Abigail Spencer Talks NBC’s New Time Travel Series Timeless

Abigail Spencer goes back in time for her next role on NBC's new drama Timeless. We spoke with the actress about the series...

NBC has dabbled in time travel before. They are the network that brought us Quantum Leap and the very good Journeyman, which unfortunately only lasted one season. Timeless, from creators Eric Kripke and Shawn Ryan, has bigger plans. Garcia Flynn (Goran Visnjic) has stolen a time machine and is trying to change history. The inventors of the time machine enlist historian Lucy Preston (Abigail Spencer) to lead Rufus (Malcolm Barrett) and Wyatt Logan (Matt Lanter) in a second time machine after them. 

We got to speak with Spencer after the Timeless panel for the Television Critics Association. Fresh off the acclaimed series Rectify, Spencer returns with a leading role. The pilot takes her back to the time of the Hindenberg, and subsequent episodes go further back in history according to Kripke and Ryan. Timeless premieres Monday, October 3 at 10 p.m. on NBC.

Den of Geek: Were you looking for a new show to get into right after Rectify?

Abigail Spencer: No. I wasn’t. If it wasn’t for Shawn and Eric, I probably would’ve taken some time. The character was so compelling and so good that I couldn’t have passed it up.

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What are some big stunts you’re getting to do on Timeless?

There’s a lot of things going on. What I think is so magnificent right now is all the costumes that I’m getting to wear and all the different looks that I’m getting to do. I’m such a fashion fan so I’m really wrapped up in the costumes.

Which costumes have made you think you could’ve lived in that era, and which do you hate?

I am such a fan of history and the past. That’s why this was such a great role for me to take on. I collect vintage clothing. I feel like I was supposed to be born in another time period often. So every period, I’m like, “I could live here.” The only thing is being a woman in the past is not always great. So that’s something that we’ll explore on the show and I’m very grateful for the present because we’ve made a lot of strides.

You don’t have to go back very far to find a time that’s not great for women, do you?

I know, I know. Much like the storyline with Rufus, with Lucy’s character, putting a woman back in time and dealing with the situations, and also someone who doesn’t wanna change history. That’s part of the conflict. What’s going to grow for Lucy is: Is she going to come to the other side where she feels compelled to change history, or is it supposed to be? So I think part of that will be storyline infused.

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They said there’s going to be an episode in 1750 which is before the country was even founded. How do men in 1750 take a woman like Lucy?

We haven’t shot that episode yet and I haven’t read the episode yet, but I’m sure that Lucy will be outraged and stand up for herself, and it’ll be a real point of conflict.

Is there a time period you really romanticize in your head, that you would like to check out?

All of them. I really do. For the positive levels, I think I’m very into ‘70s movies right now. I’m very into our cinema from that time. So I think a part of me selfishly as an actor would’ve loved to have made a movie in the ‘70s. Just everything that I’m seeing, the acting is so raw and real and Cassavetes. So I’m romanticizing that right now just because of my acting interest.

How does the relationship between Garcia Flynn and Lucy develop?

It’s so interesting. We have this incredible actor, Goran Visnjic, playing Flynn and I think he brought a level of compassion and mystery to the role that I wasn’t even sure if Shawn and Eric were aware of when they cast him. And also, Flynn and Lucy have a real connection, and  Goran and I do. We really love working together. At this point, yes, he’s the bad guy, but is he, is really the thing. Everybody is the hero on this show. Nobody’s wrong in what they’re doing. It’s just they have different purposes and reasons. What you’ll find out in episode 2 is Flynn tells Lucy, “We’re going to be fighting side by side together one day.” So more Easter eggs will be dropped in every single episode, of what Flynn and Lucy’s relationship is that Lucy doesn’t even know about. When we meet her in this world, she has no idea about the journal. She has no idea who he is but I think a few of those ongoing mysteries will be revealed along with the closed ended episodes. 

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When anything is possible on the show, do you have to approach your job differently than on a realistic drama?

I don’t know. I don’t know if you guys have seen Rectify. This is so different. This is so different than Rectify. That’s part of the challenge. It is epic. It is big. It is time travel. It’s a different way of working but I don’t approach the work any differently than a grounded character who has real pain and real problems. So the way that I would approach Amantha is the way that I approach Lucy as a totally fully formed, fully realized human being. And just trying to find the root and the weight of what she needs and what she’s not getting in her life. The thing is, I want to have fun on the show too. So I think the real challenge of the show is finding the humor. That we don’t take ourselves too seriously, that we don’t lean into any of the tropes, that we really find that kind of early Spielberg tone. When I came in to Shawn and Eric, I said, “I don’t want to play a hero. I want to play a real person who trips and falls and might run into the airplane and might ruin the mission every time.” Yes, she’s an excellent historian and her intellect is her super power, but I want to always be two seconds from falling on my face, so that’s what we’re doing.

Is there any romance potential between you and Wyatt?

There better be! Have you met Matt Lanter? I think so. Our hope is that it really gets drawn out. Wyatt and Lucy have a real Moonlighting possibility and I think those are the more interesting long running love interests. But at the same time, in the second episode you learn something about Lucy that you didn’t know from the pilot, which adds an interesting layer to it. 

What excites you about working in genre?

Probably that I don’t know anything about genre. [Laughs] Like I’m a total novice so even listening on stage I was like, “Oh wow, I didn’t know, oh, interesting.” I’m just really listening. I’m learning. I really am getting smarter by playing this part. I’m open to it. I think that’s the thing. You asked me if I was looking for a television show right after Rectify because it was ending. I was like, no, I wasn’t. I felt like Shawn and Eric kind of found me and that was such a blessing because right now, I was like oh, am I going to do film? Looking at the options, this was the most fully formed, fully realized heroine of the bunch. I get to play the fully realized character and a lot of the other roles in other areas just aren’t like that.

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Do you know why they wanted you so badly?

No, I have no idea. I was like, “Are you sure you want me?”

What did they see in you?

It’s really interesting. Before this show, I’ve been working in cable for a really long time. That was purposeful on some level but not purposeful on other levels. For a long time I just didn’t think networks wanted me because I was the lead in eight different network pilots that did not get picked up. So I was like, “I just think network doesn’t like me so I’m just going to go work in cable where I’m appreciated.” Coming back to network, Shawn Ryan saw me do a pilot for ABC called Grace. Lesli Linka Glatter directed it who he knows from The Shield and I worked with on Mad Men. He actually saw that pilot and that’s why he wanted me to play Lucy. It wasn’t because of Mad Men or [Rectify]. I mean, he’d seen those things but it was what he saw in a network pilot that never got picked up. So I’m excited that network’s like, “Okay, we’ll take you now.”

Have you been brushing up on your history now?

Part of wanting to do it too is I really wanted to learn something. I feel like being an actor is the best way to learn and to be an empathic human being. I get to learn so much about people, but I actually get to learn something new every time I take on a role, about something I would have never been exposed to otherwise. For example, in the next episode, the Lincoln assassination, I’ve been reading, I’ve been doing my own research because I want Lucy to have the gravitas of knowing what she’s talking about. I did not even know, in the Lincoln episode in particular, I had no idea of a historical element that we lay in. There were four people that were supposed to be killed that night. Lincoln was just one of four. So we actually go into the original coup that was supposed to happen. I would’ve been devastating, the biggest murder of our government officials ever and it didn’t happen. So we’re going to explore that in that episode and I really learned something.

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Do you have any favorite time travel movies, shows or books?

I loved Back to the Future. I loved Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. I really enjoyed them. I loved Doctor Who as a child. My mother said that I would run around the house going, “It’s Doctor Whoooooo.” I think somewhere deep in my subconscious, the role found me. That’s how I feel when you get paired with a role. As much as you’re looking for it, it’s looking for you. I feel like it found me as much as I found it.