Past Life's Price Whatley (Nicholas Bishop) and Dr.Kate McGinn (Kelli Giddish). Photo by Craig Blankenhorn and copyright of Fox
HAVE you ever experienced déjà vu or met someone you thought seemed familiar? Do you believe in karma, fate or love at first sight? Have you ever had an out-of-body experience?
From writer David Hudgins (Friday Night Lights) and inspired by the book The Reincarnationist by M.J. Rose, comes Past Life, a new Fox Television drama series about an unlikely pair of detectives who investigate the world of the unexplained. Dr. Kate McGinn (Kelli Giddish) is not your typical psychologist. Confident, outspoken and highly educated, she works at The Talmadge Center for Behavioral Health in New York City, a world-renowned institute dedicated to the study of science of the soul. After experiencing a past-life regression in her 20s, Kate became a believer in reincarnation. Using therapy and her natural gift for reading people, Kate helps solve the mysteries of her troubled clients by investigating their consciousness. She believes that there are levels of consciousness and explanations for human behaviour that science can’t begin to explain. Accustomed to skeptics, but not bothered by them, Kate is an unapologetic believer and a force of nature who marches to the beat of her own drum.
Kate’s partner, Price Whatley (Nicholas Bishop), is a different story. A former NYPD homicide detective, pragmatic and cynical, Price is a damaged soul who constantly battles grief and guilt over the accidental death of his wife. He feels that Kate, though not certifiable, certainly operates on the fringes of science. Theirs is a volatile relationship, but with Price’s solid detective skills and Kate’s penchant for out-of-the-box thinking, together they make a formidable, albeit somewhat dysfunctional, team.
A fast-paced emotional thrill ride, each episode of Past Life finds Price and Kate working with their colleagues to unravel a new mystery and solve the mysterious of consciousness. Dr. Malachi Talmadge (Richard Schiff) is Kate’s mentor and the center’s namesake, an avuncular but gruff elder statesman who is a legend in the field of cognitive research. Dr. Rishi Karna (Ravi Patel) is the rookie of the group, a baby-faced therapist from Calcutta who loves bad American TV, Cuban jazz and driving everyone crazy.
Series lead Kelli Giddish and creator/executive producer David Hudgins spoke with myself and several other journalists last week about Past Life and what viewers can expect from the series. The following is an edited Q & A from our conversation. Enjoy!
Kelli, can you tell us a little bit about how you first became involved in the series and some of the acting challenges you found stepping into the Dr. McGinn role?
KELLI GIDDISH - Well, there’s a pilot season every year and this is actually one of the first projects I went out for probably a year ago. I really loved the character and went right in for it. Actually, David and Deran Serafian, the director of the pilot, and [executive producer] Lou Pitt were all down in Baltimore [Maryland] and I was living in New York at the time. I went in, tested for the role and it went from there. They had found Nick Bishop [Price Whatley], so it kind of just rolled into a project from there. When I first got the script, Dr. McGinn was someone who I immediately connected with in terms of just a through-line for me. I immediately felt like I didn’t have to take a lot away from myself to play her. I just got to add on layers, one being that she believes in a system of reincarnation and past lives and that’s her way to help people. A challenge which I think will be really nice to see her overcome as a character, and one for me as an actor, is to really get the patients on her side. I think she really acts as an emotional conduit to individuals who are having trouble or experiencing trauma that Kate assumes is somehow connected to their past lives.
David, where did your inspiration for this series come from, and what were some of the challenges, both creative and production-wise, getting the show off the ground?
DAVID HUDGINS - First let me add to what Kelli was just saying. The way we cast Kelli Giddish in this role was very unique. Here’s what happened. I got her audition on tape, which is actually an e-mail they send. I was sitting at my computer and I queued it up, watched it and was absolutely blown away. In the moment I said to myself, “That is Kate. That is exactly who I had in mind.” So we flew Kelli down to Baltimore and screen-tested her for this pilot, which is not that common anymore these days. As soon as we did that and showed it to the studio as well as the network, everybody agreed that she was perfect for the role. I just think that there was good karma from the beginning with Kelli.
In terms of my inspiration, the series is inspired by a book called The Reincarnationist, written by M. J. Rose. I had a pilot deal with Warner Bros. who sent me the book and asked me to read it, which I did. Frankly, I didn’t really have any expectations when I picked up the book, but as soon as I finished it I was immediately engaged. I thought, “This is an incredibly cool world.” It was a world that I was not that familiar with, so I immediately began doing research and started talking with people. I happened to see a three-part special on Oprah that she was doing with a guy named Dr. Brian Weiss about past lives and regression. I just got hooked immediately and thought it was such an interesting, different and unique world. From a storytelling point of view, what I love about it is that it’s so wide open. There are so many different stories you can tell based on this world. I came up with this franchise of the Past Life detective team and building around that just sort of went forward with the series and creating these characters.
You asked about production challenges. One of the great things about this show and, frankly, something that we were pretty surprised with when the pilot and first episode started coming together, is that there are these regression episodes within the shows where the patients are basically having flashbacks. They’re going back and experiencing their past lives, and we really wanted to give those sequences a unique look. Deran Serafian did an amazing job with that, and he came in and created this visual style that’s very cinematic as well as scary and fast-paced. What we ended up with were these really interesting sort of mini-thillers that play throughout each episode, which were a challenge to shoot because there’s a lot of different coverage and a lot of different pieces that you have to get. At one point, Deran was running through a forest with the camera in his hands. I mean, it was that much fun and that sort of outlaw style of shooting, and it really worked and cut together well. We then developed a whole system for filming these regressions with a second unit. It required a lot of cutting and a lot more visual effects than we originally anticipated. We actually hired a special editor to do the visual effects and edit those sequences. So that was a challenge to do the regression episodes. The rest of it was really just a dream. We had a really wonderful crew in Atlanta [Georgia] and it was a great time.
Kelli, are there any similarities between you and your character?
KG - Well, yes, I think so. In the script, Kate McGinn is a girl from Texas. She drives a big old pickup truck, and so did I for a long time, with a stick shift as well as a camper top. On an emotional level, she tries to calmly guide people, as opposed to beating them over the head with her agenda or her beliefs. She does her job in a way that gets people on her side and allows her to heal them. As a Southern woman you can kind of get into peoples’ heads in a way that maybe other people can’t. Like I said, with this character there was a lot of stuff that I didn’t feel like I had to take away from myself to play her. It was just kind of adding layers on.
David, what have you learned from your experience of putting this show together and from your past lives research?
DH - From the past lives research, well, number one is to be open-minded. One of the things about the show that I think is really interesting and that people are responding to is this question of what if? We’re not our here preaching to the world about reincarnation. We’re not saying it’s this way or that way. What we’re basically saying it let’s go on a ride here. Let’s ask the question, ”What if this were real?” Think about all the possibilities that that opens up and all the stories we can tell. So I have learned to be incredibly open-minded about it. I’ve learned that there is an entire world of people out there who are fascinated by this stuff, not only in the United States, but all over the world, and I feel like it’s something we’re tapping into. It’s wish-fulfillment in a way, and it’s also a fantasy show. There are definitely Sci-Fi and paranormal elements to the show as well, all of which come together with these great characters.
Kelli, can you tell us anything about the relationship between your character and Richard Schiff’s character?
KG - Well, he’s her mentor. I think as the series goes along we’re going to find out more about what exactly they mean to each other in terms of personally, but professionally, they think very much alike. At the same time, he sometimes thinks around things in a way that maybe Kate hasn’t gotten to quite yet. Sometimes he can simplify things in a great, creative way that perhaps my character misses. So it’s neat to see his character as well as his perspective on things inform the work that Kate is doing.
David, will Kelli’s character have any romance on the show?
DH - Oh, yes, she will. I mean, you can’t look at that character and not wonder if there is a romantic interest in her life. It’s interesting, any time you have a show with a male and female lead, there is always the question of of a romantic relationship between the two of them. What’s great about Kelli and Nick Bishop is that there’s obviously chemistry. We saw that in the screen-test; we saw that the first time we got together and put them on film, and it really translates to the screen. We all know that it’s there, but as a storyteller and creator of the show, it’s also something you have to be careful with, you know, hooking your two leads up, I guess would be the phrase. For now, I think their relationship is strictly professional. They’ve got a lot of issues to work out in their personal and professional lives, so right now they’re just friends. But, again, there is definitely chemistry between the two of them, and as to whether or not that goes anywhere, hopefully people will tune in to find out. Dr. McGinn is single and she lives at home right now with her dog and her mother, who is very interested in her daughter getting out there and meeting people.
Kelli, have you done any research or met any people who have challenged or changed your belief system in any way [with regard to past lives]?
KG - Well, as David was saying, it’s been kind of neat to see how much of an interest there is in all this stuff and belief in reincarnation and past lives. I actually went and did my own regression, mainly to check out the woman who was doing them. I went to see if she was a “kook,” you know, and to see what type of person would be doing past life regressions as her job. She wasn’t a kook, though. She had blonde hair, was around 32, from Texas – it was like Kate McGinn in real life. I did that regression, which was on the Upper West side in New York, and what was interesting about it was that when she pulled me out of the hypnosis she asked me, “How long to do you think you were under?” I said, “Like half-an-hour. It was great though, thanks.” She said, “An hour-and-forty-five minutes.” I said, “No kidding? Wow!” So I have an hour or so unaccounted for where I was off being an Alaskan boy and a fruit picker in the 1930s. Whether or not I really believe I was an Alaskan Native-American, I’m not sure, but I came out of her office really feeling light on my feet and looking around at things with a little gleam in my eye. It was nice. We play that what-if game with ourselves all the time, and this is certainly a wide-open world in which to do that.
Kelli, do you have any special message for the guys here in your home town who might be checking out the show?
KG - It was such a great experience to be able to come home and know, for example, that there were biscuits and gravy just around the corner; the teamsters fixed chicken and dumplings out in the parking lot during one day of filming. There was always sweet tea as well on the tables at lunch, so all that was certainly nice to come back to. I left [Atlanta] when I was 18, and you can’t really go downtown and listen to music and have a drink when you’re that age, so it was wonderful to really be able to explore Atlanta, and it was like being introduced to a new city, too, because so much has changed there in the last decade.
DH - Atlanta was fantastic. That was my favorite part of the whole experience, being able to shoot there. The crews were incredible. We got so many looks out of Atlanta. It was just an absolute pleasure to be there, and by the way, we can’t wait to come back. Our sets and our wardrobes and props are all sitting on our stage behind a locked door. We’re ready to come back.
Kelli, what has been your most memorable moment so far from filming Past Life?
KG - The most memorable things that happened on the set were with the guest-stars and being surprised at their ability and talent to go into all these regressions that we had them go into and seeing each person do it in a totally different way. I have to say my favorite, I think, was Juliette, the girl who played Sarah. She was around 12 years old, and I just remember being on-set with her and she knew more words to Beatles’ songs than I did. I was just so impressed. I was like, youth is not lost. They’re OK.
DH - What about the improv dance at three in the morning?
KG - Yes, that was amazing. We were working with Dean White, who is our directing producer, or producing director, however it goes. He had been with us the entire time in Atlanta and was directing this episode. David was there, too. It was three in the morning and we’re shooting the last scene of the day, and of that episode, when Dean put on this song, Ooh-la-la by Rod Stewart. Nick Bishop and I just started dancing in the middle of Talmadge Center and it got captured on film. It was such an organic and beautiful thing that came out of this really great conversation that had been written. We just began improv-ing with each other and all of a sudden I’m begging him to dance and we’re laughing our heads off. It was great.
David, can you tell us exactly why people will want to tune in to watch Past Life?
DH - Well, first of all, I think they’re going to be immensely entertained. It’s a mystery show, we’re solving a mystery each week, but we’re doing it in a way that is different because of the past life angle. It’s a very satisfying viewing experience because you’re seeing a mystery being solved from start to finish in a very different and unique way. We’re also doing it with characters that are arguing about it as they go along, who are also agreeing on certain things as well as taking different approaches, and the conflict part of it, I think, is very entertaining and informative, but fun, too. At the end of the day, the episodes are really about hope because patients are, in 90% of the cases, being healed. They’re not always going to be healed, but most are. It’s just a very satisfying experience and very emotional, I have to say. It’s sort of a rollercoaster ride in each episode. There are great comedy moments in the show, and there are also scary moments with these regression episodes. Each week, though, in doing all the cuts, what’s consistent each time are the performances of Kelli, Nick and all the other actors. It’s really amazing just to go on the ride with them each week and see them do their thing.
The Price Whatley character is a cynic; how important is it for the show to have a cynic there to challenge Kate and the other team members about their thoughts and hypotheses?
KG - I think it’s a pretty important character for the audience. If I were watching the show, I’d want to see the other side, and I think Price does that very well and a lot of humor comes out of it.
DH - The skeptic and the believer is sort of a classic twosome, but what Kelli and Nick did is bring a lot of romance to it. Price Whatley, who is played by Nick Bishop, is not completely one note. He’s not just sitting there in every episode saying, “I don’t believe.” He goes on a journey and Kate takes him on that journey, and that’s what I think is interesting to me. Price is sort of voicing the other side of the coin in a lot of episodes, but he’s also going on a journey because of his back story with his wife, who accidentally died.
Can you tell us a little about the rest of the team. We’ve heard about Richard Schiff’s character, but there are a few other characters; maybe you can shed some light on them?
DH - There are four people working at the Talmadge Center on this team. I look at them as a family, both personally and professionally. On a professional level, Richard Schiff’s character, Malachi Talmadge, is the boss. He’s the namesake of the center. He’s the one who sorts through all the cases and who all the questions and decisions go through. He puts the team through their paces each week. It’s sort of like the Socratic Method in that they bounce ideas off him and he sends them off on certain journeys and tasks.
Of course, you’ve got Kelli’s character, Dr. McGinn, a psychologist, who was actually one of Malachi’s graduate students. Nick’s character is a former NYPD detective. Price’s job is to essentially take the clues that Dr. McGinn gets out of the regressions and use his detective chops to solve what happened in the past life. Ravi Patel plays Dr. Rishi Karna, who is a great character. Dr. Karna is the team’s medical doctor. His specialty his cognitive research and brain science. He’s this incredibly smart, quirky and funny student of the human brain. He is medically involved with the patients each week and sort of looks at all the possible physical causes of their symptoms. He’s also the rookie of the group and sort of like the younger brother to Kelli’s older sister. Nick’s character is kind of like the new fiancé and Richard’s is kind of like the Dad.
I know that each life has some lesson you’re supposed to learn, and I know what mine is, but have you ever thought about what yours might be in this current life?
KG – Well, you know what, as an actor it’s almost an exact parallel, really. I mean, with every project that you’re involved in and with every character that you’ve invested in, you learn something from that experience. I know that sounds a little cheesy, but it’s true. You learn something and then get to apply it to what you do next.
DH - It’s funny, I’ve obviously been talking with a lot of people over the past couple of weeks insofar as doing press and publicity for the show, and several people have asked me similar questions or asked if there is a spiritual aspect to the show. I used to be a lawyer and I quit to start writing, and one of the reasons I did that was that I had an older sister who was sick – she had breast cancer – and it just got me to this moment of really looking at my life and saying what do I really want to do? What is really going to make me happy? Do I want to look back when I’m 65 years old and regret not ever having taken the chance or the risk? I think that informed the writing of this pilot, for sure, and probably the series. I can’t say exactly how, but there is just this feeling I have that life is short, and when you see somebody you love get sick and die, it really hammers that point home. I wanted this show to be about hope. I wanted it to be about the fact that there is good out there.
Past Life premieres Tuesday, February 9th @ 9:00 p.m. EST/PST and then settles into its weekly slot beginning Thursday, February 11th @ 9:00 p.m. EST/PST.
As noted above, the photo is by Craig Blankenhorn and copyright of Fox Television, so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any kind. Thanks!