Keepers Of The Flame: Interview With Alphas' Malik Yoba, Warren Christie, Azita Ghanizada

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The cast of Alphas (L-R): Ryan Cartwright (Gary Bell), Laura Mennell (Nina Theroux), Malik Yoba (Bill Harken), David Strathairn (Dr. Lee Rosen), Warren Christie (Cameron Hicks) and Azita Ghanizada (Rachel Pirzad)

It is another busy workday on the Toronto set of Alphas. The show’s cast and crew have their proverbial noses to the grindstone and are busy filming a first season episode in which some of our heroes come face-to-face with a figure from their past.

“The episode we’re doing right now is called “Catch and Release,” and basically we’re chasing after a former Alpha that two members of the team are very familiar with,” says Warren Christie, whose Alphas alter ego of Cameron Hicks possesses Hyperkinesis, giving him flawless aim and enhanced dexterity. “The thing is there are a number of gray areas; there’s no good or bad side. It’s not a clear-cut case of good versus evil. You don’t know what’s behind what the government wants, and the same is true of the Alphas.

“It’s an interesting situation for our characters, especially Cameron because he’s still relatively new to the group. He’s not 100% convinced that he’s on the right side. To Cameron it feels like he is, but then these things come up that make him wonder. It’s tough because if I tell you any more I’ll give it all way,” says the actor with a chuckle. “I will add, though, that we have an incredible guest-star in this one that viewers will be very excited about, and I think this is an episode that people really going to enjoy.”

A new addition to Syfy’s Monday night roster of action/adventure/dramedy programming, Alphas follows a group of five ordinary people with greatly enhanced physical and mental capabilities -- or Alphas -- who are working for the U.S. Department of Defense. Under the empathetic leadership of preeminent neurologist, psychiatrist and Alpha phenomenon expert Dr. Lee Rosen (Emmy Award-winner David Strathairn), the team investigates crimes that appear to be committed by those with abilities similar to theirs.

In the show’s 90-minute pilot, the DOD enlists the help of Dr. Rosen and his team of Alphas to track down the person responsible for carrying out a seemingly impossible assassination. Rosen assigns ex-FBI agent and team member Bill Harken (Malik Yoba) to head up the field operation. Bill is a Hyperadrenal whose body can produce massive amount of adrenaline giving him super-strength and making him resistant to pain. His abilities come in handy when the team subsequently corners their target. Malik Yoba (Detective Julius Clarence “J.C.” Williams in the hit 90s detective series New York Undercover), thoroughly enjoyed stepping into his character’s shoes for the first time and filming the pilot.

“One of the coolest things for me is that prior to this I hadn’t played a character that had any special powers,” notes Yoba. “Even though I had tread in similar waters before in terms of law enforcement, this is a little bit different, and it’s fun. We assembled an amazing cast in David Strathairn, Azita Ghanizada, Ryan Cartwright, Warren Christie and Laura Mennell, and I just had a ball.

“I loved doing some of the action and special skills stuff, although I didn’t have the chance do any of the hardcore things like free-running, flipping over my back or running up walls. The most I got do was punch a hole in a wall, but that was still pretty neat. It had been a long time since I’d had the opportunity to play a significant role where I can do the action stuff and drama as well as be funny and help tell a story with sci-fi elements. I think it’s just great that because there are so many aspects to my character, I get to use different parts of my skills as an actor.”

Continues Christie, “What I remember most about working on the pilot is that everyone was really excited to be here and be a part of this. There was something special about it and everyone felt that. When we sat down to do the [table] read of the pilot script, each of us brought something very interesting and different to the table. Everyone had these great ideas, and right from the beginning Zak Penn (Alphas co-creator/executive producer/writer) and Jack Bender [who directed the pilot] were very open to giving us actors the freedom to play around with and talk about the material. They were genuinely interested in our input. You don’t always get that, and that was a really nice gift.

“I’ve shot a few pilots in my day, some of which went to series while others didn’t, but with Alphas we all felt like we were on the same page and really tried to knock it out of the park. We had a shot at doing something that could be quite special. I love the fact that when our characters are out in the field they’re this group doing amazing things, but at the end of the day they go back to an office and it’s their job. That’s an interesting balance and I think it’s what helps set this apart from other shows. I mean, there are always going to be comparisons. People read the tag lines for the show and think, ‘Oh, it’s like such and such,’ but I think we’ve worked hard and hopefully set up things in such a way that will allow us to carve out our own niche in the genre.”

Along with Cameron Hicks and Bill Harken, the other members of the Alphas team are Nina Theroux (Laura Mennell), an Influencer who can override the will of others, Gary Bell (Ryan Cartwright), a Transducer or “human antenna” who has the capability of reading a wide range of electromagnetic frequencies, including television, radio and cell phone signals, and Rachel Pirzad (Azita Ghanizada), a Synesthete, who is able to hyper-intensify her senses one at a time. For the ebullient Azita Ghanizada, playing the slightly shy and socially awkward Rachel was something she had to get used to.

“In the beginning, the challenge for me was learning to temper my own personality because it can sometimes overwhelm the character that I’m playing,” explains the actress. “Let me tell you, though, that since the pilot, Rachel has taken a big leap in her level of self confidence, and the audience will get to see that after the pilot airs. You’ll see Rachel as a young adult and not a frumpy girl. The show’s writers along with [executive producer and show runner] Ira Steven Behr looked at me and then looked at Rachel and said, ‘We’ve got to make Rachel much closer to who Azita is, and we’ve got to identify her much more as a young woman who really wants to be courageous as opposed to someone who is afraid.’

“So in the pilot you’ll see Rachel as someone who is struggling with really wanting to blossom and speak up for herself, and she begins doing both as the series unfolds, which is a real treat. Our writers are really creative as well as smart and they’re on top of their game when it comes to developing all of our characters.”

What does the actress think of Rachel’s extraordinary abilities? “I think they’re so cool,” enthuses Ghanizada. “I think everyone on the show has a super-cool power, though, and our visual effects [VFX] team has worked with our directors and producers to come up with some awesome ways in which our characters visually demonstrate their abilities.

“For me, I’d say learning that Rachel can see, hear, taste, touch and smell everything so intensely just clicked right away. I found a way to do it and I understand it, so when I’m shooting those scenes, I really smell it, I really hear it, etc. I really get into it because I believe it’s the only way that I can make it appear honest and believable.

“Rachel is a bit of a workhorse or the walking crime lab in the series,” jokes the actress. “My character is definitely exploring, investigating and discovering a lot of the time, and while she’s been with the team and Dr. Rosen, it has made her far more confident in her powers. It also makes Rachel feel rather proud of herself for the first time in her life. So I think her abilities are quite human as well as honest and super-rad. She’s the coolest crime-fighter out there.”

While no strangers to one another, the Alphas must now learn to work as a team out in the field. Not only must they become accustomed to using their powers in unison with each other, but also try their best to understand and get used to the other person's idiosyncrasies. That is especially difficult for Cameron, whose lack of faith in his own abilities has turned him into very much a lone wolf. However, he has no alternative but to comply with the decision made by the DOD and Dr. Rosen.

“Again, without giving too much away, when we meet Cameron in the pilot he’s sort of brought into this world not of his own choosing,” says Christie. “Something happens and all of a sudden my character is not left with much of a choice, really. He’s told to show up on Monday morning at nine for work or else. I love that because it allows us to see a little bit of a different side of Dr. Rosen. This is a man who’s there and who cares about his team very much, but there are moments throughout the first season where you sort of question his agenda.”

When it comes to relationships between characters, Rachel’s and Bill’s is not unlike that of oil and water, at least initially. “He can be boorish and aggressive that Bill Harken,” teases Ghanizada, “but Rachel’s interaction with Bill forces her to deal with her confrontational skills, and their relationship becomes something quite special.

“Our characters relationships with one another are very human, and that’s part of what makes the show so special. Rachel feels a real kinship to the other Alphas. They respect one another in the office as well as out in the field, and they also respect the other persons’ gifts and qualities. After all, they’re the only people who truly understand just how unique they are. So it’s very much still waters run deep amongst the team. Even if it’s not always obvious, they love and respect each other, and that’s true of us as a cast, too. I think that plays out onscreen now that we’ve been together for the past few months. There’s a real camaraderie amongst us as Alphas and as a cast.”

Yoba concurs, “This continues to be a wonderful experience. We have an extremely generous cast. I know that actors say that a lot, but I think everyone wants to be part of something great, and they’re willing to make whatever sacrifices are necessary and to be generous with one another. We’re all keepers of the flame, and I think everyone here realizes, OK, there’s a lot going on. This is a very ambitious show. For example, today we’re bouncing back and forth between first and second [filming] units, so there are those types of logistical challenges along with creative challenges, but overall everybody wants to win. So we’re very supportive of one another and it definitely shows.”

Alphas premieres tonight, Monday, July 11th @ 10:00pm EST/PST on Syfy.

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A native of Massachusetts, Steve Eramo has been a Sci-Fi fan since childhood, having been brought up on such TV shows as Star Trek and Space: 1999. He is also an Anglophile and lover of British TV. A writer for 35 years – 17 of those as a fulltime freelancer – Steve has had over 2,500 feature-length…

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