Q & A: J.J. Abrams Talks ‘Almost Human’, the Cast and ‘Star Wars’

Almost-Human-cast

The latest project to come out of J.J. Abrams Bad Robot production company is Almost Human, a police procedural show set 35 years in the future, where officers are partnered with highly evolved human-like androids.

The show looks really fun and I always trust a show with Abrams behind it. But, I gotta say, is Abrams human? He’s got like 8,000 projects either airing or in the works, most notably the upcoming Star Wars movie. I would love to find out how he does time management. Actually, that should be his next show, J.J. Abrams Time Management.

I joined in on a recent conference call where Abrams and fellow Executive Producer J.H. Wyman talked about the upcoming show. In the interview, they chat about the show, working with the actors (Karl Urban, Michael Ealy and Lili Taylor) and the civil rights of robots. And yes, there are some Star Wars questions thrown in!

Almost Human debuts with a special two-night premiere on Sunday, November 17th and Monday, November 18th, 8/7 Central on Fox. 

Can you talk about why the ending to the original pilot was changed?

Joel Wyman: Yes, sure.  Basically, a lot of people don’t realize that the pilot is supposed to be a sales tool for us to express to our partners how great and exciting the show could be.  It’s our job to put everything we can in this incredibly tight 43 minutes to make it a very compelling ride.  We had talked a lot about the stories and the mythologies that are going to go on.  We felt that the ending, the first version you saw, the ending the way that it was, it really sparked a lot of interest in people who watch it because they realize, oh, okay, so there is a lot of cool mythology that could be told in this show.  There are a lot of exciting ways these guys could go and stories they could tell. 

Once we got picked up, everybody agreed that this is something we want to move forward on, then we can just sit back, and we can say, what’s the best way to tell that story and what’s the best way to get things out?  Is that the right direction?  How are we going to use elements of what we’ve shown and how are we going to get the most out of those?  Then things just changed as we realized, okay, now we’ve got some time.  Let’s tell the story properly. 

With several really fast-paced shows on air right, like Person of Interest, Revolution, and now Almost Human, how do you keep things straight?  Do ideas for one ever contribute to the others? 

J.J. Abrams: Well, one is in the future. I think that the lucky situation for bad robot has been working with really wonderful people who are great show runners and storytellers.  With Joel, with whom we worked on Fringe for five years, when he pitched me the idea for Almost Human, it was, I felt like that little kid that I used to be watching Six Million Dollar Man and all excited about the idea of what the show could be.  When Eric Kripke pitched Revolution, I thought, that would be a really amazing, epic story to tell.  It was very ambitious. 

When Jonah pitched Person of Interest, we were having a meeting about a feature.  He said, I have this idea for a TV show and he pitched Person of Interest.  The great thing is it’s like having friends who are great storytellers who are also running these shows.  While we read the scripts, and we give notes, and of course look at edits, and all that kind of stuff, it’s not like any one of us is running any or all of these shows.  They’re all separate endeavors by people who are incredibly talented, that we feel very lucky to be working with. 

J.J., one question that’s on everyone’s mind is can you give us some sense of what happened and why there were the changes in the script writing team on the upcoming Star Wars film?

J.J. Abrams: I don’t think there was any changing of the screenwriters on Almost Human.  … Almost Human, Fox, hour-long drama.  Working with Michael Arndt was a wonderful experience and I couldn’t be a bigger fan of his or adore him more.  He’s a wonderful guy.  He was incredibly helpful in the process and working with Larry Kasdan, especially on a Star Wars movie, is sort of unbeatable. 

It became clear that given the timeframe and given the process, the way the thing was going, it became clear that working with Larry in this way was going to get us where we needed to be and when we needed to be.  That doesn’t preclude working with Michael again in the future at all.  I couldn’t say enough good things about him.  He’s really, just obviously, one of the smartest guys and one of the best writers around.

When you look at Fringe, and when you look at Almost Human, you guys have collaborated on some pretty amazing television.  What would you guys say makes it such a fruitful relationship and such a fruitful partnership between the two of you?

Joel Wyman: I think it’s my singing voice. 

J.J. Abrams: I think I have to agree with Joel.  I think that the fun of working with someone who loves the ‘what if’ and is able to imagine situations and characters that make you laugh as much as it makes you squirm because the ideas are so close to what’s possible.  On Fringe, as crazy as things were, and it got pretty crazy, they were so often things that felt like, God, that just seems like something that might be happening right now.  Then almost invariably you’d read about something within weeks or months that proved that out.  It’s always been fun working with Joel and Almost Human is no different.

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What do you see is the key to Michael Ealy’s performance and what did you make of Maureen Dowd comparing the character to President Obama? 

J.J. Abrams: It was an honor to have Ms. Dowd reference Almost Human in her column.  While the comparison is hers to make, I do think that what Michael Ealy brings to this role is an incredible sense of thoughtfulness and compassion and he is playing a character who is, by design, literally, as brave and as knowledgeable and strategic as you would want your partner to be if you were riding along as a cop.  

But he’s also as altruistic and as considerate and empathetic as you would want.  I think what Michael brings is that kind of depth, that kind of comedy and humanity.  The title Almost Human, of course, applies to both Karl and Michael’s characters.  I think that the idea when Joel pitched it was always that Dorian, this synthetic cop, was in many ways more human than his partner.

John actually isn’t completely human; he has the leg.  Does he grapple with the fact that he is what he sort of doesn’t like?

Joel Wyman: Yes.  That’s a very large part of his character, because at the root of it, he’s a little bit worried about the advancement of technology and where that’s led humanity and what the world looks like with this onslaught of new developments and unchecked growth with technology. 

He feels, while he appreciates technology, such as things like the new bulletproof vests or better weapons for the police, he still has a problem with the line between humanity and robotics, or synthetics.  He looks at that and is forced to kind of deal with the idea that his well-being now depends on this technology that he sometimes holds with a sense of contempt.  That’s the journey for him, is that he’s starting to realize it’s not the technology that’s bad; it’s how you use it.

It appears that there are so many options for storytellers to tell stories, like networks or Netflix and Amazon now, that it would be hard to figure out where something should go because there are so many wonderful places for it to be.  How does that affect the way that you are fleshing out ideas like Almost Human and the ones that are coming after it?

Joel Wyman: Basically, for us, the idea – we had done Fringe; it was on Fox.  We had great partners there.  It was just the idea itself; just inherently seemed like it was a really big, fun, exciting idea that was a very popcorn idea.  We wanted to get away from – I mean Fringe had certain elements of it that were much more serious and contemplative.  We thought it’d be really, really fun to have something that was really big and bombastic. 

I think the network model right now really promotes those kinds of ideas, something that is big and more popcorn-y, something that could be definitely an action-oriented program.  We were in a great position.  Then, luckily and fortunately on Fringe, with our partners at Warner Brothers and Fox, and we decided to continue the relationship.  For us it was no brainer to keep the show exactly where we were.

Can tell us a little bit about the choice to make Maldonado a woman, and how much that was influenced by having Lili Taylor?

Joel Wyman: Yes.  Originally we conceived her as a man, the concept of Maldonado.  Somebody had brought up – I’m not sure, I think it was April Webster, our casting director, that said what about Lili Taylor?  Then once we started talking about – we are huge fans of hers – once we started talking about that concept we realized that the character of Maldonado would actually be far superior if it was a woman. 

The character started to take on all these incredible aspects that really weren’t there in a male version of her.  We just embraced the idea and we’re so fortunate to get her because we just all really adore her.  That’s how that came about.  It wasn’t originally designed as a female, but we went down that road when it was presented and we loved it.

You guys are deeper into the writing; you’re kind of getting your own sense of what the show is, whether it’s with Jeff, Karl, and Michael, or even with the rest of the great ensemble that you have.  Have they, as actors, been bringing things that have changed and tweaked what the show is for you as you’ve been writing it?

Joel Wyman: Yes.  You always start with something and then when, based on your casting, at least for me and my experiences, it always transcends it and makes it better.  You can learn what you were trying that wasn’t working, or all of a sudden, you’re surprised by something that works incredibly well that you didn’t anticipate.  It’s no different from this show. 

In the casting process, it was so interesting, because when we were finding these guys, each one of them had something that was just so perfect for the character.  We knew that fundamentally they were right for the roles, but just who they are, and what they bring to it, and what they’ve examined now having these roles as actors, and what they dug into, has just made the show that much more rich and provided us with a lot of opportunities and avenues that we didn’t even dream of.  Yes, we’re always influenced by the people that are bringing the work and the characters to the program.

With Civil Rights being such a big issue, are there robot rights, and robot marriage, and things like that?

Joel Wyman: That’s a really good question.  J.J. had set us up with some very, very brilliant people from MIT, and one of the brilliant people was a woman who studies robot ethics, which is pretty amazing because when you talk to her, you get the idea that, wait a second, this is definitely coming.  Some of the amazing things with these robots that are now what we see in the future are definitely robots, not human.  They’re not becoming human, but they’re definitely becoming beings. 

That’s a moment where you’re thinking, they’re real.  They are thinking beings.  What are their rights?  Then, where are those lines drawn?  A lot of those things are examined in some of our later stories.  Those concepts of what exactly is a robot?  What is an android?  What is a being?  If it’s able to think, if it’s able to be, then what?  We’re definitely interested in those types of things.

Kennex’s human partner at the beginning of the pilot was left to die by the robots on the raid because he was too badly injured.  Then Kennex goes in to try and save him, but winds up getting his whole unit killed and himself injured.  Thinking about that, which is worse in your opinion – doing the right thing for the wrong reasons or doing the wrong thing for the right reasons? 

J.J. Abrams: I think Joel always does the right thing for the wrong reason.  I think that, obviously, every situation is unique, but I think that in terms of the opening scene of the pilot, it was meant to demonstrate his approach and how he is a caring enough person that he would try and save his partner.  I don’t necessarily think that, and this is an argument in the show itself, that John, because of that, is responsible for everyone dying.  There are certainly a lot of MX synthetic cops around who are dealing with the raid as well.  I do think that it was meant to illuminate his character as much as anything.

There are so many shows that have come and fallen under the bad robot umbrella, but aside being set in the future, what do you really feel sets Almost Human apart from anything that bad robot has ever produced, J.J.?

J.J. Abrams: While we have been involved in a number of different series, none of them were approached from a strategic point of view, meaning we didn’t really try to figure out how is this unique?  We just tried to do it from the inside out and figure out what makes us care.  I think that the specifics of this one, obviously, the story is very different than anything we’ve done before. 

The type of show in that it is very much a cop procedural show, which is a very familiar show.  We’ve seen a million buddy/cop shows and the fun of that was twisting it in a way that Joel came up with, which is having it set in a place and with specific characters that allow for conflict and cases every week that don’t feel like everything you’ve seen a million times before.  I think that this show has a level of humor that is distinct from what we’ve done.  I think that part of it is just the relationship between Karl and Michael’s characters.

Both of you have done some great work on science fiction – Star Trek, Fringe, things like that.  How has the other science fiction work you’ve done influenced this particular science fiction show?

Joel Wyman: For me, on Fringe, I got to, in a lot of the research that I did and got to experience on a week-to-week basis, really definitely influenced the direction of this program and how it was conceived.  When you start to get involved in what’s possible, what technology is out there, how is science dangerously out of control, what are we up against as the human race?  It just really starts to make your mind expand with all these concepts that you sometimes worry about and sometimes go, wow, that’s really wild. 

It definitely, that for me was a huge influence.  It actually, looking at what’s to come, in my experience on Fringe, it definitely was the seed of this program.  I’ve always loved to talk about what ifs and scenarios of look where we’re going.  This is a perfect platform for these cautionary tales and what if scenarios.

You had such a gorgeous, interesting, futuristic look for this series and it reminded me a lot of Blade Runner, which is one of my favorites.  I was wondering what kind of influence that film had on the look of this one?

Joel Wyman: In my mind, you can’t touch something in this wheelhouse, or in science fiction, without owing a huge debt to Blade Runner.  It’s definitely one of my favorite films.  It has so much to look at.  It was just so amazing and instructive as a young person watching that movie on how not just what’s happening in the scene, but what’s happening ten layers behind the scene, what’s going on in the street behind it, and then what’s going on in the building behind that?  … creating was a real lesson for me. 

But there is something about those types of … features that I definitely did not want to go for.  I hope that we’re not really in that territory and that we were successful, because what occurred to me is in watching all these incredible science fiction, or reading all these incredible science fiction books, the future is largely, oh, look what you humans have done.  You’ve really messed up and now what are you going to do?  Whereas I think what we were talking about is something a little bit more hopeful, that we will have some hardships as a human race and it will be difficult at times, but ultimately, we will persevere because that’s truly what I believe. 

I am a hopeful person.  I really believe that the world is going to get it right somehow.  I wanted to make it a brighter environment where it’s not raining all the time, the atmosphere is not completely ruined, that people still have children and are very excited about their daughter’s seven-year-old birthday party.  That they’ll want to do what they can to get her that present that she wants.  That there is a sense of going forward and a sense of, okay, this is the future in 40 years. 

It’s still going to have a lot of the same stuff that we deal with now.  It will have some things that are much better.  It will have some things that are more dangerous, sure, but we’re resilient and we’re going to succeed.  That was the difference.  But as far as, of course, setting a world in the future and things like that, that’s a huge influence on me.

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