‘Falling Skies’: Colin Cunningham talks ‘amping it up’ with Drew Roy

Since John Pope first appeared on “Falling Skies” in the series” second episode, he has been one of the TNT shows most fun and fascinating characters to watch.

In an alien invasion apocalypse, he”s the bad boy looking out for number one, a cynical nuisance, a thorn in Tom Mason”s side. But he”s also been a vital member of the 2nd Mass, loyal to his gang, a badass alien killer, and he even has his heart of gold moments. He”s sometimes an anti-hero character we love to hate – whenever he”s causing trouble within the 2nd Mass as if a war against aliens isn”t trouble enough – but he also comes to reveal struggles and a past that makes him rather relatable.

Played by Colin Cunningham, Pope got a love interest in season 4. Sara (Mira Sorvino) has changed Pope, and that”s clearer than ever in the most recent episodes.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD for “Falling Skies” through tonight”s episode, “Non-Essential Personnel.”

Ahead of the season 5 premiere, showrunner David Eick teased Pope”s imminent trip off the rails: “It seemed to me that if we were going to explore our heroes pushing themselves to the moral brink, the only way to make that a truly cautionary tale would be to show what would happen if someone went over it, and that”s what unfortunately befalls Pope in this final season,” Eick told HitFix. “That”s not to say he”s irredeemable.”

“Non-Essential Personnel” was an intense episode in the wake of Sara”s death, with Pope hellbent on hurting and then killing both Tom and Hal Mason, ruthlessly gathering together a new band of followers to complete that vengeful task, dismissing and even killing anyone he deems to be non-essential to his new gang.

HitFix caught up with Cunningham, who was on the road to Saturday”s Manchester United-Barcelona game in northern California when he chatted on the phone with us about his character. Read on for what the actor had to say about Pope”s intense new arc, going head-to-head with Drew Roy and how Noah Wyle went the extra mile for this episode.

HitFix: So how much fun did you have with playing Pope when he”s really lost it?

Colin Cunningham: It's been a blast. All due respect to all the other wonderful characters who were created six years ago – I think I had the best one. [The writers and producers] have given me some creative license to do some interesting things. Not everything's worked, but they've been open. Oftentimes it can be lip service – “Hey, my door's always open” and “call me any time you want,” and then you try that and of course you find out that was just a lot of talk at the beginning of the season. But with “Falling Skies,” it really was true. And that's with Mark Verheiden in the beginning to Remi Aubuchon to David [Eick]. You suggest some things. Some things stick. Some things don't. But it's nice to mold your own destiny and to try a few things and see what works and what doesn't.

What are some directions Pope”s character has gone that you suggested?

For a couple of years, I was saying, “Somewhere down the line, it would be really great if Pope snaps, and he shaves his head.” [The response] was like, “Eh, I don't know, I don't know,” and then finally in the last season, I remember calling David up in the beginning and saying, “Come on, man, just make it the last minute of the last episode,” and he blew my mind by making it the fourth episode.

You got your wish. You got to play Pope totally going over the edge.

Yeah, and when you think about it, he's a completely different guy now. How many characters have I gotten to play on this one show with this one guy? I've gotten to play the bad biker. I've been able to play the lovable rogue. The love interest to Mira Sorvino. I've had my own bar. I've done the black market. And now I'm a shaved-head, psychopathic nut. You couldn't ask for more fun.

Did you and Noah Wyle have any discussions about how to make this Tom-Pope face-off top all the other head-butting moments they”ve had?

No, not with Noah. I have no doubt that Noah expressed where he'd like to see his character go. I certainly had conversations with [director Ola]tunde [Osunsanmi].

Noah would absolutely react to whatever it is that I gave him. And I've mixed it up, man. I've mixed it up. Sometimes I felt I was putting my own job on the line cause I was doing stuff that wasn't necessarily called for in the script, but I thought I'd mess with him, do something else, get something different. I had an instant acting rapport with Noah in our first scene because we both come from the stage. We both come from a theater background, and I instantly – I wasn't familiar with his theatrical background until I worked with him, but after about 10 seconds, I knew I was working with a guy who'd spent time onstage. It's just very pro. There was a common field to play in. I was also impressed with the amount of freedom he gave me. Never once did I feel an elbow from Noah Wyle, as in “don't do that,” or “I'm the star of the show,” and I have experienced that on other sets.

Sara”s death scene was heartbreaking. What stands out to you from the experience of filming that?

Mira”s such a sweetheart. That was a tough day. The both of us had two takes, maybe? We were really pushed for time. I did one take that was small, one that was loud and intense and one that was maybe a little teary. Mira Sorvino – her character's death – that was the last scene that she shot on “Falling Skies.” It was bittersweet. You always want to take some time [with scenes like that], but the clock was ticking.

So Pope is totally blaming Tom for Sara”s death – but I wonder, does he blame himself at all, at least as you interpret it? Is this vendetta against Tom a way for him to suppress the urge to replay in his head that moment that he left Sara, the things he could have done differently there?

It”s twofold: Pope would have shied away from any kind of intimacy. It was all about winning the war. He's not gonna let himself fall in love ever again. It makes you weak – or at least that would have been in Pope's head. And in many ways, it did make him weak. So number one, he resents the fact that he allowed himself to fall in love. And number two, there's no question that he resents Mason and holds him responsible. Pope holds Mason responsible, but because he resents himself so much for getting soft, he's gonna come back ten times more fierce than he's ever been. And he has Mason to channel that anger, to channel that passion, that insanity into.

Tell me about working with Drew Roy in this episode.

Drew and I work very similarly. Working with Drew Roy was probably the highlight of the entire season. I give him my best, and he's like, “Amp it up. Bring it on. That's all you got?” He was willing to go places and explore places. He gave me permission to completely let go. Working with Drew, I was just able to be transported into another place. There was no net. It was very dangerous. It was very cool, though.

When you”re not holding back, and the scene has Pope physically hurting Hal, how do you keep it from getting too dangerous, from actually hurting your co-star?

We are acting, of course. I'm not one of these guys who are going to beat the crap out of somebody and break my hand to get the shot. But there is a zone you get into. [Director Ola]tunde [Osunsanmi] was the net. He was the guide. He was protecting the both of us. You're closing your eyes and falling backwards. Drew gave me permission to do that. I gave him permission to do that. But it was Tunde who was gonna catch us, cause you do just get lost in it.

Oh, and Noah was on that walkie talkie. He didn't even need to be there that day.

That wasn”t someone else reading his lines while you”re filming the shots of you with the walkie talkie?

No, the script person wasn't on the walkie talkie. I'm talking to Noah. And I have no idea where he is. He could be six blocks away.

That”s an unusual way to film that kind of thing, isn”t it?

That takes a lot. For number one on the call sheet to leave his home on his day off, get in the car, come out to the set, so you can hear his voice over a walkie talkie is very, very rare. He's working 16, 17 hours a day, and on his day off, he's gonna come in, so I can hear his voice on a walkie talkie.

What”s next for Pope?

I will say he's chosen a path, and he's taking the brakes off. It will end, but he won't be opening a deli.

Should we expect a spectacular death scene for Pope soon?

“Spectacular” is an interesting word. Although I will say, we all thought [our characters] were gonna die. So we'd go, “Oh, I wanna die this way!”

I remember at Comic-Con a couple years ago you all shared how you want your characters to die.

Yeah, “if you went out, how would you wanna go out?” Do you wanna go out like Jimmy Cagney in “White Heat”? “Top of the world, Ma!” Boom. Or do you wanna go quiet on a beach somewhere, looking at a caterpillar that's walking down a leaf? That was an interesting dialogue. Food poisoning though, I don't think came up.

What”s next for you, in life after “Falling Skies”?

Before “Falling Skies” started, I directed a short called “Centigrade” that actually made the shortlist in 2009 for the Academy Awards. We wanted to do a feature or a TV show [version of “Centigrade”]. “Falling Skies” came around and put the brakes on that for a little bit. Now it's back. We're gonna shoot the feature probably in the spring. I'm gonna direct it, and I'll be in it. I'm really excited about it. There's all sorts of stuff going on, but that's my big thing right now that I'm working toward.