The Freeform series Siren, based on a story by Eric Wald and Dean White, who both serve as executive producers, explores what life is like in Bristol Cove, a coastal town known for its legend of once being home to mermaids. When a mysterious girl named Ryn (Eline Powell) shows up and proves that mermaids are more than mere folklore, a marine biologist named Ben (Alex Roe) finds himself drawn to her, while his co-worker/girlfriend Maddie (Fola Evans-Akingbola) and best friend Xander (Ian Verdun) are a bit more skeptical and suspicious.
While at WonderCon in Anaheim, Calif., co-stars Eline Powell, Alex Roe, Ian Verdun, Rena Owen (who plays town local Helen) and Sibongile Mlambo (who plays fellow mermaid Donna), along with creator Eric Wald, stopped by the Collider interview suite to chat about reinventing mermaid mythology, how Jaws was an inspiration, spending much of the shoot in the water, the learning curve that comes with underwater acting, the biggest production challenges with this show, why they decided to do the mermaid make-up and tails digitally, and the importance of keeping the true existence of mermaids a secret from the rest of the town.
Collider: Eric, this is not a story about the nice, pretty mermaids that we’ve seen. Was that intentional? Did you want to reinvent the mermaid mythology?
ERIC WALD: I think it’s always exciting and interesting to reinvent a classic mythology. I remember when I first saw [Christopher] Nolan’s Batman. We’d certainly had more comic book versions of it, but it was unique and fresh and exciting. Mermaids have had specific depictions, over the years, so it was fun to flip that on its head. I also wanted to go really deep with what this mythology could be and have almost a scientific, biological take on it. They really feel like oceanic predators.
Did you have a personal desire to write a show about mermaids, or did somebody specifically ask you to explore that for a TV series?
WALD: I’d written the pilot on spec. It really started because Jaws is one of my favorite movies. I just loved the depiction. It worked so well as a monster movie, but really, it’s a great portrait of a town and these people. It was written by a comedy writer, so there’s real humor to it. It just has it all. To me, it’s the perfect piece of entertainment. Around the time I was thinking about that, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides had just come out and had this new take on what mermaids were like. It was about marrying those two ideas and running with it. And then, I had to figure out how to not be in the water all the time and how it could work as a TV show. I hope we’ve figured that out.
As actors, did you wonder how much time you’d have to spend in the water?
POWELL: Absolutely! And I wanted way more than we had. On holiday, you hide it from other people because you feel embarrassed that you’re a young woman doing mermaid moves, but here, I get paid for it and people supply me with mono-fins. I was like, “So, how many underwater scenes can we get in an episode? I think we should add more.” I love getting to swim in the tank.
MLAMBO: I think my favorite part was swimming in the tank. Just getting to be a mermaid was incredible.
So, you didn’t panic in the water?
MLAMBO: No, you get used to it. After the first time, you get used to it.
WALD: They’re so good at holding their breath. They got so comfortable in the water that they could actually perform in the water. Alex [Roe] spent a lot of time in the water, too.
POWELL: Alex is amazing! He’s got iron lungs. On his first try, he held his breath for four minutes.
WALD: When you can do that, it allows you to forget about holding your breath and actually perform.
ROE: What makes it really cool is that they’ve built these underwater sets. You’ll have the hull of a boat, so that you’re underwater and you’re not just swimming towards a camera. You’re feeling your way around the bottom of a boat. You really can let go and act. It was definitely a completely different thing to try to undertake acting underwater.
Is there a bit of a learning curve, when it comes to not looking goofy while you’re trying to act underwater?
ROE: I think I probably looked pretty goofy, and then I just embraced the goofiness.
POWELL: The hardest thing underwater is just finding your mark because you’re playing with depth. You can see your mark on the bottom of the tank, but the camera is in the middle, and you can’t actually see underwater because it’s all very dark. The hardest thing is making sure you don’t swim straight into the camera, or you’re completely not in the shot of the camera. I’ve had a few times where they’ve been like, “Eline, that was great, but we didn’t see you.” That’s the only challenging bit. After a few hours, your vision adjusts and suddenly you can see outlines and shapes, but those first few takes, don’t expect them to be great.
ROE: What’s exciting about it is that it’s unprecedented. All of us are learning and figuring out how to do this stuff underwater, all at the same time. We’re giving them feedback on what we need. It was this collaborative experience of creating this ability to act underwater.
POWELL: The key factor that changed a lot of things was communication underwater. The moment we said, “Think of us as blind, and you have to guide us,” we could take a breath and then they’d guide us. That way, they could navigate us to get us in front of the camera, but we were new to that.
ROE: I hope there’s some behind the scenes stuff.
POWELL: It was an amazing collaboration, and it was so special. Everyone had to be of one mind.
Are there just endless production challenges with a show like this?
ROE: Yeah, and we’d love to jump back in.
POWELL: You get to know each other and you learn what looks better in the water. It becomes easier, so you can enjoy it more. I’d love to go back.
WALD: The key thing was that we decided we were gonna do all make-up and tails digitally for the series, which we did not do in the pilot. Eline had to spend a lot of time in the make-up chair, which was exhausting, and then she had to put on this heavy tail, and you can’t perform like that.
POWELL: As much as it’s heaven, shooting in the tank, it’s a very physical day. It looked fantastic, but I was very, very grateful when the process got a little bit easier. Now, we have a good night’s sleep and we’re really fit and able.
Rena, what’s it like to be the wise one who’s always waiting to tell people, “I told you so”?
OWEN: It’s the story of my life, in some ways. I was born hyper-sensitive, so I could see and feel things before other people could. That was not an easy way to grow up, but it’s something I could identify with. But I especially could identify with Helen, having grown up in a very small coastal community. I think it’s one of the strengths of this story and the foundation of it. Most of my brothers will never leave and a couple of my sisters will never leave because they don’t need to leave. I just looked at Helen and thought, “That’s what I’d be like, if I’d stayed in my hometown.” I left when I was 18. People have said that Helen in the Log Lady. She’s a great character. I had that personal stuff I could bring to her. I’m eccentric and odd, and I always have been. The great part about Helen is that I’ve always wanted a role where I could just be myself. The thing that really nailed the character, for me, was watching Jaws. Nick [Copus], the director of the second episode, wanted me to look at the character of Quint, played by Robert Shaw, and when I watched it, I knew the flavor he was trying to lead me towards for Helen, straight away. She’s trying to tell them, “You guys don’t know what you’re dealing with,” and he does a similar thing in Jaws. When Ryn comes to land, it’s her worst nightmare, but it’s also her greatest dream because it proves she’s not crazy.
WALD: It’s like, “I’m not crazy, but oh shit, this is really happening!”