Grant Bowler - DefianceGrant Bowler stars as Joshua Nolan in Defiance. The new sci-fi series, which also stars Stephanie Leonidas, Julie Benz, Jaime Murray and Mia Kirschner is set on a terraformed Earth in the near future, which after a prolonged war is now home to both humans and a variety of alien races. The series, which was developed alongside a video game of the same name, begins when Nolan and his adopted daughter Irisa arrive in the town of Defiance (formerly St. Louis) where he finds work as the town lawkeeper. With shades of Star Trek, Firefly and Farscape, the show’s a really interesting new piece of science-fiction storytelling, and when we got a chance to speak to talk to Grant Bowler about the show it kicked off with a nerdy exploration of the nature of modern sci-fi…

The first thing that struck me about the show is how it wears its sci-fi on its sleeve. It feels like the kind of sci-fi that we haven’t seen popular on TV in the last decade…

Yeah. Well, what do you mean by that?

I guess I was particularly struck by the moment in the first episode when your character turns to Irisa for the first time, and we see that she’s an alien. And she’s wearing these alien prosthetics, and then we discover a world populated by all these different alien species and characters. That doesn’t seem like something we’ve seen on TV as often in recent years.

Ah, I get you. I think, well we’re going to get into a broad contextual discussion about sci-fi, but I love doing that. I think the reason for the evolution in that way with sci-fi, particularly in the long-form in television drama, is that you want to take sci-fi out into the world, which I find far more exciting and dynamic as an audience member than sci-fi on the bridge of a starship. And so then you have to accept some of the world, you’ve got to be able to buy the world. Because you can’t create the entire world, it just can’t be done. Not in the long-form, it can be done in the short-form on film. So I think that’s probably part of the reason for that evolution. I think if we look back to the more innocent days of television when we had the original Star Trek series, and every time they landed on a planet you had Will Shatner fighting some alien on the same sloped rock. Vasquez Rocks, it’s about two and a half hours outside of LA, and that was the most alien environment anyone could find near LA. That’s really, at the end of the day, what it comes down to. They’re judt the practical nuts and bolts of the long-form of storytelling. Whatever it is you choose to do, you have to be able to sustain it. Film’s a lot more forgiving in that way, you can shoot the whole thing on a greenscreen and get away with it, but on television you can’t because sooner or later your audience is going to want to actually walk and talk in the world. I think that’s partially the reason for that evolution in science fiction.

I liked your comment that you felt Defiance wears its science fiction on its sleeve. What we’ve tried to do, and one of the things that attracted me most to the show, was that it is true science fiction in the sense that it’s not one device. What kind of bugs me about contemporary science fiction often is that it’s normally one device, one occurrence, or one thing that’s happened, one problem if you like, but after that there’s really nothing. And I always sit at home and go, ‘well fix the problem,’ because if you just fix that one problem then everything goes back. It does have all of those constructs of true science fiction. It has its own rules of physics, of science, it has its own social rules. The world has changed to a large enough degree that every character has to adapt and cope. It does adhere to that, but at the same time be don’t sit around on our heels too much and stare at it all, because the reality is if you put characters in a world, the world’s going to be just the world for these characters. They’re going to be marching off trying to do all the things that people, or aliens, get to do and want to be. So we do try and wear our science fiction lightly if you like, but at the same time there’s an incredibly complex backstory and mythology to the show, that we spend at least half of our time making sure that we’re honouring.

I remember the simplest one, but sometimes it’s the really simple, small ones that trip you up. But we shot the pilot, and we came up with the rule on the pilot that in a world post major manufacturing, that paper would have gone out of the window. That’s a really superfluous thing to be manufacturing. So everything is on handmade parchment if you look at the pilot, like Julie’s [Benz] speech and everything that’s written is on parchment. And when we came back after the pilot to do the series we changed out stand-by props crew, and we were out in the backlot on day one and we had this huge scene on the streets of Defiance. Now one of the best ways to show environment, like wind moving through a town and also mess and old clutter, is of course to use heaps of old newspaper and paper as trash all around the place. It’s really easy to throw around the joint, and also you can recycle it. So when I walked back onto the set to start the series there was paper blowing around, and I had to go over to the props department and go ‘guys, you’re going to have to pick everything up. Like, every single piece of paper, pick it up and get rid of it.’ And they said, ‘what are you talking about,’ and I said ‘well it doesn’t exist. If it exists then that’s the entire mythology out of the window, so you’re going to have to go around and pick it all up. I’ll give you a hand.’

What you’re saying about the world is really interesting, because another thing that struck me is that the show doesn’t spend too much time trying to explain the world. It’s more a case of telling the stories that take place in it.

Exactly. It’s a really tricky balance. If you dwell on it too long you become a show about its own mythology. To me, that’s a little too navel-gazey for the audience. If you ignore it completely, then you confuse your audience. So I think this very much comes back to the writers and producers of the show, is walking that plank. It’s a very broad plank, but it involves keeping the story moving forwards and keeping the characters dynamic while allowing the audience to figure out the rules as they go. And again, casting back to the old Star Trek days, which I love by the way, we used to explain things so much more because it was all so novel. But now in 2013, audiences are so much more sophisticated, they have the ability to pick up so much more information. They’re so much more used to it that it can actually be a trap to try and walk them through things, because they’re a lot smarter and a lot more involved than we used to be. So yeah it is always a balance, and it’s one that you’re constantly trying to refine and adjust. I know that the feedback I was getting from fans after the first few episodes was that there was so much going on, and when were they going to learn about this or that, and now they’re kind of settling in and going ‘okay this is because of that, and that explains that other thing.’ And I think that’s a good way to unfold things, so each thing makes sense when it needs to make sense.

You’re learning about things through the storytelling, rather than it just being explained…

Exactly, and you don’t want to be back on the bridge of the starship where everybody’s explaining the tech, and that’s a death trap.

I guess establishing the character relationships are also key to doing that. I found the relationship between your character and Irisa to be a particularly interesting one.

Yeah, it’s the best father-daughter dynamic that I’ve ever read or played. It’s just so complicated, and these characters are both exactly the wrong set for a father and daughter. It’s a delight. It’s my favourite thing to play on the show, even though it doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles to it. It’s just very close and intimate, and often a lot is said with just an arm around the shoulder or a hug or a look or whatever. It’s just such a delightfully complicated relationship between these two people who have decided to love each other and back each other, but neither of them have any skill for intimacy and they’re both really unforgiving. Yeah, it’s lovely, for me it’s kind of the heart of the show. There’s a humanity to it, for want of a better word, and also a fallibility to it. It’s really rather fragile that relationship.

And then in the rest of theshow you’ve got some interesting Shakespearean relationships. There’s one character who seems like a Lady Macbeth figure, and then there are two families who are very much like the Montagues and Capulets.

Yeah, and all set in this post-apocalyptic, western-y type environment but with this sci-fi mythology. I love our mix. There are some days when I turn up at work and I’m in the lawkeepers office and through the front door I can see all these aliens walking down the street, and some are on these makeshift bicycles. And I’ve got Tommy there geekily trying to woo Irisa, and I’m thinking he’s got no shot in the long run, and it’s such a treat because the show’s just this beautiful mish-mash which kind of mirrors the world that we’ve created.

And so how does that all tie in with the video game that accompanies the show. You did some work on that too?

I did some motion capture for the game. As a player enters the game, as they progress along one of the first events they take part in is meeting my guy and Irisa, and interacting and working with us to get hold of the Nova Gem. You don’t know what it is when you enter the game, the game actually launched three weeks ahead of the show, and the guys who logged on in the beginning, the Libera Nova Gem that they helped us steal ended up being the gem that we pulled out in the first five minutes of the series to unlock the arc core.

So is there a lot of crossover then?

It’s a two-way street. We have stories and events if you like that move over into the show, almost in real time. For instance when I burned out of the game on my roller, the show launched two weeks later which is pretty much what we decided is how long it would take you to go across country from San Francisco where the game takes place, to St. Louis where the show takes place. There have been major climactic events, like Razor Rain was a major climactic event, or the plague and the flu which swept across the country in opposite directions, so from game to show and show to game. So those kind of things we do, and they’re seeded far in advance. And then there’s character interactions, where characters will leave the game and come onto the show, like I did in the beginning, and also the opposite. And then we get into the more micro or incidental crossovers that happen on a more week-to-week basis if you like.

So if you watch and play you’re going to get the maximum Defiance experience, but if you just do one or the other you’re not going to miss anything vital, you’re just not going to get those extra experiences?

That’s exactly right. What we’ve tried to create is a third experience. The game’s complete without the show, and vice versa, in the sense that if you’re the audience of the show sooner or later you’re going to have all of the same information. If you do both, yeah you get an added experience and you’ll be ahead on some stuff, and you’ll be able to interact if you like in a real-time way with some of what’s occurring and will go on to impact either the game or the show later. And this is five years in development, and you’re getting something that nobody’s ever gotten before in terms of television so that’s kind of cool.

Defiance: Season 1 is available on DVD and Blu-Ray now.