Jim Shannon (Jason O'Mara) helps forge a new path for the continued survival of humankind in Fox's new sci-fi series Terra Nova
Set in the year 2149, the Steven Spielberg executive produced sci-fi TV series Terra Nova begins its story on the planet Earth at a time when it as well as humankind is threatened with extinction.
Hoping to save the human race, scientists develop a time machine capable of opening a portal and allowing people to travel 85 million years back in time to prehistoric Earth. The Shannon family -- husband and wife Jim and Elizabeth and their three children, Josh, Maddy and Zoe -- are part of the Tenth Pilgrimage, the first group of humans to establish a colony in a strange new world where carnivorous dinosaurs are not the only danger.
Terra Nova premieres Monday, September 26th @ 8:00 p.m. on Fox with the two-hour pilot “Genesis.”
Irish-born feature film, stage and TV actor Jason O’Mara, whose credits include Monarch of the Glen, In Justice, Men in Trees and the U.S. remake of Life on Mars, stars as Jim Shannon in Terra Nova. Earlier this week he spoke with me and other journalists about his experiences trying to establish a foothold for humankind at a time in Earth’s history when men, women and children were not exactly on the top of the food chain. Enjoy!
Jason, can you talk about how Jim Shannon looks at himself within the world of Terra Nova and what he struggles with most when getting there?
JASON O’MARA: I think his primary goal is to protect his family and ensure that they thrive and survive in this new place. Also, whether he likes it or not, Jim has sort of been made the sheriff in this frontier town.
That means he has to kind of go along with what Nathaniel Taylor (Stephen Lang) does and says. Sometimes Jim has reservations with that, and other times he’s in accordance with it, but the questions that are raised affect the very fabric of Terra Nova’s society that is being created as we go along.
Even though Taylor is in many ways heroic in what he does, he can be a little bit autocratic, too, so not everybody agrees with how he rules and Jim has to tow the party line to an extent. There is, however, a kind of partnership and friendship that’s emerging between him and Taylor. I really enjoy the subtleties of that relationship as well as the little beefs between all the characters on the show.
Jason, you’re a very talented actor and have been on some good TV series that unfortunately haven’t caught on with audiences. Is there something different about this one? Does it feel like this is really going to be the one that hits it out of the ballpark in that regard for you?
JO: Oh, I hope so. Maybe it will be third time lucky. I’ve never been on a show that has gone a second season. I’m sure people online are painfully aware of this and perhaps audiences are as well.
The thing is, with Life on Mars I had the most amazing cast, I believe, assembled on TV at the time, so I was ably supported in that. In Justice was a great show, too, but I don’t think we were able to make enough noise to kind of break through, but with Terra Nova I’m not sweating the premiere because it’s really about whether or not people are ready for a show like this, and I think they are.
It’s not down to me, though. This show is way bigger than the actors are, and Steven Spielberg’s presence is one of its selling points. The dinosaurs are obviously a huge aspect of all this as well.
So we’re hoping that people tune in for all these reasons, but stay because they’re enjoying the world we’ve created along with the dynamics between the characters and the relationships that are forming. As the season progresses you’ll get to know these characters better and see where we’re going with the story lines.
So to answer your question, I really feel like it’s out of my hands. I’ve done my work and now it’s just a question of how much of a hit that this is going to be.
I was going to ask you about what it’s like playing a Chicago cop, but you’re not really in that world for very long. So I was wondering if you could talk about acting in the world of Terra Nova - acting without the dinosaurs actually being there and working on such a physical show in the wilderness so to speak.
JO: Yes, well, first of all as you might know, Brisbane stood in for Chicago. Brisbane is a city on the East Coast of Australia, and a lot of Chicago was CGI (computer-generated image) because we’re not dealing with Chicago, we’re dealing with that city 150 years or so from now. We tried to re-create it in the most imaginative way possible. I think it looks pretty darn cool, but scary as well. The future is a rather bleak place.
It has been very challenging shooting this show. We’re outside for a lot of it, and the Australian Outback can be quite unforgiving. We haven’t had any medical emergencies with the cast or crew so far in terms of the wildlife. We’re really out there, though, on-location in the rain forest and exposed to the elements for better or for worse.
Anybody who goes out for a hike on a regular basis knows how tired you are in the evenings, and you come back after a long day’s shoot in the forest and you want the next day off, but we don’t get days off. The next morning you’re up early and it starts again.
That’s the challenge with TV; it’s not necessarily the action scenes, the locations or the heavy dialogue, but the fact that there is just no let up; there is no break. Oftentimes we’ll even work Saturdays to get all this in.
We’re shooting for eight or nine days per episode, but we shoot in blocks, and to accommodate publicity like the tour I’m on now and other things we have to move the schedule and the shooting days around. It’s something we’ve made work for us, though.
We film with three cameras per unit, and sometimes we shoot using two different units or we’re shooting two different episodes at the same time. Occasionally we even splinter units that have cameras onboard helicopters. It’s a pretty big production, the size of which I’m not sure has been seen in recent memory on broadcast TV.
I get the sense that your character’s wife Elizabeth (Shelley Conn) is going to be a chip and source of contention between Jim and his new buddy Nathaniel. Am I wrong?
JO: There are a couple of times this season where we do argue about what’s right. There are a lot of moral questions being asked with regard to how this place is run. Yes, there are a few moments where our opinions cross, but that’s what’s really exciting about this world - because we’re sort of building this place from the ground up - is that we’re able to ask these allegorical, sociological, and philosophical questions about the world we’re living in now, where we’re going and what we’d do if given a second chance. I must say that, dinosaurs aside, that’s kind of the thing that I find most intriguing about the series.
In the Terra Nova pilot we see a couple of dinosaurs make a meal out of some of the humans. Can you give us any idea on whether or not we’ll be seeing any major characters or other characters that we get to know wind up on the menu so to speak?
JO: Dinosaurs do kill people. We don’t kill dinosaurs because they’re animals and we are as humane as possible when we try to corral and wrangle the local wildlife, so we use non-lethal, humane weapons to control them.
They, however, don’t have the same control with us; they’re animals, they’re wild and sometimes they get hungry, so we have to be very vigilant about that. There will be other fatalities this season, but they aren’t always series regulars. However, I can reveal that one of the characters that you will have come to know, and hopefully love, will die by the end of season one.
What kind of a journey would you say that the Shannon family, and specifically your character, are on during this first season? What can viewers expect to see?
JO: Well, firstly, they’re a very lucky family. They’re one in a million. They’ve managed to escape a dying world and get a second chance in this beautiful place which has been sold to them. Certainly if there was ever a travel brochure it would be sold as just the most beautiful place imaginable, a utopia.
However, once the Shannon family gets there you realize, and it doesn’t take too long, that there is something else going on here. There are splinter groups or splinter factions, people challenging Taylor’s rule over the place. You also find out that there are people close to Taylor who have become estranged and might even be plotting against him and his sort of rule, for want of a better word, as commander of Terra Nova.
Oh, by the way, who put him in charge? Was he ever elected? All these questions are asked, and the Shannon family gets caught up in all of this. They become the audience’s eyes and ears and end up getting involved in a first-hand way directly with the intrigue that’s taking place, politically and socially. At the same time they’re trying to survive in this place that is a lot more hostile than first thought, and it’s not just because of the dinosaurs.
Josh Shannon (Landon Liboiron) becomes embroiled in something during season one and gets in way over his head. Maddy Shannon (Naomi Scott) has her story line and at times is put in terrible danger, as is Jim’s and Elizabeth’s seven-year-old daughter Zoe. Her stories actually play really well.
I think everyone was not only surprised at how well her character plays in the stories, but also just how good Alana Mansour is as Zoe. She’s becoming a great little actress and I really enjoy working with her. People warn you not to work with children or animals, especially dinosaurs in this case, but Alana has just been a delight from start to finish. Her acting is really deepening and maturing and she’s starting to have a lot of fun with that.
So the relationship between Taylor and Jim Shannon is obviously at the heart of the first season, but also you’re right in asking the question that the Shannon family and their experiences are also at the center of the first season.
Obviously I have to paint very broad brush strokes here, but I think as the episodes progress you’ll get a feel for the kind of show that we’re trying to make week after week. Oh, and just to put everybody’s minds at rest, there will be dinosaurs in every episode regardless of how human the stories become, we’ll always a healthy dose of dinosaurs.
What sticks out most in your mind about shooting the Terra Nova pilot, and also what were some of the initial acting challenges you found stepping into the Jim Shannon role?
JO: Well, first of all, it’s been well-documented how difficult some of the shooting days were on the pilot due to the inclement weather. As if it wasn’t hard enough trying to create as ambitious and as complicated a show as this is to make, we had to contend with some extreme weather.
There were days where I opened my trailer, stepped down and was literally up to my knees in a pile of mud. Those are the days when you say to yourself, “I don’t think we’re shooting today.” They were able to work magic with the schedule and oftentimes we’d be back in the studio or wherever we needed to be while it rained cats and dogs outside, or cats and dinos, as it felt sometimes. That was probably the most challenging aspect of the pilot shoot.
Acting-wise, I always like to play very raw characters that have a degree of vulnerability and passion about what they’re doing. I suppose the greatest acting challenge was to allow Jim to have enough darkness and even allow him to be more flawed than perhaps he was on paper.
That is something I’ve sort of confidently been talking to the writers about - trying to keep Jim as complicated as possible so he’s not just a hero running around protecting his family and either chasing after dinosaurs or running from them, so that there is a little more to him than that.
I suppose that was sort of my challenge to try to keep Jim as grounded, real and as complicated and human as possible. Technically, the green screen acting can be difficult. There’s actually something worse than a tennis ball on the end of a stick, and it’s an Australian visual effects assistant running around a field with a cardboard dinosaur head cutout on the end of a stick.
You’re supposed to look and feel intimidated and scared to death of this guy, and he’s a very sweet guy, but it’s really hard to be scared of something like that when all you want to do is burst out into fits of laughter.
That stuff can be tricky and difficult, but then you’re really at the whim of the visual effects guys as well as the editor when it comes to that, so you just do your best with it and move on.
In the pilot we see Jim and his family arrive and they’re newcomers. How long is it going to be before the next group of settlers arrives and Jim has to step up and be the old hand and kind of show them the ropes?
JO: The Eleventh Pilgrimage is coming and it’s coming at the end of season one, but we don’t know what it’s going to be made up of. It could be pilgrims, but it could be something far more terrifying.
Jim settles down pretty quickly into his role as sort of the town sheriff, so he’s already kind of laying down the do’s and don’ts for a lot of the colony. I think it would be nice for him to not always be the new guy, but at the same time it’s enjoyable for me as an actor and for the audience to see Jim do things for the first time. As I said, we don’t know what the Eleventh Pilgrimage will bring, so there are lots of mysteries and story twists to look forward to.
All photos copyright of Fox Television.