“Extant” has big guns behind it — Steven Spielberg is an executive producer — and CBS is already enthusiastically flogging the show in ads despite a distant July 9 premiere date. Today stars Halle Berry and Goran Visnjic joined executive producers Mickey Fisher and Greg Walker on a panel for journalists to discuss the scifi thriller about a female astronaut who is somehow impregnated on a solo space mission despite 13 months of isolation — or so we think. As befitting a seriously weird show concept, the foursome discussed alien immaculate conception, whether or not robots can swim, and zero G force puking.
After the extended trailer for the show was shown, Walker briefly discussed the concept, which also includes the robot, or humanic, child John (Visnjic) has created. “She has to react to this extraordinary circumstance that she has a visitor… Her husband John is a humanic creator. So, she has basically two children to deal with [when she returns to earth], the one inside her and the humanic child.”
Berry was asked what drew her to the show. “There [are] so many elements that drew me to it, but probably the first one was… being a mother. It was just in my DNA. I had a fundamental understanding [of her]. While I'm not an astronaut or a scientist — far, far from it — I had an understanding of this woman, Molly. [She's dealing with] the struggle to be a good mother. She's strong, she's complicated, I'm complicated, but she has a will to survive and win. I love playing strong and complicated women who refuse to be victimized. And when Steven Spielberg came along, that's a name you don't really sneeze at… and the best writing is on television. There was always a stigma with going to television, and that line has become very grey. If you're an artist, you just want to do good work.”
CBS also dangled a carrot to get the Oscar-winner signed on for the gig. “The studio did me a real solid and did the show in Los Angeles I really want to be home and be a hands-on mom.”
For those wondering whether “Extant” will match the recent female astronaut movie “Gravity,” Berry assured the audience, “As you can see from our trailer, we got pretty doggone close to being on par with any movie you'd see. I think our space looks as good, our space ship looks as good. No expense was spared. CBS put a lot of money into this.”
It didn't hurt that Berry has some experience with floating around. “I was Storm, so I was used to flying. I did take a real zero G flight, so I've experienced being weightless.” Berry briefly discussed her zero G experience, recalling a man in the back who “kept puking and puking” though admitted, “It got all of us eventually.”
While it seems too soon to discuss a second season, Walker wasn't afraid to take the bait when the topic was broached. “The stakes are global. This is a summer blockbuster series, so we love the idea of season two being a sequel to this. The threat from beyond will continue in a big way in season two… We keep a board in the writer's room of each character, and we started with five and now we have 17, so it's fun to weave them into the story.”
Getting Berry was a challenge to the producers, but not for the reasons you might think. “We pitched the story when she was eight and a half months pregnant, so we're sitting there talking about terrible, horrible things that can happen when you're pregnant. [But] she handled it quite well
“I'm happiest when I'm pregnant,” Berry said with a smile. “Didn't scare me at all. I know how to be pregnant, so I thought, I'm going to ace this part of it, for sure.”
Besides, the show isn't all about the pregnancy, anyway. “You don't watch 13 episodes of her being pregnant,” Walker explained. Though both Walker and Berry hesitated in how to discuss what happens next without spoilers, Walker finally said, “Some things drive her down a curious and odd path.”
As for Visnjic's character, John, he explained a few things about the “near future” robot creator. “There is another woman, my partner in creating a robot… John created Ethan, and when Molly left in space, she left with the relationship with Ethan being unresolved. It's difficult [enough] to deal with a 10-year-old when he's yours from birth on. In the pilot, John is very comfortable with this little robot, but Molly, who has been away so long, will have issues reconnecting with him.”
Berry was asked about one of the themes of the show — what makes us human — and responded, “I don't think there's one thing that makes you human, and that's what this show is all about. One question is, can this robot become human, can we give it free will, can we teach it to love… [and] do we as humans see this love as not real? I don't have one answer to that. What intrigued me about this series is answering that question.”
Visjnic explained that John's view of the question may be very different from Molly's when she returns. “By the time she comes back, he loves this kid. He's really stopped seeing him as a robot, but sees him as his own kid. And that's where problems start … he keeps getting smarter and smarter, so will he stay a kid or become a super God-knows-what?
“Will Ethan ever be able to really love?” Berry asked. “That's the question our show is also asking.”
While Visjnic admitted to being a scifi super fan when prompted by Fisher, Berry's approach to the issue was more nuanced. “I do like a fair bit of science fiction. I'm a big 'E.T' fan, [because] it has a lot of heart but it's supernatural. That hooks me.”
As for whether or not Fisher is a scifi fan despite getting his start in musical theater, he admitted, “I have a Boba Fett motorcycle helmet.”
Working with a kid robot requires an actual child, though it did present a question for Visjnic. “Can Ethan go in a pool?” When Fisher admitted he could, Visjnic smiled. “This little boy is starting to be like a real kid, and I'm like, that's not how I built you!”
If you're wondering if the robot child will stay a kid forever, Walker explained, “He is designed to be in a two or three year stage of each body. As he's ready to get to his next three year stage, you'll see John in the lab building prototype bodies for that.”
Given that Molly will be revealed to have been infertile when the show begins, you can imagine that disclosing her alien pregnancy might be difficult — especially when spilling the beans to John. “How do you explain what happened, how do you tell him when you don't know yourself? Those first episodes wrestle with that question,” Walker said, though he did add that the show's near-future setting will not be a world with “rampant infertility.”
“It's like Mary and Joseph,” Fisher added. “We have a chance to show Joseph's reaction to that… What? No!”
So, could Berry love a robot? “I struggle with that and my character struggles with that. Having two children who are so very human, I struggle with whether a robot would evoke the same feelings from me. My daughter just had a nightmare, she was dreaming, and on Mother's Day she came into me bed, and this is something I don't think a robot would do, saying 'Mommy no, no, Mommy no,' and I tell her, I think you're having a nightmare. She says, 'There's two cupcakes, a purple one and a pink one, and you're eating the pink one, and you know I want it!' And that's one of the gems that motherhood is all about.” We're guessing that won't be something we see on the show — either from the alien baby or the robot.
Are you looking forward to “Extant”? What sells it for you — the stars or Spielberg?