There are many reasons to watch Falling Skies, TNT’s absorbing summertime sci-fi hit about ordinary folk-turned-warriors surviving – and rebelling against – a devastating alien invasion. Tops on the list: Noah Wyle’s strong central performance and the creepy mystery of the gooey harnesses making docile drones out of captive kids. (Spoiler Alert for anyone who hasn’t yet seen Sunday’s episode: How creepy was that alien-hosted slumber party with Ben and the other harness kids? Didn’t that hair-stroking beastie strike you as nurturing, even parental?) Alas, one of the most enjoyable elements of Falling Skies was (temporarily) MIA last night: Colin Cunningham’s charismatic John Pope, a tack-sharp, politically incorrect, dangerously amoral biker rogue skilled at killing Skitters and quoting literature. And the self-styled “culinary artist” – a bigoted foodie who blanches as paprika-seasoned chicken – can bake some seriously mean bread, too. John Pope – part heartless Road Warrior, part Gordon Ramsay gone totally psycho!
Cunningham’s riveting scenes with Wyle in the second hour of the show’s premiere outing helped distinguish Falling Skies as a drama as much about its complex characters as its explosions and ETs. The actor – whose previous credits include Stargate SG-1 – recently spoke with EW.com about landing the role that has made him a breakout star of the summer TV season and gave a little tease about the season 1 trajectory of the Second Massachusetts’ “reluctant ally.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did the part come your way?
COLIN CUNNINGHAM: Through the normal auditioning process, although there was something unique for me about this one. Usually, I never ask many questions about the scale of the project what I am auditioning for. If it’s a small project, I don’t want to get lazy or take it for granted, but if it’s a big thing I don’t want to freak out. So I never ask who’s involved, how big the budget is, etcetera. So I went and did the audition and then got a call back, and it was only at that point did my agent say: “Do you know what this is?” And I said: “Well, some alien thing.” I mean, that much was clear. He said: “Well, it’s TNT and DreamWorks.” I was like: Steven Spielberg DreamWorks? Holy crap! I was glad I didn’t know that going in because I might have choked, and Rob Schneider would have had the role of John Pope.
Sometimes when actors audition, they read for a number of parts, or get cast in a role they didn’t even read for. But you were auditioning for John Pope from the get-go?
Yes. And when I looked at the material, I could tell: This guy is awesome. So when I went into audition, I went in with tattoos, I went in with long hair, I went in with goatee, piercings, the whole nine yards. I have never been one of those actors that’s like: Don’t casting directors have an imagination to see me in the role? Well, no, they don’t! They see all sorts of actors all the time! They’re looking what they’re looking for, and you have to give it to them. That’s always been my philosophy so I went in full guns and got lucky.
Your character exudes a lot attitude, the words come out of you pretty easily on screen – how much of John Pope is improvised?
Oh, not much at all. Especially in those first couple weeks of doing episodes. You got [executive producers] Robert Rodat and Mark Verheiden and Steven Spielberg – it’s not like you need to do any rewriting. That said, the deeper I got into the character, the more I found myself throwing in little things, and no one stopped me. These guys know what they’re doing. They protect their material but trust their actors, and when things are popping, that’s all that anyone cares about.
How would you characterize John Pope?
He’s most certainly an outlaw. He’s a very intelligent man. The other renegades he hung out with may be buffoonish, but he is not. He’s the kind of guy that would get on his Harley Davidson, get into a bar fight, then go to the local strip club, and then finish off the evening by visiting the library and reading some Herman Melville novels. I think that’s why he connected with Noah Wyle’s character in that second episode; they’re both really intelligent guys. He’s able to sit down and have a beer with a guy that can talk about more than just girls and violence or something base and stupid. I think Pope was missing that, needing that.
How would you characterize John Pope’s moral compass?
[Spoiler Alert!] He’s not the nicest guy in the world. He’s certainly an opportunist. He’s entirely and completely out for himself. When it comes to helping the Second Massachusetts, if it’s good for John Pope, he’ll do it. If it isn’t, he won’t. The really interesting thing about Pope is that I don’t think you’re going to get some giant arc where he goes from sinner to saint. I think he’ll go from sinner to sinner with a small glimmer of humanity.
How do you play the charisma of the character? Because he has a ton of intense, attractive attitude.
Well, it’s there on the page. But it was something I generated for the audition. I knew they were having some trouble casting the part, and I just knew – or at least I could imagine – that a lot of other actors would just come in and read this stuff pretty straight. I was like: No! This guy is theatrical. This guy is part Shakespeare’s Puck and part Hannibal Lecter. So I saw him being very animated, very theatrical. A lot of the choices I was making in early episodes, I was just hoping they wouldn’t come back to bite me on the ass, because I did feel I was taking some chances, and was given the latitude to do so. And under the tutelage of our director Greg Beeman and support of an actor like Noah Wyle, we just went for it.
The long scene you had with Noah in the second episode seemed to be pretty crucial for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that it told us what kind of show this was going to be. It wasn’t always going to go-go-go action/warring with aliens, which I don’t think a TV show can afford to be, anyway.
No, you’re right. I thought in the moment: This is a lot of talking. A lot of acting. No visual effects, no explosions, no machine guns going off. I thought it was going to be a real litmus test for the show. Can we have this much dialogue, between two people, in a sci-fi show like this? We were able to make something that was pretty cool. And you know, that’s all Spielberg, too. The hallmark of his work is great characters, because as much as the effects and visuals are amazing, if you don’t care about these people, who gives a damn? It’s about the people, the people, the people. And I think that’s what makes Falling Skies as special as it’s been.