Tahmoh Penikett (Battlestar Galactica, Supernatural) on Innovative New Series Deep Six
It’s been a while since I had the pleasure of chatting with Tahmoh Penikett, who memorably played Ezekiel/Gadreel on Supernatural a few seasons ago. Tahmoh just finished shooting on a new digital sci fi adventure series called Deep Six, which caught my attention as a unique and exciting project. Deep Six is a digital sci fi adventure series that follows a group of astronauts and their military escort on the first deep space mission. They find themselves stranded after an unanticipated accident, and – wouldn’t you know it – also confronted with a first encounter that may not be very friendly. What makes the series unusual is its focus on realism – the creator is a scientist, and the show has two real life experts as consultants, including a professor of astrophysics and a space historian. With their help, Deep Six aims to portray space in all its beauty and majesty as well as its terrifying silence and endless expanse. Much as sci fi classics like 2001 and Alien anchored their stories in realism and thus amped up the terror, Deep Six aims to be both accurate and scary. Sign me up!
I caught up with Tahmoh today after a week of our schedules absolutely refusing to mesh and me coming down with a truly horrifying cold. But we persevered!
Lynn: It’s so nice to talk to you again! We miss you at the Supernatural conventions, by the way.
Tahmoh: Yeah it’s been a while, thank you. I miss being there, those things are fun.
Lynn: Well Supernatural is going into its 13th season, so who knows, you may be back.
Tahmoh: (laughing) With Supernatural, you never know!
So true. So what if Gadreel sacrificed himself in a moment of heroism? Death is an impediment to returning to Supernatural.
Lynn: I was fascinated by what I’ve heard about Deep Six. Is that one of the things that drew you to this project, the focus on realism? Do you think that will make the series scarier?
Tahmoh: I think any time that you have a creator and showrunner who is determined to make something as realistic as possible — being honest about the risks involved with space travel, where we might be in the future, what limitations we might have, whatever exceptional technologies we may have advanced in – but being real about the dangers of space and how hard space is. And that makes it more plausible for the viewer and the audience. In general, to me, as humans we’re moving ahead at such an incredible rate in terms of technology, and specifically rocket propulsion and traveling to other planets, and eventually getting to Mars has become a priority again. It wasn’t for about 30 years in terms of the major space agencies in the world, and for NASA, it just was not a priority. Now it’s become a priority again and we’re seeing the possibilities and you hear we may be getting there in ten to fifteen years. So it’s really fascinating, but there are inherent risks. And here you have a creator like the ones who created Deep Six and they’re trying to stay true to that. They’re having scientific advisors, and as a result they have a show that is much more realistic and much more plausible. Audiences in general are educated about it because we’re watching all the programs, we’re following Elon Musk on twitter, we’re following NASA, we’re seeing all the updates and we’re seeing what the limitations are. So in general, we’re quite educated about what is really happening.
Lynn: That’s sort of what I was thinking. It seems to me the more realism, the more there’s the potential for really being scared, simply because it seems more plausible. I remember seeing 2001 A Space Odyssey – I was a kid and probably too young to actually be watching it, but that’s part of what made it so scary.
Tahmoh: Yeah, Battlestar Galactica is a perfect example of a show I was on that had that – there was of course some technology we had, we’re doing space travel – but the battlestar itself, it was classic, it really looked like a military vessel. It was like a warship. We had the old school phones to communicate. It wasn’t really fancy but a lot of it was science based, we had actual rocket scientists who were consultants on the show so a lot of the technology had science behind it. And I think that’s what these guys are trying to do, so that’s good, man.
[I’ve said this before, but I love the way Tahmoh talks – he’s clearly so knowledgeable and then he just casually tosses in a ‘man’ or a ‘love’ and it’s just like, OH.]
Lynn: Yeah, I totally agree. Did you get to interact with the scientist consultants as a guest actor, or you were just aware of their influence in the conceptualization of the show?
Tahmoh: Yeah, I was just aware of their influence. I got the call and the timing wasn’t ideal, but my agent said, just look at the script, I’ve heard good things, people have been talking about it and it’s apparently a really good script. So I read the scene they wanted me to do, and it was literally one full day of work they wanted me to do. And once I read the script, I was like you know, this would be great to do, this is really well written. Better than most web series that I’ve seen done. And it just worked out time-wise, but mostly I wanted to do it because the script was so well done but also the consultants on it. So I went out there and they were selling me on it as we were trying to make it happen, they were selling me on the project with all the information about how they had consulting scientists, how one of the creators is actually a physicist himself. You know, it definitely leant it some real credibility when you know that people like that are involved and they’re trying to make something as real as that.
Lynn: I’m not surprised at the quality of the script just because they seem to be putting so much heart and so much motivation into the entire project. That probably translates. Did it translate too to the day of filming? It sounds like it was a long day, but was it a set where people were motivated? Like the Supernatural set where every time I’ve been there, everyone seems to work so smoothly and even when things go wrong, everyone seems to go with the flow because they all seem to love what they’re doing? Was this a similar set?
Tahmoh: Similar. You know, obviously it’s hard to compare it with some other aspects, these guys were working with a very limited budget but it definitely didn’t look like it. They were very efficient, everyone I saw on the crew was very good at their job, and on board and invested. So yeah, I guess they did share those qualities like on Supernatural, and that’s always a good thing. You know a project is good when everyone is really pulling their own because they believe in it, they believe in the story. If you believe in the story, you want to be a part of it and bring your best work, because the end product should be great. And I’m excited to be a part of that.
Lynn: Can you tell me anything about your character?
Tahmoh: I can’t speak a lot on him, I don’t know how much they’ve released. All I can say is he’s one of the astronauts’ commanding officers, so he’s kind of the veteran. He’s been around the block and he’s someone who a lot of the other astronauts look up to. And you get a sense of his character right away, who he is, how much experience he has. Then the situation takes a turn for the worst, and that’s the surprising hook of my episode is what they encounter, what sort of problems he faces and how he deals with it. And he’s obviously a veteran and very capable and smart and a leader and the others respect him. He’s serious and he’s also got a joking and playful attitude at times, but it’s also, they’re astronauts and there’s no messing around, so when it comes down to business and the situation gets serious, he’s by the book.
Lynn: I’m glad to hear that he gets at least a little opportunity to do a little bit of comedy, because I know from your other projects how good you are at that subtle comedy.
Tahmoh: Yeah, I don’t unfortunately get the opportunity a lot to do it, but whenever I can squeeze it in there, it’s kinda who I am and I think most of us have that in us, right?
Lynn: Right, I totally agree. I know from talking to you at length in the past about your portrayal of Gadreel how thoughtful you are about the characters you’re portraying and creating a backstory so you can find what their motivation is and so you can understand them from a psychological viewpoint. [See my earlier interview with Tahmoh for that discussion here: https://fangasmthebook.wordpress.com/2015/09/21/worth-the-wait-a-fascinating-chat-with-tahmoh-penikett/ } When you go in to do something like this, where you have to create a character and their arc in literally one day, is that challenging for someone who likes to really get a handle on the person you’re portraying?
Tahmoh: That’s a really good point you just made, because it is. Normally if I have two days of preparation, that’s still a very short amount of time. It’s kind of an essential part of my process to write the backstory. This was very very last minute and I was travelling and there were things going on, so this was so last minute that I literally jumped on a plane after an afternoon of negotiating, flew, time difference, lost three hours, Toronto, out the next morning, shot all day. So I didn’t have the opportunity, I simply couldn’t do the work that I normally would, so I have to trust the script. I communicated to the writers before I arrived and I had a conversation with them where I said, you’re really going to have to lay out for me who this guy is, beyond what’s in the given circumstances and what’s in the script, I need you to tell me who he is and then I’ll work with that as best I can in this short amount of time we have.
Lynn: That makes sense. I remember that in our last chat, in the green room at some Supernatural convention, we spent a lot of time talking about your process because as a psychologist, that’s what fascinates me. How actors make sense of their characters and how you bring that through, especially a very complicated character like Gadreel. So that was my first thought, I wonder how he’s doing that, because this is a different set of circumstances.
Tahmoh: Yeah, that’s very observant of you. Sometimes you just don’t have the opportunity. And I’ve said this before, sometimes you – and it’s rare, unfortunately – but sometimes the script is so good and the character is so good that you connect with the character on such a cerebral and such an instinctual level that you don’t have to make those choices. You CAN and you may, but sometimes you just completely understand that character. Sometimes you understand them so well that you trust in the script 100%, but because I like to do my due diligence, I’ll still – it just makes it that much easier to color his backstory if I do have the opportunity to write some of it, you know?
Tahmoh: It always helps, because it layers the work and it makes it more real, and you don’t just forget about it. Helo (on Battlestar Galactica) I definitely ended up writing a lot of backstory, but also when I had the audition, I just understood him 100%. I got him. I was like, just let me in the room. I didn’t have to use those techniques that you use to get you in an emotional place, whether it be substitution or sense memory or things like that, it was just there for me. Every once in a while in your career you’re blessed with things like that.
Lynn: That must feel really good when it happens. Did you have to do more work with the Gadreel character on Supernatural because it was such an unusual character and had such an unusual evolution?
Tahmoh: I had to do some work, but for that – and I’ve told this story before – it threw me off at first when I found out that Jared [Padalecki] was already playing the character. Because he’s one of the leads of the show! So Jared and I playing the same character, and me not knowing that – I thought that I would be playing Ezekiel or Gadreel first, and then when I found out he had already played him – on the day that I was playing him – that threw me off.
Lynn: I guess so!
Tahmoh: But I got to see, and like I said before, he was doing very specific stuff, so I was able to incorporate it. But it was also not far off from what I was going to do, so that made it easier. And then, getting a sense of where they were thinking of taking the character, that’s when I started changing some of – not changing, but I started adding to who I thought Gadreel was. And I started making some different specific choices. Because the unfortunate thing is when they don’t really give you a sense of where your character is going to go and their arc, but only a loose idea, you also have to remain open to changing some of your choices. You might be making some strong choices but they just might not work.
Tahmoh: And so you have to be open to that as an actor. And I’ve done it before, I’ve put in a ton of work and made some strong choices and then you come in and the producer or director is like, actually no, we need you to do more of this, and you’re like welp okay!
Lynn: (laughing) You don’t really think about the amazing flexibility that acting requires. Especially when you’re a guest actor I think, you’re always going in and creating characters who aren’t the leads and so there hasn’t been the amount of backstory given to you. I remember talking with Curtis Armstrong about how he struggled sometimes with Metatron on Supernatural because he was never given the whole story and didn’t know where the character was going. So like you he kept making choices and sometimes they worked and sometimes…
Tahmoh: (laughing) Yeah! I totally can relate to that, and Curtis is so fantastic and did such a fantastic job. I could definitely see that was the case with him too, you know? I felt that the writers were taking Gadreel in a very sort of evil nemesis sort of way and I just felt like I wanted to play against that a little bit. And when Jared was playing him, he was doing it too – I could see it clearly in his performance, so he kind of set that up for me also, which was great.
Lynn: And I think it really worked out in the end, because Gadreel did get to be heroic. I think that all of us who were feeling a fondness for the character – much like Metatron – were second guessing ourselves going hmm why am I feeling this way? We were probably picking up on those subtle things that you and Curtis and Jared were doing, but it made sense eventually because both of them got to be heroes ultimately.
Tahmoh: That’s awesome, yeah.
Lynn: It was, it was cool. I won’t keep you too long – and I’m astounded that I’ve managed not to have a coughing fit for 20 minutes – but is there anything else you’re excited about or going up for that you want to talk about?
Tahmoh: I’ve done three episodes of Incorporated, a new sci fi series which is really well done. I got to work with an actor I’ve long admired, Dennis Haysbert, and with Allison Miller. I’m having a blast doing that right now!
Lynn: It was so great to talk to you again – we really do miss you on the convention circuit, and I hope our paths cross soon. I’m really looking forward to seeing you on Deep Six.
Tahmoh: Great talking to you too – be well, love.
ETA: Imdb tells me that Tahmoh is also part of the new series that’s generating a lot of buzz, Netflix’s Altered Carbon, a futuristic show in which your consciousness can be saved when your body dies and then implanted into another. Some big names are attached, with a very diverse and international cast, so stay tuned for that one also!
In the meantime, you can come along for the ride with Deep Six. Check out some behind the scenes videos on their indiegogo page, follow them on @DeepSixSeries, and stay tuned for more!
Behind the scenes stills courtesy of Deep Six
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