J.J. Abrams on His Next Sci-Fi Epic and Hollywood’s Diversity Problem
The acclaimed showrunner turned A-list filmmaker opens up about his new Hulu series 11.22.63—a time-travel thriller about a man who goes back to stop the JFK assassination.
J.J. Abrams will boldly go where few Hollywood heavyweights would dare venture. In addition to shepherding a fêted TV dramedy (Felicity), spy-actioner (Alias), sci-fi thriller (Fringe), and whatever the heck Lost was, he’s established himself as the Winston Wolfe of blockbuster film franchises, salvaging the cash cows Mission: Impossible, Star Trek, and Star Wars. Abrams’s next daring mission sees him crash-land into the cutthroat world of streaming television. He sure knows how to make an entrance.
The Hulu series 11.22.63 follows Jake Epping (James Franco), a mild-mannered English teacher in Maine. One day, his pal and local diner owner, Al (Chris Cooper), reveals that he’s dying of cancer, and persuades him to complete his mission: to travel back in time to 1960 to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. So, Jake walks through a Narnia-like closet and is dropped into retro Dallas, where he struggles to negotiate a budding romance with local librarian Sadie Dunhill (Sarah Gadon) and unraveling what may be the biggest conspiracy in U.S. history.
Executive-produced by Abrams, Bridget Carpenter, Bryan Burk, and Stephen King, and adapted from King’s novel of the same name, it’s an engrossing and ambitious new small-screen entry with a premise so juicy it’d make Rod Serling jealous.
“Nobody draws a character like Stephen King does,” says Carpenter, an award-winning writer for Friday Night Lights. “And it’s a story where you are going back in time, but you’re not going back in time to lay around—you’ve got something to do. This thing moves fast, and the audience is working to catch up to it.”
The eight-part miniseries, which premieres Feb. 15, was originally intended to be a feature film. After a year of pitching and missing, King went to Abrams to adapt it into a longform narrative. And yes, Abrams is very aware of his reputation concerning time travel.
“I would not have thought that I would’ve been involved in a number of time-travel stories,” he says, chuckling. “It’s a wonderful and frankly overdone trope, and yet when you see Back to the Future and see something as funny and heartfelt and exciting as anything, you realize, ‘Oh, it can be done great.’
“The book was at turns really scary, thrilling, dramatic, and romantic,” he adds. “Even though I knew it was a going-back-in-time story, I felt myself living and breathing in that period.”
Abrams met King when the two collaborated on an Entertainment Weekly feature pegged to Lost, which the celebrated novelist was a huge fan of. The two clicked—Abrams’s wife is from a town neighboring King’s stomping ground of Bangor, Maine—and vowed to collaborate in the future.
In addition to bringing these two great minds together, Lost was radical when it came to onscreen diversity, presenting fleshed-out characters of all colors and creeds. As the conversation in Hollywood shifts to diversity—or the lack thereof—I asked Abrams about the recent #OscarsSoWhite uproar, and how he feels about the industry’s long-standing diversity problem finally being addressed.
“I think we all have a hell of a lot to do, and I think it is insane to me that we still have to have a conversation about inclusivity. It’s shameful,” says Abrams. “We all need to do better to represent this world. It’s something that is important to me, and is something that we’re focusing on at [production company] Bad Robot. It’s inevitable and crazy that it’s taken so long. To imagine being someone who would see mainstream media and see themselves be underrepresented would be an incredibly hurtful thing.”
Indeed, Abrams’s recent space opera Star Wars: The Force Awakens featured a black co-lead in rising star John Boyega, and has grossed close to $2 billion (and rising) at the worldwide box office.
“It’s simply good business, which is what is so silly!” Abrams says of diversity in casting. “It’s simply smart business to represent the world that you’re presenting your entertainment to. Where would it ever make sense that you weren’t representing the population? It’s incredibly important and there’s a lot of talk, but the talk has to stop, and it has to actually be about what is happening.
“To be very clear, I have a long way to go—we all do,” he adds. “I in no way feel like I’m someone who has done as much as I could, and I understand that it needs to be discussed, but at a certain point it just needs to be done.”
It’s no secret that Abrams was under an incredible amount of pressure for his Star Wars reboot to be a success. After all, Disney had invested $4 billion in purchasing the property from Lucasfilm, and had gone as far as green-lighting a half-dozen films in the Star Wars universe. Now that it’s a hit, he can rest easy and dedicate his time to a bevy of future projects—including, perhaps, future seasons of 11.22.63.
“We’ve had some discussions about what might come next in this,” says Abrams. “In sort of classic Stephen King form, some ideas have been discussed that were incredibly exciting. But we’re trying to get this out and see how people receive it. Though my guess is there are places that other people would go.”
He takes a deep breath. “It’s nice to be done with Star Wars and be able to focus on other things I’m excited about.”