CS Interview: Eric Dane and Rhona Mitra Set Sail with The Last Ship

“The Last Ship,” TNT’s new series from executive producer Michael Bay, premieres tonight at 9:00 ET/PT, but ComingSoon.net got an early look last weekend during a press junket in San Diego, California. There, the pilot episode was screened in a special celebration aboard the flight deck of the U.S.S. Midway to an audience that also included a number of real-life Naval officers.

“It’s not just about the end of the world,” says executive producer Hank Steinberg off the series’ high concept plot, which sees a Navy battleship become the last uninfected defense against a deadly global virus. “They can still save the world.”

Promising big-screen action on a weekly basis, the storyline of “The Last Ship” is designed to move at a speed that will have audiences on the edge of their seats for its ten-episode run. We discussed the series’ rapid pace with Eric Dane, the former “Grey’s Anatomy” star who now serves as this new series’ Captain Tom Chandler, and Rhona Mitra (Doomsday), who plays a virologist whose medical expertise could save the world. We also learned from Steinberg and fellow executive producer Steven Kane that fans of tonight’s premiere shouldn’t be too worried about the plot wrapping up anytime soon, as a second season would take the series in a completely new direction.

CS: It seems like one of the real challenges in playing a role like this is that you have to not only create a character, but also have that character experience a world-changing event. Do they develop for you together or does one come first?
Eric Dane:
You know, I think he’s a pretty ordinary character in extraordinary circumstances. I think Tom Chandler has such a strong sense of self that I don’t see him changing too much when the circumstances change. That said, he is in uncharted territory, as are everybody on board the U.S.S. Nathan James. I think he’s really good at staying the course and compartmentalizing everything and moving forward with the primary mission, which is to save the world.

CS: It does seem like you’ve got to play Tom Chandler through a cool military demeanor with the mission coming first, but do we get to see a more personal side to him as the season progresses?
Dane:
Absolutely. I mean, we’re all over the place. The Russians come back. Our first stop in Guantanamo Bay to refuel and pick up some food. There’s a situation there with some Al Queda. Episodes three and four, we’re traveling up river to find some monkeys to test some vaccines on and we run into a narco-terrorist. Every episode has got its individual hurdles we’ve got to get over, but the overall goal is to create a vaccine and cure this disease. This virus.

CS: Do we get to see more of who Chandler is when he’s not an officer?
Dane:
It’s always tough with a pilot and it’s always tough with the action genre. The action genre is not always the most synonymous with character development. With a pilot, there’s a lot of information that gets packed into 46 minutes or whatever it is. Usually what happens is that, throughout the season, you get to spend a little more quality time with the characters and get to know them a bit better, whether it’s based on circumstance or relationships they’ve created with other characters. But I do think you see in different colors and different shades of Tom Chandler as the season goes on, based on the trials he’s been put through as a commanding officer and a father and a shipmate.

CS: Does it feel like you’re making one big action movie?
Dane:
It’s basically a ten-hour blockbuster movie. It’s a 43-minute movie every week. The production value is off the charts. That was one of my worries going into this thing. It’s a television show, but it’s really a movie. How’s that going to translate on the small screen? Well, the technology in people’s homes has changed a lot in the past few years. That’s changed how we watch TV dramatically. We’re not watching it on boxes anymore. We’re watching it on 60-inch flatscreen television sets with surround sound. Your home cinematic experience in your living room is finally capable of showing off the scale of a show like this.

CS: You’ve played military officers in the past, but did this role require any additional study?
Dane:
I don’t do much research. I just kind of put the uniform on and make sure I’m on time.

CS: Do you look at any sort of famous historical or fiction military figures?
Dane:
I did observe the commanding officer of the Halsey when we were filming there. I mostly wanted to check out his demeanor. When they run these torpedo evacuation drills, they try to get the situation to be as on high alert as they can get because the want to get it like a real-life situation would be like under the stresses of that situation. I tried to really observe him and see how he handled himself when everything was going south around him. Everything he was looking at was like a teaching tool for the rest of the people below him. The enlisted men and officers. He was very calm and very stoic and everything was a learning experience for his shipmates. Which is cool, because that’s what he was doing when he ran scenarios. I think that’s what I took away from that: the value of being cool, calm and collected. Being able to keep your head and letting cooler heads prevail when all around you are losing theirs and blaming it on me. I’m shouldering the responsibility. So yeah.

CS: Your character is in sort of an interesting position in that she knows, at least at the beginning of the pilot, a whole lot more than the rest of the ship.
Rhona Mitra:
Yes, she knows a certain amount, which is that a virus has impacted the world and is moving at a rate that no one has ever seen before. As the story unfolds, she receives information from land that 80% of the world’s population has been infected, she has to actually break that news to her captain and the crew of the ship. That potentially means their families. It’s a pretty heavy secret to be harboring.

CS: Is this the end of her secrets, or does she still have twists to reveal as the season progresses?
Mitra:
No. I think she knows more than the average person, because she has been prepared for the potential of something like this happening. But she’s not a vaccine producer, she’s virologist. This is sort of uncharted territory for her as much as it is for everybody else on the ship. They’re all working together to try and figure out a way to work through this inconceivable possibility that has now become reality. It’s not like the films they made back in the ’80s and ’90s. This isn’t some sci-fi potential. The global pandemic that could. This is real and this is on our doorsteps.

CS: The first season of “The Last Ship” seems set to play out like a ten-hour summer blockbuster in a lot of ways. As someone who is used to blockbusters, how does the actual behind the scenes compare?
Mitra:
The stuff that we shot with Michael Bay certainly felt exactly the same. I had the great privilege of doing a lot of the snow-chasing scenes with him up in this incredible location two hours north of Whistler in Canada. When you work with him and get a feel for how he directs, you tap into what his vision is and how he sees the whole composition. You understand that you’re working on a feature that’s being squashed into a television show and delivered in bite-sized pieces. Every week, to keep up that level and that magnitude is, for one, not something everyone needs to see at that level every week. I think that it’s important that you get into the characters. As the season moves on, we get more into the character relationships. Obviously, there’s a lot of action and we have the ship. That ship is such a beast itself. It manages to keep its enormity, but it also manages to get deep into the texture of the characters.

CS: To what degree to you have to learn about how viruses work to successfully sell the fact that your character is an expert?
Mitra:
Unfortunately, I already knew quite a bit about this, because it’s a fascination of mine and a reality of our species. I started studying neurotoxins a few years ago and the impact they have on our central nervous systems. How our immune systems are not equipped to deal with pretty much anything anymore. We are intolerant of just about everything and allergies are through the roof, leading to autoimmune diseases. When a virus like this comes along, it’s really a conversation about why our systems can’t cope with it and why 80 percent of the world’s population is impacted so swiftly. I was already well-versed in this world as much as a pedestrian might know and read about and learn about. I was studying natural cures as a result. When this role came along, it just seemed like kind of a fit. Now I’ve just been geeking out with virologists on a weekly basis, just fully getting ensconced in this amazing world. The more you know, the less fearful you are of it. That sort of empowers you.

CS: Are there little details that virologists out there are going to pick up on and appreciate?
Mitra:
I wasn’t quite so privileged as to have as many as Naval officers as were around to pat people on the back. I’m sure, without a shadow of a doubt, they’ll come down on me like a ton of bricks for various things that I do or don’t do right. I’ve been really on-point with making sure all the language fits, as does all the relationships with the items in the lab — the centrifuges and pipettes and needles — has been as on-point as possible. I’m sure they’ll still have issues here and there, but that’s what they’re supposed to do. To pick us apart. I’ve done my best.

CS: It was interesting to see the pilot with a lot of military personnel in the audience. It definitely seemed like there were very specific details of service that they appreciated.
Steven Kane:
Yeah, things you wouldn’t necessarily think of as being of interest. We screened it in DC last week at the Newseum for 300 plus armed service people. We had three star Admirals, two star Admirals and Pentagon officials. Yeah, they cheered at things and giggled at things that the average civilian wouldn’t even get. That was great for us that we got that part right. They’ve been great supporters of the show.

CS: “The Last Ship” obviously has the gloss of a big summer blockbuster, but there’s also kind of an old-school science fiction side to it. It sort of feels like an old Irwin Allen series in a way.
Kane:
Yeah, it’s got that genre kind of sense of throwing people into interesting situations and watching them get out. We were inspired by all the stuff that came before us, sort of film and in TV and in books.

Hank Steinberg: “Star Trek,” “Battlestar [Galactica]” and “Lost” were really big influences.

Kane: “On the Beach.”

Steinberg: We wanted this to have a heart and to have hope. They have a mission. It’s not just about the end of the world. They can still save the world.

CS: You’re using the William Brinkley novel as a sort of jumping off point and beginning with a ten-episode season. Is this a show that can go on indefinitely or do you run the risk of running out of source material?
Steinberg:
It’s about how to save the world and put the world back together, so it can go on for as many seasons as we can keep coming up with new and interesting ideas. We left a lot of great stories on the floor this year that we didn’t actually have time to tell. As the season goes, it’s lean and mean and it ends on a pretty big cliffhanger that launches us kind of into a whole new idea.

CS: It must be pretty great to be able to write in big action set pieces and have a television budget that can actually see them realized.
Kane:
You’d be surprised! We wrote it even bigger. Although we expected them to say, “We can only give you one helicopter” or “we can only do one of these scenes,” we actually got 90% of what we wrote. We were always encouraged by Michael Wright, the head of TNT, and Michael Bay, to go big. Leave nothing in the tank. Go as big as we wanted and then we’d figure out a way to make it happen later on. What happens is, you do that and you find out you have limitations in terms of budget and time and manpower. Because you’re aiming big, though, you wind up getting things that maintain the spirit of what you were going for. So we’re able to tell this blockbuster movie on television.

CS: It feel like we’re increasingly building to a world where television is able to maintain a big screen feel.
Kane:
I think the audiences are craving that. I think the competition between all the cable networks is breeding that. HBO is doing “Game of Thrones,” which is so massive. Then there’s advancements in technology that enable you to do shows with this kind of scope with this level of CGI and special effects. They don’t cost nearly as much as they did ten years ago. So you can actually do it. I was watching “Minority Report,” which was made [twelve] years ago with the best special effects. They look kind of fake now compared to what we can do on even a television budget. That’s really changed a lot and helped us as writers and creators to be able to think outside the box of what would normally be doable on television. All the bells and whistles aside, though, none of that matters if you don’t have a good story to tell and good characters to follow. The advantage of having ten hours to tell our story in this first season is to go deeper into these characters. Then we’ll get to meet new characters as the season goes on. There’s a lot of the enlisted folk, you don’t see the pilot. The young kids, who actually run the ship in many ways, mostly come from small towns and never really expected to be the ones who are tasked with saving the world, much less not really know where their families are. So it’s about everyday people who have to rise up to the occasion and become heroes. Having that as your fundamental base makes everything else just gravy.

CS: Because the world in the pilot is already dying rapidly, how fast paced does this first season get?
Kane:
Very. Very fast paced. Every day that they don’t come home with a cure or a vaccine or something, a half million people die. So there’s a ticking clock on everything they do. Every choice they make is based on the mission. What do we need for the ship? Fuel. Food. Medical supplies. Do we go left? Do we go right? Everything is based on the mission coming first. There is this intensity that guide you through the first season because we have a definite ticking clock.

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