Inspired by the critically acclaimed 1995 science fiction film, the intriguing and compelling Syfy series 12 Monkeys follows Cole (Aaron Stanford), a man from a post-apocalyptic future in which a plague has wiped out almost all of humanity. Using unpredictable time travel technology, Cole sets out on a mission, with the help of virologist Dr. Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull), to stop the mysterious Army of the 12 Monkeys from releasing the virus that will have catastrophic consequences. From show creators Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett, it also stars Kirk Acevedo, Barbara Sukowa, Noah Bean and Emily Hampshire.
During this exclusive interview with Collider, actor Aaron Stanford talked about how he got involved with 12 Monkeys, why he didn’t hesitate about signing on, what sold him on the show, appreciating the shorter season, why they don’t fill the actors in on what’s going on with the story, the great dynamic between Cole and Cassie, that the ends justify the means, and what it’s like to do the time travel scenes. Be aware that there are some spoilers.
AARON STANFORD: I loved the script, but the way that I got involved with it was through the writers, Terry [Matalas] and Travis [Fickett]. They both worked on Nikita with me for three years. We knew each other well, and we worked well together on the show. The episodes that they wrote were always my favorites, so I knew what they could do and I knew what their tastes were. There was already a short-hand there. So, they approached me about it, and I went in and read for it, in front of a room full of all the heads of everything. And I was lucky enough to get the role.
When you heard that this was 12 Monkeys, did you have any hesitation?
STANFORD: There wasn’t really a hesitation, I’ve gotta be honest. I can understand hesitation. It’s a bit of a double-standard. As a fan, when I hear that a film is going to be turned into a television show, I do go to that place immediately of, “Is it going to be any good? Is it going to be a waste of time? Why are they doing it?” It’s 12 Monkeys and 12 Monkeys is awesome, so I wanted to be a part of it and work on it. I basically said, “Please let me read the script,” and I kept my fingers crossed that it was going to be good. And it was. It wasn’t even a matter of me being hesitant. If it were closer to the movie, I would never be in the part. I’m not your traditional action hero. It was their decision to have their own twist on it, and I’m happy that they made that choice.
What were the aspects of the script that stood out for you and ultimately sold you on it?
STANFORD: It was just well-written. Essentially, the main crux of the whole thing is the same. It’s a combination of two of my favorite things, which are the apocalypse and time travel. That’s just fantastic, getting both of them together. It’s really juicy. It’s just great material to work with. The characters, themselves, and the situations and the circumstance they’re in is all very high-stakes and intense, and it’s all stuff that I knew would just be a thrill to live through.
People loved your character on Nikita, but that show was called Nikita, so we didn’t always get to see him. What’s it like to really be at the center of the story for a show?
STANFORD: Being a character like this on a TV show is some of the longest hours you’re ever going to work, in your life. It’s a physical show, too, so I was very, very tired by the end of it, but it was a well-earned exhaustion. But, we have some great episodes.
You must appreciate having a shorter season, then.
STANFORD: Yeah, absolutely. I just think it’s better, anyway, from a storytelling standpoint. You can’t help but notice that when a series gets stretched out to 22 episodes, the story gets really thin. You just can’t sustain it. Almost all of my favorite shows are limited series. It just seems to be the better way to go. This is the laboratory phase of all this new TV and figuring out what works best. It’s really exciting. It’s the Golden Age of Television. There are so many good things to watch out there. It’s a nice time to be working in TV.
This show has a very complex mythology. Was there anything you had questions about that you wanted further explanation on?
STANFORD: Everything, but they don’t tell us. They don’t want actors to get married to an idea, and then find out that they’ve changed their mind or cut it, and have the actors pitch a fit. Because that clearly has happened in history, on too many occasions, the rest of the actors in the world have to suffer. They just don’t want to tell us anything, so we have to trust that they’re going to hold up their end and they’re not going to leave us with egg on our face. Hopefully, they tell you enough.
STANFORD: It is. It’s a great dynamic. They’re polar opposites, in every way. When you see them on the screen together, it couldn’t be a sharper contrast. And I think that’s always the right thing to do, chemically. That’s what you want. So, him coming into her very privileged, very civilized, very safe, soft world from the apocalypse is great. It’s great to see his world crash into her, and what it does to her, and to see her world be absorbed by him and see what it does to him. That’s fascinating, too. Cole is this very calloused, hard character that’s cracked wide open by hearing music or tasting something that he’s never tasted in his life, but that we take for granted. It’s really interesting.
Is it hard for Cole to deal with the fact that almost anyone he comes into contact with will be dead?
STANFORD: Yeah, I think it is. On his mission, he’s given himself permission to act not necessarily in the most moral of fashions because he does know that he’s dealing with dead people. Their future is to die horribly, in a horrible plague. So, any lives that he needs to take, he goes into the mission with the understanding that he won’t make it any worse.
STANFORD: They are brothers, basically. Not in blood, but they have a very, very tight bond. They have survived together and gone through things together that has created a bond in them, much like war creates. They’ve both been through combat. They’ve both been through trauma. They’ve both been through horror together. The things that they have gone through have absolutely welded them together.
What’s it like to have Noah Bean also join this show, after doing Nikita together?
STANFORD: To get a chance to work with a friend is a huge get. It’s just the best. You don’t have to go in there and start fresh with everybody, and just hope that it works out. To go into a project, knowing that you already have a good relationship, and you already know that you can work with that person, as well, is just great. I’m thrilled that he came over.
Will Cole’s focus gradually get more blurry, as he continues to try to carry out his mission?
STANFORD: Cole has a specific agenda. The ends justify any means, basically. As he spends more time in the past and he becomes more attached to people, you will see that push-pull situation. I think eventually Cole will not to leave the past anymore. I think he’ll want to stay there.
What’s it like to do the time travel scenes in that chair?
STANFORD: They’re shot really, really well and they visually tell the story of the harshness of the future really well. Shooting those scenes is very interesting. For the time travel sequences, they use an air gun, shot onto my face. I don’t know what the press is, but it’s intense. Your face ripples like a bowl of pudding. But, it’s fun. It’s great to be able to work on some science fiction. I love the genre.
What exactly is “splintering”?
STANFORD: The writers may have nailed down exactly what they think splintering is, but James Cole doesn’t exactly know what it is. He just knows what it does to him, and it’s detrimental to his physical well-being. It’s extremely painful and it takes something out of him, every time it happens. Every trip to the past costs him something. So, his relationship to it clearly is a conflicted and complicated one.
12 Monkeys airs on Friday nights on Syfy.