Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 05/25/22

Solar power. After two-and-half years of production time, the sci-fi audio drama Solar has soared to the top of the charts, reaching #2 in fiction on Apple Podcasts and #1 in Science Fiction. Described as “a journey to the heart of the solar system and an exploration of the vastness of the human spirit,” the series follows the crew of the ill-fated spaceship Aethon as they fight for survival following an on-board disaster that tests their ability to hold onto faith and hope in the face of growing darkness. The stellar cast includes Alan Cumming, Helen Hunt, Stephanie Beatriz, Jonathan Bangs and Jenny Curtis (who co-directs the episodes with series creator Chris Porter). My conversation with the latter two stars follows the audio trailer below.

JWK:  I listened to the first episode of Solar. It’s quite captivating and an interesting project you’ve got going on. So, tell me, how did it come about and how did you guys get involved?

Jenny Curtis: Chris Porter, who wrote it, and I worked together in a theater company called The Speakeasy Society, an immersive theater company here in Los Angeles and we met Jon there. So, we all kinda worked together previously before making Solar. When CurtCo Media decided to get into podcasting Chris was at the top of the list of people we wanted to work with. Chris joined the company from the beginning always with the intention of creating this show. So, we spent about two-and-a-half years developing, workshopping, throwing ideas on the board and having him put his brilliance into the script. Jon was with us from the beginning doing table reads, rehearsals and working through everything so that we could create the best possible product.

JWK:  Jon?

Jonathan Bangs: Like Jenny was (saying), I was part of The Speakeasy Society when I first met Chris Porter, the writer/creator, and I met Jenny (there) as well. I was first presented to read a part of the script in 2019. Immediately I was drawn to it. I thought it was phenomenal. I thought that it connected from a heart base – if that makes any sense – just a human connection.

We did a table read workshop a month or six weeks before Covid, something like that. So, it was the first or second month of 2020. Then life happened and I was told that they were moving forward with the project and they were going to do the full process of casting – which means that they are going to search for the best suitable people, whether that is bigger names or whatever the case may be, but they always wanted me to be a part of the project since the genesis. They loved what I brought to it but, you know, business may intervene. Specifically, Jenny, Chris and I were all on a three-way call and that’s when they told me the (good) news some time in the middle of 2020.

JWK: Beyond just being a science-fiction story, what do you hope people take from Solar?

JC: So much. Underneath the thriller, the sci-fi and the adventure aspect of it, it is a story about humanity and self-worth. I think it’s a really poetic look at what it means to be human, what it means to care about other people and to seek connection. In all of the darkness, I think it’s a story about hope.

JWK: Briefly, how would you describe the plot?

JC: Solar is a sci-fi dramatic thriller that we say is “a journey to the center of the solar system and an exploration of the vastness of the human spirit.” It’s the story of two competing companies that work together on one mission. It’s NASC and CimmTech which are, basically, the public sector and private sector collaborating on a mission to the Sun to study what is thought to be temporal time distortion, whatever that means.

It turns out that everyone has their own objectives, underlying missions and secrets and there’s a lot of tension on board the ship. At a key moment – which we find this out from the beginning – the ship is hit by a solar flare. It is a huge disaster. Many of the crew members lose their lives and the surviving ones are stranded on opposite parts of the spacecraft. They need to find a way to connect with Earth – if Earth is still there – and, hopefully, send out a message so that someone can come and rescue them before they drift to the far side of the Sun.

JWK: Is this viewed as what I guess you’d call a limited series or do you see this as an ongoing saga that could go several seasons?

JC: We have no official announcement yet but I would like to say, basically, this story is ever expanding. The world of Solar is huge. We would like to continue telling stories in this world. So, hopefully, it’s not a limited series.

JWK: So, Jonathan, tell me about your character Jamal.

JB: The character Jamal Davis is a complex individual – a thinker, a reader, a poet, a fighter and an astronaut/pilot for occupation but, I think, more than anything, he gives his heart. He leads with his heart. Through life, through decisions he has to make, his soul is kind of his steering force. He just strives to lead with that best foot forward. I found a lot of similarities with that because of how giving he is in the relationships with some of the people on the mission – whether that’s with Taaj in the beginning or whether that’s with Wren (in the rest of) the show. He gives everything he can in any relationship. Whether that’s with a boss, or was his mother or his friend Chelsea, he just tries to lead with being a great person.

JWK: So, he’s a basically a good guy. This isn’t a dark character. He’s a hero.

JB: No, not a dark character – but he has dark moments. He’s complex. He’s human and multifaceted.

JC: Yeah. When I (talk about) the humanity in the show, it’s that all of our characters are deeply flawed people but also there’s something to love about everyone because everyone is trying their hardest to be…the best person they can.

JB: Righteous, yeah, whatever that means. I feel that’s what makes so many people relate to the show because everyone is in pursuit of that – at least attempting to. 

JWK: What kind of reaction have you received?

JC: Oh, it’s been amazing! It’s really amazing! We’re so floored by the outpouring of support we’ve gotten. On so many levels, the story has resonated with people. We’ve seen, you know, strangers on social media posting their theories about what could be happening. So, that’s been really fun.

What Chris has said – and what I’ve said too – the idea is, of course, we want everybody to hear this show and we hope that everyone is enjoying it but if we could reach one person (and) it truly means something to them, that it affects them in some way, then we did our job. And, we have heard over and over and over again (from) people (who) have found meaningful connections with this show and that means everything to us.

JWK: Can you tell me a little about your role as ALI?

JC: Yes! ALI is the Aethon Language Interface. She is essentially the AI of the ship. She is a blast! Like everyone else, she is incredibly broken but trying to put herself back together. It’s interesting because from the beginning we were kind of like “Okay, a sci-fi trope. There’s the voice of the ship, whatever, but how can we make her grounded and real but also have the character arc? How can she be someone whose growth we follow?”

I think Chris wrote her phenomenally. I had a fantastic time playing her. It’s really seeing how a computer can become something as relatable as the rest of the characters in our show. It was really fun. It was a real challenge. I absolutely fell in love with her because she does grow and the does connect and she has the same kind of arc that everybody has of really trying hard to do her best. So, I love her, yeah.

JWK: I’m not saying it’s the same but it sounds a little like Data from Star Trek

JC: That’s what I was saying. It’s a trope of sci-fi. It’s not a new thing to have an AI as a part of the story or as a character involved but we tried to make make her unique and original and not take a shortcut and be like “Well, this is in the future so, obviously, AIs are so advanced that we can just make her kind of human.” We really tried to find that balance of not taking the easy road and giving her personality because that’s (just) programming but she really grows throughout the show and develops her own personality – which I enjoyed.

JWK: Besides playing ALI, you and Chris Porter co-directed the episodes. How do you direct a podcast?

JC: This was one of the most incredible experiences of my life but I don’t think directing a podcast is any different than directing a film or directing theater. You’re looking to guide and work with people who are creating the best possible story. So, while me might not have had visuals, we did still aim to have the most authentic performances we could have. We wanted to create an experience for the audience where they really felt like they were in the world with us.

I think Chris and my background in immersive theater really lent its hand to how we wanted the show to be designed. Our sound designer C.J. Drumeller really created an experience where there are sounds coming from all around you and you can hear how far away the next capsule is by ALI’s temperature readings and you can hear people walking up the hall. It really created an experience. So, directing for that was really just to me all about my intuition about what feels right or what feels authentic or what feels like something you can connect to. The process was incredibly fun and emotional because I would go on a journey with every single actor who came into the booth. I wanted to feel what they were going through in order to know that it was working for our story.

JWK: Was everybody gathered together or did you record the parts separately?

JC: Everybody came in separately. For one, because that’s how you can get clean audio so we could really have the most control over the edit but also we were recording this in the middle of the pandemic. We started recording before there was even a vaccine so we were incredibly lucky to be recording in a studio. We recorded at Shane Salk Productions in North Hollywood. They’re a SAG-approved studio. They had full safety protocols to get actors into the booth. We were isolated from them and never came into contact with them but I was still in the building with them and seeing them through the glass, basically. They would read their lines and I would read every other character so that they would have someone to play off of essentially. We tried to set our actors up for success by giving them the ability to really act through a scene rather then going line by line and giving a couple of different versions.

JWK: Then you were also actually playing one of the roles, so that was even more of a challenge.

JC: The thing about ALI is, while she has a character arc and all of that, she is still an AI so it wasn’t so much that I needed someone opposite the glass for me to perform with. So, that gave it at least a little bit of a break. When I was recording ALI it was very much like “Here’s how she would say this line,” you know, “SEARCHING FOR MISSION CONTROL” and we would do that and then we would go to the next line and do like “THE CAPSULE’S TEMPERATURE IS CURRENTLY…” blah, blah, blah. My recording, while it took forever because she talks A LOT, wasn’t as engaged with whoever was opposite me in the scenes because she is an AI.

JWK: Jonathan, as an actor, I know you’ve done a lot of work on stage and have done some TV work as well. How is it different performing for a live audience on stage, before a TV camera and as a voice actor for a podcast?

JB: I’ve done other voice projects but for this specific piece it was very similar to theater – also because Jenny and I come from a similar background. We went to the same school for training, not at the same time but we went through the same program at California Institute of the Arts.

JC: Shout out to CalArts!

JB: So, when it came time to play and step into the sandbox, we speak a similar language. I was able to not have to think about anything. I could trust the director, I could trust my scene partner and I had the luxury of having the same person play both. So, at that point, I could play and if it ever went too far off the rails or if we just had to add more to it or had to just explore for the sake of exploring, it was an open and safe space for that. That’s kind of the ideal situation for an artist – especially an artist like me.

There was a lot of physicality involved as well. Because I’m a physical actor just by nature, I would have to put my body in certain positions just to execute the truth especially for all the turmoil and just the tumultuous time that’s going on with this character. I felt like the only way I could execute truth was if I put my body in certain positions.

JWK: Even though it’s an audio drama?

JB: Even though it’s an audio drama, yeah, I had to have aspects of physicality to commit to that truth.

JC: And that was always something (that) we talked about with our actors from the beginning. I really believe you can hear authenticity in the performance. Whether you’re seeing it or not, we really tried to take that route here. Rather than any actor trying to, you know, overdo some things SO THAT THE AUDIENCE CAN REALLY GET IT. If they were being truthful, we knew we could hear it and that was, first and foremost, the goal in the performances and that does take physicality. While they couldn’t, obviously, be moving because they had to stay at the mic, we encouraged them to use their bodies, use their arms (and) do whatever they needed to do get into what they were saying.

JWK: The cast includes Alan Cumming and Helen Hunt, fairly big stars. What was like to work with them?

JC: I’m still pinching myself! I cannot believe it! I truly cannot believe that we got them in the show. Working with names like that is a dream.

Alan was the one actor who we couldn’t get into the studio because he was on New York. So, we recorded him remotely. He was up in his cabin in the mountains in New York and one of the days he was recording he was saying some line and suddenly we realize we hear something. “Oh, no! We hear rain!” There was a storm going on outside! We were like “Oh, that’s obviously not going to work! This is a show set in space! There isn’t rain!!!”

JWK: So, you wrote it into the script!

JC: Exactly! Suddenly it’s raining in space! That’s what happened!

We, basically, said “Alan, just let us know when we can reschedule. Don’t worry about it.” He was like “No, no, no. Give me two seconds.” And he ran upstairs and he got two giant quilts and he came back to the microphone and put the quilts over his head and over the microphone and drowned out the sound around him and, basically, did the rest of our session holding these quilts above his head. It’s so inspiring and exciting – that “Show must go on!” attitude that comes from such a master of theater. It was just the greatest day! I learned a lot by working with him because he’s phenomenal, kind and giving.

So, again, I’m pinching myself that we got the actors we did in the show because everybody really came to play and that was great.

JWK: I guess when you get actors of that caliber it suggests that they see a future in the whole concept of scripted podcasts.

JC: I certainly hope so, yeah. I know Alan Cumming and Stephanie Beatriz both do have other audio dramas. I believe Alan directed one called Hot White Heist. Stephanie was the lead of an audio drama called Tejana. Creative people like working on creative projects and it doesn’t necessarily have to be their main medium. Theater actors especially, like they are, love working on stage and they are phenomenal in TV and film. Why should audio drama be any different? It’s just a new medium to tell a new story in a different way.

JWK: It’s kind of like an old and new medium at the same time since it’s sorta radio drama.

JC: Actually, yeah. This is the Golden Age of New Radio, whatever…A Redawn of Radio!

JWK: Could you see Solar being adapted as a film or a TV series?

JC: Absolutely. I think it goes back to the same thing I was just saying about the actors who love to play in whatever medium they are playing in. I think a good story can translate to any other medium. I would love to see this show as a TV show because it is so visual in the way you hear it. I think it would be really interesting to see it as a TV show. I also think it would be really interesting to see it as a graphic novel. I think when you have a good story who knows what might happen and what other mediums it could succeed in?

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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