12 Monkeys stars Aaron Stanford, Amanda Schull talk new Syfy series

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Jan 16, 2015, 3:57 PM EST (Updated)

The future ends, and begins again, tonight when the post-apocalyptic time-travel series 12 Monkeys debuts on Syfy.

Based on the 1995 Terry Gilliam film of the same name, the show focuses on a prisoner from a plague-ravaged 2043 sent back in time to prevent the outbreak. To do so, he uses a gritty, sometimes unreliable form of time travel and teams up with a virologist from our present. Together they set off on a mission to locate and destroy the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, the organization behind the virus that wipes out 93.6 percent of the human population in the future.

Syfy’s 12 Monkeys, premiering tonight at 9 p.m., follows much of the movie’s premise for the first installment -- before departing in noticeable ways by the second episode. The show reimagines the basic concept and offers a reality where time is more malleable and things change frequently. 

Though it exists in a different universe than the movie, co-creator Travis Fickett said, the series has a “spiritual continuity” with the film. At a Syfy media tour last October, he said he and co-creator Terry Matalas saw the film as a “big puzzle box” with a tinge of madness. He added that this chain of rabbit holes works for serialized television. There will be more time spent in the future, along with multiple versions of the same character moving about in one scene, and even possible diversions into parallel universes.

Also among those changes are Aaron Stanford (Nikita, X-Men: The Last Stand) as James Cole and Amanda Schull (Suits, Pretty Little Liars) as Cassandra Railly, characters originated by Bruce Willis and Madeleine Stowe. In this reality, we learn more of Cole’s backstory and Railly is actually a virologist more connected to the future’s present than Stowe’s version. 

In the following conversation, Stanford and Schull joined me to discuss the appeal and challenges of traveling through time on TV, as well as how to keep timelines straight when jumping ahead two years and through alternate realities, and whether they’re prepared to deal with comparisons to Gilliam’s iconic sci-fi film.

Aaron, was playing Pyro in two X-Men movies good genre training for 12 Monkeys?

Aaron Stanford: Yeah, X-Men was certainly good training. Being a big sci-fi geek was the best training. I’d seen a lot of movies in that genre, read a lot of books. I’ve been in training to do this kind of stuff my whole life because I love it. I dig this kind of storytelling, so I was prepared to dive into the morass that is this storyline. It has been fun.

Amanda, what have you enjoyed the most about entering this world? 

Amanda Schull: The character’s strength and intelligence, which is a real gift. I’ve played characters in the past that when faced with adversity kind of shrink away, are prone to tears, or need a man to help them out of a scenario. That is very much not who has been written. It is a gift to be right there in the action, to be the one solving problems and not need to turn to someone else to solve them. 

What is the appeal of time-travel stories?

Stanford: I grew up watching the old Doctor Who, so I was a big fan of that. And I was a big fan of Primer because it was the hardest of the hard science fiction. Those guys did their homework. I am a fan of the whole thing in general.

Schull: It’s been exciting in that I never know what I’m going to get week to week. It could be 2015, 2017, a parallel universe, it could be a completely different scenario than what we shot in the previous episode. This is time travel, and there are a lot of paradoxes. It is exciting because my character isn’t just on a linear trajectory, going from one situation to the next like an average television show. It is thrilling.

When we see you, we are seeing different versions of you at different points in your timeline. Is that a challenge to keep track of your character’s knowledge and emotional mindset at various moments in time? 

Stanford: Yeah, it is really difficult, and what makes it harder is you are doing it on a television schedule. We are shooting six, seven pages a day, so I’m jumping back and forth from time period to time period in the space of hours.

Schull: That is a really smart question, because a lot of people don’t take that into consideration. It is a bit of a challenge at times. There are times you get an episode in the future, or past, and you have to catalogue all the things your character has been through and yet to experience, so it isn’t weighing on you in a scene. I am a bit of a nerdy actor and take a lot of notes and write a lot of things down. I also write, in my script on a previous page, next to the dialogue, what has already taken place. I have to review all of those before I set foot on set. If you’re doing a scene in the past, you have to realize she doesn’t know any of these things yet. You can’t allow that to be in your subconscious. But in the future, a lot has already happened, so you deliver lines in a way that is obvious -- even if it’s not obvious to the audience at the moment, it will be when they go back and re-watch -- she did know that such-and-such already happened. It takes a little more homework.

Stanford: It is tough to keep track of, but we have an entire team devoted to keeping us GPS’d so we know exactly where we are in the story. It is a challenge, but so far we’ve been up to it.

Schull: I have notebooks where I write things down, or I’ll call Terry and Travis and ask them to explain it. What does this mean when she’s saying this? For instance, in episode 109, we’re shooting in 2017, and all episodes leading up to that have been as late as 2015. So there’s a two-year chunk. To shoot 109, I needed to have a vague, if not slightly stronger understanding of what happened in those two previous years.

There is a moment in the premiere when Cole is eating a cheeseburger, which doesn’t exist in his present. It is a normal, human moment between you two that does not involve time travel. Will we see more of those?

Schull: We do have moments of normalcy, and also what she considers normal but he does not. I did ADR for episode 103, and I was reminded of a moment where he digs into Chinese takeout without a fork because he doesn’t need forks as a scavenger. He eats what he can. She gives him a fork, sort of horrified, to say he needs to be more civilized in this reality. She hasn’t experienced firsthand his world, but over the course of getting to know each other, she begins to understand she won’t completely get where he comes from -- and it’s a world she doesn’t want to completely understand.

Initially there will, of course, be comparisons to the movie. Are you prepared for that, and when do you think that stops …

Schull: I have a picture of Madeleine Stowe and me. Would you like to see it? [Schull displays the photo on her smartphone and whispers] It’s Madeleine Stowe! … Madeleine Stowe was given a copy of the pilot, and she watched it. It was during TIFF, and I didn’t know she’d been given the pilot. I get a tap on my shoulder and Madeleine Stowe was standing there. I lost my breath, and kind of gasped for a second. She’s gorgeous. I put my hand out to shake hers and she just grabbed me and pulled me into this hug. She held me for a second and said, “The pilot is fantastic, you’re fantastic.” Aaron and Emily were there, and she started talking about the show and how smart she thought it was. She complimented the writers and how smart they were. I had goosebumps! It was pretty thrilling. She was just there; it was like she materialized out of nowhere. And it said to me that she’s an incredibly confident woman and confident with her performance. Knowing as wonderful as she was in the film, this is a different entity. The fact that she acknowledged that meant the world to us. 

Stanford: Episode one does adhere pretty closely to the plot of the film, even though it is still quite different. But immediately after the first episode, the story takes a sharp turn and goes into new territory.