The Good Ship Phaeton talks to Erik Jensen

I got to talk to Mr. Erik Jensen, who plays the wonderfully sublime Dr. Jules Braun, last Friday right before the Virtuality premiere.


Jimmy Bing: Tell us a little bit about Dr. Jules Braun.

Erik Jensen: Jules Braun was the designer of the ship, the Phaeton. He’s a former NASA scientist. As Jimmy Johnson [the ship’s second in command] refers to him, he’s a company man. My character was in Mission Control during the Mars Disaster, which wasn’t alluded to in this script but it was a mission where things went horribly wrong. Horrible, bloody, awful things happened on this really long trip to Mars that was conducted by the Space Agency. As a result of the things that were learned on that trip–I don’t know if Ron or Michael plan on there having been any survivors–but as a result of this event that had happened on the Mars mission, which I think is alluded to in the original script and was alluded to in a lot of our improvisations that we did, they decided that they needed to create something to keep people occupied while they’re on a long mission. We’re on a mission, obviously, to the Epsilon Eridani system to see if there’s a planet there that can support human life, or maybe has life on it already, possibly intelligent life. And in order to withstand the rigors of that trip we have virtual reality modules that we snap onto our heads that will take us to other times and places, some more real than others. So basically, Jules Braun is a guy who really wants to escape and get away from his past as much as possible. There’s nothing better, as far as he’s concerned, than getting millions and millions and millions of miles away from the planet. I think he’s pretty convinced that by getting millions of miles away from the planet that he can get millions of miles away from just being. But, as all of us know, wherever you go, there you are, and your pain comes with you. In fact, it probably has the effect of making it worse.

JB: With the characters being stuck inside this metal tube for ten years, the reality show aspect and the problems with the VR modules, the show is pretty hefty in its subject matter. When you were first given the script, what went through your mind? What attracted you to it?

EJ: When I read the script I kept thinking of things like classic science fiction, like the Ringworld series or some of the work of Frank Herbert. The groundwork was real, the characters have real emotions, the writing popped off of the page. It was writing that I wanted to work on. I’m not what you would call a natural memorizer. I have a photographic memory for images and pictures. I can also have a photographic memory if you tell me your kids did such-and-such-a-thing in January. If I see you five years later I’ll ask you if your kids still talk about the thing they did in January. But for dialogue, I actually have to work really hard to make it effortless to say. And this was dialogue that made me want to work on it. I probably spent, I don’t know, about four hours a day for three or four days working on the initial piece of dialogue that I got.

Here’s a little tidbit for you that nobody else knows. Originally I was brought in for the role of Jimmy Johnson, the part that my buddy Ritchie Coster plays. Ritchie and I saw each other at the final callback. Actually, the night before I was going to go in for the final trips to studio and then to network, or network and then studio, I don’t know how it works. I got this call and I hear, “Erik?” And I’m like, “Ritchie?” And he says, “Hey mate, are you in Los Angeles?” and I told him yeah and he says, “I am too.” So I was like, “Great! What are you doing here? Oh, you’re here for Virtuality, aren’t you?” Because when I had seen him in New York, he thought he was there to audition for the captain, which I believe had already been cast. So I said, “You’re here, you got called back?” and he said, “Mate, I got bad news.” And he told me that we were up for the same part. And my heart dropped into my shoes, not out of any selfishness, but Ritchie and I have been friends for about fifteen years. We did a TV show many years ago called Delaventura and we immediately bonded. We go places together, we see movies together, we have dinner together, our wives know each other. We’re really really, really close friends, not just friends in a Hollywood way. He’s like my brother, so I was like, ‘Oh crap, how are we going to handle that?’ He said that he figured we would just be there to support each other and that we’d each go and do the best job that we could. And I said alright. He said that he wanted to call me because he didn’t want it to be a surprise when we saw each other the next day. I don’t think I’m talking out of class by telling this story.

JB: You’re committed. You can’t stop now.

EJ: We get to the final audition for the role. I’m there for Jimmy Johnson, he’s there for Jimmy Johnson. And I see Ritchie–Ritchie’s going to kill me when I talk about this–but Ritchie’s wearing this absolutely awful shirt. It looks like a hippy-peacock-threw-up-Starbursts shirt. It was an unbelievable mess, this shirt. I couldn’t even get a bead on it, it made my eyes cross. So I sit down and I’m looking at Ritchie, and we hug and I say, “Alright man, you go do your thing and I’ll do my thing and we’ll just go for it. We’re competing against ourselves, not each other.” Ritchie says, “Absolutely,” and then he goes, “Well, what do you think of the shirt?”

JB: You’re like, “I love it!”

EJ: After a second, I’m like, ‘No, I’m not going there.’ I tell him, “Ritchie, the shirt’s terrible,” and he said, “Really?” I told him, you have to wear something different, because it’s going to look squiggly on camera. You don’t want to wear stripes or patterns on film because the shirt tends to leave trails. Even on HD video, parallel stripes will leave trails when you’re in bad lighting. So Ritchie goes, “Well, I got another one.” So he gets this straight gray number, which looks really good. And I tell him, “That’s the one, Ritchie.” And he says, “Thanks, mate.” So Ritchie goes in and when he comes out I asked him how he did, and he says they wanted him to do it with his [British] accent. And he said, “I didn’t practice it with my accent.” I asked him if he was okay with that, and he said, “Yeah, I’m fine. But I think I blew it.” So I’m like, “Ritchie, stop it.” And he says he’ll wait outside for me. So I went in and did my final thing for them. Ritchie and me meet in the hallway and we’re talking back and forth and I asked him if he was going to be okay, and he said,”Yeah, are you going to be okay?” and I said yeah. So he asks if I want to get dinner and I was like, “You know what, the news is going to come out and I think I just want to go to the comic book store. So you go do your thing and we’ll call each other when we know what’s happened.” He says okay. So I get to the comic book store and my manager calls me and her voice drops down. She’s been my manager for ten years, so whenever her voice drops down, she’s not all loud like, “Erik!” She just says, Erik. You could tell how disappointed she was. She said, “You got close.” So I asked who got it, because there had been one other guy who I think had been up for the part too. And she said, “This guy from New York. Ritchie Coster.” So I sat with my own sadness for about two minutes, and then I texted Ritchie and told him he deserved it and that he was going to be great on the show. I didn’t want to bring my dogs to Vancouver anyway. I’m your biggest fan, I can’t wait to see it. Best of luck.

So I fly back to New York that night. The next day I’m on a plane to Jordan to do interviews with Iraqi refugees for this new play that I’m writing. My wife and I are playwrights too. It’s going up at the New York Theater Workshop here in New York in September. So I spend the next 10-14 days interviewing Iraqi refugees. People who were chased out of Iraq by militias. Some of them who were translators who were chased out of Iraq for “collaborating with the Americans.” Anybody who even talked to an American, anybody who translated for them was immediately targeted and had to flee the country because were threatening to kill them and their families. There were a lot of refugees. So we did these interviews, there were about forty of them and after about the first two, any mild disappointment I was feeling about not getting into Virtuality immediately went away. It really put things in perspective. I really wanted to do a science fiction TV show and I just hung out with forty people who are civilians who, through no fault of their own, have basically been driven out of their country and have no home. You know what? I’m doing okay. My life ain’t so bad and any sort of selfish pain that I might be feeling, there’s no comparison. During those interviews I really scrubbed my heart. It took my focus off of myself and onto something infinitely more important than me, which was a really good thing.

So I got back to New York, and not an hour after I had gotten back my manager called. And she was like, “Erik!” Her voice went up this time. She said they wanted to see me on Virtuality again. My first thought was, ‘Is Ritchie okay? What happened to him?’ And she says, “No, no, for a different part.” And I was like, “You’re kidding me!” Because I loved the script so much and I loved the character so much that I was going to be in for another four-day rehearsal session, memorizing for three hours a day. She said I only had two days to work on the script. And I said, “Well, that’s good.” And I get it and of course it’s a page-and-a-half-long monologue of just me talking. So I’m like, ‘Alright, I better knuckle down and get to work.’ So I did it. I went in and I went on tape for it and when I went home that night my manager said that I have to fly to Los Angeles that night. So start packing my stuff. She calls  me back and she says that I’m not flying to Los Angeles. Now at this point I’ve really got my heart clean, but I’m starting to feel a little jerked around by this whole thing. I’ve fallen in and out of love with this project like four or five times and it’s sort of like, ‘Why do I keep dating the same girl?’ So anyway, one thing led to another, and I didn’t have to go to L.A. That wasn’t a good sign at the time because they never cast off of tape, but lo and behold they cast me off the tape and I got to fall in love with the project again. And I actually think that the casting was much better the way that it ended up, because what Ritchie has done in the piece is just phenomenal and so outstrips anything that I could have done with that part that it’s just an absolute pleasure to watch him. And we have a bunch of scenes together. So working with him, my good buddy, and having a clean heart at the same time really felt good, and it just goes to show you that sometimes when you’re generous with yourself and sometimes when you’re unattached to things, things will come back to you if you’ve avoided being selfish and been more generous.

JB: I’ve heard stories like that before, where two people will be up for the same part and through whatever process they both end up on the show in different roles. Whenever you were auditioning for Ritchie’s part, I’m sure your audition was great, but now that I’ve seen the show, it seems like I couldn’t imagine the two of you in any other role.

EJ: Well Ron and Michael and Peter, they have very good eyes. The three of them have been at this, in one form or another, between them they’ve got about got about 75 years of experience in the industry. And they know how to do it, so it just couldn’t have ended up any better and I think whether this goes forward or not, I think the thing that I love the most about it and the thing that I would miss the most the most about it, if it weren’t to go forward, is really the cast that those guys put together. And really, I can’t imagine a better group of actors and a better group of people. They all brought their A game, and there was no ego attached to anything. Everybody was excited to be there, humble, generous. It is so rare to be on a set with a dozen other actors who are so generous. Generous, kind, egoless, beautiful people. And I think the thing I loved the most about the pilot was being there with them in that moment, but also the possibility of, ‘You know what? This is a group of people I could spend the next five years of my life working with and I would never want to miss work, any day of the week.’ That’s a rare thing.

JB: The show leaves a lot of questions hanging in the air. Have Ron Moore and Michael Taylor made you guys privy to the direction they wanted to head into or did they leave a lot of that stuff a mystery to you guys as well?

EJ: Well, I wish I could make some news for the fans right now, but I can’t. The things we were privy to are the same things you guys were privy to in terms of the backstories. Our job was to know those backstories backwards and forwards, to know how we feel about all of the events that took place in the backstories, and then to bring all of that history to the moment that we’re playing. Ritchie and I have intertwining backstories and we would talk at length about what it was we both mutually knew or thought we knew, but we wouldn’t talk about what we were hiding from each other. It’s just like life. Everyone’s got their own perception of reality. I had my view of the story, he had his view of the story. We had shared facts that we thought were the facts, but really, the things that we’re keeping from each other are phenomenally interesting. So Michael provided us with some secrets in terms of what our characters were keeping from other characters, but that’s stuff that I have to hold onto as an actor. I don’t want to reveal that stuff to anybody until the time is right. And keeping those secrets fuels the tension in a scene. The camera will land on somebody, Peter Berg the director has this incredible ability to have the camera land on somebody and just hover there. And it’s also our DP [Director of Photography], Stephen McNutt, he pretty much shot every frame of Battlestar, from what I remember. Peter and Stephen would just work in tandem to keep that camera hovering there, past when it’s comfortable, past when most directors call cut, and that’s some of the most interesting stuff in the show. Those secret moments that people have with each other. Those long pauses. This is a show that isn’t afraid of using a pause or silence to build tension. I think that was utilized in Battlestar, too. In both places it’s utilized skillfully, but here it’s particularly interesting and that’s Peter who does that. So everybody on the ship has secrets. That’s what’s going to drive the show. It’s those secrets, those things–not just things like the affair the viewers saw in the first episode–it’s those big and small secrets we keep from each other that cause the darkness to happen between us.

JB: One of the really interesting things about the show, I found, that gelled with the rest of it better than I thought it would was the reality show. The confessionals and stuff like that, I thought some of those scenes were great. What sort of commentary do you think that aspect of the show provides?

EJ: That depends on what your view of reality television is. I mean, reality television drives a lot of this business. I heard somewhere today that, like, 10 million viewers tuned into this something-something Plus 8. That show, Kate and Whatever Plus 8.

JB: We won’t mention them by name.

EJ: Yeah. You know, that’s not personally appealing to me, but it was appealing enough for 10 million people. Those are some pretty damn good numbers.

JB: It’s true.

EJ: So there is a curiosity that we have about each other and about people being “real” on camera. It provides a fishbowl feeling, which I think is really helpful for creating a lot of tension for the actors. That idea that you’re always being watched. Personally as an actor, I’ve probably gotten more comfortable over the years with being observed in a room by a crowd of live people or by a crew or by a camera than your average stockbroker or accountant or whatever. Most people would absolutely freak out getting up in front of that many people and making an ass out of themselves, which is basically my job description. But that’s the idea, that you’re in that fishbowl and that there’s pressure to do certain things within that fishbowl. It’s something that I get. I have a lot of friends who are really famous and there’s nothing like being in that fishbowl for them. There’s nothing that can compare. You’re at once looked up to and reviled, and people’s boundaries drop away. People feel like they can come up and say, “You know that movie that you did? That really sucked, but I liked your other movie.” Well, it’s just as hard to make a good movie as it is to make a bad movie. You put just as much of yourself into a good film as you do into a bad film if you’re worth your weight as a performer. It’s an act of generosity. You’re giving as much of yourself because you love your audience, you love the people who are coming to pay their hard-earned money to come see you. It’s your responsibility to give of yourself. When somebody comes up to you and says something like that, they feel like they know you and they’re comfortable with you. I’m not talking about myself, I’m talking about some famous friends of mine. It’s just something I’ve observed. So being in that fishbowl is a phenomenally interesting device, I think.

A lot of those confessionals were written, about half of them were improvised. So we’d get on camera and really be put on the spot by Peter. Peter would sit there and ask us questions, intending to get a response and I’d come up with some clever little preplanned thing that I thought was going to be really good. And he’d just cut me off and call me on it and say, “That’s bullshit.” So a lot of the stuff that ended up on camera was us being caught off-guard and there’s nothing better than an actor being off-guard. It’s a real gift, and Peter’s got an incredible ability to get you off-guard.

JB: Are you reading anything good right now?

EJ: I’m a big reader. I love Dune. I’m a big fan of any good science fiction. I was a big Ringworld fan. I’ve been writing this graphic novel, The Reconcilers and Neil Adams is doing the cover. I’ve been reading a lot of graphic novels lately. I just read something called Heavy Liquid, that’s pretty good. I’m a big fan of Bill Willingham’s Fables, it’s a Vertigo title.

JB: I know that one.

EJ: Man, I love Fables so much. In terms of things that I read, I try and read Hemmingway at least once a month. I’m trying to make my way through all the stuff that he wrote. I just read a book that he wrote with his war correspondence. I ready a biography of Teddy Roosevelt that was really good. I’m reading a Robert Jordan book. It’s sort of a fantasy-Tolkien thing, which is not too bad. My wife’s new book is coming out at the end of the summer, so I’ve been reading that. It’s called Karma for Beginners–it’s really good. Anything that comes across my table, I’ll get into as long as the first few pages are good. I know Dave Eggers a little bit, so I’m reading A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius for the first time. And The Good Ship Phaeton–I read it religiously.

JB: We love plugs for our site, so that’ll be featured prominently.


Erik’s a great guy and it was a lot of fun talking to him. Remember, you can watch Virtuality right now on both Fox On Demand and HULU.


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