It wasn’t that long ago that Jason O’Mara played time-traveling detective Sam Tyler in the US adaptation of the British series Life on Mars. He enjoyed the experience so much he’s journeying back in time again for his new show Terra Nova, from executive producers Steven Spielberg, Brannon Braga, Rene Echevarria and Jon Cassar.
A cautionary tale set in 2149, the earth’s atmosphere has been decimated by the human race, and the only hope of salvation is to travel back to prehistoric times and start again. O’Mara plays Jim Shannon, a devoted father with a checkered past. British actress Shelley Conn portrays his wife Elisabeth, a trauma surgeon, who will become part of Terra Nova’s medical team. Along for the ride are their three children.
When they arrive at Terra Nova they meet Commander Nathaniel Taylor (Stephen Lang), the first pioneer and leader of the settlement, who warns them that while the place looks idyllic, the surrounding terrain is teaming with man-eating dinosaurs.
I spoke with Jason at the TV Critics Association tour about his obsession with time travel.
Did you get this through Steven Spielberg because of your role in Band of Brothers?
I don’t know how it came about. He must have seen me in Band of Brothers. I remember my agent called me and said, ‘Steven Spielberg wants to watch some more of your work.’ I was standing on a New York street corner, and I said, ‘Do I have a couple of days to think about this?’ And he said, ‘No, you’ve got a couple of hours.’ I
was just running chores in New York City, so I sat down and got my thoughts together and thought, ‘Okay, I could show this scene, this scene and this scene, and I sent them to my agent. My agent put them on a very private website for him and others to view and I think based on that, and the fact that I did Life on Mars for 20th Century Fox, I got the job.
I knew that I wanted to work with Fox again, and I’d met the DreamWorks guys, so everything was in place. So when the opportunity arrived and they called to say we’d like you to be in the show, I was only too happy to say yes.
Do you see any comparisons between Jim and Sam, the character you played on Life on Mars, being a fish out of water?
Well, it’s different in that Sam Tyler had his fate thrust upon him, he was crossing the street and he got hit by a car. I not only choose this, I fight for this tooth and nail, I put my life and the life of my family on the line to do this. Now what happens there is a different story, obviously there’s a big adjustment.
That he didn’t expect?
Right, but at least he’s not trying to find his way home. He has come home and he is there with his family, so it’s a very different kind of dynamic. Obviously there were still many challenges being out of time.
Did you have any concern about going back in time again?
You know, I try to look for projects that pop, that aren’t just cop shows or law shows or medical shows, and this qualified and I guess when you try to look for slightly more interesting things you’re going to deal with more of that concept stuff like time travel.
What’s Jim’s back story?
Well, we haven’t really gone into detail, but we’ve suggested that he’s done several things that his family doesn’t know about. But we do know that he’s just coming out of a prison sentence and has escaped from a high security prison. His family knows that and they are meeting him at this portal, Hope Plaza we call it, to join up and go through the portal together.
This show hits the ground running. The first five minutes are just crazy. He’s trying to escape from the police and security guards.
With the father having been in prison – does the family even want to see their dad?
Exactly, his teenage son has been without his father for the last several years, so he’s pissed. And part of what spurs the action, especially in the second episode, is the dynamic between the father and the son and how angry the son is at the father. Jim has a tremendous desire to be a good father, but he hasn’t really had the chance to be one.
So that’s the crux of the family dynamic, they want to be together but they’re fractured and they need to heal. And they’re in this place where they are already in trouble from this is a hostile environment, their life and death is on the line.
Will you be doing a lot of green screen?
There is a substantial amount of green screen. There was a little bit on Life on Mars but not to this extent. Luckily I have Stephen Lang with me in scenes, and he’s spent the last two and a half years doing just that on Avatar, doing nothing else. So he was able to help me.
You’d be surprised a lot of the vegetation in the jungle and the vistas were beautiful as is, there are some shots we are not going to have to change.
We’re in prehistoric times so we have to create a world where pterodactyls fly and volcanoes erupt, and we’re creating this world, we’re really going for it, we’re not holding back. It’s the DreamWorks guys; they know what they’re doing with visual effects.
Can you talk about working with Stephen Lang and the dynamic he brings to the show?
He’s very intense, very focused and he’s extremely committed to every scene he plays, so I just try to keep up with him. He’s a lot of fun to work with. I try to be as committed and dedicated as he is.
He’s extremely professional, he’s been in the business a long time and he is highly committed to this project, as I am, and it’s our responsibility to give this series some weight and make it feel real to people.
That’s exactly what we’re doing, and we take it very seriously. We both stay very physically fit, as we want to portray the kind of people who can undertake surviving in this kind of hostile environment.
What is your take on the environment and how it plays out in this?
[In the series] Earth is dying, because we are on the present course that we’ve already set. Climate change, we didn’t recycle fast enough and we didn’t switch over to electric cars fast enough and we’re still burning oil.
This is a scary vision of the future. This future is what happens if we don’t do anything about [the environment] now. It’s a worst case scenario, but it’s not impossible.