The Syfy channel series adaptation of 12 Monkeys isn’t going to be on the air until January. That’s the future as far as we’re concerned, the year 2015. I saw the pilot already, and Syfy presented a panel to the Television Critics Association this week. At the NBCUniversal party, I got a chance to speak with Aaron Stanford, who plays the show’s James Cole, or the Bruce Willis part for those less obsessed with 12 Monkeys.
Stanford also has some “X-Men” cred, playing the role of Pyro in X2 and “The Last Stand.” He’s also familiar with turning movies into TV shows as he was a regular on “Nikita.” There are a few minor spoilers about the differences between the movie and the TV show in our interview, but there are much bigger spoilers I’m keeping entirely to myself until January.
ComingSoon.net: Whether it was an offer or an audition, when you heard about a “12 Monkeys” TV show, did it seem daunting or something with a lot of potential?
Aaron Stanford: A little bit of both, I think. I knew the two writers, Terry [Matalas] and Travis [Fickett]. I worked with them on the last TV show I did, “Nikita,” so I knew about this project for a while. “12 Monkeys” was absolutely a favorite movie of mine growing up, so you carry that weight and you want to respect the material, you want to do the absolute best that you can with it, but the idea of going back and being able to open that movie up and explore it, make it bigger and go deeper into the characters and deeper into the universe. Exploring that seemed really exciting to me.
CS: So was it an offer or did you have to audition for the part?
Stanford: I had to audition for it. I went in for a series of readings and kind of workshopped it with Amanda Schull, who’s the other lead and it worked out. Thankfully, it worked out.
CS: Was she cast already or was that a series of chemistry tests?
Stanford: She was already cast.
CS: That’s interesting, to start from her role and work outwards.
Stanford: I don’t know why it worked out like that. Casting is always a tricky puzzle and people approach it in different ways.
CS: Is the idea that it hurts to time travel?
Stanford: Yes, the process is meant to be painful and it’s also meant to take something out of the time traveler every time it happens, something that can’t really be put back in. So I think the idea is going to be – I’d have to run this by the writers again – but I think the idea is going to be that there’s a finite number of times that you can do it basically. Which is sort of interesting because it puts a clock on things, it raises the stakes.
CS: How did you imagine how to portray that pain?
Stanford: I think the director of the pilot, Jeff Reiner, his direction to me was to imagine the worst hangover I’d ever had in my life times a million. That seemed to work. That seemed to do it.
CS: A million being more intense than just 100,000?
Stanford: Even more intense than 100,000, yes. 10 times more than that.
CS: Have you been naturally drawn to science fiction?
Stanford: Yeah, absolutely. I’m a big science fiction dork. I grew up on it. My favorite book growing up was “Ender’s Game.” I read it like 50 times. I have absolutely always been into the genre. I do seem to have ended up in that vein, a lot of various things. The “X-Men” movies is a comic book world but it’s a form of science fiction.
CS: In the pilot, we see Cole is successful at something he wasn’t successful at in the movie, yet it doesn’t change things the way he thought. But, does it change everything moving forward?
Stanford: In a way it amounts to the same thing, because he is able to complete the mission that he was given, without the intended result. So in a way, Bruce Willis in the film learned it’s impossible to alter the past basically. You can’t do it. It’s not possible. So my character has to struggle with that. He’s waking up to the idea that it’s possible that maybe it’s futile. Maybe you won’t be able to actually change this. Maybe your mission will be useless ultimately.
CS: The mission is different than the movie though.
Stanford: He was sent to observe. It is different. He was sent back only to observe. Supposedly they were aware that it was impossible to change the past.
CS: Was “La jetee” an influence for you?
Stanford: Of course. Yeah, it’s a beautiful film. It was the influence for both “12 Monkeys” the film and the TV show.
CS: Are we going to see an airport at any point on the show?
Stanford: I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s not in episode two. The writers haven’t told me if it’s coming. They seem to really be interested in making a lot of nods both to the Chris Marker film and to “12 Monkeys,” so I would not be surprised if there was some sort of sequence in there that evoked that image.
CS: Does your Cole have a memory of the past that could end up being self-fulfilling like in “La jetee” or “12 Monkeys”?
Stanford: They haven’t established that yet, no. He’s definitely haunted by his past. He’s very focused on the past. His past is following him. In a way, he wants to eradicate him but it’s different than in the film. It’s not this mysterious memory he’s haunted by that he can’t piece together. It’s different.
CS: I think you and Amanda are younger than Bruce Willis and Madeleine Stowe were in 1995, I don’t know by how much. Is that significant to this version of Cole and Dr. Railly?
Stanford: The only significance is that while I think they wanted to really respect the film, they didn’t want to just remake the film. They wanted to make it their own so by making choices like casting very differently than the film cast, it’s a way to make it your own, take some ownership of it.
CS: In what year does the show predominantly take place?
Stanford: It’s predominantly 2015 and the future which is 2043.
CS: So you do bounce back and forth between the present and future?
CS: Not back to 2012 ever?
Stanford: I’m sure that will happen. I’m sure that will happen. They’ve stayed within a pretty strict timeline, pretty much the 2014/2015 area and the future.
CS: Did you have any questions about any paradoxes for the creators?
Stanford: I did, yeah. When I knew I was doing a time travel show I stared reading up on it. One of the most interesting things that I discovered in reading up on time travel is that it’s been mathematically proven to be possible. It’s not some wild science fiction theory. It’s supported by Einstein’s theory of relativity which is pretty much the best thing we have still at this point. There is nothing in Einstein’s theory of relativity to preclude time travel. They’ve determined that it is possible. Science has determined it’s possible. I think that’s pretty fascinating.
CS: Did you have any questions relating to your character specifically?
Stanford: You always run into that stuff with the time travel genre. I think that’s kind of the fun of it. It’s a really intricate puzzle that you have to put together, the audience has to put together too. We’re always watching out for those little overlaps or things you have to figure out, does that actually add up and make sense? That’s part of the fun. We have to keep on our toes to make sure that we don’t screw up and establish a situation that would not be able to happen within our rules.
CS: When do you start shooting the season?
Stanford: We start August 4th.
CS: Do you get to wear the Hazmat suit in the future?
Stanford: I don’t think I will be wearing it. In this version of it, Cole is one of the very few who is immune to the plague virus, so I don’t need the biosuit.
CS: Since you have more time, will there be episodes where he gets to enjoy the year 2015?
Stanford: I’m sure. I’m sure you’ll see that. It’ll be an extension of the scenes you saw where Bruce Willis is in the car listening to music sticking his head out the window. I think it’s going to be part of Cole’s arc, his journey. He’s probably going to get really used to the good life. It’ll become harder and harder to go back.
CS: Are you taking the show to Comic-Con?
Stanford: I don’t think they are this year because the show’s not premiering until January. So it’s really far out.
CS: Did the pilot change from the script to shooting it?
Stanford: Yeah, it always does. You write something, you have a certain idea of it. Then you show up, you’re in the situation in real time, in real space, whatever set you actually have. The door’s in a different place than you thought it was going to be. The chair you thought someone was going to be able to break turns out to be bolted together from 2x4s and you can’t do that anymore. Your actor has a completely different take on the material. You always adjust and massage things.
CS: Were you supposed to break a chair over Zeljko Ivanek?
Stanford: No, that would’ve been fun. No, that wasn’t planned.
CS: You said you were a fan of the movie. How many times do you think you’ve watched it?
Stanford: Probably three or four times.
CS: What questions does the movie leave you with that aren’t entirely answered?
Stanford: I think one of the most important questions that it asks is is it possible to change history? In the movie, it shifts and moves. You’re not sure if it is or not. In the show I think we’re going to get a chance to expand and come up with our own theory.
CS: Speaking of time travel, was there no “Days of Future Past” for you?
Stanford: I haven’t heard anything, but people tell me the next one, “Apocalypse,” I think Pyro was a part of that. So maybe I’ll get lucky and be able to be in it, but I hadn’t heard anything yet.
CS: No one reached out for this one?
Stanford: My character wasn’t part of it.
CS: Wolverine wasn’t part of “Days of Future Past” either in the comics.
Stanford: You can’t not have Wolverine. That’s not going to happen.
CS: You did your first movie with the late Gary Winick. What are your memories of him?
Stanford: He was a great guy. The production company that I worked with him under, which was InDiGent films, was a beautiful business model and sort of an example of how great a guy he was. It was incredibly egalitarian. Every person who was involved in the production had a piece of it. Every member of the crew had points on that movie. He made sure that happened. He was a great guy.