Showtime’s upcoming The Man Who Fell To Earth continues the story of Walter Tevis’ 1963 novel and the Certified Fresh 1976 Nicolas Roeg film starring David Bowie. In both, an alien who adopts the name Thomas Jerome Newton arrives on Earth to help alleviate a serious drought on his own world. The way each version’s Newton goes about it differs, with the film seeing Bowie’s Newton attempting to build ships in order to ferry water back to his world, Anthea. But his objective, both in the book and the film, goes awry thanks to government interference and Newton’s addiction to human sensations and experiences. Both end with Newton sending a message to Anthea in the hopes of salvaging some part of his original goal.
The series picks up some 40 years later with Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Anthean – who comes to be known as Faraday – answering the call and falling to Earth to complete Newton’s (Bill Nighy) mission with the help of scientist Justin Falls (Naomie Harris). But as viewers will soon see, Farady and Newton are very different beings and their experiences on Earth will likely lead to vastly different outcomes. Nevertheless, the shadow of Newton (and Bowie) persists; in fact, when Rotten Tomatoes caught up with Ejiofor to discuss the series, Bowie and the Roeg film quickly became part of discussion, which included the actor getting in touch with his own inner alien and Tevis’s prescience in outlining Anthea’s water crisis; a theme which definitely resonates today.
Erik Amaya for Rotten Tomatoes: What are your thoughts on the Nicolas Roeg Man Who Fell to Earth film? Considering the Bowie content that’s there in the show and the similarity of the eye shape, it seems like a key point of contact.
Chiwetel Ejiofor: I found it fascinating. The first time I saw it was when I was quite young. Some of it was quite challenging, I think, when you are in your early teens, which I was. But what I remember really about that early experience was just the iconic nature of David Bowie in the film. You couldn’t tear your eyes away from him. It was sort of incredible. And the film is brilliant and strange, and right at the center of it is somebody being kind of completely extraordinary. There’s a very rich legacy there.
One of the first things, that was exciting about this is to kind of just build on a really rich legacy. That [the show] is not in any way trying to remake or replace the film. It is just expanding that universe and seeing where it lands decades later. And I was excited by that prospect.
(Photo by Aimee Spinks/Showtime)
Will life on Earth present Faraday with the same sort of temptations that Newton faced? Or is his different Anthean nature going to lead to a different set of complications?
Ejiofor: He is a different Anthean. I think Bowie set the tone for some of what Antheans are, but Antheans are as different as humans are different. So Faraday can be as different as me and David Bowie. There’s a very rich array of possibilities.
One of the things that I really loved about this was that Faraday doesn’t arrive on Earth as a kind of newborn babe. He arrives as an adult Anthean who has had a lifetime of experiences and a lifetime of difficulties, frustrations, and joys as well — a complicated life. And so there are things that he is learning, of course, but there are things that he’s unlearning or re-shifting and trying to shape how he can experience life on the planet Earth in the way that supports the mission that he’s going on. So there’s definitely a lot of complexity to that. A lot of richness to it.
(Photo by Aimee Spinks/Showtime)
How do you prepare for that? It’s wonderful to watch him build up to the person he’ll eventually be on that stage (at the start of episode 1). But as an actor, how do you short circuit every instinct you have about interacting with people?
Ejiofor: I was just of the view that you can only play your own alien. You can’t play somebody else’s alien. That is, you can’t watch somebody else play an alien and think “I’m going to do it like that.” The only way that you can engage with it is to try and figure out the moments in your life when you have felt like you are on the outside looking in. And in a way we’ve all had those experiences. Sometimes people have those experiences in very big ways when they’re migrating, if they are traveling to different places, if they are exposed to those kinds of dynamics. If you remember your first day at school, you know what it feels like. “I don’t know how to belong and engage in this place. I don’t know what these rules are, and I don’t know how to fit into it.” That’s the first kind of thing.
And then after a while you realize how much that experience is also changing you. And that’s the give and take of this whole dynamic. So for me, in researching it or trying to understand it really, it was about trying to figure out for myself my own psychology and my own past. When I connect to those emotions, and taking those emotions and kicking the tires a little bit and really working out what was really going on in those moments. And then trying to channel that a little bit into Faraday’s experience.
(Photo by Tayo KuKu/Showtime)
Even though the mission changes ever so slightly in every iteration of The Man Who Fell to Earth, Anthea’s lack of water sure feels prescient these days. Do you think that’s a concept that people find too frightening to contemplate?
Ejiofor: It is. It is a scary concept. I just recently narrated a documentary — which is also coming out in the next few days — Day Zero, about our lack of water right now. There was an incident in South Africa just a few years ago where people were talking very directly about everybody running out of water there. That these are real issues that we face in small ways in some places and increasingly larger ways on the planet. These and kind of environmental concerns, broader environmental concerns are very much of today. And one of the things that I think that science fiction does so brilliantly, when done well, is it engages you with the issues of the time. And as these environmental issues have increased in importance, the show kind of reflects that trajectory. [When Faraday is] talking about Anthea, he is very directly talking about Earth as well.