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SYFY WIRE Interviews

Janet Varney on Voyage to the Stars Season 2 and creating an improv sci-fi adventure

By Lisa Granshaw
Voyage to the Stars podcast cast

What happens when you give a group of talented actors the basic outline of a sci-fi adventure and ask them to improvise the rest while you record them? You get the hilarious and epic podcast Voyage to the Stars!

Voyage to the Stars follows a group of misfits in 2263 on an alien craft trying to return to Earth after a wormhole transports them to the other side of the universe. Featuring a crew made up of Felicia Day (The Guild, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Janet Varney (The Legend of Korra, Stan Against Evil), Colton Dunn (Superstore), Kirsten Vangsness (Criminal Minds), and Steve Berg (The Good Place), their adventures bring them to different planets where they interact with new lifeforms as they try to survive and get along with each other.

The show also welcomes onboard an impressive list of guest stars like Phil LaMarr (Futurama), Paul F. Tompkins (BoJack Horseman), and Erinn Hayes (Children's Hospital). Now in its second season, the crew is dealing with an all-consuming force called the Nothing as they try to get back to Earth.

Sound exciting? Well, luckily you don't have to wait until Tuesday to get a peek at what's going to happen next. SYFY WIRE has an exclusive clip from this week's upcoming episode that you can listen to right now below!

To find out more about what's in store for this intrepid crew and the space podcast itself, SYFY WIRE spoke with Varney, who plays the A.I. Sorry, about Season 2, how the cast brings these characters to life, and what the podcast's future might hold.

How did you become a part of Voyage to the Stars? How did this all start?

That I can give credit to my friend and colleague Ryan Copple who was somebody that I had met many years ago when he was running Felicia Day's company Geek & Sundry. I ended up over time working with him on a few different things. I guess the most recent was a show we did called Escape! because we're both totally obsessed with escape rooms along with our producer Annie Liu. So we had this really fun experience bringing in a bunch of famous celeb types to solve these escape rooms we had a designer create and it was a wonderful experience.

Ryan and I became closer friends through that process and we wanted to work together again. He had come up with this idea for this improvised/written outlined podcast that would be a comedy adventure in space and he asked me if I would be a part of it and I couldn't have been more excited. When he laid out what the roles were, I was like "if you don't let me be the sarcastic A.I. I might kill you." Luckily I didn't have to kill him!

What's really fun and interesting about the podcast is that it is improvised comedy but you're also working with that outlet. How does that process work when you're recording an episode?

The outlines are quite thorough in that they're broken down by log so we know the overall arc of the episode and then we have a sense of our motivations and how to move the scene forward character by character. Then everything that happens outside of that we're responsible for making up. It works for us really well. In some ways at the beginning it was kind of intimidating because it's almost different parts of your brain for those of us who do improv. To just be coming up with something from nothing is different than working off of a script.

So initially, I think even though all of us were seasoned improvisers, when we began it did feel daunting and then we relaxed into it fairly quickly. But it does kind of feel like you're putting two parts of yourself together and trying to make them mesh. I think because we have so much attention to detail in the stories that Ryan is creating and then all the little personality quirks and weird imaginings that we bring to the table as improvisers, really keeps the story going and even when things go off the rails there are rails to get back onto which is sometimes hard with long-form improv. It's really become one of my all-time favorite formats to be a part of.

Janet Varney of the Voyage to the Stars podcast

After your experiences working on the first season, have there been any changes or adjustments you've made for this second season?

From what I can remember, I think everything kind of is as it was. We try to do things in order. Sometimes we'll have someone who has a really tight window and so then we try to just knock out the scenes that they're in and come back and pick up past logs, but that's something that we try to avoid because like shooting out of sequence on camera it's the same sort of challenge where you really have to in terms of the character continuity walk back certain things like, "Oh, I didn't know that yet. Should I have not have said that? Oh right this is log four and we've already gone to log 17 and now we're bouncing back."

I think that's really the main thing we try to stay on top of as much as we can is to just try to move at a pace that allows the guest to get in and get out but also making sure that everybody still gets to stay with the continuity of the story.

Now that you're in Season 2, what's been really fun about how your characters have evolved as they've continued on this journey? What's been the most interesting thing about Season 2 so far?

Episode to episode I'm consistently delighted by the stuff that comes out or is sort of as they say in improv, that you gift someone else. One of my favorite things about improv is, yes you are responsible for building your own character but if you're in a group dynamic that has a lot of trust and that you know people are going to be tickled by being challenged or being gifted something where you volunteer something to someone else like "I know you spent that year abroad" and then that person has to go "oh yes I did, in fact would you like me to sing a song I learned?" That happens a lot.

There are things we've told each other are true about ourselves that that person then has to honor and make it canon. I think really funny personality quirks have come up for all the characters in that situation and to be able to surprise yourself as much as you're surprising others and the rest of the cast and I always laugh because we're so excited to listen to the episodes. Not in a self-congratulatory way, but in the way of we seriously don't remember what we said. They don't come out right away. We record them really far in advance so by the time the episodes come out we're so excited to hear what happened. Luckily we're not afraid and worried that we have amnesia or were in some sort of fugue state. We understand that's how improv works, but it's so fun to listen to because you can be less self-conscious when you don't remember what happened.

Colton Dunn from the Voyage to the Stars podcast

You've been involved with a lot of other great projects with great characters. Is there a unique challenge with portraying Sorry when you're doing improv and a podcast like this?

What I want to say is probably not going to make me look great, but I don't think I worry too much about her origin story because she herself doesn't know it. I think I've leaned into the general idea that as an A.I. she's constantly learning and she's learning how to sound more and more like a person. She's being more and more influenced by these humans for whom she portends to have nothing but contempt but of course has come to think of them as a family.

That's one of the questions that come up in Season 2 is what happens to Sorry if everybody makes it back to Earth and everybody decides to get off the ship. What then? She certainly doesn't seem to know. As much as there's utter silliness happening and my character gets to do and say cruel and funny things, there's a real longing there I think that she has. There are things about all of the characters on the show that as ridiculous as we are you can relate to and for me, that's what I tap into with her. That person who always feels on the outside and who tries to cover it by being aloof and critical. So for me, that injects some humanity and truth into this A.I.

Are there any hints you can give us about what's in store for the rest of the season or what the future might hold for the podcast?

Obviously we still have this ongoing threat of Nothing or the Nothing, we can't figure out what to call it, as we're sandwiched between Earth and this Nothing. What does that mean for Earth? We touched on what happens to be there and potentially getting there and then what does Sorry do? If they get there, what will be there? They don't know. No one knows what the state of affairs is on that planet assuming it's there.

As far as whether we get to do more, I hope very much that we do. I know we all love doing the show and we just want to see it grow and take on different media types. We'd love to see it be all sorts of things from a cartoon to a movie anything like that. I think we feel like the sky's the limit because we feel like we kind of have lightning in a bottle. Again not to pat myself on the back, I'm just so impressed by what Ryan and the cast [have done and] just the world I get to play in.

Voyage to the Stars releases new episodes every Tuesday.