If you’re jonesing for some George R.R. Martin while waiting for the final season of Game of Thrones, Syfy has got you covered with their latest space drama Nightflyers, inspired by the author’s novella of the same name. But don’t expect dragons and sorcery, Nightflyers transports the audience to the outer reaches of space, where a group of maverick scientists and gifted individuals travel in search of a mysterious alien race in the hopes of saving the human species — but the Nightflyer isn’t any ship, it’s haunted by someone or something tormenting its passengers at every turn. One of those passengers is Dr. Agatha Matheson (Gretchen Mol), who has dedicated her life to the study and caretaking of the dangerous but gifted telepaths known as an L1s and brings one of her wards aboard the ship.
Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to visit the sets of Nightflyers on the Troy Studios sound stages in Limerick, Ireland, where Syfy brought the nightmarish ship from Martin’s novella to life in stunning, immersive detail. While we were there, we sat down for a chat with Mol to talk about her character and stepping into the world of space horrors imagined by the Game of Thrones author. Mol discussed her character’s unique relationship to the ship’s wildcard telepath (played by Mindhunter actor Sam Strike), why she considers Agatha a revolutionary thinker, the physical demands that come with making a sci-fi action series, and a whole lot more.
Can you tell us a little bit about your character?
GRETCHEN MOL: My character’s name is Agatha Matheson and she is being described as a social worker, but I thought her a little bit of a revolutionary. She is on the ship because she’s in charge of the telepath of the ship, Thale. She is very schooled about telepathing, she has been taking care of him and others, living in a mountain on earth. So, they’re very isolated, they’re very feared and I think she sees the good, she sees the value, she sees that they should not be feared completely, but that they should be integrated in the society. The mission is an opportunity for her to explore that and use Thale to see what his abilities are – If he is able to actually make contact with another life form. It would mean a breakthrough to Agatha, if others value telepaths as she does.
How sure are we that Thale is not controlling you?
MOL: We are not sure at all. There are a lot of things that are very possible, for sure. But as far as we know, she is almost a mother figure for him. My way of thinking of it is telepaths are like orphans. They’re not seen or heard, kept in isolation. Agatha and Thale haven’t had a lot of working experience and so she comes in and sort of teaches him. It would be like you have a child with autism. She probably does physical therapy. She has him draw pictures because he sees all these images that can be very scary because it projections of other people’s inner lives. Just having him draw pictures and see what’s going on – that is a part of the therapy that she’s been working on.
Why does she have this sort of special relationship with this killer telepath?
MOL: I think it’s one of those things… like as a teacher. I think she has other reasons that will come out later on, why she relates to him. But I do also think you see something in someone, you see a glimmer of something that would mean this kid could be the one. Because D’Branin really comes to her and says “This could be valuable to our mission” and she has the immediate idea of Thale. He is a tough character but I think his toughness is actually what would make him right for the mission. Because he is going be kicked around and he is sort of brooding. You feel he is an outsider but you also feel that he is tough and that he is a survivor. Agatha thinks he would be the one. She sees in him the glimmer of the sensitivity that it might take. This journey could be for him a kind of breakthrough. Also, he could be the one to breakthrough.
So, when we talked to Sam, he mentioned that when he read the first episode he thought Thale was quite evil. Does she not fear him and what he is capable of?
MOL: I think that’s the thing as a parent where you see in a way what you want to see. She has so much invested in him being successful on his mission that it might take longer for her to see. I think the big thing is that Agatha doesn’t really know what’s gonna happen when you’re in space. I mean it’s totally different. When everybody saying “It’s him, it’s him”, she is of course defending him. I think she believes it. But I also think if you dug a little deeper, she is not completely 100% sure that it’s not him. Because you just don’t know who things going to interact. It’s like a whole new chemical thing happening.
David [Ajala] talked about how Roy clearly has mother issues. What is Eris’ read on two of you?
MOL: I don’t know what his read is. I feel in the beginning he doesn’t – nobody trusts us at all. It is D’Branin who has brought us on and even the other scientists are a bit skeptical. But I definitely feel that from the crew and from Eris, this is a big leap to have Thale on board. He is brought on and he is enclosed in his space. He is given a little time in nature. As things progress, he sort of gets a free will. But he is really kind of shut [in] and I would imagine that Eris is very, very skeptical and mistrusting.
Your only ally is D’Branin?
MOL: You know, you kind of meet these characters and the writer writes certain relationships for sure. But if I think about each one, I think that Rowan is a probably an ally overtime. I think he is an open-spirited person and so I feel like he is rolling with it. But I mean I don’t really blame people. I get the sense that Mel doesn’t worry about anything. She takes care of herself. If I look at each person as far as my allies – it would really be D’Branin. It really was his idea to bring me on the ship.
How much does Agatha see herself as separate in terms of the mission and what’s going on in the show?
MOL: I feel very much like she and Thale are each other’s kind of ally like they really know each other. But as a solo person, Agatha and D’Branin also have a history before – and now he’s been married and had a kid, so life has moved on and she has gone to work… and I don’t think she has any outside relationships at this point. They are connected in that way. I think it’s something that she thinks lies behind her in the past.
And is her sole purpose on the ship to be the middle woman between the telepath and the rest?
MOL: Essentially, yes. She is one that has access to him, that he trusts. He wouldn’t let anybody else get close to him. Everybody is afraid of him. If something goes wrong she is really there. He is on suppressants and drugs to keep all the imagery from happening. She handles that as well.
It’s been called psychological thriller, “Psycho in space”, all this stuff. When does it start to get very scary for your character?
MOL: When I read the script, already my first scene feels like a part of the journey or sort of the end place for the character. You dive right in and it was pretty exciting. That was really where it got me into it. This idea being in zero gravity and kind of desperation! I haven’t done a lot of genre type things were there is physical action. You are in a total alternative universe, so that was really the fun for me.
And are you guys doing like zero gravity effects?
MOL: Ultimately, a little bit wirework.
How did you come to the role in first place?
MOL: I read the script and I haven’t done a lot of this kind of genre type thing and that appealed to me. Then I spoke on the phone to [pilot director] Mike Cahill and his enthusiasm was really infectious. The way he acted out the whole first scene, just vocally on the phone. He was so enthusiastic and obviously understood the whole world. To be honest, I’m don’t watch a lot of Science-Fiction or Horror. I’ve seen the classics like Alien. But by nature, I don’t gravitate to that. So, I didn’t have a lot of confidence about being able to even choose. I’ve read the material and I believed it. I thought there is character here and, to me, whatever genre you’re doing, as long as you believe the characters and the writing is kind of real. Mike kept using the word “grounded” – which is showing to me like: Okay we’re going to be in space, there’s going to be this fantastical aspect to it, but basically, people are having real conversations and they are dealing with real issues. Real things, real relationships.
Just going back to your wirework for a second. That’s something you haven’t done previously. What it’s like for somebody who hasn’t done it before, to step into this crazy world of acting on a trapeze?
MOL: We have this amazing stunt coordinator and we did some rehearsal. I’ve studied musical theatre, so I have a little bit of dance background and I think it’s similar. It’s like a dormant part of myself that I don’t really use that much but it’s physical in that you’re trying to reproduce an idea of what it would be like – and so you’re kind of using different parts of your body and things. It felt comfortable at the end of the day after doing it. You’re flying and it’s just super… I really enjoyed it. It does feel a sort of trust. You have to trust someone else and you have to figure out a certain way of touching things that you don’t start bouncing all over the place. Honestly, it would be so fun to do more.
How did you first react to the scale of the sets when you arrived on the first day?
MOL: I didn’t know what to expect. It’s funny because when you look at sets you realize: oh there is no real spaceship! I was thinking I would come in and see a spaceship, but it’s not quite that. The scope of the space is amazing and the amount of running room. It is beautifully constructed. What I like about it is that it doesn’t look like a bunch of steel, it’s got texture and just as a person that likes interior space, I feel there is a worth. It’s complicated, there’s layers to it and I just think they did a really beautiful job. There is the outer ring where they project the habitat. The first time I went in there, I was stunned just because you have this kind of imagery of green and nature, beautiful projected exterior, and then you’re inside this kind of very steel and rusty kind of thing. It’s pretty cool. They’ve done beautiful work.
George R.R. Martin receives backlash over his treatment of women and how women are treated in Game of Thrones. What that something you were conscious about going into this project?
MOL: I wasn’t really. I feel like, just as a woman in this industry, you’re always looking out for that anyway. I wouldn’t put it to any creator. I worked on an HBO show for years and they are famous for nudity. Especially in a show like this, there are so many filters, there’s so many producers and writers, by the time you get the script, it’s not like you reading the George Martin novella anymore. It’s a creation that is collaboration, and then I get to figure out what I want to do and how I feel comfortable with. You always tell the truth of the story and feel safe in an environment with people you trust and then there is more freedom to play. I think most actresses have a pretty good instincts about a comfort zone. I’ve definitely been in situations where I thought, “No, that’s not required here” or “You don’t need to do that to tell the story”. So, you don’t do it and then the conversation is over. It does come to you to have your own truth or stick to your instincts. You have to be guided by those. So, I didn’t have that.
Were there any unexpected challenges or surprising things about working on a show like this?
MOL: For example, we are doing a kind of mission march when we all taking off. I’m used to having a green screen. I think I did do one Sci-Fi film a long time ago called The 13th Floor. Instead, you’re looking out the window and actually see the earth disappearing, the earth going by, it’s actually kind of emotional. The reality of what we doing here, technically feels advanced compared to what I have done. And it makes the job much easier. You don’t have to pretend quite as much on some of those things… you are really are looking at something and reacting to it. You let your imagination take over. You see it and you go “wow”. That’s pretty striking and it’s cool to be in a collective experience – like I’m seeing what you’re seeing and what the audience is seeing.
Does having that reaction make you want to work more genre-type things?
MOL: Absolutely, I think depending on what the material is. I really haven’t done that much and it’s fun. I think of it now, if done well, it’s another support system. It’s another way of telling story and in a way, we are relying on another factors, not just the actors and words.
Considering the scary stuff starting pretty early on and it does seem like things start to go wrong quickly. How physical has this gotten?
MOL: It gets physically though… I feel like I hit the ground running hard and then it kind of eased off a little bit. I’m reading the script sometimes like, “Oh I’m not in that, thank god,” or whatever. After a while you do get a little bit numb to it. The frozen man who’s jaw breaks off – spoiler! There are amazing ideas.
Is it more than just the search for alien life that is causing problems?
MOL: Yes, I think the whole part of the concept of the show is about pushing the boundaries. It’s about how far should we go. The closer we get to another solution, the more things seem to be going aright. Thale’s telepathic energies are sort of spiraling, and everything about anyone is sort of becoming amplified. D´Branin is sort of obsessed with the memory of his daughter. He is going deeper into that. I think, that is sort of a really interesting idea. It doesn’t just beg you to think about how we are in a time, but how we keep pushing our technologically – and it’s not always for the better.