From executive producer Robert Zemeckis, the 10-episode History Channel drama series Project Blue Book is based on the real-life top-secret investigations into UFOs and other unexplained phenomena that were conducted by the U.S. Air Force between 1952 and 1969. Throughout the season, Dr. J. Allen Hynek (Aidan Gillen), a college professor recruited to lead an operation that researched thousands of cases that blend UFO theories with real historical events, and his investigative partner Captain Michael Quinn (Michael Malarkey) will uncover mysteries that merge science and the exploration of the unknown.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Michael Malarkey (The Vampire Diaries) talked about why Project Blue Book was exactly the type of project he was looking for, the appeal of this series, why he wanted to play this military man, the dynamic between Hynek and Quinn, working with co-star Aidan Gillen, what most shocked and surprised him about these real-life cases, the skills he had to learn for this role, and his hope that he’ll get to continue to explore this character in future seasons.
Collider: How soon after the end of The Vampire Diaries did Project Blue Book come about?
MICHAEL MALARKEY: We wrapped The Vampire Diaries in February of last year, but in between then, I’d done a few other things, too. I did two European tours with my band, and put out an EP. As far as acting stuff goes, I did two seasons of The Oath, which was shot in Puerto Rico. I did a movie, A Violent Separation. So, a lot has happened, in between The Vampire Diaries and this, but this definitely was exactly what I was looking for, for my next big project. I feel very blessed to be talking about it now.
When you come off of one show that you’ve spent a few years on, before you sign on or even consider doing another TV series, do you take more time to think about signing on to do a series again, where you could be there for a bit?
MALARKEY: Yeah, I do. It obviously depends on where it shoots. I have a family, so if I’m gonna be away a lot, I don’t want to be out in Timbuktu. It depends on the project and how passionate you are about what you’re going to do. You sometimes make sacrifices in your personal life for a project, but with this one, I brought my family with me. We were all in Vancouver together, which was really great.
How was this presented to you, when it came your way? Did you just get one script to read?
MALARKEY: They usually will send just one script, if that. Some meetings you go for, they’ll just send you the sides, and sometimes they’re even ghost sides that have seemingly nothing to do with what you’re about to do. But this was a full script, if I remember correctly. I was very unlearned about the subject matter, so it was a cool thing to start researching. I’m a fan of anything that is not as it seems, and this is a complete gold mine for that. There’s all this stuff, in the series, that is really the gift that keeps on giving. There’s the relationship drama, there’s the period drama aspect, there’s the government conspiracy, and it’s like a thriller noir, on a massive scale. I know that it’s going to appeal to anybody who has even an inkling of an open mind. Even those who don’t can still tune in and see a really incredible TV show.
Obviously, when you start on a TV series, you never know how a character is going to turn out. So, what were the initial things that you saw in this guy that made him appealing to you?
MALARKEY: One of my main goals, since doing The Vampire Diaries, is to play realistic stuff. I said that I wanted to do a realistic, gritty drama, and that even a period drama would be cool, too. So, this literally ticked a lot of the boxes for me. As far as character goes, I just instantly connected with this guy. Someone in the position that he is, dealing with all these things and having to keep a cool head, and the incredible underbelly of all that, his mind is always racing. As much as I’m a physical actor, I pride myself on being a subtle actor, and I attribute a lot of that to my training in London at drama school there. I feel like this is the first time that I’ve really had a chance to do the work that I’ve been trained to do. That’s partially to do with the size of the role. Being number two to Aidan [Gillen] is great. He has an incredible nuance to his work. We really work together very well, and he’s got this real passion for what he does. He works so hard, as do I, and meeting in the middle with two people like that, I think it shows in the product.
How would you say these two very different men feel about each other, and how much will that evolve, before the end of the season?
MALARKEY: It’s ever evolving. Their relationship is one of the best things about this show. They go in and out of trusting each other. Initially, it starts out with Quinn viewing Hynek as this egg-head science guy, and maybe even writing him off a bit and thinking, “I’ll just use this guy as a pawn for what I need to do.” Not maliciously, but it just feels like, at the get-go, he’s probably going to give them away by asking all of these questions. You see that with the scene in the diner, where he’s still hashing out what happened when I’ve already drawn my conclusions. And in the following episode, I say, “Just let me do the talking, all right?” That’s where they start, initially. Quinn’s trying to get his job done, and Hynek is trying to find the truth. Quinn’s job is to find the truth, but it’s more to close the cases. That’s the first priority, and if some truth comes out of that, then cool. Quinn is very suspicious of Hynek, at first, and I believe that Hynek is also suspicious of him and the job, in general. Why is the Air Force calling on him? But as the series progresses, you start to see them develop a respect with each other. That’s how Quinn hooks Hynek in the first job interview. He knows that I’m actually playing him a little bit, and he respects and appreciates that. They both realize that there’s maybe more there than they gave each other credit for.
These two men didn’t ask to be partnered together, and it always make an interesting dynamic when you put two people together who didn’t choose to be together.
MALARKEY: It’s like an arranged marriage.
Except with aliens. And as these two men work together, more and more, Captain Quinn also starts to question his orders and to question things, in general, since it’s hard not to question things when you’re on cases like these. At the same time, that’s not something that you typically do when you’re a military guy. So, what will that mean for him? Will that also start to create tension, as he’s trying to figure out what he believes anymore?
MALARKEY: Well, you hit the nail on the head there. That’s one of his biggest internal struggles, through the series, with the sheer amount of things that he starts to see. He also starts to see the government, or the powers above, blatantly pushing some things under the rug, where he thinks there’s merit. His main priority is to do well at what he does and to get ahead in his field. That’s a big conflict, as the series progresses and he starts to see things with Hynek that he can’t explain. They have these shared experiences and they both start to affect each other, in different ways.
Because the stories that you’re telling are based on real events and real cases, the twists and turns that this show takes show how truth really is stranger than fiction. What most surprised you about these cases and all of the research that you did, going into the series?
MALARKEY: So much. I’m still shocked and surprised at things that I’m finding out. This has started me down a dangerous rabbit hole of information. Even last night, I was watching a UFO documentary. I’ve been watching them obsessively since we wrapped. For me, a lot of it is the witness accounts, especially from people who are in high places in the government and the Air Force, and people who are retired and feel like they can actually speak out now more freely, and all of the NSA documents where you can read maybe five words. What the fuck is that about? I feel like there’s obviously a massive cover up going. I never want to portray the Air Force as the enemy because all of the research that I’ve done, and getting into the mindset of the Air Force, I completely empathize and understand the crowd control issue that they would be dealing with, especially at the time when there was the threat of nuclear war from Russia. That being said, it’s scary to think that there’s some massive thing that’s being covered up, that apparently could crack a hole into our understanding of history and human nature. There’s all of these weird theories about us being descendants of aliens, and the pyramids being something else than what we thought they were, or even having been built at a different time period than we thought. What I hope is that people will do research on their own, after watching this. I feel like I grew up very ignorant, as did much of the nation, because that’s what Blue Book intended. They intended us to sweep this under the rug and forget about it, or consider it just some sci-fi hoax about cartoon aliens.
Had you ever been curious about the possibility of other life in the universe, prior to doing this, or is this rabbit hole something that you’ve only gone down since just doing the show?
MALARKEY: Yes to both things, actually. I always have felt that there’s life outside of the earth. I feel like it’s the logical standpoint, if you think about math and science and the sheer amount of planets that we have discovered, and even have yet to discover, in our solar system, alone. We know from science that life can happen under the most extreme circumstances. For instance, these planets that we think are uninhabitable, maybe are uninhabitable by us, but who’s to say that other beings have not adapted to those conditions and been able to find a way to live, under the ground or whatever. Before going into this, I definitely felt, without question, that there is life outside of earth. Now, I’m like, “What’s going on here?” It’s a massive cover up, that’s for sure. They know a lot that we don’t know. The question is whether or not it’s right to reveal it to the masses, and if they’re ready to deal with something like that, that could potentially bewilder everybody, or whether we still need to make sure that we’re keeping people safe from anarchy by not revealing it. That is one of the biggest questions of the show, and why Blue Book was coined, in the first place.
You guys are playing characters that are based on real people. Does that change or affect how you approach the role?
MALARKEY: Yeah. Actually, the greatest thing about playing real-life people are the free character studies that you get. I played Elvis in the West End, for a year. I’ve played other real-life people, like Tennessee Williams. There’s a trap to that, where initially you feel like you want to be that person and impersonate them, so that people look up on the stage or on the screen and go, “Yep, that’s him. That’s exactly the character.” But obviously, it’s not. We’re telling stories. It’s folk lore. It’s mythology, in a way. When I was playing Elvis, I’ll never forget singing one of the songs, and I saw this woman in the front row cross her arms and shake her head and say to her husband, over the music, “He’s too short.” At first, I got really annoyed by it, but then afterwards, I was like, “If they dug Elvis up from his grave and put him on stage and he sang to this crowd, there would still be people there that say, ‘That’s not Elvis!’” You can’t try to play a real person like that. You have to inhabit them. You have to find what you connect with and bring that to the character, so that he lives and breathes in you. That’s when it works. For this, I have a lot more freedom because very few people know him. There’s not very much footage of him, so I was able to be a bit freer with that, but they also changed the name, which freed it up even more. I definitely used him as a template.
You had to learn to drive a stick for the show, which is funny because nobody drives a stick anymore. What was that experience like? Was it something that you actually took to pretty easily, or did you have a laugh about trying to figure out how to do that?
MALARKEY: I was actually horrified, at first. It was the first day of shooting, and I had to drive up this long, windy drive and stop at the house. It’s in Episode 2, which that was the first episode that we shot. Everybody was there. The producers all wanted to see how it went, and I had to drive this fucking big boat of a car. I actually took to it all right. The thing is that those cars are old, so they’re hard to get going with the maneuverability, and all of that. So, it took a little while, but once I got the hang of it, it was all right. The car kept stalling. I kept thinking everything was my fault, but they were like, “No, it’s the car.”
Were there any other special skills you had to learn for this show?
MALARKEY: One of my biggest priorities, because I know people in the Air Force, was that I wanted to make sure to have a snappy salute. For me, it was about getting into his body and just having that become natural, stepping into. That was very, very important for me, from an actor’s perspective, and it was fun. I really have enjoyed getting into that mind-set. It’s not something that I’ve done before, but it came naturally to me.
Is this a character that you’re hoping to get to continue to play for a bit because he is such an interesting guy?
MALARKEY: Absolutely! I think when people see the season and watch the trajectory and see the layers continue to unravel, they’ll learn that Quinn is not all that he seems. He’s got a lot of different shit that’s happened to him, over the years. He has many more seasons worth of material to explore, that’s for sure, as does Hynek. The thing about this show is that each episode is based on an original case file, for the most part, and there are thousands of them. We have this wonderful trove of material to draw from. It’s just about for David [O’Leary] and Sean [Jablonski] going, “Okay, let’s put these in yes, no and maybe piles, and then root through them and see which ones resonate with us and are going to work for the story, as well as which will have parallels to the relationships and things that are going on.” The beautiful part about this show is that, with each episode, you see parallels between the big story and the personal arcs.
Project Blue Book premieres on the History Channel on January 8th.