What if your job required you to go away for a very, very, long time, say six years? And what if that journey would take you far, far, away from your loved ones and all else that is familiar to you, say, eight billion miles? You would want someone who was on the ball and with plenty of experience watching your back, right? On ABC’s new Sci-Fi drama Defying Gravity, that person is Mike Goss. As flight director of the spaceship Antares, his post is Earth’s Mission Control where he oversees a team of eight astronauts on a journey to explore Venus as well as other planets in our solar system. Production-wise it was almost down to the wire when the show’s producers offered actor Andrew Airlie the chance to step into the shoes of the calm, cool, collected and by-the-book Goss.
“I came into the [casting] process a bit late into the game,” notes Airlie. “I don’t think the casting directors had suggested me to [executive producers] Michael Edelstein and Jim Parriott because at the time I was under contract to another series and wasn’t really available to audition. However, it was getting, I believe,down to the wire and they still hadn’t nailed down anyone for Goss. So casting directors Heike [Brandstatter] and Corren [Mayrs] suggested me to the producers and brought me in to audition.
“So it came up quite suddenly, and I didn’t know much about the show other than the ‘DNA’ of it, which was that Michael Edelstein and Jim Parriott were two of the executive producers and I was familiar with their work and reputation. I also knew that Ron Livingston [Chief Engineer Maddux Donner] was attached to the project, and I’m a huge fan of his work. I thought, ‘Well, all that’s a pretty good start.’
“When I went in to audition I hadn’t read the full script, only the two audition scenes, but I thought the writing was terrific and I really liked the character. He’s so different from most of the roles I play. Very often I’m cast as the nice guy, and Mike Goss isn’t especially worried about being a nice guy. He has an enormous mission to run and he’s not interested in making friends or having others think favorably of him. He’s a get-the-job-done-type of guy and that intrigued me. So I went in and had what I thought was a good audition, and Jim and Michael must have felt the same way because they said, ‘OK, get him. ‘ As it turned out, the other series I was working on didn’t get renewed, so I was able to come over to Defying Gravity and I couldn’t have been happier.”
Born in Glasgow, Scotland, Airlie was around nine or ten years old when he began thinking about what he would like to do when he grew up. Acting was on the list, only not at the top. “I always had it in my mind that I was going to be a professional soccer player until I turned 30 – which when you’re 10 years old means you’re an old man and pretty much done as a player – and then immediately become an actor,” he recalls. “Both my parents loved the cinema and as a child they took me to films a lot. And as so many children sitting in a dark movie theater and looking up at the screen, it was magical and I wanted to be up there, too.
“I kicked around on the edges of professional soccer and player semi-pro for a couple of years, but then I realized that I was a dime-a-dozen kind of central defender player and decided instead to pursue an education. I went on to get my undergraduate degree and a Masters in international relations and was accepted to Columbia University to begin a PhD. I was 26 or 27, and the summer before going to Columbia, I said to myself, ‘I’ve got to give acting a shot, otherwise 20 years or so from now I’m going to regret it.’
“I wrote to Columbia to ask for a year’s deferral, and then naively went out, got some headshots taken and wrote a very scholarly-sounding letter to all the agents in Toronto saying that I wanted to pursue acting. I had three meetings and two of the agencies offered to take me on. I chose one and the next day they sent me to audition for a beer commercial. I got the job as well as the next two I went out for. I thought, ‘This is a lark. It’s like falling off a horse,’” jokes the actor. “Of course, there were lean patches after that, but I got off to a pretty good start. My third job was a campaign for Cathay Pacific Airlines and I went to Hong Kong for a month and it was so much fun. From there I began to make contacts and found out who I should study with. So I took classes and then started to climb the ladder with bit parts, then small principle roles, followed by principle roles and worked my way up that way.”
No stranger to moviegoers and TV watchers, the actor has appeared in such feature films as The Freshman, Fear, Final Destination 2, Fantastic Four and the upcoming Dear Mr. Gacy. On TV, Airlie has appeared on dozens of series including The Commish, The X-Files, The 4400, DaVinci’s Inquest and Mysterious Ways.
The actor makes his Defying Gravity debut in the show’s first season opener. His character of Mike Goss is seen prepping the crew of the Antares for its mission. Audiences also see his involvement in a prior expedition to Mars where he ordered Maddux Donner and Ted Shaw (Malik Yoba) to leave their fellow astronauts behind. This has led to a somewhat strained professional relationship between him and Donner, and in the first episode, both men have a heated verbal exchange, and later on, Goss is on the receiving end of Donner’s fist. All this proved immensely satisfying for Airlie to play.
“That first episode remains one of my favorites,” he says. “My character was involved quite heavily in it, and when we were filming it there was all this new energy. This project was new for everyone, and everyone wants to set the bar really high with their first episode, so I just remember everyone bringing their best work to the table. Not that that hasn’t continued since, but you can really feel it when everyone is on the same page and you’re not in the dog days of filming and the cast and crew are tired. The energy was just extraordinary, and also everyone was trying to find the tone of the show in a collaborative way, so it was fantastic.
“I also had the opportunity to do a number of scenes with Ron in the series opener, more so than in later ones because his character is up in space and mine is back on Earth. The only other opportunity is in flashbacks, and Mike Goss tends to be slightly less involved in the flashbacks, so having those early scenes with Ron was a fantastic experience because he’s just gold to work with. The scene where Donner punches Goss was great to shoot, as was the one where my character chews Donner out after he jumps the British reporter. That’s one of my favorite scenes, and I remember thinking on the day we shot it, ‘Wow, I hope we got all that,’ because we did it at the end of the day and it was kind of a crushed and compressed scene. However, when I saw it in the final cut, I loved it. The way [director] David Straiton composed it and the way our camera guys shot it through some of the steel railings and from a lower angle worked so well. Everything that scene needed was there, so hats off to those guys.”
While Mike Goss may not worry if people like him or not, he still has to carry himself in a professional manner while on the Mission Control floor as well as maintain a certain rapport with those around him. “Mike is someone who is married to the space program – it comes before everything else, so friendships aren’t especially important to him or on the forefront of his mind,” explains Airlie. “That said, his relationship with Karen LeBlanc’s character of Eve Shaw has certainly warmed up a little bit. In the beginning, especially in the flashbacks, he is quite resentful of the fact that someone with no scientific or astronaut training or other serious professional credentials is assigned as sort of his equal. On some levels, Eve may have higher security access than Mike’s, or certainly as high as his, and I think it annoys him that he has to work with an individual who he doesn’t respect on a professional level.
“Mike’s other primary relationship is with Maddux Donner, and I’ve really enjoyed exploring that, especially in the flashbacks where we’ve tried to show that Mike isn’t a hard-ass for no reason. He doesn’t personally dislike Donner and, in fact, I’ve tried to make it clear that Mike does acknowledge that Donner is one of the best astronauts he’s ever worked with. It’s one of those things where when someone rubs you the wrong way, quite often it’s because of a characteristic you wish you had, or had more of, you know? With Mike and Donner, it’s the fact that Donner is a maverick, and Mike probably resents as well as envies that.
“So he may not ultimately respect Donner the way that he should, but Mike knows that Donner is as good, if not better, an astronaut than he was, and it’s probably that maverick sense and his ability to follow his gut that bothers Mike. My character won’t make the gut instinct call. He knows what the procedure is and what the book says you should do every step of the way. Mike won’t deviate from the book, and Donner will. So that’s been a real pleasure to play with Ron, and in a couple of scenes I’ve tried to make Goss push Donner to a couple of cliffs to try to get him to step over the line. Hopefully it will come across that my character isn’t doing that just to be a jerk, but rather that he’s testing Donner and trying to make him an even better astronaut.”
It is revealed in the first two episodes of Defying Gravity that there is a mysterious presence – referred to as “Beta” – that is the real guiding force behind the Antares mission. However, only Mike Goss, Eve Shaw, her husband Ted, who is in command of the Antares, and a few select others are aware of this. As the first season unfolds, this unseen force pushes events in a specific direction, and Mike has to roll with the punches.
“What I’ve come to realize with Mike as we go along in these first 13 episodes is that he’s coming to grips with the fact that he’s a control freak, but he’s not going to be able to hold onto that control the way he always thought he could,” says Airlie. “He’s not going to be able to manage every moment of this mission the way he wants, but he’s never going to give up on the hope that he can. Early on, I think my character was a little more frustrated in his experiences, especially having to work with Eve and the role she plays in the mission. In some of the latter episodes, though, he’s been slightly more collaborative with her and more accepting of the fact that you simply cannot micromanage a project of this scope and size. So I’m trying to find those moments just to show added shades of this character and make him a little more accepting of that reality.”
Prior to Defying Gravity, Airlie appeared on Reaper. He played John Oliver, who, together with his wife (played by Allison Hossack) sold their son Sam’s (Bret Harrison) soul to the Devil in order to save John, who was gravely ill at the time. “I have a warm place in my heart for Reaper,” says the actor. “I truly loved my time on that show. When I originally asked my agent to pursue the role of John Oliver, the [script] specs on him were rather vague. He was more or less described as a 50-ish Dad who doesn’t quite get it.
“I had my first audition with the producers, who had several callbacks for the role, and they ended up casting me. When we shot the pilot, the very first scene is where Sam wakes up on his 21st birthday and his parents are having a conspiratorial argument of sorts at the bottom of the stairs. When they see Sam, John says to him, ‘Hey, Sam, you look great. I’ll be there in a minute.’ We rehearsed the scene, locked the cameras and the director, Kevin Smith, walked over to me at the last minute and said, ‘Dude, they told you about this guy, right?’ I said, ‘No, not really,’ and Kevin said, ‘I love what you’re doing, I really do, but I just thought I would give you one other thing to think about – Dad is probably not human.’ Then he turned to the crew and said, ‘OK, roll sound! Action!’
“So for me, that remained one of the challenges, certainly in the first season, where from an acting standpoint I was never really told what my character’s background was. I knew he sold his first-born son’s soul to the Devil, but it was never confirmed to me until literally the end of season one that he’d probably been here [on Earth] before. They also didn’t quite go so far as to tell me that Dad was going to be a demon. That was something [series creators/executive producers] Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters intended to delve into in year two, but for whatever reason, we didn’t get to do that. Again, that presented an acting challenge for me, but overall I absolutely loved my time on the show.”
In the first season Reaper finale Cancun, Sam and Mr. Oliver look to be headed for a one-way ticket to you-know-where when they are buried alive by a group of disgruntled demons. “Working on this episode and, in particular, the burial scene was much more enjoyable than I thought at first,” says Airlie. “I was slightly anxious going into that scene and wondered how we were going to do it right and not make it look chintzy, but the director and everyone involved walked me through it. The day before, they showed me the mixture of dirt and very soft peat moss they’d be using. And you can only rehearse something like that so much because it’s a big deal to dump that much dirt, then gather it back up and dump it again. We’d have to get by with maybe two takes at the most.
“So they ran two cameras and Bret and I had a blast having dirt dumped on us. It was one of those scenes where half your job is done for you because you don’t have to act much. Dad had taken a large spade to the back of the head, so I’m supposed to be unconscious, and for Bret, his character was fighting to keep him and his Dad from being buried alive. I was pleased in the end when I saw the scene. It did look quite believable.”
Lucky for Sam, he is saved by two of his ex-neighbors-turned-demons, while Mrs. Oliver comes to her husband’s rescue and digs him up. Because Mr. Oliver is a demon he cannot die, and in Reaper‘s second season he reappears as a zombie. That allowed Airlie to reinvent his character, with a little help. “The make-up process was slightly daunting at first,” he says. “Initially, it took three-and-a-half hours, and in subsequent episodes, they refined the process and got it down to two-and-a-half hours and then an hour and a bit to remove it all.
“The other sort of big physical challenge with playing zombie Dad, certainly in the first couple of season two episodes, were the contacts that I had to wear. Once I popped them in, I couldn’t see where I was going. I could see lights, but not people or objects. So in those first two episodes I had to somewhat limit my movements, but after that, they left the pupil in my left eye clear so I could see where I was going.
“Acting-wise, the trickiest thing in season two was trying to find the right tone for Dad, and we kept receiving mixed notes about what that should be. You want your character to hang together and be coherent, and there was a lot of comedic opportunity with that particular storyline, but, unfortunately, I don’t think we got to explore all of it. Just the same, though, I had a ball playing a zombie. Reaper was a pleasure to be a part of and I was sad when I found out that it wouldn’t be continuing.”
In the summer network TV doldrums of inane reality series and reruns, Defying Gravity is a welcome oasis and one that Airlie hopes proves popular with viewers. “Jim Parriott has a fantastic, long-term story arc planned that you wouldn’t believe,” he enthuses. “I don’t want to give anything away, but what I was really impressed with and jazzed about was the pace at which things move along, especially after episode five. There’s always the danger that you can draw things out, like a mystery or a secret, and play on the patience of audiences, but Jim doesn’t do that. Wait until you see the second half of these first 13 episodes. Things just gallop along, and it doesn’t feel forced or too fast, either. It’s a fantastic story and I hope we get the chance to tell more of it.”
Defying Gravity is produced by Fox Television Studios and OmniFilmProductions, in association with the BBC, Canada’s CTV and Germany’s ProSieben. As noted above, all photos by Kharen Hill or Sergei Bachlakov and copyright of Fox Studios/ABC , so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any form. Thanks!