When he was growing up, Ron Livingston wanted, like many children, to one day become an astronaut. It has taken a while, but that dream has finally come true for him, albeit in a fictional way. The handsome and affable actor leads an international cast in the Canadian-made space drama Defying Gravity, which airs Sunday nights on ABC. As Chief Engineer Maddux Donner onboard the spaceship Antares, his character is one of eight astronauts (four men and four women) on a six-year mission to explore Earth’s solar system. Given the recent anniversary of man’s first landing on the Moon, this seems the ideal time for this type of story, and Livingston could not agree more.
“I can’t remember since I Dream of Jeannie the last time we had a TV show about astronauts,” says the actor, sitting in his trailer on the Vancouver studio lot where season one of Defying Gravity was filmed. “I think part of that is because it’s something that has always been too technically difficult to pull off. You can occasionally do it for a movie, like Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff, and HBO had that fantastic [miniseries] From Earth to the Moon, but it’s not usually done for long-format fictional storytelling. If it is, it’s typically in a Star Trek world or some version of that, and takes place on an advanced spaceship in the distant future and involves aliens.
“Defying Gravity, to me, kind of harkens back to a lot of the Science Fiction I grew up with, including works by Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein, where it was still about the exploration of space in its infancy. If the Sixties Apollo missions were the infancy of space travel, then this [program] is where toddlers go, do you see what I mean? This is in our own backyard. We grew up in school learning about the planets – this is Mercury and it takes so many days to go around the sun, and it rotates on this angle, and it’s composed of these substances, etc. We also have a history of associating the planets with gods – Mars, the God of War, Venus, the Goddess of Love, Mercury, the messenger, etc.
“So I thought this show was a great opportunity science-wise to go, OK, what will it be like to explore these planets with pretty much the technology we have today plus a couple of things that we’d need to get there in the next 30 or 40 years. And then on another level, to tell a bigger mythological story, but one that feels like an old one as opposed to something made up.”
A veteran astronaut, Maddux Donner is a man struggling with a demon from his past. He and fellow astronaut Ted Shaw (Malik Yoba) were ordered to leave two fellow astronauts behind on Mars during a previous mission, and that decision continues to haunt him to this day. Much to Donner’s surprise, he and Ted are chosen to replace two Antares crewmembers who, in the eleventh hour, are diagnosed with a mysterious heart condition. After an altercation during a press conference, which leads to words between him and Mission Control Flight Control Director Mike Goss (Andrew Airlie), Donner prepares for a journey he will never forget. For Livingston, his first day on the Defying Gravity set is equally memorable.
“First of all, the sets are spectacular,” he notes. “Mission Control is not to be believed. It’s three levels and I don’t think quite as long as a football field, but it’s probably half of one, and it photographs beautifully. We did the press conference scenes the first day, and first days are always interesting because you’re getting your legs underneath it all and are sort of thrust into this world that until now you’ve only imagined. Suddenly you’re in it, and you have to try to make it look like you’ve been living in this world forever, so that always takes a little time.
“The other thing I remember from day one is that it was the first time we tried out some of the floating in zero-G moves, and it took us a couple of times to get it right. There was a combination of techniques that we used to try to make it look like our characters were floating, and it was a little trickier than we first thought. We knew it was going to be tough, though, and we knew that a number of Sci-Fi shows out there seems to balk at it. They go, yes, it’s space, but there is still gravity. Sometimes you have to do that, but in this case I think they [the producers] wanted to see the zero-G stuff and wanted to make it work. To me, it really helps make the show by giving it an added level of familiarity. We all have those images in our heads of astronauts floating in space. They’re really specific and connected to what we’ve seen from NASA, so it ties our world to this [fictional] one.”
In the opening episode of Defying Gravity, viewers are made privy to the ill-fated Mars mission involving Donner. There is also a surreal space-walk sequence involving him and another member of the Antares crew. Both scenes are among those that the actor especially enjoyed shooting. “It was very cool because we had to pull all sorts of elements together, including the EVA [extra-vehicular activity] suits along with wire-work and a lot of green screen,” recalls Livingston. “What was really fun was trying to do something that you’ve never quite experienced before and making it look like you have.”
“On top of that, we were dealing with the various technical aspects. For example, if you have a strand of hair that falls or a tool that’s clipped onto your belt and moves, well, that’s gravity. Anything with a pendulum motion is a dead giveaway. So it was trying to figure out what works, what doesn’t work and how do we sell this to an audience. The lighting is different, too. On Earth, almost everything we look at is filtered through an atmosphere, so things are softer and shadows have almost sculptured edges to them. In space, however, there’s a great contrast. Something is either lit or it’s not, and that was kind of a challenge for our DOP [director of photography] and the lighting guys as far as if it’s not lit, then we can’t see it. Is it totally dark? How do we make it look like it does in space, but also in a way that we can still tell our stories?
“The entire process reminded me a little bit of working on [the 2001 miniseries] Band of Brothers where, on one hand, you’re going to work and making a show, but on the other hand, it’s an opportunity to learn and explore.”
Has it been difficult for Livingston to get used to performing while wearing the EVA suits? “It’s definitely one of the more challenging things we do, but I guarantee you that our suits are not as cumbersome as the real thing,” he says with a smile. “So I always try to remember that and it has given me a new-found respect for people who wear them in real life.
“That said, they [the costume department] have done a fantastic job of building these things and have made the suits very wearable. Of course, there are small technical things that you have to deal with. For example, the suits need to be ventilated a little bit so you’re able to breathe in them, but if you do that, then you have sound issues because you hear the ventilation. So you have to turn the ventilation off in-between takes. The suits also have to be built in such a way that they can be cleaned. How do you build a spacesuit that’s machine-washable? Also, when you go to lunch you need to be able to get out of your suit and back into it relatively easily and quickly. So there’s all that stuff, but, again, they’ve really done a phenomenal job with everything.”
While most of us go our separate ways when we leave work for home every night, the Antares crew in Defying Gravity work and live with one another. Over six years, that type of arrangement could wear on your nerves. For Donner, it is even more complicated; he had a one-night stand during training with the ship’s geologist, Zoe Barnes (Laura Harris), resulting in a pregnancy she kept secret, and he has also been involved in a long-term sex-only relationship with Antares pilot Nadia Schilling (Florentine Lahme). There is a third woman who Donner has feelings for as well. All this is grist for the dramatic mill, as Livingston explains.
“Without giving anything away, we tell this story simultaneously in what I call mission time [present day] and training time [flashbacks], which is five years in the past when this group of candidates started training for this mission. What’s great about how that works is that we’re seeing two stories at once. We’re seeing where these relationships have come to, how they’re unfolding, and where they’re going. We also get to go back and learn how these relationships began and what the backstory is. And what’s neat is that a great deal of the time, the backstory informs the present day story and vice versa.
“Donner has a history with not one but two of the women on the ship, so right away there are a couple of different triangles going on, and that just adds to the relationship drama on the show. Donner actually has three women in his life. He’s got Sharon who’s the ghost from his past; she’s one of the two people he lost on Mars. He’s got Nadia, the sort of fire-breathing fighter pilot who is definitely his match, but they’re both a little emotionally shut-off and enjoy a very physical/sexy type of relationship. Then there’s Zoe, the kind of girl next door who he fell in love with and who he can’t quite wrap his head around.
“So for both me and my character, the show is a lot about trying to juggle these three women and find a way through that [emotional] minefield. Most of the [real life] space missions we’re familiar with last anywhere from 12 to 14 days, and every once in a while someone went up to the Mir space station, or now the ISS, and hung out for a couple of months. On Defying Gravity, this is a six-year tour of duty. There’s no place to go, so there’s also an element of it being kind of a reality show from hell in that you’re stuck on a ship and you’d better like it, or at least be able to deal with it. I think a lot of the drama comes from that. There’s an old playwright adage that says the first thing you have to come up with is the reason why your characters can’t leave, and I think they’ve come up with a pretty good reason on this show.”
At that moment there is a knock on the actor’s trailer door. He has to change into his flight suit in preparation to block the next scene. Walking back to set, Livingston is happy to share a bit about his own past, including how and why he became an actor.
“I had all types of different professions in mind,” he says, “but by the time I was actually old enough to get a real job, this is the one I wanted. However, as a kid, I don’t think I was ever under the impression that this is how I would be making a living. I started doing plays in high school and when it came time to stop, I didn’t and just kept going.”
Livingston’s credits include the feature films Office Space, The Cooler and The Time Traveler’s Wife as well as regular/recurring roles on such TV series as The Practice, Sex and the City, Standoff and the aforementioned Band of Brothers, in which he played Captain Lewis Nixon. “Band of Brothers was an incredible project to be a part of,” says the actor. “It was almost like being part of living history. I can really understand a lot of the modern-day war reenactors because I felt like that’s what we did; we basically reenacted World War II, only we got to do it on a really nice playground.”
Listening to the actor speak and watching him at work, there is no doubt that he is in the right profession. “Nobody comes into this business because they want [job] stability or they’re afraid of what might happen down the road,” says Livingston. “Everyone here is of like [creative] minds, and this cast and crew, in particular, are great guys. We have work to do, but it’s fun. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t do it because the days are just too long,” he laughs. “Believe me, we’re having a good time.”
Defying Gravity is produced by Fox Television Studios and Omni Film Productions, in association with the BBC, Canada’s CTV and Germany’s ProSieben. As noted above, all photos by Sergei Bachlakov and Kharen Hill and copyright of Fox Studios/ABC, so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any kind. Thanks!
Tags: ABC, Andrew Airlie, Arthur C. Clarke, Band of Brothers, BBC, CTV, Defying Gravity, Entertainment, Florentine Lahme, Fox Television Studios, Laura Harris, Maddux Donner, Malik Yoba, Mike Goss, Nadia Schilling, Omni Film Productions, ProSieben, Robert Heinlein, Ron Livingston, Science Fiction, Ted Shaw, TV, Zoe Barnes