For Irish actor Jason O'Mara, dinosaurs are only part of the story when it comes to his new Fox blast-into-the-past, dino-filled series, Terra Nova. The sci-fi and time-travel veteran of Life on Mars gave us the lowdown on what to expect during the first season of the new series from Steven Spielberg, including a couple big teasers.
Terra Nova takes the Shannon family from a bleak, hopeless far future as they join the Tenth Pilgrimage of settlers to go through a fracture in time into the far past, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. The series' two-hour premiere airs tonight at 8 p.m. ET.
The Shannons are "a very lucky family. They're one in a million," said O'Mara, who plays the ex-cop father, Jim Shannon. "They've managed to escape this dying world and get this second chance in this sort of utopia. 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 Jim, his wife, Elisabeth, and his children, 17-year-old Josh, 15-year-old Maddy and young Zoe, are there, they discover that if "you scratch the surface ... you realize that there is something else going on here. There are splinter groups, 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 over Terra Nova," said O'Mara.
When it comes to Taylor, "You know, who put him in charge? Was he ever elected? These questions are asked, so the Shannon family are caught up in all of this and they become the audience's eyes and ears. They get involved in a firsthand way directly in the intrigue that's taking place, politically and socially. At the same time, they're trying to survive in this place that is certainly a lot more hostile than it's first thought, and it's not just the dinosaurs."
However, "the 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 nonlethal, humane weapons to control them," said O'Mara. "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 around that."
O'Mara isn't willing to let us know exactly who bites the dust as dino food, but he did tease this. "I can reveal that one of the characters that you will have come to know, and hopefully love, will die by the end of the first season. There will be a death of a regular character by this season's end."
While the series will focus on the relationships between the people, "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. 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 have a healthy dose of dinos."
O'Mara admits, "Steven Spielberg's presence is one of the selling points. The dinosaurs, obviously, are a huge aspect of all of this. So we're hoping that people come for these reasons but stay because they're enjoying the world we've created and the dynamics between the characters and the relationships that are forming. As the season progresses and deepens you'll get to know the characters better and see where we're going with the storylines.
"What's really exciting about this world ... we're sort of building this place from the ground up. We're able to ask these allegorical, sociological, and philosophical questions about the world we're living in now and where we're going and what we would do if we had a second chance. I must say that, dinosaurs aside, that's kind of the thing that I find most intriguing about the series," he said.
"I like to play very raw characters, characters who 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 that I've confidently been talking to the writers about, about trying to keep Jim as complicated as possible, so he's not just a hero running around protecting his family and chasing dinosaurs—either chasing after them or running from them—so that there is a little more to him than that."
Two key elements will define Jim, said O'Mara. His relationship and growing friendship with Taylor, played by Avatar's Stephen Lang, and his devotion to his family. Shelley Conn portrays his wife, Elisabeth, a doctor who earned the family a ticket to the past. Jim's kids are played by Landon Liboiron (Josh), Naomi Scott (Maddy) and newcomer Alana Mansour (Zoe).
"Josh Shannon gets embroiled in the first season in something and gets in way over his head. Maddy Shannon has her storyline, and at times she's put in terrible danger, as well as Zoe. Some of Zoe's stories, my 7-year-old daughter, really played really well. I think everyone was surprised how well her character plays in the stories, but also surprised with how good Alana Mansour is as Zoe. She's just becoming a really great little actress. 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, and her acting is really deepening and maturing, and she's starting to have a lot of fun with that."
In fact, filming with children has been a breeze compared to his work with dinosaurs, says O'Mara. "Technically the green-screen acting can be difficult because there is something worse, by the way, than a tennis ball on the end of a stick. It's an Australian visual-effects assistant running around with a cardboard dinosaur head cut off on the end of a stick while wearing shorts and sandals, running around a field. And you're supposed to look intimidated and scared to death of this guy, and he's a very sweet guy, but it's just really hard to be really scared of something like that when all you want to do is burst out into fits of laughter."
What hasn't been quite so funny is the difficult shoot in Australia. Especially initially, when the production on the pilot required them to create both a far-future Earth and then a lush, untouched far past.
"Brisbane stood in for Chicago. Brisbane is the Australian city on the east coast of Australia, and a lot of Chicago was CGI, 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 kind of a bleak place," said O'Mara.
While we'll only see the future Chicago during the pilot, the rest of the series takes place during the past, in a specially built compound that looks very much like Terra Nova, the new home to about 1,000 refuges from the future.
"Listen, it has been very challenging shooting this show. We're outside for a lot of this. The Australian Outback can be quite unforgiving." Beyond that, "it's a pretty big production, the size of which I'm not sure has been seen in recent memory on broadcast TV."
It's a project worthy of Spielberg, whose own Jurassic Park has set the standard for anything involving dinosaurs. So Terra Nova has a lot to live up to. Along with Spielberg, the series has a host of producers, including Peter Chernin (Rise of the Planet of the Apes), Rene Echevarria (Castle) and Brannon Braga (Star Trek).
While the sci-fi pedigree is undeniable, O'Mara said the hope is that this series will appeal to a broad audience. "We're trying to create something that's a little bit bigger than that. It's not just for a niche audience. This isn't Battlestar Galactica. It's not Star Trek. This is not necessarily for sci-fi fans out there, even though I think sci-fi fans will get a lot out of it. This has that all-inclusive look and feel of a true Steven Spielberg production, where people are going to E.T. for the cinematic experience, not because it's just about a boy's relationship with his alien who comes down from space," he said.
"That's kind of how the feeling is on Terra Nova. This isn't just about time travel and dinosaurs. It's about a lot more than that. I think that's what's going to bring this show and put it on a level where an entire family can watch it, from the ages of, I think it might be suitable for 10-year-olds, maybe, 11-year-olds ... right through to people in their 80s. I really do stand behind that. I think there is literally something for everybody."
As for where the series will go, O'Mara offers up one additional teaser. "The Eleventh Pilgrimage is coming, and it's coming at the end of season one, but we don't know what the Eleventh Pilgrimage is going to be made up of. By then it could be pilgrims, but it could be something else far more terrifying. ... We don't know what the Eleventh Pilgrimage will bring, so there are lots of mysteries and story twists to look forward to," he said.
Here's a promo:
Do you think Terra Nova will be the next big science fiction series?