In the heart of TNT’s latest hit show, Falling Skies, Colin Cunningham is the ladle that stirs the pot. His character, John Pope is one of the biggest draws of the show. He is TV’s latest can’t-miss character where he’s a slimy, selfish bastard one-minute and the most resourceful and street-smart survivalist the next. Cunningham is no stranger to genre shows having appeared on Andromeda, Stargate SG-1, The Collector, and The 4400.
Cunningham is also developing his award-winning short film (and 2009 Academy Award short list for nominations), Centigrade into a television show or future feature film with his producing partner Madison Graie. Centigrade was the first short film to break into the Top 10 featured downloads on iTunes. BuzzFocus caught up with Cunningham to talk about Falling Skies and his character, John Pope, the most interesting man left on the Earth.
BuzzFocus: How do you like playing the loveable bad guy?
Colin Cunningham: It’s funny that you say loveable bad guy. I never thought he’d be all that loveable. I’m a little surprised. [Laughs] I definitely wanted to put my own little spin on it perhaps play him as your atypical bad guy. I wanted to give him a little panache!
Did you have room to play and make him your own character or was it established from the outset that he’s going to play it down the middle where he’s a little mercenary, a thief, a bit of a bigot… but still have some moral code?
CC: They definitely gave me a line, but I put my own spin on it. As far as the pseudo-bigotry stuff, I do not, nor have I ever seen John Pope as a racist. He’s way too smart, but what he’ll do is use that against you. He’ll test the waters, for instance, he’ll look at a black guy and see if he has any insecurities about being black. I think Pope will use whatever he can to manipulate people. But Pope could care less; if he could use it though… that’s what he’s all about.
There’s a certain sense of physicality to this role; Pope doesn’t just deliver lines. How much of a physical performance did you know John Pope would be or did it just come out of figuring out who this character was?
CC: It was absolutely deliberate. I see this guy as very theatrical, very animated, very larger than life kind of guy. I didn’t want to do a method acting approach; this guy does Shakespeare. I thought, ‘Let’s see how big I can go with this.’ If anything I was scared of coming off clownish or buffoonish. At times I thought I was walking a fine line and I’m just happy it worked–at least I hope it did. I took a chance and sometimes taking chances doesn’t pay off. Hopefully this time I hope that it did.
I think it did. Pope’s also the first person we get to see something besides the survival mode. We find out he’s a culinary marvel. Could you talk about that aspect of John Pope?
CC: When I first read that he was a chef, I kind of winced a little bit, and then thought ‘well of course he’d be a chef.’ He’s very educated and is an incredibly sophisticated guy–probably more self-educated than anything. I think the writers did a really neat thing with John Pope. He’s not your typical bad dude. He may ride motorcycles one day but the next he’s in the library studying Napoleon, Roman history, you name it. Things of the mind stimulate him.
Is that why he clicks so well with Tom, because he thinks he’s on the same intellectual plane as Tom?
CC: There’s no question. Pope has an affinity towards Tom; there’s a kindred spirit between them and I don’t think he gets a lot of that with the company that’s he’s been keeping.
In the first part of the two-part for Sanctuary what did you think about when you saw that he was the one who helped give information on where to find the 2nd Mass camp? I know I thought that Pope was a real son of a bitch.
CC: [Laughs] When I first read that I thought, ‘What a jerk-off!’ and you’ll see they beat the snot out of them to get that information. He redeems himself. Pope’s a complicated guy that sometimes he’ll do some nasty stuff and other times some great stuff. You never know what he’ll do and when he’ll do it.
Is Pope always going to be that character we don’t know we can trust or is there a gradual arc for him.
CC: There is an arc but I think it’s going to be a little one. Maybe Pope is going rediscover a little of his own humanity through this journey. Right now I see him very much as a pessimist. He doesn’t see anywhere out of this thing. He sees this that this is a completely lost cause and that one of the things motivates him. He doesn’t want to sit around and wait to get annihilated; instead he’ll take the fight to them. I don’t think John Pope has any expectations to live any longer than the day and that motivates him. He doesn’t expect to survive so he might as well live life on his own terms. At the end of the series or as it continues on, for many more seasons to come, there will be a gradual coming out of his shell I suppose and hopefully he’ll see a little bit of hope.
And what can we expect out of the Tom Mason-John Pope relationship moving forward?
CC: Tom Mason and John Pope continues throughout the series, but more in-depth. Tom doesn’t really trust this guy, nor should he. John is an opportunist and the writers never forget that. It’s not in his bones and blood to be a super good guy. That kind of thing isn’t going to happen. But he does know how to kill these things; he does know where to find things that the 2nd Mass needs. He is of use, but nobody does ever let their guard down around the guy and that’s a smart move.
To me, John Pope is the only character who is comfortable and confident in who he is. Whereas moments and situations are testing the others like Tom and his sons, Anne, and Margaret and we see what they become as a result of these tests.
CC: That’s quite insightful and I think it comes to the point that Pope has come so close to death so many times whether it be in prison or fighting aliens, this is a guy who lives in the moment. He’s seen it all, he’s been a part of it all, and he isn’t intimidated by anybody. He’s got just as much experience with the evil side of humanity as he has with the evil of the aliens trying to take over. He is quite confident in his views.
The interesting part, it’s built up as a sci-fi show but it’s played out more of a military show.
CC: It’s the French resistance, where the aliens are the Nazis. It definitely feels like that; where people are banding together to fight a common foe.
Is Falling Skies a statement on how we are our own worst enemy?
CC: 90% of the population has been wiped out, that doesn’t mean the 10% that’s left is going to get along. Even in that 10% you’re going to have some good guys, some bad and everybody trying to make decisions. Within the ranks, there are struggles and the whole thing is that if you don’t stick together, if you wind up fighting each other, then they’ve already won. We have to work together even if we don’t like it. That’s life isn’t it? It’s an interesting part of the show. You not just fighting what’s outside, you have fights from within.
What do you think about the challenge of primetime science fiction shows catching on and how Falling Skies addresses that?
CC: Regardless of the genre, whether it’s western, military, or sci-fi, there’s good and bad. It’s either a good (entertainment) or bad. The fact that it’s sci-fi as a genre has never concerned me. If you look at some of the greatest thrillers of all time, look at Alien. That’s one hell of a scary movie. That’s not necessarily what that film is, it just takes place in the genre of sci-fi fiction. In Falling Skies, yeah we have aliens, but it’s very much a military or war-type of genre. As for sci-fi fans, I just hope they’ll enjoy it for what it is, which is a good show. Everybody can get a little something out of it. Some people are drawn in by the military stuff, some are more interested in the family drama, other people just want to see aliens blown apart. Hopefully we’re giving something for everybody.
How much is Steven Spielberg involved in the series?
CC: He was very hands-on for the pilot and at arms length for the season. With the technology you can be at arm’s length without actually being on set. I did get character notes from him and they were always great. Again he’s been a part of everything from the beginning and he’s still very much a part of the show.
I like that the show doesn’t rely on flashbacks, but will we see them down the road to learn about the history of these characters, or do we need to know the history of these people?
CC: I think that it’s great they don’t flashback. It’s such a worn out device, it’s a simple and cheap and easy. I’m so glad Falling Skies doesn’t do it. You’re getting to know them (as it happens), through their stories they tell each other. I think that’s a neat thing. That said, maybe down the road we’ll see where these geniuses (the writers) will take us.
What’s your take on this attempt to keep the children innocent? As a viewer, I’m torn as a Terminator fan, I see the apocalypse and think that everyone is on survival detail but there is this attempt to keep the children sheltered from it all.
CC: That’s the trick. That’s a tough thing for any parent. In Falling Skies, families have been wiped out and relatives have been kidnapped. So there’s a real effort to try and not throw away all hope with these kids or with anybody. There’s a beautiful moment at the end of the first hour of the show where Mason’s son takes a ride on the skateboard. Those are the moments if anything that we’re fighting for. Then they got to pack it up and move onto the next fight.
See Colin Cunninham and how John Pope’s latest discovery helps the 2nd Mass survive the latest Skitter attack in the big 2-hour Falling Skies Season One Finale this Sunday 9/8 C on TNT.