The ABC summer drama series Reef Break follows Cat Chambers (Poppy Montgomery), a former thief who’s now helping the governor to solve crimes and catch criminals on the Pacific Island paradise known as The Reef. Not entirely reformed, Cat is as impulsive and reckless as she is effective, which essentially makes her the thorn in everyone’s side, whether it’s her ex, FBI Agent Jake Elliot (Ray Stevenson), her current fling, Detective Wyatt Cole (Desmond Chiam), or just about anyone else on the island.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, from the Australian set where the show is located, actress/executive producer Poppy Montgomery talked about how this show came about and evolved into what it is now, what she learned from Without A Trace and Unforgettable that she applied to Reef Break, the biggest production challenges in pulling this show off, why she’s more freaked out by scenes in the rainforest than the ocean, playing a professional surfer, what makes Cat Chambers such a fun character, casting the show, already thinking ahead to a possible Season 2, and how she’d like to continue to develop various projects.
Collider: This show is exactly what you want out of a summer drama, with beautiful people and beautiful scenery, and it’s a fun, fresh take on the crime genre. How did this all start? You’re an executive producer on the show and it was developed around your idea, but how did it all come about?
POPPY MONTGOMERY: I wanted to live that beach lifestyle, so I was like, “How do I incorporate my job with everything that I really want to do?,” which was to be on the beach, surf, ride a jet ski, and do a show that was fun, and not super dark. I’ve gotten to the point where I feel like the world is pretty dark and so many weird things are going on, politically, that I wanted to do a show that was fun to act in and fun to watch. It really came about because I have an audience in that genre of procedural shows, so I took the idea to M6 in France ‘cause my shows, Without A Trace and Unforgettable were really, really popular there. I was like, “Hey, I’ve got this idea to do a twist on one of those shows. It’s the Magnum PI and Baywatch meets Hawaii 5-0 version, with a girl surfing and doing what the guys normally do. ABC International and M6 were my first partners, and that’s where it started. And then, we found a writer and then the rest is history, and we went from there.
It’s really cool that you can have an idea, and then actually make it happen.
MONTGOMERY: Thank you! I’m still in shock ‘cause I thought we would just be six or 10 episodes for the foreign market, to start. But then, ABC Network read the script and it was like this magical fairy godmother gave us 13 episodes, straight to air. That was pretty amazing and unexpected.
You’ve certainly had a lot of success on television. What did you learn from those past experiences that you applied to this show? Were there things that you knew you did and didn’t want to do, from things you had learned on other shows that you’ve been a part of?
MONTGOMERY: Yeah. I knew, for sure, that I did not want to play a cop. I was like, “I am a criminal. Everybody, I need you to understand, my character is a criminal and a surfer and she sleeps around. I want everybody to be clear about that. And she doesn’t apologize for it. She’s a rascal, and she likes it.” That was the first thing. I didn’t want her to accidentally become too cop like and conscientious. I learned that because I’ve done that a lot. I understood how brutal the workdays are. It’s four o’clock in the morning here, and after you and I talk, I go straight to set and we’ll probably film until eight or nine tonight, but I’m prepared for that because I’ve had such good training on the other shows. Every show is so different. We’re shooting out on the water so much. None of that stuff is green screen. It’s all done in the open ocean. This show has a lot of other factors that are really exciting, that I’ve never experienced before because you cannot control the ocean. A soundstage is easy, but once you get out there on boats and jet skis, when some random giant waves or a storm rolls in, you’re just in it. It’s exciting. It’s a mix of what I know, and a lot of learning, as well.
What are the biggest production challenges, with pulling a show like this off?
MONTGOMERY: We’re in Australia, in Queensland, and we have a crew that is so amazing. They know how to do this stuff, thank god. They’re all water babies here. They grew up on the beach and they’re surfers. Our stunt team is insanely talented. They’re big wave surfers. My stunt double is a mom of an eight-month-old, and she skateboards and surfs, and she’s a bad-ass, in every way, so that really helps. They’re not even production problems, but filming on the water and not in a tank, on the open ocean on boats and jet skis, you’re really at the mercy of nature. You don’t really get to say, “Hey, can we brighten that light up, or push those class away, or turn off that torrential rainstorm that we’re trying to shoot around?” That’s been the magic of it. We have to let go and just roll with whatever comes our way because we’re at the mercy of the elements.
When you’re doing scenes out there in the middle of the ocean, does it ever get scary, or is it something that just never stops being cool?
MONTGOMERY: It never stops being cool for me. The rainforest gets scary for me. When I see a spider as big as my hand, crawling along the ground, and everyone here is like, “Don’t worry , mate. You’re all right. It won’t bother you, if you don’t bother it.” I was like, “Hey ,guys, that spider really seems quite large.” The rainforest freaks me out. There are biting ants and jumping spiders. It’s absolutely insanely beautiful, but you can put me in the open ocean over that, any day. We do a lot of rainforest shoots because it’s so beautiful, and no one here is afraid of it. I’m Australian, so I should be better about it, but I’m not. With any kind of bug, I run around like a three-year-old girl and start screaming. If anything flies at me, all my bad-assery goes flying out the window and I become the biggest wuss on the planet. Even with the small ones, my son was walking around without shoes. My kids are here for summer break to visit, and my oldest, the 13-year-old, went, “I think I stepped on something. Ow!” And I looked down and there was an ant the size of my toe, called a fire ant. And the reason that it’s called a fire ant is ‘cause, when it bites you, it burns like fire. I was like, “Okay, you can’t walk barefoot up to the lighthouse, ever again.”
You personally surf, but there’s a difference between that and being a pro at it, like your character is. What are the challenges that come with pretending to be a great surfer, on camera, and are you ever disappointed that you can’t do more of the surfing, yourself?
MONTGOMERY: I’m so disappointed that I’m not a better surfer. I think part of the reason I made Cat Chambers a better surfer is because, secretly, I always wanted to be a really good surfer, and I’m not. I’m a pretty shit surfer, actually. I’m a good paddler, and I can catch a little waves, but I always wanted to be like my stunt double. It was one of my dreams to be really good, and I’m fascinated by really amazing surfers. I just think it’s one of those beautiful sports. So, I think that’s why I created Cat Chambers as a pro surfer. But for liability reasons, I’m not really allowed to do anything other than paddling. All of the really cool popping up and big surf and all of the aerials is my stunt double, who is just beyond. She’s so amazing. I couldn’t even do that stuff, if I wanted to. I hope, one day, to learn to just be a 10th as good as she is.