Sissy Spacek and J.K. Simmons Praise Night Sky’s Intimate Sci-Fi

The veteran actors talk about their characters' charming relationship in the science fiction series grounded in human interaction — with each other and the unknown.

by | May 20, 2022 | Comments

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One of the great things about science fiction is its breadth and diversity. It can create a whole new universe of ideas, cultures, and characters or it can focus in on a recognizable humanity brushing up against a single element of the fantastic. Prime Video’s new series, Night Sky, which debuts Friday, goes in the latter direction. It focuses on Irene and Frank York (J.K. Simmons and Sissy Spacek), an older couple living in a town a few hours drive from Chicago and incredibly committed to one another.

Also, they have a chamber to another world buried under a shed in the backyard.

Night Sky season 1

(Photo by Prime Video)

That seemingly simple premise opened up so much for the actors, creator Holden Miller, and executive producer Daniel C. Connolly when Rotten Tomatoes caught up with them to discuss the new series.

“Dan usually describes [science fiction] as a big tent and there’s room for all types of different stories in there and I think that we were very interested from the start, going over to our little quiet corner of the tent,” Miller said, explaining some of the initial inspiration for the program. At the same time, that quiet corner still required a balance of recognizable drama and the fantastic that can be “a challenge in a way,” but as Miller put it, “the whole reason for it being the show is the mix of the two things and what makes it sing.”

Both Spacek and Simmons know something of that balance. Although known for straighter dramas like Affliction, Spacek is beloved among genre fans for her starring role in Brian De Palma’s Carrie. Simmons, meanwhile, has a foothold in both the DC and Marvel film universes and starred in the sci-fi thriller series Counterpart. For both them, though, the key appeal of the story begins with Irene and Franklin.

“Hands down” the couple’s relationship sparked her interest in the series, Spacek said.

Night Sky season 1

(Photo by Chuck Hodes/Prime Video)

“I already knew Sissy was going to be playing Irene when I read it, so it was kind of the double pronged fork,” Simmons admitted. “Then when I read the script, even before I even knew there was a sci-fi aspect to it, I was already drawn to the characters and how they relate to each other.”

From that first scene, just before viewers travel with the pair to an alien vista, Franklin and Irene come into sharp detail — one example is that he refuses to curse.

“Once the audience learns where that comes from, that’s another added nice little surprise,” Simmons teased.

Irene, meanwhile, is an adept fibber. Although, as Spacek put it, “It’s not really a fib if you’re doing it to protect someone.”

But soon enough, it becomes clear the couple have spent many nights “looking at the stars” on another world. The chamber transports them to a very homey observation room with a big window and an airlock suggesting an inhospitably atmosphere outside. Unfortunately, even as they continue to enjoy their ability to travel there, they must also accept that they are getting on in years. Another issue: keeping their secret from the neighbors and even their own grandchild may soon become too difficult to manage alongside their health concerns.

“I’ve always been attracted to massive concepts that are executed on a very intimate level and I think that was one of the things that first appealed to me about the script,” Connolly said. “It’s also an allegory for life in general, which can often be a lot of mundanity that’s interspersed with extraordinary events that happen to us and that keep us asking these bigger questions about what life really means and why are we here.”

Night Sky season 1

(Photo by Chuck Hodes/Prime Video)

Of course, the seeming mundane existence of the Yorks is interspersed by more than their extraordinary secret. There’s also a younger generation to contend with. Representing that element are Kiah McKirnan as the York’s granddaughter, Denise, and Chai Hansen as Jude – a houseguest whose origins seem as mysterious as the York’s underground chamber. But to meet Jude, you would never guess at his real purpose in Illinois. Hansen credited the fact that most of the series scripts were written and ready to read well before production with aiding his process in making Jude seemingly guileless.

“I got to take so many different aspects from the script and then really create a true skeleton that I could kind of fill in the blanks,” he said.

Night Sky season 1

(Photo by Chuck Hodes/Prime Video)

And like her grandparents, McKirnan’s Denise represents a very relatable, human element with a story pointing at some of the career dissatisfaction younger people face.

“[She had] a predetermined, pre-planned idea of how her life was going to be,” she said. But even before events put her off her footing, she is already wondering if the life she planned will really satisfy her. It just so happens this sensation coincides with a reason to visit visit her grandparents.

Night Sky season 1

(Photo by Chuck Hodes/Prime Video)

But even as Denise faces an existential crisis all her own, Night Sky takes the viewer to another part of the world — Argentina, to be precise — to also tell the tale of Stella (Julieta Zylberberg) and Toni (Rocio Hernandez), a single mother and her child, ever in conflict with the modern world and Stella’s promise to keep the centuries-old church on her property safe.

“We wanted to expand the scope of the show early on, and we wanted to create a parallel story to the Yorks’ that would allow us to explore the [developing] mythology,” Connolly said of the choice to feature characters thousands of miles away. And though he said the storylines will intersect before the season’s end, he added, “It’s a different flavor into the show. It expands it, it elevates it.”

(Photo by Chuck Hodes/Prime Video)

Also elevating the material is its focus on aging. Viewers quickly learn Irene is still recovering from a bad fall a year or so before the story begins. Franklin, meanwhile, is becoming increasingly forgetful — although neither the characters nor the show are in a hurry to name what is happening to him. Nevertheless, the depiction of their ailments as signs of aging is as central to the concept as the chamber leading to another world. That said, discussing aging is never easy. Spacek, for example, jokingly offered one key bit of advice for younger people: “Slow down and watch where you’re going.”

For Miller, the intent was to portray a later stage of life as honestly as possible.

“It might not be something that you necessarily see on screen all the time but I can’t tell you how many people we talk to who have seen the show who say, ‘That reminds me of what I’m going through with my grandparents’ or their parents. Or themselves. And even if you are not experiencing those things with someone who’s older, you think about them,” he said. “I think that we portrayed older characters who have very rich lives and a lot of dynamism still — as it should be — with all the complexities that entails.”

Night Sky season 1

(Photo by Chuck Hodes/Prime Video)

The series also asks a direct question: What is a good age to live to?

“I always wanted to be able to work every decade of my life, and I’m doing that,” Spacek said when asked the question. “And I wanted to be able to be well enough and fit enough to carry my grandchildren up and down the stairs and I’m able to do that. So I have no complaints.”

Simmons added, “I just watched a brilliant documentary, The Alpinist, about a kid who was this genius mountain climber, but tragically died in an accident at age 26. I’m not saying that’s not a tragedy, but that young man had packed an incredible amount [of experiences] and had love and family and friends and passion and joy in life for 26 years. And then I have a lot of people in my family, we have longevity in our genes and a lot of my aunts and uncles and grandparents and things have lived well into their nineties and been very present and happy. So I think it’s a vast range.”

Hansen offered, “100, I think, is a really respectable number. The three digits.”

“I think just investing in the everyday and how you can help others and love others and stay positive and stay buoyant [is the best answer],” McKirnan said. “You can take me at any time, but at least I’m thinking through those things and I’m enjoying every day as much as I can.”

Night Sky season 1

(Photo by Prime Video)

Within the world of Night Sky, that every day has a fantastical dimension, though, and a genuine surprise waiting for viewers. And while that surprise could change the program’s balance in a possible second season, Connolly said “the voice of the show is established and completely intentional” no matter what the Yorks or the audience sees as the season unfolds.

“We’re pleased with the results and we hope the audiences are pleased with the result and invest in the show emotionally, but we’re not anticipating any changes to the sensibility of things,” he said.

But do the people playing the Yorks have an inkling of what’s to come?

“They are protecting themselves from leaks. Because you know, they certainly can’t tell us,” Spacek said.

“Yeah, they know we can’t be trusted,” Simmons added.

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