Seth McFarlane's new TV show The Orville is about to hit TV screens with a stellar cast including Scott Grimes, Victor Garber, Adrianne Palicki and British actor Mark Jackson. The sci-fi comedy marks the U.S. screen debut of Jackson, who is best known for appearing on stage in One Man, Two Guv'nors and guest roles in British TV shows That Peter Kay Thing and The Royal Today.
The classically trained actor, who studied at the Old Vic in Bristol, sat down with Screen Rant in London to discuss not only The Orville, but also Seth MacFarlane in general and the current state of the sci-fi genre. In the process, Jackson touched upon why he feels the series is something that will appeal to those Star Trek fans who have been less-than-impressed with that touchstone, space exploration franchise in recent years.
SR: So tell me about The Orville...
MJ: It’s set 400 years in the future. There’s a thing called the Union which is a conglomerate of planets that have all got together, in a very progressive sort of way which is very positive actually, and the U.S.S. Orville is a Union space ship whose job it is to go out there and explore. You know it does some mundane tasks but they always end up on some adventure.
So is it anything like British sci-fi comedy Red Dwarf?
When I first got the part I was at my parent’s house and Seth called me up on the phone and we were talking about science-fiction, Star Trek: Next Generation which we both loved, and then I said "Have you seen Red Dwarf?" and he hadn’t, which was good because if I had said "Oh, is it like that?", you know he would have thought I hadn’t got it at all. It’s slick, it’s so much more like Star Trek in the production value - like Red Dwarf, I suppose, it’s a different sense of humor really.
Tell me about your character, he’s a robot right?
My character is Isaac, he’s a Kaylon from the planet Kaylon populated by artificial lifeforms, so not a robot because he is very much alive. He hasn’t been made by humans. We don’t know much about the Kaylon, I feel like we will if there’s a second season, having read a few scripts. He’s sent as an ambassador from the Kaylon race to be the science officer on the Orville. He’s very intelligent; the Kaylon are vastly intelligent and know they are, and don’t have a problem pointing it out to lesser biological life forms, but he does it quite casually. He doesn’t have a malicious bone in his body but it can come across like that to very sensitive, complicated creatures. He is earnest and sincere and a really nice guy, not that he knows he is. He does learn that across the season and ends up saving the day quite a lot but in the first few episodes you don’t really see him, though I’m in all of them. Towards the end he adapts and it’s been really interesting to see how he changes, and he does form some special relationships with certain characters.
So is he a bit like Data from Star Trek or Alan Tudyk’s droid in Rogue One?
Let’s face it, all AI are going to be inhuman and to some degree in capable of understanding humans. With this show, I think Seth has wanted to do this since he was a kid, and it’s his love letter to Star Trek and you see how much respect there is for that show in our show. As well as [Isaac] Asimov, [Arthur C.] Clark, the great ideas in those books I see in these scripts. I think sci-fi has become quite mundane of late, these big blockbuster movies which are very bleak, and there’s a hero, it’s just not complicated, sci-fi has become very simple. What Seth has said time and time again is that he wanted to create a sci-fi show which was helpful, that provided you with a bit of hope which is fighting against the trend of dystopic gloomy sci-fi. Many of the writers who wrote for Star Trek are writing for us, having said that there are some really heart-wrenching moments that you won’t expect.
Family Guy is known for its pop culture references. Will The Orville do the same?
There hasn’t been a lot of nodding heads to other sci-fi franchises, which is a bit hard when you’re 400 hundred years in the future, but there are elements of that. But what is the great thing about sci-fi is that you can take modern issues of the world today but put them on a planet with aliens that you can resolve in different ways because they’re not humans. You don’t risk offending anyone or making it about us.
How was working with such a wide-ranging and critically-acclaimed cast?
It was mind-blowing. They have all been wonderful, they have been a supportive group, you see there’s eight of us as the core. Seth’s really good at putting a cast together I think, a lot of them are his friends, and they were really welcoming. Scott Grimes is an absolute angel. When I moved out of the hotel into an apartment he turned up with a trailer to help me with my sofa and all that stuff. They are really established TV actors, and what I love about it it felt like it was a theatre company and we’d become a family.
Victor Garber is obviously a legend, what was it like working with him?
I never actually met him! All his scenes are with Seth or on a monitor!
So how did you film your scenes? Did you pull an Andy Serkis in a motion capture suit?
No it was me in that suit, and Seth specifically wanted that. When he was doing the Ted films, he was there giving the lines and he wanted that for this show too. I have never done anything like that before, it brings its own challenges, but to get it right you have to be in the suit and match what they’re doing. What was nice about the show is that it has a retro feel, which kind of harks back to the original Star Trek with the colors and innocence. I think Isaac is classic but not like C-3PO, even though at first I thought maybe he could be like that. He’s very fluid, he’s an efficient machine rather than being rigid.
How is Seth to work with? Is it anything like you have experienced before?
He has a real respect for acting and the craft of acting, he’s a man of many talent who is very supportive. It’s very funny when you meet such a comedic genius because you think they’re going to be really funny all the time, and then you feel like you have to be funny too, and it escalates into this shit show of funniness, but he’s not like that. He’s very bright, which can be quite intimidating, and knows exactly what he wants for the show, so is good at articulating that. We actually had a wrap party a few days ago at Seth’s house up in Beverly Hills, which is obviously fantastic, but the man knows how to throw parties. He turned his entire garden, I think he’s renovating at the moment so he could, into a spaceship bar, it was extraordinary. All of the waiting staff were done up like aliens in full prosethetics and there was a full ice sculpture of a spaceship as you walked in. That was very Hollywood, I feel.
Lots of TV shows get cancelled before the end of the first series. Does that worry you at all?
I can’t let it is as I have no control over that, so there’s no point in worrying about it. I think they’ll make their decision whether to keep it going very quickly, it’s been a very expensive show to make so a lot of people want to make it work but we’ve had a lot of buzz. At San Diego Comic-Con, we had a lot of people queuing who wanted to get into our panel, and because it’s Seth I think people will give it a go. I think a lot of the Star Trek fans, disgruntled about not having Star Trek for years…
But there’s Star Trek: Discovery though?
There is but that’s only going to be available online and you have to pay a subscription for it, so I think there’s going to be a few disgruntled Star Trek fans who will love this show, as well as Seth MacFarlane fans, so we’ll have quite the mix.
The Orville premieres on FOX on Sunday, September 10, with subsequent episodes airing on Thursdays.