International Space Organization (ISO) Astronaut Rollie Crane was a man on top of the world. After five years of training, he was ready to command a team of three other men and four women, including his wife, biologist Jen Crane, on a six-year mission to explore the other planets sharing Earth’s solar system. Then, suddenly, Rollie’s dream was snatched away from him and his long-anticipated journey to the stars was over before it even began. While he could not dispute the reason behind this,it was no less discouraging and heartbreaking, especially having to be separated from Jen. However, as he later tells a colleague, Rollie has to follow his own advice to “suck it up” and get on with his job. Sharing his burden is Ty Olsson, who plays Rollie in Defying Gravity, and while both the character and the actor suit one another, things could have turned out much differently.
“When my manager and I first got wind of this project, I put myself on tape because I wasn’t available for the actual audition,” says Olsson. “From that tape, the show’s casting people brought me in for a live audition, and I ended up trying out for three different roles. I think I put Maddux Donner on tape first [a role that ultimately went to Ron Livingston], then I read for Ted Shaw [Malik Yoba], and twice for Rollie. My last audition was for Ted, and it’s funny because I remember [executive producer] Michael Edelstein saying, ‘Oh, I think the Ted character is perfect for you.’ Then, of course, Rollie was the one that came down the pike, which, honestly, I think is a perfect fit.”
In Defying Gravity‘s first season opener, Rollie and a fellow member of the Antares crew are called back to Earth prior to the actual start of the mission. Both men are found to have a previously undiagnosed heart condition and there is no other recourse but to ground them. Ted Shaw is chosen as the Antares’ new commander, while Rollie is reassigned as capsule communicator. Rather than experiencing the mission in-person, he must watch it unfold from in front of a monitor in ISO’s Mission Control. Like his fellow actors, Olsson was suitably impressed when he saw Rollie’s working digs for the first time.
“I think you get a feel for the creative minds behind a project when you walk onto the sets for the first time, and when I saw Mission Control I thought it looked like a movie set,” recalls the actor. “I was just blown away by its level of detail and that of the Antares set. It’s comforting to look around and think, ‘OK, they put the money in the right place. This is a really good set to play on.’ That’s easily my first memory of working on Defying Gravity. I’m sitting in the [production office] board room right now and looking at the dozens of drawings and pictures on the wall of the Antares bio lab, the medical bay, the flight deck, Mission Control, etc. It’s unbelievable the amount of work and creativity that has gone into preparing this series, and it shows on the screen.
“Besides the sets, I can’t talk about our first episode without mentioning [director] David Straiton. He is the wackiest and funniest dude and he has such a cool creative energy about him. When you start a new show you don’t know what the people who are running the ship will be like. And from David, you get a sense that he’s a guy who allows you to play as well as make bold [acting] choices and doesn’t pigeonhole you into his idea only of how a scene should go. So I felt like everyone from the bottom up had the same type of creative energy that flows together. Our camera crew is the same one that worked on Battlestar Galactica and in my mind are some of the best in the business.
“When I saw those guys were signed up, and I got to meet David, and I’d already met Michael Edelstein, I knew I’d be very happy working in this place for the next five or six months. I’m very critical of the stuff I’m in, but I have no qualms about saying that this is a top-notch show and one that came together quite well. I mean, you look at the first episodes of some shows, even huge hits, and think, ‘Wow, they weren’t really gelled there.’ Some first episodes never look as good as the ones that follow, but I have to say that ours looks really tight.”
Fans of Defying Gravity know that its story is told in present day/Mission Control time as well as in flashbacks. So besides seeing Rollie at work, you also get to see him during training for the Antares mission, which is when he and Jen (Christina Cox) first met. As one of “the boys,” Rollie joined his fellow astronauts for beers at the local watering hole, and even took part in a bet with their female colleagues that he and the other male astronauts could overcome the effects of a libido-inhibitor patch designed for use during their mission. While he is still just as good-natured, loyal and kind, Rollie has grown since his training days, which has allowed Olsson to show more facets of his character.
“When I originally auditioned for Rollie, I was told that they [the show's producers/writers] were going to go a different way with the character and make him a little goofier and a bit of a nerd,” he notes. “I gave them a version of that when I read for the part, but later on when I got the job and read the first script. I realized that Rollie wasn’t really like that. So I decided to kind of go against that and made him somewhat stoic, very professional and, for lack of a better word, a quarterback. I wanted him to be the high school quarterback/all-American type of guy who is always above-board and could be relied on to get the job done. The character read to me like someone who should be commanding a multi-billion dollar space mission.
“So that was an acting challenge because I was coming in with something performance-wise that I hadn’t really shown them. Luckily, an episode or two into shooting, Michael said to me, ‘We really like what you’ve done with your character.’ I thought, ‘Whew,’ because you’re never sure how something like that is going to turn out.
“The other thing I’ve tried to layer into Rollie, in particular during the flashback sequences, is to make it seem that he was much more easygoing and a bit wilder in his younger days. I think he experiences a lot in the five years heading up to the mission that kind of change him. Again, you never know how it’s all going to play out, but in my mind Rollie is much goofier and younger in behavior in the flashbacks than he is in present-day as the former commander of the Antares. So that’s been tricky, to kind kind of keep that in my back pocket and not make my character one level all the time. You don’t want anyone to come across as one-dimensional, so it’s a matter of trying to keep him all those things that I’ve talked about, but also make him a real person with flaws and who occasionally has chinks taken out of his ‘armor.’ Also, we haven’t pinpointed 100% when Rollie found out about Beta, but I’m guessing it was fairly late in the preparation leading up to the mission, and something like that has to change your outlook on life a little bit.”
The aforementioned “Beta” that the actor referred to is, in fact, an unseen enigma that appears to be manipulating events regarding the Antares mission. It is inferred that Beta is responsible for the medical condition that led to Rollie and Chief Engineer Ajay Sharma (Zahf Paroo) being removed from the mission. This also meant that Rollie’s and Jen’s outer space “honeymoon” would not take place. Instead, they spent some time alone together on the Antares observation deck before Rollie returned home to Earth.
“I think Rollie had a crush on Jen from day one,” says Olsson. “When it comes to relationships with the opposite sex, that’s one area where he’s not the star quarterback who whisks women off their feet. He’s not a great pick-up artist. I think he’s slightly shell-shocked by Jen as well as a little love struck in the early days and slow to take action. Part of that could have been that he was a superior officer within the [mission] program at the time. Rollie is hopelessly in love with her, though, and falls for Jen early on. The chemistry between them is fun to play, and Christina Cox is terrific to work opposite. She’s very giving and listens as an actor, and the two of us have had a great time exploring who these two characters are as a couple.
“Christina and I have had some wonderful scenes via video conferencing between Jen on the Antares and Rollie back on Earth, and the funny thing is we don’t actually do the scenes together. I don’t remember which episode it was, but I was doing one of these calls with Christina on the other end and, of course, they hadn’t shot her portion of it yet. We did it a few times, and one of the great things about [director] Peter Howitt is that he has this belief that an actor should be able to do one take for himself – even if it’s terrible, even if it’s stupid, even if it’s in another language – which is awesome.
“We did the scene as scripted and then I asked Peter if I could do one [take] for myself and he said, ‘Sure.’ So I just let it rip, and I’m sure it was my best take of the day. That’s something I truly appreciate as an actor. When a director trusts you enough to say, ‘Have a freebie. This one’s for you. Do whatever you want,’ that, as an actor, is gold for me.”
A husband, father and actor, Olsson was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, and, like many people in the business, never imagined that he would one day make this his career. “I actually went to a performing arts high school, and from grade nine onwards I did two hours of drama a day. So I had the [acting] bug, but because I was never one to think what tomorrow might bring, I never considered this as a possible profession,” explains the actor.
“It wasn’t until my final year of high school, when I still had no idea what I was going to do with my life, that it dawned on me that everyone else was trying out for theater schools and I thought, ‘Wow, people can actually make a living at this. That’s awesome. I’m going to try it, too.’ I’ve lived a somewhat blessed life in that way, having been pushed and nudged in the right direction and I’m very grateful for that.”
The actor chuckles when asked about his on-camera debut. “My wife loves to tell this story. My first paying job ever for movies or TV was The X-Files [season five's Kitsunegari] when the program was at the height of its popularity. I came home from work and my wife asked, ‘How was it?’ And all I could say was, ‘The catering was amazing! They had steak, prawns, salads, fruit, desserts…’ My very first professional day as an actor and the biggest thing I had to talk about was the food,” jokes Olsson.
“Daniel Sackheim directed this episode, and he’s a super-intense guy. I told him years later when I worked with him again that I thought he was going to have a heart attack on The X-Files. I remember doing a scene where I was supposed to grab a doorknob and open the door as part of a spooky X-Files storyline. We did 14 takes, and I began to sweat and get really nervous. I wondered, ‘Why do we keep doing this over and over? What the hell am I screwing up?’
“I think it was one of the crew who finally noticed that I was starting to sweat, and he leaned over to me and said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s not you. He [the director] thinks he’s shooting a feature [film].’ I was like, ‘Thank God,’ because I was going crazy trying to figure out how I could get something like that wrong. Those were the glory days, though. I was on that set for five days shooting the opening teaser and I had a blast.”
Olsson has since appeared in several made-for-TV movies as well as miniseries and guest-starred on dozens of other shows such as Dead Man’s Gun, Cold Squad, The Outer Limits, Tru Calling, The L Word and Eureka. The actor also played the recurring roles of Captain Aaron Kelly in Battlestar Galactica and Danny in the Stephen King miniseries Kingdom Hospital.
“I was a huge fan of Battlestar Galactica and all the people who worked on it, so I was thrilled whenever I got a call from the producers telling me that they were bringing Captain Kelly back,” he says. “It was a fun show to work on and a bit stressful as well. This was a group of people who worked together for years and shot dozens of episodes, and I’d come back and have to remember how to pronounce some of the technical terms. I loved the challenge, though, and when I did the show, I also did my homework to make sure I was up to speed on everything.
“Kingdom Hospital was a great show to work on as well,” continues Olsson. “It was weird as well as creepy and creatively really on the edge in a lot of ways. My character of Danny was a paramedic and most of my scenes were with Ben Ratner, who is terrific to work with. I first met him during, I believe, a second callback for the part. The casting people were pairing actors up to read and they put us together. Ben and I chatted in the hall for 30 seconds, went into the audition room, did the scene, and the director looked at us and asked, ‘How long have you two been working together?’ It was one of those instant chemistry things where Ben and I just hit it off really well, and that’s always a bonus.”
On the big screen, Olsson’s credits include Lake Placid, Missing in America, Elektra, The Day the Earth Stood Still and X2: X-Men United as Mitchell Laurio. “A job like that is a dream come true insofar as getting to work with all those people with such amazing careers,” says the actor. “I was telling someone not too long ago that I put on 35 pounds in three weeks for this role. When I was hired, I was told, ‘Hey, we want you to go on a beer and pizza diet.’ Well, you don’t have to tell me twice. I already admitted how much I love the catering at work.
“Wardrobe took my measurements three days after I got the job and I told them that I was going to put on some weight. When I went for my first costume fitting there was something like a three-inch gap between the button and buttonhole of my pants. I came back three weeks later and there was still a gap because I’d gotten that much bigger, so they had to switch pants. On the first day of filming, there was another three-inch gap, so they had to let the pants out again. After Ian McKellen [Eric Lensherr/Magneto] found out I’d put all that weight on, he would come over to me every day, pat my stomach and ask if I needed anything from craft services,” laughs the actor.
Around the world, there are people who begrudgingly get up every morning and go to work, but Olsson is not one of them. “I’m so lucky to be doing something that makes me happy,” he enthuses. “I like to audition, I like to work, I like to be on-set and I love the creative process and problem solving. I also enjoy surprising people and being the guy who doesn’t look like an actor but who has a great deal to offer.
“Growing up, I was a daydreamer, and my daughter is the same. It makes me so happy when she says, ‘I’m going to bed early because I would like to daydream before I go to sleep.’ That was me to a tee. I used to love to lay in bed and daydream, and now I get to make those daydreams my career. I should have been born in a different time, too. I’ve always felt I was in the wrong time-line, and this [acting] is my way of finding those alternate realities that I fit into.”
Defying Gravity is produced by Fox Television Studios and OmniFilm Productions, in association with the BBC, Canada’s CTV and Germany’s ProSieben. As noted above, all photos by Kharen Hill or Sergei Bachlakov, so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any form. Thanks!