Just in time for the series premiere, Rotten Tomatoes got to ask the stars of the new SyFy series 12 Monkeys about their show, the original film(s), and their own theories on time travel. Amanda Schull plays Dr. Cassandra Railly, originally portrayed by Madelaine Stowe in the 1995 film, and Aaron Stanford plays James Cole, Bruce Willis’ time-traveling character, on a mission to prevent a future pandemic. So read on while there’s still time. And if you don’t have the time, you just may be able to travel back and give yourself more.
Having seen the first two episodes, we can attest that the tone of the series respects that of the film and, as Amanda Schull puts it, “It’s got the same sort of original kernel but it’s its own entity.” What fans may not be aware of, though, is that the 1995 film was based on another film, a 1962 foreign short called La Jetée by Chris Marker. Aaron Stanford said, “It was a small bite-sized chunk and then [the film] 12 Monkeys took that and they expanded it and made it their own and now what we’ve done is the same thing.”
While the world of the film did not permit significant changes during time travel, it needed to be modified to accommodate the series. In the film, time was essentially fixed so that events could not be altered. James Cole was enlisted only to observe and deliver information. “That holds with the current theory of time travel that comes from Einstein’s theory of relativity, that you can travel through time but you cannot change it,” explained Stanford. “So, for the series … in order to tell the kind of story they wanted to tell, they needed there to be the possibility of change. So they sort of went a different route and there are alternate theories of time travel that do allow things to be altered and changed and that’s quantum theory. So, the movie goes with relative theory and the TV show goes with the quantum theory.”
Stanford respected Bruce Willis’ performance in the original film version and wanted to borrow from that. He described James Cole’s experience of our world in the film version as being “very similar to that of a newborn; he’s experiencing everything for the very first time” and he chose to bring that sensibility to his own rendering of the character. But Schull wanted her performance to stand alone and chose to avoid re-watching the film prior to shooting: “I didn’t want Madeleine [Stowe’s] performance to affect my performance because we’re different characters and I don’t think I could ever do her performance. She’s brilliant you know?”
Both actors admit that the timelines can grow confusing as they unravel within a time-travel plot, particularly having to work with multiple versions of one’s self. But research and a production team on-hand devoted to keeping each timeline coherent help to keep them grounded.
While doing research for the series, Aaron Stanford discovered the real-world possibilities of time travel. “It’s mathematically possible,” he said “which was not something I was aware of. I thought it was entirely a flight of fancy and fiction … It’s just a matter of having the technology and the resources to do it.” Schull recounted how, during an early hair and makeup test, Stanford had brought a carry-on suitcase with about six books on the topic of time travel. “He thought he was going to somehow read [them] all in one evening and be able to totally understand time travel by the time we started,” she told us, to which Stanford laughed, “I didn’t really think that one through.” With his new-found theory of real time travel, though, maybe Stanford will still have a chance to go back and finish those books before production begins!
If given the chance to go anywhere in time and make changes, Stanford would not opt to travel into the past: “I mean do you really want to give up hot showers? Do you want to give up indoor plumbing?” He said he would consider going back to offer his younger self more experienced life advice, but Schull warned, “That would totally change what you would be like going forward.” When asked what she might want to change about the past, Schull quipped, “There are probably some people whose numbers I would delete a lot faster than I did.”
Stanford said casting processes can be confusing because the producers are seeking the perfect chemistry between their stars. Schull recalled that she had received the script before Stanford had: “I did go into the hopper before Aaron did, but I think it wasn’t until Aaron and I had a chemistry read together that they finalized their casting.”
Stanford felt it was a challenge, “There was a lot of improv and [Amanda] came 100 percent prepared and ready and it was extraordinarily helpful.”
“Well, Amanda couldn’t stand me at first,” Stanford joked. “Despised me in fact. And it was a long period of having to win her over. That’s what [has] bled over into our characters.” Since the actors don’t always know the whole storyline from the get-go, the chemistry revealed itself gradually on set. Schull thought a lot of what translates to onscreen chemistry is how the actors treat each other and the material, “[Aaron] shows at the set very prepared and he gives you 110 percent for every single scene, for every single page … It’s nice working with someone who gives you as much as you give them.”
12 Monkeys airs tonight, Friday, Jan. 16, on SyFy 9 p.m. Will you be watching?