Helix: Kyra Zagorsky and Steve Maeda Talk About Syfy’s New Series

Actress Kyra Zagorsky and executive producer Steve Maeda sit down and discuss the Syfy show that has everyone talking.

Syfy’s Helix tv series has finally arrived, and the science fiction/horror hybrid certainly has fans talking. Executive producer Steve Maeda and Kyra Zagorsky (Dr. Julia Walker) took some time to chat about the themes of the show, the icy setting, and the fact that Helix is absolutely NOT a zombie show. You can also read our review of the first two episodes right here!The setting of being up in the Arctic really seems to work well for this kind of thing. It makes you think of, like, The Thing, and stuff like that. Kind of talk philosophically about why a setting like this works so well visually and emotionally for this kind of story.Steve Maeda: Sure. It’s a setting that is great for us because it’s not the newest setting under the sun. It seems familiar enough, but I think we’re doing a pretty interesting spin on it. And what works for us really well is that it lends itself to a very claustrophobic environment because you can go outside but only for brief periods of time. It’s really dangerous. The weather is horrible, as I’m sure people who are in the Midwest and the East Coast right now can relate to. And what it does is it forces you to be inside most of the time and that’s how we really saw this. That’s how Cameron, who wrote the pilot script, really envisioned the thing to begin with, which was a contained environment, someplace, you know, it’s almost like being set on a spaceship where you’re trapped inside with, you know, unseen horrors and then there’re all sorts of human problems as well that develop from that. So it really lends itself to the series as a whole.Okay, cool. And I sympathize with you there. I’ve got 14 inches of new snow outside right now, so I’m never going to get out again.Steve Maeda: Yes, you’re trapped.This looks like it may be an entirely studio show. In other words, I was thinking that even the outdoor scenes you probably shot in a studio. Is it entirely a studio shot are you shooting in Montreal, or where are you shooting at?Steve Maeda: We are shooting in Montreal. The writers were all in Los Angeles where it’s actually kind of balmy right now. But Kyra and the rest of the gang, we’re up in Montreal. We’re pretty much all studio shots because we started in the summer. I wish we had the budget to be able to go to the Arctic and really do it. But I thought the group up there – the crew and all our production people – did a phenomenal job and maybe that’s something, Kyra, maybe you can talk more about that because you were there having to deal with our snow and all that stuff. Kyra Zagorsky: Yes, it was pretty incredible. We had a room that we called the freezer. If you were shooting in the freezer that day, that was sort of a joke. But the fake snow and how they would do it, they’d get the fans going, and it was – it looks incredible and the only thing that was tricky is it was supposed to be freezing, we had these huge arctic, you know, coats on. But there were a couple of times that we did end up moving the set outside to shoot some of the outside scenes just because we needed a bit more space and that ended up being a little bit more helpful and easier to breathe, too, when you’re dealing with some of the fake snow stuff. But it was a lot of fun and it looks amazing.Steve Maeda: It’s pretty incredible what they managed to do up in Montreal getting it to look like, you know, a blizzard in the Arctic.Kyra, you grew up in the mountains of Colorado, I’m told. So did you grow up liking snow and have you changed your mind since seeing the horrors of the Arctic in this thing?Kyra Zagorsky: I love the snow. I love it. I think that because I grew up in that environment, it’s almost nostalgic for me. I just get so excited to see it. I prefer being in the snow than the rain in the winter, for sure. So that’s the one thing about being in Vancouver sometimes in the winter. It’s a bit tricky. But yes, I absolutely love the snow. I do. I know right now you’re not enjoying it, but you’re trapped in your house. But there’s just something about the snow and how beautiful it is. And there’s something – it just kind of wipes the earth clean for a second. I love it. It’s beautiful.Do you think that there’s going to be some misguided critic out there who says it’s just another zombie show. What would you say to someone like that? What makes the show so much more than that?Steve Maeda: Yes, our watch word over the season, or some of our watch words were not zombies. There is certainly a human element to the show and a science fiction kind of trope that we’re sure to get compared to and that’s okay. I don’t mind that, but we’re really trying to not make it a zombie show. I would say the main difference about our vectors, as we call them, is that they are not kind of mindless sort of eating machines.

And that’s something that you’ll see in later episodes. They’re very scary and they’re human and they look horrible. But our team will discover teams into and around the virus and also what we’re going to find out about the vectors is that they’re incredibly smart and so they retain a lot of their intelligence, if not their humanity, which I think makes them very different from zombies. And you know what? The comparisons will come and that’s okay. But we’re really trying to do something that feels different than the typical zombie show.

Kyra Zagorsky: I think also since the show is based in real science, there’re real life epidemic scares out there throughout history where there’re these huge viruses that have wiped out huge populations and so we’re dealing with something that the CDC hasn’t seen before, but it comes from a virus. And so that’s something that’s based in reality. And then you put the science fiction on that and it’s a really interesting combination. I think that’s another thing that makes it unique.Steve Maeda: That was great. That’s a good way to put it.Yes, good point. Kyra, I’m wondering, you, Billy and Hiroyuki are both so intense on screen. What’s it like working with them in person? What do they bring to the table?Kyra Zagorsky: Oh my gosh. Well, working with Billy is incredible. I mean, he’s technically amazing. He’s been doing this for a long time. He’s a master at what he does. He’s very emotionally connected and full and always available and powerful. And so it’s an interesting combination. And the other thing about him is that he’s a blast to work with. He’s so funny. For me, the thing that I love about the show is the psychological thriller aspect of it. And it’s frightening and it’s scary and there’re all these things that happen. You have these really dramatic scenes and then you get in a scene with him and I can’t tell you how many times I would start cracking up. And Steve was there for some of that.Steve Maeda: Yes.Kyra Zagorsky: But he is just so funny and he’s just a blast to work with. And Hiro is somebody that I’ve always admired since I saw him in The Last Samurai. I think he’s an incredible person and artist and he is always right there for you and he’s always supporting the story to its fullest. He was amazing. I learned so much from just being in the room with him. So I think, for me, they just raised the bar for me and it feels like, as an actor, you’re only as good as your scene partner and I feel like anything that I do well on this show is probably from being in scenes with those two. So it was a pretty exceptional experience.Steve Maeda: And I feel like we’ve really got a pretty incredible cast chemistry as well. I mean, considering that we have some of our actors who have been doing this for years and years and years and, you know, some that are like Billy, who are household names, and then others who you may not have seen before. And I think everybody really elevated and brought their A-game to this and I’m hoping that, in addition to the folks you recognize, there’s going to be some real breakouts in this as well.Kyra Zagorsky: Yes, absolutely.What is it that each of you likes best about the series?Steve Maeda: Kyra, you want to go or do you want…Kyra Zagorsky: I love the psychological thriller piece of it. I think that because we are trapped in this isolated environment with a deadly virus, what’s really interesting is that everyone’s darkness comes out because we’ve got these life and death stakes going on and then there’re these interesting relationships going on but we can’t quite deal with the relationship right now because we’ve got something better to do, which is survive.  But it takes some of the characters to some very dark places and they start doing things that they might not do if they were in regular circumstances. And so their true humanity comes out, the good and the bad. And I think that’s what’s so interesting about the show and for me, the unique part of it, the psychological side of it.Steve Maeda: Yes, I would absolutely agree with that. And for me, on top of that, I would say the main thing for me, as I stand back now and look back at the season that we’re finishing up, is Syfy in particular – both Sony and Syfy – but Syfy really wanted us to get out of the box of a typical outbreak show. And from the very beginning, you know, the pilot was a great template and really set the stage for us. But then Syfy just gave us free reign and said, you know, between studio networks, Ron Moore, and everybody, we all tried to put our heads together and say what can we do? Where can we take this show where it starts in one place and then goes someplace hopefully really unexpected where we want the audience to play along and say, “Hey, I know what’s going to happen here. Of course, it’s going to be this,” and then have it be something completely different. And we tried to do that with creative choices we made, with story ideas, with some casting choices, whether characters live or die, with music choices, with how we edited the show. And so that was really fun to have the creative freedom to be able to get outside of the typical show box.Kyra Zagorsky: And something else that was fun, off of what you said, Steve, is that because we had the 13 episodes right away, every director would come in so excited to go with their own creativity. So, you know, sometimes directors get hired into TV shows and it’s so formulaic and they’re kind of a slave to whatever everybody wants them to do. But everyone came in with their own style and it blends together with the Helix style that was set. But at the same time, they’re bringing their own ideas and their own input. And so they were so pumped to be there. And it was really fun working with all of them.Who came up with the idea to use the upbeat music that plays in different areas because I really thought that that fit really great. It just works really well.Steve Maeda: Oh, thank you. It was sort of a group effort in a way but really it was Ron who came to our first editing session and said, “Hey, you know what? Let’s try to do some different things here. Let’s cut it up and let’s really have fun with this.” And then as we were thinking, we had the idea to try to do something different musically. And initially we weren’t thinking about doing a lot of songs. And I think it was one of our producers, who actually came up with the old Burt Bacharach song and the Dionne Warwick version and we’re like, “Yes, that would be awesome.” And so what we tried to do is take that through the series and – not all the time – but every once in a while, we’re going to pull out an old chestnut and have some fun with the musical parts of the show. And that was something that I’ve got to say that’s one of my favorite parts of the entire series. I was curious, can you talk about – because I’m not sure who all else is going to be in it – but I know that mostly it’s kind of a closed cast because you have this close-knit group. Can you talk about how you’re working with the same people? I mean, does that make it different from an acting standpoint? You do have a big ensemble, but you can’t bring in a bunch of guest cast. Kyra Zagorsky: You know, we actually do have a lot of guest cast. That’s the fun surprise about the show. Oh, cool. Kyra Zagorsky: Because when you think about – how many was it, Steve? There’s 103 scientists on the base?Steve Maeda: There’re 106 scientists – yes, 106 scientists on the base and a bunch of support staff. And then we have people – there are some other people that we won’t mention, but just to know that there are other cast members who kind of come and go.Kyra Zagorsky: Yes, and there’re a lot of surprise characters that you just would never expect and that’s what’s kind of fun about it. There’s a huge element of surprise that starts to happen pretty soon in the series that there’re some pieces where I have a whole episode where I’m not working with any of the core cast but just other interesting characters. So it’s pretty fun. It kept it interesting.Steve Maeda: Yes, that was part of the challenge, too, with the show, I think. The claustrophobia plus the cast, in a sense here, which is how do we open the show up? And that was something that we were very conscience of in sitting down and trying to plot out stories. You know, what can we do? How can we open up this base and make the world larger? And part of it was getting outside when we could. And the other part of it was actually, literally going deeper and unpeeling the layers of the onion and finding that the surface level of this base is just the beginning and that there’s much more going on in and around and underneath.Okay, great. I’m very surprised at that, so glad to hear it.Steve Maeda: Good.I was wondering, did [Executive Producer Ronald D. Moore] personally handpick you for the job of show runner or if not, can you tell us about how you came to that job?Steve Maeda: I mean, Ron was definitely one of the main draws about the job. And I met with Ron and I met with Cameron who had created and sold the pilot and also with Lynda Obst who was one of our producers. We had a nice meeting of minds and that was that. And I’m sure they met with some other people as well but we had a nice rapport and it seemed like they’d be good people to work with, and they were. We had a really good experience and Ron was tremendous. He’s got a lot of stuff going on. We was very busy, but also was very available for us and had huge input in the show.Kyra, did you get a show bible initially revealing your character’s outcome or did you have to discover it episode by episode? Kyra Zagorsky: I had to discover it. I had to discover everything and that was, I think, part of the fun in being on the show. It was so exciting. You could not wait to get your next script to see what was going to happen to you. But there were a couple of things. The only information I got was that I had a history with Billy — with “Alan” — and with his brother, “Peter,” who’s played by Neil. So, that was the only information that I was given. So that was interesting. By the time I was working through the third episode, that was the piece when I really felt I’d gotten myself kind of grounded into the character. I feel like when I find the character’s darkness, when everything opens up emotionally, that’s when I started going, “Okay, now I’m starting to really feel like I’ve got a handle on her.” And what was great is, when I first got up to Montreal and I met with Cameron and Jeffrey Reiner, we had a talk and I just realized this is my role. This is it, you know. So I have no idea what’s to come, but I have to just trust that I’m her and start working with her. Steve was great to work with, too; when a new script would come out and I had questions about things, I would always write to him and I’d have a dialogue with him about things, just figuring out what her character is made of. So it became a really interesting team collaboration. It was pretty incredible. But it was all a big surprise for me.Steve Maeda: That’s pretty typical, too, for a serialized show. And even though you have certain things figured out, you don’t have all the pieces when you begin. We had a pretty solid idea of where we were heading through the 13 but I’ve heard it described before, which I think is a pretty apt analogy of, we know that we’re starting off in Los Angeles and we’re heading toward New York. But along the way, you may not know that we’re going to stop at Omaha and then, three episodes in, you’re like, “Omaha sounds pretty great.” And so you can take that left turn or right turn still heading toward your same place at the end, but you can discover things along the way. And what’s great about that is you can discover things in the show storywise, but then you also discover, as you see your actors, you discover who they are and they bring things to the character that you may not have seen before. And that’s really wonderful, to start watching the dailies and start seeing the cuts and to see what our actors were bringing. Then we went, ‘Oh, well hey, how about this?’ And it gives us, you know, more ideas, which is really nice.Kyra Zagorsky: You guys took me for a great ride in this series. I had the best time and, yes, Walker goes through some amazing things. It’s pretty incredible. Every episode was pretty dynamic.Steve Maeda: It’s a pretty tough 13 days for Walker.SyFy’s Helix tv series airs Fridays at 10 p.m. EST. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for all news updates related to the world of geek. And Google+, if that’s your thing!