as well as trying to claw themselves back into their normal lives, if that even exists and if they can do that.
How did you come to this? Had you been reading a lot of pilot scripts because you were looking to jump into something new, after the ending of Once Upon a Time, or was it a situation where you weren’t necessarily pursuing anything, but couldn’t say no to a script like this?
DALLAS: It was a bit of both, really. I love television and that kind of storytelling format, and I couldn’t wait to get back into something. After Once Upon a Time, I wanted to take a little time and have a little bit of space, to rest and shake it off and find something new. I was reading a lot of different pilots for this season and I came across Manifest, and I knew that I was in, from the moment that they got on that plane. And then, when they landed 5 ½ years later, I knew that it was something that I wanted to be a part of, and I wanted to play Ben. He was a character that jumped out at me because he’s so different, in many ways, from my character on Once Upon a Time. He’s a normal human. He’s very flawed and very complex, and he’s trying to work through that.
We meet Ben at a very stressful, dark time in his life, where his son Cal has been diagnosed with this terminal illness. He really deep dives into these tunnels of trying to fix things, much to his detriment, and when he puts those blinders on, the rest of the world falls away around him, meaning his relationships with his wife and his daughter. When he comes back, he’s got a second chance at trying to get things right with them. Of course, life has moved on for these people. His daughter is now a teenager, and he’s missed out on 5 ½ years of her life. Another mystery that we’ll try to solve is about how all of these 191 passengers on this plane are all connected. They’re all connected in ways that will surprise you, and in ways that the characters weren’t even aware of. For some reason, these characters have been chosen to bear witness to this event that’s happened to them, and gonna be Ben’s mission to figure out what that is.
When you’re a part of a show where technically there’s an ensemble of over 200 people, with everybody on the flight and everybody they’re connected to, are you hoping that your character will get to at least cross paths with a good chunk of those people?
DALLAS: Absolutely, and that will absolutely be the case. All of these characters will be connected to Ben and Michaela, or Cal, in some kind of way. They’re all connected. As we go forward, that’s just gonna make this landscape even richer, and it will fill out the story and mystery even more.
Your showrunner, Jeff Rake, has said that he has a six-year plan for the show, but I would imagine you’ve not given been given all, or even very much, of that information when you signed on to do this. How much were you actually told and what did you know, going into this, as far as the answers to those big mystery questions?
DALLAS: From the beginning, before I even signed on, I told Jeff that I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to know what the mystery was because I wanted to discover it along with Ben and the audience, as we go along. I’m a little ahead of you because we’re a few episodes ahead in the season, but I’m still discovering it, as I get each script, which is part of the fun. I don’t think it’s always necessary, but for this project and for me, in particular, I didn’t want to know anything. I’m gonna to get the WTF moments and the OMG moments along with all of you guys.
How often does that happen? Do you get those moments with every script?
DALLAS: Yes. Every episode, there is some OMG moment that propels us forward. Another thing that I love about it is that it’s a story that’s constantly in motion. We’re constantly moving forward. Ben never goes back to where he began, at the beginning of an episode. It’s always moving forward. Every character moves forward and is changed, in some sort of way that keeps moving us forward to this eventual end, hopefully, six or 10 years from now.
Part of why the pilot made an impact on me when I watched it is that I’m pretty terrified of flying, and I’m really not a fan of turbulence, at all, so the whole scene on the plane totally freaked me out. How do you feel about flying?
DALLAS: I’ve always loved flying before, and I still love flying. I still fly a lot. But now, every time I get on a plane – and this is no joke – I think about it. I think about it, every time I get on a flight. I also think I am never, ever gonna take a voucher for anything. Don’t do it! It’s an amazing and extraordinary idea, that you can come back 5 ½ years later and no time has passed for you. What would you do, if you were presented with that and presented with a second chance with this interrupted life of yours? It’s a second chance to do something. What choices would you make? Would you make the same choices that you made before? Would you make different choices? If you could, would you try to get that same life back, or would you try to change it? One of the overall themes of Manifest is the idea of second chances and about how the choices you make define the character that you are. I also think it’s about hope.
When you spend so much time on a show, like you did with Once Upon a Time, and you’re so used to seeing those same people every day, did you have a moment, starting out on this show, where you were looking at all of these new faces and it just felt strange and surreal that you were surrounded by this whole new ensemble of actors?
DALLAS: Oh, absolutely! It was definitely a first day of school kind of feeling, with all new people. But as much as I loved and am so grateful for that cast of Once Upon a Time, and those people that I spent every day around for six years, and I love and miss them so much, our Manifest cast became a family very, very quickly. Everybody is fantastic and up for telling a story. It’s great to be in my new family, as well.
This family dynamic is so interesting because we get to see this father have a new chance with his son, but then he also had no idea how to deal with now teenaged daughter or his wife, who has not told him yet that she’s moved on. How will that progress? Will we start to see those issues really start to become apparent?
DALLAS: Yeah, you’ll see it start playing out immediately, from the second episode. It’s so complicated and so complex. Like all family dynamics, we have this added event that’s happened to them, that makes it all even more complicated. It’s not like someone went off and had an affair. We were gone for 5 ½ years, and that’s enough time for people to start to move on with their lives. For Ben and Michaela, no time has passed. It’s just been a couple of hours. So, even though we come back and we find that life has changed completely, there’s no blame. Ben can’t blame Grace for it. It makes it all very complicated and very messy. Ben has decisions to make. He’s trying to get his wife back, in some way, but ti’s proving to be very difficult. That’s all I’m gonna say. And then, on top of all of that, we have the mystery behind whatever happened to them on that plane and the things that are happening to them now. Michaela is hearing things. Ben is hearing things. We’re not only hearing voices, but we have impulses. Sometimes it’s voices, but sometimes it’s feelings. These things are callings that are pushing us to do things. Sometimes they’re good, and sometimes they might not be so good. There’s a really fine line that Ben has to walk, in trying to navigate his life now. It’s very complicated and messy.
Michaela and Ben are hearing these voices and they’re doing things, as a result, and it seems like they’re pretty calm and accepting of it all, especially because they’re really just hearing their own voice in their head, telling them to do stuff. Will the motives behind those voices and impulses start to become a little bit more questionable?
DALLAS: Absolutely! From the second episode, you’ll see that Ben is not trusting of these voices. He’s not trusting of this whole idea that it’s something spiritual, or that we’re being called to do something. He’s a mathematician and he thinks scientifically, so he believes that there’s a reason for this and a scientific explanation for what’s happening to them. As we go forward, you will see Ben really not trusting these impulses that are happening to him. Maybe he’ll get swayed and change, but you’ll have to keep watching to see.
Your character is the one who is more skeptic and wants to find a scientific explanation for things. If you experienced something like this, do you feel like your own reaction would mirror his, or do you think you’d be more accepting, like Michaela is?