For as long as she can remember, Zoe Barnes has always been the type of person who has identified a goal and then worked hard and done everything in her power to obtain it. She was determined to be one of eight astronauts selected for the Antares mission – a six-year journey to explore Venus as well as other planets orbiting Earth’s sun. Zoe succeeded in turning her dream into a reality, but in order to do so she had to abort her pregnancy, the result of a one-night stand with fellow astronaut and Antares crew member Maddox Donner. As the Antares travels deeper into space, this dark secret begins to weigh heavily on her mind, giving Defying Gravity‘s Laura Harris, who plays Zoe, the chance to deliver a multi-layered performance.
“Zoe is very confident in the way her life is going and what that path is going to look like, so much so that it verges on hubris,” explains Harris. “So what happens when you’re overconfident, crap happens, and that’s definitely the case with her, but in a way it’s good. By that I mean Zoe rediscovers her true confidence in order to get back on her path. What’s interesting about our show is that we see our characters in the past as well as present, so you have an idea of what’s going to happen with them. I like that because you don’t have to explain back story, but at the same time we as actors discover more and more about our characters as well as have more questions with each new script. That helps keep things fresh for us and the audience.
“One of the biggest challenges I had stepping into this role was getting into science mode. As soon as I got the job, I planned a trip to NASA [Goddard Space Center] in Maryland. A friend of mine who works there showed me around, which was awesome, especially from a day-to-day standpoint. There’s quite a bit of archive footage and stories about the dramatic and exciting part of space travel, but there are also the everyday jobs that have to be done. I got to meet with a lot of extraordinary scientists as well as engineers and one astronaut, who also happens to be my next-door neighbor and an engineer.
“So that helped get me in the right mindset. Zoe is a lot like Jodie Foster’s character in [the feature film] Contact, a strong woman who has her own ideas about her life, all of which revolve around the space program and geology. My character is done with Earth rocks. Zoe wants space rocks now, and that’s all she cares about,” jokes the actress.
In the first episode of Defying Gravity, Zoe and the other prospective candidates for the Antares mission undergo a series of grueling physical tests to determine who will be able to endure their outer space adventure. This includes a ride in the centrifugal force chair, an experience that left Harris a little shaken but none the worse for wear.
“They strapped me into the chair, started to shake it and me, and said, ‘It’ll be all right,’ and it was,” she recalls. “Thank God for YouTube because it’s totally changed the way an actor can prepare for a scene like this because you can actually see the effects of things like centrifugal force and nitrogen narcosis on the human body. There’s tons of footage showing pilots experiencing such things and what you’re supposed to do, including this little breathing exercise that sort of tenses up your whole body. So that’s what I did and I think the scene turned out good, especially considering the way it was shot, which was guerilla-style.”
From simulated events to practical ones, the Antares crew experiences firsthand what it is like to work as well as live in zero gravity and float among the stars. That required some wire work along with green screen work for the cast of Defying Gravity, something that was both fun and taken seriously by all those involved.
“You want to be able to show a person experiencing the cosmos when they’re actually in it,” says Harris. “It’s a very human thing to just look up at the sky and experience the cosmos, but to tangibly be in it, I don’t know, I just think it must be pretty miraculous. So you don’t want to milk it, and in a show like this it’s easy to overdo something like that, especially me. I’m someone who’s into experiencing nature in all its grandeur, and I’ll admit that over the years I’ve sometimes looked kind of goofy standing in front of a green screen trying to imagine what experiencing the cosmos would be like,” laughs the actress. “I’m hoping they edited any such moments out of Defying Gravity, but I tried my best to appear believable and sincere when imagining and reacting to such situations as Zoe. I feel like we have a responsibility to the audience, and that makes the work all the more challenging.”
During their five years of training leading up to the mission, Zoe and her fellow crewmates develop relationships of varying levels and dynamics with one another. In the present, those bonds become valuable lifelines as the astronauts learn to adapt to and interact with each other onboard the Antares.
“There is a great deal of growth with all our characters’ relationships, a lot of which isn’t what you might be expecting to see, and I think that’s pretty cool,” notes Harris. “Jen Crane [Christina Cox] and Zoe are best friends, whereas Zoe and Nadia Schilling [Florentine Lahme] have this sort of modern-day love triangle between them and Donner [Ron Livingston]. Neither woman, however, is outwardly jealous of one another. Zoe and Nadia have their own rules and ideas about how they run their lives, and Donner is something that they both share, which is rather interesting. As for Zoe and Donner, they’re connected in some way. I don’t think either of them is clued into why or how, but there’s a definite connection between them that’s beyond their control.
“I have to say that working with this cast is such a delight, and that’s true of every single person. I’ve had some really awesome scenes with Paula Garces [Paula Morales]. I love her character and everything that goes on with it. It’s amazing to watch her drop into character because she does it just like that,” says the actress, snapping her fingers. “For whatever magical reason, everyone has it in their heart when it comes to playing these roles, but there is also a major and very real transformation that takes place when we’re in front of the camera. And that’s something you don’t always see. It’s very much a wow-type moment of watching your castmate deliver his or her lines, and then stepping up to the plate and trying to match what it is that they’re giving you,” she enthuses.
A familiar face to TV watchers, Harris has guest-starred on numerous series including The X-Files, Stargate Atlantis and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation as well as had recurring or regular roles on 24, The Dead Zone, Woman’s Murder Club and Dead Like Me. In the latter, she played Daisy Adair, an actress from the 40′s who died but was then reborn as one of a group of “grim reapers” who collect the souls of others just before death and help them cross over to the other side.
“I loved doing Dead Like Me because I got to be girly, and the thing is, I don’t think I’m really a girly girl at all,” says the actress. “Daisy was so different from who I am, so it was a true acting adventure. And as a cast, we had so much ridiculous fun together. We had such raw creative energy and everything we did was full of love. The show was truly a gift and I’m so glad I had the chance to do it.”
For Harris, it is who she works with that makes her job so rewarding. “You can’t beat experiencing creative teamwork with really special, interesting people,” she muses. “I love people anyway, and acting makes you go to places that you might not necessarily want to. In the process, you end up loving and appreciating people even more, because things that may seem unapproachable as qualities in others, all of a sudden aren’t so unapproachable, do you know what I mean? And that sort of realization makes anything in this world seem possible.”
Defying Gravity is produced by Fox TV Studios and OmniFilm Productions in association with the BBC, Canada’s CTV and Germany’s ProSieben. As noted above, all photos by Sergei Bachlakov or Kharen Hill and copyright of ABC TV and Fox TV Studios, so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any kind. Thanks!