LOST IN SPACE: Producers and Cast Chat Story, Character and Gender Balance – Leslie Combemale interviews
This holiday season, fans of the Netflix original series Lost in Space get a special gift. The second season of the show, which is an updated reimagining of the popular Irwin Allen classic from the 60s, streams on December 24th.
If you aren’t watching this exciting and very engaging sci-fi show, you should be. Well-crafted, full of cliffhangers, and with characters that rise above the tiresome cliches viewers have come to expect in fantasies, Lost in Space is perfect for families looking for something they can watch and enjoy together. I’d argue this is in large part because their gender-balanced Writers’ Room continues a commitment they’ve had from the very first episode: to subvert gender norms and present characters and storylines in which women, girls, and indeed everyone, will see themselves.
Like the 60s version that came before it, this show is based on the 1812 novel The Swiss Family Robinson. Molly Parker (Deadwood, House of Cards) plays physicist Maureen Robinson, and Toby Stephens (Black Sails, Vexed) is her husband, John. They and their children Judy (Taylor Russell), Penny (Mina Sundwall) and Will (Maxwell Jenkins) are joined by Don West (Ignacio Serricchio) and a female Dr. Smith played by Parker Posey. They all have to stay alive long enough to reach their new home on a planet far away, and to do so must work as a team, tackling all have their own personal challenges along the way.
For the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, I spoke about Lost in Space to cast members Parker, Stephens, Jenkins, Sundwall, Serricchio and Posey, along with executive producers Matt Sazama, Zack Estrin, and Burke Sharpless:
Toby Stephens, on playing a nuanced male character, and how he fits into the Robinson family dynamic:
“It was one of the reasons I found the character intriguing. What I liked about this dynamic is they are fallible. This family isn’t perfect, but they are trying to be better. It’s aspirant TV. I rather like that underneath it all it’s all a bit messy, but he’s trying to feel his way back to his family, and solve a lot of the problems. You have this duality where you have this massive physical problems they have to survive, but underneath it you have this parallel of their family problems they’re trying to solve that are just as important. They are life and death to this family. As an actor, I like playing complex, intricate stuff, I don’t want to just play a chiseled, butch guy. I want to play something that’s real. Even though it’s a fantasy, it’s couched in reality and there’s texture to it, that grown-ups watching it with their kids can identify with.”
Molly Parker, on flipping character expectation:
“John is trying to feel his way back into the family and I know it was part of the plan for the writer/producers. Maureen is thinking her way through everything, and to have that duality where the archetypes are switched around, is so great. Our writers either are women, or love really smart, powerful women. It’s so great to be allowed to not have to play the woman who is feeling for everybody. So much of what an actress does a lot of the time is play the feeling center of the story, while the man is the active center of the story. It’s so often up to her to let the audience know that he has feelings. It’s like she’s the siphon for them. Even though it’s there in the script, and was very much considered by the creators and writers, as we started playing it, then we really started seeing how he relates to the children, and how he’s thinking about how they are doing emotionally, and Maureen is looking at the problems she can fix. It’s flipped. “
Executive producer Matt Sazama, on the importance of a gender-balanced Writers’ Room:
The writing staff for Season 2, which includes Vivian Lee, Kari Drake, and Katherine Collins, represents the same creative voice that’s been there since the beginning. it was important for us to write principle characters with 4 men and 4 women (we count the robot as male even though he has no genitalia). The writer’s room is meant to reflect that, having a balance of male and female voices. We wanted to be far enough in the future to have a science fiction story, but we also wanted it to feel like it wasn’t that different than now, except a better version of it. It’s so often a big deal when there’s a woman scientist or a woman flying a spaceship, but that’s hopefully not a conversation we still need to be having in 30 years.”
Parker Posey, on playing the doctor as a complex, almost Shakespearian female villain, and the show’s timeliness:
“Everyone has masculine and feminine sides to them, and she has both of those things. We are used to seeing men portray villains, but this character is so well designed that the audience hopefully has a sensitivity to what she’s been through, and has empathy for her, which is always fun for me. The Shakespearean concept of a villain is you pity and fear them at the same time. We want to show how damaged she is, and what happened to her, instead of someone just being a sadist and psychopath. She is just broken. This is an opportunity for her to be in the Robinson family, which is a great thing for her. She is going to feel at times like she belongs, and is accepted, and at times she’s going to be deeply hurt when she’s not. She’ll act out in some very dramatic ways when she’s hurt. With a genre show, you get to encompass as a performer those darker feelings in your body, showing your emotions. I feel like I can have ghoulish hands, and take things really far, because it can work as part of that world. Being able to be large like that, like something you might see in True Blood or Game of Thrones, or any of these shows where you see those kind of qualities, is really fun.”
“There are so many situations and people right now that are disappointing. So much with social media and communication and what that’s going on, it’s so nice to watch a group of people thrown together that are finding a way to work together and listen to each other.”
Executive producer Zack Estrin, on going beyond the “strong female character,” the power of hope and casting Maxwell Jenkins as Will Johnson:
“What’s cool about the show is that a lot of the women are in charge, and are in positions of power, and it’s not something that’s ever discussed. It’s not a plot point, it’s just because this is life. Everybody takes charge. It doesn’t matter if you’re a kid or an adult, man or woman, your ethnicity, your sexual preference, none of that matters. It’s very much that survival depends on everyone working together. A lot of the writers have daughters, so as much as part of the show is about Will and his growth, it’s important for us and our daughters to have role models on the show, these strong, capable women, no matter their age, solving problems not just with bravery, but with their brains and intuition. They are solving problems not by kicking at them, but by science-ing the sh*t out of them.”
“The hope Will Robinson has is part of the appeal of the show. Our show is about hope and goodness, and this is a good time to be having that to look at, when we’re at a time with lots of shades of grey, it’s nice to have the Robinsons to look at. What was cool about when we were looking for kids to play Will Robinson, so much of them would talk about projects or auditions, and Max came in, and he’s a kid who is in a circus in the summer. His parents run a non-profit circus that goes into challenged neighborhoods that don’t normally get to see these things, and they put on shows for them. They rescue pitbulls. We were listening to them talking, just about life, and realized he was Will Robinson. As we were crafting the characters, we found we were heavily influenced by Max and his family.
Maxwell Jenkins on Will as a role model:
“Will has qualities about him that are just like every other kid, as well as those that entirely set him apart. He’s afraid just like any other kid would be, he’s intensely caring about his family, but something that a lot of kids and even adults don’t have, is he has compassion for strangers. That’s what makes Will so special. He’s able to see the best in people even after they make really bad mistakes, like with the robot and Dr. Smith. Will Robinson lives with hope. Being able to grow up surrounded by Will Robinson, in a way he’s like a role model to me. I try to be like Will in my daily life. I think everyone should be.”
Mina Sundwell on Penny, and the power of teenage self-discovery:
“There’s a part of growing up, especially as a teenager, that is about not knowing who you are, or what you’re good at. She is in position where she is part of a family of over-achieving scientists, which she is not. It makes her feel so insecure about what she can and can’t do, or what she can contribute, that she learns so many more skills in trying to learn how she can help. In season 2, we learn what her best strengths are, one of which is dealing with people and understanding them. She’s also great at writing and psychology. We learn more about how she can fit into the bigger picture of the Robinsons, and I’m excited to see where that story goes. Up until now in her struggle to fit in with her parents and siblings, she was just branching out in every way she could. Now she’s figuring herself out a bit.”
Ignacio Serricchio on how he differs from Don West, and Latino representation in Lost in Space:
Don is very unlike myself. Whenever I meet somebody, I break down walls within seconds. I want to hug them and make them a part of my extended family, and I open my arms to everyone. He’s the opposite. He’s trying to protect himself by setting up little barriers. After 7 months with the Robinsons, and dealing with lots that’s out of his control, we start to see that he may consider these people to be trustworthy. He still has one foot out and ready to run, in case he’s proven wrong. His belief, which I think comes from trauma, is that they may be too good to be true, and the idea of family in general is too good to be true. He lives in the expectation that everything could go wrong at any point. You can really see the kindness underneath his shell, though, in how he takes care of Debbie (the chicken). It’s his connection to his innocence, childlike wonder, purity, and love.”
In the beginning, they asked me if I wanted Don West to be Latin, and I said no. The actor might be from some specific part of the world, but Don just is. It doesn’t need to be announced. It’s the normalization that he could be from Wisconsin, which is very real, since there are over 40 million Latinos in this country, and they live all across the states.”
“It takes men sitting back and listening, to realize that when power is shared, it grows. it’s not a battle. We are not at war.”
Executive producer Burke Sharpless on the femme Crimson Tide scene the Writers’ Room created in Season 1:
“We wanted to allow the show to come into being in an authentic way that reflects life. Having scenes that have a mother, two daughters, and a villain, all of whom are women, we wanted to make sure that the Writers’ Room didn’t have to keep asking if it seemed right, because no one in there would know first-hand. We just wanted it to have writing and story and identity woven into plot, so that characters could naturally be coming out of problem-solving and emotion and conflict. There’s one scene from last season that’s the work of Katherine Collins and Kari Drake, between Dr Smith and Maureen, where they are jockeying for power. It’s the sort of exchange you’d see in a male-dominated action film. They said they’d be doing Crimson Tide, but no one will notice it’s not Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman. It’s Parker Posey and Molly Parker, and they are going to at it, and it’s spectacular.”
Zack Estrin on the show’s holiday release:
“We have been finding one of the huge appeals of the show is families watching it together. When we were at San Diego Comic-Con, we had so many people come up to us to say thank you for the fact that the 2nd season is releasing at the holidays. It’s the time when families are together. So many people watching the show have been waiting for the weekends, so that parents could watch it with their kids, with no homework or other activities getting in the way. They were saying it is a show they can sit down and enjoy as a family. The fact that it’s at the holidays, when everyone is together, is giving them this opportunity to watch a show that is exciting, but also is about a family pulling together and working out problems.