Mr. Opportunist: Interview with Falling Skies' Colin Cunningham

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Colin Cunningham as John Pope in Falling Skies

As Major Paul Davis on Stargate SG-1, Colin Cunningham was often part of a military taskforce whose brave men and women risked their lives to stop various extraterrestrial invaders that were intent on conquering and/or destroying Earth. In his latest gig on TNT's new Sci-Fi drama series Falling Skies, his character of John Pope is pretty much facing the same life-and-death dilemma, only this time the aliens have indeed landed and they mean business. As is often the case, the actor's involvement in this series, which is executive produced by Steven Spielberg and his company, DreamWorks Television, came about thanks to a simple phone call.

"I received a call from my agent telling me, 'Look, I have a script that you should take a peek at,'" recalls Cunningham. "I said, 'OK, cool,' but I never ask what it is, because if it's something small I don't want to approach the audition lazy, do you know what I mean? And if it's something huge, I don't want to freak out. So instead I just take it all as it comes; I do what I do, I prepare for the role, and in this case, as always, I went in there and did what I did.

"It wasn't until later on that my agent actually asked me, 'Do you know what this is for?" I said, 'Well, you told me it was an alien type thing, right?' He told me, 'Well, yes, Colin, but it's for DreamWorks.' I said, 'What, as in Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks?' He said, 'Yes,' and I was like, 'Holy crap,'" says the actor with a chuckle. "It was really interesting to have Steven himself make the final call as to whether or not I would be a part of the show. So I think I'm in good company, and it was quite the feather in my cap to be perfectly honest."

In Falling Skies, a multi-legged alien species nicknamed by humans as "Skitters" arrives on Earth and wastes no time in wrecking havoc and creating a modern day Armageddon. Using their vast array of weapons and technology, these invaders appear focused on wiping out most of humanity while kidnapping and using teenagers for some unknown plot.

FAlling Skies Noah Wylie alien.jpgAmong those fighting against the Skitters is the 2nd Mass, an Army regiment based in Massachusetts and commanded by Captain Weaver (Will Patton) and Tom Mason (Noah Wyle), a former college history professor and expert in military tactics. For Cunningham and his fellow castmates, transitioning from the real world into make-believe war-torn chaos was not that difficult.

"Normally when you show up on-set it's a police station or maybe you're on-location at a pier on a beach," says the actor. "With Falling Skies, you show up at, let's say, a Wal-Mart parking lot and the building itself looks like it's been put through the wringer. Set dec has spent three weeks dressing the place to make it appear as if it's been blasted to bits. You also have 300 extras dressed in military camouflage gear and carrying weapons. They've all been made up to look as if they haven't washed in six months. There are civilian [extras] as well, wearing tattered clothes along with make-up and they're cooking over fires in trash cans. You've also got heavy equipment like military jeeps and trucks scattered about the place. And all this is for a scene that might only have four or five lines of dialogue.

"When you show up to something like this, you think, 'Man, this no TV show. I don't know what it is but it's not a TV show,' because it's just so massive and epic and unlike anything you've worked on before."

Described in the Falling Skies press book as "smart, resourceful and charismatic," Cunningham's character of John Pope also happens to be an ex-con, not to mention an accomplished chef. He also turns out to be quite the opportunist insofar as this war between humans and aliens, and has appointed himself the leader of a band of marauders. Pope shows no mercy when it comes to the Skitters. It is either him or them, and despite the current state of the planet, he has too much to live for to let the aliens get the upper hand. Although Pope is a worthy antagonist, he is also more than just a mustache-twirling villain.

"The biggest challenge with this character is to not play him one-note," muses Cunningham. "A lot of times the bad guys are there to create some conflict and stuff like that, but I think the world that Steven Spielberg, Robert Podat [executive producer/writer] and everyone else involved have created is one of survival and where everyone has an angle. One of the neat things about Falling Skies is that if John Pope is the bad guy and Tom Mason is the good guy, well then, it's a crazy extreme such as Armageddon that will create strange bedfellows. Sometimes you have no choice but to work with people who you'd never work with in a regular world. Sometimes you have to work with your enemies in order to come together against a common enemy, which is a bigger enemy, and that's sort of what these characters do.

"John Pope definitely starts off as a bad guy," continues the actor. "There's no question about it. He's introduced in a battle with Noah Wyle's character and his team, so it couldn't possibly be any worse. However, by the end of the first season, you will see a change. It'll be a subtle change, because John is who he is. He's an opportunist and out for himself, but he isn't completely bad. I believe there's a glimmer of hope and humanity in him. At least that's what I've found, and to me it's what makes the character so interesting. Even though they're all working together, John is not a guy you could necessarily trust, not because he's evil, but that, again, he's out for just himself, and that's what I think will be the challenge for John Pope. He has to try to be not so selfish and maybe start looking out for other people in spite of his own one-sided and opportunistic nature."

Ever the chameleon, Cunningham likes nothing more than to look as different as possible from one character to the next, and John Pope is no exception.

"I'm a big fan of not looking like me," he says. "One of the things I like so much about acting is that you're pretending to be someone else, so therefore you can't really look like yourself. I don't look like a renegade biker, so I had dig into my make-up kit and pull out all sorts of crazy stuff. As John Pope I've got a full-blown beard as well as hair down to my shoulders and I'm covered with tattoos. That's actually how I went into the audition.

"I don't understand some actors who say, 'Look, don't they [the people in the audition room] have imaginations?' No, they don't have time for that. You've got to go in there and give them exactly what they want, John Pope wasn't a guy that looked like me and I thought all the better."

When asked if he has a favorite episode or scene from his work so far in Falling Skies, the actor wastes no time in answering. "It's one of the first scenes I have with Noah Wyle," says Cunningham. "It's pretty much a one-on-one, and what I love so much about it is that there are no aliens or visual effects to fall back on. It's just two actors doing their thing, or should I say John Pope and Tom Mason doing their thing. It was quite a tricky scene to pull off because it's so subtle and conversational, and yet they're both totally feeling each other out in terms of the danger and who they are. So it's a real chess game that's going on between them.

"The strength of any Spielberg production is that it's about the people. The action, the aliens, the visual effects, they're all there to help serve a purpose and get us to the next scene, but in this case it's about, among other things, your kids. I mean, they've got kids in Falling Skies who are carrying rifles and they're shooting them, too, because that's the way it is. It's not all '60s, hippy-dippy, all you need is love and to try to understand the other person. Sometimes there are things that are out there that can kill you, and they will kill you if you don't kill them. So as much as we teach our children about love and forgiveness, sometimes you also have to teach them how to hold a gun and fire it. If not, humanity and the goodness, sweetness and the love will be gone. There won't be any of that because you've been annihilated, and before that happens you've got to fight back."

cunningham_fallingskies.jpgHaving worked on the aforementioned Stargate SG-1 as well as other sci-fi and fantasy shows, how does Cunningham feel Falling Skies differs from those previous projects? "Oh, God, it's so incredibly different," notes the actor. "Again, just from a production standpoint it's bigger than anything I've ever worked on. In terms of the story, it's definitely rawer. Sometimes you've got to candy coat things a little bit. With Stargate, for example, you had to tone down the blood, let's say, whereas with this show it's more to do with life and death. Falling Skies is not as adventurous. We're not going on an adventure every week and there's not a different episode every week. Our episodes pick up where the last one left off, so there's no new mystery to unravel. It's one story, sort of like an artichoke, that's slowly being peeled piece by piece and we're learning together as we all go along. We're learning who these characters are as well as what their backstories are and trying to figure out what the hell these alien things want."

Apart from fighting aliens on Falling Skies, the actor has been busy with several other projects. "I've got my own series that I've been trying to develop over the years called Centigrade," says Cunningham. "It made the short list for an Academy Award nomination in 2009. We're not exactly sure where we're headed with it as far as a feature film or TV series, but it's still very much in the forefront of our minds.

"I also worked on the first season of a series for HBO Canada called Living in Your Car, which we're all hoping will be picked up again, and I'm on Eric McCormack's new show as well, Perception, which has been picked up as a weekly series.  So I've been blessed this year and I'm truly grateful for that."

Falling Skies airs Sundays @ 10:00 p.m. EST/PST on TNT.

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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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