It is far from an ordinary day onboard the spaceship Antares for Defying Gravity‘s biologist Jen Crane. Rather than running experiments on plant samples or reviewing the progress of frozen animal embryos, she is standing on the ship’s observation deck and helping deal with a life and death situation unfolding before her eyes. It is an emotional scene and one that actress Christina Cox, who plays Jen, is obviously relishing. Having fought aliens as Major Anne Teldy on Stargate Atlantis, chased demons as Vicki Nelson on Blood Ties, and hunted down Vin Diesel’s Riddick as mercenary soldier Eve Logan in The Chronicles of Riddick, blasting off into outer space seems the next logical step for Cox. However, while Defying Gravity may be set among the stars, it was the story’s more down-to-Earth elements that initially attracted her to the part.
“I’d heard about Fox Studio’s plan this year for different shows, including one being shot in Vancouver involving eight astronauts – four women and four men – and I thought, “Hmm, Vancouver, plus Sci-Fi or spatial, and Christina; perhaps there’s something there. What are the odds that I might be going into space?'” says a smiling Cox during a break in filming on the Defying Gravity set. “I asked my manager to keep an eye out for this show because I always like coming home and the idea really intrigued me, which is the exploration of human relationships n such an extreme situation and the types of personalities that wind up in these kinds of jobs. Obviously they’re going to be pretty extraordinary people, and yet human beings with flaws, issues, baggage, damage and all that, which we learn about as we go along.
“When I eventually read the script I thought it was fantastic, and contrary to what some people are going to think when they see that we’re astronauts on a spaceship, it never read to me like a Sci-Fi show whatsoever. I’m often asked why do I do so much Sci-Fi, and I really don’t have an answer. It’s just a coincidence. It’s not like I look at a script and go, ‘Ah, ha, oh, no, it’s not Sci-Fi. Forget it.’ It just so happens that I’ve done a lot of Sci-Fi, but, again, this never read to me like a ‘space show.’ On the contrary, it read to me like a relationship drama with a light touch and a fair degree of humor and sensibility, and that’s something I was interested in exploring. I’ve had a great time doing straight Sci-Fi shows and firing 50 clips with my P90. I love that training and all that action, but I was really looking forward to getting my teeth into a character-driven show, and that, to me, is what this is.
“Probably more than anything else, Defying Gravity is about the alien within all of us and that we’re trying to get to know,” continues the actress. “We only learn to understand that [alien] self through experience, and this is such an extreme experience. Everyone’s issues are going to rise to the top and they’ll be forced to confront them. I think that’s what a situation like this does, and one of the issues that we’re dealing with right now [in the real world] as far as trying to plan long-term space missions, is what will something like that do to the human psyche? How will we cope if we’re out there longer than six months? On our show, these people are facing six years of isolation from their family, friends, social network, etc., and it’s going to have an effect on their psyches. Will they lose it? Will the ship come back empty with a bunch of blood smears on it? That’s not Science Fiction, that’s hardcore reality, and as human beings are we equipped to survive that?
“Acting-wise, I liked that the character of Jen that I’ve been give the opportunity to play has some real issues that are actually going to be confronted. Why is she so messed up? We’re going to find out, and I was really looking forward to playing someone a little more flawed, a little darker and a little more sympathetic. There are so many great characters on this show, and one of the things I enjoy about Jen is that she can be slightly less together than, say, Vicki [from Blood Ties] was. Although in truth, Vicki was not truly together at all. She was just better at putting on a front.”
In Defying Gravity, the straight-talking yet compassionate biologist Jen Crane is part of a team of astronauts who, in the near future, are chosen for a six-year mission to explore Venus and other planets in our solar system. Although she had plenty of scientific credentials required for such a task, Jen still had to undergo an intensive physical and mental training program with the rest of the prospective Antares crewmembers. Like her TV counterpart, Cox did her own “training” before going in front of the cameras to play Jen.
“In my research for this series I was lucky enough to speak with the psychiatrist who is on the selection committee for the Canadian Space Program, and, in fact, had been my neighbor from the time I was around eight years old,” she notes. “His current job is helping pick candidates for the Canadian Space Program, and the thing is they really don’t know what the long-term effects of this kind of isolation might be. Their studies include profiling for the personality types best suited for the sort of mission that we’re seeing on our show. One of the big questions is will they be able to have social interaction among a small group of people for six months, a year, two years, six years? Also, are they media savvy Do they put on a good front? They have to be able to communicate with the public and be sympathetic to them because the space program relies so much on public funding.
“On our show we have two groups on the ship – the engineers and the scientists – and they have very different objectives in the way they process information and search for answers. As an actor, this is my first time being on the science side of things, which is the ‘what if?’ as opposed to, ‘OK, how do I handle this? How do I fix this? How do I contain it and make it function in a reasonable and tangible way?’ which is more the engineering side. I’ve played law enforcement types, lawyers, federal agents and other people who need solutions. They’re a little bit more linear in their thinking. They don’t want things to keep extrapolating beyond the realm of their knowledge, and the thing is, Jen is looking for evidence of life outside of Earth. It’s her belief that we’re not the only sentient beings in the universe, so she’s hoping to prove that. And in the process, she’s also trying to figure out if we as human beings can survive out of our [familiar] environment for extended periods of time.”
During the Antares training program, Jen befriends geologist Zoe Barnes (Laura Harris), who, after a one-night stand with astronaut Maddux Donner (Ron Livingston), ends up pregnant. Meanwhile, Jen becomes romantically involved with astronaut Ted Shaw (Malik Yoba), but later falls in love with astronaut Rollie Crane (Ty Olsson). The couple marry two years before being assigned to the mission, but when Rollie and a second crewmember are subsequently grounded due to a medical condition, Donner and Shaw are ordered to replace them. Needless to say, all these prior relationships make for plenty of riveting space drama.
“It turns out that Jen’s primary relationship is not with her husband, but her best friend Zoe,” says Cox. “It’s an interesting journey personally because at the beginning of the series, Zoe and Jen meet during training, so their friendship is new, just like the friendship between me and Laura Harris. So it’s been evolving and developing story by story, and the more information that Laura and I get, and the more shared experiences our characters have, only helps further inform us when it comes to our performances.
“Jen believes that she’s going on this mission with her husband and her best friend, but by the end of our first episode, complications arise and now she is going to spend the next six years with her ex-boyfriend and her best friend, while her husband Rollie is back on Earth. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to be trapped anywhere with an ex-boyfriend for six years,” chuckles the actress. “Can you imagine, your ex and six other folks onboard a spaceship. Never go on a cruise or get into any type of vehicle where you may be stuck somewhere for a long period of time with an ex. This is my advice. After all my years of life experience, that’s what I’ve come up with.
“With Ted and Jen, it depends on how long they were together and how difficult their break-up was. We’re still discovering as we go along on the series exactly what happened with them as well as Rollie and Jen. So it could get a little awkward up there in space, and maybe a little weird, too, but it’s all good. Again, there are human issues being dealt with in a heightened situation involving these characters, and there are secrets that they’re discovering. It’s like the Lost world. People describe this show as Grey’s Anatomy in space with a touch of Lost. I have to say that I like the idea of secrets in the story. It makes it more compelling and it’s definitely going to be quite a trip for audiences to follow. The secrets are causing our characters to reflect on their own issues and life experiences, which I think is fantastic. It’s done with a light touch as well, and I don’t mean in a shallow or insubstantial way, but rather not hitting you on the head.”
When asked about her work filming the first episode of Defying Gravity, one word immediately comes to Cox’s mind. “Terror,” she recalls. “It’s such a big show, and my first ensemble show, and everyone blew me away because they’re so flippin’ talented. You’re surrounded by this group of people, each of whom are very special and bring so many different things to the table, and suddenly you realize that you’re in a situation to create something quite special and interesting. The casting process for this program was a long one, but the result has been a particular type of alchemy that’s needed for a TV series to work.
“A studio can cast a movie by numbers, bring in blockbuster stars and then hope it works, but there are films where that’s been done and they fall flat because the chemistry isn’t there. Of course, I’d like Defying Gravity to be a huge hit and have a long and lovely life, but ultimately what I’ll get to take away from it is an extraordinary experience with an incredible group of actors. When we shot our first episode we could feel that alchemy coming together. When you see the work that everyone around you is doing, you want to match it and hope you are, but you don’t know. I don’t watch dailies. I can’t stand watching myself, so you have to trust your directors, and that if it [a scene] doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t, so you have to figure out how to make it right.”
Unlike most new shows that film a pilot, which may or may not then be picked up by a network, Defying Gravity shot a 13-episode first season which is airing Sunday nights in the States on ABC. Cox’s previous series, Blood Ties, also had that same distinction, having made 26 episodes that then aired on the Lifetime Network. It is a rare creative situation that the actress is incredibly grateful for.
“This business is so up and down and I’m really fortunate to be able to do 13 episodes of something,” she says. “I’ve done a bunch of pilots and it can be heartbreaking. You grow attached to the people as well as the premise and the story that you want to tell, and then you sit on your butt for 10 months while the network decides whether or not they want to move forward with it. If they decide not to, then it’s back to the drawing board. So this [Defying Gravity] was like winning the lottery. Now that we have the 13 episodes, we’ll just have to wait and see where that takes us.”
Defying Gravity is produced by Fox Television Studios and OmniFilm Productions, 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 and ABC, so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any form. Thanks!
Tags: ABC, BBC, Blood Ties, Christina Cox, CTV, Defying Gravity, Dr. Evram Mintz, Entertainment, Eve Logan, Eyal Podell, Florentine Lahme, Fox Television Studios, Jen Crane, Laura Harris, Maddux Donner, Major Anne Teldy, Malik Yoba, Nadia Schilling, OmniFilm Productions, ProSieben, Rollie Crane, Ron Livingston, Science Fiction, Stargate Atlantis, Ted Shaw, The Chronicles of Riddick, TV, Ty Olsson, Vicki Nelson, Zoe Barnes