09.25.11

Costarring With Dinosaurs

Fox’s expensive and ambitious “Terra Nova” premieres tonight, with Jason O’Mara as the lead of the time-travel, dinosaur-filled Steven Spielberg project.

The last time Jason O’Mara played a time-traveling cop, he found himself immersed in the disco era. Now, on Fox’s new Terra Nova, which premieres tonight, the bad guys are often dinosaurs and O’Mara couldn’t be more excited to battle with Slashers, Brachiosaurs, and Nykoraptors.

It’s O’Mara’s third attempt at leading a TV series in the United States, and the Irish actor, who has sacrificed living thousands of miles from his wife and son, says he isn’t leaving anything to chance. He works out 60 to 90 minutes every morning before beginning his long day of filming in the Australian Outback because he feels a lawman that needs to protect his family and a prehistoric frontier town must, at the very least, be in top physical condition. O’Mara isn’t billed as a producer—the show has plenty of those, including Steven Spielberg—but on set, O’Mara thinks like one, according to executive producer Brannon Braga (24). O’Mara wants to make sure his Jim Shannon evolves into more than a dinosaur-chasing superhero and reveals himself to be a grounded but flawed husband and father who tries to do the right thing but sometimes fails.

“He’s a very intelligent actor, and he asks all the right questions,” Braga said. “It’s a welcome brain into the mix. As an actor, he’s got the most difficult part. He has to be playing the male lead, sort of the new sheriff in town, but also a father, a husband, and then he has this enigmatic relationship with Commander Taylor (Stephen Lang). He’s the fulcrum of the show, and he brought a sense of humor to the role that wasn’t really written.”

When O’Mara’s previous show, Life on Mars, was canceled in 2009 in its first season, the actor says he nursed his wounds by taking on a play in London, Serenading Louie. The role of Sam Tyler, a police detective who wakes up in the 1970s after a car accident, had drained his spirit.

“I was in every scene on that show, and it was very emotional,” O’Mara said. “I was dealing with stuff about Sam Tyler’s parents and childhood, and I tried to make the performance as raw and immediate as possible. I used my own experiences and memories to make it as real as possible for myself. I found it emotionally and physically draining because sometimes we filmed in subzero conditions in New York. So when it was over I was heartbroken, and I felt I just need to recover and take a break from TV, and theater is how I trained as an actor and that recharged my battery.”

A year later, Hollywood came looking for O’Mara with two more cop roles: a movie based on the successful book, One for the Money, which will release in January, and Terra Nova, a science-fiction adventure show that opens in 2149 on a dying Earth and then travels back 85 million years to a new colony where “pilgrims” have the opportunity to start again amidst the resident dinosaurs. The most ambitious and expensive pilot of the new TV season, Terra Nova has weathered its own colonization issues, with several changes in the producing ranks and two premiere delays.

O’Mara says having to wait for the show to air—the cast and crew is actually working on the season finale now—doesn’t bother him because he understands the scope of the series is unlike anything that’s preceded it on TV. He and the producers hope the show will find the audience that loved Spielberg’s E.T.—science-fiction enthusiasts who will wind up caring more about the Shannons and the other human residents of Terra Nova than the dinosaurs.

“What intrigued me initially was this idea that the show was really about second chances and, if we were given a second chance as a race, would we make the same mistakes again?” O’Mara said. “The excitement of the script—you know, wondering can we pull this off?—and Steven Spielberg’s involvement and the involvement of the dinosaurs, it was just something I couldn’t walk away from. I actually love playing cops. If I’m worrying about playing too many cops, I’ll do classical theater or period stuff.”

Braga says producers were interested in O’Mara when they viewed his audition tapes, but he worried that O’Mara wouldn’t want to time-travel on TV again. O’Mara was the first actor cast for Terra Nova; casting the rest of the actors, Braga says, was harder than creating the dinosaurs. Eventually, the entire Shannon family was cast with foreign actors: Landon Liboiron as son Josh; Naomi Scott as Maddy, the elder daughter; and Alana Mansour as Zoe, the 5-year-old daughter.

“There was an immediate consensus among the executive producers, including Steven Spielberg, that he was perfect for the role of Jim Shannon because he embodied that Gary Cooper quality—an ordinary man who’s a father but is also believable as a gunslinger and could be dangerous when he has to be but is essentially a nice guy,” Braga said. “The fact that he looks very attractive without his shirt on didn’t hurt either. He’s a very good-looking man. But there’s a quality in the lead not only of a family show but a Western and a lawman that not all actors can pull off the way he does.”

Playing Jim Shannon is technically and physically the most challenging of O’Mara’s career. Not only did the production endure extreme and unforgiving weather conditions—monsoons, typhoons, and floods—while shooting the pilot in a rain forest, but there are also plenty of snakes and the occasional toad that crawls across his boots, O’Mara said.

“The show is about the environment and how challenging and dangerous it is and trying to find a way to survive the environment,” O’Mara said. “So, effectively, that’s what we’re trying to do—make this TV show in spite of extreme weather. It’s a survival story in many ways. But that was during the summer there. Now we’re in winter and it doesn’t rain much, and it turns out it’s the perfect place for the series.”

“You’re supposed to be scared to death, but it’s very hard to be scared of something like that when all you want to do is burst into fits of laughter,” he said.

Fighting the dinosaurs, O’Mara, says sometimes has been even more challenging than bearing the physical elements. Sometimes he relies entirely on his imagination. Sometimes, the director stands in front of him and describes what Jim is seeing and reacting to. And other times, an assistant runs in front of him with a cardboard dinosaur head on the end of a stick.

“You’re supposed to be scared to death, but it’s very hard to be scared of something like that when all you want to do is burst into fits of laughter,” O’Mara said. “It requires a lot of trust and imagination, and it’s an intriguing way to work. I especially enjoy when we get to interact with and touch the dinosaurs or look at the dinosaurs because obviously on my end, it has to be done on set with the camera. But then in postproduction, they can add all kinds of moments to it, so there are some very nice moments when we’re eye to eye or nose to nose with some of these creatures.”

Hoping to close the continental gap between himself and future viewers of the show, O’Mara created jasonomara.com, where he posts behind-the-scenes spontaneous interviews with other cast members, videos of some rehearsals, and will soon post video-blog recaps of each episode after they’ve aired. He also joined Twitter and Facebook.

“I was creeped out by Twitter and Facebook, but now I am really enjoying it,” O’Mara said. “We’re giving unprecedented access so that people in the States can keep up with what we’re doing in Australia and give fans a backstage pass to the show.”

With production of the first season wrapping in two weeks, O’Mara said he looks forward to seeing how people react to the show’s many twists and turns and whether anyone can foresee any of it. The two-hour pilot introduces viewers to the Shannon family, the Terra Nova colony and, of course, the dinosaurs. Then the focus is more on life at Terra Nova, Braga said, until some of the pilot’s mysteries begin to unravel. By the end of the 13 episodes, another pilgrimage will head to Terra Nova, and a series regular will die.

“The climax is so cool,” O’Mara said. “I think once people realize what is actually happening, their jaws will fall on the floor, because mine did when I opened the script. There’s a lot of action and human drama. I honestly can’t believe we’re getting to do this. Sometimes I still don’t believe this show is actually going to be on TV.”