On the surface, Dr. Evram Mintz appears ready to take his first step into the unknown. As a member of the International Space Organization (ISO), he participated in a five-year program in preparation for six-year mission onboard the spaceship Antares to explore the other planets in our solar system. However, like his fellow shipmates, Evram brings with him some emotional and psychological baggage that could compromise his ability to care for the physical and mental well-being of those around him. Facing his inner demons is not easy for Evram, but for the actor who plays him on Defying Gravity, Eyal Podell, it is part of discovering just who his character is.
“Evram is the Antares crew physician, psychiatrist, resident drunk and in many ways voice of reality,” says Podell, who is dressed in his character’s flight suit and waiting in his trailer to be called to set. “The greatest [acting] challenge with him came, I think, when my conception of the character changed. Once all the roles were cast and everyone came together, we realized that between Zahf [Paroo], who plays Ajay Sharma, Florentine [Lahme], who plays Nadia, and Peter Howitt [who plays Trevor Williams], we already had three or four different accents on the show.
“So [executive producers] Jim Parriott and Michael Edelstein said, ‘Let’s strip the accent away from your character.’ That immediately sent me right back to ground zero because I felt in many ways that one of Evram’s defining characteristics was his foreign personality [Israeli] and point of view. So having to kind of start from the ground up again was a bit of a challenge, and then in the first few scripts there wasn’t much character revelation or backstory with Evram. However, as episodes four, five, six, seven and eight came along, more and more of Evram’s history began coming through,” enthuses the actor, “so that allowed me to piece him together.
“In general, astronauts have to be terribly brave, visionary and optimistic people, and part of my challenge was figuring out what the hell was Evram doing here. That meant talking with Jim and Michael about exactly why he wanted to be part of this mission, other than the grandeur of being one of the first humans to travel to these other planets. There must have been something else behind it, and answering that question helped me form a clearer picture of my character. Evram has a dim view of humanity and he’s experienced the trauma of war. He has been involved in some of the big Middle Eastern conflicts that have taken place in the future, and those experiences obviously shaped his outlook on life as well as humankind.
“Maybe it was a subconscious choice of Evram’s to get on a spaceship and get as far away as possible from his own flaws, including his issues with alcohol and war. If he’s billions of miles away, he doesn’t have to be drafted, or read on the Internet or watch on the news the non-stop footage of bombings, killings and murders – the atrocities that man commits against man.”
Was it destiny that led Podell to his role on Defying Gravity? Ironically, when he was in 10th grade, the actor wrote a term paper about being a doctor. “Then, though, I realized I didn’t have the stomach to go to medical school and spend however long it would take with internships, residencies and all that other stuff,” he recalls.
“However, my parents raised me with the idea that an education is your ticket in life. One of the really important things they did for me was make sure I went to a good college [Dartmouth in Hanover, New Hampshire] so that I would have the proper foundation and tools to pursue whatever [career] I wanted. So I actually came into this business thinking, ‘OK, I’ll try this for a little while and see what happens,’ but I soon found that it was almost like a drug. You get a little bit of the joy early on and become hooked. From there, I chipped away at it [acting] and built a resume role-by-role. Just a few years ago I booked my first regular job on a soap opera [The Young and the Restless] and landing Defying Gravity is my first big break.”
The pilot episode of Defying Gravity establishes that the story is told in present day (2052) and in space with the Antares crew – four men and four women – as well as in flashbacks where the astronauts first meet and start their mission training. Audiences also see that despite Evram Mintz’s rather dark and grim view of the human race, he has not scared away someone who truly cares about him.
“In the first episode we’re introduced to my character’s love interest, Dr. Claire Dereux, played by Maxine Roy, and it would appear that she and Evram have been in a relationship for a number of years,” notes Podell. “And it’s been interesting to find out through the flashback element of the show how they came to be in that relationship. It’s also a little strange because in the flashbacks we’re all just meeting as a crew, so we don’t quite know each other that well yet. However, in the present day, we’ve already been through five years of training, so what does that mean in terms of our relationships? Which of our strengths as well as weaknesses did we reveal to each other during training? What personal struggles have we seen one another experience? Have we been there for each other as shoulders to cry on? Have we picked one another up off the ground and said, ‘Come on, get back on the horse.’ Have we had fist-fights? Who knows?
“So there’s a while lot of history to be filled in. However, what we do sort of assume is that we’ve reached a point where we can look around at each other and say, ‘I trust you with my life.’ There’s a camaraderie among the crew. They’re a family, and they have to be because they’re going to be together for a very long time. That being said, even with your brothers and sisters, you feel like ‘killing them’ sometimes, which I think is a compelling aspect of our show, especially in that these people are essentially locked under one roof.”
Acting-wise, has it been difficult for Podell jockeying between flashbacks and present day? “It’s not so much the bouncing back and forth as to who we [the characters] are, but more how we relate to one another,” he says. “With relationships in general, you come into them being neutral. So as our characters come into the [training] program, they look at one another and think, ‘Oh, there’s a guy, and there’s a girl.’ The exceptions to that are those who have reputations, like Maddux Donner [Ron Livingston], Ted Shaw [Malik Yoba] and some of the other astronauts who have done some incredible things. However, the rest of these people look at each other and they don’t know one another from a hole in the wall, so they don’t have any preconceived notions.
“As the series begins to unfold, we see our characters in the flashbacks start to uncover pieces about each other. They then gather all this ‘evidence’ up and we sort of see how that affects their perception of one another. So the flashback elements are fascinating in that our characters are still trying to pull things out of each other and fill in the gaps. It’s a strange dynamic, and in some ways I feel like those scenes are much more fun to play when it comes to character development.”
As far as a favorite Defying Gravity episode, one immediately comes to the actor’s mind. “Part of our characters’ training involves having to back each other up job-wise if necessary,” explains Podell. “So as a physician, Evram has to teach the other astronaut candidates something about medicine. So that was a fun episode where I really got to play doctor and ‘perform’ surgeries and things of that nature. As an actor, I’d never had to do scenes like that before involving medical jargon, special effects, blood and guts and cool equipment like you see on TV. Evram also gets to share some of his backstory with the other characters, which I was pleased about.
“Funnily enough, my wife went in for surgery not too long ago to have her appendix removed. I wanted to make her feel at ease, so I was trying to make light of the moment and asked the surgeons, ‘Do you want me to scrub up? I’ve had some experience.’ I started throwing words around that I’d used in the show and the doctors were looking at me as if to say, ‘Hey, you know your stuff.’ I had a photo taken on my cell phone of me on-set, which I showed to the surgeon and said, ‘See, I’ve been there.’ Meanwhile, my wife is rolling her eyes and saying, ‘He just plays a doctor on TV. Don’t let him near me,’” chuckles the actor.
While Sci-Fi drama is nothing new to TV, Podell is hoping that audiences look deeper into Defying Gravity and discover what makes it different. “Michael Edelstein and Jim Parriott refer to this as Science Fact, and I think that’s very interesting given that we’re right on the cusp of these [real world] advancements with the European Space Agency as well as China and a whole new space race that’s being launched,” muses the actor. “All these things are relevant because our show looks at what’s going to happen with the space program 30 or 40 years from now. Although the series is set in the future, it’s not so far ahead that you can’t comprehend it. I think audiences will be curious to see what our technology might be capable of and where humanity might be headed as far as working together to explore the universe.
“There is also the fact that the stakes with space travel are quite high from a very real perspective because our characters don’t have transporters or any of the typical Sci-Fi devices. For example, they’re still vulnerable to the affects of exposure to space on the human body. I think it’s in the pilot where Donner says something like, ‘When exposed to the vacuum of space, humans are like pinatas. We just explode, burst, freeze, die, etc.’ So it’s a fine line between life and death, which is always intriguing. And then there is the mystery element to our story, in that what are we going to find when we get out there in the universe.
“Jim and Michael have some really cool stuff planned when it comes to planting things along the way and piquing the audience’s interest to make people wonder what’s going to happen next.”
In addition to Defying Gravity, the actor’s other TV credits include CSI: NY, ER, The West Wing, House and Without A Trace as well as recurring roles on 24 and The Game. On the big screen, Podell made his debut playing Al Pacino’s son in The Insider, and has since appeared in such movies as Unconditional Love, Blowing Smoke and the independent feature Hard Scrambled. His fans perhaps best know him for his two-year stint on the aforementioned The Young and the Restless, as well as his multiple episode arc as Ryan Burnett in season seven of 24.
“24 was a lot of fun,” says Podell. “It was great to be back on-set with Kurtwood Smith, who played my boss [Senator Blaine Mayer] in the show. He also played my boss in a little independent film we both worked on. Kurtwood tortured me in that, and here I was getting tortured by Kiefer Sutherland [Jack Bauer] in 24,” jokes the actor. “It was awesome getting to watch Kiefer at work. I’m always looking to learn from people who have been in this business longer than I have and have endured. Kiefer gave 150% of himself. he was the hardest working guy on-set and totally dedicated and committed to making the best product possible. Not one ounce of him was phoning it in, and I thought that was amazing.
“The response I received from people about my being in the show was terrific. The second they saw me on it, they started saying, ‘You’re going to die, right? He’s going to kill you. That’s what happens. If you’re with Jack Bauer, you’re dead.’ So that was tough having to keep my mouth shut about it for a few months. Of course, my character got tortured and then had his throat slit. I don’t know why, but I tend to get killed a lot on TV. Hopefully that won’t happen here,” he says laughing.
No matter where his career takes him, Podell will never forget something Gene Hackman said to him and a group of other actors during a break on the set of Behind Enemy Lines. “One day we were all sitting around – these young actors playing sailors and naval airmen – and nervously pretending to do something else other than stare at Gene Hackman while he was sitting there reading a book,” says the actor.
“Gene could sense that we were all hoping that he would say something, so he looked up and asked, ‘Do you guys still audition?’ It was a totally redundant question,which he knew, and we were all like, ‘Sure.’ And he said, ‘Man, I used to love to audition.’ At first I thought, ‘Why?’ and then it dawned on me that he got to be the success he is because there was nothing else he’d rather do than walk into a roomful of strangers and put on a ‘show’ for two minutes. It wasn’t about being in Yugoslavia and filming a multi-million dollar feature for Fox Studios. It was about the bare minimum of that moment in the audition room, and that for two minutes a day, a week, twice a week, whatever, you get to entertain people. Learning little lessons like that early on in my career is what continues to serve me well in this business.”
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, photos by Kharen Hill or Sergei Bachlakov and copyright of Fox Studios and ABC, so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any kind. Thanks!