Based on Stephen King’s best-selling novel, the CBS drama series Under the Dome is about the small town of Chester’s Mill, which is suddenly and inexplicably sealed off from the rest of the world by a massive transparent and indestructible dome. Separated from friends and loved ones, and with resources dwindling, the residents will have to learn how to get along and survive. Produced in association with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Television, the show stars Mike Vogel, Rachelle Lefevre, Dean Norris, Natalie Martinez, Britt Robertson, Alexander Koch, Colin Ford, Nicholas Strong, Jolene Purdy and Aisha Hinds.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor Alexander Koch (who plays Big Jim’s son, James “Junior” Rennie) talked about how Under the Dome was his first TV pilot audition, how daunting it was to get involved with a show that has such a high caliber of talent, being a Stephen King fan, pushing boundaries on network TV, whether he sees Junior as mentally unstable, working with Britt Robertson and Dean Norris, how Junior feels about the dome, and his favorite moments on the show. Check out what he had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
ALEXANDER KOCH: I had just moved to L.A., in the beginning of September. I was getting ready for pilot season. I had been with my manager for awhile, and then I got an agent from my school showcase. My manager got the script for Under the Dome, and I read it and just fell in love with the character. I grew up on Stephen King, and I love his whole aesthetic of the classic American story with supernatural events happening, so it just made sense. I was so enthralled by the script, and I thought it was so different from anything I had read before. I just had a good feeling about it, and I knew how to approach the character.
And this was the first pilot you had ever auditioned for, right?
When you got the first pilot that you audition for, do you have a moment where you stop and realize that things don’t generally happen that way for actors?
KOCH: I’ve been told that, many times. I wake up and count my blessings, every day. I don’t know. I was at the right time and right place, and it was the right role. It’s a role that I really, really love and have so much fun with. I just fought, tooth and nail, for it. I worked really hard. It was a long audition process to get it. I started auditioning in late November, and I finally got cast in January. Over Christmas break, I worked on the script. I didn’t have much of a Christmas vacation, so it’s good that it paid off.
When you auditioned for this, there was obviously Stephen King’s involvement, but were you aware of the caliber of the rest of the talent involved, from Steven Spielberg to Neal Baer, Brian K. Vaughan and Jack Bender?
KOCH: Yeah. It was a very daunting thing. I knew that Steven Spielberg was producing it, so in the back of my mind, I was like, “Okay, this is like trying to reach up and grab the sun.” And my sister and whole family are such big Lost fans. I tried not to get addicted. I’ve watched episodes and learned that it’s very easy to get a whole weekend lost to that show. The level of talent was so amazing. And I’m a big fan of Brian’s comic books. So, I was very, very excited. I can’t remember who was cast already. I just remember Colin Ford being cast, and I had met him in the audition room. That made me feel even more nervous because it was like, “Oh, he got cast? I still haven’t heard anything.”
KOCH: When I was younger, I read It and The Shining. And I’ve always loved his short stories. I thought they were so compelling. When I first got the script, I was like, “Okay, I’ll read the book over the weekend.” And then, I saw that it was a thousand-and-some pages, so I was like, “I’m gonna talk to my friend who reads everything by Stephen King.” So, he gave me some pointers, when I was first auditioning. I remember talking to my friend about the drive behind this guy and what some things were that I could bring to the character. I just started with the mother-son relationship, and how he connects with Angie (Britt Robertson), and built from there. I found those two relationships had this weird, almost Oedipal aspect to them. He connects with Angie in this way because of this missing piece that he’s feeling from his mother. By the time that I got cast, I had finished the book.
With the huge popularity of shows on cable, because they can push boundaries in the way that network TV can’t, were you happy to see that this show is really pushing things pretty far for network television?
KOCH: Yeah. I’m a big fan of shows on HBO and AMC. It seems like CBS is really stepping up to the plate and bringing this great new cable type show. It’s so different from anything that’s been done before, and it’s really great to have such a refreshing, new idea, especially during the summer. It’s a format that’s never been done before. Hopefully, it will do well and the fans will love it. It’s a great summer series. It’s definitely a show that will push the boundaries of programming. I think it’s a great turning point in television. Being such an edgy summer series, it’s definitely going to get the attention of other networks. It’s one big experiment that I think will do very, very well.
KOCH: When I was doing research for the role, I was thinking about the kind of people who have these obsessive qualities. I thought about John Hinckley, Jr., who had this obsession with Jodie Foster where he built things up in his head. With Junior, I don’t think he’s mentally unstable. I think he comes from this very broken place of losing his mother, as a child, and the process of her going a little bit crazy and seeing that, as a child, was very traumatic for him and it led him down a darker path. He’s disconnected from his father (Dean Norris), but still lives with him even though he doesn’t have a good, solid relationship with him, while missing a component of the family that was very soft and nurturing, he’s this boy trying to be a man because his father is pushing him. I think that’s what shaped Junior into the person that he is. There’s very much the public persona of Junior, who is the athlete and town jock and hero. That’s what his dad wants him to be. And he’s a little bit of a bully. When he’s with Angie, you see that he has a softness to him that she brings out. He feels comfortable and can let his guard down with her, and that’s why he loves her so much. Once she leaves him, he needs to get that love back, in any way that he can, and he finds a pretty dramatic way to do it.
What’s it been like to work with Britt Robertson?
KOCH: She’s amazing! She’s such a sweetheart. She’s really, really easy to work with. I’m just so new. I was nervous getting into it. I was like, “I hope things work out between us.” We hadn’t met each other until the first script reading. We have a great style of working together where we’re just very open and honest about different ideas. If something isn’t working, one of us will be like, “Let’s try this.” It’s been really great, working with her. She’s a very beautiful girl and she has this great tough quality to her. It’s interesting to see it come out. It’s very disarming because she just looks so innocent and kind, but she can be a tough cookie, too.
How is it to have Dean Norris playing your father, Big Jim Rennie?
KOCH: Going into it, I was just like, “Wow, Hank (from Breaking Bad) is going to be my dad on this show.” I was intimidated by him. He’s set up a whole career, playing those types of characters who are really tough guys. So, going into it, I was very, very nervous, the first day we were shooting. But, he’s really great at bringing out the best in everyone he works with. He just comes on set and goes. He has this level of intensity that brings out feelings in you that make you want to just go with him. He’s really great at guiding other actors, in a way that’s not controlling. He brings it, and you’re forced to go with him.
KOCH: I think that Junior really believes that this is his chance to become the man that he wants to be, and to do what he’s supposed to do in life. I saw the Stanley Kubrick exhibit in Los Angeles and there was a quote in the room about The Shining that was Jack Nicholson talking about how his character already had the ability to do these things inside of him. It’s just that now that he’s in this hotel and locked in this area – like how Junior is now locked in this area – he has the push to do these things and fight for what he believes is right.
Is there an episode that you’re most excited for viewers to get to see?
KOCH: I don’t know. I love all of my scenes with Britt, in the fall-out shelter. Those were some of my favorite moments on the show. In Episode 8, I have this scene with Dean that’s pretty intense, regarding certain things about our past family history. A bunch of stuff comes out.
When you do a show like this, does it make you think about how you’d react and respond, if you suddenly found yourself separated from friends and loved ones by a dome?
KOCH: I’ve thought about it, yeah. I could say one thing, but you never really know, and that’s what this show is really going to demonstrate. People say that they’re going to be one way, and then they really get into dire circumstances that show their character. It shows who these people really are, deep down. I can say, “Yeah, I’d be okay,” and that I’d try to help people, but you never know, and that’s very unnerving. You look at your friends and family, and then you wonder who would survive, what would happen, who you could really trust, who would be there for you, and who could possible turn on you.
KOCH: From a young age, I had done a lot of theater and musical theater. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do with my life, but every time I was away from acting, I just felt very incomplete and a little stir crazy. When I first went to college, I went to Western Michigan. I had been rejected by a bunch of schools for theater. I was like, “I’m obviously not cut out for this, so I might as well just go into film.” I had this mentor at a local theater, and he really believed in me. He told me, “If you love this so much that you keep coming back to it and you’re doing great work, you really should continue to pursue it.”
He wrote me a letter of recommendation for DePaul University, and I got in to the school. I spent the past four years at the Theater School there and grew up with these 20 kids in my class, who are actors. We became a close-knit family. It was one of the best decisions I ever made, to pursue acting and continue on with it. And then, I left Chicago after I got my agent from my showcase. I graduated in June, and then moved to Los Angeles in September and got into the auditioning game. I feel very, very fortunate. Most of the time, I think that this is all some weird prank that somebody’s pulling.
Under the Dome airs on Monday nights on CBS.