Now in its second season in England, Survivors is about to premiere on American TV, and it couldn’t be more topical. The show is set in a world where a deadly virus has wiped out 99% of the human race. Those that remain have little left but hope and the resilience of the human spirit. Led by Abby Grant (Julie Graham), a small group of survivors struggle to stay alive.
One of those survivors is Greg, portrayed by Paterson Joseph, a former systems analyst for a big multi-national, who felt trapped and dreamed of a new life, but his wife had grown used to a wealthy and comfortable lifestyle. Nursing bitter wounds, Greg is now a man who believes he can live without love, friendship or family, but finds that human nature is not so easily denied. I spoke with Paterson last month about this unique new series.
Is this the first project you’ve done with Julie Graham since William and Mary? You had such an interesting sexual tension in that series, were you looking to do something together again because that same sexual tension seems to be playing out in this.
Before I answer that, I must say that we are both very happily married to other people, so I don’t know what you’re implying!
It was so dysfunctional in William and Mary. The character I played was just out for money and anything he could get, whereas with Greg and Abby, there is a sort of mother-and-father meeting. These people have had full lives with children, with partners. They know what it’s like to be stable. And they are the only married people in this group of survivors, and I think that is their first connection. They know what a normal life looks like to them. They know what stability and love looks like to them, and in some ways they are trying to recreate that.
Do you take this kind of work home with you after you shoot all day?
Part of my nature is to be optimistic, but I found that with Survivors, and thinking about everybody that I knew being dead, everything that I had ever known being missing, no infrastructure in society, no electricity, no gas, I found that meditating on that, which you do if you are living with this thing for four months was actually quite depressing.
If you sit and watch a film like The Road, which I haven’t seen but I’ve read the book, and I understand the film is very close to it, you are left with that for a couple of hours. You might even dream a bit about it at night. The next day you might think about it, and then it fades out. But imagine what Viggo Mortensen went through thinking about the world like that, living with that for four months of the year. So not to belabor the point of what a terrible thing it is for actors to have to go through these things but, at the same time, you are thinking about pretty dark stuff for a long time.
There’s a real haunted feeling when we see these scenes where you are in the middle of somewhere that should have a lot of people in it, and it’s just empty. What does it feel like to do those scenes where you’re in the middle of the highway?
One of the shots that I will always remember is right at the end of the first episode where we’re meeting all together, and Najid and Al are playing football on a motorway, a freeway, as you would say. I remember standing on that motorway and as far as the eye could see there’s nothing on it, no cars, nothing. The road bends and disappears. Also, the fantastic art department had set up motorway signs so you could see it was the M4 going to London. And there were no planes at that point in the day. All you could hear were birds twittering. And imagining that surreal scenario of standing in the middle of a four-lane freeway with nothing as far as the eye could see still stays with me. If ever I need to remember a sense of bleakness, it’s that moment.
Also, the fact that there are these human beings standing in the middle of this saying, ‘No, we will survive,’ it’s so heartening. If you look at what’s happening in Haiti right now, not to belittle it because that’s real and incredibly sad, people are surviving. People are determined that they will survive, that they won’t just lie in the street, weeping. They are going to keep going. That’s the human spirit.
Have there been any funny stories while doing this?
There was a very freaky day for several guys. We were filming about 7 or 8 on a Sunday morning in downtown Birmingham, and these guys were coming out of a club worse for wear, and the road was strewn with mannequins, overturned cars, tailors’ dummies, rubbish – they thought Armageddon had happened, and they missed it all. They were freaked out; I think they probably are still freaked out. Until they see the series in England, they won’t know what happened.
You’ve done Science Fiction in the past, Doctor Who and Jekyll, does Science Fiction offer any challenges as an actor that drama or comedy might not bring on?
For me, it’s always a more interesting world to enter into because, whatever you do, you are trying to make it real. You are trying to make it solid and three-dimensional, and it challenges you because it isn’t the scenario that you would normally walk into, like viruses that wipe out everybody. It’s kind of hard to get your head around that. It’s not something you can ask somebody about to find out how they coped with it.
I love it for the leap of faith that the audience has to make in it, that I will believe that you are sitting outside this Stargate that everybody can come and go as they pass through, or you’re on the Starship Enterprise, and you are soaring through space. That’s the magic of sci-fi, and the thing about sci-fi as well is it can be incredibly intelligent, too. Star Trek set off a lot of people’s thoughts about communicators and about the way we travel, going at the speed of sound, maybe going at the speed of light. So I think it has a real place not just in our entertainment, but also the advances of science.