'Terra Nova' Goes Prehistoric With Star Jason O'Mara

Are you ready for some dinosaurs? Well, whether you are or you aren’t, they’re coming to your TV in the Steven Spielberg produced time travel series Terra Nova. With Earth on the brink of destruction, and humanity in ruin, scientists hatch a brilliant plan: send everyone back to dino-times, to start over. Along for the ride is series star Jason O’Mara, who you may know from the American version of Life on Mars, as a former cop who finds himself quite literally out of his element.

In anticipation of the series’ premiere, FOX set up a conference call with O’Mara – who was taking a short break in Los Angeles before heading back to Australia to film the end of the first season. So he’s a busy guy, is my point. Let’s get to the transcript:

Who is Jim Shannon (the part O’Mara plays on Terra Nova)?

Jason O'Mara: “I think his primary goal is to protect his family and ensure that they thrive and survive in this new place. He's also been sort of, whether he likes it or not, he's sort of been made the sheriff in this frontier town. So he has to kind of go along with what Taylor does and says and sometimes he has reservations; sometimes he's in accordance to it, but the questions that are brought up sort of affect the very fabric of Terra Nova's society that is being created as we go along.

Even though Taylor is heroic in many ways in what he does, he also can be a little bit autocratic and so not everybody agrees with how he rules and Jim has to tow the party line to an extent. There is also a kind of partnership and a friendship that is emerging between Taylor and Shannon. I really enjoy kind of the subtleties and the little relationship beefs that we have between all the characters on the show. It's kind of - I believe it's quite unusual.”

On whether Terra Nova will do better than his previous TV efforts:

JO: “Oh, I hope so. Yes, third time lucky, is it, maybe? I've never got a show to a second season so I'm sure people online are painfully aware of this and maybe audiences are as well. What's great about this is that in Life on Mars I had the most amazing cast assembled on television at the time, I believe, so I was ably supported in that.

In Justice was a great show, but I don't think we were able to make enough noise to kind of break through, but with this I'm really not sweating the premiere because it's really about whether people are ready for a show like this, and I believe they are.

It's not really down to me. The show is way bigger than the actors are. Steven Spielberg's presence is one of the selling points. The dinosaurs obviously are a huge aspect of all of this, so we're hoping that people kind of come for these reasons, but stay because they're enjoying the world we've created and the dynamics between the characters and the relationships that are forming. As the season progresses and deepens you'll get to know the characters better and see where we're going with the story lines.

To answer your question, I really feel like it's out of my hands and I've done my work and now it's just a question as to how much of a hit this is going to be. I think we might be on to something here, but I've been wrong in the past.”

On how TV has to fake things sometimes:

JO: “Yes, well, first of all you know Brisbane stood in for Chicago. Brisbane is the Australian city on the East Coast of Australia, and a lot of Chicago was CGI because we're not dealing with Chicago, we're dealing with that city 150 years or so from now.

We tried to recreate it in the most imaginative way possible. I think it looks pretty darn cool, but scary as well. The future is kind of a bleak place. Listen, it has been very challenging shooting this show. We're outside for a lot of this. The Australian Outback can be quite unforgiving. We haven't had any medical emergencies on the cast so far in terms of the wildlife. There are a lot of snakes. I don't know how poisonous it was, but I had a toad like crawl across my boots just last week, which was really kind of cool actually, but we're really out there. We're really out there in the rain forest and on location and we're exposed to the elements for better or for worse.

I mean anybody who goes out for a hike on a regular basis knows how tired you are in the evenings and you come back after a long day's shooting of being out in the forest and you want the next day off, but we don't get days off. The next it's up early and it starts again. That's the challenging thing with TV; it's not the action scenes per se and it's not the location scenes and the heavy dialogue scenes, but the fact that there is just no let up; there is no break. Oftentimes we'll even work Saturdays to get all this in.

We're shooting in eight or nine days per episode, but we shoot in blocks and to accommodate publicity like the tour I'm on now and other things we have to move the scheduling and the shooting days around, but it's something we have made work for ourselves. It's working so far. We shoot with three cameras per unit. Sometimes we shoot with two different units or where we're shooting two different episodes at the same time. Sometimes we splinter units that have cameras on board helicopters. It's a pretty big production-the size of which I'm not sure has been seen in recent memory on broadcast TV.”

Will Terra Nova appeal to people who aren’t fans of SciFi?

JO: “Well, I believe the expression in the TV business is four quadrant appeal and I think that's what they call it in that world. As far as I'm concerned as an actor, I read the script and I thought, look, this is so cool that there is time travel involved; there are obviously a lot of visual effects. There are futuristic effects, dinosaur effects, all sorts of things going on, but one of the earlier scripts very much read as a genre piece.

We're trying to create something that's a little bit bigger than that. It's not just for a niche audience; this isn't Battlestar Galactica; it's not Star Trek. This is not for, necessarily for sci-fi fans out there even though I think sci-fi fans will get a lot out of it. This kind of has that all-inclusive look and feel of a true Steven Spielberg production where people are going to E.T. for the cinematic experience not because it's just about a boy's relationship with his alien who comes down from space.

That's kind of how the feeling is on Terra Nova. This isn't just about time travel and dinosaurs; it's about a lot more than that. I think that's what's going to bring this show and put it on sort of a level where an entire family can watch it from the ages of-I think it might be suitable for sort of 10 year olds maybe, 11 year olds. I'm not quite sure what rating they're putting on us, right through to people in their 80s. I really do stand behind that. I think there is literally something for everybody.

I know that can be tricky. I know that's hard to do. Everybody is really aware of that, but I'm betting that, and I have a pretty good feeling about the fact that we've done something approaching to that and hopefully we'll succeed.”

Will everybody in the cast survive the first season?

JO: “Okay, how best to answer this. Dinosaurs do kill people. We don't kill dinosaurs because they're animals and we are as humane as possible when we try to corral and wrangle the local wildlife so we use nonlethal, humane weapons to control them.

They, however, don't have the same control with us; they're animals; they're wild and sometimes they get hungry so we have to be very vigilant around that. There are other fatalities to look forward to in the season, you'll be glad to hear, Henry, but they aren't always series regulars. However, I can reveal that one of the characters that you will have come to know, and hopefully love, will die by the end of the first season. There will be a death of a regular character by this season's end.”

On the Shannon family:

JO: “Well, firstly, they're a very lucky family. They're one in a million. They've managed to escape this dying world and get this second chance in this sort of Utopia, this beautiful place which has been sold to them, certainly if there was ever a travel brochure it would be sold as just the most beautiful place imaginable, a Utopia.

However, once the Shannon family gets there you realize, and it doesn't take too long, you scratch the surface and you realize that there is something else going on here. There are splinter groups, splinter factions, people challenging Taylor's rule over the place. You also find out that there are people close to Taylor who have become estranged and might even be plotting against him and his sort of rule, for want of a better word, as commander over Terra Nova.

By the way, you know who put him in charge? Was he ever elected? All these questions are asked so the Shannon family are caught up in all of this and they become the audience's eyes and ears and they get involved in a first-hand way directly in the intrigue that's taking place, politically and socially. At the same time trying to sort of survive in this place that is certainly a lot more hostile than it's first thought and it's not just the dinosaurs.

Josh Shannon gets embroiled in the first season in something and gets in way over his head. Maddy Shannon has her story line and at times she's put in terrible danger, as well as Zoe as well and some of Zoe's stories, my seven-year-old daughter, really played really well. I think everyone was surprised how well her character plays in the stories, but also surprised with how good Alana Mansour is as Zoe. She's just becoming a really great little actress. I really enjoy working with her. People warn you not to work with children or animals, especially dinosaurs in this case, but Alana has just been a delight from start to finish and her acting is really deepening and maturing and she's starting to have a lot of fun with that.

So the relationship between Taylor and Shannon is obviously at the center, at the heart of the first season, but also you're right in asking that question that the Shannon family and their experiences are also at the center of the first season. Obviously I have to paint very broad brush strokes here, but I think as the episodes progress you'll get a feel for the kind of show that we're trying to make week after week. Just to put everybody's minds at rest there will be dinosaurs in every episode regardless of how human the stories become, we'll always a healthy dose of dinos.”

What was most challenging about playing Jim Shannon?

JO: “Yes, well, I've always tried to keep my character-I like to play very raw characters, characters who have a degree of vulnerability and passion about what they're doing. I suppose the greatest acting challenge was to allow Jim to have enough darkness and even allow him to be more flawed than perhaps he was on paper. That is something that I've sort of confidently been talking to the writers about, about trying to keep Jim as complicated as possible so he's not just a hero running around protecting his family and chasing dinosaurs, either chasing after them or running from them, so that there is a little more to him than that.

I suppose that was sort of my challenge to try to keep Jim as grounded, as real, and as complicated and human as possible. Technically the green screen acting can be difficult because-there is something worse by the way than a tennis ball on the end of a stick, it's an Australian visual effects assistant running around with a cardboard dinosaur head cut off on the end of a stick while wearing shorts and sandals running around a field. And you're supposed to look intimidated and scared to death of this guy and he's a very sweet guy, but it's just really hard to be really scared of something like that when all you want to do is burst out into fits of laughter.

That stuff can be tricky and difficult, but then you're really at the whim of the visual effects guys and the editor when it comes to that stuff, so you do your best with it and move on. I think just trying to keep Jim as edgy and engaging and as intriguing as possible given that we're also trying to make this as appealing for as many different people as possible. That's always a very thin line to walk.”

Are there more time travelers on the way?

JO: “The 11th Pilgrimage is coming and it's coming at the end of Season 1, but we don't know what the 11th Pilgrimage is going to be made up of. By then it could be pilgrims, but it could be something else far more terrifying.”

How did you end up on Terra Nova?

JO: “I was in London doing a play at the Donmar Warehouse. It was called Serenading Louie. It was an off-Broadway play from like 1972, I think, or '73, that was being revived and I did it with Jason Butler Harner, who is a great American actor. I think he's going to be in Alcatraz on Fox in the mid-season. Simon Curtis directed it, who's married to Elizabeth McGovern and he's directed a lot of stuff recently, actually. He's just directed My Week with Marilyn, which is coming out soon.

I really had a great time, but I really felt-I had skipped pilot season because I was in London for all of that and I thought that Hollywood had completely moved on and had lost interest in me, which would have been fine, you know, whatever. Things go in cycles. I came back and my agent called me and said, “Just so you know I've had several conversations with Dreamworks and Fox about a production that they're working on called Terra Nova and Steven Spielberg is highly involved in the casting and is signing off on everything related to the production. That's a hoop that we need to jump through before we progress any further.”

I hadn't got an offer or anything. This was just, you know they were just sort of checking my availability and seeing if I was interested. I read a version of the script, which has changed a lot since, but I was intrigued by the scale of it and the ambitiousness of it. After I was done reading it I thought that this can never be made for television; it's too big. This is a movie. Then remembering that Steven Spielberg was involved, I thought well, if anybody can do it, he can.

What intrigued me most about the script was that it was really about second chances and if we were given a second chance as a race would we make the same mistakes? That was kind of the thing that hooked me onto it. I said to my agent, “You know I would be interested if it goes further.” He said, “Okay, well there are a lot of people involved with this because it's such a big production. I'll discuss this with everybody and get back to you.”

Then I got a phone call. I was walking down the street in New York City and I got a phone call from him again, my agent, saying, “Okay, Steven Spielberg has been in touch and he wants to watch some scenes from your work. He wants to see some reels.” But not my show reels, he wanted to see some more dramatic stuff. I sent some scenes from Life on Mars to my agent and he put them together on a web site for Mr. Spielberg to watch and he watched them.

Then I didn't hear anything for about 48 hours and I was sure that I would not get this; that I wouldn't hear any more about it and I got a phone call saying, “They want you to take the role of Jim Shannon on Terra Nova. Would you be interested?” I said, “Hey, man it has Steven Spielberg; it has dinosaurs and it's one of the most ambitious TV projects of all time. That sounds like a dream, sign me up.” I did and I haven't regretted a single thing. It's been a wonderful journey.

Do you ever get any down time?

JO: “No. No, what's good about this is the really hard thing about this - the hardest aspect of all of this is being away from my family. I don't know if I've answered any question like that since we started this call, but the hardest thing has been being away from my family. My wife, Paige Turco, who is an actress, who is pursuing a career from New York City and my son who is seven years old. I really, really miss them.

They have come over to visit me for an extended period of time, but not for the full five and a half months or whatever it's been. I've spent a lot of that time missing them terribly. That's the bad news. The good news is my wife hasn't been there to tell me to take out the trash, so every cloud has its silver lining. No, I did actually go to the-I'm so intense on this show; I work almost every scene. I work almost every day. I literally do not have time to take out the trash. I'm going to be coming down to earth hard when I get back home because that is one of my major jobs in the house is to stamp out the garbage.”

And that was it! Thanks to FOX for the transcript of this chat, and Terra Nova premieres with a special two-hour premiere on Monday, September 26th, from 8 to 10 p.m. Eastern/Pacific.

Related Posts:

'Terra Nova' - We've Seen The First Hour, Here's The Recap (Spoilers!)

Fall Geek TV Preview - Sci-Fi and Horror

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